John Langan, Author of “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s the story of a quartet of Iraq war veterans who were the only survivors of an encounter with a monstrous, blood-drinking creature during the 2004 Battle of Fallujah. Their encounter left each of them physically wounded and psychically traumatized. Over the course of almost the next two years, they develop a plan to lure the creature to a secluded spot and kill it.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

The story began with its title. I ran across the words, “the wide, carnivorous sky” and knew that they were the title to the vampire story I was thinking of trying to write. I wasn’t sure of much more than that: I knew the vampire would descend from above, but I wasn’t sure if it would be a discrete creature, or if the sky itself might be vampiric. Then, a couple of months after having found my title, I was watching an interview with an Iraq war veteran who was discussing having been in a Hummer that had been struck by an IED. He described being pinned by the Hummer’s flipping over so that he was lying on his back, staring up at the sky. That told me what the story was going to be.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Parts of this story flowed quite easily: I wrote the opening sections on a post-Christmas flight to San Francisco and during my subsequent stay there with my family. The characters’ voices, their relationships, the perspective of the principle character, came pretty quickly. What took much more time was the wealth of details I had to research about the Iraq war, about the ’04 Battle of Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury), and about what happens to you after you’ve been wounded. I wanted to be free to improvise from the facts — and I did — but I wanted to have those facts right to begin with. Beyond the technical details, I was also concerned that the characters in this story read believably, that the tenor of their experience and attitudes, however different in the specifics from those of someone who served in the war, would not ring false. That seemed to me to be almost a moral obligation, and I hope I’ve succeeded in it.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

When we were kids, my brother and I were fairly terrified by an episode of the Buck Rogers TV show (the Gil Gerard one) that featured a space vampire. Whenever the vampire was about to attack, the perspective would shift and you’d see everything through this red haze, and hear the sound of a human heart beating furiously. I seem to recall standing by the TV, turning it off when things became too intense, waiting for something like ten seconds, then turning it on again — at least once to discover the scary stuff wasn’t over. I have a strong feeling that, were the monster in this story to remove his mask, he’d be that fellow from my childhood.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Tons! Lots of digging through newspaper stories about the war, about Fallujah, about kinds of weapons and what they do, about post-injury care.

What is the appeal of vampire fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

With the exception of the ghost, no other horror archetype has proved so adaptable as the vampire. I think this is because they (can) look so much like us, act so much like us — Stoker tells us that Count Dracula enjoys conversation; Louis spends the entirety of Interview with the Vampire talking to us. Because they’re so much like us, they can reflect us in a variety of ways the poor zombie, or werewolf, really can’t. One of the reviewers of the Twilight film pointed out that vampire narratives are always in dialogue with the source material, with Stoker: either they’re revising it, or they’re returning to it, or they’re going to his sources. I think that may be part of the appeal of working with the vampire, and also of reading about her.

What are some of your favorite examples of vampire fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

I suspect my list is fairly conventional: Stoker’s original Dracula, and its revision in King’s Salem’s Lot; Matheson’s upending of the apple cart in I Am Legend; Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, which remains an audacious and ambitious novel. John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End remains a sentimental favorite for its tremendous energy and enthusiasm.