Casting Spells with COFFIN HILL’s Caitlin Kittredge

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At San Diego Comic-Con, DC’s Vertigo imprint introduced a whole roster of new series for the fall, including revisitations of old classics (SANDMAN, DEAD BOY DETECTIVES) and several entirely new escapades. COFFIN HILL is the first comic book series written by fantasy fiction author Caitlin Kittredge, and follows the story of Eve Coffin, who must return to her hometown of Coffin Hill to face the consequences of a black magic ritual she conducted as a teenager. With dreamy art by Inaki Miranda, COFFIN HILL evokes the kind of atmosphere brought on by midnight séances and Halloween horror.

Famous Monsters. I got a very different vibe from the first issue of COFFIN HILL than a lot of other “mature audience” comic books—it reminded me more of underground horror fiction like Caitlin R. Kiernan and Kathe Koja. I know you’re a prose writer, first of all. How do you feel that your writing prose first is going to change your approach to writing comics?

Caitlin Kittredge. You’re the first person to ask me that. My experience has been that having the words and the visuals completely changes the way I envision the story in my head—the structure of scenes and the way I write dialogue. In some ways, everything’s changed. I still have to pay attention to the arc and make sure I’m putting in all the little hints about what’s to come where they need to be, and since characterization is something I get really into when I’m prose writing, I love having the visual element of that now—to be able to show things in the art that give you clues to who the characters are. In some ways I had to rethink my approach since I am working with an artist, and it’s a less-is-more situation. I’m really lucky to be working with an artist who can just tell how the page should be laid out. I don’t have to break it down exhaustively.

The process is similar in terms of plotting and character arcs, although I find I tend to be more structured in [the case of comics]—I’m kind of a “fly by the seat of my pants” type writer [with fiction]. But now I don’t have that luxury. Compared to books, things go really fast in comics. I get maybe a month to write a script before it goes to the artist. I have to be quick and concise and know what I’m doing ahead of time so I don’t waste everyone’s time. But it’s been awesome. I’m having a great time getting used to the new medium.

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FM. By virtue of [artist] Inaki Miranda, the book has lush, almost gothic visuals going on. Would you say that’s how you pictured it in your head, or are you leaving the visual scope entirely up to him?

CK. It’s very much how I picture it in my head! We had a discussion before he started drawing, and I said that I meant the sensibility to be gothic in the old-fashioned sense—not so much like the goth culture, but with foreboding woods, long shots of the ruined mansion… all the characters needed to have distinctive looks to them to fit into this creepy, almost surrealist landscape. I find that I can give him a sentence or two and he’ll turn in the most amazing character design. It’s succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. As a prose writer, I struggle to bring my vision to the page via description, and I could write pages and pages of description for all the panels, but I really don’t need to, with him.

FM. The characters, like Eve Coffin and her friends in the flashback to the crazy night of witchcraft—they’re kind of like goth-punk kids with their rebellious outfits and attitudes. Did you put anything of yourself into them, like your own teenage years, or is it a new exploration of character for you?

CK. With Eve’s personality, I’m definitely exploring uncharted territory, because she’s a very grey area antiheroine. I tend to write people who are pretty heroic, even if they’re a little hardboiled, in my novels. But Eve is in the grey area, and I really like that. As far as rebellious teenagers go… I call myself a “recovering goth”. [laughs] I was way into all of that stuff as a teenager—the music, the fashion… I had spiky black hair. But I was also a very nerdy 4.0 average band geek type, and I never went anywhere on the weekends. I didn’t have friends like Eve. We would sit around in my room and watch THE EXORCIST and eat chips and talk about writing college application essays. It was very unexciting compared to our outfits. [Everyone laughs] With Eve, I’m sort of vicariously writing the teenager-hood that I wish I’d had—aside from the terrible black magic ritual that makes her whole life go completely off the rails. I’m having fun with the flashbacks of her getting into trouble, because I never got into any trouble when I was her age.

FM. I totally relate to that. [laughs] As for the black magic, witchcraft has a really loaded history as far as the Salem Witch Trials and everything goes. How are you approaching the topic? Are you putting any historical research into it, or is it purely mythological?

CK. The magic itself—I definitely erred on the side of making it visual, because I wanted to showcase Inaki’s wonderful ability to show the effects of the magic and the way it impacts the world around Eve. When magic happens in Coffin Hill, it makes things very dreamlike—sometimes you see things that aren’t there. It’s almost like a hallucinogen.

Salem does play a huge role in the story of Coffin Hill. The Coffin family came from the old world to Salem, and Eve’s first ancestor left before the witch trials began—she was actually a witch who was using black magic—and threw the innocent people under the bus to get away, as we find out a few issues in. I grew up about forty-five minutes from Salem, so I have done a lot of reading about it because I was always fascinated. It’s very sad, honestly. I tried to incorporate a lot of factual New England history, because there’s so much stuff swirling around that is completely real and actually happened but is so totally weird that it plays perfectly into a dark supernatural horror story. I like to think that most of my stories are both fictional and historical when I delve into things like whether anyone in Salem was really a witch or if they were just a product of religious hysteria. I try to imply a bit of both. It seemed natural to begin the Coffin story in Salem and then go to where Eve is dealing with the repercussions of the bloody legacy that the family’s had ever since they came from Europe.

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FM. Eve’s night in the woods, when everything derailed—is that something you plan on keeping a mystery until the end, or is it a piece of a larger puzzle?

CK. It’s both. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I think as time goes on you will see what happened in the woods and how it connects to other terrible things that have happened to Eve, as well as things that the Coffin family have done in those 200 years since they left Salem. There’s definitely an interconnectedness stemming from that night. It branches back into the past. Even in the first issue, she’s drawn back to her home town and sees firsthand that she woke something up that night that has been waiting for her ever since and been insidiously infecting the town with its dark power. As the story goes on, she has to deal more and more with the repercussions of what she’s done and try to keep her life together after she’s been disgraced and left the Boston PD.

FM. Why do you think Eve went into police work? What significance might that hold for her? I know in some of your novels, the main characters are police officers as well. Is that something that is close to you?

CK. I always think it’s a really interesting juxtaposition to put cops into supernatural stuff. You have to be so reality-based and logical to be a police officer in the real world, and to juxtapose that against monsters and witchcraft has always made for some really interesting character conflicts. Specifically, in Eve’s case, as you see in the first issue, she was kind of a bad kid, and a selfish person. It resulted in this horrible trauma and her getting way in over her head with the black magic. I think she went to Boston and became an officer almost to make up for that. She tried to get as far away as all that as she could, to a job that allows her to do selfless things for vulnerable people, which is something she never would have considered as that teenager who went into the woods. As the story goes on, you’ll see more and more of what convinced her to leave and go to Boston, and then what convinced her to come back after her accident.

FM. With regard to genre, I’ve seen you categorize your novels as broadly as fantasy and as specifically as gothic steampunk fantasy. If you had to give COFFIN HILL a genre, what would it be? Do you think your prose readers will follow your work to comics?

CK. I really hope that they’ll follow my work! I want everyone to read it! [laughs] I would say that COFFIN HILL is good old supernatural horror. It’s got a few noir-ish police procedural touches, but it’s firmly horror, as far as I’m concerned. There are monsters, there’s witchcraft, there are dark things in the woods, family secrets, a creepy old house… it’s got all the stuff that I love about the horror genre.

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