Hey guys and girls! 🙂 As promised, I’ve got something for from Christopher Ransom for you.
He’s written the sure-to-be-chilling The Birthing House, a new title that Publishers Weekly says is “A blend of supernatural horror and psychological thriller, Ransom’s impressive debut chronicles a couple’s descent into madness after they purchase a 140-year-old Victorian house in rural Wisconsin . . . this addictively readable ghost story will keep readers up all night, with the lights on, of course.”
Following on from the Book Trailer and Excerpt in my last post, I have an essay for you that Christopher wrote, explaining why he wrote The Birthing House. 🙂 Enjoy!
SOMETHING BIRTHED THIS WAY COMES
Or, How and Why I Wrote My First Novel, The Birthing House
Sometime around 1979, my father announced to my older brother Mike and me that he had installed a PIRATE ANTENNAE, so we could now watch HBO for free! ‘But don’t tell anybody,’ he warned us. ‘It’s sort of illegal. And your mom will probably give me hell about it.’ In an effort to get the most out of his purloined ‘cable’ service, Dad’s policy on what the kids were allowed to watch was, shall we say, lax.
Following this domestic technology revolution, we Ransom boys were exposed to Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, Alien, Urban Cowboy, My Bodyguard, Jaws, The Blue Lagoon, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Convoy, Hooper, Alice, Sweet Alice, The Elephant Man, and Dressed To Kill among many others.
Fighting. Drinking. Cussing. Cars and stunts. Guns and knives and blood. Monsters and human monsters, aka crazy people, and, when you were really lucky, naked breasts. I remember looking at my brother in the dark, our eyes this wide, sending each other the same message – Can you believe Dad’s letting us watch this? and, Don’t you dare tell Mom, you little shit!
There were a lot of pirated movies. But the one that really stands out for me is, of course, The Shining. I don’t remember much about that Saturday night. Just that there was very little talking going on while we watched.
The little boy running in the snow in that maze. And the cackling woman in the bathtub. And the twin girls in the hallway. And the axe landing in that man’s chest, and the geysers of maroon-black blood that flowed from the elevator.
This was 1981 or so.
I was nine.
Then came Cujo, on the eve of my 6th grade year. I saw that little summer surprise in the movie theater. Twice. A few months later I was strolling through the book fair being held in our elementary school cafeteria when I stumbled across a little paperback. Had the same cover art as the movie poster. Ominous farmhouse in the background, the white picket fence with Cujo spelled out in dripping bloody letters.
‘Now There’s a New Name for Terror’ it said, and there was, but it wasn’t Cujo.
The name was . . . well, you all know the name, don’t you? A light went off in my eleven-year-old brain. I’d seen the movie. Now I could read the book and do it all over again, everyday for optional reading time!
Okay. My parents were divorced. They were not wealthy. Their friends were contractors, teachers, barbers, realtors, lawyers, and gas station men. Some of these people had problems that even an eleven-year-old could see. In short, I knew people like the Trentons and the Cambers, the white and blue-collar families in Cujo. I recognized them. I knew my parents loved me very much, like the Trentons loved their boy Tad. But sometimes life throws you a rabid dog. We had been through rough times, but we’d been lucky so far. I hadn’t been trapped in a car for three days, dying of thirst while under attack by man’s best friend.
Not long after cracking the opening chapters of Cujo, my 6th grade teacher Mrs. Schrag, a good teacher who could go from motherly sweet to drill sergeant stern in about half a second, interrupted optional reading time and called me to her desk. I went to her, holding Cujo in my hand.
‘Christopher,’ she said, her brow hunching steeply. ‘That book you’re reading.’
‘That’s a Stephen King book.’ A new name for terror, indeed. ‘Are you really reading that?’
‘Do you . . . ah . . . understand it?’
‘Cujo? Oh, yeah, sure,’ I lied. ‘Uhm. Most of it. I think.’ Better.
‘I see.’ Mrs. Schrag had a hard eye for liars, and she was pressing me with it full force. ‘Do your parents know you’re reading that?’
‘Oh, yeah! My mom bought it for me.’ This was true. ‘And it’s okay, I saw the
movie. Twice! It was awesome!’
Mrs. Schrag’s eyes darted around the classroom to be sure no one was listening. She leaned over her desk, grabbed my arm and whispered, ‘I know. I saw it too! Wasn’t it great? I just love all of his books!’
Mrs. Schrag and I understood each other after that. Later in the year she recommended Pet Sematary to me. I read all of the King books, then Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Robert McCammon, Dan Simmons, and so many others.
