In the following interview, Fanbase Press Contributor Nicholas Diak chats with Mamatas about the inspiration behind the novel, the themes and genres at play in the story, what he hopes that readers will take away from the characters, and more!
Nicholas Diak, Fanbase Press Contributor: What was the genesis of Sabbath? How did this novel come about?
Nick Mamatas: Sabbath was originally a comic created by Matthew Tamao over a decade ago—it was very different. In the comic, Hell's greatest torturer comes to a future dystopian world run by a "Presipope" and kills the Seven Deadly Sins, who are these monstrous figures. Macmillan editor Brendan Deneen had an interest in the concept; they soon realized that hell's greatest torturer wouldn't be a very sympathetic protagonist. They decided to make Sabbath an eleventh-century knight—albeit a debauched and sinful one with an occult background of sorts—and change the setting to contemporary Manhattan. They wrote a brief synopsis and set about finding a writer for a novel. I was chosen, and I used the outline but changed the events and themes very substantially to make the story work as a novel.
ND: From The Terminator to Trancers, from Warlock to Beastmaster 2, Sabbath seems to mimic the old-school Hollywood formula of a stranger from a different time is brought to a contemporary era to stop a great force and in the process encounters a woman who becomes a sidekick/guiding voice of sorts. Were these sorts of stories an influence on you and Sabbath? What would you say makes Sabbath unique and stand out from these tales?
NM: I'd say they were an influence on the synopsis I worked with, and, of course, I ran with it. I tried to make Jennifer, the female protagonist, the center of the story and tell some of it from her POV. She has things going on in her life other than Sabbath. The end result is pretty interesting, I think. Sir Hexen Sabbath is in a fantasy novel. He's on a holy quest in a strange world he is unfamiliar with, facing temptations and monsters that test him physically, mentally, and spiritually. Jennifer and the other characters, however, are characters in a horror novel—there has been a massive intrusion from beyond into the world they know, and what is happening is almost completely beyond their capacity to understand.
ND: Sabbath fights modern-day incarnations of the Seven Deadly Sins, and you've subverted them quite a bit. For example, Sloth is portrayed as a manager of a cubicle farm, he and all of his drones sitting at their computer, doing their "work" which, really, is nothing at all. Envy, on the other hand, doesn't actually envy anyone, but instead lives such a high-class lifestyle that she needs to be the envy of others. With this in mind, which of the Sins was the most fun or creative for you to write? The one most challenging?
NM: Some of the sins were spelled out in the synopsis more clearly than others. Greed was entirely mine; I changed Pride utterly. Envy does envy people though—at the risk of a "spoiler," her motivation is envy of one of the other major antagonists and protagonists. Of course, it is tricky to personify the sins, as we have a dual conception of sin. A sin is something both out there in the world, and something internal to our natures. If someone is tempted by another to engage in sex, is it the tempter who is lust, or the person who succumbs? This contradiction comes up several times in Sabbath's confrontations with the sins.
ND: One of the fascinating aspects of Sabbath is its handling of social media. It looks to be both an obstacle you must juggle as a writer in order to tell the story (how Sabbath is able to run amok in NYC without attracting too much attention) while also being a source of critique (as shown in Sabbath's encounter with Greed, Jennifer's reliance on it to promote her gallery, etc.). Was this a challenge to mediate?
NM: I've been online since I was seventeen, using raw telnet to connect to MUDs. My whole adult life has been online. If anything, it was the most natural part of the story to mediate, next to trying to live in Manhattan with no money—which I also spent years doing.
ND: The cover of Sabbath is very metal. If Highlander has Queen, what would you suggest the soundtrack of Sabbath should be?
NM: I was always more interested in punk than metal, but my native Long Island offers a solution: Who could handle that sword, and the politics of the novel, and the 1980s gonzo grindhouse vibe? Ludichrist, definitely. Just start playing Immaculate Deception when you turn to the first page and enjoy.
ND: Aside from being at times adventurous and at other times horror, Sabbath has many moments of also being extremely funny. This isn't always from the fish-out-of-water elements, but there are, at times, some biting sarcasm and even some clever wordplay in the novel. Are there any instances of humor in the book that you're especially proud of that you'd like to share?
NM: Of course; I'd like people to read the book and then tell their friends about the funny bits. I'll say that when I first read the synopsis, I asked my then literary agent if Sabbath was supposed to be a parody. It wasn't, but it definitely required some tongue-in-cheek shenanigans. Humor and satire is in all my work, and I saw no reason to change my tone overmuch. The '70s and '80s films we mentioned all have important moments of comic relief, and horror has always had room for social commentary. It wouldn't do to make the book too relentlessly dark.
ND: You have quite a canon of novels, anthologies, short stories, and other work spanning various genres and subject matters in your repertoire, so you've experienced quite a bit. When composing Sabbath, what was something that surprised you, or something new you learned?
NM: I suppose what I learned is that I can write "mersh" (as in The Minutemen's album, not week weed); I've never been a very commercial writer, but I hit the commercial beats with this one.
ND: With Sabbath, what is the major thing you'd like to accomplish with the book?
NM: On one level, the book is a calling card of sorts to the film industry. A nine-part Netflix series: intro, one episode for each sin, then conclusion, would be great. The synopsis even had a Hollywood-style logline: "Highlander meets Se7en." I suppose my personal goals, however, were different; I wanted to write a supernatural story that had a religious element that wasn't explicitly Roman Catholic— or not the Roman Catholicism/Western Christianity of the popular imagination. Sabbath was plucked out of time and brought to Manhattan from a period several decades before the Great Schism of 1054; the metaphysics of the world he inhabits aren't what many readers would expect given their contemporary religious education. I also wanted, like I said above, to write two novels in one: a quest fantasy and a contemporary horror novel, all twisted up in one another in the shape of a double helix.
ND: Diving into the religious elements of Sabbath, there is a great contrast between the titular character and the world he finds himself in. Combined with the setting of Sabbath being a fictionalized version of the 2016 presidential election, there is an added political component, as well. In current times of rising fascism and extremism, we have religious institutions that should be speaking out against such actions and the leaders that embolden them, but, instead, they turn a blind eye or even support such activity. Sabbath, himself, seems to be a reaction or rejection to this shift. He isn't a politically correct character, and yet he isn't a hypocrite; he holds himself to higher standards than these institutions. Was this a theme you were seeking to explore?
NM: Sabbath is pretty self-interested at first. He got a second chance and a second life. What gives him the ability to go against the elites rather than trying to join with them is that he had been exploited in his life and realized it. I don't know if Sabbath's standards are all that high, but he does realize he is an agent of history and can make choices. Siding with fascism is not a matter of choice in times like these; it's the result of not making the choice to oppose fascism.
Sincere gratitude to Nick Mamatas for taking the time to do this interview. Sabbath can be pre-ordered at Amazon.