It's one thing to mutter in frustration about the demonic nature of the internet. But writer Benjamin Percy brings that darkness to horrific life in his new novel "The Dark Net." It's his latest in a series of literary horror fantasies. But novels are just one of the writing universes Percy inhabits.
In front of a looming inflatable Incredible Hulk inside New Hope, Minn.'s Hot Comics store last month, he stood near a table, ready to sign the piles of comics he's written: Teen Titans, Green Arrow and James Bond. But mainly he was there to talk to the people he affectionately calls The Nerds.
"You made Teen Titans good again," a fan named Noah told him.
"I'm having a lot of fun with that," Percy responded. "Right now, we are in the middle of the Black Manta storyline." He launched into a string of backstories and tie-ins with other characters, the lifeblood of the true comic fan.
Percy is in his element when he's talking about the art and craft of comic book storytelling. He also chats about what going on in the comic books world — or, at least, as much as he can chat about without breaking non-disclosure agreements. All of his comic characters have long histories that go back decades. He has to remain true to that legacy, or face the wrath of fans. But he also has to keep the stories fresh.
"There's an elasticity to these characters, where people think they know them, but they have an expectation you will surprise them," he said.
Standing nearby at Hot Comics, comics artist Brent Schoonover watches Percy sign. They're developing a crime series together. Schoonover said he loves how Percy puts his characters through the wringer. Ultimately, though, he said it's Percy's work ethic that makes him special. He's got "a hard-working, blue-collar sensibility to him," Schoonover said.
"Whether it's writing or chopping wood, the job's gotta get done and you've gotta do it."
It's true: Ben Percy puts in a lot of work. He said he has to produce a novella's worth of story for every issue of each title.
Writing three comic books would be enough for most people. But not Ben Percy. He writes magazine pieces, now mainly for Men's Journal, after a decade at Esquire. He also writes screenplays. And that's before you even get to his novels. He's so genuinely excited about projects, he said, he can't say no.
"Maybe I have bitten off a little more than I can chew lately," he said. "You know I have been working nights. In addition to my standard eight hour writing day, I have tacked on sometimes four to five hours a night now, and this is seven days a week."
His new novel, "The Dark Net," tells a story of the seamy underbelly of the internet:
"With a trembling of your fingers, you can make things appear and disappear. You can help people. You can hurt people. You can buy people. The Internet is a landfill and a treasure trove."
The book grew out of a series of unrelated incidents, Percy said: In the space of a week, a while back, he and a handful of his family members experienced a series of hacker and malware attacks. He said it sent him into a panic because of all the research and projects in development he has on his own system. He is much more cautious now, and cracks jokes that readers will only correspond through stone tablets and carrier pigeons after reading "The Dark Net."
"We are turning to screens as though they were prosthetic cerebrum," he said. "And it is so easy to be stalked, to be pirated, to be erased, to be possessed because of this."
It's that possession which runs through his novel. But it's not human hackers trying to take over — it's demons rising from the underworld.
While Percy loves delving into the twists of a plot, he said his focus is on the characters: Working out backstories that might not even appear in the book, but make each character real — and, he grins, all the more scary.
"My aim is to terrify!"
If you go: Ben Percy reading
Percy will read from "The Dark Net" and talk with Booker Prize winning author and Macalester professor Marlon James about writing outside the literary fiction mainstream.
• Day: Tuesday, Aug. 8
• Time: 7 p.m.
• Where: Common Good Books, St. Paul