Do You Feed Your Monster?

Do You Feed Your Monster?

Johnny

Johnny B. Truant is an author, blogger, and podcaster who, like the Ramones, was long denied induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite having a large cult following. Follow him on Twitter @johnnybtruant

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shutterstock_82735150Gather ‘round.

Scoot close to the fire and huddle up.

I’ll tell you about the time we accidentally wrote a monster story.

You’ve been here before. You probably know us by now.

If you’re one of our peeps, you’re on our list, proudly claiming your place among the “Outlaws.”

Realm & Sands is about exploration and expansion, adventure and fun. I daresay it’s about asking life’s questions while lost in yarns, escaping into fantasy and then returning to life a little more curious.

I’d also say this is an optimistic place, for people who aren’t content being labeled — with merely coasting across the surface of existence, living by default. Sean has started to use “Realm & Sands” as an adjective. He’ll see a movie and tell me it was “very Realm & Sands.” I immediately know what he means.

The adjectivification of our imprint’s name warms my heart. I can already imagine people coming to trust the feel of our stories, then using that adjective with their friends. “It’s Realm & Sands,” they’ll say about a book or a movie adapted from our work. With a sideways smile they’ll add, “You know how they are.”

The other person will smile and nod, because they’ll know plenty.

I’ve growing used to the creation of our tales having a definite rhythm. We believe that there’s no magical dumping ground of great story ideas. Instead, we believe it’s possible to take just about any idea and make it great.

Our little unicorn story became a sprawling epic that questioned the nature of good versus evil. My tale about an overweight vampire turned into a clash of worlds, informed by my old life in laboratory genetics, exploring conformity and individualism.

In other words, we take simple concepts and twist them. That’s the right word: twist. Not as in “trick ending,” but as in “variation.” “Oddity.” “An old idea made new, and so distorted as to be unrecognizable.”

When Sean pitched me a story called Chupacabra Outlaw, I thought I knew what it would end up being. Sean, laughing as he usually is, presented it as, “The Fugitive, except the hero is a chupacabra.”

That’s a pretty stupid premise … but as I’ve said, I was used to us starting from a bedrock of stupidity. That’s always okay, because the stupidity never matters in the end. What matters is the twist — the convolutions we impart on the original idea, pulling at it like hot glass, shaping it into something bent and unusual enough to be (and stay) intriguing.

For the proposed Chupacabra Outlaw, we figured we’d start with an Everyman sort of guy. We named him Ricardo Cuaron, and imagined our chupacabra as a large Mexican werewolf. In each book, Ricardo would get into some sort of a situation, then have to extricate himself. All the while, he’d be pursued by an old foe named Tomas Morales — chasing him for a crime he didn’t commit.

Simple, right? Take away the hair and claws and add a man with one arm, and you’ve got yourself a classic television series. That’s how it started — and while I never saw Ricardo as Harrison Ford, I did catch myself imagining Morales as Tommy Lee Jones.

But the story didn’t stick to our plans. In its raw state, the clay of Chupacabra Outlaw was unformed. It had yet to be twisted. When I began to write, the twists took on their own twists.

It surprised me. Much like our transforming chupacabra, that twisted clay became something we’d never anticipated.

We had no idea how sharp its edges would become.

Spawn

CursedIf you’re out there looking for Chupacabra Outlaw on book sites, you won’t find it. When the series’ first book was finished, Sean’s other co-writer Dave — who specializes in horror, darkness, and lots of children in jeopardy — recognized it like a long-lost father.

Sean and I didn’t know what we’d given birth to. We’d started with a dumb-idea-made-meaningful as we so often do, and had given it a name deserving of such offspring.

Dave saw the book for what it was. We thought we’d produced a light-hearted child who would play well with our other titles… Dave recognized it as Rosemary’s Baby.

He suggested we change the name to something less gonzo and more indicative of the story’s true dark nature. The most desolate offspring in our catalog became Cursed.

