This one comes from Seattle, via a terrific tutor who went the extra yard for her student . . .
This one comes from Seattle, via a terrific tutor who went the extra yard for her student . . .
Pulling the plug.
I’ll be honest, this is something I struggle with at times. The time-suck of the endless scroll, the dopamine hit we get from a like or a click. The internet experience can be like pulling on a crack pipe. It’s so easy for us to lose our way in the web of social media, lose our grounding in the natural world.
So today I share this image from the Japanese translation of Nightmareland from my Scary Tales series. I’d love to give credit to the illustrator, but I honestly can’t make head or tails of this language.
Carry on. And good luck to you, dear reader, in your efforts to unplug, echoing that idealistic 60s concept of tune in (to your deeper self, at the bottom where there is no “self”), turn on (to the natural, spiritual world), drop out (unplug from addictive, distractive social media).
Here we go . . .
It’s a mystery: Your letter is dated 9/30/16 but the envelope is postmarked 28 NOV 2016.
Did it take you that long to find a stamp?
Thanks for your letter. I’m always glad to hear from a “Scary Tales” fan.
I think you are right about clowns. There’s something inherently frightening about clowns. It’s the creepy makeup, right? The big feet? Just the insanity of anyone who’d dress up like that? The famous horror writer, Stephen King, famously conjured a truly scary clown character in his classic book for adults, It. Maybe there’s room for one for somewhat younger readers. I’ll think about it. Thanks for the (free) tip. Btw, if I do write the book, I’m not sharing the money, Jasmina!
To date, I’ve written six books in the “Scary Tales” series. I don’t know if there will be more or not; it’s up to the book-buying public, to be honest with you. I am planning a new thriller/scary story for middle grade readers, where I take the fear to a new level. With “Scary Tales,” I always had to hold back. With this one, I’m hoping to raise it a couple of notches. Tentative title: Blood Mountain.
Can you handle it?
Have a great holiday and a happy new year!
One mission of this blog is to pull back the curtain to share, cough-cough, some insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).
Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.
Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.
That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.
Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:
Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:
The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.
A few paragraphs down:
DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.
What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.
More dangerous, too.
The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.
That was their first mistake.
Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.
Character meets Setting:
The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.
STAY AWAY, GAWK, STAY AWAY!
My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest. I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.
But where was the horror in that?
Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.
That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping from inside the egg. They watch in awe as the creature hatches.
“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.
“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”
“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”
At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.
“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”
And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.
At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.
If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.
I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.
I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.
To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.
With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.
A thought troubled her mind.
Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. She had sensed them, smelled them.
So she hid, as she always did.
She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the stormy sky — a new question formed in her skull.
Was the egg stolen?
Had it been taken . . . by the Others?
Those faces in the woods?
She had glimpsed them.
Their ugly, round eyes.
Their skin like smooth stones.
New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.
Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.
Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.
Squilch, squilch, squilch.
Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.
An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.
Of the door opening, of her entering.
“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.
The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.
The swamp monster stepped into the house.
I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.
Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.
“The writer whose words are going to be read by children
has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact
that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough
than many people realize, and they have an openness
and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts
which many adults have lost.”
— Madeleine L’Engle
Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of disturbing readers.
Shaking them up.
In fact, I believe that many readers, consciously or unconsciously, crave the experience.
When I think about personal growth — perhaps in viewing my own three children — I imagine that it can be characterized by periods of equilibrium, followed by passages of disequilibrium, followed (hopefully) by a new, higher level of equilibrium.
Comfort, discomfort, growth.
I came to understand some of this through my experience writing my first “horror” series, Scary Tales, for young readers. I placed horror in quotes because, well, it’s not that scary; nobody gets hurt, everything turns out okay in the end. Every time. But, sure, there are some clammy palpitations along the way.
I often visit schools and the response to “scary” in grades 3-5, particularly, is wildly enthusiastic. Kids love this creepy stuff with its twisting plots, and they have long before I ever entered the scene. But I’ve also learned that there is a lot of fear out there — from adults. The redoubtable gatekeepers. A question I’ll hear at Book Festivals: “Will this book give my child nightmares?”
Of course, I don’t know the answer to that. How should I respond?
Okay, I’m a parent. I get it, mostly. We don’t want our kids to wake up screaming, scared out of their minds. And to that end, we don’t want to irresponsibly expose them to content that might be developmentally inappropriate. Well, a caveat there: Most people have no problem, bizarrely, with “inappropriate” content if it’s on TV or a movie. Even something as cherished as the Harry Potter books and movies — where characters are murdered, and the stories get continually darker as agents of pure evil plot death and destruction. Everybody is fine with that! But a story about a kid trapped in a cave with bats? Or unfriendly snowmen guarding a castle? Or a swamp monster?
Those things might prove . . . upsetting.
And here’s the thing: Maybe we like scary stories exactly because of that disturbance. On some deep level, maybe even unconsciously, we want to be disturbed. Because we know that it is necessary to our growth.
What does the reader learn, after losing her balance, when she discovers, Whew, I’m actually okay. I survived this.
Might there be value in that discovery?
I recently got a letter from an 8th-grade reader who was disturbed by a scene in my middle-grade novel, Bystander, where a boy, Eric, gets beaten up. It upset his sense of fairness. In the letter-writer’s mind, “Eric was being very friendly,” and he “didn’t deserve to get beat up.”
The scene bothered this reader. It shook him up a little. A part of him preferred that it didn’t exist at all.
And I think, well, good. It was supposed to do that. It was designed to make you feel something. These are the troubling scenes we remember our entire lives.
Now I’m not talking about pure shock, artlessly rendered. The head lopped off and bouncing, boing-boing-boing, down the carpeted staircase. Though, I guess, that might have value too. I’m talking about the fiendish clown in Stephen King’s It. Or the heartbreaking moment of when Travis is forced to shoot his rabid dog in Old Yeller. The moments that give us dis-ease.
I think that’s one of the things that good books can do for us. They disturb our tranquility a little bit. Which is also why, an aside, this entire notion of eliminating “trigger books” in the college curriculum is so misguided. The notion is that some people might be upset if they encounter certain kinds of things, or triggers, in assigned books: a mother with cancer, a rape, social prejudice, world hunger, whatever their personal trigger might be. Some believe that students should be warned about these triggers, in the hope of avoiding them.
We wouldn’t want anyone to be upset.
And I think: Good luck with that.
And also: Isn’t that kind of the point?
When I’m not writing Scary Tales, which is most of the time, I tend to write realistic fiction. My books have included childhood cancer, fistfights, bullying, suicide, lost pets, and car accidents. Scary stuff, life.
A book, of course, is a safe way for a child or adult to address different fears. A book can be mastered. A book can be closed. It can, simply, not be read at all. Or put aside to be read another day when the reader feels prepared. And then, on that day, guess what? The reader miraculously survives. Calm is restored.
“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.”
— Neil Gaiman