Saturday, July 20, 2013

BESTIAL: The Story Behind the Book

When I finished Ravenous, the story had not ended.  That’s clear to anyone who read the book, which has a rather bleak ending that leaves a whole lot of things unresolved.  Bestial picks up shortly after Ravenous ends, as the werewolves begin to organize an effort to take over the town of Big Rock.

In Ravenous, I introduced sex into the werewolf mythos.  That had always been the domain of the vampire, ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Vampires are sexy.  Werewolves ... not so much.  Rather than an erotic kind of sex, the focus was on the sex drive and how someone normally able to control him- or herself might react to it while in a lycanthropic state.  The most important thing about Bestial, or any sequel I write, the thing that I kept repeating to myself like a mantra as I began work on the book, was this:  IT CANNOT BE MORE OF THE SAME!

I’ve written far more sequels than I ever thought I’d write (for many years, I claimed I would never write one), and I’ve only written four.  I generally don’t like sequels because they tend to be nothing but more of the same.  In film, I think the best example of a bad sequel would be ... well ... just about all of them.  There are a few exceptions, though.  James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein is grim, subversive, and bleak.  His 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is quite upbeat and playful and even more subversive.  It strums a range of emotional strings and can take you from laughter to the edge of tears.  It tells more of the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation but does it in an entirely different way than the first movie.  The same can be said of Aliens.  While Alien is a dark, claustrophobic horror movie set in space, Aliens continues the story as a big, loud, testosterone-infused action picture that still manages to scare the hell out of us.  I’m of the opinion that, whether it’s a novel or a movie, if a sequel is just more of the same, then either it should not have been done, or it was done for the wrong reasons.

For Bestial, I decided to borrow another stock ingredient of the vampire tale and apply it to the werewolf tale:  Religion.  Ever since Dracula, vampires have been hissingly repulsed by the crucifix, the Christian symbol of redemption.  Dracula was a kind of stand-in for Satan — a demonic predator, perverse, unnatural, the embodiment of evil — and the church and its symbols — the crucifix, holy water, hallowed ground — stood for goodness and righteousness, god by proxy.  I would have to use religion in a different way.

Eons ago, I wrote a novella called Monsters, about a horror novelist who is harassed by members of the fanatical church in which he was raised, a church that does not approve of his work.  It was inspired by my own experience with the Seventh-day Adventist church.  It has been called a werewolf story, but technically, it’s not.  I’m pretty sure the word “werewolf” is never used in the story, and there is no description of a werewolf.  But the protagonist has been told for so long — since infancy, really — that he is a monster because of his interests and what he writes that he begins to turn into one.  It’s a nonspecific monster, but a monster nonetheless.

I liked that concept a lot, and I’d been meaning to return to it in one form or another for some time.  It seemed perfectly suited for Bestial.  Bob Berens, a character in the book, has been raised in the Seventh-day Adventist church — write what you know! — and he’s been emotionally crippled by it.  He still lives with his mother and is pretty much afraid of life.  He’s been told for so long that he’s a filthy, sinning worm in the eyes of god that he has come to believe it.

I based Bob Berens on an old friend of mine from my Seventh-day Adventist school days.  In middle age, he still lives with his mother.  He has never had a relationship, doesn’t date and never has, he is socially crippled and paralyzed by fear of virtually everything.  I have great empathy for him because for some time early in my life, I was paralyzed by those same fears.  I managed to get out from under it.  He did not.  I know of many others like him within the church.  It is a controlling religion that instills terror in its children early on, and I’ve seen the long-term damage it does first hand.  My friend’s situation and state of mind are worse than Bob’s, but I had to water things down for the book or people would have found him hard to believe.  I know my friend has a bounty of repressed resentments, anger, and bitterness, to say nothing of all the desires and needs of any human being.  But they are repressed by the overwhelming fear that has been created in him, by the belief that he is simply a horrible sinner and will never be anything else.

