A few months before The Fifth Petal came out, my agent remarked that she hadn’t been able to read the manuscript before bed because of the nightmares it invariably provoked.
Her statement shocked me, as I didn’t consider it a very scary book. It was definitely dark, but all my novels are dark. Part history, part mystery, each has been set in Salem, MA, and there’s no way the dark history of place hasn’t informed every narrative. But my home city doesn’t scare me, rather it takes on a cautionary role in each story, a dark reminder of the errors in judgement we humans often make as well as the consequences of our mistakes.
Along with being shocked by her statement, I was insulted. “If I’d wanted to scare you, I wouldn’t have written that book,” I declared, knowing that nothing I’d yet set down on the page could match the dark recesses of fear I believed I could conjure at will. Unable to let it go, I went on to brag: “If I let my imagination run wild, I could scare the hell out of you.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. I could feel her smiling as she voiced the challenge that would inspire my next book. “Do it!”
My mother always warned me not to temp the imps. To that sage advice, I’ll add a bit of my own. “Don’t temp your agent.”
The challenge she threw down seemed easy enough at the time. It was Halloween of 2016. I was confident I understood the world, as well as the deepest fears most of us harbored. I knew myself, too, knew what I was most afraid of and was pretty sure I could express it.
But that was then.
Two years later, our world has changed so radically I sometimes wonder if I’m living inside a nightmare. And with it, my fears have changed just as much, morphing into something far darker than I ever imagined.
The first draft of my WIP started simply enough. The story was initially about fear of the dark, a universal taken to the extreme in a tale of isolation and disillusionment. But as my own disillusionment with society grew, that once simple idea became far darker. Instead of a universal genre story, it became far more personal. I realized that what I was writing about was the darkness inside myself.
Of course, that was where the narrative was always meant to go. I just didn’t know it when I started. I think our most poignant horror stories express the darkness inside all of us. But, to me, as a writer at this particular moment in history, I was having trouble going there. Everyday life was tough enough. More darkness was not something I craved.
Better angels and continuing efforts at good deeds aside, during these last few years, there has been something else at work here, something fundamental changing in me. I have begun to see hatred around every corner, and a new kind of anger has been building, one inspired by fears I didn’t know I had. The monster outside has been feeding the monster inside, one that must have always been hiding there but was now growing stronger as it fed.
So my story shifted as stories often do. But, opposite to what you might expect, it didn’t become more scary but not scary enough. The problem wasn’t with the monster itself, which was the most frightening creature I’d ever imagined. The problem was me. I didn’t want to wrestle that monster, didn’t even want to acknowledge it. Because, as I wrote more and more pages, I realized that the monster growing inside me was hate. The realization that I could harbor such a creature was the last thing I wanted to face. It was not only terrifying, it was shameful. I didn’t want to let myself go deep enough to encounter it.
But here’s the truth. If you can’t go deep, you can’t write well. And you certainly can’t write scary. What if you decide you have to, that the story you’re compelled to write at this moment in history cannot be the happily ever after of fairy tales? What happens then? Should you awaken the monster? Should you give it a voice? And if so, should you listen to what it reveals?
The answer for me is yes, though I haven’t yet accomplished my goal. If I’m being totally honest, I’m not positive I’m yet good enough at my craft to make my story work, but I have to try. Not because my agent challenged me, but because the story I want to tell reflects the world we now inhabit. Because facing our demons, and taming them, is more important than ever.
Since today is Halloween, it seems appropriate to ask about your fears. What novels, films, or nightly newscasts awaken the monster inside you? Have you ever tried to give that monster a voice? And, if so, what did it tell you?