The Winter Solstice is upon us (in the southern hemisphere, anyway), and The Dark Matter of Natasha has been unleashed!
Check out the Bibliography page for a bunch of purchase links. Now that you’ve done that (nudge, nudge), let’s talk a little about the life of the book so far.
My new novella is dedicated to J.R. Hayes of Pig Destroyer and Jeff Hanneman of Slayer, for good reason. The first germ of this story appeared way back in 2012, when I was listening to PD’s grindcore album Phantom Limb (2007). There’s a song on it called “Girl in the Slayer Jacket”, and something about Hayes’ lyrics spoke to me: “She had thick skin/but if you cut her/the wound/the wound would bleed forever… But the truth is her eyes/had been dead since she was five/she just hadn’t disposed of the body.” I immediately sensed a tale in the offing, and soon set about plotting it; in another nod to Pig Destroyer, I decided to call my character Natasha, after their experimental half-hour-plus narrative song of the same name. (Please don’t sue, guys. I love you!) I had a false start or two, but I recall working doggedly at the writing in October during the recording of the icecocoon album Deepest Crystal Black — every day for a week I’d get up early, catch a tram to the studio, record all day with Owen and Tom, then return home late at night and power away at Natasha for a few hours. Since my titular character wore a denim jacket with a big Slayer patch sewn on the back, and since I love to expound upon my own interests (for better or worse), I gave my narrator a subplot in which he discovers the visceral pleasures of thrash metal in general and Slayer in particular.
My own introduction to Slayer came in high school. A recent convert to heavy metal, I bought the tape of Seasons in the Abyss (1990) from my mate Nathan, and it remains my personal favourite (which explains why it’s the narrator’s pick, too). One of the legendary Big Four of thrash metal who arose in the early Eighties and brought the genre to prominence (along with Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax), Slayer shied away from the eventual sonic experimentation of their peers in favour of honing their signature sound: flat-out, punk-inspired drumming by Dave Lombardo (and later, Paul Bostaph), speed-picked buzzsaw riffs and demon-scream guitar solos from Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, and Tom Araya’s distinctive wail (dis)articulating lyrics about murder, obsession, war, and/or Hell. They were the hardest of the hard (unless you asked the stoners who cranked Deicide and Cannibal Corpse in the high school art room), and Slayer fandom was something you wore like a badge of honour. I didn’t follow them as closely as Metallica, with whose albums I taught myself to play bass, but I always came back to them when I needed a fix of the strong stuff; people rave about Hell Awaits (1985)and Reign in Blood (1986), but albums like Divine Intervention (1994), God Hates Us All (2001), and World Painted Blood (2009) are equally delightful to me. I finally got to see them live in 2007 as a surprise birthday present from my partner at the time, and then again in 2011 at the Soundwave festival. On that later tour, Gary Holt stepped in to replace Hanneman, who was recovering from — how metal is this? — necrotising fasciitis that he’d apparently picked up from a spider bite whilst in a hot tub.
I finished the first draft of my novella in April 2013, at which point I decided upon a mildly idiosyncratic title: NATASHA ♥’s SLAYER, all caps and emoji included. A week or two later, I hopped in my car after work and heard Triple J playing “Dead Skin Mask”, Slayer’s eerie paean to Ed Gein. What was going on here? The youth radio network never played stuff like this outside the metal show — how curious! I was stunned when the DJs back-announced the song by reporting that Jeff Hanneman had passed away from what was later revealed to be alcohol-related cirrhosis and liver failure. I remember sending a text to my mate Charger, a rabid Slayer fan, that just said FUCK… and he knew exactly what I meant. On the spot, I decided that, should NATASHA ever be published, I would dedicate it to Jeff’s memory.
Years passed, and every now and again, I would return to the manuscript and give it another solid draft. The story grew stronger and stronger, but I had no idea where I would find a home for it — despite its bleak darkness and looming sense of hopelessness, it’s not exactly a horror tale, and the crime elements were too minor to edge it into that genre. Also, it was a fairly grimy and explicit missive from the underbelly of small-town life, and I suspected the seamy sex, drug use, and strong themes would work against it. I briefly considered including it in my first short story collection as a weighty closer, but it unbalanced the sequence and took up too much space. I sent it off to an open call on the off chance, but nothing eventuated from that, and I wondered if this story was doomed to linger forever on my hard drive, another work of mine that fell between genres and hence between the cracks of the world. As if to confirm its lack of relevance, the mighty Slayer finally called time in 2019 after a final post-Hanneman record, 2015’s Repentless, and a comprehensive farewell tour.
And then, in 2021, I submitted my bastard child to Grey Matter Press. Anthony Rivera, GMP editor and honcho, reached out to tell me how much he’d enjoyed the manuscript. He thought it would be a perfect fit for their then-unnamed Emergent Expressions line. At long last, NATASHA had found a home!
