Tag Archive for Scary Tales Swamp Monster

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #266: All About Monsters

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Sam writes . . .

 

Dear Mr. Preller,

HI! My name is Sam. I am in 4th grade. I was wondering if I could interview you for a school research project. my topic is monsters. I can send the questions by email if it is convenient for you.
 
Sincerely,
Sam
 
And the next day . . .
 

Hi Mr.Preller! These are the interview questions.

 
 1) what is the most common monster?
 
 2) what are common monster traits?
 
 3) why are monsters feared?
 
 4) how are most monsters created?
 
 5) how do your monsters act?
 
 6) how did you create your monsters?
 
Thanks for making the time to do this!
 
sincerely,
Sam
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream.”

 
I replied . . . 
 –
Sam,
– 
You should know that I don’t know any monsters personally — and I mean, monster-monsters, not monstrous people or events — we all c8ef36cf51ff34e2a2e8e1bbed323631have a little monster inside us, I believe — so I’m not sure I have the exact brand of expertise you seek. For my “Scary Tales” series, for example, I usually make up “monsters” that I imagine might frighten a reader, or frighten me, though I have yet to write a story about a monster-dentist. Talk about scary! I could call it, THE ROOT CANAL! Or, I don’t know, THE BRACES TIGHTEN!
 –
(I never had braces, but the idea terrifies me.)
 –
Another scary title for a monster story might be, oh, THE CONGRESSMAN!
 
Yikes, horrifying. 
 –
So I guess in that sense monsters can come in all shapes and sizes. Not necessarily swamp monsters or werewolves or zombies.
 –
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll.”

 
Anyway, that said, let me try to answer your questions, Sam.
 
1. The most common monster? The one under your bed.
 
2. Common traits? They like to hide in dark places.
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Swamp Monster."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Swamp Monster.”

3. Monsters are feared because they are . . . other. Different. Not us. But the reverse can also be true. In my book Swamp Monster, the creature from the swamp, the so-called “monster,” simply wants her baby back. An egg has been stolen from her. She’s a loving mother. So I ask you, as I did in the book, who is really the monster in that story? I guess it depends on your point of view.

 –
4. Monsters are created from the dark places in our imaginations. Once they are dreamed up, they are free to go about as they please. There’s no putting the toothpaste back into the tube, so to speak.
 –
5. Like every other character in a book or story, monsters want something. The question is always: What does this character want? In The One-Eyed Doll, the “monster” — I use quotes here, because I’m not always comfortable labeling these creations as monsters — wants to be a real girl. Not a monstrous desire at all. But of course, in order one_eyed_dollesec01to get what she desires . . . well, that’s the scary part. The wanting can be a sort of disease, a sickness that allows you to do horrible things. Greed is the kind of disease that can turn ordinary people into monsters. They want what they want. When I think of monstrous people in our world, the common characteristic is a lack of empathy. They don’t care about anyone else but themselves. Selfish, greedy. They don’t care who they hurt as long as they get what they want. Once you begin to think about how someone else might feel . . . once you walk around in someone else’s shoes, see life from their point of view . . . that’s when you lose your ability to be a monster.
(These are complicated thoughts, Sam, and I’m not sure I’m articulating them well, but maybe worth a conversation with a teacher or parent or some friends. There are so many types of monsters in the world, it’s hard to keep them sorted out. Can you be a bully if you truly, deeply think about how your target feels? Can we rip the immigrant father away from his children if we truly succeed in imagining their hearts and minds? Can we pollute a river if we care about our planet and the people who live on it?)
– 
To me, a monster is almost always deeply egocentric, unable to think of anyone else’s feelings but his/her own.
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Nightmareland."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Nightmareland.”

 
6. How do I create them? The glib answer is that, as a writer, my job is to make things up. And I do that piece by piece, characteristic by characteristic. When I wrote a book about bullying, Bystander, the character who was the “monster” in that story — a boy who did 9780312547967monstrous things — I made sure that he was attractive in many respects. A good-looking kid. A smooth talker. Nice smile. That’s what made him especially dangerous. He didn’t appear, at first, as a monster. Quite the opposite. Sometimes the scariest kid in class is four feet tall and wears blonde pigtails and has a terrific smile. And sometimes the monster might be childhood illness, as in my book Six Innings. Or a mother’s cancer in The Courage Test. Not something I made up, but recognized as a actual terror in the real world. But again, let’s get back to traditional monsters, and what the monster wants. In Good Night, Zombie, the monsters are zombies. They aren’t complicated. They just want to eat. Unfortunately, we’re on the menu!
 –
Thanks for your questions.
 
I’m curious. What are you going to do with them? 
 
My best, 
 
James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #214: Another Happy Contest Winner!

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This letter came from a super mom who entered a contest for a free book giveaway. She accompanied it with a nice letter so I figured I’d share our exchange.

Hello! I’d like to enter the contest for book#6 for my son Aidan! He’s been waiting so long for this book to be published! Your Scary Tales series are his very favorite books to read, he happened to find them at the library and devoured them all immediately. I’ve tried to find similar books for him,  since he’s usually not very enthused about nightly reading time,  but so far nothing had come close to grabbing his attention as your books. He would be so excited to win your signed, newest book! But either way he’s going to read it,  and love it I’m sure! Thanks for entertaining so many children, I hope you never stop!
Sincerely,
 –
April
I replied:
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES #6: SWAMP MONSTER.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES #6: SWAMP MONSTER.

Thanks so much for your kind letter. As a parent, I know how it feels when I see my children connect with a series or an author. My daughter, Maggie, has never been a huge reader — and yes, that’s been frustrating for me as you might imagine. But now, suddenly, she’s reading anything by Jodi Picoult. It’s not my taste, but you won’t hear me complaining. I think one of the tricky parts about being a parent, or even a teacher, is to honor every reader’s individual taste. No judgment, just support. Because we have to trust in the process, we trust that one good book leads to another. Which is in no way to imply that my “Scary Tales” are not good books — I actually think they are! — just that maybe I’ve grown a bit sensitive about the horror genre in general. Now I know what Stephen King has been complaining about all these years. “Scary” doesn’t get a lot of respect, and many people think they know what it is without even reading the books.

Anyway, I digress. I’ve signed the book for Aidan and stuffed it into an envelope. I hope to get to the post office tomorrow.

My best to you and your family,

James Preller

 

 

Setting, Character, Plot: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER

 

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).

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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.

But anyway!

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:

lrg_bald_cypress_swampSpanish Moss

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mangrove-roots-4rootsofswampthingg

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Little monsters.

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.

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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.