Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

So, Plaguewalker has been available in three formats–paperback, Nook and Kindle–for several days now. The comments I’ve been getting (yes, from friends and family, but also total strangers) are that the book is “addictive,” “dark,” “mesmerizing,” “dark,” “amazing,” “dark,” “extremely well-written” and, you guessed it, “dark.”

First, for those who have read it or are reading it now, thanks. I worked hard on it and am happy with the way it turned out, darkness and all.

Actually, especially the darkness.

Looking at pop culture obsessions at the moment, I don’t think Plaguewalker is particularly dark. Seriously, between the sadistic, titillating violence of The Millennium Trilogy (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books and movies), all the incest and beheadings in Game of Thrones, zombies and vampires running amok, and kids killing each other for sport in The Hunger Games, my little book about death isn’t exactly ground-breakingly gruesome.

I do think, however, that people may perceive Plaguewalker to be darker because it is a first person narrative. There is no buffer between the reader and Marcus. And Marcus is not a man to mince words. He is not a sadist or even a bully, but I think his straightforward view of the world may disturb readers more because he is so matter-of-fact about it.

I can’t help it. That’s the story Marcus told me in my head, and the way it had to be told.

From the moment I started to write Plaguewalker, it was a first person narrative. I can take you back to that moment, in fact.

But first, a little backstory. I had been wanting for a few years to write something about medieval German executioners. It’s a fascinating slice of cultural history that I had first learned about while visiting an exhibit in the museum at Burghausen, my favorite castle in Bavaria. The exhibit was all about crime and punishment in medieval times. Nasty stuff. But I was drawn to the recurring images of the executioner and his place in society. He was considered necessary, but reviled. He inspired fear and even terror, but could expect an ugly death at the hands of a mob if he failed to perform his duties to their satisfaction. He was shunned by the rest of society–unless someone needed a cure for dandruff or a lock of hair from a hanged man to ward off evil, in which case he was sought out, quietly. Torturer, healer, killer, herbalist, dispenser of justice…heady stuff.

But for nearly a decade, I couldn’t figure out how to approach the story.

One night, shortly after moving back to the States from Russia, still unpacking in my new apartment in a new town in a new state, just starting grad school and adjusting to a new career path, I happened to have the tv on when a pro-wrestling show came on.

As a child, I’d stayed up late to watch a wrestling show aired from Madison Square Garden, mostly because my older brother thought it was cool and therefore it was cool and I wanted to be cool by watching it. I remember watching The Iron Sheik and the Crazy Samoans and Sgt. Slaughter, enthralled by their feats of strength as much as the histrionic storylines.

So, sitting there in Madison, Wisconsin, not knowing a soul for a thousand miles in any direction, with only my two dogs for company, surrounded by boxes and still experiencing some degree of culture shock after leaving Russia and my job there, I found myself watching the action in the squared circle again.

It was even more ridiculous than I’d remembered, the posturing, the pulled punches, the lycra and the hyperbole.

Then the arena darkened and the announcer warned everyone The Undertaker was in the house. Cue lights, smoke machine, sinister organ music.

And there he came, striding toward the squared circle. A big man, but not fat or ridiculously bulky like some of them. No threats, no macho tagline. Just a grimace and dead stare.

The crowd went wild as The Undertaker prepared to dispatch his trembling victim.

And I thought, wow. That’s what it must have been like when der Scharfrichter approached the Rabenstein for an execution. People cheering Death on, as long as he wasn’t looking in their direction.

And, while I know The Undertaker was a character, I wondered what he was thinking–what a Scharfrichter might have been thinking–as the crowd around him hooted and hollered and applauded his taking of a life, even though they were, at the same moment, terrified of him.

That’s when I heard the voice in my head.

I was born of the Devil. That is what they said.

Yes, the opening lines of Plaguewalker. There it was. I heard them in a low, flat voice with a growl to it. Not a growl of menace so much as the roughness of a voice not often used. The voice of a man who was not particularly talkative.

That was how writing Plaguewalker began for me. My executioner had no name back then; he was just a voice in my head that grew out of those first words. And I knew from the moment I heard him that the story had to be told in his voice.

