Digging into the creative minds behind Enter at Your Own Risk: Dark Muses, Spoken Silences
The third installment in the Enter at Your Own Risk series was our most challenging yet. We took four classic tales of macabre dark fiction, and asked authors to create a new vision for each. What stories were resting between the lines in Poe, Irving, Lovecraft, and Polidori? What dark muses lurked in the corners? What spoken silences did the other characters in these famous tales hold?
With their creativity unleashed, the authors went to work. Poe’s “The Black Cat,” Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” all breathe with new life, new horrors, and new nightmares. We asked a few of the writers in our collection to talk about their dark visions and inspiration.
The questions we posed:
1) Where did you go for inspiration for your story? Was it only the
original tale? Did you do research beyond the story itself?
2) Did the original author’s intent influence your version? What
elements did you focus on from the original to draw out your character?
3) What challenges did you encounter (expected or unexpected) in
retelling such classic tales from the point of view of a secondary
T. Fox Dunham (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)
1) I began by reading the original story of Sleepy Hollow and expanded my research into the time period of the Hudson Valley. I studied the time period. I used to work at several museums set in Colonial America, so I had resources and an erudition to draw from for the story. I also studied the early Dutch-American customs, place names—even magic. There is a rich source of folklore set during the period, and I thank the staff at Barnes and Nobles for helping me find the material, in particular one Caitlyn.
2) Washington Irving narrates a fecund atmosphere when he speaks of the setting of the story. He was the first respected American author. His work became internationally famous. He, of course as the style of the period where the written fiction was finding itself, was verbose and long winded; and when I set out to synthesis the style, applying it to my own style, Editor Scully took out a hatchet (I have no idea where you pulled that from) and hacked like a lumberjack. She was correct, as she wanted stories for the modern readers.
I went back to the original story and brought out much of that atmosphere—which she preserved the heart of. It was a matter of taking all the beauty of the Hudson Valley and translating it from Brom Bone’s point of view. Instead of it being beautiful and lovely, it becomes constrictive and a prison. The nature strangles him, and the residents are dumb and uncultured. He longs for the wider world, the cities, and he’s angry, not passive and peaceful.
From there, I followed the original plot, the rhythm and beat of the story, blocking it scene-wise. I tried to preserve Irving’s paradigm and length while following the days from Brom’s point of view. I also answered clearly whether The Headless Horseman—who was really an extension of Dutch legends of wind demons—was supernatural. Brom does indeed raise him, using the witchcraft devices of his old crone mother.
And once released, he soon loses control of that power and regrets the destruction of his true love.
3) The real issue was preserving the spirit of the colonial American story while writing it for the modern reader. Again, I am grateful for Editor Scully’s help. Most of my conundrums struck me in the prose. The plot was easy enough—man verse his own self-revulsion: natural feelings of love trapped in a conservative and very puritan era. It was finding the balance between Irving and Dunham, and towards the end of the story, I just had to let go and let my own natural storytelling take over; though, I was blessed with some skill for the style of the time. It’s always a challenge when an editor specifically asks you for a story. I’m only glad my editor appreciated my work and had faith in my ability. For that, I am grateful.
B. E. Scully (The Vampyre)
1) I always do research when I’m writing a historical piece. In the case of “The Tygre,” I researched things like 19th century poisons and medicinal plants for the Madame Mergen section (and discovered that arsenic was a common ingredient in everything from cosmetics to wallpaper). Then I researched things like the “buried alive” phenomenon for the ending, as well as the little details–such as what sort of food a tavern in 1800s Dover, England would be serving–that really bring historical fiction to life. To get into the mind frame of the horribly oppressive, restrictive social/legal climate that drove so many of the most intelligent women to madness and/or recklessness, I reread Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I wanted my Catherine to perhaps be a version of Anna if she would have had iron will and a little supernatural power on her side. And a vampire, of course.
