The family is introduced to us with wonderful details about the characters, their relationships, and the time period. Could you tell us a little more about how you came to create these particular people, and why you chose this particular place and period?
One of my favorite things about Stephen King is how so many of his stories are love letters to a time and place. Sure, there’s a plot, and somebody’s probably gonna get dismembered—but really, I’m there to soak up what it was like to live in Maine in the 1950s. For this story, I wanted to try to create that same sink-into-the-setting effect, and chose late-’70s/early-’80s suburbia in order to stick close enough to my own childhood to hopefully get details right. Who could forget those popcorn-textured walls, or throwing up in the backward-facing seat of a station wagon?
As for the people, some of the details are drawn from my own family. For instance, the mom’s career was inspired in part by my Aunt Jeanne, who was one of the first female salespeople hired by IBM and Hewlett-Packard, with all the battles that entailed. And while Denny owes a lot to characters like Danny from The Shining or Jimmy from 1989’s The Wizard, he was also inspired in part by my own younger brother. Though a very different person, my brother was a famously reticent child by the standards of our exceptionally loud family. In the first draft of the story, I actually included an anecdote my mom loves to relate, about how when my brother was maybe four years old, she got exasperated by his silence and finally demanded, “Why don’t you ever talk?!” To which he calmly replied, “Because I have nothing to say.”
The main relationship might be that Jeremy, essentially, struggles to bridge the gap that is always there between he and Denny. The story takes an ominous shift in tone about two-thirds in, and the line, “I fell asleep with Denny watching me,” is chilling. How carefully did you go about keeping the tension just right between them as the story progressed?
I knew I needed a steady drumbeat of tense moments in order to build toward the ending, but I also wanted to make sure the boys’ relationship stayed strong. Denny isn’t the monster in this story, but he is the mystery—the only person who intuitively understands what’s going on. Thus the narrator’s unease at not understanding the supernatural elements is thematically bound up in his frustration at not understanding his brother, with each driving the other.
. . . or that’s what I would say, if I were actually that smooth. In reality, I just kind of winged it, and my thought process in the moment was probably more like, “Ooh jeez, what if he’s watching him sleep?! Haha yes, spooky!!!”
I also love how mysterious the actual “horror” of the story is. It’s a hell of a feat to maintain all the energy within these characters so we feel a palpable sense of loss, mixed with a weird beauty and even hope. Not a question as such, but I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
I almost didn’t submit this piece to Nightmare, because I was afraid it wasn’t dark enough!
I hadn’t written a short story in eight years, and I’d never attempted horror before, but I’d been reading a lot of short horror and been deeply inspired—particularly by Nathan Ballingrud, for the way he isn’t afraid to go full-on fantastical, and Cassandra Khaw, for the way they make writing short horror seem like so much fun. So one Saturday I put down the book I was reading and said, “I wonder if I could do this.” I had nothing to work with, idea-wise—it was literally just “two kids find something creepy,” which is so cliché that Clarkesworld lists it on their “do not send” list. The kind of premise that would have made a forgettable episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?
I sat down and wrote the first few lines . . . and just couldn’t stop. I wrote the entire story in one day-long session, which never happens to me. I’m somebody who needs to outline, to have a firm sense of where I’m going, but in this case, the mood was the story. When I finally finished, all shaky and exhausted, I still wasn’t sure I’d written horror. But I knew I loved the feeling of being in that place and time, with that family.
One of the things I enjoy about horror as opposed to fantasy (which I also love) is that it’s more accepting of the unexplained. I enjoy principled magic systems and well-detailed worlds as much as the next nerd, but I also think there’s something really fun about leaving the curtain in place, hinting at a mystery instead of revealing it completely. If fantasy is the joy of living in a new place, horror is the thrill of glimpsing it on the horizon.
I also think a lot of the story’s energy comes from recognizing ourselves in the narrator’s internal conflict. He loves Denny, while also resenting the inconvenience he poses. I think we all have to wrestle sometimes with the knowledge that we’re not as selfless as our loved ones deserve, and that sense of guilt adds to the story’s tension. And while I like the idea that maybe Denny’s finally found his perfect community with his animals, for me the real sense of hope comes from Charlotte. We may be petty and mean, but it’s never too late to choose love.
Finally, what else are you working on at the moment, and can we look forward to seeing other work from you?
The big thing for me at the moment is that my first YA romance novel, Darkhearts, comes out in 2023! Early on in the pandemic, I was desperate to work on something upbeat, so I ended up writing a funny queer teen romance about falling in love with the guy who stole your shot at pop stardom. It was a huge departure for me—my previous novels, Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine, were both adult fantasy about an atheist detective working for the death goddess—but it turned out to be deeply satisfying, and let me make all the pop culture jokes I never knew I wanted!
In the short story realm, I’ve got a cosmic horror piece about a creepy guitar store coming out any day now in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And last but not least, I just recently sold another story to Nightmare! That one—“To Cheer as They Leave You Behind”—is about a new mother who discovers she can time travel by eating her baby’s placenta, and I hope you’ll check it out when it arrives!
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