The Next Chapter·Q&A

Naben Ruthnum explores the transcendence of body horror in his new novella Helpmeet

The Toronto author has written several books spanning different genres. Inspired by the idea for a film script that never got off the ground, he turned to horror fiction for the first time with his new novella, Helpmeet.

‘Horror stories make you look at the world a bit differently’

Naben Ruthnum is an author and screenwriter based in Toronto. (Patrick Tarr)

You could call Toronto writer Naben Ruthnum a renaissance man — he's written everything from award-winning short fiction, crime fiction, thrillers, memoir and literary criticism. In January, he released his first novel. And when he's not writing books, he's a screenwriter turning out television dramas and screenplays.

His latest book is a horror novella called Helpmeet. It tells the story of Edward and Louise, a married doctor and nurse who are socially isolated in early-1900s New York City. Louise is looking after Edward as he's dying — but the couple realizes Edward's condition isn't actually a disease after all, but rather something more transformative.

Ruthnum is the author of A Hero of Our Time and Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. Under the pen name Nathan Ripley, he is the author of two thrillers, Find You In the Dark and Your Life is Mine. He won the Journey Prize in 2013 for his short story Cinema Rex.

Ruthnum spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing Helpmeet.

This is your fifth book — you've also written two thrillers and literary criticism and a memoir that combined eating, reading and race. And in January, you published your novel A Hero of Our Time. So what inspired you to write this horror novella now?

Naben Ruthnum: This was just a case of a really persistent idea that I had a couple of years ago. Initially, sometimes my [screenwriting] writing partner Kris Bertin and I will put together five or six ideas that we have as the premises of films, and a very different version of Helpmeet was on one of those sheets of one-paragraph ideas once. And we couldn't get a bite on that particular one, but it always stayed with me. And it ended up that I just had to write it down somewhere — so it became this novella. 

The blurb on the back cover of your book comes from David Demchuk, the author of horror novels The Bone Mother and Red X. David gave your book a stellar review, and he says the story is first and foremost a love story. What do you think?

Naben Ruthnum: I know with my novel A Hero of Our Time, to me, that was first and foremost a very funny novel. That's what I was intending to do. But I think a lot of people read it as a very sad novel. And in this case, I think the horror leaps out — the graphic decay of the body leaps out at people before the love elements of it. But to me, it's quite the opposite — the love comes first.

David also says that the book holds certain images so grotesque that they will linger in your dreams for weeks. Why did you want to go into the graphic? 

Naben Ruthnum: I think there's something shared in that territory about the extremes of suffering and the extremes of devotion. What they have in common is that they don't make sense. When you're perceiving this from the outside, it just doesn't seem to hold together how a body can suffer that much, or how someone can be entirely devoted to somebody that doesn't seem to reward them at all for that devotion. There's something in the tissue of horror that allows you to explore these sort of dead zones of emotion that you can't really explain in words — and you can maybe in imagery. 

There's something in the tissue of horror that allows you to explore these sort of dead zones of emotion that you can't really explain in words.

Can we talk a bit about the term "body horror?" What exactly is it?

Naben Ruthnum: Well, everybody's horrified by their own body to some degree, especially as this one ages — it begins to make no sense at all. But I think body horror locates a lot of concepts and discomforts in just what the human body can become — what it can be. And a lot of that transformative body horror ends up being, of course, metaphorically about death. And in the case of this book, it's about something beyond death that is in our traditional conception of an afterlife.

Everybody's horrified by their own body to some degree, especially as this one ages — it begins to make no sense at all.

I think I was interested in an idea of eternity that was biological and grounded, but also at the same time supernatural and that it's not about anything that's in our known ecosystem — something that had nothing to do with heaven or the spirit, but something that was still very physical. 

I don't want to spoil anything, but I do want to ask you this: Could it be that horror as a genre is perhaps the most optimistic? 

Naben Ruthnum: It might be a misquote, but I think Stanley Kubrick said something like that to Stephen King — that he felt that all ghost stories were essentially optimistic and that they suggested that death wasn't the final end. And I like that interpretation.

It's interesting that ghost stories and supernatural and horror stories do so much that is poetic and undefinable, and they just sort of make you look at the world a bit differently.

It's interesting that ghost stories and supernatural stories and horror stories also do so much that is poetic and undefinable — they just sort of make you look at the world a bit differently, and give you a weird aesthetic experience on the page you can't get from any other genre. 

Your novel is written in beautiful language — there is a certain beauty to the body, even as it's decaying. Was that something you wanted to get across? 

Naben Ruthnum: Absolutely. In A Hero of Our Time, the protagonist has so much bodily self-hatred — there's so much dwelling on the unpleasantness of the body that some reviewers have called that novel a body horror novel as well.

But in this book, I think maybe I wanted to do something that was just about how a body touched by love can't be hideous anymore, and the idea of perceiving something from the outside and seeing the beauty in it that can't be seen from the inside. As incredibly cheesy as it sounded when I said it just now, I thought I could get it across in a compelling way through horror.

Why do you think readers turn to horror at certain points in history?

Naben Ruthnum: I'm sure that you could track it, according to the conservative and liberal politics of who is in power at any given time. But I think it's so hard to track why mass appetite occurs at a certain point in time. And right now, horror seems to be experiencing another upswell. 

I think there is an escapist dimension to horror that you don't realize is happening until you close the book and start thinking about your own life.

I think there is an escapist dimension to horror, of course, but it's sort of an escape deeper into your anxieties that you don't realize is happening until you close the book and start thinking about your own life. So maybe it has something to do with that spike in personal anxiety and a false escape hatch.

What did you learn about horror in writing Helpmeet?

Naben Ruthnum: I learned that those poetic qualities that I always look for in weird fiction, the way that I can most easily grasp them is by writing very quickly. I needed to be constantly engaged in the story and catching up to it. So I actually wrote it across the course of five nights. 

I never really stopped thinking about it, and that's where I was able to get that sort of ineffable, numinous quality that I always look for in weird fiction. And that's not really the way I write any of my other work. So I might have to take that strategy on if I continue to write horror. 

There is something that feels really transcendent about this story. What can you tell us about that without giving too much away? 

Naben Ruthnum: The origin of this idea was in fact about a travelling exorcist who is actually collecting demons. That was the initial sort of Hollywoodized version of this. You'd never recognize that [in the book], because for one thing, there are no demons. 

There's nothing there's nothing really Judeo-Christian about it except for the sort of framework that we've been talking about — that transcendent feel of the sort of union that's made possible through the most horrific things imaginable happening to the human body. I don't really know where it came from.

I think it all goes back to that image of the orchard and what happens when people manage nature — and what happens when nature manages people. And I think that to some degree is what disease is about — it's about nature asserting itself over the human body.

In his comic new novel A Hero of Our Time, Canadian author Naben Ruthnum delves beneath the surface of corporate diversity initiatives. He speaks with Piya Chattopadhyay about the book and his frank and funny take on why even the most well-meaning initiatives need to be interrogated in order to achieve meaningful change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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