Christopher Golden Brings the Pain
The author discusses his newest novel, Red Hands, a thrilling horror show of pandemic proportions
Christopher Golden is one of the most prolific and successful genre writers working today. Since the start of his career in the 1990’s, he’s written more than a hundred novels (many of which are New York Times Bestsellers), comic books, video games and screenplays, often teaming up with writers and artists, such as Tim Lebbon (The Silence) and Mike Mignola (Hellboy). He’s also written dozens of media tie-in novels for global brands such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hellboy, X-Men and others.
His most recent novel, Red Hands (December 8, St. Martin’s Press), is the third in a loose trilogy of supernatural thrillers featuring government mercenary Ben Walker, whose superiors repeatedly throw him into danger and ask him to battle enemies—both earthly and otherworldly—in order to keep our fragile world in one piece.
Red Hands is a powerful, visceral, emotional journey that contains the high body-count typical for the Walker books, but it also fills the pages with enough human pain and preternatural horrors to keep readers engaged, entertained, and turning the pages well into the night.
Golden discussed his newest adventure with us, offers some insights into his writing process, and provides a preview of what’s coming next for both him and his reluctant hero.
Q: Red Hands is the third book in your Ben Walker series, all of which are standalone adventures. Would you offer some insight about your inspiration for creating this character?
CG: Walker really is a happy accident. I don’t even think I named him that in the outline for Ararat, the first novel in which he appears. I’d sold the book on outline to my publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and it was intended to be—and really is—an ensemble story. I’d initially envisioned Walker to be a different character—David Boudreau, who appears in my novel The Ocean Dark, but when it came to writing him, I realized I needed a different, more dynamic character, with a personal history that would have depth and trouble in it.
I refer, in the book, to some of Walker’s previous assignments. When I published the book, I started getting emails and seeing social media posts about Walker—readers wanting to know more about him, hoping for prequels and sequels. The book got a lot of attention, for which I was incredibly grateful, but the prevailing theme of the messages I received was that people wanted more of Walker. One of the novel ideas I’d had simmering for a while—and which I’d already tapped into for a short story Tim Lebbon and I co-wrote—turned into The Pandora Room. This time, I specifically designed it as a Ben Walker novel, but still I took pains to create a real ensemble, so that Walker is not the sole protagonist. Structurally and even in subject matter, Ararat and The Pandora Room are quite similar, so when St. Martin’s wanted to go ahead with a third Walker, I knew I wanted to do something very different.
Q: You’ve created a detailed governmental landscape that serves as a political backdrop to the Walker novels, creating another world of danger for Walker to deal with. How much of what you put into the books is real versus fabrication?
CG: What the public knows about what various government agencies are up to is just a tiny fraction, and that goes for research as well as intelligence. The surprising thing is that there is actually a ton of information publicly available that people might find remarkable if they were aware of it. For me, though, I take reality the same way I use mythology…as clay I can mold into my story. It’s always exciting to take something real and springboard off that in some wild direction.
If you read articles by that other Christopher Golden, who is an epidemiologist at Harvard University, you’ll learn just how many possible killer viruses there are out there, for instance. More than stars in the heavens. Both The Pandora and Red Hands—though very different stories—have some of their DNA in the melting of permafrost thanks to climate change, which is guaranteed to release bacteria into the world that hasn’t been exposed to humans since at least six thousand years ago, and some of them haven’t been out in the world since before human beings first appeared. So there’s always a germ—if you’ll forgive the unintended pun—of reality in the idea, but Red Hands, for instance, is influenced just as much by Edgar Allan Poe and by the thought of what touch and contact means to us as humans, as it is by real science. Probably more so. Now that I’m thinking about it, though I finished Red Hands before Covid began, the part of it that may cut the deepest for readers is not the “contagion” but the idea that Maeve can’t touch her loved ones for fear of killing them.
Q: Speaking of research, there’s a fascinating amount of global knowledge–both current and historical – packed into the Walker books. How much of this knowledge do you build on a case-by-case basis, or is the global political landscape something you’re inherently interested in?
CG: I’m always paying at least a bit of attention to and am concerned by the global landscape. How countries interact has an enormous impact on our development, just as how corporations and governments interact can determine the fate of millions every day. No matter where we live, we have a skewed perspective on what’s really going on in other parts of the world, and in our own countries. I certainly don’t have the depth of knowledge I’d like to have, but if you’re willing to pay a bit of attention and scratch the surface, you can always see a bit deeper.
