I read the original Dell Abyss paperback of Kathe Koja’s classic debut novel The Cipher in my early twenties. Koja’s voice immediately reignited my excitement about the power endemic to horror fiction. I was in awe of her urgent and singular perspective, her acrobatic prose style, her expert management of escalating dread, and her dealings with the hazy spaces between transcendence and doom. It was one of the most vivid, transportive works of fiction I’d ever encountered. I filled my edition with underlines and margin notes. I recommended it to everyone I knew, and I loaned it to numerous friends and family members. I devoured several of Kathe’s other works in quick succession — Skin, Bad Brains, Strange Angels, Kink, Extremities — and I loved every one of them. I felt an intense connection with her point of view and revered her mastery of the craft. She quickly became my favorite living writer.
Kathe and I would later connect through social media and become friends. She graciously supported the virtual launch of my latest short story collection, Peel Back and See, during which we had a long, freewheeling discussion about process, genre, the literary landscape, and much more. We later reunited for another talk on the YouTube horror review channel Plagued by Visions, after which we decided we still had much more to discuss. And here we are for our third dialogue, covering cinematic influences on Kathe Koja’s boundary-breaking new novel, Dark Factory, and on both of our outputs more broadly.
Dark Factory is Kathe Koja’s wholly original new novel from Meerkat Press. It combines her award-winning writing and her skill directing immersive events to create a story that unfolds on the page, online, and in the reader’s creative mind. Order it here and visit www.darkfactory.club.
Mike: I’m fascinated by your career-long project of dissolving artistic boundaries—both through your characters and their conflicts, and through your practice as a medium-crossing practitioner of prose fiction, performance art direction, and more. Dark Factory, your new multimedia project, is comprised not only of the narrative object that we know as a “novel” (which is itself genre-bending), but also of online competitions, QR code links, and a robust interactive website. Recently, you told me that Dark Factory “had the idea” and you “tried to keep up” with it. I can totally relate to that description of the creative process.
Given this idea of dissolved boundaries, and since we’re framing this discussion around cinema, I’m curious: what do you see as some of the key features that distinguish literature from cinema? How do you think we engage with them differently, as readers/viewers, if at all?
Kathe: Dark Factory was definitely its own idea, had its own narrative shape, and it took me a long time to stop trying to deform that shape into a traditional “novel” words-on-sequential-pages format. Though Dark Factory contains that too, but isn’t contained by it.
Which makes your question perfect to start off our talk! Because it’s really a bedrock question, the question: what is narrative, what is a story? Is it solitary by turns — the writer, then the reader — or is it a dialogue, a conversation? Is a story always a participatory act? And to engage with literature used to mean by reading, but what does that definition make audiobooks, comprised of the exact same text? Are audiobooks not books, but performances? Literature was oral before it was written.
Can literature also be visual? I don’t think a director’s vision differs at all from a novelist’s: it’s the same creative impetus, I’m going to make a world. So is a reader the same as a viewer? When you’re reading, you’re embodying the characters, you’re creating the setting, strictly with the visions and furniture of your own mind: the “red sports car” in the written story could have been, to its writer, a red Corvette, but you may see a red Lamborghini. So you bring all your own personal associations and impressions to a written narrative — which is really one of the great joys of writing, knowing that the reader is making it up, too, as they go along. If a director shows you a red sports car on the screen, it will be that car, not any other, so film has some internal boundaries. And in a written narrative, it’s even easier to move around the fictional furniture than it is onscreen—characters can jump years, or worlds, in one sentence, then back again in the next, without the reader having to accept any new cues or interpret new symbols.
But maybe the true difference is, if we read something, it takes a second or two to engage with the words and begin the inner process of transliteration. If someone shows us something, we take it in immediately, indelibly. We are visual creatures before we’re anything else, so visual images will always contain an instant power that words can never match. Words penetrate and germinate. Images flower and stun.
Does being a writer change the way you watch films? Are there certain books that are essentially “unfilmable,” ever?