2) One of the fascinating things about Polidori’s Vampyre is that it was written as a very thinly veiled condemnation of Lord Byron’s notoriously mad, bad, and dangerous to know behavior, particularly in regard to his love affairs. I’ve read a great deal on the subject, including the published letters of one of Byron’s most famous lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, and these historical figures were like ghost readers for the tale I wanted to tell, always looking over the page and whispering suggestions into my ear.
3) On a practical note, as I obsessively charted every fact and detail of Polidori’s narrative, I got stuck in a few places: how, for instance, does Lord Ruthven charm his way into Edgar’s circle so thoroughly that he ends up engaged to his sister, when previously the family guardians went out of their way to warn Edgar about Lord Ruthven’s treachery? Even though Ruthven is using a different title later in the story, how can the guardians fail to recognize Ruthven as the same fiend that Edgar is now also denouncing? Polidori doesn’t attempt to account for this, so I just put it down to Ruthven’s vampire influence over their senses and perceptions. It’s always a challenge to both honor the original author’s vision and create something uniquely one’s own, particularly in regard to appealing to modern tastes and interests. That’s why reimagining the classics from the often “unheard” voices within the stories is so fascinating—they are telling the stories that are directly linked to the major issues and concerns of our own times. From equal rights to environmental concerns to the role of individual freedom within a larger social/political structure, it’s amazing how fictional stories help us understand and explore the complex web connecting hundreds of years of human experience.
Mike Chinn (The Call of Cthulhu)
1) Obviously, I re-read “The Call of Cthulhu”: to reacquaint myself with the events; and the order in which Lovecraft presented them. I made pages of notes – names, dates, locations – then scrapped the lot when I realized I didn’t need it. The Necronomicon wouldn’t have any conception of times or dates (they’d be irrelevant, anyway): the events occurring beyond its slowly wakening consciousness simply are. In the end, although the kernel of “Considering the Dead” is the rising of R’lyeh – as well as the climax – I just riffed on the idea of Alhazred’s original volume acquiring an extra-dimensional sentience over the centuries, and power enough to eventually influence its own fate.
2) Lovecraft’s original story unrolled as a sequence of apparently unconnected events – he was, I believe, drawing on his experiences as a journalist – arranged so that they built to a natural climax. In spite of Lovecraft’s reputation as a writer prone to exceedingly purple prose, much of “Call” is decidedly low-key (the occasional racist tones notwithstanding), with the reader left to make the obvious connections. It wasn’t a route I could go down so I elected to tell the story in a linear manner – reasoning that even if Necronomicon (or Azif as it refers to itself) exists in a perpetual now, it’s subject to Time’s Arrow as much as any human (if it had succeeded in existing at every point of time that would have made it akin to Yog-Sothoth, I think – and that would be an entirely different story). The only element from the original was Cthulhu’s awakening, and the part the book had in making the stars right.
3) I knew I was going to have to recast the whole story: concentrating only on the climactic events from “Call”; the rest of the piece would be the book’s awakening to sentience, its gradual accruing of power – which went hand in hand with its knowledge of our world, and the creatures from beyond that are hidden within it. The real challenge was writing the whole thing in the third person present tense – to reflect the book’s skewed outlook and (let’s be honest) give the whole narrative an odd feel. It’s not a natural format and I had to make sure I didn’t slip unconsciously back into the more conventional past tense (as it was, there were more than a few awkward, ambiguous phrases that needed fixing). But I think the biggest trap is over-reverence for the source material – an urge to drop into a Wayne and Garth style “We’re not worthy!” stance. That just erodes your confidence and can end up stifling any originality you might bring to the party. Lovecraft encouraged others to play with his universe – so I just had fun with it and hoped he wouldn’t be too disapproving of the result.
