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The Scariest Part: Carrie Laben Talks About A HAWK IN THE WOODS

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Carrie Laben. I’ve known Carrie for many years now, and in that time I’ve been lucky enough to watch her writing career flourish. Now her long-awaited debut novel has finally arrived, titled A Hawk in the WoodsHere is the publisher’s description:

When newscaster Abby Waite is diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness, she decides to do the logical thing…break her twin sister Martha out of prison and hit the road. Their destination is the Waite family cabin in Minnesota where Abby plans a family reunion of sorts. But when you come from a family where your grandfather frequently took control of your body during your youth, where your mother tried to inhabit your mind and suck your youthful energies out of you, and where so many dark secrets — and bodies, even — are buried, such a family meeting promises to be nothing short of complicated…

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Carrie Laben:

A Hawk in the Woods deals with many sorts of primal fears — everything from terminal illness to body theft and mind control to running from the law to deep-rooted betrayals by the people who should be our closest allies. There are also two separate gun fights, an oil tanker explosion, a car crash, and a mortal threat to an adorable Labrador Retriever.

The most frightening scene to write wasn’t any of those.

It also wasn’t the scene with the necromancy, or the one where the protagonists are arrested by a bad cop from a backwater jurisdiction, or the one where the titular hawk nearly scalps one of the main characters.

The scene that shook me while I was writing it takes place in an elementary school classroom, and if you were observing the characters from the outside nothing particularly dramatic happens. A teacher takes a dislike to the main character, Abby, and her twin sister Martha. After a classmate dies, she finally gives full vent to this dislike — first by confiscating the plastic beaded bracelet that Abby can’t help fidgeting with, and then by making her lead the class in prayer. Both of these actions seem minor, and if the teacher were defending herself she could easily make them sound reasonable in context — but their impact is maximum cruelty to someone who can’t fight back.

Quiet as it is, this scene functions as a hinge in the novel. Abby and Martha’s grandfather’s magic is what killed the other child, so in a way they are implicated — but they’re also innocent. The teacher’s aggressive actions intensifies the preexisting wedge between the twins and the other children. The teacher, in her role as an authority, chooses to play up the difference between Abby and her family and everyone else in the community — a difference Abby already recognizes, but in a different world might have overcome.

While I was writing this scene I found myself on the edge of tears several times. I’ve never experienced anything directly parallel, but I chose to draw from a teacher of my own who was convinced that I was cheating when I wasn’t. That sensation of being inescapably labelled, humiliated, and dismissed in front of an audience — and of being in the hands of an irrational authority with no recourse — was what I really wanted to capture.

I’ve never been in a gunfight, or an oil tanker explosion, or at a necromantic rite. But I’ve been a child and felt powerless while an adult — a teacher, who I was supposed to admire and respect — looked at me and categorized me and punished me based on that categorization. And that feeling obviously stuck with me. When I was labelled, I knew it was unfair but I also knew that protesting or arguing would do no good. This is what Abby senses as well. She’s in a no-win situation. She is powerless, and the powerlessness is terrifying.

But the momentary sense of powerlessness, while awful, isn’t the scariest part of this scariest part. Instead, it’s what happens after. For me, I had many other sources of validation — parents, other teachers, and a few friends who believed in me, hobbies and activities in which I could thrive, a life well beyond this one snap judgement (including growing up and writing a book! With names changed to protect the innocent, of course.) What Abby has, just about all she has, is a family history of dark magic — magic she won’t hesitate to use in self-defense, and continue to use down the years against a community that made her an outsider.

A Hawk in the Woods: Word Horde / Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Carrie Laben: Website / Facebook / Twitter

Carrie Laben is the author of the novel A Hawk in the Woods, published March 26, 2019 by Word Horde. Her work has also appeared in such venues as Apex, Birding, The Dark, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and Outlook Springs, as well as many anthologies. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for the essay “The Wrong Place”. She has been a MacDowell Fellow and a resident at the Anne LaBastille Memorial Residency and Brush Creek. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana and now resides in Queens, where she spends a lot of time looking at birds.

The Twilight Pariah

The Twilight PariahThe Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable and breezy novella, THE TWILIGHT PARIAH showcases one of Jeffrey Ford’s many strengths, in this case his almost effortlessly authentic characterization. For me, the story at the center of PARIAH takes a back seat to the delightful characters and their deep friendship. Henry, Maggie, Russell, and Luther all felt very real to me, an accurate and genuine depiction of the lasting friendships we make in our high school and college days, if we’re lucky. The story itself, which involves a ghostly entity, a horned baby skeleton, and a mysterious old woman, isn’t all that scary. There’s tragedy and death, of course, but the stakes never feel that big for our protagonists. This may be because the threat tends to strike around them, rather than at them, which makes it difficult to cultivate a sense of imminent danger. But as I mentioned, the story is secondary to the characters for me. I enjoyed every moment I spent with these four young adults and was sad to leave them behind when I turned the final page.

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Lovecraft: Four Classic Horror Stories

Lovecraft: Four Classic Horror StoriesLovecraft: Four Classic Horror Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I.N.J. Culbard adapts and illustrates four of H.P. Lovecraft’s longer and better-known works: “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” The artwork is extraordinary, especially Culbard’s renderings of various creatures whose descriptions Lovecraft left intentionally vague, and fulfills the purpose of cutting through Lovecraft’s sometimes dense and baroque prose to make the stories flow more smoothly. He does an excellent job adapting the stories, sometimes making slight alterations to their structure that work to increase their narrative power.

Revisiting these stories, I found myself struck by a few things. I had never really realized before, for instance, that “Dream-Quest” is kind of a “Lovecraft’s greatest hits” compilation, featuring not just recurring characters like Randolph Carter and Richard Pickman, but also making use of places and creatures that had only appeared in his poems and fragments before, all brought together into a single narrative. One could say “Dream Quest” is to Lovecraft’s work like the Dark Tower series is to Stephen King’s. I also noticed for the first time how similar the climaxes are in both “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” In “Mountains,” the deadly shoggoths that destroyed the Elder Things and their ancient city in Antarctica are discovered to still be alive and a threat to the protagonists. In “Shadow,” the deadly flying polyps that destroyed the Great Race of Yith and their ancient city in Perth, Australia are discovered to still be alive and a threat to the protagonists. The stories were written only three or four years apart, and I prefer to think of these similarities as the solidification of a theme that interested Lovecraft rather than lazy plotting. My final observation is that as much as I love Roger Corman’s 1963 film THE HAUNTED PALACE, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is very cinematic and deserves a more faithful film adaptation.

This collection of Culbard’s previously and separately published Lovecraft adaptations is a must for fans of graphic novels and H.P. Lovecraft alike. (I now find myself interested in reading Culbert’s adaptation of Chambers’ THE KING IN YELLOW as well.) One caveat, though: the hardcover is extremely heavy and quite thick, making it difficult to carry with you. You may find it easier to read at home in your favorite chair than to take it with you on a train or an airplane. But then, that’s probably the best way to read Lovecraft’s chilling tales anyway.

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A New Interview

A brand new Q & A with me is now live on British author Simon Bestwick’s blog. Click on the excerpt below to read the whole thing:

I’ve been writing since 4th grade, when I wrote my first illustrated story about a boy and his father who are stranded on another planet filled with monsters and dinosaurs. As you might imagine, I had some issues about how little time my father was spending with me!