Writer Rich Douek Invites Readers to Travel the Horrifying Road of Bones

Plus Process Art from Artist Alex Cormack

Comics Features Rich Douek
Writer Rich Douek Invites Readers to Travel the Horrifying Road of Bones

Anyone with access to the news knows that horrors aren’t confined to the realm of monsters and ghosts and masked slashers—human beings are and always have been capable of great atrocities. Road of Bones opens in a Russian work camp in the year 1950, when a political joke cracked at a party can earn you 25 years hard labor—and getting caught stealing an extra piece of bread can get 10 years added to that sentence. But in the world writer Rich Douek and Alex Cormack have constructed, the horrors don’t begin and end with violent Russian prison guards—there is something lurking beyond the barbed wire, and escaping confinement might just send the protagonists of Road of Bones down darker paths.

Cormack has honed his horror skills on books like Sink, while Douek has contributed to IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line in addition to original works like Wailing Blade and Gutter Magic. With the first issue of Road of Bones on sale today from IDW Publishing, Paste invited Douek to share a personal essay on his inspirations for the Russian-set terror. You can find that below, along with process art from Cormack.


Road of Bones #1 Cover Art by Alex Cormack

Writer Rich Douek on Road of Bones:

I’m half Russian. Well, a quarter—my grandfather was born there, and my grandmother’s parents were born close enough to its border with Lithuania that nobody is 100% sure which country their tiny village was actually in. They were lucky enough never to have to endure the horrors of the gulag system, having fled the pogroms decades earlier. So, whatever Road of Bones is, it’s not the retelling of something that I have a direct connection to. And yet, it’s a story that once I started on, wouldn’t let me go.

I’ve been saying it a lot, that I think Road of Bones will surprise people, and the other day, someone asked me why. Honestly, it’s because it surprised me, as I was writing it. If you’d asked me a year ago if I wrote horror, if I even had any more than a passing interest in writing horror, I would have told you no. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it—I do—it’s just that, the picture in my head of what kind of writer I am never really included that. I was a sci-fi guy, a fantasist. I created big, weird worlds, and yes, sometimes those worlds contained horrific things—but horror? Just not me.

Road of Bones changed all of that, and one of the things that’s been on my mind as I created it is why—what is it about this story that grabbed me? And what I keep coming back to is that many times, unfortunately, the real world is more horrific and terrible than anything I could possibly conjure out of my own imagination.

Road of Bones is a piece of fiction—but there are many things in it that are based in the horrific reality of the Gulag. Start with the name: The Road of Bones is the colloquial name for the R504 Kolyma Highway, the only road connecting the farthest reaches of the Kolyma region to the rest of Russia. And the reason it has that name is there are people buried in it, literally. You see, when they were digging the road, they built it on permafrost, and it was decided it was more efficient to just bury the bodies of deceased workers under the road rather than dig new holes in the frozen ground—a harsh reality that we open the first few pages with.

Another reality is the situation of our main character, Roman. Here’s a man who made an off-color political joke at a party—something I know I’ve done, and that we all probably have at some point in our lives. The difference is, he was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for it, which again, I can’t stress enough, actually happened to many, many people under Stalin. And keep in mind, he was sentenced to 20 years in a place where the average life expectancy was a little over a years, so it was, in practical terms, a death sentence.

There are other parts of the story I can’t get into without spoiling that actually happened—or was at least rumored to have happened. What shocked me about it all was how the system seemed to bring out the worst in everyone, from its overseers and guards, to the prisoners themselves, who fought brutally over the scant resources available to them. It was a system that took in men, and churned out monsters—sometimes by design, as when the Soviet regime tacitly supported one prison gang over another; and sometimes by circumstance, as when a prisoner was forced to do the inhuman in order to survive.

And that was where the story took off for me. Survival in a system that is built to grind people into dust. What it would take, what lengths you or I or anyone would go to. And then I started to think about surviving in a place like Siberia. A frigid, harsh environment that, in its own way, seems to do everything it can to crush the life that takes root there.

What do you do when you have no food and no hope of finding any before you starve? We think that facts like “the human body can survive three days without water, and three weeks without food” as common knowledge—but if you haven’t had a formal, late-20th-century education, would you know that? Would you even believe it, when the cold wind is blowing, and your stomach is growling like a wolf?

And then, add the fact that you’ve been a victim of one of the most dehumanizing systems on the planet. That part of you, that is willing to do anything to survive—is it in your nature, or has it been nurtured and honed by the brutality of your fellows?

All of these fears, all of these notions are personified in a monster, the Domovik, but one of the questions running throughout the book is whether it’s a real, supernatural monster, or just the personification of something monstrous inside Roman himself.

All I can say is, read on.

Road of Bones #1 Process Art by Alex Cormack

Road of Bones #1 Process Art by Alex Cormack

Road of Bones #1 Process Art by Alex Cormack

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Road of Bones #1 Process Art by Alex Cormack

Road of Bones #1 Interior Art by Alex Cormack

Road of Bones #1 Interior Art by Alex Cormack

Road of Bones #1 Interior Art by Alex Cormack

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