Timothy Hurley (The Black Cat)
1) My story, “Poe’s Black Cats” drew directly from Poe’s original “The Black Cat” for many details. This was intentional, as I wanted my tale to “reveal” the “true story” of Poe’s death. Because madmen narrate the original and my story, the reader can reach their own conclusions about the “veracity” of either. In addition to reading the original story many times, I researched Poe’s life, the circumstances of his death, and Nineteenth Century Baltimore. I paid close attention to the waterfront and the hospital in which Poe died, as well as the physician who attended him. I also made use of the controversies and conspiracies that came from his rivals after his death.
2) In “The Black Cat” the narrator is in prison awaiting his hanging for the murder of his black cat and wife. Poe as a character does not appear. In my story, I make Poe the man who will hang. The executioner, unseen in the original, becomes the narrator in my story. The hangman, in the course of confessing his role in the death of Poe, reveals the “true” events that led up to Poe’s demise. I don’t want to write a spoiler here, so you will need to read “Poe’s Black Cats” in Dark Muses, Spoken Silences to discover my twist in the plot.
3) I considered writing my story from the point of view of the surviving cat, but that would have made my story fantasy. I wanted a madman’s narration that would have the feel and sound of the original Poe to lend credence to the narrator’s assertions. It was a challenge to write in a voice reminiscent of Poe’s Nineteenth Century style while making it readable for Twenty-first Century readers. It was important to maintain dates and locations accurate to Poe’s life to create an air of authority for my narrator. I think I wrote a story in which my character tells a surprising, yet plausible, alternative to the theories about what happened to Edgar Allen Poe on the night of August 3, 1849.
Carole Gill (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)
1) I just zeroed in on the original, on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I studied it, combed it and analyzed it. The narrative voice had to be right. I was telling it from Katrina’s point of view which I knew was the way to go for me. I wanted it right; a voice of the time and marked by her personality (as I saw it).
I wanted Katrina to open up and tell us all her secrets. In short, I wanted it to be: Katrina tells all! Also, I wished to set the story out in the same unique way Irving’s story is set up, that is to re-word that amazing opening:
FOUND AMONG THE PAPERS OF THE LATE DIEDRICH KNICKERBOCKER.
Which I did.
2) Yes, most definitely I was influenced. Irving wrote a story that had comic elements in it. Ichabod Crane was a deliciously funny character. He took himself very seriously, which right there, begs for parody. He was pretentious without having any reason to be. He was out for a wealthy girl, was not at all sincere, and quite frankly, deserved what he got. In the original story he disappears, in my version Katrina explains what happened to this oddball.
I also studied the disappearance in order to give a credible version of what might have happened to him.
3) The main challenge for me was to get the narrative absolutely right. I didn’t want to sound modern especially as I was writing it from Katrina’s point of view. It had to ring true for me. I love writing dialogue probably more than anything else and I had a lot of fun with Ichabod’s proposal that I depict.
There was another challenge as well as Katrina does marry Brom. Now he seemed a bit show offy to me and rough around the edges, so I wanted to give reasons as to why the two wound up together. Aside from Ichabod’s disappearance, I wanted to reveal what the Headless Horseman was all about. Challenges, yes but it was a great experience and a lot of fun!
Jon Michael Kelley (The Vampyre)
1) Inspiration came via research. Deciding to put Polidori’s vampyre decades ahead from the original timeline, I found that late Nineteenth Century London was a most flustered period, and decided that such a backdrop might reflect the inner unrest and turmoil one must surely confront when faced with immortality. A few of the highlights of my research were revisiting Bleak House and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, and Francis Bowen’s “A Theory of Creation: A Review of ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.’” Light reading, of course, but it was fun nonetheless.
2) Polidori doesn’t give us much insight into Lord Ruthven’s character, and that allowed me a much wider street to wander. I wanted to concentrate more on Lord Ruthven’s human side, and leave all that creature-of-the-night (or day, as it may be) nastiness to the reader’s imagination. For me, coming to terms with one’s eternal existence — to be forever denied any fulfilling oblivion — is far more horrific than finding your next meal.
3) Challenges? Syntax relative to the period, and getting into Charles Dickens’ head.
Blaze McRob (The Black Cat)