Have you ever gone a massive music festival? I’ve been to a few in my lifetime, most notably way back in 2003 when The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Rush, Justin Timberlake, The Guess Who and a whole bunch of artists gathered for the Toronto Rocks concert, also known as SARStock. More than 400,000 people attended the show which was held to give the city a boost after it had become a hub for SARS. Toronto Rocks was obviously huge, and while I was located in a media area, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the thrown of people gathered in their masses. Amazed, and a little uncomfortable too.
The cool thing about festivals is often the eclectic mix of musicians you can find on the bill, something writers Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon wonderfully highlight in their upcoming Dark Horse novel, Festival. Featuring illustrations by Peter Bergting, the story captures the feeling of being at a big show, until, that is, horrible things start to happen.
Here’s the log line: The Valhalla music festival commemorates a long-ago Viking slaughter, but when strange things start to happen it seems the massacre may be far from over. When festival-goers begin to disappear, and musicians find themselves playing mysterious and ancient songs as if possessed, the fans have to figure out what’s going on before the festival site’s haunting past comes back for blood.
Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon were kind enough to answer some questions over email about their new book, its inspirations, their creative process and much more.
Andy Burns: Hi Christopher and Tim, thanks for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! about Festival. This was a hell of an excellent story. How did the two of you come with the idea and decide to collaborate?
Christopher Golden: Thanks Andy! Tim and I have been collaborating on various projects for many years. Pretty sure we’ve written eight novels and a handful of short stories together. This one was inspired by our mutual love for English post-punk rocker Frank Turner and a story he told in his book The Road Beneath My Feet. Frank wrote about being late for a music festival and being dropped off in a lonely rural spot in the English countryside and wondering if the driver had just dumped him. But when he walked over a grassy hill, he saw the festival in the distance and realized the driver had brought him by back roads—narrow farm roads—to avoid gridlocked traffic getting in. Tim lives in the UK, where they have a glorious culture of music festivals that the US hasn’t matched. One day we were talking about that Frank Turner anecdote and about music festivals and the idea for Festival emerged.
Tim Lebbon: Everything Chris said above, but also a walk we took together a few years ago in the Wye Valley in South Wales. It’s a gorgeous part of the world, with a real mythic feel once you get off the beaten track. It was here that we came across an old oak tree, probably there since William conquered these shores. Chris told me the old tale about walking widdershins three times around an oak, whereupon you’ll vanish. We had a good laugh, toyed with the idea … and were very careful to circle the tree only twice. That, and our mutual love of music, led to Festival.
Andy Burns: You captured the concert festival experience perfectly. Were/are both of you fans of big festival shows like the one depicted in Festival?
Christopher Golden: Absolutely. My first and best remembered one was on Sunday, August 21st, 1983. I had just turned sixteen and it was one of the most memorable shows of my life, with The Outlaws, The Joe Perry Project, and The Gregg Allman Band. I so wish I could organize my own music festival and pick the acts I wanted. It’d be a pretty eclectic mix, as is the one in Festival, but it wouldn’t have the ancient curse and murderous ghosts.
Tim Lebbon: I’m a huge music fan, always have music playing when I’m writing or just bustling around the house. And driving. I’d listen to it when I sleep, if I could. In my teens it was heavy metal, now my taste is really broad, from metal to jazz to folk to punk, and everything in between. So yes, I’ve been to literally hundreds of concerts, though honestly not that many festivals. I think Green Man Festival in South Wales was my main inspiration for the novella. It has quite a calm, sedate feel, but is set in the same mythic landscape as that ancient old oak tree. Fewer raving axe attacks, though.
Andy Burns: Can you give us a little insight into the collaborative process? How did the co-write process work between you on Festival?
Christopher Golden: Since Tim and I have been collaborators for so long, it’s a very organic process at this point. I think I wrote the opening, but I honestly don’t remember. Whoever starts will write a couple of scenes and then email them to the other, who will do a revision of the material and then we get on Zoom or Skype and talk about it what we’ve done so far and how to handle the next couple of scenes, and then we bat it back and forth like that until we’re done.
Tim Lebbon: Exactly that. Usually with novels it’s a chapter each at a time, but with Festival we wrote a scene each dependent on character point of view. Then we do a full rewrite to smooth it out. It’s always lovely to see a whole new voice emerging as a collaboration is finished. It’s always a pleasure collaborating with Chris.
