Bill Schweigart is the author of Northwoods: a follow-up his novel The Beast of Barcroft. In this short interview, we discuss mythical monsters and the frightening appeal of mysteries beneath the waves.
UNBOUND WORLDS: I hear Northwoods and I think of Operation Northwoods and the conspiracy surrounding it. Where did you get the title of your book?
BILL SCHWEIGART: I vacationed with my wife in Wisconsin in a region called the Northwoods. It’s a beautiful area, so I instantly went to “I could really set a horror novel here.” It’s not Operation Northwoods. It’s something totally different.
UW: So why do you respond to a beautiful setting by wanting to mess it up?
BS: Because it’s isolated, and it’s beautiful. Sometimes you just click with places. I went to Bayfield, Wisconsin and it’s this perfect setting in a perfect setting for something to go horribly awry.
UW: What goes awry? What can you tell us about it without spoiling the story?
BS: This is the second in a series. The first is The Beast of Barcroft. In that book, Ben McKelvie and Lindsey Clark face off against a supernatural threat that they didn’t realize existed. These books are set in the real world but with just a little tweak. They’re still reeling from the events that took place in that. This book takes place a year later. They get a call from their benefactor, who sends them to the North Woods of Wisconsin to investigate a sighting of sort of a Loch Ness monster-type creature in the waters of Lake Superior. Meanwhile, a hundred miles away or so, there’s this scene of mass murder in the woods that has been discovered by a Customs and Borders Protection Agent named Davis Holland. Are they related? Spoilers, yes, but the fun is in figuring out how they are related and what happened. These paths converge and then all hell breaks loose.
UW: It sounds like you went with a different kind of federal law enforcement character than we would expect.
BS: I’m expanding the universe a little bit. The Beast of Barcroft was pretty circumscribed. It took place in one neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. One of the characters, Alex Standing Cloud, a professor of Native American Studies, actually lives in Wisconsin. He’s also recovering from what happened in the Beast of Barcroft. The hinky stuff starts happening in his neck of the woodland that’s why they end up out there. This was an end to a means of introducing a new character. I wanted a cool ex-military character: someone on the team who actually knows what they’re doing and can butt heads with my amateurs who are investigating these supernatural threats. He’s a viewpoint character coming into the story. This is all new to him, and he has to wrap his mind around the fact that there are shapeshifters out there and things that go bump in the night. He’s going to bring his expertise to bear.
UW: We’re talking about a lake monster. This is a recurrent idea in mythology and folklore — the lake monster. Why do you think that is? What is it that attracts us to this kind of thing?
BS: When I was up visiting family in Wisconsin, my brother-in-law told me about the hodag. Not being from Wisconsin, I asked him what it was. It’s a hoax from a hundred years and thought that it might be something that could be interesting to throw into a book. What’s interesting is if you look at the hodag and look at a creature from Native American folklore called the underwater panther, or the mishipeshu, the similarities are striking: a long body, a tail, a horned head with massive teeth. You’ve got to wonder if the guy who came up with the hodag was riffing off of this folklore, if he had an awareness of it, or made it up out of whole cloth. It turns out that it’s neither of these things, but the team has to cycle through all of the options of what it could be in their investigation. I found that interesting—and every book I write has to have a reference to “Jaws” in there somewhere. It is my all-time favorite movie. It’s just the idea of there being something underneath the waves that is appealing to me.
UW: Well, that’s the thing about science-fiction and fantasy, right? There’s always something beneath the waves.