The werewolf is an assault on society, on civilization.  “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night,” — a good, decent man who follows all the rules and always takes the high road and is upright and moral — “may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”  When the change takes place, all that goodness and decency and upright moral crap go right out the window.  The crucifix and holy water are useless.  All the things that have been repressed — selfish desires and buried lusts — take over.  It seemed like the perfect place for religion in my story because nothing else represses so effectively and so fearfully.

My choice to insert religion into the story has been the focus of some criticism.  A number of reviewers accuse me of having some kind of personal vendetta against religion, of “Christian-bashing.”  This happens every time a religious character in one of my books or stories is a less than moral person, or when something unsavory is done in the name of a religion (except for the Satanic religions, nobody seems to mind dissing those).  If that were true, there would be no good Christians in my work and religion would never be portrayed in a positive light — and that simply isn’t the case.  My novels The New Neighbor, Dark Channel, and Shackled are perfect examples of this.

In Shackled, for instance, there’s the Walker family.  Ethan Walker is a pastor, a good guy, a family man, and a devoted Christian.  His son Samuel is kidnapped, and other horrible things happen to the family, but as devastating as all of it is, Pastor Walker’s faith gets him through it, gives him hope.  He refuses to blame god or let go of his religious beliefs.  He kind of stands out among the cynical characters who surround him — in a thoroughly positive way.  Those who accuse me of hating Christians or having some kind of search-and-destroy vendetta against religion based on my fiction either aren’t aware of my other work or are deliberately not taking it into consideration.

If I write a character who is a Christian and who does bad things, it doesn’t mean I’m bashing Christians any more than writing a female character who does bad things means I’m bashing women.  I chose to use religion in Bestial not so I would have a chance to portray it in a bad way, but because, in this case, it was a useful ingredient in my storytelling mix.  I chose an exceptionally repressive and fear-based cult — one with which I have close, personal experience and about which I wrote nothing inaccurate or untrue in the book — because the eventual result of all that repression and fear is always some kind of deviance or weirdness ... like turning into a fanged, hairy monster with no inhibitions, a monster driven only by its previously denied lusts and appetites.

Although it’s still quite dark, Bestial has a lighter tone than Ravenous because I think it’s a mistake to take something like werewolves too seriously for too long.  Personally, I think it’s a mistake take anything too seriously for too long, but that’s just me.  Karen Moffett and Gavin Keoph had something to do with that, as well, I think.  They tend to lighten things up on their own.

Moffett and Keoph first appeared in Night Life, the sequel to Live Girls.  They are private investigators who work independently in different cities, but who are sometimes brought together on jobs for bestselling horror novelist Martin Burgess, who has a burning interest in the paranormal, conspiracy theories, UFOs and alien interaction with humans, and just about anything weird.  He’s wealthy and he can afford to hire Moffett and Keoph to investigate his unusual interests.  Burgess wants to see if any of the things he writes about in his horror fiction are real or have any equivalent in reality.  His network of computer geeks has alerted him to rumors of werewolves in a northern California coastal town and he sends Moffett and Keoph to investigate.

I like Martin Burgess.  In addition to writing, his great talent is enjoying being Martin Burgess.  Although he’s fully aware of his eccentricities and how others perceive him because of them, he doesn’t apologize for them.

I like Moffett and Keoph, too.  They’re smart, funny, and although they’re skeptical of everything Burgess wants them to look into, they’re not as skeptical as they were before they encountered vampires in Night Life.  Now their skepticism is mixed with some feelings of fear and dread for what they might encounter.  There is a spark of romantic interest between them, but they only see each other when they’re hired for a job by Burgess, so they haven’t pursued it.  Yet.

Come with Moffett and Keoph to Big Rock, smell the sea air and browse the shops.  But don’t be surprised by the weird vibe, the tension in the air.  There’s a new order in town, and a new baby has been born.  A baby that isn’t interested in milk.

Bestial is available as a trade paperback, for Kindle at Amazon, for Nook at Barnes and Noble, and as an audiobook.  To keep up with news and new releases, visit my website at