One of the smartest people in the publishing game is a guy named Chris Jackson. He was my editor for two books, and we had one of those mythical old-school writer/editor relationships, by which I mean that we’d have heated four-hour debates about whether I should rewrite a scene, and I’d do everything I could to convince Chris that he was wrong and the scene was brilliant and perfect it was, and then I’d get off the phone and realize he was right and go rewrite it.
One of Chris’s favorite words in those days was “liminal.” It would appear in his editorial letters to me (also quite lengthy) with alarming frequency – alarming because I didn’t really know what it meant. And for some reason, probably because I’m a cantankerous asshole, I never looked it up.
It turns out, though, that “liminal” is a fantastic word, and I use it all the time now. Nobody older than nine has any business quoting a dictionary definition in an essay, but liminal basically means in-between, unresolved – a state or a site of possibility and ambiguity, murk and mystery. Once I learned the word, I realized that damn near everything I’ve ever written has revolved around the liminal, that as a writer I’m instinctively drawn to the spaces and places in our culture where things haven’t settled, where exploration and confusion are most alive. Where people float in the limbo of not-knowing; where rules bend and morals take on a hue of subjectivity. It’s in these spaces that human paradox and complexity – what we’re all trying to explore in stories, regardless of the window-dressing of genre or style – are most alive and on fire, and best dramatized.
That might mean adolescence, or the unseen criminal underbelly of a city, or the complexity of a secret racial identity – all things I’ve written about in previous novels. In The Dead Run, my first foray into SFF writing, that liminal space is a swath of desert along the Texas-Mexico border, a place that doesn’t appear on any map. A crime committed there falls under the jurisdiction of whichever country feels like claiming it. Sometimes that’s nobody. Especially when dead girls start turning up with their hearts torn out.
The Dead Run is set in a second liminal space, too: a kind of hazy, vertiginous pocket-universe in which the poles of right and wrong are demagnetized – where the specter of unspeakable evils seem to justify lesser ones, where ancient prophesies demand that a “righteous messenger” can only be protected by corrupt men, “flanked on all sides by evil,” where only purity can keep you alive but the right murder can be pure as driven snow.
The book’s protagonist, Jess Galvan, wouldn’t be languishing in a Mexican prison if he hadn’t refused to stand idly by while a bunch of cops took advantage of a young drunk girl. And he wouldn’t have been in that bar to begin with if he wasn’t picking up some bearer’s bonds to smuggle into the U.S. And he wouldn’t have started making border runs if he didn’t need cash to win back custody of his daughter from his crazy, cult-member ex-wife.
And if he wasn’t in jail, he wouldn’t have been summoned into the warren of tunnels beneath the prison by El Cucuy, a five-hundred-year-old Aztec priest who needs a moral man to carry the “sacred vessel of the gods” – the still-beating heart of virgin – across the border and deliver it to his son, thus transferring the ancient, stolen powers of a banished god into a new body. That would be a lot easier if the desert wasn’t full of undead girls – the mythical Virgin Army, each one killed by Cucuy, each heart placed into the hands of a man who failed to complete the task now set before Galvan – who sense the presence of the heart and judge its bearer’s righteousness.
Shit gets complicated in the liminal zone.