Last week I had a great conversation with Steven Van Patten about vampires and what it means to write horror while black.
This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Curtis M. Lawson.
Curtis M. Lawson is a writer of unapologetically weird dark fiction and poetry. His work includes DEVIL’S NIGHT, BLACK HEART BOYS’ CHOIR, and IT’S A BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD WORLD.
Curtis is a member of the Horror Writer’s Association, and the host of the Wyrd Transmissions podcast.
GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Curtis. Since we timed this post just right for the release of your new book, Devil’s Night, tell me about the book. Why Devil’s Night instead of Halloween? Why Detroit? How do the short stories in this collection connect to each other?
CML: The book is a collection of loosely connected stories that take place over the course of Devil’s Night, 1987 in Detroit. They explore different urban legends, traditions, and draw upon the troubled history of the city.
Joe Morey at Weird House Press approached me with the idea of putting together a themed collection. One of his suggestions was a Halloween theme. I considered this, but there are a lot of Halloween books out there and I wanted to do something a little different. I’d always been intrigued with the concept of Devil’s Night, going back to the first time I saw The Crow, so I suggested we go with that, and pitched it with the additional hook of the stories intertwining to a degree, kind of like a Sin City vibe.
Detroit is the only place that ever took Devil’s Night or Mischief Night, or whatever you want to call it, to such an extreme. It also has a rich history
and is steeped in urban myth and folklore. There’s a gothic element to the city’s story that appeals to me too – the concept of a once great city that offered economic, technological, and artistic promise but fell into ruin.
As for how the stories connect, there is a mix of thematic and narrative links. Fire, crime, and poverty are fixtures in many of the stories. The myth of the Nain Rouge manifests in various interpretations. Characters in one story are referenced in another, sometimes in a subtle way, sometimes more direct.
And then there is the overall story that the smaller stories tell. Each of the pieces in the book help to form the tale of a single night, shared by many.
I actually chose the order of the stories so that there was a steady thematic shift, but I doubt anyone else will notice. I tend to do stuff like that a lot, more for my own satisfaction and amusement than anything else.
GMM: Which Motor City urban legends inspired you the most, and how much research went into recreating them in fiction? Which one scares you the most?
CML: The legend of the Nain Rouge definitely impacted Devil’s Night the most. Also called The Hobgoblin of Michigan, it is intrinsically tied to the land. The are stories of the Nain Rouge going back to the founder of Detroit and its history seems to be a hybridization of French and Native American myths that symbolize the history of the city very well.
One of the things I enjoy about myths and legends is that various accounts are often incomplete and contradictory. That makes them more mysterious and murky, which I find appealing. I tried to draw off that, using the Nain Rouge in different roles throughout the stories. Sometimes the monster is an omen of terrible things to come. Sometimes it is an active antagonist. Other times it is an unlikely benefactor.
I did a lot of research for this book, not just the folklore, but also the history and geography of Detroit. It was important to me to not only draw upon
the actual myth, culture, and history of the city, but also to approach it with honesty and respect. There are a lot of pitfalls that you can fall into when writing about a city with a history of racial division, poverty, crime, and violence. This goes double when you’re doing so as a middle-class white man who grew up in Boston of all places. I don’t believe in shying away from difficult topics, but I think it is imperative that they are approached in good faith and with as much accurate information as possible.
What myth scared me the most? Easily, the Hobo Pig Lady. Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single written source for this myth, even online. I had several Detroit natives tell me different versions of the urban legend, however, each of them terrifying.
GMM: The cover art for this collection is beautiful and spooky. Who designed the cover? How important is cover art? Can you really judge a book by its cover? What are some of the worst cover art designs you’ve seen on books you actually love?
CML: Luke Spooner of Carrion House did the artwork. I had worked with him on my novel Black Heart Boys’ Choir and I was wildly impressed with his work and his professionalism. When Joe asked who I wanted for this, Luke was the first and only name I mentioned.
Not only did Luke produce the incredible cover for Devil’s Night, he also drew nine full-page interior illustrations, which are all in full color in the limited edition hardcover.
Cover art is important to me. I wrote, colored, lettered, and published comics for ten years before shifting my focus to prose. As such, I place a high value on not just the technical quality of the art, but it’s ability to convey story, theme, and emotion.
You can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can measure how much value the publisher/author puts on their own product. If I see an amatuer cover my first thought is “this person doesn’t care enough to put a decent package on their work, so why should I care about it?” Sure, sometimes they might lack artistic sense or self-awareness, but more often than not a terrible cover means amateur writing and poor editing.
Worst cover designs from books I love? Well, I really dislike movie tie-in covers. I get the pragmatism of them, but I just don’t typically care for that
aesthetic. More specifically, there is an edition of The Shadow Over Innsmouth & Other Stories with a transparent fish-person in a suit, set against what looks like a desert town in the old west, with bright blue skies. It looks like they superimposed a Scooby-Doo villain over the cover to some forgotten western.
