TRIPPING THE DARK FANTASTIC
In June 2005 I had a dream set in Savannah, a city I'd visited briefly, twice. Like many writers, I've learned to listen to my dreams, and I wrote this one down: the story of a man and woman meeting in a Savannah café, told from the point of view of their daughter. The daughter's voice was what I remembered best when I awoke; it was fresh yet bittersweet, with a measured cadence that lingered with me.
I read the narrative to my family, and a day later to my agent, over the phone. They were as haunted by the narrator's voice as I was, and they wanted to hear more.
That dream became the preface of The Society of S. After the preface came a chapter. And then, to my surprise, came vampires.
No, I didn't plan to write a vampire novel. But there I was, writing a novel in which some characters were vampires. Maybe I should backtrack here to explain that my day job is teaching creative writing in a university that traditionally doesn't respect genre fiction. Faculty members actively discourage students from writing it. But they do sanction "magical realism" and acknowledge that many writers incorporate elements of the fantastic into "literary novels." Academia simply isn't comfortable with terms such as "paranormal" and "sci fi."
Forgive the quotation marks. For me, all of these terms have blurred and become nearly meaningless. If I'd obsessed about them then as I'm doing now, the book would never have been written.
Anyway, once the vampires came along, I found my book wanted to write itself. It was surprisingly easy to assemble an outline of the plot -- something I'd never written when working on previous books. Two more chapters followed. I sent the nine-page outline and three chapters to my agent, and on January 24, 2006, she sold the uncompleted book to Simon & Schuster. (Selling a partial book hadn't happened before, either.) A sequel, The Year of Disappearances, was published last spring.
My protagonist is Ariella Montero, a 13 (going on 30)-year-old home-schooled resident of Saratoga Springs, taught by her father, Raphael (who, in the author's mind, bears an uncanny resemblance to Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor). What is Raphael doing in the basement? Biomedical research! Or is it? Why does the local mortician make regular house calls?
The Society of S traces Ari's journey to find the mother she has never known, from upstate New York to Asheville and Savannah and on to Florida. In assembling the narratives of her father and mother, Ariella constructs her own story, inspired in part by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Bertrand Russell, T.S. Eliot, and Jack Kerouac.
My vampires have turned out to be complicated characters. For starters, they're synesthetes, and they're able to turn invisible. Sadly, they can't shift shapes or fly.
Some of them, aware that they might be around forever, care about saving what's left of our environment and promoting social justice. Others are as callow and greedy as most humans. But their great appeal to me has been their "otherness," which allows me to explore questions about ethics and politics and culture.
At the time of my dream, I'd read very little vampire fiction; as a teenager I'd read Bram Stoker and later skimmed two or three of Anne Rice's Lestat novels. I was afraid to read the many contemporary vampire novels, because I didn't want to be influenced by them. But I loved ghost stories, and I'd always had a penchant for the dark side. As some of my students, and one of my daughters, flirted with Goth culture, I found myself similarly intrigued. What led them, and me, to prefer the dark corners of the imagination to the neon-lit strip-mall reality of suburban America? Why did we feel more revulsion at the increasingly casual use of the word "evil" by politicians and news commentators than at the thought of drinking human blood?
That's my question for you, readers. What draws us to the dark fantastic, and what keeps us coming back? The best response wins a hard-cover copy of The Society of S or The Year of Disappearances, and, with your permission, will be featured on www.myspace.com/thesocietyofs
Having established my own vampire world, I'm more comfortable exploring those created by others, and I've read a range of wonderful books. Reading the series of blogs on this website makes me want to read even more. What a motley crew we are! Each of us is drawn to read and write speculative fiction -- the dark fantastic -- but why?
Susan Hubbard is the author of six books and winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the AWP Short Fiction Prize.
Susan will select a winner on Friday evening. The name will be posted here.