A Reader’s Guide to “Hopeful Monsters”



Since all of you must have bought your copy of the feel-bad book of 2009 by now (and if you haven’t, what the hell are you waiting for?), I thought it would be a good time to present a sort of guide for the edification of those geeky types who want to know where all the scathingly brilliant ideas for my stories come from. So without further ado, a short paragraph of explanation for each story so contained. Thank you, and tip your waitresses.

“The Schism”
I don’t necessarily like to write about the old stand-by monsters, like vampires, werewolves, and zombies, mainly because it seems like everyone and his/her analyst has tackled the subject, leaving not much new ground left to discover. But since I have always been interested more in old-school zombies, of the type associated with voodoo, I thought I’d give a story like that a whirl. And then it occurred to me that zombies have the whole resurrection issue to work with (a fact not lost on the creators of the millions of Zombie Jesus t-shirt designs), which made me think that it was perhaps not too farfetched to imagine a religious cult growing up around a sort of ritualistic zombie resurrection, and further that the rituals could easily be facilitated through use of the blowfish poison concoction described in Wade Davis’s Serpent and the Rainbow. So the whole story sort of took off from there.

This was basically an outgrowth of three very separate elements. The first was a strange dream I had, where I was on a beach at night, trying to dig someone out of the sand, and being thwarted by the waves constantly falling over my head. The second was a memorable bit I read in the biography M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, by Peter Robb, in which the famous painter was thrown in a prison, or more properly an oubliette, on Malta after he had done something to cheese off the powerful Knights of the Order of St. John. The wily Caravaggio later escaped, though according to the biography it would have been impossible for him to escape without help; if anyone did help him, the identity of the person remains a mystery. The third element was the story of the mythological Fates, and in particular Clotho, the frightening goddess who was said to cut the threads of people’s lives when it was time for them to die.

“Rara Avis, or Hopeful Monsters”
The phrase “hopeful monsters” is a term used in evolutionary biology to describe a mutation or set of mutations that are beneficial and sufficient to take a species a long way toward becoming a new species. This generally doesn’t happen in the real world, by the way. I am an avid reader of any and all books on evolutionary biology and genetics, and it struck me that there may be people crazy enough, in a eugenics sort of way, to think they could breed themselves to a great plateau in humanity, and do it as quickly as humans have artificially selected existing dog breeds. I chose flight because it seemed to me that there wouldn’t be an unbelievable number of mutations needed to achieve it – arm flaps, hollow bones, and so forth.

“The Convergent Wail of Sirens”
I read something a long time ago about a medium who would get her accomplice to hide in the closet of her apartment when she had clients over for seances; the accomplice would go through the visitors’ purses and coat pockets and pass on useful tidbits to the medium, who would then wow her dupes with this supposedly “divinely received” information. So I was originally going to write about a fraudulent medium (as if there is any other kind, but I digress). But then I was pondering the weird idea of the “spirit guide,” and I got to thinking that since most so-called mediums have these spirit guides that are supposed to be ancient pharaohs or 10,000-year-old Indian chiefs or something like that, it would be really interesting to write a story in which the medium had actually known her “spirit guide” in life, and he’d been a real dick. Death would make it possible to do whatever he wanted to her, which I thought was deliciously nasty. The part about the wildfires crept in because around the time that I wrote this, the part of Florida where I live was plagued by them; firemen banged on our door one night at midnight and made us evacuate. I remember standing in the driveway, and the sky being red, and bits of black ash raining down. It was really surreal. Our house didn’t burn down in the end, but lots of other ones did.

“The Animal Has No Conscience”
Simply a story that tried to incorporate a werewolf in a non-cliched way, almost as a murder weapon in a crime story. I’m not sure where that idea came from, frankly.

My ex-husband used to mumble and cry out in his sleep; he had a lot of nightmares. He was always sleeping when I got home from work at 2am, so I usually had to lie there for a few hours and listen to him. I got used to it after a while, but one night I got to thinking how freaky it would be if he started talking in someone else’s voice, in the pitch-black bedroom, as if someone had taken over his sleeping body. That was the germ of the story, and then I hit on the idea of a possible murder plot (which I wanted to keep ambiguous), and the vehicle of the newly-installed satellite dish carrying the “signals” of thoughts so that they came out of someone else’s mouth.

I’ve always been enchanted by Egyptian mythology, and I liked the idea of tying the animal-headed gods of Egypt in with a sort of werewolf paradigm. I also love the image of stately Anubis (who I have a tattoo of, by the way) weighing the hearts of the dead against the feather of Ma’at, the implication being that the heavier the heart is with what the person has done in life, the less they deserve any type of salvation. Added to this idea was the thought that if I could create a perfect sociopath – who killed just for the sake of it and felt no remorse for it whatsoever – wouldn’t his heart be just as light as a person’s who had lived a totally blameless life?

