Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mining Old Fears

-by Laura Bickle, a.k.a. Alayna Williams

I traded with the lovely Jeffe today. She'll be regaling you with tales of fears on Monday.

But I'll talk about my own today. I've said it before, but I think that writers have a responsibility to challenge both readers and our own fears. What scares us? Why? I feel as if I'm doing my own best work when I dig deep into what scares me. If a story wakes me up breathless in the middle of the night, if it makes me cry, if it gives me nightmares - I've hit a nerve. Something dark that needs to be dragged into light and examined. And, yes, researched. I want to know why I'm fearful, beyond the initial emotional reaction. 

This piece first ran in February on Stella's wonderful Ex Libris blog. It ran the week that ROGUE ORACLE was released, two weeks before the Japan Tohuku earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear crisis. Like so many other people around the world, I watched. Wondered. Waited.

And yes, I was afraid.

Mining Old Fears in Fiction
by Alayna Williams

Every once in awhile, I think it's good to go rooting around in the dirt of my fears for story fodder. We all have things that scare us and tend to linger. Maybe it's a childhood terror, a phobia, a bit of something inexplicable that boils up once in blue moon in a recurring dream. Every so often, I take my shovel to the forgotten stuff in the back of my brain and see what I can unearth.

One of my childhood fears was Chernobyl. I was in middle school when the news reports began to filter in that something terrible had happened in Europe...that a Soviet reactor had melted down, breached containment in fire and invisible poison. The Ukraine seemed a thousand worlds away. And I was less than a bystander, an ordinary kid on an ordinary street in the U.S.

But something about the story captivated and frightened me. Partially, I think it was because I grew up in a very industrial area, in the shadow of many chemical plants. Everyone's father had, at one time or another, returned home in the middle of the night in a plastic moon suit, scrubbed red, without the boots, wallet, and lunchbox he'd left with. It was scary. We couldn't see or smell or taste anything different when we threw our arms around our dads. But our mothers worried about the invisible. About cancer.

I remember seeing some pictures of Chernobyl on the news, of an industrial plant not quite so different than those plants that surrounded us. And seeing fire. And the rumors about plumes of poison moving over Europe, unstoppably.

It made me shudder. My mother turned off the television when we were in the room.

But the story of Chernobyl - of the people who died immediately in the fire, those who died after of horrible cancers, of secrets and something invisible that could kill more effectively than an army - it seemed to seep into the minds of the adults. I remember that my class was shown a film about radiation in the school library. I don't remember what it was called, but I remember that it was pretty graphic. It talked a lot about Hiroshima. Poisoned radioactive organs in jars. A man in a perfectly pristine white T-shirt who was covered in radiation burns. Almost a supernatural horror - more terrifying than the books about the making of classic Dracula and Frankenstein movies that we were reading.

It did give me nightmares. And I think many of the other kids.

But, like most other things in childhood, the memory of that fear faded. We grew up, didn't think about the half-life of cesium or whether potatoes could be cultivated in earth a half a world away. We forgot, went to work in the same plants our fathers did, whether for a summer or years after.

I forgot, too. The vicarious memory of it was buried somewhere in my subconscious, and I had no cause to go anywhere near it. It was not part of my everyday life. I went to work every day and preoccupied myself with more proximate fears, like crime and work, and bills and the well being of the stray cat on my doorstep.

But I think a bit of that fear remained to dig around in. I was working on the ORACLE series, and using Tarot cards as story prompts. I was developing the idea for ROGUE ORACLE, plucking cards at random. I kept picking the Tower over and over...the Tower depicts a tall, dark structure against the night sky. Lightning strikes it and destroys it, sending two figures falling to earth. The symbolism of the card is about the end of things - a paradigm shift, the destruction of all that came before.

Something about that flash of light, the fire in the darkness, and the monolithic structure reminded me of that long-buried fear of Chernobyl. It never impacted the physicality of my life, so far away, but it did lodge in my consciousness. I began to research what had happened since then, to that long-forgotten place.

I saw pictures of beautiful land that had been overtaken by nature, by wolves and grass. Photos of rusted cars and helicopters. Articles about the children in hospitals affected by rare cancers, years and years beyond the event. Birds making nests in open seams in the Sarcophagus, the containment structure over the reactor. That, in my mind, was the Tower. In my bystander's head, it became a deeply powerful supernatural entity - something that had the power to reach through time and continue to affect generations of people.

And, because it scared me, I had to write about it.

First two images: U.S. EPA archives. Third image: "Feel Chernobyl" by metzgorein


  1. And you wrote it in a most awesome way. =o)

  2. You did write it in a most awesome way, indeed. And the synchronicity between Oracle and the disaster in Japan was more than a little chilling for me. Also - you are braver than I. My visceral fears remain visceral - I have yet to let them loose on the page. Maybe someday.

  3. Thanks so much B.E. and Kerry!

    This was one of those fears that I'd forgotten. It's strange when you forget them and they fester.

  4. Rogue Oracle is a really powerful and beautiful story. If only I could write my fears as well as you do I'd be writing one hell of a horror story about spiders on the Titanic.

  5. Thank you, Sullivan! *hugs*

    Are these giant spiders on the Titanic? Because I can totally see that. Giant ice spiders.

  6. I remember 1986 quite, uhm, let's go with "well." After Chernobyl there was mass panic about acid rain. I lived in Europe at the time. "Trendy" mob mentality blamed both events on the Americans. (I know, facts aren't always required for group-think.) It was the second time I'd faced the nightmare of neighbors turning on me just for my nationality. Not fun to live, but definitely fodder for the therapy of fiction.

  7. Oooh. Giant ice spiders. The Oracle books are definitely full of the delicious creepitude.

    Really interesting story, KAK.