The other day, a parent of one of my students (I’m a high school English and Literature teacher) came up to me. She smiled and said, “I finished reading your book, and loved it” (this of course made me smile in return, and I thanked her for the kind words). But then her face grew serious and she asked, in the most straightforward tone I could imagine: “What happened in your childhood to make you write this?” I laughed at first, thinking it was a joke, but then stopped myself short when I realized her true concern. “Nothing,” I said. “I had a great childhood.” (And that’s true.) She smiled, said “Good,” and then shook her head. “But the book’s so dark, though. Where’d it come from?” I could only shrug my shoulders at the question.
Since then, I’ve thought a great deal about her question. Where did it come from? She’s right; my first novel, A Murder Country, is incredibly dark and serious. Unrelentingly so. The book is set in late 19th century Appalachia and is full of death and pain, vengeance and sadness marked with only the faintest glimmer of hope (if any). But that is not who I am as a public or even private person.
To meet me, I am kind and polite, fun and goofy—at least I try to be—but my stories (besides A Murder Country, I have had several short stories and plays published online and in print) are all marked with the same dark and serious intensity. Where does that depth of angst come from? The answer is simple, and I think it applies to all narratives (all forms) that carry any kind of purpose. The pain comes from the buried and repressed parts of our psyche. Every person has these questions and thoughts trapped within his/her mind, but there are only a few people who actually look into that psychological darkness and try to understand—or at least explain—it. (Call it bravery or stupidity, I don’t think there’s a difference.) I am one of these people.
All of my stories echo my deepest feelings, my greatest fears and questions; the narratives scream out into the world the inner struggles that I have. I hide these thoughts from the outside world, even from my wife, but in my narratives they come spilling out. Some people have therapists. I have my characters.
A Murder Country follows three different characters, each making his way through a violent and pained world. First is Josiah, a seventeen-year-old boy who comes home to find his parents brutally killed and his family home burning to the ground. From this, Josiah goes off in search of the person responsible for the murders, though even he does not know what he’ll do when he finds that person. Second is The Rider, the man responsible for Josiah’s parents’ deaths. The Rider believes he was appointed by God to act as a Death Angel to his world, collecting the souls of sinners. And finally there is William, a man with a violent past who is trying to start afresh with his new bride. He wants peace and happiness in his life and is willing to do anything in order to attain and keep that goodness. These three men partake in and/or witness horrible atrocities, violence that seems inhuman—though that is the reality of our world: Only humans can enact the kind of violence shown in A Murder Country. History has proven this; it has told us the truth: We are no more than animals.
Though we have moral codes to live by, these codes are flimsy at best. To kill something takes no effort, and that realization terrifies me—not that I can be killed at the drop of a hat, but rather that I can be the one killing. What more does it take than the shortest of seconds to destroy? And from that destroying there can be no rebuilding. This thought has haunted my dreams since I was a young boy watching the news and movies, reading books of heroes and villains. I don’t believe that narratives of any kind glorify violence; instead, I think that there is something much more primal to it. We love murder mysteries, action films, and tales of violence, because these things remind us of what we really are: Animals with the ability to destroy. We live on a teeter-totter that can be lifted or dropped with nearly no effort at all. And this should scare us—I know it scares the hell out of me.
The three characters in my novel are shades of the same person. Josiah is a pendulum who can swing toward a life of violence, as illustrated with The Rider, or he can swing towards renewal and redemption, as seen in William. Though there exists in all three of these characters the ability to enact horrible violence . . . and it is a violence done for a specific and purposeful reason. The Rider has total conviction that he is a Godly person, a saint, even—a true believer following God’s call. What’s scarier than a true believer? Josiah is avenging the deaths of his family, holding on to a creed of “Eye for an Eye”—you need to make right what is wrong in the world, so he believes. And William is a man willing to do whatever he must to protect his joy and his family, even if that means taking up the gun again.
I wrote A Murder Country so that I could allow my demons to surface, so that I could analyze them and hopefully come to a better understanding of who I am. Reading these characters’ lives, now, I can see myself in them, but I feel that I have unearthed things far more universal than intended. These characters are me, but they are also you. It’s a scary proposal, I know, to say that we all originate from violence. That our world is nothing but a walk on a tightrope—lean too far one way and you slip and fall, and there is no way to climb back up. I realize this, maybe more so than ever, now that I have these characters to show me. And the only way to combat this fear, for me at least, is to smile and joke and laugh, and hope with everything I hold dear to, that these characters and their trials are nothing but shadows hidden away in our minds.
A Murder Country is available from Knox Robinson (ISBN: 978-1908483676).