Now, something to point out: You’re not going to find many people more optimistic and enthusiastic than me and Sean. We’re downright giddy most of the time. We can’t believe that we get to do what we do all day, and we’re very grateful for it — and grateful to our readers for making it possible. So when, five books into the Cursed series, I finally realized what the story was actually about, I was fairly surprised.

I always see the best in people, and envision happy endings. Our characters usually find a way to make the best of their situations, and usually manage to wrestle control of their worlds in the end. As I’ve said before, there’s a bit of me in every character I write. What happens to them feels a tad like it’s happening to me. And yes, plenty of characters in our stories die. That’s okay. People die in everyone’s life, but not everyone has to stand by and witness torture … or subject someone to it.

By the second book, the new name of Cursed had taken hold, and I realized just how cursed Ricardo was. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t sure why it bothered me so much, seeing as we’d given plenty of characters horrible burdens before. Still, what was happening with Ricardo seemed different. He wasn’t just “put-upon.” He wasn’t just “facing an obstacle.” He was cursed from the inside out, and it wasn’t until much later — when I was completing the fifth book — that I realized what “cursed” truly meant.

I won’t spoil the series, but let’s just say there’s a moment where you get a glimpse of what the “beast inside” really is, and seeing it cemented my perception of Cursed as the series I love because I am required to … even though as I’m writing it, it terrifies me.

Yes, the beast is a curse bestowed by our Realm & Sands breed of magic.

But in a way, it’s also something that was inside Ricardo all along.

Beast

shutterstock_127509986Dave has said that what he writes with Sean is “cathartic.” He writes his fears. I can barely read Collective Inkwell fiction because it depresses me.

I don’t mind being afraid, but I like hope with my horror. That’s why I write what I write and Dave writes what he writes: both of us are exorcising our demons.

The difference is that because Sean and I are optimistic, we turn our fears on their heads … and although our stories may have a body count, the endings are more often than not ones you’d cheer for. That’s not always the case for CI. Sometimes, happy endings just aren’t cathartic enough.

What bothered me about Cursed was that it pointed to the deep flaw that I see in us all. I try to avoid that place as often as I can. For me, it’s like Peter Pan’s fairies: the more you believe in it, the more real it becomes. It’s not that I paste happy stickers on everything, and it’s not that I live in denial, either about the world’s darkness, or the darkness that wars with light inside the human soul. I use fiction and places like this blog to plumb those depths, then see how I can come out the other side. There’s a deep, dark pool in there, sure. I won’t pretend it’s not — I’m even sometimes keen to explore it — but I’m not going down without a rope around my waist.

I think that most horror — like most fiction — is really a mirror in which we see ourselves. Tales of transformations (vampires, werewolves, Jekyll and Hyde) are allegories for us to indulge that dark place in a safe way. With the exception of goth kids who frequent Hot Topic, almost nobody would want to become a monster for real and remain one. And if a person did, it would be because he or she felt weak and craved power, or because they felt they were bad and deserved punishment. Horror lets readers be something else for a while, then surface. Done right, horror works as a pressure valve. If you can actually vent your steam then let it go, it is a catharsis. It’s a way to experience the darkness without being consumed.

What bothered me about Ricardo, in the end, was that I liked him quite a lot. We did make him Everyman in the first book, and gave him a love interest who he’s very sweet with. He’s shy, considerate, and keeps to himself. He always does what’s best for those around him. In the first Cursed, Ricardo showed himself to be the kind of man who would drive back to a restaurant if he got home and realized he’d left without paying.

Toward the end of the first book, Ricardo is pushed. Hard. He doesn’t like what his inner beast does during what follows, but we wrote it so the reader would understand and not blame him. That was back when we thought we were in control, when the series still carried its campy name. I should have seen the change coming, when the first book turned out so sparse that my keyboard could have coughed up tumbleweeds. It was bone dry, based in a place modeled on a barbecue joint Sean and I had visited the year before — a place where the smoker fires really were in the middle of the floor, inches from where the line formed, without any sort of barrier. I should have known. Even the story’s inspiration wasn’t fucking around.