Mike: I think one of the main reasons I write is simply because I’ve always been so acutely sensitive to external stimuli and emotional experience. I learned, quite early, that the acts of absorbing and creating fictional worlds offered me a way to express or deal with that sensitivity. With that in mind, my obsession with film has probably always been about escape, to some degree. When I watch films, I’m much less interested in things like “plot structure” and “narrative logic” than I am in the unique kinds of aesthetic experiences that the medium offers. Granted, the same could be said for my tastes as both a reader and writer — you and I have talked a lot about the fundamental importance of voice and point-of-view in fiction.
I guess this is all a roundabout way of saying that my brain probably houses all my obsessions with art within the same mushy gray neighborhood, if not in the same mushy gray house. This applies both in terms of receiving and delivering art.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as an unfilmable book, because to my mind, the best way to adapt fiction for cinema is to recognize that these are different art forms with different limitations and possibilities. A novel’s innate interiority will never make its way to the screen, but cinema’s unique audiovisual qualities can sometimes illuminate or uncover something that’s less visible on the page. My mind goes immediately to James Whale’s Frankenstein; it’s most certainly not Mary Shelley’s novel, but it sculpts a singular, intensely cinematic vision that still contains a certain essence from its source. I’m glad we have both the book and the film.
Even the most abstract or labyrinthine books I’ve ever read — whether it be José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night or Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony or Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp — could be recontextualized for cinema if filtered through the right kind of imagination.
Speaking of imagination: your prose style has a kind of “limitless” quality, often slipping between subjectivities and exterior description so elegantly that the technique becomes invisible. Your writing is alive, hyper-sensory, and to me it often feels rhythmically aligned with your characters’ psychological processes. Do you think like a director when you’re writing? That is, are you envisioning where and how your characters are staged and blocked? Are you thinking about lighting? I remember you mentioning that you listened to a lot of techno music while writing Dark Factory, which makes sense. Does that music serve as an internal “soundtrack” for the novel, in some sense? It’s such a musical book!
Kathe: I do think and imagine like a director — I first became aware of that while writing Skin, realizing that I needed blocking (but I didn’t know that term yet), I needed to know which character was doing what where, with which giant moving piece of metal, and where the audience was while that was happening, and and and. Same to the tenth power with my Under the Poppy trilogy, that’s all about performance. So when I started directing and producing live events, it was like, Oh hey, I get this! — this is writing in 3D.
Though on the page, as in a film, you have the luxury of literally directing your audience’s attention by focusing on exactly what you want them to focus on. In an immersive performance event, everything is fair game, the audience might be following the main characters, or examining the installation, or talking to each other; and you have a much broader mise en scène, so literally everything onsite has to serve the wider narrative. It’s like a kaleidoscope that’s been constructed to tell one story.
Which is I guess an accurate description of Dark Factory. That narrative takes place in the book (in slightly differing ways through print, ebook and audio) and on the darkfactory.club site, and through social media, and through audience interaction/creation, so it’s not possible, or even desirable, to try to direct anybody’s focus. Your experience with Dark Factory is 100% up to you. Which is what a director is for, right, to create a total experience.
And techno was for sure the Factory’s soundtrack: techno is endless music, always changing, always more varieties and gradations, but always propelled by that eternal beat. The music of the spheres! (I’m listening right now to Sama Abdulhadi playing techno.)
How much control do you want or require over your readers’ experiences with your work?
Are there certain songs or artists that are indelibly connected to your writing? As inspiration, as soundtrack, as . . .?
Mike: I care much less about controlling readers’ experiences than I care about giving readers experiences. I love the idea that my books can elicit a wide array of reactions and interpretations. Some readers’ analyses might align more closely with my intentions than others, but the work takes on its own life as soon as it’s published and released into the world. To me, art is about communication, and I never want to bring an aggressively prescriptive voice into conversations about my fiction. Ideally, my stories will offer openings for my readers. I want them to make the books theirs.
