On Ruins, Books, and Other Broken Things
Toothless, my 2010 horror and historical fantasy novel from Dragon Moon Press, took a long, long time to start boiling. I’d tried to write some of its characters into other novels … no good. They were waiting for this one. Some of them elbowed their way in. As some parents say of some children, they were not planned.
So, on one hand, Toothless is just a good ol’ zombie apocalypse. Plus Templars. Plus a few other choice topics covered by the volumes in the Strange Bookcase in my living room. Nothing crazy in that bookcase, really, just bitterly defiant of any kind of order. Dewey, armed with his decimal system, would fall at a thousand paces, before he could even touch one of the spines.
On the other hand, though, I have to recognize that Toothless bears the subtle impressions of years of reading, some travel, and a wide array of interests.
Ruins are one of these. They inspire me. Always have. I love ’em. My favorites: Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo, Ireland; a ruined mansion just inside the treeline of Brenton Point State Park, outside of Newport, Rhode Island; Puxley Mansion on the Beara Peninsula, also Ireland (though I understand, but refuse to accept, that the mansion has been renovated into a luxury spa).
Ruins are blank canvases. I like to know the history of these places, but I really enjoy disregarding it. It’s why, I think, I’m drawn to writing historical fantasy. There’s plenty of magic to be had in this world if you let down your guard and allow the environment to play its tricks. (My characters admit this once or twice.) No need to invent your own world. Too much work, too.
Like characters, though, ruins take a while to work through my system and end up on the page. I was fortunate to take three trips to Ireland, quite close together: 2000, 2002, 2004. I got a lot of mud on my boots and ducked under quite a few barbed wire fences looking for tombs, abbeys, and caves. I even invented ruins out of rocks that were probably just interestingly placed by glaciers. I often speak of this time as severely screwing up my writing. I understand now that all of that blooming lichen on ruined stone in dramatic mists just took a while to settle. I tried and tried to write about those places, but had little success until Toothless started busting out of me. Funny thing is, Toothless isn’t really about those places. But it wouldn’t have been possible without them. And the writing I had done before I found those places is pretty disappointing. (Trust me.)
Despite not being about them, Toothless is full of ruins. Forget, for a moment, that the novel’s whole world is in the process of ruination. There are also abandoned Roman villas. Ancient pagan temples. Stone circles. I feel like I’ve been to every one of them. Some are based on real places. The ruined priory where Toothless rediscovers the monks’ cipher was inspired by Muckross Abbey in Killarney, Ireland. Some are more … Lovecraftian in their inspiration. The underground temple near the end of Book II, for example. All are invested with a history that I kind of wish were true, but certainly isn’t. Just like the real ruins that I visit.
An old friend once told me that his favorite books are those in which he can picture the author. The author is a character, or all of the characters reflect facets of the author’s personality. My friend imagines that, after reading a book, he knows the author intimately. To that same friend, I once said that I wished I’d become an archaeologist.
I guess, though, that I have.
I don’t think that the best authors are characters in their books. Books are imperfect, often broken reflections of lost worlds. Like ruins. My favorite authors are always in the background, digging.