It can definitely be a strange thing to work in the horror genre. You delve into some of the creepiest, scariest, dirtiest and scummiest parts of the human psyche. Even if you deal with the supernatural (like I did with RIG and The Dead Phone), you still have to have that human element. The horror comes from the fact that we see ourselves within the horrific things. Even with a supernatural story, there has to be that human, relatable, element that allows the reader to identify with the characters, and then be scared with them and for them.
Most of the time, it’s easy to delve into the muck and then dig yourself out. You just tell the story. That’s what I’ve done with most of my books. Yes, I have written (several times) about child murderers, rapists, terrorists, gangsters and human filth, but I always felt I came out pretty clean.
Then came VICIOUS.
I had always wanted to write a man-against-nature horror novel. It was Peter Benchley’s JAWS that first made me fall in love with the thriller/horror genre. Of course, I did not know, until after his death, that Benchley spent most of the rest of his career trying to undo the damage he did to sharks with the huge success of his novel. People feared them in unreasonable ways and sharks suffered to the point that many are now on the endangered species list.
Still, there is something primal, something compelling, about a man-against-nature story. It digs back to our very primitive ancestry. The neanderthals still buried within in our collective consciousness instantly relates to these stories. It’s like or brains still remember trying to survive in caves against a planet, and animals, that just seemed hell-bent on destroying early humans.
But what to write about? I had an image of a cabin (again, a standard in horror, and another touchstone I wanted to touch) in the woods. I knew that there would be just a few people involved, and that some kind of animal or monster would be outside, terrifying, primal, preventing them from leaving. By then making the cabin as primitive as I could (no phones, no TV, no cell phone reception, no internet), I could amp up the danger and drama. At some point, the protagonists would have to deal with the monster outside, or they would starve to death. I loved the idea, but what beast?
I thought about a bear. Sure, a grizzly, maybe? But someone that just never clicked. I toyed with changing the cabin to some kind of arctic base and making the beast a polar bear, but, jeez, global warming is making the polar bear’s life challenging enough, why add to it? I thought about changing it to a mythical beast like Bigfoot, but ol’ Biggie and me have just never had much to say to each other. I have never found ‘Foot stories very compelling. I had already toyed with aliens in GONE, so that seemed out.
I was a library working one day (doing my freelance gig) and I was packing up to leave. I strolled by a display of books and on the cover of one was the image of a dog. It was a powerful, frightening image of a dog I had never seen before. It was the story of a young woman who had been mauled to death by two dogs in the hallway of her apartment building by these dogs. I picked up the book and learned they were Presa Canarios or Canary Island Dogs. I did research on them and saw the standard B.S. that these dogs were “bred to be fierce” and, thus, “bred to kill.”
I will always say that is nonsense. I know too many people who have too many breeds of dogs that have been tagged with the “bad breed” tag. And many breeds have born this ridiculousness: German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, etc. In each case, someone takes a few cases and blows them up as somehow proof that the breed is just “bad.” Really? I have met many a friendly German Shepherd, Rottie and Bully in my day. And I know many families who have them, around kids, and they are loyal, friendly, kind loving animals.
No dog is “born bad.” Dogs are MADE vicious by people who are, in my opinion, lower than the lowest scum on the planet. Anyone who would abuse a dog (or any animal) is the worst kind of human being, in my opinion. Dogs, especially. All a dog wants is to please its master, and be loved unconditionally in return. Anyone who would abuse that, and turn that love off inside such a wonderful animal, and turn them into killers – well, they are scum beyond imagining.
It turns out the dogs in the story I read about had been abused. A white supremacist douchebag had trained them to fight. He then turned these dogs over to his lawyers while he sat in prison. The dogs reacted the way any dog who had suffered they way those two had would and an innocent person (and two innocent dogs) suffered as a consequence.
I decided that this breed of dog was what I was looking for. They are pure muscle and teeth. They can be fierce, but they, like any dog, can also be brilliant family pets. However, I wanted to write a story that showed how abusing an animal like that can turn them into monsters – and the ultimate penalty for such a atrocity.
I began writing VICIOUS in 2006-2007. I put it aside at least twice, for months, only to feel it pull me back. I finally finished it in a kind of blur around 2008-2009. And then that novel sat there.
I didn’t know what to do with it. I felt it was a good story. I felt it was compelling and intense and, in places, terrifying. Sure, it needed editing and rewrites in spots, but I felt the core was good. But I was guilty – guilty, I felt, of writing a story that would offend dog owners and dog lovers and, in particular, those who love the breed of Canary Island dogs. Again, I felt very, very passionately that even in my story it was not the dog’s fault that they behaved the way they did. I felt I bent over backwards throughout the story to make it clear that it was MAN who was the ultimate villain here.
I can’t tell you much more without giving away the ending of the novel. However, I agonized over the first draft. I rewrote the ending. Then, when I discovered SalGad Publishing, I presented both endings to them. They preferred the first ending, but agreed to also print the second.
I was relieved.
I still think VICIOUS is a good story. The cover that artist Stephen Bryant created is just beyond brilliant. My experience with SalGad has been remarkable. I do hope the story sells.
At the same time, I hope no one ever turns against a Canary Island dog, or any dog breed, because of my novel. Since that incident in San Fran, there have been no other big national stories of Canary Island dogs killing people (that I know of). Far too many politicians are playing into the ignorant fears of people and enacting breed laws.
I disagree with them with all my heart and soul. I believe we should fight against breed legislation with all our collective might. And if you love a supposed “bad breed” I hope you are out there, on the front lines, with your dogs, showing the world that there is no such thing as a “bad breed.”
There are just bad, bad, bad people who do very, very cruel and bad things to animals who don’t deserve it.
Love your dogs, people. They are, truly, angels among us. God practiced with humans, and got it right when he created dogs.