Sometimes a ghost is just a ghost — that is, a dead soul wandering about the world without having moved on, and occasionally breaking things or scaring people. But sometimes a ghost is something else entirely: evidence that the world has changed, and with it, the ground rules of how the world actually works. Stacia Kane has ghosts of the latter persuasion in her new novel Unholy Ghosts, and building the world in which ghosts actually make sense — and where a ghost hunter isn’t just an entertainer on a cable network TV show — was her challenge. Here’s how she did it.
It actually started with one line in an old issue of STARLOG magazine, a mention of a “professional debunker;” that is, someone who investigates hauntings. This would be unlike the “Ghosts are totally real, dudes—and we will find them!” shtick of those ghost-hunting TV shows that sprout up everywhere these days, with lots of night-vision camera work and people running around screaming. (Am I the only one who thinks, “That’s right, boys. It’s Doctor Venkman!” every time I see one of those?)
I already had a series that straddled the urban fantasy/paranormal romance line—the Megan Chase books (Juno/Pocket)—but I really wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to move away from heavy romantic elements, and I wanted to write a main character with real, deep problems. Someone who couldn’t solve those problems by casting a spell or pulling a gun or sexing up a gorgeous paranormal creature; I was frankly tired of gorgeous paranormal creatures. Don’t mistake me; I’m not putting down books where gorgeous paranormal creatures are sexed up, or saying that there aren’t plenty of books out there where no gorgeous paranormal creatures are sexed up. I just wanted to do something else.
I wanted to write dark fantasy; I wanted to write something creepy and dangerous and badass, something more Escape From New York than Pride and Prejudice (with or without zombies).
I had this heroine, Chess Putnam, who is addicted to painkillers, racked with self-hatred and insecurity, but determined to keep living the best way she knows how. And I loved Chess and understood Chess and identified with her in ways I can’t even explain, and I wanted to write about her so desperately.
And having this character, and having a plot—a debunker discovers the ghosts she’s investigating are real—I needed a world where that mattered. I wanted to do a series, and while the idea of a contemporary Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk-style heroine who wanders from town to town had some appeal, it just wasn’t right for me.
So I needed a world where people actually had reason to fake hauntings. To do that I needed to do something I hadn’t really done before, at least not in so much depth. I built a world.
I decided that in this world ghosts were a real and ever-present threat, and this super-religion was in charge, this church which promised to protect people from ghosts—and the reason for that? Because the ghosts rose from the grave en masse and slaughtered the fuck out of humanity, essentially, and the church stopped them. Since most urban fantasies seemed to be placing their “then everything changed” events in 2000, I put mine—called “Haunted Week”—in 1997, just for kicks.
So I had a seriously reduced population under the control of one international government, and that government was all that stands between mankind and its extinction. If you have a haunting the Church pays you a settlement. If you fake a haunting you’re defrauding the government. And it’s Chess’s job to catch you doing it (and she’s good at it, and proud of being good at it, too).
More than that, I have a Church whose magic—based on British Traditional Witchcraft and on folklore—actually works. Everyone know that magic works, has seen it work, and owe their lives to it. Adding modern technology—and a bit of as-yet-uninvented technology as well—made the world feel even more unique, especially when I took the Church’s 18th-century origins and made that part of their “look” and culture, so it was sort of like The Crucible meets The Wicker Man (but sadly without Christopher Lee in a dress). And to top it all off, I gave it a soundtrack full of the best punk rock I know.
Now I have a world which is completely different but familiar at the same time, at least to me. A post-apocalyptic world. An authoritarian world which nonetheless has pockets of utter lawlessness. A world where magic is real but gods are not. I loved it and thought it was awesome, but it terrified me, too, because I actually had to write it, and it had to make sense, and I had to do it justice. Well, I was the idiot who wanted a challenge, right? So what more could I toss in there?
Thanks to my utter fascination with underground spaces, I also had the City of Eternity, a vast underground space where all the ghosts “live,” where the psychopomps which are one of the cornerstones of Church magic (how else do you magically banish ghosts?) take them.
Everyone knows where they’re going when they die. Everyone knows that their souls live on underground and that magic actually works. They know there are no gods, no Heaven or Hell. There is no real religion; there is a Church that preaches simply Fact and Truth.
I’m not an organized-religion girl myself, but to me this was the heart of the idea, and the world. How does that lack of faith in a higher power, and yet the unchangeable faith in the Church’s magic, inform Chess’s character? What about her drug dealer’s enforcer, Terrible, who—thanks to her debt to said dealer—gets involved in the case she works in Unholy Ghosts?
Terrible is this big, mean, ugly thug, a greaser with no formal education and no Church to believe in—but like Chess, he was saved from an even worse life by his boss. How does that mold and change his character? What about Lex, who works for a rival dealer? What about any of the characters who populate the city’s ghetto, which is called Downside and largely ignored by the Church? How does their outlook on life differ from those living “normal” lives in other parts of the city, and how does that differ from the way things are now, in our world?
What do any of us believe in? What really makes a person bad, or good? Most of my characters are junkies or thugs or drug dealers. Some might see them as bad people. But are they really? Or are they just people trying to get through the day, trying to find something to sustain them in a world where such sustenance is hard to find? Is a person “bad” because of what they do, or because of who they are? What level of badness do you need to hit before it cancels out the good, and vice versa? How do the rules change without god-based religions, and who decides “good” or “bad?”
Ultimately, you do. You, the reader. Whether you like the characters or not, whether the creepy dystopian worldbuilding—called by more than one reviewer “the best worldbuilding [they]’ve seen outside of straight science fiction”—attracts or repels you, whether you feel the story, characters, and world all integrate and build off each other or not, my goal is not only to entertain you, not only to tell the most kick-ass awesome story I possibly could, but to make you think, and feel.
Whether I’ve succeeded is entirely up to you, but I certainly tried.