Children, newborns in specific, are often the focal points of horror and “Things Boys Do” hits that sweet spot between terror and parental doubt. What inspired this dark, visceral tale?
I am not a parent, but it seems to me like such a terrifying endeavour—especially at the beginning. Handling this new creature that’s all soft and fragile, incapable of communicating wants, and totally dependent on you. They’re almost otherworldly. Maybe parenting is inherently a horror story?
The stories I love to read straddle the line between psychological horror and the supernatural. Shirley Jackson, of course, is fantastic at this. I think of Laura van den Berg and Amelia Gray, too. So, once I started with the fairly familiar premise of schoolboys doing evil together, I knew their haunting would have to be in the form of what they hunted. And what is more unsettling than having your guilt reflected back to you in the very body you’ve sworn to protect and provide for? The terror is the uncertainty. Are they terrible fathers, or is this an embodiment of the past come calling?
The story is short, sweet, and to the point, the scenes drawing blood not with blades, but with the weight of a millstone grinding away at life, hope, and sanity. I appreciated not only the slow reveal, but how the supernatural horror is itself the child of the very real terror of the bullied. What is it about such stories that make them so appealing to readers? Do you think it is the satisfaction of karma, or some darker impulse that hides within us?
While I can’t speak for other readers, I can turn to my love of murder mystery television. What becomes apparent in this genre is that the past always returns to get its due—it might not always win, but it will wait, bide its time till you’ve forgotten, till you’re living your version of a charmed life, then it will remind you. I have been interested in, and writing about, karma and fate, so the meeting of obsessions came through in this story.
Unlike most of reality, in these shows, the mysteries are solved, the bad guy is caught, the motives are laid bare. So, yes, it could be the satisfaction of karma, of questions being answered. On the other hand, though, is the compelling nature of a punishment meted out, not as one big blow—which might be easier to bear, but as a slow insidious defamiliarization of daily life. Perhaps more than a darker impulse, it is a deeper fear that resonates? That the things we know and love can morph to a source of fear?
The fathers are not the only victims of Adebayo John. The women also fall prey to the same darkness, from the wives, to Maami, to the nameless teen mother cast aside by the third man as a casual afterthought. This attention to detail adds a layer of nuance and complexity to the story, touching on issues of reproductive rights, generational conflict, maternal health, and mental health. Are you consciously aware of the threads you weave into your writing, or do you find yourself pleasantly surprised by the finished story?
I hardly ever think about “issues” when writing. They might become apparent in the process, but the story always comes first. And especially not this one, which I wrote in my first week at the Clarion workshop where I was too frazzled to do much planning. For the men to fully experience the extent of their doubt and fear and guilt, it was important they be alone with their sons, unable to share, or foist, these concerns with/on the women figures in their lives who typically take on primary care. A fellow workshop participant pointed out how this might also be about the fear men have when faced with the ineptitude to care for their own babies—a fear new mothers are expected to stamp down and power through. I do love coming to an understanding of a writing choice in hindsight: power of the subconscious.
In 2019 you were awarded the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. What did such an opportunity mean to you as a writer?
It meant that I could attend the wonderfully intense Clarion Workshop, like Octavia Butler did, where I learned from so many wonderful writers—participants and instructors. Octavia Butler wrote overlooked characters who managed to enact radical change, and as a black woman, Butler’s legacy inspires me to keep writing stories that defy, not just by their content, but by the mere fact of their existence.
Writing can take a lot out of a body. What do you do to recharge? How do you take time for yourself?
Murder mysteries and puzzles. I love reading graphic novels, too. I work at a letterpress once a week, and that physical work of type-setting and tactile design reminds my body that it is more than an extension of my mind. Being in the company of friends, eating, doing nothing, is the ultimate refreshment.
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