The thing that lights the fuse of every story is the catalyst, the what-if moment. So, for instance, when we look at Ararat, we can’t just think of the mountain and its history in religious myth, but we also have to consider its geopolitical significance. “What if…” isn’t just one question. It’s the first question, that prompts dozens of others. As for details…it’s important, but I think of it in a certain way. For instance, when I speak to an expert in any given field, I usually say “I don’t need to write this in such a way that it will be believable to YOU, but to anyone who doesn’t share your expertise.” So I’ll talk to mountain guides and epidemiologists and FBI agents, or whatever is necessary to make it feel real, but also you have to balance that out with making the story compelling.
Q: Getting into Red Hands, I was intrigued to see what age-old myth or artifact you’d bring into the mix for Walker to tangle with. In the first novel, it’s the discovery of Noah’s Ark. In the second, you play off the myth of Pandora’s Box. In Red Hands, you take things in a slightly different direction. Without giving too much away, can you talk to how you landed on this particular concept?
CG: It was. After two novels that played in very much the same sandbox, I wanted to let readers know there was more to the world of Walker and his “weird shit.” It isn’t just about artifacts. There are many types of stories Walker could be sent into. With Red Hands, I’d had the idea for a few years, but it didn’t really coalesce until I looked at it and thought, well, this would actually make a great Walker novel. I knew I wanted to do something with him in the United States, to bring him home, and I love playing with the moment where someone says “that can’t possibly be true” but then are forced to wonder. The literary antecedent of the plot is something I toyed with when I started writing, but as I went on, I realized that the echoes were so strong that I couldn’t just pretend they weren’t there. I had to approach it head on, and I love how that all dovetailed into the main story.
Q: Building on the last question, you have an interesting quote in Red Hands: “…mythology is one of the things that intersects with history…Actual events blur into myth on every level, including personal myth, the way so-called heroes and monarchs self-mythologize…” I found this a fascinating statement on theme. Would you agree that this is a mission statement of sorts for the Walker novels? And do you feel myths are just another way for monarchs and heroes to disguise and excuse their actions?
CG: Yes, and yes. As wild as the Walker novels are, the fundamental truth is real—history is malleable. Even science is changeable as scientists make new discoveries and challenge earlier conclusions, but history…it’s just stories, and stories are molded by those who tell them. Legends, myths, religions, political movements, social mores, popular culture…it all changes the way history is told, or even the way the events that become history are initially recorded. Even personal memory is malleable. So much of what we remember is composed of our subconscious minds making up summations of events that we can’t ever really clearly recall.
A lot of my work throughout my career has sounded that note, the idea that our road into believing something we previously thought was just a myth is not nearly as difficult as we might initially believe. Look around today and you’ll see so many examples of that. Conspiracy theories, political cults…hell, look at UFOs. The US Navy has released all sorts of information in the past couple of years that confirms things UFO believers have been telling us for decades and nobody even blinked. It’s wild to me. As for self-mythologizing, again, look at today. Athletes, actors, celebrities, politicians, artists…self-mythologizing is practically required in many occupations. I’ve never been any good at it, but there are writers who have always been excellent at this. Naming no names, but if you give it a thought you’ll likely think of one or two.
Q: One thing about the Walker books I enjoy is the internal turmoil your hero deals with. In Red Hands, you have Walker hoping to find more of a balance between family and the job he’s trained for. How much of a focus is it for you to establish these kinds of character complexities?
CG: It’s everything. I don’t really see a point in telling stories unless I can bring the reader to identify with the characters and to feel empathy toward them. I’m also deeply interested in seeing how people change in these stories. Every person you encounter has something going on in their lives. They have problems you know nothing about, secrets to keep, anxiety they’re dealing with, drama they’re trying to avoid, deep emotional questions they are wrestling with. Danger of any kind, or even just radical change in circumstances, is a great catalyst to bring all of those simmering elements to a boil. I like to see how characters will react when you drop a bomb on their lives.
Q: Lastly, you’ve done a lot of world-building in these books. What are your plans for future Ben Walker stories? Do you see these stories branching out into other media?
CG: I have ideas for several more Walker novels, but I’ve just taken a diversion. I’ve finished a brand new horror-thriller that has nothing to do with Walker, though I think Walker readers will love it. It won’t be out until 2022, so the less said the now for better. Meanwhile, I’ve been working with Mike Mignola on a bunch of projects for Dark Horse Comics, all coming out in 2021. The only one I can officially talk about is Lady Baltimore, which is part of The Outerverse, the comics universe I created with Mignola, and which includes Baltimore and Joe Golem. I’ve got a number of film and TV projects in the offing, several of which I’m also producing, and I’m working with Audible on a couple of original projects I also can’t discuss. Lots of secrets, unfortunately, but all of them to be revealed in due time!
Purchase Red Hands.