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DF Interview: Rich Douek takes us across the frozen tundra of 1950s Siberia in ‘Road of Bones’
By Byron Brewer
In 1953, the Siberian Gulag of Kolyma is hell on Earth – which is why Roman Morozov leaps at the chance to escape it. But even if they make it out, Roman and his fellow escapees still have hundreds of miles of frozen tundra between them and freedom. With the help of a mysterious being straight out of his childhood fairy tales, Roman just might make it – or is the being simply a manifestation of his brutal circumstances? Is he going insane?
From writer Rich Douek (Gutter Magic) and artist Alex Cormack (Sink), Road of Bones will carve a path of unrelenting dread right into your heart. Horror, history and Russian folklore collide in this brutal survival tale, where the worst prison in the world is merely the gateway to even darker horrors. DF sat down with scribe Rich Douek to chat.
Dynamic Forces; Rich, this seems a pretty important book for you. Tell us what Road of Bones from IDW will mean to you as a writer.
Rich Douek: As a writer, I think Road of Bones has really pushed me to expand my repertoire and abilities. What I mean is, if you had asked me a year ago if I would ever write a horror story, I would have said no, I do sci-fi and fantasy mostly. And yet, the idea for this story got into my head and wouldn’t let go.
DF: Why was this the perfect time for you to try your hand at horror?
Rich Douek: It wasn’t like I woke up one day and said “I want to write horror.” What happened was, for one reason or another, I started reading about the Gulag, the conditions there, and the stories that grew up around it. And I was fascinated. Somewhere along the way I got the idea for Road of Bones, and the deeper I got into researching it, the more I knew this was a story I had to tell.
DF: There are some readers who may not be familiar with the Kolyma Highway built during the Soviet Union’s Stalinist era or the real-life horrific reason it is called, among other things, the “Road of Bones.” Can you give us the briefest of backgrounds here on this area of 1950s Siberia please?
Rich Douek: Kolyma was one of the harshest regions in Siberia, but it was rich in mineral wealth, so the Soviet Union had mining interests there. Being so remote, though, they needed to build infrastructure to support that industry. As with most projects in the region, they used prison labor to construct the Kolyma Highway. It got it’s nickname, the “Road of Bones”, because harsh conditions at the camp meant there were a lot of prisoner deaths – and rather than dig graves in the ground that were frozen solid, they just buried the bodies in the foundation of the road.
DF: Who is Roman Morozov? What can you tell us about him and the situation he finds himself in as issue #1 of this four-part miniseries publishes? And how does he plan to meet that fate?
Rich Douek: Roman is, tragically, just a guy who told an off-color joke about Stalin at a party, and wound up being sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for it. And with conditions at the camps being what they are, it’s practically a death sentence. And I think it’s important to note, this kind of thing really happened under Stalin. You could lose your entire life, or decades of it, by saying the wrong thing where the wrong person could overhear it. As for how he plans to meet that fate – there’s only one thing he can do – try to survive one more day, when everything around him, from the guards and inmates, to the work, to the brutal cold, seems intent on killing him.
DF: What is a Domovic? Can you give readers a hint or two (in a non-spoilery manner, of course) about what this entity will mean for Morozov, in the short AND long run?
Rich Douek: In Russian folklore, a Domovik is like a spirit that protects the house you live in. There’s are similar beings in Celtic fairy folklore called Brownies. If you think of the fairy tale about the shoemaker elves, it’s similar to that. The story goes, if you treat your family’s Domovik well, by leaving out food, etc, it will reward you with protection. For Roman, life in the camp is so bleak, he’s fallen back on this story from his childhood – he thinks that, if the camp is his home now, maybe that camp has a Domovik. And if he leaves food out for it, maybe it will afford him some protection. Is it real? Is it his imagination? How will it work out either way? You’ll have to read to find out.
DF: Are you a writer, like several of my friends, who enjoys historic research? If so, I am sure this book took some time in that area. Tell readers what types of research you did for Road of Bones, and did artist Alex Cormack also do some historical digging?
Rich Douek: I do enjoy research, yes. It’s fascinating to read about other times, other places, and I feel like it’s a necessary step to bring myself into the world of the story – even if a lot of it doesn’t make it in. For example, the two warring prison factions in the book – the Vor and the Suka -- have a fascinating history, and I read a lot about the war between them. Ultimately, though, in the text, we only barely touch on it, because it’s not vital to Roman’s story. But I’m still happy to have learned about it, and I think the story is richer for me having done so. For Alex’s part, I know he did research on his own, and we discussed the clothing, buildings and terrain that would all make things as close to the real thing as we could get.
DF: Spinning out of the above, talk about the art of Alex Cormack.
Rich Douek: I’ve known Alex for a few years now, and always known he’s been talented – but his work on the indie horror book Sink with John Lees was what convinced me he would be perfect for this book. He has a real talent for getting emotion across, as well as one for horror and gore. One of my favorite scenes in the issue features the camp’s commandant. A perfectly normal man, but the way Alex renders him is so monstrous, I’d call Road of Bones a horror book based on that alone. You can’t do jump scares in comics, really, but what you can do is build a sense of suspense and dread – and I think Alex accomplishes all that in spades.
I’d also like to mention our letterer, Justin Birch, who’s also responsible for building that sense of atmosphere. Justin’s been great at pacing the dialogue out, and keeping the flow exactly where we want it to be.
DF: Rich, what other projects of yours, present and near-future, can you tell readers about?
Rich Douek: I have another book debuting in May with my co-creator Joe Mulvey called Wailing Blade that I’m really excited about. It’s high adventure, sci-fi/fantasy, with a lot of over-the-top action. It’s a very different book from Road of Bones, but man, is it a fun ride! I’ll also be reissuing my first series, Gutter Magic, soon with a new publisher, Source Point Press, and have new stories in that universe coming later in the year. I have a couple of other projects in the works that I can’t discuss yet, but I think people will really be excited when they hear about them.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Rich Douek for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Road of Bones #1 from IDW Publishing hits stores May 22nd!
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