There are many reasons that I was never really a good student after the age of thirteen, but dark literature and scary movies sure ain’t one of them. I found trouble enough as a teen, but I shudder to think what kinds of trouble I would have found for myself without the books.
I dropped out high school at age seventeen. I took some college courses, earned a few As in my writing classes. But in addition to majoring in Beer Guzzling, I kept finding myself staying up late with my nose in some horror novel or another, unable to focus on the ‘serious literature’ I was being prescribed by my professors. Oh, if only they had been offering course titled ‘Ghosts, Pimps, Cops and Ho’s: Genre Fiction in America’!
I read a lot – just not textbooks. I had no interest in college, and so I made myself a deal. I agreed to let myself fail, again. On one condition. I vowed to become a professional author. I would become real writer – even if it took a decade, twenty years, a lifetime. Because in writing, the only failure is to quit.
I filled journals, I penned sappy poems, I labored over a couple dozen short stories. I moved to New York. I worked lots of jobs. I wrote millions of words. I moved to Los Angeles. I got married. I wrote eight screenplays, including romantic comedies, neo-noir thrillers, and two sort-of-horror scripts.
I amassed some four hundred rejection letters and sold not a single story.
I was failing, again.
But why? What had I been doing wrong?
The answer is, I no longer loved writing. Working on screenplays, I had fallen into a creative coma. I wasn’t following my heart. I had always loved novels more than movies. I had always loved dark fantasy and thrillers and horror fiction more than romantic comedy and pretty much everything else I’d detoured to write.
So I wrote my first novel, a psychological horror-thriller called The Birthing House. It took three years, working seven days per week, nights and weekends when I was not working at (and commuting an hour each way to) my full-time job as a copywriter for Famous Footwear.
Two bestselling authors read early drafts and provided unsolicited quotes in support. I landed a passionate, gun-slinging agent named Scott Miller. He sold the novel almost exactly fifteen years after I made that promise to myself.
But why? Why now, and more to the point – if I had found that which moved me above all others when I was a teenager, why did I not begin my first horror novel until age thirty-two?
The quick answer is, I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t experienced anything worthy of a novel, and I didn’t have the emotional stamina and discipline to spend three years writing one. But the other answer is probably the most-fitting answer: fear. I was afraid to attempt what my heroes did year-in and year-out, which is delve deep into themselves and write about what scared them most.
But here I must give credit to the house itself, because she played a role . . . and then some.
In 2003, my wife and I decided to leave the Big City life behind. While knocking around Wisconsin we discovered Mineral Point, a charming town of approximately three thousand souls, located some fifty miles southwest of Madison. Art galleries, historic buildings, and an honest-to-God Ben Franklin five-and-dime. Old trees and old houses, many of them Victorians at prices that, compared to Los Angeles, seemed astonishingly low. We toured a few of these charming homes, found one on a half-acre lot, with a small library on the second floor, and bought it (relative to Los Angeles) for a song.
Only after we had moved in did I realize that our lives had taken on the trajectory of the first hundred pages of a horror novel. You know how it goes – young couple moves from the city to a small town in rural America to start a new life, only to discover that their new neighbors are the offspring of a centuries-old satanic cult that’s just decided to bring back the annual tradition of roasting the new City Boy and His Purty Wife over the communal Halloween bonfire.
Alas, our new neighbors turned out to be some of the kindest and most genuine people we have ever known. But we did discover something odd about our new residence. Shortly after we finished unpacking, the former owners showed us a hundred-year-old, sepia-toned photo of a group of women standing on our porch. Dark dresses and pale countenances. Some were wearing aprons, others were wearing nurse caps. None were smiling. This did not appear to be a family gathering.
Our hundred-and-forty-year-old home was once a birthing house, we were told. A what? Yeah, a birthing house. You know. Doctor’s quarters. Midwives. Wet nurses. A birthing house. Neat, I guess. I forgot about the photo a week later.
So my wife and I began the first year in Wisconsin doing what you do to ‘start a new life’. Look for jobs, find the good restaurants, make new friends. We also began to talk about having children in ways we never had before. Neither of us were in a hurry, but I kept asking myself, what are we doing out here in the sticks, in a four-bedroom house? Besides enjoying a slower pace and the clean air? Did we come here to have children?
Time to quit dallying and write that novel. They say one should write the book one would love to read but can’t find in a bookstore. Well, I hadn’t read a good haunted house story in a long time. I mean the kind that grips your throat while you’re in it.