Andy Burns: One aspect that stood out to me in the story is the use of the real artists performing at the Valhalla Festival; seeing names like Frank Turner and Billie Eilish grounded the story for me. Why the decision to use real artists, did you half to clear their “appearances” at all, and how did you decide to place Frank Turner in such a pivotal role?
Christopher Golden: Happily, Tim and I are both on good terms with Frank Turner. We actually edited an anthology of short stories inspired by one of Frank’s songs called Ten-Word Tragedies, and persuaded Frank to write his first published prose fiction for us. So, yes, we did get Frank’s permission to use him as a character in the story. With other musicians, however, they’re only mentioned and don’t have speaking roles in the story. It’s not uncommon to refer to famous people in fiction, and so we didn’t hesitate to populate our music festival with familiar musicians. Frank’s role is a bit different, of course.
Tim Lebbon: We always knew we wanted Frank to have a role, and we agreed it with him beforehand. And Chris forgot to mention the best thing about editing Ten-Word Tragedies, and that’s when Frank agreed to us arranging a small gig to launch the book! He sang ten songs, signed a hundred books and had photos taken with everyone in attendance. I kept him supplied with drinks, and I must admit to a terrible hangover the next day (Tequila … ouch). He sang a song dedicated to my daughter, and she cried the whole way through. He’s a really decent human being, a great sport, and was already my favourite songwriter before we got to know him.
Andy Burns: How did Festival wind up with Dark Horse? It’s a great match, with Peter Bergting’s illustrations very much complimenting the story.
Christopher Golden: I’ve been talking to Peter Bergting for ages about us collaborating on a book like this, maybe a story Peter will cook up. Tim and I had written Festival for fun and it occurred to me that even though Peter and I haven’t gotten to the project we’ve talked about yet, this would be perfect for him. The subject matter, the visuals we had in mind, all of it. I have a great relationship with Dark Horse and with my editor there, Katii O’Brien, and her team of Jenny Blenk and Misha Gehr. Tim and I knew Dark Horse would produce a beautiful book and would treat Peter’s art properly. It was the perfect way to publish Festival.
Tim Lebbon: This was all mostly down to Chris, who’s been working with Dark Horse and Peter Bergting for years. Peter is a really lovely guy and incredibly talented, and I still pinch myself when I see that cover.
Andy Burns: Peter’s illustrations aren’t on every page, instead popping up at certain moments during the story. Did you both have scenes you thought lent themselves to his work that you suggested? Did Peter come up with his work based on imagery that stood out to him?
Christopher Golden: Peter is an extraordinary artist with great range. He loves horror and fantasy and folklore. He certainly didn’t need us telling him what to draw. He read the book and chose the moments that most inspired him to want to illustrate. The art for the book is predictably gorgeous, and the cover is stunning!
Tim Lebbon: It was lovely seeing how the book influenced Peter, and which scenes inspired him. Some I expected, and some I didn’t. And I’ll mention that cover again … just mind-blowing.
Andy Burns: As someone who has attended a lot of concerts in my lifetime, from small club shows to festivals with 400,000 fans, I have my own fears when I go to a gig, usually pertaining to crowd sizes. I’m wondering if either of you have your own fears, whether concert related or otherwise, that you managed to put into Festival?
Christopher Golden: I’m a little bit claustrophobic and sometimes that hits me in crowds in a big way. That’s why I’ve only attended San Diego Comic Con once in the last twenty years or so.
Tim Lebbon: At a big gig I’m always worried what the toilets will be like! That probably stems from attending some big metal festivals in my late teens, and their toilet facilities … no, I just can’t go there again. That could also be why I’m a horror writer. But not really any fears, I love live music of all kinds.
Andy Burns: Finally, what music were you listening to while working on this story? Did you each have soundtracks to the slaughter, as it were?
Christopher Golden: Honestly, I’m sure I was listening to a ton of Frank Turner and probably The Frames, and I’m sure when we mentioned Alicia Keys or Billie Eilish, I was inspired to listen to that while writing those scenes. Music is always in the background while I’m working, whether it’s Frank or Springsteen or H.E.R. or Aretha or classical or jazz.
Tim Lebbon: A soundtrack to slaughter, I like that! Well yes, Frank’s album ‘England Keep My Bones’ could almost be a theme to this novella (note for if it’s ever on the screen). But like I said earlier, there’s always something playing in the background.
Thanks to Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon for taking the time to talk to us about Festival, which is due out from Dark Horse Comics on November 22nd, 2022 and is available to pre-order now. You can follow both writers on Twitter @ChristophGolden and @TimLebbon.