Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, August 26, 2019

Monday, August 26, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Violet

Inkshares: Violet by Scott Thomas

Inkshares: Violet by Scott Thomas

Inkshares: Violet by Scott Thomas

Inkshares: Violet by Scott Thomas


by Scott Thomas

Death and grief are natural sources of horror, as evergreen as creepy children and spooky houses. Scott Thomas (Kill Creek) builds his horror novel Violet around these reliable pillars, supplemented by his careful attention to detail and deliberate unfolding of repressed memories. Violet begins with a loss: protagonist Kris Barlow's husband has died in a gruesome car accident. Kris has decided to drive herself and her daughter, Sadie, to a lake house that she remembers as the site of many happy childhood memories. Unfortunately, that house--and the lake--harbor terrible secrets that threaten to steal Sadie away from her.

The horror in Violet is of the creeping-dread variety, comparable in some ways to how novels like The Haunting of Hill House ground the terrors in their characters' unraveling psyches. However, Thomas does not shy from shocking the reader with a particularly grotesque description. For example, this is how Thomas describes Kris's husband after the accident: "The entire right side of his head was completely flat, like a cartoon character hit with a frying pan. The once-sturdy skull was nothing but a patch of bloody sludge. She could press her fingers into that red mud if she wanted to, digging her fingertips all the way into the spongy gray center of his brain." For the most part, though, Thomas is interested in psychological scares. The lake house has fallen into disrepair since Kris's childhood, and while there are nostalgic pleasures to be had--finding an old boom box and swimming in the beautiful, crystal-clear water are particular high points--plenty of darker memories are stirred up, too.

Kris is at first determined to cheer up Sadie, to shake her out of her despondent fog. Soon, though, Kris starts to notice some unsettling signs: blackbirds behaving oddly around the house, a woman with long black hair who stares at them from her lakeside cottage, countless smudges on the windows. Thomas writes: "They were on the inside. Tens. Hundreds. Thousands of handprints. Small, like a child's." Even more worryingly, Sadie becomes preoccupied with an invisible friend--never a good sign in a horror novel. Sadie's emotional state becomes more cheerful, almost manic as she holds tea parties with her friend and plays games with her. In chapters from Sadie's perspective, Thomas gives us a creepy child's-eye-view of the developing supernatural relationship. Kris is forced to watch helplessly as her daughter becomes harder and harder to reach.

Violet is a book about grief and loss, but not just that of Kris's husband. The lake house is also where her mother died--slowly and painfully--of cancer. The reader will learn that Kris is not a particularly reliable narrator. Her joyful childhood memories are an odd fit for such a grief-haunted place, especially when she learns that her father "hoped the place would rot. He said he wanted to die knowing that no one would ever live in that house again." Thomas seems to want to say something about how well we can mask the worst moments of our lives behind more palatable memories, reshaping the past to protect ourselves. Even so, there is a sense that all that repression will inevitably lead to a reckoning, one that comes closer the more Kris realizes her rose-tinted memories don't match reality. And especially once she starts to remember that when she was a young girl, she had her own friend who distracted her from the trauma of her deteriorating mother--a friend named Violet.

Violet is not particularly plotty--it thrives more on atmosphere and a compelling sense of place. In those areas, Violet excels. Lost Lake was formed after a destructive flood--markers warn boaters away from submerged houses. When Kris and Sadie wake up in the morning, the lake is completely obscured by fog. Thomas makes excellent use of water's eerie properties--the sense of something lurking underneath remains an effective horror touchstone. Pacington, the town abutting the lake, is decaying as surely as Kris's lakeside house, especially after a series of child disappearances and deaths left the small community grief-stricken. Even outside of these horrible circumstances, Pacington is easily recognizable as the type of small town left behind by a changing world. Like Kris, the town is stuck in a fractured memory of its past--its old-fashioned charms carry a disquieting edge.

Ultimately, though, this is a haunted house story, and the lake house is the atmospheric centerpiece. Even in its diminished state, the reader gets a sense of the house's character, though it is not quite the "fairytale illustration" Kris remembers. Or perhaps the fairytale is merely revealing its sinister undertones, more Brothers Grimm than Disney. While not exactly the crumbling gothic mansion of classic horror fiction, the house bears the imprint of death: "The house looked like a crumbling headstone on a forgotten grave." This is not the house that Kris remembers--rather, it is a place whose true nature she has chosen to forget. All of Kris's cleaning and tidying cannot restore the house to what she wants it to be. There is a sense of menace in the air that hints at a reckoning with the past and the titular supernatural force, one that will put her and her daughter at terrible risk. Violet grounds every scare in its characters' vulnerabilities, building to a tense and emotional climax. --Hank Stephenson

Inkshares, $17.99, paperback, 446p., 9781947848368, September 24, 2019

Inkshares: Kill Creek by Scott Thomas

Scott Thomas: A Tightening Grip

(photo: Kimberly Thomas)

Scott Thomas is the author of the horror novel Kill Creek, which is being adapted into a television series for Showtime. He has written TV movies and teleplays for various networks including Netflix, Syfy, MTV, VH1, the CW, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and ABC Family. His second novel, Violet (Inkshares, Sept.), is about a mother and daughter who retreat to a lake house to recuperate after a tragedy. There, a malevolent force from the past threatens to tear the family apart.

