Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Why I Wrote a Horror Novel

This brief essay was first published, and was an Editor's Pick, at Open Salon. I think it serves as an excellent introduction to my four-book series, The Skillute Cycle.

Knock Knock: On a Long Winter's Night

My supernatural horror novel Knock Knock began a few years ago on a long and sleepless winter's night. We were visiting family in a small town in Washington State. We stayed with my husband's grandmother Karolee, a woman of infinite wit and practicality. Before we finally stopped gossiping and went to bed, she reminded us not to worry if we heard gunfire in the middle of the night.

"Those boys were shooting, one night, up the road."


"Oh," she said. "The heck if I know. I bet they didn't know why."

Late that night, while Karolee slept in her room at the other end of the house and my husband slept soundly beside me, I had insomnia. I could hear every settling wooden beam, each acquiescent grunt of plumbing, but especially the shrubbery that kept scratching the wall outside.

Beyond the bedroom window lay woods, the quiet road, the ink-black darkness I recalled from childhood visits to my aunts and uncles in rural Georgia. Those tales of rivalries, bodies found in abandoned wells, old friends who decided to murder one another, moonshine-running cousins pursued by demons through the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you drew a curtain indoors at night and looked out, the sky was so black you could see only your reflection in the window.

Alone with my thoughts, I wondered: What of this life in the deep, dark woods, where the male neighbors let off steam with beer and rifles and ammo? Where does a woman fit into this place, and what are her thoughts late at night? This wasn't a foreign world. It was my background and my husband's, one of the things we have in common. I could have married a guy with a pickup truck and a gun rack. Easily. And I wondered what my craving for life outside of that world would drive me to do.

I wrote all night. Characters came into being, and their desires intersected and became the first inkling of plot. Some of the characters were observed and some spoke for themselves, at first. It would take an effort to make them fit into one coherent narrative. Naturally, I observed all of these mechanics after the fact. That night I simply wrote everything that occurred to me.

Some weeks later, back in our Seattle apartment with cats and microbrews and takeout food, we watched a Thai film based on a centuries-old legend: A young bride is left at home by her beloved husband, who is recruited and sent into battle. The bride is inconsolable. She feels desperately lonely, living in a village of strangers with no allies, and she is pregnant. Her yearning is so great that it consumes her.

At last the husband is injured and is sent home. He returns to his wife, who has given birth. They live happily ever after--until their neighbors, who keep avoiding the young bride, tell the husband that his wife and baby are dead, that they died during childbirth, and he must look at his wife from outside their home to see what she really is.

If you like ghost stories, you see the appeal of this disturbing legend. It has served as the basis for dozens of stories and films.

I began incorporating a modern version of the tale into my story of longing and grief. Eventually I allowed it to change shape and meld with other elements of my novel. Yet the tale's illusions and the pernicious spirit that will not let go of what it desires, even in death, informed every aspect of Knock Knock. The book follows several women as they try to invent satisfying adult lives, despite the neglect and violence in their childhood and in the world around them.

For a long time I kept trying to marry this story to an odd fact about the place where my husband grew up. For decades no female children were born there, all the women were old or had married into the families on the all-male road. I did eventually build this into Knock Knock but not to the extent I originally intended.

Many drafts have taken shape and have been built up, pared down, and then reshaped. Many new and creepy ideas have found their way to this town that was, in early drafts, called Baldwin. It is now Skillute, Washington: a dying forest, and home to the discontented women of Knock Knock.


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