Samuel Parr’s Undertow is the third story in the first issue of Project 13 Dark, Dead Voices. It is a Dantean decent into a swampy hell by an unlikely hero, a plump girl who is on a quest to save the soul of someone she loves. This tale is tactfully written and in the end surprised me when it had me in tears. That has only happened a handful of times in my life, so please meet Samuel Parr, the author who made me cry.

About†3Dark: †3Dark is a unique dark fiction project that showcases both the written and visual artwork of some of this century’s greatest creatives created by Joseph Sale.

Samuel, please tell us a bit about your background –past, present, and dreams of the future.

I graduated from my BA English with Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham in 2015. From then I’ve followed the zig-zag path of many arts graduates – I was a patient information editor at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, and now work in the Careers Service at De Montfort University.

I’ve been writing on and off since I was twelve, mostly fantasy, though I’ve dabbled in poetry as well. I’ve become more serious in the last year and a half, where I’ve been focusing on overcoming my lack of confidence. It’s a challenge every writer must continuously overcome – and being part of 13Dark has helped me tremendously.

So, I dream of a day where I’m able to look at what I write and think “yeah, I think that’s really good”. I dream of creating something that readers find interesting and captivating and transporting. Yet I also dream of a time when people’s opinions matter less to me, where writing is something I find joyful most of the time. I’d like to be published, sure – but the joy’s more important. I think it’s got to be that way if you want to have a good time writing. A lot of writers deal with low self-confidence and unhealthy writing practices – and it’s often glamourized or trivialized, partly because it’s so common. I hope for a time when this isn’t the norm.

‘A lot of writers deal with low self-confidence and unhealthy writing practices – and it’s often glamourized or trivialized, partly because it’s so common. I hope for a time when this isn’t the norm.’ – @samjamesparr #writerslife Click To Tweet

What was the first book your read that made you think, “I want to be a writer”?

I think the idea I wanted to write started off as an emotion rather than explicit thoughts.  However, it was The Edge Chronicles, an illustrated fantasy children’s series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, that made me start to write.

The series’ world is purely fantastical – every single animal and plant is made-up. Instead of horses, people ride frog-lizard creatures called Prowlgrins, boats fly with buoyant rocks, and the world exists on the ‘Edge’, a vast rock that juts out to nothingness.

As a child, I felt I was breathing in this gorgeous, colourful world, until I was so full I could burst – and often I think ‘I want to write’ came as a way of letting out and connecting to this colour. I wanted to be part of what they created – yet also create something new

That said, I don’t know if it’s just books that make us want to be writers. We’re immersed in story from early childhood – I remember the joy of my father telling us silly stories about our stuffed toys. We quickly learn how enjoyable and powerful telling tales can be. It makes sense we want to take that as far as we can.

Undertow is formatted with footnotes. Where did you get this idea and why did you decide to do it that way?

The first book I read that did anything exciting with footnotes was The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. Here, the narration is first person from a snarky djinn called Bartimaeus. In his footnotes he tells us stories, explains how the world works, and makes snide asides on the action. The footnotes made me feel like a privileged listener, sharing Bartimaeus’s secrets, and connecting with his voice.

I also found it an elegant way of info-dumping. Footnotes satisfy the urge a lot of fantasy readers have to find out more about the worlds they love.

Footnotes also emphasise a narrator’s subjectivity and unreliability. Shout out to that most unreliable of narrators, Moby Dick’s Ishmael, who loves a good footnote now and again (at one point his footnotes take up more page than the main story). For me Moby Dick was half masterpiece, half mess – but the sense of an obsessive, unreliable narrator stayed with me.

This all came to me unconsciously as I was writing. I initially used the footnotes as scaffolding for the story – I started writing ‘Undertow’ with no real pre-conception of what was coming out, and the footnotes were a tool to build the voice and world as I wrote. However, they quickly became part of the narrator – I wanted them to emphasise the many voices and stories within him. He burns to tell what he’s seen, and can’t resist going on tangents.  The footnotes reflect this urge to share and tell and do.

The narrator of this story is wry and witty. He is a climber, an eater of souls, but he looks down on his less intelligent brethren. Why is he so much cleverer than others of his kind?

The narrator is basically a very successful climber. He’s just eaten a lot more lives than the confused, hungry creature Mirabel first faces.

These lives have made him evolve, partly because they’ve filled him with different voices and perspectives – something I think is fundamental to being human. Some of the narrator’s voices are also disgusted with the urges that led him to his present state (another part of being human…).

Looking down on the other climbers distances him, but is also a form of self-disgust he can’t quite face. It’s this underlying self-disgust that urges him to help Mirabel – he wants to become something new.

One of the characters is a huge, monstrous creature named Riotous Blossom. Where did you get this name and why did you choose it for him?

I was inspired by a boss from the videogame series Dark Souls, who is a towering demon pleasantly called ‘Ceaseless Discharge’. The unusual name was translated from Japanese, and carries a uniqueness that I found really interesting (especially as ‘Ceaseless Discharge’s’ backstory is actually quite sad).

The choice of ‘Riotous Blossom’ as an adjective/verb-noun combo came from this in two ways. First, the idea of having a being who is a force of nature, but also the sense of something being lost in translation. Riotous Blossom longs to be alive like the lives he grows from – but his name choice reveals he doesn’t quite understand us.

The words themselves were about what he is – a creature in rebellion, who is creating new life in the tyrannical death than humans have imposed. With him, I wanted to start revealing the fallibility of what the necromancers have created.

What is the main aim of your writing as a whole? To entertain? Self-soothe? Change the world? Tells us what drives you.

To entertain, sure! And to self-soothe – I’ve found I’m happier and calmer when I’m regularly writing, as if I’m letting out pent-up ideas and emotion onto the page.