I also knew that I wanted to do something scary and full of sexual tension. I’d been reading a lot of Colin Harrison – Afterburn and The Havana Room are two of my very favorite novels, not least because of how deftly Harrison weaves sex and food and money and race and class and more sex into his characters’ lives, their motivations, and the larger dynamics of the urban noir. Because come on, isn’t that what drives us, so much of the time? Our appetites?
I certainly thought so. Because during those years of living in New York and Los Angeles, I experienced – and witnessed my friends engaged in – an almost constant tug-of-war with temptation. Jobs for more money. Drugs for more fun. New partners for more sex. New choices for a whole new lifestyle. It seemed as if everywhere I turned someone I knew was up to something your parents warned you to avoid. And for a short period it almost seemed . . . normal. At least until the hangover set in and your dreams, or your family, had gone up in smoke.
It was perhaps too easy to imagine taking the big job, experimenting with the next drug, and falling into some stranger’s bed. But if those alternative paths were easy to imagine, then so were the consequences. And no vision frightened me more than the prospect of losing my wife, my best friend, the woman I had been writing for all along. The pain I would inflict and the hell my life would become if I gave into that temptation, were so ugly and disturbing to contemplate that I never crossed the line.
Instead, I told myself to get back to work. I wrote about crossing the line.
Isn’t that what readers want from authors of the dark? Our gravest fears playing out on the page? The Shining is, after all, not only about a haunted hotel and a psychic little boy. It’s about alcoholism and the legacy of family violence. It’s about a boy who foresees his parents’ divorce, and worse, their approaching REDRUM. Cujo is not only about a rabid Saint Bernard. It’s about how the career demands that separate man and wife can lead to infidelity and become a rabid dog that kills your kids.
The human sex drive. It’s partly responsible for the continuation of the species, but it can, when left unchecked, also give birth to a monster. So here were my ingredients: a childless couple with a history of deceit, a house built for birth, and several ghosts of women past. Things going bump in the night, things going bump in the writer’s mind.
I felt the first contractions. Ready or not, something was about to be born. Then one night I had a real humdinger of a nightmare. One that did not end when I woke up. And I’m not making this part up, folks. Trust me.
In the nightmare I was with one of my ex-girlfriends and we were close to . . . becoming intimate, is the polite way of saying it. I was reaching out to her, this shadowy beauty from my past, but something was holding me back, forbidding me. In the dream I was aware that I was in a bed, and there was a great weight pressing down on my body, ethereal but strong, like a force field of smoke crushing me into the mattress.
Then my ex-girlfriend was gone and I began to wake up, sort of stranded between the dream and the part where you wake up screaming, and I could not see it – this force – but I sure as hell felt it, and then knew somehow that it wasn’t an ‘it’ at all, but a her.
The woman hovering over me was not my ex-girlfriend, and she was certainly not my wife, who lay sleeping soundly next to me. I was on my side facing my wife, almost flat on my stomach, so I could not look up or behind me to the side of the bed. But I felt a curtain of black hair tickling my shoulders as she leaned over the bed and whispered in my ear.
‘Stay . . . stay down.’
It was at that time I experienced a sublime terror. I woke all the way up and the pressure lifted. I rolled onto my back and pulled covers up and blinked into the pitch-blackness of our bedroom, trying to see her. To see if she was still in there with me. And then I remembered the sepia-toned photo of the women standing on the porch of our house a century ago.
Midwives, wet nurses, maids. Mothers gone astray.
And I thought, What if one of them is still here? What if she suffered a loss . . . and wants compensation?
So, after spending the rest of the night in a delirium of cold sweat, I had my novel. Well, not my novel. But I had what better writers than I have called the hard, unshakable center, that seed from which all else would spiral out.
One can never know, but I suspect that this may be the last time in my life I am handed the gift of a premise for a novel by way of a real estate transaction and a nightmare. Was it really the house that gave me the novel? Or one of the women? Go ahead and laugh, but I have wondered.
All I know for certain is that the birthing house and The Birthing House taught me to love writing again. Wherever I go from here, I hope I don’t have to move halfway across the country to find my next book. I’ve come to love this old girl, her warm hearth, her cozy little library. And since writing a novel inspired by her and the women who once ushered in new life under her roof, she lets me sleep soundly.
Hope that gave you some insight into the man behind the book! 🙂
P.S. Stay locked on the blog – tomorrow I’ll have an interview with Christopher for you – not one that I did with him, unfortunately, but it should still be good, nonetheless. 🙂