Giving Thanks. . .For Nightmares

By Christian Smith

Thanksgiving is a strange middle-child holiday, sadly lacking in both the horror-show cachet of big brother Halloween and the candy cane magic of little sister Christmas. Established as a day to express gratitude for one’s blessings—in remembrance of a historical event of dubious authenticity—Thanksgiving has devolved in recent years into a day for gluttonous overeating, football, and diving into the annual consumer frenzy madness. I only enjoy one of those things (gluttony is easily one of my top three favorite deadly sins) but I do like to take a moment to say thanks for the things I’m grateful for.

Like these messed-up dreams in my head.

My first novel, The Black Monkey, published earlier this year by Permuted Press, came to me in such a dream. That’s not completely unusual. Throughout my life, I’ve been fascinated by dreams and dream-related phenomena, and have been blessed with a very vivid dream-life. (With the associated curse of equally vivid nightmares.) Almost everything I’ve ever written has some connection to a dream I’ve had. Sometimes a plot point or a line of dialogue, but more usually just an image.

The Black Monkey, though, came to me fully formed.

The “actual” dream was brief and very simple. Little more than an image itself. I saw a young African-American kid, about ten years old, alone in the woods on a cold pre-dawn morning. (This was a rare “third person” dream where I was not a participant within the dream, only an observer.) The kid was terrified by something I could not see, something horrifying that was coming for him.

In the dream, I knew what was coming for the kid. I also knew that it was something he had created himself. I knew why he had created it. I even knew how.

I emerged from the dream into a very rare hypnopopic state. I was not fully awake, but I was completely lucid. The story took shape in my semi-consciousness, as clearly and easily as if I was sitting in a theater, watching it unfold on a movie screen.

It was the most extraordinary experience of my creative life.

This is the story I “received”: The children in a small Illinois town have gathered in the same harvested cornfield every Halloween night for longer than anyone can remember. Here they enact a strange ceremony in which a sock monkey is buried along with handfuls of sacrificial trick-or-treat candy. The ritual has become just an excuse for partying and making out, the true meaning long forgotten. But then the little town becomes the hunting ground of a monstrous serial killer who preys upon children. When the adults can’t catch the murderer, the children resort to the dark magic of the monkey.

The concept was spawned from such an obscure corner of my consciousness that it was almost as if it came from some alien place. I actually feel a little dishonest taking full credit for it. (I will cash the certain-to-be-exorbitant royalty checks, though.) To this day, I have been unable to replicate the experience. If there was a pill or a supplement I could take to induce that state, I’d do so in a heartbeat. Yoga, hypnosis, trance meditation, whatever. Hell, I’d sacrifice hamsters under the full moon on the Feast of St. Crispin if I thought it would work.

The second book in the series, Bloody Bloody Bakersfield (out December 1 from Permuted Press) is my attempt to honor that original etheric transmission by dealing more explicitly with dream phenomena. The story follows the (surviving) child characters from the first book, now adults, as they return to their possibly cursed hometown. Bakersfield, Illinois, is a Midwestern halfway-point between Twin Peaks and Castle Rock, Maine. A mysterious sleepwalking sickness ravages the community, causing its sufferers to enact their strangest and most violent dreams. As Bakersfield descends into chaos, a shadowy government agency quarantines the town, isolating the community as it is consumed by the mystery disease. Amidst the surreal anarchy, failed horror writer Mark Davies comes to suspect that the inexplicable epidemic may be connected to the events of twenty years prior.

Bloody Bloody Bakersfield is a very different book from The Black Monkey. Abandoning the child’s-eye view of the first novel, the second one is more adult, more explicit. The Black Monkey is constructed around suspense and mounting dread. Bloody Bloody Bakersfield is more balls-to-the-wall mayhem, with a dose of dark humor. I hope you’ll check them both out.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday usually associated with horror, but this year I plan to bar my doors and windows against the Black Friday zombies and eagerly await what visions may come in my white-wine-and-tryptophan delirium. With any luck, I’ll conceive my next novel that way.