In the second book, we had to decide what to do with Ricardo. What happened in the first book was so horrid that our re-entry in Cursed 2: Beaten had the feel of an awkward morning-after. But hey, it was the beast that did those things. Ricardo hadn’t done it. He hadn’t wanted it. Just like us. Me and Sean, as optimistic and nice and friendly as we are? Even we would snap if pushed — and shit, we aren’t even monsters in a story.

shutterstock_66189676Ricardo was pushed again in the second book, but this time, the shove’s nature was different. We started to have doubts. We started to ask troublesome questions. Because Ricardo was partially us, we constantly had to put ourselves in his shoes.

Why did he do what he did? 

Could we understand his thinking? 

We’re storytellers, so we’d goddamn better understand. That’s something some people don’t understand. No matter how horrible a character may be, their actions always make sense to them.

Over and over, we had to step into Ricardo’s shoes. He wasn’t horrible. He was a lot like us, beset upon by something he couldn’t control.

And still, so many of his actions made sense to us.

I started to wonder how allegorical the story really was. We asked more and more questions, putting Ricardo into more and more situations. He encounters old and new foes. He finds friends and encounters enemies. We learned what made him like he is, and uncovered something sinister about his pursuer. It all had to make sense. All that blood. All that carnage. All that loss, and all of that curse, eternally hanging over our tale like the sword of Damocles.

It made me want to look up and see what was dangling.

It made me a little afraid to look deep inside.

I started to wonder if Ricardo, in the final reckoning, was really cursed at all.

Or was he just like all of us?

Mirror

shutterstock_115609420Ultimately, horror is horrifying because it asks us questions we’d rather not answer. And in the end, we don’t have to answer, because we’re simply reading a story. That allows us to deflect. Sean and I joke that Dave is totally paranoid — which, if we’re being honest, is really the same as saying there’s no point in asking the question. Dave asks a lot of the same questions in life that he asks in his fiction. Sean and I do not. In the scary stories, something terrible is always coming to get you. We’re optimistic enough to believe it’s not that way as we go about our daily business. The paranoid don’t feel that way. It’s like entering a horror story and never stepping out, because sometimes monsters are real.

Horror asks, “What you do some terrible thing if you were faced with X?” The most pungent moments in horror haunt me when I surrender the defense that says, “Well, I don’t have to think about it because that would never happen.”

There’s a hideous scene in 30 Days of Night when you learn that a character killed his family so the vampires wouldn’t get them. It’s safe to think about as long as you remember you’re watching a movie.

The second you slip into that character’s world and really ask the what if, you see that regardless of whether the decision was right or wrong, it made sense to him.

What would we do if we found ourselves in Ricardo Cuaron’s shoes? 

Again and again we had to ask that question, and after a certain point, it became hard to deflect by simply saying that we never would be in his shoes. Because hey, chances were good that we would never find ourselves cursed into monsters. But when lines blurred, we had to ask slightly different questions — like, … but what if we already are monsters?

Writing Cursed makes me want to shift in my seat, cross and uncross my legs, stretch so I won’t feel so uncomfortable. At the same time, I keep telling myself that the arc isn’t complete. As is usually the case when we write, we know only what might happen a few steps ahead. In the big picture, we don’t know what will happen with Ricardo. We don’t know what situations he might face, or what he might do. We don’t know if he’ll perform as we’d like him to, or in ways that disturb us. All we know for sure is that whatever he does will be real and make sense to him. And because fiction is really a mirror, what Ricardo’s actions say about Ricardo will ultimately tell us some of the same things about ourselves.

Part of me wishes that the series would have stayed gonzo enough to keep its original title — and that while Ricardo would have always been a chupacabra on the run, he might never have been cursed.

But a larger part of me wants very badly to keep telling the story, because that part of me knows that turning our backs on the darkness inside would have been too honest.

Not for Ricardo.

And not for the rest of us, either.

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