I also find writing to be very absorbing. I think part of what I love about fantasy is how escapist it can be. It gets a bad rap for this in some circles – as if all fiction wasn’t escapist, and as if escapism is always a bad thing. Of course there’s a balance – you don’t want to run from your problems – yet escapism can free you long enough to get a chance to heal and be inspired in new ways.  I find writing to be escapist in a different way to reading – I escape by creating.

I’m not sure whether I write to change to world. As a person, I don’t take myself too seriously. I like to write about serious topics, sure, but I focus more on the story, the world, how the characters deal with what happens. I used to agonize over what ‘statement’ my writing was making, and found that killed my creativity when I inevitably disagrees with myself, got confused, and gave up.

If my writing does change someone it will be in little ways – and I’d like to encourage readers to feel more compassionate, more able to stand up for equality and kindness.

Finally, as cliché as it sounds, I write to create. Writer Tim Clare talks about the idea of a writers’ stories being ‘beautiful butterflies’ in their head (or monstrous butterflies, depending on the story). In writing we transform (and usually kill) these butterflies, as what we create is never what we imagined. Yet, those butterflies are always flapping in my head – and releasing them into writing calms my mind.

‘I find writing to be escapist in a different way to reading – I escape by creating.’ – @samjamesparr #amwriting #amreading #writerslife Click To Tweet

What inspired you to create this version of hell? What does the Undertow symbolize?

The overall idea was inspired by Dante’s Inferno. In the book, we see nine circles of hell described in incredible specificity. In particular, the Seventh Circle contains the Wood of the Self Murderers, where the act of suicide is punished by trapping a person in the form of a tree, who can only speak when the tree is damaged. Dante’s hell is interesting and full of glorious images – but I was struck by how artificial and limited and cruel it was too.

Alongside this, I’d volunteered for three years with Birmingham Nightline, a phoneline service where student could ring just for a chat and some support. In this I talked to people who’d been suicidal in the past, or were currently struggling with suicidal thoughts. I saw how strong and brave these people fought to keep going, and heard some completely different views about what death was.

Linking these two together gave me the overall premise – exploring the human cost of a man-made hell. I never intended the Undertow to symbolize anything in particular when I was writing. Looking back, I think it symbolized how cruel and imperfect a man-made afterlife would be.

I’d be lying if I said it was all so serious and pre-planned though. I had a great time coming up with the world – indeed, I actually started the whole story by just writing (with no plan apart from a few images and senses) and the structure of hell and the links to Dante spilled in after that.

For example, I realized I’d also drawn a lot from Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom children’s/young adults’ trilogy. In this, death is a river with nine gates, ending with the distant stars, which hold deeper mysteries and ‘true’ death. Fantasy literature from when I was a child holds a very strong sway over me – the images from it are emotionally resonant and nostalgic, and seep into my fiction.

Do you believe there is a physical hell? What do you think it’s like?

Using my personal brand of wild indecisiveness, I’ll give you my answer to most big questions – I’m not sure. I doubt it – at least as a physical place of suffering. I find it hard to follow anything where eternal damnation is a core part of the belief system. Does anyone really deserve eternal suffering? The idea of eternal hell also assumes is that a soul is static, so the suffering does not change someone like it would on earth. I think there’s a great cruelty to this idea – and this is part of the Undertow’s torture, where Camille is doomed to remain unchanged.

So I guess I’ve answered my own question. Do I believe in a physical hell where people go to suffer eternal damnation eternally? No. Or at least I bloody hope not.

Undertow is one of the few stories I’ve read in my whole life that made me cry. I had actual tears running down my face. I thinks it’s because I have two younger sisters and I think about what I’d do if I knew they were suffering. Do you have siblings? Did this affect your story?

I’m sorry you cried! But also kind of happy haha. That’s the screwed up world writers seem to inhabit…

I have a brother and sister, both younger (yet somehow wiser) than me. They certainly did affect the story. The suffering and death of a sibling is one of the saddest things I can think of – you’ve shared things that no-one else can ever share (such as family, parents). You call the same place home. They’ve seen you at your most naïve and foolish and vulnerable – and seen the long line of past selves that you’ve grown through. You’ve shouted at each other and hit each other and pretended to be orcs fighting with sticks – and, compared to all your other family relationships as a kid (e.g. to your parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties) you were more or less equals.

That’s a massive thing. And to lose that is terrible.

So, yes, I used that in understanding what drives Mirabel. When you’re the eldest sibling, your younger sibling is often the first person in the world you’re expected to accept and protect. Yet, your lives diverge and move on from each other. This is what happened to Mirabel –so she has not only lost Camille, but feels she has failed to protect him on the deepest level. She also knows where Camille is going, and knows how monstrously unjust it is to put him there.

As such, she can face the horrors of the Undertow because she has experienced far worse, and has a chance to make it better.

Luckily, the story had a happy ending.

What are your writing plans for the future? Please tell us where we can find more of your work and what you have coming out next.

I’m working on a fantasy novel right now – and have a few short stories knocking about that I need to get out there. Confidence has always been an issue for me, which was why it was so nice to be part of this incredible community with 13Dark – I can’t thank everyone who backed the project enough. The editor, Joseph Sale, has always been a roaring river of support for me and my writing. So, I’m working on these issues, and trying to improve as I go.

My plans for the future are to send stuff off in a more planned way – I’ve been very guilty of giving up on a story after a single rejection.

So, nothing right now I’m afraid – however I can hopefully announce more soon! You can find me on twitter under the handle @samjamesparr, where I’ll post about anything new coming up.


Thanks so much to Samuel Parr for answering all my questions about his fantastic story!

 Connect with Sam




Issue #1 – Dead Voices

Issue #2 - Cursed Crossings

The next issue is in the works.