“Mister Scales”
This was written for an anthology of Southern themed horror stories. Although I’m a native Southerner myself, I’ve never felt a connection with the South the way some people do; I always joke that I am a native New Yorker born several hundred miles too far down the eastern seaboard. The only Southern things I like are grits, cornbread, and a couple of REM albums. Oh, and funnel cakes. But to me, a Southern horror story had to have a swamp, and it had to have an alligator, because alligators are fucking terrifying, and that’s coming from someone who sees them on a fairly regular basis. Also, I had just read an article about some wealthy families in Atlanta presiding over a resurgence of the whole cotillion culture, which I thought had gone out with the Civil War; after I read that I knew I wanted to throw that in there too, as a sort of juxtaposition against the swampy alligator stuff.

As I’m sure you will have noticed, I get a lot of ideas from reading non-fiction books on various topics; I rarely get ideas from other people’s fiction, because I don’t read a great deal of it anymore. The genesis of this story was a book called Brainwash, about different techniques the CIA and other shadowy organizations used to obtain information – experiments with drugs and hypnosis and truth serums and that sort of thing. I have always been particularly intrigued with the concept of the post-hypnotic suggestion, and I thought a story combining that with a sort of viral or meme-type idea might be good. I used the word “lepidoptera” because I have always thought it was one of the most beautiful words in any language, plus it had the added benefit of having that butterfly-as-transformative-symbol action happening.

“William’s Pond”
This was mostly just a story that came about because I had been wanting to write something about a sea-hag type creature. I wrote it for a guy who was planning on filming it for part of a horror anthology film he was doing, but in the end he opted to use another story of mine (“The Convergent Wail of Sirens,” actually), but the film is apparently still up in the air at the moment. I don’t know where I got the idea that the water witches would eat babies, but it seemed suitably horrifying.

“The Glass Ceiling”
I submitted this to an anthology that revolved around “books gone bad.” I didn’t want to just write about a spell book or something lame like that; the concept of using something as prosaic as an employee handbook appealed to me. I guess I was also sort of making a statement about people who follow instructions to the letter without question, and how it can lead to trouble. I also liked the idea of having this company where everyone looked really busy, but no one was sure what their actual job was accomplishing. I’m sure all of us cubicle critters have had that feeling at some time or another.

Pretty much my sole attempt at a vampire story. At the time I wrote it I thought the vampire-as-circus-attraction thing was fairly original, but I later saw a few other novels with a similar setting. Oh well.

“Audience to the End”
The title is taken from a Brides song. The idea for this kind of came from a dream, too; it was set in a theater, and though the story ended up being nothing like the dream, I kind of liked the concept of a reversal of audience and performer roles, with a rather nasty twist.

“Lady Contagious”
This was submitted for an anthology of stories whose main characters were prostitutes. I remember reading one of Jan Brunvand’s books of urban legends, and being taken with the sort of “Typhoid Mary” stories of people who purposely gave people diseases. Thinking of disease made me think of plague, which made me think of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, oddly. So it snowballed from there.

I honestly can’t remember where I got this idea from. It does have shades of Flowers in the Attic, so I might have been thinking of that. I remember wanting to do something about scary twins who were cursed somehow.

“Here Comes the Bride”
There’s a forensic science show on the Discovery Channel called “The New Detectives” that’s on pretty much all the time. I think it was on that show that I saw the sad story of a creepy dude who “ordered” a Russian mail-order bride, then eventually murdered her and told everyone she’d gone back to Russia. I thought the mail-order bride angle would make a good story, and then I thought I’d add some elements of Psycho, with a guy who is not who or what he seems. And then I thought I’d add another layer of complication by making the bride not what she seemed either. Wackiness ensued, sort of.

“The Bluebells and the Bower Cage”
I just love bowerbirds. If you don’t know, the males of the species spend an enormous amount of time building an elaborate house or bower, filling it with pretty bits of leaves or berries or even brightly colored bottle caps or pieces of broken glass, and then showing it to the female bowerbird, who will mate with him if she likes it. The bower is completely non-functional – the birds don’t live in it or anything. It’s solely for the purpose of impressing the ladies, which is just adorable. So I liked the idea of applying this to the human world in a very literal way. I combined that with a much less charming aspect of the natural world; namely, that pollutants in the water have been causing a great deal of mutations like hermaphroditism in many species of frogs and fish. I deliberately wanted to set this somewhere very remote, like the Arctic Circle, but in no specific time and place, to give it a sort of fairy tale feel.

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