This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author J. S. Breukelaar, whose new novel is Aletheia. Here is the publisher’s description:
The remote lake town of Little Ridge has a memory problem. There is an island out on the lake somewhere, but no one can remember exactly where it is — and what it has to do with the disappearance of the eccentric Frankie Harpur, or the seven-year- old son of a local artist, Lee Montour.
When Thettie Harpur brings her family home to find Frankie, she faces opposition from all sides — including from the clan leader himself, the psychotic Doc Murphy. But Lee, her one true ally in grief and love, might not be enough to help take on her worst nightmare. The lake itself.
Because deep below the island, something monstrous lies waiting for Thettie, and it knows her name.
A tale of that most human of monsters — memory — Aletheia is part ghost story, part love story, a novel about the damage done, and the damage yet to come. About terror itself. Not only for what lies ahead, but also for what we think we have left behind.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for J. S. Breukelaar:
I can’t tell you what the scariest part of writing Aletheia was, because it will spoil everything. You who have read the novel, know that about a third of the way in, the unthinkable happens. And that was the scariest part for me, not just because it was terror incarnate, but also because I didn’t plan it. Hand to God. I’m not being coy. I had totally different plans for Thettie Harpur, for everyone. But the story had to do itself. And that’s how it played.
That was fucking scary. I mean not just what happened, and how irrevocable it was, and how horrifying it was, and how my bleeding fingers made me write it in the second person. Scene by scene. Blow for blow. How even as I was writing it, I had no idea how bad it was going to get, and it got bad. It got very bad. I hated myself for even writing it. I scared myself. The tooth hurts.
And then, after it was written, I had no idea, really, what to do. How to go on after that, emotionally, psychologically, and artistically. How would I tell the rest of the story? I had already set up the parallel narrative — Thettie and Lee’s point of view in alternating chapters, but now what? I can’t go into it too much more, except to say, I was finished.
But the story wasn’t. It couldn’t end at that moment of total narrative collapse, but it was really difficult for me to see beneath its broken structure at that point. And there was another thing. It wasn’t just the story that had broken. It wasn’t just the characters who were looking at me in gobsmacked revulsion at what I’d done to their world. I was looking back at myself, and wondering what the story, as I’d told it, made me? I wanted to tell the characters that the story had broken my heart, too.
Stories have a way of biting the hand that feeds them. And the only way to go on is to bite back. Except I wasn’t sure how. I didn’t even really know what had happened. There I was with a story in shards, and I had no real idea of the logistics of how this terrible, plot shattering thing had happened. And I think it was that that allowed me to continue. I had set up a kind of unspeakable crime, but one of a nature so dualistic that the supernatural part of it remained a mystery, even to me. So, while the rest of the characters went about trying to figure out the true crime, I knew my job was to fathom the horror, the horror beyond the cruelly banal, beyond the everyday evil. And I knew that the only place I’d find it was beneath the lake.
So that’s how I managed to find my way back into the story. I went back out on the lake, and I bit Time right in the ass. I split the chapter I’d written before the terrible turn into two parts, leaving the first section in Part 1 and resuming the chapter in Part II, but I switched to present tense. I picked it up right in the middle of a storm on the lake out near the island, the island that was the clue to everything. To all the pain and all the hurt, the island that Time forgot so it had nothing but Time. In fact, the second scariest part was writing the ending. As I’ve spoken about elsewhere, the gifted author/publisher and my friend, J. David Osborne, read an early draft of the novel. It had most of the scary parts in it — including the shock turn halfway through. But my meta-fictional detective work was flawed, and I came up with a false ending that David didn’t buy. So that sent me back to the beginning again. And that was really scary. Not just the fact that I’d thought I’d finished the damn thing, and was scared as hell of looking at months of rewriting, but also because I had to go deeper. Deep into my own heart and dark thoughts in order to come to terms with what the island was, and what it always had been. I thought that I’d get away with just going to the second half of the novel, the part where it gets all messy and weird. But that didn’t do it. I had to go back even further.
Stephen Graham Jones writes:
Plot isn’t a line your story follows, it’s a chart of your characters’ decisions. And it’s only ever seen in the rearview mirror… [When things go wrong], back up, look for a place where the story should have branched, and keep backing up until you find it. Sometimes all the way to the point of conception. Then conceive better.
That was me. I had to go right back to the point of conception. Back to the second scene in the very first chapter, where Thettie steps on a hideous grin-shaped crack in the pavement that is no longer there, but re-cracks at her approach. Spider-webbing the shiny new mica surface right down to the soil, its weed-choked grin just as lying and leering as if she had never gone away at all. As if she’d stayed in Little Ridge with her beloved cousins Frankie and the wild-at-heart Cassie, and Frankie had never gone to war to get caught up with the crooked Doc, and Cassie had never stolen that credit card that brought deGroot vengeance down on her Sweet Sixteen, and Thettie had never let her two young sons go out on the lake alone — as if none of that had happened, and things had stayed rock ’n’ roll forever.
There is a point in the novel where one of the characters realises that s/he is the lake monster after all. That there has never been another. The scariest part of writing is that. That moment when you realize that you are the scariest bit. You are the reason to be afraid. That the fear is in you, and of you. And it knows your name.
JS Breukelaar is the author of the novels Aletheia (Crystal Lake Publishing) and American Monster (Lazy Fascist Press), as well as the collection No Bunnies, out in October 2017, also from Crystal Lake Publishing. Her stories and poems can be found or are forthcoming at Gamut Magazine, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Lamp Light, Juked and elsewhere, including the anthologies, Welcome to Dystopia and Women Writing the Weird. She lives in Sydney, Australia with her family.