Grief has a long lineage in horror, playing a central role in many classic books and movies. How does your novel fit into that legacy?

Grief haunts us. It is insidious. If not dealt with properly, it festers. It's like a wound that never heals properly. It is always there, causing us pain. I think that's why it pairs so well with horror, especially ghost stories. A haunted house suffers the same kind of trauma: a loss that refuses to release its hold. It infects the house and, ultimately, those who choose to live in it.

Violet is very much a story about people not dealing with grief. My dad died of cancer, and I never really knew how to process that loss. In Violet, Kris has experienced a similar loss, and her inability to come to terms with it has resulted in a lurking horror, a presence that doesn't want to be forgotten.

How do you effectively pace out scares in horror fiction? Would it be fair to characterize your approach as "slow burn?"

I think the pace of scares depends on the type of story and the chosen approach. Every story calls for a different pace. Kill Creek and Violet are both ghost stories at heart, and my favorite ghost stories are the ones that take their time building atmosphere and getting under your skin. You could call it "slow burn," but I like to think of it as a tightening grip. The idea is to hold your reader, to make them trust you as the storyteller and then slowly squeeze tighter and tighter so that by the time they realize they're afraid, they can't get away. I love stories like that.

If you want a story that methodically builds dread until it overpowers you, well, hopefully I've done that. Those are my favorite kinds of horror stories, so I try to emulate that in my writing. But that's not to say that I won't write a story at some point that takes off like a shot and never lets up. That would be fun, too.

I'm curious about the setting in general, which is very vivid. Were there any inspirations for Lost Lake or the town of Pacington?

I set Pacington on the Verdigris River because that's the river that ran through my hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas. It's a very muddy river with dangerous undertow, and every now and then, kids would drown in it. My parents always warned me not to go swimming in it. That kind of thing sticks with you.

There was also an old cement factory called Le Hunt near my hometown that was supposed to be haunted. I heard stories of workers who had fallen into the cement and became incased in the walls. That probably helped inspire the houses that were swallowed by Lost Lake. Le Hunt is near Elk City Reservoir, where my family and I did a lot of hiking. I based some of the geography of the woods near Kris's lake house on the trails around Elk City Reservoir. Another inspiration for Lost Lake was St. Jacobs Well in Southwestern Kansas, which is supposed to be bottomless and is the source of many ghost stories.

You occasionally write chapters from the perspective of Sadie. How did you attempt to capture a child's voice and perspective, especially in regard to the supernatural elements? 

I have two daughters, so I tried to put myself in their heads when I wrote the Sadie chapters. Kid characters are difficult to write because they live in the moment. Even at seven or eight, there isn't a great sense of yesterday or tomorrow. There's just right now. A child might experience the supernatural as something very pure, without the baggage of the existential questions that religion and mortality bring to an adult point of view. For a kid, a supernatural event simply "is." In some ways, that's scarier, because it means they are much more susceptible to its influences.

What do you think it is about bodies of water that is so reliably eerie?

The most obvious answer is that we don't always know what's below the surface of a body of water. Water is very good at hiding things. There's always that part of old maps that marks sections of the ocean as places where monsters dwell. But there is also an undeniable beauty to lakes and rivers. The sound of lapping water, the way the surface reflects the sky--it's comforting and peaceful--which makes it even more horrifying that there could be something awful hiding down there, something that wants to hurt us. We crawled out of the water eons ago, and now whatever great power let us escape wants to pull us back into the depths.

Without spoiling anything, the supernatural elements of the story revolve around the idea of invisible friends. Is there something inherently frightening about children's imaginations? Did you ever have an invisible friend? 

Creepy kids are always good fodder for horror stories. The murdered sisters in The Shining. The twin in The Other. The homicidal girl in The Bad Seed. The Omen. Village of the Damned. The Orphanage. The list goes on and on. That corruption of innocence is terrifying. I loved the idea of exploring a thing that should be innocent and fun--like an imaginary friend--and twisting it into something awful.

An imaginary friend is often a coping mechanism, a way for a child to deal with a profoundly unpleasant situation. It is born of horror. I never had an imaginary friend, but the little girl at the end of my street did. She introduced me to him. I remember seeing his shadow on the wall once, but I told myself it wasn't real. It was just my imagination... right?

While Violet isn't especially violent, there are a few moments of shocking gore. Are you ever concerned about going too far? 

I truly believe that horror should never be safe. That's the point of a horror story. The fear comes from not knowing what the storyteller is going to throw your way. That doesn't mean that every story needs to be shocking or exploitative. But usually a horror story deals with very dark subject matter. Forcing the audience to face that head-on is part of the journey. As a writer, I have my own limits, my own places where I draw the line, so I don't necessarily worry about going too far. As a reader, I enjoy when an author pushes me over the edge.

One of the most horrifying things I've ever read was in Stephen King's It, when he describes how the bully would hold a pillow over the face of his baby sibling to stop it from breathing, then pull the pillow away and watch it suck in air. I don't know that I could write something like that, but, damn, reading it was a trip. That part of the book absolutely horrified me. I'll never forget it. That's the sign of a good horror story. It should bother you. It should disturb you. Whether or not it's done in an artful way... well, that's for the reader to decide. --Hank Stephenson

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