What was the seed for this story?
I don’t like zombies, perhaps because they scare the bejeezus out of me and have ever since I was a little girl. So this is the first zombie story I’ve ever written and it will probably be the last. You’ll also notice that Avery is not a classic brain-eating zombie. He’s just undead and wishing he weren’t. The impetus for this story was, in some sense, a deal with the devil. Deb Noyes at Candlewick contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to contribute a story for her anthology of zombie stories, The Restless Dead. I would not have considered it, but the pay was very good, and the list of other authors was impressive. So I agreed to contribute, and “Honey” is the result. I should clarify that the devil in this deal is not Deb. It’s the fat check.
I had to mull over ideas for a long time before I settled on one I liked. I had just read an article about the curative properties of raw honey, and particularly its ability to aid in the healing of wounds. So that was probably the actual seed. It’s a real thing, by the way. Raw honey is legendary for its ability to cure stubborn wounds, and now there’s scientific evidence to support that folk remedy.
Was Hester always going to be the instrument of Avery’s passing or did you envision other scenarios?
I don’t recall seriously considering any endings except the one in which Hester does the honors. Sometimes a story seems to write itself, and the author doesn’t always know where it’s coming from. This one fits that pattern. One thing I do recall clearly about it is that it felt almost like automatic writing, the supernatural kind. My goal with any ending is to make it seem both surprising and inevitable. And I think “Honey” achieves that.
What was the most difficult thing to get right in “Honey”?
Some stories are a royal pain to write—like slugging your way through a quagmire. Others almost write themselves. As mentioned, “Honey” falls into the latter category. It was a pure pleasure to write. I enjoyed researching the period details, and the history and culture of the Romani people. (Petrus Ursari is Romani, more commonly known as gypsy.) Because of its history, the southern U.S. is one of the most fertile settings for horror, and I wanted to set the story there, but I’m not from the south. I needed a region where the dialect would be reasonably easy for a westerner with a good ear to reproduce. So I decided to set the story in Tennessee. Then, as it happened, someone very like Hester Channing took control of my writing faculties when it was time to produce the actual words. Seriously, it felt like that. Nothing about it was difficult.
Why does the mother still purchase eggs and peaches from Mr. Ursari? (I would have thought she would never want to interact with him again.)
Keep in mind that neither of Hester’s parents are particularly sane even before the events described in the story. Her father has spent time in the World War I equivalent of a MASH unit, a sure recipe for PTSD. Her mother has never forgiven him for leaving her to go and help strangers when she needed him at home. And neither of them has fully recovered from the death of their oldest child, which happened while Hester’s father was away in the war. So there’s all this emotional tension from the outset. Then this horrible thing with Avery and Hester happens, and as the story unfolds both parents react in ways that are increasingly off kilter. Hester is the only normal one in the story, and she uses a lot of energy trying to reconcile her parents’ actions with what most people would do under the circumstances. She can’t, of course, because they are getting weirder and weirder. At the end of the story, we see in them almost a psychotic break. They can’t accept what has happened, especially the parts they played in it. Their reaction is to lie to the coroner about it and never speak of it again. In other words, to pretend that it never happened, that Avery died an ordinary death from infection—unfortunate, but nobody’s fault. That would also involve pretending that nothing has changed between them and Mr. Ursari.
What else would you like readers to know about “Honey in the Wound”?
I’m grateful to Deb Noyes for making this story happen, and to the International Horror Guild for recognizing it. Even so, I doubt I’ll ever write another zombie story. This one really gives me the creeps.
Which stories of quiet horror still stick with you?
I think Ray Bradbury was one of the great masters of quiet horror. “Heavy Set” and “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar” are two of my favorites. If you’re familiar with “The Emissary,” you may have noticed my homage in the scene where Hester waits in her dark bedroom, listening as Avery drags himself up the stairs.
Any news or projects you want to tell us about?
For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a non-fiction YA book tentatively entitled The Horror of Money. It’s slow going, partly because I find nonfiction more difficult than fiction, and because I’m not currently living in a way that allows me to spend hours each day writing. But also because to write meaningfully about money, you have to write about how to live a satisfying life. Complicated. Someone suggested that I try undergoing a Peruvian Quechua despacho ceremony to free myself up and maybe go a little faster. “Despacho” comes from the Spanish word for a letter or missive. The ceremony involves a shaman and various unusual materials. The idea is to send a request to the gods. So that’s next up on my agenda. A first-hand taste of shamanism. What horror writer wouldn’t jump at the chance? Plus, who knows, a story might come out of it.
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