An Excerpt from THE WORK OF THE DEVIL
By Curtis M. Lawson
On Maya’s twelfth birthday she saw the Devil on her way home from school. He sat on the edge of a dumpster in the alley between Little Caesar’s and some bank whose name she couldn’t remember. He stared back at her, a cigarette hanging from his black lips. At first, she thought he was a kid in a mask, maybe a fourth or fifth grader judging by his height.
But when he turned to look at her, she could see that the monster’s face was not made of plastic or rubber. Those ebony lips curled into a smirk, pushing up crimson cheeks. Yellow teeth clenched around the burning cigarette. The bitter October wind rustled the Devil’s midnight locks and his long, patchy strands of beard. Gleaming black eyes, like polished marbles, glared at her with all the warmth of a Michigan winter. When he winked at her, she knew for sure: this was not some kid dressed up a day early for Halloween.
Maya ran from the alley as fast as she could. She sped the whole way home, lungs burning, and didn’t slow until she turned the corner onto Hoyt Avenue. She thought she’d feel safe once she could see her house, but she hadn’t been expecting the flashing lights and uniformed men. She hadn’t been expecting the firetruck and ambulance. She hadn’t been expecting the flames engulfing her home.
Her dad would try to hide it from her, but she’d learn that the fire wasn’t set by some Devil’s Night arsonist. It was the result of her mom passing out with a lit cigarette. That’s what was written in the official report, at least. But Maya knew the truth. The fire had been the work of the Devil.
In the year following her mother’s death, Maya learned all she could about devils and demons. She read the Bible from front to back, watched The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby on repeat, and scoured through the library for urban legends and local folklore. She came to believe that the Devil she had seen was a monster called the Nain Rouge—a terrible imp that brought tragedy upon anyone who caught a glimpse of it.
When her thirteenth birthday came around, Maya saw the Devil again. This time she was on her way to school, and the Devil sat drinking in the wreckage of a junked Charger outside of a rundown garage. Her mind was flooded with anger and fear at the sight of his scarlet flesh and charcoal hair. The instincts to fight and flee battled against each other, leaving her paralyzed.
The Devil drank Jim Beam, the same whiskey as her father. He tipped the bottle out through the car window and poured a swallow onto the ground. The whiskey seeped down through the loose gravel, into the packed, dry earth below.
Panic won out over anger. Maya turned tail and ran to her grandmother’s house, where she and her father had been living since their own home burned down. Horrible visions possessed her thoughts as she sped down sidewalks and cut through alleys. Broken traffic lights strobed red, like the flashers of an ambulance. Dead leaves in varying shades of orange and yellow shifted in the wind, like flickering flames. Passing cars exhaled gray exhaust, like the smoke from melting siding and burning wood.
When Maya turned the corner of the block she lived on, she almost couldn’t believe what she saw—or more accurately, what she was not seeing. There were no emergency vehicles. No rising flames or black smoke. Her grandmother’s house was intact.
Maya rushed inside, afraid that she would find her grandmother dead, but she didn’t. The old woman was just fine. Maya collapsed into her arms, crying her eyes out, babbling on about the devil that killed her mother.
Maya’s grandmother told her that there was no such thing as the Devil and that sometimes bad things happen for no good reason. She let her take the day off and made her a birthday cake—chocolate with buttercream frosting dotted witch chocolate chips along the outer edge. They pored over an old photo album, reminiscing about Maya’s mother. It helped dull the pain of that terrible day—the anniversary of her birth and of her mother’s death.
As the day progressed, Maya’s thoughts turned toward her father. She wondered how he was holding up. He was an old-fashioned kind of man, hardworking and quiet about his emotions, but she knew he was hurting. His pain was as clear in his eyes as it was in the empty whiskey bottles on his nightstand.
The encounter she had with the Devil, or the Nain Rouge, or whatever the hell it was, fell to the back of her mind. Maya was focused on doing something nice for her father when he got home, the same way her grandmother had tried to make the day better for her. Together they prepared her father’s favorite meal—a medium-rare steak with thick homemade fries.
Her father always got home by 6:30, so Maya had the table set and dinner ready by 6:15. By 7:00 p.m. the food was cold, and Maya’s father still wasn’t home. Sometime after 9:00, the police came to the house. Maya watched from the other room as the somber-faced officer told her sobbing grandmother about the car accident.
Her grandmother would try to hide it from her, but she’d learn that the crash wasn’t some freak accident. Her father had been driving while under the influence. That’s what was written in the official report, at least. But Maya knew the truth. The crash had been the work of the Devil.
Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next week!
Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.