Sunday, May 6, 2012

My Brother from Another Mother

Decades ago, when I was a still dreaming about being a professional writer, a man came to the Seventh-day Adventist college I’d attended — Pacific Union College in Angwin, California — and spoke about writing. Not just any man, but an actual writer.  A pro!  A NOVELIST!  I wasn’t attending the college at the time and missed the guest speaker but heard about his appearance later from a friend.  I found it hard to believe.

A novelist  had spoken at a Sadventist college?  A writer of fiction — the stuff that Sadventist founder and “prophet” Ellen G. White had claimed god had shown her to be so bad for people?  The stuff that made people “go through life with a diseased imagination, magnifying every little grievance?”  The stuff that did so much damage to the human mind that it caused people to be “afflicted with paralysis from no other cause than excess in reading?”  The stuff that turned people into “mental inebriates?”  (I’m not making this shit up — it comes from Ellen G. White’s book Messages to Young People.)

Even more interesting was the fact that this man, like me, had been raised a Sadventist — and he was a writer anyway!  I knew that meant he’d been told by many people throughout his life that his writing talent was really Satan working through him to harm others, so I knew that his accomplishment was one that had required not only real ability, but a lot of courage, as well.   I made a note of his name:  Steven Spruill.  I found some of his work and read it, and my mind was further blown.  He wrote science fiction!  He wrote thrillers!  He even wrote horror!  It’s like this guy was some kind of future me!  At least, I hoped so.

Some years later, I attended a convention in Tucson shortly after the publication of my first novel, Seductions, and he was there.  I met him in a hotel corridor where he was chatting with F. Paul Wilson.  It was an inauspicious meeting — we talked for a while, then moved on.  But it hit me hard.  Steven Spruill was, to me, a pioneer.  He had managed to hack his way out of the Seventh-day Adventist jungle of fear and paranoia, of self-loathing and repression, and do with his life the very thing I wanted to do with mine.  He’d cut a trail that I could follow.

That was about 28 years ago.  During the intervening years, having met in person only that one time, Steve and I have become more than the best of friends — we refer to one another as “my brother from another mother.”  Our lives paralleled each other in ways that would be creepy if it weren’t for the fact that such parallels are common between people raised in the Sadventist cult.  We both had attended Sadventist schools and engaged in the same kinds of activities growing up; we both had instilled in us the great gifts of Sadventism — fear, paranoia, and a sense of no self worth, a dirty feeling of self-loathing that, according to our parents and friends, could be addressed only by the teachings of the Sadventist cult, along with the thoroughly insane (and mostly plagiarized) writings of the cult’s alcoholic, masturbation obsessed, and — according to the cult — absolutely infallible Victorian-era prophet Ellen White.  And yet, he had managed to navigate his way through all that and become something that, according to the cult, he was not supposed to become:  A novelist.

If you’re raised in Sadventism and attend its schools, if you live the beginning years of your life in that cult, abiding by its rules, having your head filled with its teachings, you find later that your childhood and teen years were very, very different from those of other people — different to the point of being weird, even creepy.  When you try to tell others about it, they express shock and say things like, “They really taught you that?  And you believed it?”  The only other people who can truly understand it are those who’ve gone through it themselves.  This is not limited to Sadventism.  I’ve heard the same thing from ex-Mormons and people raised in other sects that are even more restrictive and dominating than mainstream Christianity.  When you find someone who shares those experiences, you can speak in a kind of shorthand and be clearly and instantly understood.  They start nodding knowingly before you’re even done with the sentence you’re speaking.  They’ve been through it.  They’ve been damaged by it.  They know what you’re talking about.

But even more bonding was the fact that our reactions to that upbringing — our thoughts about the things we were taught, the way we processed that information and the way it was integrated into our lives and personalities, and the way we’d turned out — were startlingly similar, nearly identical in most ways.  We had sustained the same damages and harbored the same insecurities and self-hatreds that were so common among Sadventists.  But we had something a lot of ex-Sadventists didn’t — each other.  And we shared a passion for writing.

I’ve learned a lot from Steve’s smooth writing, from his mastery of character, pacing, and suspense.  I’m in awe of his range.  He’s written science fiction novels like The Psychopath Plague, The Imperator Plot, and The Paradox Planet.  He’s written horror novels like the hemophage trilogy Rulers of Darkness (nominated for the British Fantasy Award, the novel that coined the term “hemophage”), Daughters of Darkness and Lords of Light, and a favorite of mine, The Genesis Shield.  The trilogy deals with vampires, and that fourth title is a zombie novel — but they are unlike any other vampire or zombie fiction you’ve ever read and take a scientific and medical approach to those traditional genre creatures.  His medical thrillers — Painkiller, Before I Wake, My Soul to Take — are unnerving.  He’s written about other monsters, as well — the Loch Ness monster in Hellstone (the first Spruill book I read) and a creature at large in the Pentagon in Sleeper, another favorite of mine and a book that smacks with authenticity (Steve’s wife Nancy is Director of Acquisition, Resources, and Analysis at the Pentagon).  In his most recent novel, Ice Men, Steve has used all the skills he’s exhibited in his long career to capture the filth and blood and screams of the nearly forgotten Korean War and plunges the reader into it thoroughly and helplessly.  At the moment, he’s finishing up a new thriller that sounds like it’s going to kick some serious ass, and I can’t wait to read it.

In recent years, the publishing industry has experienced some tectonic shifts that have created a lot of upheaval.  A business once dominated by New York publishers has been fractured by print-on-demand, electronic publishing and self-publishing, creating confusion and a lot of frantic scrambling.  Through no fault of their own, a lot of great, established writers have kind of been lost in the shuffle.  But Steve has not stopped telling the stories he must tell and writing the things he has to write — like any writer, he has no choice in the matter.  Steve walked away from a career as a clinical psychologist to write — and that was after being raised to believe that fiction is a wicked thing that does real physical harm to people.  So a little fuss in the publishing business isn’t going to stop him.

But it’s a bit disheartening to know that the author of 16 novels and a nonfiction book — Absorbing Sponge Bob: Ten Ways to Squeeze More Happiness Out of Life — a writer who’s received starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, whose novels have sold in more than 20 foreign countries and have been condensed by Good Housekeeping magazine and Reader’s Digest Books, whose novels have been selections of the Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club, and who received Catholic University of America's award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Literature can be buried in the rubble of the quakes that have been shaking the publishing business.

That’s why I’m writing this — to let you know that if you haven’t read Steven Spruill, you should.  If you’re a writer or want to be a writer, you should be reading his blog at his website, where he discusses the details of writing and offers valuable advice, encouragement, and support to those of us who’ve been bitten by this tenacious bug.

I’m not writing this simply because he’s my brother from another mother.  I’m writing it because good writing is good writing and it deserves to be read.  Steven Spruill has created a lot of worlds, and he has plenty more in him.  While he’s finishing up that new thriller, get to know his work.  By the time it’s done, you’ll be dying to read it.