The Big Idea: Mark Matthews
Author Mark Matthews’ Big Idea today brings you a semi-true story about werewolves. Except they’re not actually werewolves, at least not by name. Read on to see how his newest novel, The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, takes the terrifying concept of werewolves and makes it real.
The Hobgoblin of Little Minds is a piece of speculative fiction that rewrites the Werewolf mythos without ever using the “W” word. The Big Idea is to use well recognized tropes from horror and science fiction, make them my own, and tell the dark and challenging truths of what it means to live with a mental illness, largely through the lenses of lycanthropy.
Much of my fiction is inspired by the immense challenges the human spirit must endure that I’ve witnessed working in behavioral health. It is also based on personal experience, since before I went to get my Master’s degree, I first had to battle my own addiction, and am now 25 years sober. Addiction Horror has been my jam, but the focus of this novel has turned to mental illness and its treatment, particularly bipolar disorder.
The premise of werewolf as a metaphor for bipolar mood swings is a concept that was with me for years, and after researching the topic, I found I was not alone. There are numerous first-person accounts of those living with the diagnosis who cite it as a metaphor, as well as scholarly research articles. One example is titled: “Folklore perpetuated expression of moon-associated bipolar disorders in anecdotally exaggerated werewolf guise” (University of Cologne, 2018) The article concludes that, “Rather than ignoring folklore, scientists may want to think what biological roots may manifest in folklore tradition and tales—including the werewolf legend.” In other words, the best way to tell the truth is through a story, and very often, a work of horror.
Werewolves have always represented the primal part of humans, the Jungian self-gone wild. My version of werewolves are definitely beasts, but they are not necessarily monsters. They love. They have hopes and dreams. They speak as much as howl. They visit their churches and their childhood homes, mimicking much of their human behavior (one werewolf is an electrical line worker, and she is able to climb up utility poles in beastly form and travel in near perfect disguise). They do not grow hair, but they do grow stronger with explosive rage when the moon is full. They are propelled by boundless energy and amazing powers of perception. All of this is not dissimilar to what happens in a manic state. (“What you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses,” Edgar Allan Poe)
The word Werewolf is never mentioned in the novel even once, (because Werewolves don’t exist, and this story is true) and they are not triggered by the supernatural, but by a manipulation of psychotropic medications and genetic loading. There is even a ‘silver bullet’ called Luminex, a mix of Lithium, Benzos, Haldol, and other psychotropics.
The mastermind behind these concoctions is the psychiatrist Doctor Zita, my derivative of the Frankensteinian mad scientist’ trope. Zita grew up as a caretaker for her mom who struggled with mental illness. After one of Mom’s many suicide attempts, her dad abandons the family, saying “you fix her” as he leaves out the door. This becomes Zita’s driving principle and obsession—to ‘fix’ bipolar disorder—and not repeat the foolish mistakes of ineffective mental health treatment of the past.
“She was going to find a way to fix bipolar disorder. To siphon out the worst parts, and make the best parts boil to the top. She had to try something new, because ‘foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ The same efforts bring same results.” The quote is easily recognized for those who’ve read Ralph Waldo Emerson.
According to the Doctor, Bipolar does not need to be blunted, but magnified. Not diminished, but harnessed. The boundless energy of mania, the primal passions, acute senses, and savage strength are what helped humans persist. Natural selection has ensured that bipolar survives, and these strengths come out when the moon was full, since “Humans were meant to hunt by the light of the moon.”
Doctor Zita is certainly the hero of her own story and is an antagonist who understands the protagonist in a way nobody else does. The hero, of sorts, is a young adult who trespasses inside an abandoned psychiatric facility, the last place her dad was treated but never heard from again.
Asylums themselves as a setting are a trope. (For a deep-dive into this, check out Nightmare Factories: The Asylum in American Imagination) My version of this trope is based on an actual abandoned facility near my home, Northville Psychiatric hospital, a huge compound legendary for trespassers. In this way, I aimed for the novel to read as historical horror. I traced actual events of the hospital’s history and wrote the climax to occur during the dates of the demolition. I parked in the spot the main character parks before she trespass inside. I watched hours of videos of the dark tunnels and hallways and interviewed those who’ve been inside. I avoid misnomers like ‘asylum’ or “madhouse for the criminally insane’ and perhaps above all, used my own experience working in such mental health settings.
Writing and publishing this content comes with a risk of further stigmatizing mental illness rather than offering empathy and raising awareness. To gauge the temperature and tone, I gathered specific beta readers and did hours of research. Early reader responses have been incredibly encouraging. The big idea to adapt tropes and raise awareness of some real-world challenges seems to have paid off based on advance reviews. Today is release day and the audience expands. I certainly hope readers will see that this is a true story, even if it never happened.