I often listen to music while writing my first drafts, but when I’m in the surgical editing space I need complete silence. Darkest Hours definitely drew a lot on the aesthetics and sensibilities of heavy metal. Shelter for the Damned draws on my teenage memories, a period when music played a vital, central role in my life; so the book probably owes something to the bands and artists I was listening to during that time. In terms of musical influences, I’ve always been inspired by Justin K. Broadrick’s creative sensibility and philosophy.
You recently told me that Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018) was a reference point for Dark Factory. In what ways? Do you like any of Noé’s other films?
Kathe: Climax came to my attention — that cheeky, bleak, delirious trailer — when I was assembling Dark Factory, and I wanted to watch dancers hurl themselves into motion and into each other. Ultimately Climax and DF share nothing beyond a love of that motion; Noé’s trajectory is far removed from my own. As far as his other films, of course I’m aware of Irreversible, but have not seen it; I’ve been urged to see Into the Void, so that’s on my list. What do you think of those films, and/or his oeuvre in general?
Watching that film was for me what Anthony Lane called “feathering the nest” — unfortunately I can’t find the actual quote, but in the New Yorker Lane was making his way through the then-current NY Times bestseller list, and comparing clunky, I-researched-it-so-you-have-to-read-it exposition with how Flaubert wrote Salammbô, using research to “feather the nest” of a place that was already real in his mind. What a perfect description of how that feels!
Are there directors whose work feels particularly “novelistic” to you? As opposed to purely sensory, such as Climax?
Mike: I like what I’ve seen of Noé’s work (Irreversible, Into the Void, Love, and his contribution to the anthology film Destricted). Climax intrigues me, especially knowing that it had some kind of influence on Dark Factory.
This question about novelistic films is fascinating. Orson Welles’ work is obviously entrenched in cinematic technique and grammar, but I see a novelistic quality in a lot of his work — this dawned on me recently when I rewatched The Magnificent Ambersons, which was probably a much more novelistic film before producers stepped in and messed it up. A few other names come immediately to mind: Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Michael Cimino, Edward Yang, Max Ophüls, and Lars von Trier. My brain seems to connect the word “novelistic” with filmmakers committed to a certain kind of “narrative expansiveness.” I also see distinctly “literary” qualities in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, and in some long-form serial cinema, like Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young.
Continuing to think about this overlap or division between forms: Dark Factory expanded my understanding of what fiction can do and be. Can you remember any films that expanded your view of cinema in this way?
Kathe: We’ve talked before about Mike Figgis’ Timecode, a film that used split screen to tell its story, with four intersecting POVs/timelines. I was also knocked out and delighted by François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Same for Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. Same for Christopher Nolan’s Memento. And, though it’s not a film, True Detective’s third season, starring Mahershala Ali. All of these created a narrative that invited, relied on, the viewer to work along and rebuild/create it by an act of sustained attention. And we’ll think of other examples as soon as this posts! I love to see this kind of expansion — film has so many tools in its toolbox, why not deploy them?
Are there novels that work the way these films do, by turning their own format inside out/upside down? Do you read them? Do you recommend them as more than purely stylistic efforts?
Mike: Aside from your work? Let’s see… Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait challenged some of my assumptions about the novel as a “genre.” The book presents its own form of autobiographical narrative through a series of disconnected, declarative sentences that offer glimpses into the author’s personality and life. Nelly Arcan’s work (especially Whore and Hysteric) pushed up against my preconceived notions of “fiction” versus “biography” (all of these categories start to crumble once we’ve poked at them enough). Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable is a pretty radical exercise in fictional dissociation, dislocation, and disorientation (now that would be a challenge to adapt for the screen). All these books offer exciting, substantive forms of creative disruption.
Okay, just for fun: if you could hire any director to adapt Dark Factory, who would you choose? Would you rather see it approached as a theatrical film, a limited series, or something else? Who would you cast in the lead roles? I’m especially curious about who you’d choose for Ari Regon and Max Caspar.
Kathe: I would love to see Dark Factory adapted as a limited series — an immersive series — maybe an interactive game. There are so many potential paths for this story/world. Director/showrunner, though, I don’t have a wishlist. Or a cast list!
