This Big Idea post for the collection A Sinister Quartet represents an actual record: The largest number of authors co-writing a single Big Idea piece. I’m going to get out of the way here and let them do their thing.
CSE COONEY, JESSICA P. WICK, AMANDA J. McGEE, MIKE ALLEN:
A Sinister Quartet pays tribute to the legacy of collections of dark fantasy and horror novellas like Stephen King’s Different Seasons, the main difference being it’s written by four authors rather than one. The book started life as a duet, with a notion that it might be published with two covers like one of those vintage Ace Doubles, but became a quartet in its final form. We the contributors (C. S. E. Cooney, Jessica P. Wick, Amanda J. McGee, Mike Allen) decided to interview each other about our Big Ideas in the order we appear in the book.
Okay, we start with Claire Cooney—why is your story structured using the language of cinema?
Claire: The idea for “The Twice-Drowned Saint” has been around for years. My first draft was mostly a tone of voice and a series of images—an angel with eleven eyes, a ritual sacrifice turned miracle, a jaded narrator awakening to the horrors and wonders of her world. Perhaps voice and image together meant “cinematic” to me, because in draft two, I began using the language of movies to help me pin the narrative to a specific place and time. I wanted a secondary fantasy world that was experiencing a timeline much like our early twentieth century. I wanted weird angels, sorcery, and fallen gods in conversation with global wars fought with modern weapons, the progression of silent film to talkies and technicolor, plus some really cool motorcycles.
I’m very happy that Mike sparked my deadline fuse and got this story burning again; I’ve never written four drafts of novel-length fiction in a mere four months before. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever attempted, but it also bows to some of my earliest published stories. There’s a sense of personal history here, of inward scope and infinite possibility, that, to me, is pretty breathtaking. And if I am wonderstruck, I hope my readers will be too.
So, Jess. The threat in “An Unkindness” seems to have its roots in a fairyland. Why fairyland?
Jess: First and foremost: Fairyland is my jam. There’s nothing so chilling as the amoral righteousness of fairyland. I grew up imbibing myth and folklore, pretending to bargain with fairies and kelpies who might steal me away—not because they wanted to hurt me in a mean way, but because that’s just what fairies do. There are rules to follow and break and obscure and follow and wield. Secondly, it was important to me the external threat feel beguiling but scary, that most readers—and Ravenna—would immediately judge it “bad.” I wanted a threat that could strike at the heart, because the heart is what I’m chiefly interested in. All of the characters in “An Unkindness” regard themselves as right and knowing best. But they can’t all be—can they? Fairyland is a place that can reveal, obscure, or both; it revels in moral quandaries and ambiguities while at the same time kind of telling us that, no, actually, there are True Things. What better origin for a threat?
Now to Amanda. Why a modern-day retelling of a fairytale?
Amanda: It’s funny you ask, because I originally conceived of this story as a Civil War era retelling. It was also going to be epistolary. So obviously the final story became something very different!
As for why a retelling—I think I’ve always been fascinated with how stories change in their adaptations, but I first really became conscious of how much things transform in adaptation when memorizing lyrics to “Black is the Color” which is an old folk song I first heard covered by Gaelic Storm. I was listening to a radio show on Gaelic and Appalachian music and they played an old Appalachian tune which was clearly derivative, but wildly different. Most of those changes had to do with cultural values evolving. So I wanted to see how a tale set in a different time might evolve and transform itself. Thus, eventually, “Viridian” was born as a modern-day piece. I plan to do a handful of other fairytale retellings in modern times because I really enjoy exploring them in this context. I hope that I’ll bring the true horror of fairytales home to modern readers in a way that’s true to their roots.
Mike, you’re last. Why do you keep writing creepy stories about buttons?
Mike: It’s not the buttons that keep me hooked, so to speak, so much as it is the notion of a predator that craves to learn your deepest, most unpleasant secrets and can assume your identity once it has done so. It just happens that when I was first struck by this idea, it was inextricably visually entwined with the image of a person’s skin being unbuttoned so the monster could access the prize inside, a metaphor literally made flesh. I’m somewhat surprised at how often I’m drawn to revisit this world and further chronicle the fates of the people who encounter these monsters, both those that escape and those that don’t.
My gamble (I admit it is one) is that my novella “The Comforter” (threequel to my horror tales “The Button Bin” and “The Quiltmaker”) is so bizarre that it doesn’t matter what you knew going in, thus it’s a standalone. There are other stories of mine it also ties into, for the first time codifying an “Allenverse,” fun for me but a hazardous place for its populace.
We’ve found that the four stories connect in unexpected ways, even though all were written independently. Shapeshifting of some sort happens in all four stories. The angels in Claire’s story and the monsters in Mike’s have in common chaotic, patchwork forms. Jess’s story has a fairytale feel, while Amanda’s retells a fairytale. Claire’s and Jess’s stories take place in secondary worlds, while Amanda’s and Mike’s are set in present day reality. All the stories have central relationships involving siblings, either familial or found. All use cultural references and genre tropes to set up expectations that then get walloped in the snozz.
Oh, and there’s cannibalism. Many varieties of cannibalism.