I went through a few rounds of publisher edits, a process I usually find somewhat arduous — especially before I even open the file, as if I expect to find reams of strikeouts and contemptuous invalidating notes from the editor, though of course it’s never as bad as all that — and found myself buoyed by occasional comments from Tony that had nothing to do with potential changes and everything to do with praising the writing. “It’s beautiful sentences/passages like this that make your work so highly enjoyable for me,” said one. “This literally sent chills down my spine,” read another. He related hard to the themes and settings of the work, had lived through some of the same experiences as me that coloured the story, and understood what I was trying to do so well that I barely had to explain anything. The only minor sticking point was my insistence on using “come” instead of “cum”, a spelling that makes my eyes hurt in a literary context, and that was simply an issue of… well, taste. Ahem.
In fact, the only problem we ran into during the preparation of the manuscript was its title. I had never considered it might be a concern, but publishers have to be aware of all things, and GMP noted that we’d be using a registered trademark. A query was sent off to Slayer’s legal people, with the understanding that if they wanted to charge for use of the name, we’d have to demur and choose a different title. Time went by and we heard nothing back, which ate at me somewhat because I’d grown quite attached to NATASHA ♥’s SLAYER and couldn’t imagine the novella being called anything else. Eventually, though, the lack of response meant I had to do just that. I ran through some alternatives like Natasha’s Curse and Nymphetamine (after the Cradle of Filth album, which I was using as a working title for another tale) and even found myself rifling through Slayer albums for a song title I could nick instead, like “Expendable Youth” or “Stain of Mind” — but that didn’t feel right, felt like trying to make a blunt point about my own stubbornness in the face of compromise. Finally, I settled on either The Dark Matter of Natasha or Natasha’s Dark Matter, prompted by the galactic similes I sprinkled throughout the text, and we agreed the former worked better. It’s got a nice old-fashioned ring to it that belies its contents, and I didn’t even notice that I’d incorporated a word from the publisher’s name! It’s grown on me considerably, to the point where I almost never slip up and use the old name anymore. Yeah, you’re not always right, sunshine…
When it came to discussing cover art, I had a lot to say. (Cue knowing eyerolls from everyone who’s ever worked with me.) Since the story had grown from a song on Phantom Limb, I’d always imagined the published version utilising art by the same guy who’d done its cover: one John Dyer Baizley, best known as the vocalist/guitarist/mainstay of the excellent Baroness. I’d even vaguely considered self-publishing at one point and commissioning a new piece of art or licensing an old one from JDB, an idea immediately scuttled by my perpetual poverty. I knew it was a long shot, so I sent Tony some of his work and hoped for something in the same ballpark. Understandably, GMP plumped for cover art a little more approachable to the casual reader, though they did end up working in a pentagram to hint at the metal angle. As with the new title, it’s something I quickly got used to and ended up quite liking.
Then we came to the subject of blurbs. I’d garnered a handful for If Only Tonight We Could Sleep but hadn’t bothered to do so with Midnight in the Chapel of Love, kind of liking the idea that the novel would drop with no associations or preconceptions and would stand on its own merits. (Oh, sweet summer child, etc.) This time I suggested fellow Aussie Alan Baxter, who had a few books out through GMP and with whom I’d had a little contact on social media and through the Australasian Horror Writers Association… only to learn that he’d already put himself forward for the task! He supplied the first glowing appraisal, and more came from J. Ashley-Smith (who’d asked me to blurb his forthcoming collection, The Measure of Sorrow, and upon reading my MS, was very happy to return the favour) and John C. Foster. Splendid chaps, all of them — I had the pleasure of meeting Alan in person recently at the Aurealis Awards, where I also got to hang with J. for the second time, and I hope for a chance to catch up with John one day.
And that brings us pretty much up to date. GMP have garnered a bunch of pre-release reviews for the book, mostly very positive ones with a few slightly reserved takes thrown in for good measure, and I’m gratified to see how much Natasha is resonating with readers. We may well work together again in the near future — Tony has a new novella and a second short story collection of mine lurking in his inbox for consideration — so stay tuned…
I’d like to take this opportunity to once again thank everyone involved: Anthony and GMP for having faith in my work and doing it dark justice, Alan, J., and John for their kind appraisals, Joe Joe and Dad for reading the MS in earlier stages (Dad’s assessment: “bleakly compelling”), J.R. for the words that led to my own much more detailed examination of a dead-end girl, Slayer for being fucking Slayer, and Meg for the author pic and general all-round support and loving awesomeness. Also, everyone who’s read, reviewed, promoted, and/or supported this book along the way. You’re all well wizard… and believe me, here in the dark, you matter.
PS. etm. is a contraction of et merda, quite literally “and shit”. I’m going to use this all the time now.