If you could undo what you’ve become, undo what you’ve lost, undo what your life has become, is any price too high? Especially if someone else pays it with you? In this haunting and metaphoric tale of isolation and pain, Madeline has no idea the price Bennie pays for her continued “health,” and she doesn’t care.
There are so many layers to read into in this story, I hope you’ll take the time to explore them with me. Madeline is suffering from a diagnosed illness, and it has pulled her away from her family, from social interaction, from everything she knows. She doesn’t care what her “caretaker” goes through, she just needs the medicinal release he can provide. The first time I read this story, I thought Bennie was nothing more than a drug dealer. And that’s literally what he is. But now I see him as more of a caregiver. He’s under no obligation to Madeline, yet he continues to work for her. And she completely takes him for granted. How many at home health care workers feel taken for granted, even though this is just a job for them? How many homebound people feel embarrassed by their situation, their loss of agency, the idea that medications can fix everything that was ever wrong? I love how stories just like this one change shape and color every time I read them. The story doesn’t change, only I do. What will this story be the next time I read it? There’s only one way to find out.
Kristi DeMeester has been writing spooky dark fiction since 2010, with short fiction appearing in The Dark, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Aeons, Three Lobed Burning Eye, Shock Totem, and the anthologies The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis, and Nightscript Vol 1, among elsewhere. Her brand of weird fiction touches on inescapable fears, dreamy moments gone wrong, and the edges of the supernatural. Her strict upbringing guaranteed she’d be a bookworm, and youthful watchings of horror films showed that it’s not horror that’s so scary … it’s what we can’t see, what’s just off screen that’s so scary.
Demeester’s Appalachian horror novel, Beneath, about a journalist investigating a snake handling church, hits bookstore shelves in 2017. She was kind enough to let me pick her brain about Madeline and Bennie, the novel, her own personal fears, and the “secret sauce” to getting the tension in stories like these just right. We even chatted about coffee. You can learn more about Kristi on her website, kristidemeester.com.
APEX MAGAZINE: You chose a Latin title, which I’m not going to discuss the translation of because I feel that could spoil a major plot point in the story, but I am most interested in knowing the process behind choosing a title in a different language. Was this a phrase you knew before you wrote the story? Did the phrase help inspire the story or the other way around?
KRISTI DEMEESTER: I wrote the story before I wrote the title. For a long time I searched and searched for a title I thought would fit, but nothing was really pulling at me. Finally, I started playing on variations of the word “beast” and finally the title came forward.
AM: Does Madeline ever think about what Bennie goes through to create her “medications?” And what Bennie does for her, why would he do this for a complete stranger? What’s in it for him?
KD: In envisioning Bennie’s character, this is strictly a monetary thing for him. He does it for the money. What he has to do doesn’t take much physical or true mental effort, so, in essence, it’s easy money. I never thought Madeline much cared what he went through to provide her medication. I think to both of them, it’s the ends to a mean, and neither truly cares about the other. To Madeline, Bennie is a provider. I don’t think she views him as a person. Because of his willingness to do what he does, she’s able to keep him distant.
AM: This story has some amazing tension in it. The reader doesn’t exactly know what’s happened in the big wide world, we don’t know about Madeline’s past, we don’t know precisely what’s wrong with her. You’ve spent years honing your skills as a horror writer, so what’s the “secret sauce” to building tension just right? How do you keep the story so compelling yet play your cards so close to your chest about what’s actually going on? (Because dear reader, what you think is going on in this story is not what’s going on!)
KD: Thank you so much! And I wish I had a magic formula I could give because then I would follow it without fail. I know what intrigues me as a reader. Small, slow tips that reveal the edges of the horror rather than a full on exposure. I try my very best to mimic that in my own writing. From a very early age, I never liked a full visual of the monster. The monster is always much more terrifying if it stays somewhat hidden.
AM: Your stories often have a theme of motherhood, and Madeline feels intense guilt over her failure as a mother. Why is this a theme you find yourself returning to often? With so much societal pressure, I wonder if all of us women fear being bad mothers, or fear being “not good enough.”
KD: I’m speaking personally here, but this is a huge fear in my day-to-day life. As a mother, I think it’s common to worry that you’re making mistakes or doing it wrong, but I fear the terrible seed that might be lying dormant inside of me. Because I had a bad mother. And there are pieces of myself that scream loud in the quiet moments just before sleep, and they ask me “what happens if you become her?” It’s something I come back to again and again. The monstrous thing in the ultimate feminine act of having a child. There’s a lot of grief wrapped up in that as well. Writing about it is my way of trying to make it okay. I’m not sure it ever will be.
AM: Congrats on your novel Beneath, which is coming out in 2017 from Word Horde! What can you tell us about Beneath? Were there particular portions of the book that were easy to write? Portions that were unexpectedly challenging to write?
KD: Thank you! Beneath was a four year endeavor. I started it during my Master’s program, went away from it, and then finally came back. It’s what I like to call my apocalyptic, snake-handling novel. It’s about a journalist sent to write a story on a snake-handling church in Appalachia. She uncovers what initially looks to be some kind of possession or mental illness, but is something much, much older and darker. Writing Beneath was an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had. I’d never written a novel before, and I quickly reached a point where I felt like I’d ran out of ideas and started throwing in every random thought I had just to keep the momentum going. Going back through during edits, I had to cut much of it. Beneath taught me the power of having a plan. But it’s my first novel. I don’t think I’ll ever quite be able to shake the hold it has over me.
AM: You’ve published a healthy chunk of short fiction, and you’re working on your third novel. How has your experience writing short fiction differed from your experience writing novels?
KD: Novel work is so much more about the dedication to the long game. I’m the sort of person that thrives on quick gratification, and short stories provide that. Novels require more awareness, more flexibility. I had to set my software so I couldn’t see the word count while I was working. Otherwise, I’d start to beat myself up. For novels, I have to ignore the daily counts and let myself fade into the work. When I do reach the end, it’s so hard to shake that world. With short stories, I can jump fairly easily from idea to idea, but novels become something like a waking dream.
AM: You were raised in a fundamentalist religious family, with little exposure to television and all the pop culture that I take for granted. Did your upbringing influence your writing or what you choose to write about?
KD: It certainly guaranteed that I would be a reader. Since there were no other distractions, books were what I turned to. In terms of my upbringing, I certainly reflect on how easy it can be to fall into an ideology. To drown. To ignore the blatant horrors and swallow them down and call them beautiful.
AM: You and I have a few wonderful things in common: a love for black coffee and a history of reading every single Christopher Pike and Anne Rice book the library had. So, I’ve got to ask: Drip, French press, or K-cup machine? And more importantly, which is your favorite Anne Rice title?
KD: I roll with a K-cup machine because it’s quick, and I need caffeine inside of me as soon as possible. The Vampire Lestat is the original and only for me.