I wasn’t interested in what the crowd thought of him, in recasting the third-person accounts I’d read in the book I’d bought at Burghausen about German executioners. Plaguewalker was going to be his story, and he was going to be the one to tell it.

I had my character–now I needed the setting, the plot. That was easy, once Marcus started talking. Immediately I saw landscapes in my head–cold snow, dead winter light, black executioner’s cloak. A stark world almost devoid of color or nuance. Beside the exhibit on crime and punishment at Burghausen, there was a second exhibit on the Black Death, including folktales about Pest Jungfrau, the Plague Maiden, and the Plaguewalker himself, a giant in black that carried the crippled plague on his back from town to town. Perhaps that was why, in my head, executioners and the Black Death were forever linked.

Okay, I’ve got my main character. Check. Setting. Check. Catalyst. Check. And…

There’s one more piece of backstory you need to know. Perhaps the most important piece in terms of Plaguewalker‘s plot.

When I was little, even before I would stay up with my brother to watch rasslin’ shows, my mom took us to see Star Wars. That was a big deal for me, as it would be for any seven year old, but it made a particular impact. My parents were in the final stages of an acrimonious divorce, and all I knew was that, like Luke Skywalker on Tattooine, my world of suburban New Jersey was way too small for my dreams and plans. I wanted to explore, to do exciting things. There were adventures to be had!

So I immediately identified with Luke Skywalker, whiny moments and all. At the same time, from the moment he strode onscreen, I was a little obsessed with Darth Vader. It’s the cloak, I think. And the boots. And maybe it’s my German blood, but I respected that Lord Vader Got. Shit. Done. and didn’t put up with any nonsense.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out, are you kidding me? Vader is Luke’s father? How awesome is that! I want a Dad like that! Why wasn’t my dad like that?

I know, I know, you’re probably thinking “but Darth Vader is the villain, what kind of twisted child wishes her father was the embodiment of Lawful Evil alignment?” But you have to understand that, in my early years, I craved order and adventure in the same breath. I think all kids do, in a way. I dunno. I do know, however, that even before I saw Star Wars, my grandfather took me to see Jaws and I was rooting for the shark. I was pretty upset when they killed it.

Maybe I just was a twisted little kid.

So, anyway, fast forward 20 years or so. I’m not one of those disciplined writers who views the act as a craft that must be rigidly practiced. I don’t write every day. I never do outlines. I rarely have any idea where a story is going, or even what I’m trying to say, at least on a conscious level.

I’m the kind of writer scientists point to when their research suggests links between creativity and mental illness. I hear voices. Yeah, that’s right. I’ll admit it. I hear voices. I can tell you how this started, too–right about the time my parents were breaking up, and would often fight in the kitchen late into the night, I developed terrible insomnia. The only way I got to sleep every night would be to tell myself stories in my head. They were often rather dark stories, but they were mine. The characters in them were my imaginary friends, even the bad guys. Come to think of it, especially the bad guys. They always seemed more interesting than the good guys.

Over time, the stories I told myself became so real that I wasn’t aware of telling them to myself. They just unfolded, and I had no idea what would happen next.

Yes, in case you’re wondering, I passed the psych eval to spend winter in Antarctica, my current home. Twice, even.

Anyway, that’s the way I write. Sometimes I won’t hear the voices for weeks, months, even years. Then they come, and I basically take dictation. When they do show up, I’ve been known to sit at my computer for ten, twelve, eighteen hours or more, forgetting to eat or drink.

I remember in late 2010, when I was working on my fantasy novel The Guardian (coming out early 2013), sitting in a dark corner of the galley here at McMurdo Station so as not to disturb my roommates. People came and ate dinner, the night shift had its mid-shift meal, then people came for breakfast and there I was, still hunched over my netbook typing furiously. When a friend stopped by to say hello and broke the spell, I had no idea where I was or who was talking to me.

Wow. I sound like a total nutjob.

But seriously, I follow the lead of the voices in my head, wherever they come from, when I write. It was only much later, long after Plaguewalker was finished and edited, that I realized the story had as much to do with a chance visit to the castle at Burghausen as a willful little girl who craved adventure and really, really wanted, ever so badly, for Darth Vader to be her dad.

So when people tell me Plaguewalker is dark, I nod. It’s true. But I’m not afraid of the dark. Are you?

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