Do you ever imagine your work in another medium? Would you, or have you already, adapted something of yours?
Mike: I wrote a detailed screen treatment of Shelter for the Damned, drawing a lot on the expertise of my friend Jamie Blanks (director of Urban Legend and Valentine). Jamie and I are eager to collaborate on a film project at some point, which would be an absolute dream for me — I’ve been a fan of his work for years, and he and I quickly discovered last year that we share a rare, intense kind of creative symbiosis. The process of writing the treatment for Shelter was as difficult as it was exciting, because it’s a very interior novel centered on a protagonist who is not conventionally “likable” and who is, in many ways, a bit inscrutable. I think Jamie and I found some really cool ways to reimagine it in filmic form. Here’s hoping it finds its way to the screen someday.
Alright, we can’t leave this dialogue without having our long overdue discussion of Ridley Scott’s work. What do you think of Ridley Scott as a director? What are your favorite films of his? And how do you feel about his brother, Tony Scott?
Kathe: Blade Runner and Alien are so personally indelible for me, because both had that immediate authenticity, the feeling of watching one singular vision. People have been mining his visions for years! (Even his iconic, and mocked, Chanel No. 5 commercials were roundly imitated.) I get the same vibe from Raised by Wolves, which I love, there’s nothing else like it. I recently watched House of Gucci and The Last Duel; didn’t love either, but I’ll always watch whatever he makes. You go first on this one! Your knowledge and lore are so much deeper than mine.
Mike: I agree; I think both of the Scott brothers’ aesthetic sensibilities have been hugely influential in several domains, most prominently in the worlds of Hollywood cinema and music videos. These two directors serve as interesting case studies for some of our discussions above, around style and narrative and audience reception. They have both been subject to the boring and reductive critique of “style over substance,” when it’s quite obvious to me that style is substance.
I’m totally with you on both Blade Runner and Alien. One of the major things that both films showcase is an extremely high level of visual intelligence, which has been a mainstay throughout Ridley Scott’s career (no surprise, given his background in visual art and design). His work is often misread as misanthropic, but I think it’s clear that Scott cares deeply about sociopolitical issues and human suffering — if anything, pessimism might be one of his filmography’s most pronounced philosophical throughlines. Recently, I’ve found myself really coming around to Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, which to me are important contemporary works of cosmic pessimism, but also broader comprehensive studies of the sci-fi and horror genres (and their foundational overlaps; see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Scott explicitly cites the influence of John Milton and William Blake, and Prometheus sets the stage by drawing on those writers’ subversive engagements with Judeo-Christian myth. If Prometheus is situated in a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century framework, then Alien: Covenant moves into the nineteenth century, offering a Gothic aesthetic and a Romantic rebuke to the overreach of Enlightenment ideals and the poisonous potential of industrial modernity. Covenant is clearly indebted to Frankenstein, and it seems to be interested in the fundamental overlap between the two genres mentioned above (science fiction and horror).
I love Tony Scott. I’ll be brief: to me, he was a giant of pop art. The Hunger and Man on Fire are probably my favorite films of his. And as for Raised by Wolves, I still need to see it! It’s on the infinite queue…
Author Bios: Kathe Koja writes novels and short fiction, and creates and produces immersive events. Her work has won awards, most recently the Shirley Jackson award for Velocities: Stories, and been multiply translated and optioned for film. Dark Factory is her newest project, an immersive fiction work online and in print. Visit her website: https://kathekoja.com/ and connect with her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KatheKoja.
Mike Thorn is the author of Shelter for the Damned, Darkest Hours, and Peel Back and See. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Vastarien, Dark Moon Digest, and The NoSleep Podcast. His essays and articles have been published in American Twilight: The Cinema of Tobe Hooper (University of Texas Press), Beyond Empowertainment: Exploring Feminist Horror (Seventh Row), The Film Stage, and elsewhere. Visit his website: https://mikethornwrites.com and connect with him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MikeThornWrites.