This story is so beautifully languorous, while also studded with constant, subtle dread. It feels like it has layers and layers of menace worked into it, like it’s drawing on a myriad different anxieties. What were some of the inspirations that went into this story?
I love extremely atmospheric horror—movies like It Follows or The Witch or The Exorcist. But I also loved the idea of these corny teenagers watching The Witch or Castle Rock and deciding to go demonic. I tried to retroactively figure out how their cult might work, if those were their reference points.
I always adored the Black Hole comics, and basically all of Charles Burns’ artwork. The slithery, eerie tone of his work was a huge influence for the feel of the demon. I wrote this the fall after I went to Clarion, which is probably why San Diego’s weird Martian trees and alien-ish landscape found their way into the story. And finally, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that reading my Clarion peers’ skin-crawling horror stories made me want to write one of my own.
There were times when it felt to me like the densest knot of horror in the story was in the act of growing up, of breaking free of your prepubescent prison, but also losing the wild vigor of childhood for a duller adult existence. At other times, I felt teenagehood was the real horror—being trapped in a mutating, dissatisfied, immature body. Which do you think it is—where does the heart of fear, as it were, lie in this story?
Being a teenager, absolutely! Mary Karr has a great quote about childhood—essentially, of course it’s terrifying. You’re three feet tall, completely broke, and people just pick you up and move around whenever they want. John Mulaney has a similar bit (bit.ly/2Epvz1W), but there should be a corresponding quote about becoming a teenager.
The moment that felt most significant to me was the ritual in the woods, when the power—whatever it is—consciously chooses to skip over Parveen. What was the thought behind her being so specifically excluded at that moment?
I wrote a version of this story where “the power” includes Parveen, and some very strange things happen to her. But it felt too tidy. So much of this story is about the tension between alienation and belonging—there are literal cults, it couldn’t be any more heavy-handed!
And Parveen as a teenager is someone who never quite gets how to be vulnerable, or what the point of being vulnerable is in the first place. It felt more fitting, although maybe sadder, for her to get left behind.
What’s next for Senaa Ahmad? Any projects on the horizon we should be excited about?
Over the past five years, I’ve written a bundle of speculative stories about characters who feel out of place in their own lives. I’ve been revising these for a collection, including this story. You’ll see another one in PRISM International in the Fall or Winter issue.
Last year, I started a new collection of alternate histories. They’ll probably carve it on my tombstone: “Working on a collection of short stories.”
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