Welcome, one and all, to another Matt Doyle Media Dot Com author interview. Today, i’m welcoming UK horror author Brad Harmer-Barnes back to the site to discuss his latest novella, Vietnam Black. This was one that I thoroughly enjoyed, as per my review of the book, and so I was very happy to have Brad come back to talk more about it. So, let’s get to it!
Your latest novella, Vietnam Black, is set during the Vietnamese war. As you said in your previous interview here, you’re a fan of historical fiction, so using this as the backdrop for the tale fits with that. What I was curious about was whether you based the area that story is set in, or indeed the general set-up of the missing informant, on a real-world place or event? Did you need to check out any maps for example, or to research the use of informants during the conflict?
No, not really. I have an interest in the Vietnam War, but it’s one of those things where there’s always more to be learned. It was a long war, and there’s a lot to take in; lots of people, all with their own stories. The Viet Cong certainly relied on information being passed on to them by locals, and it’s not a stretch to assume that that must have happened in the other direction, as well.
Speaking technically, as a writer: Hai Trang village is a McGuffin, really. It’s there to get the squad into the jungle where they can discover – or, really, be discovered by – the Vietnam Black. I just hope that the journey there is at least an enjoyable one. I tried my best to make it as spooky as possible.
This time around, your monster is a giant centipede. One thing that I really liked with this was the use of the creature’s exoskeleton. In the book it seems to be impenetrable. Rather than seem far-fetched though, it adds a certain realism to the events. Arthropod exoskeletons are genuinely very strong, and so one as thick as the Vietnam Black would have would be pretty tough indeed. From a storytelling standpoint, did that inherent toughness create any issues for you when it came finding ways for the soldiers to actually damage the creature, or did you always have some successful strategies in mind?
Yeah, I love the armour plating on that thing. I’m wary of spoiling my own book here, but the ending was conceived very early on – I think it may even have been in the original outline. To be honest, I was attracted to using a centipede purely because they’re fucking horrible. They’re armour plated, they have forty-odd legs, they’re poisonous, and they’re hyper-aggressive. That’s…that’s a monster, right there!
I’m wary of going into the spoilers here, but there’s one weapon the squad has that I was constantly trying to foil, because it had a good chance of messing the monster up. If not killing it, then at least seriously wounding it. Did I skirt around it, too much? I hope not.
The ending is probably the closest I’ve come to “art” in one of my books, so far.
SPOILER BELOW, HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL
The end is a microcosm for the war. The Americans are beaten by the Vietnam Black, outwitted by a force of nature – essentially the land itself. Then the Viet Cong insurgents are being killed by it, but still they fight on, purely on principle and glory. So, does this mean that the Vietnam Black – the land itself – is the victor? No. All that’s left is a great ballooning fireball. We all know America lost the Vietnam War, but that doesn’t mean that anyone really won it, either.
The soldiers facing the monster were limited to the weaponry supplied to soldiers during the conflict. The Vietnamese War ran from 1955 to 1975, which isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but technology has a habit of evolving quickly. As such, are there any modern weapons that soldiers would carry that you think would have been more useful against the Vietnam Black?
With the caveat that I’ve never been in the military, I don’t know that there is. Modern machine guns wouldn’t stand a chance against its plating any more than an M16 would. To be honest, close quarters fighting hasn’t ever really changed all that much, and by the time you see the Vietnam Black, you’re too close to use anything explosive. Your best chance is to run faster than your friend.
Back in prehistory, there was an arthropod called Arthropleura that was known to grow to up to 2.3 meters in length. The reason for its size was a combination of greater partial pressure in Earth’s oxygen around the time and the lack of terrestrial vertebrates to hunt them. Modern Vietnam though is host to a great variety of wildlife, ranging from molluscs, right up to bears. My question is, if the Vietnam Black were to exist in modern day Vietnam, what would be its likely prey, and what animal do you think would pose the greatest threat to it?
Centipedes will kill and eat anything they can, and I don’t think the Vietnam Black would be any different. Primates, bears, rodents, humans…it’d just spit back the bits it didn’t want.
The greatest threat to the Vietnam Black? I’m not sure. It must be something we haven’t seen yet.
I said in my review that I got a real Predator vibe from Vietnam Black, with the general feel reminding me a lot of the 1987 Schwarzenegger classic. Was that particular film, or indeed any others, an inspiration here?
The fundamental stories are: man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself, and Arnie versus Predator. Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like that movie? Predator straight fucking rocks, man. I think, looking back, Predator was an influence, but it was very much a subliminal one, at least in the early stages of writing. The whole heading to McGuffin village thing – and people have pointed out the similarities between Lai Anh and Anna, which, yeah, in hindsight I can see. The main difference to me – apart from the setting and monster, obviously – is that the squad in Vietnam Black are regular guys, waiting for their tour of duty to finish. They’re not special forces guys lugging a freaking minigun that’s supposed to be mounted to a helicopter through the jungle. Reese’s squad would be much happier keeping their heads down and going home.
As for other influences, I took more from war movies than I took from horror and sci-fi. Full Metal Jacket is a favourite of mine, so that and Hamburger Hill were reference points for me. Obviously also Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Flight of the Intruder…all great movies.
I certainly listened to the Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Predator soundtracks a lot while writing, as well as just a lot of period stuff like Canned Heat, Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival. There’s even a Vietnam Black Soundtrack if you search on Spotify.
Having creatures based on actual animals, whether alive or extinct, helps create a feel that the events of your books could be theoretically possible, even with fantastical elements thrown in. Why, even the spider’s abilities in Tempest Outpost could be seen as analogous to a point with some real-life parasites. So, with that underlying realism in mind, of the three monsters that you’ve written about so far, which do you think would pose the most threat to humans outside fiction?
The Caliban Spiders, from Tempest Outpost, by far. The Megalodon was an astonishing creature, it really was, but it was just a huge shark. The Vietnam Black is terrifying in terms of its size, aggression and speed, but it’s very localised. It’s never moving out of that jungle, unless someone seriously fucks up.
The Caliban Spider, however…that mind-control thing is pretty scary, isn’t it? In the space of less than twenty-four hours, those things pretty much had the whole of Tempest Outpost under their control. If they turned up somewhere more densely populated, can you imagine what would happen?
What’s next for you? Did you have another monster in mind, or another book nearing completion?
It’s business as usual, here. I’m working on a new historical horror book, and I’m collaborating with Severed Press on a separate project that looks to be very exciting. The audiobooks of both Tempest Outpost and Vietnam Black will be out later this year, which I’m very much looking forward to, and I’m signing at both London Horror Con and London Film and Comic Con.
So, there we have it! All that’s left is for me to thank Brad for stopping by again, and to say that if you want to find out mroe about him, or indeed purchase his books, you find him in the following places:
Twitter Instagram: @RealBradHB
Severed Press: Books By Brad
Amazon UK: Books By Brad
Amazon USA: Books By Brad