The Fiend at My Elbow: The Stories That Fuel the Horror Elements In Saint-Seducing Gold and the Forge & Fracture Saga

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The Fiend at My Elbow: The Stories That Fuel the Horror Elements In Saint-Seducing Gold and the Forge & Fracture Saga

A notification pings on my phone, the tiny number one standing stark against the app’s icon. A friend is in the middle of reading my debut novel, That Self-Same Metal, and had to pause to check in with me. I open it and burst out laughing. The comment is a joke, compliment, and call-out rolled into one.

 “These interludes. You okay, sis?”

 The interludes she mentions are isolated chapters that deviate from the main plot of the novel. A man pulled to pieces and devoured by a group of beautiful women, a young thief snatched from the streets by a cloud of nightmares, a group of gamblers torn to shreds by a black dog. These interludes flow throughout the trilogy and give us tiny glimpses into the world beyond the view of Joan, the teen protagonist of the Forge & Fracture Saga. Although, even she finds herself in the middle of the bloodshed which, while distinctly PG-13, gets quite gruesome. Beheadings and vivisections may seem out of place in a young adult historical fantasy set in Shakespearean London but for me, they’ve never felt more at home than amongst this world of faerie stories and sonnets. 

Fairytales live alongside the darkness. Most were born from words woven by the fire as a night purer in pitch than most of us could imagine pressed in on all sides. Gruesome details served the practical purpose of establishing proper behaviors—don’t go into the woods at night, be kind to strangers, don’t tell lies, and beware of strangers at the door. The creepy nature of fairy stories now finds itself overshadowed by the shiny corporate gloss of Happily Ever After and endless streams of sparkling merchandise selling a G-rated fantasy. Those shadowy bits still lurk beneath the surface, kept in sight by those who refuse to forget and waiting for those who seek to rediscover. 

I was never a true fan of the horror genre, despite my grandfather’s best efforts. A Black World War II veteran, he hid the trauma of his service in tales of fighting vampires, demons, and werewolves in Germany and by watching scary movies constantly. I’d spend most of the time hidden under the covers or peeking down from the top of the stairs, nervously daring to glimpse the living room TV between supernatural happenings in the family favorite Pet Sematary. Perhaps because the stories that lived in my head and my books were too real. Not only had I met a ghost figure wandering our house, my grandfather’s war stories felt too vivid to be fabricated. My head was already full of horror, spinning its own tales out of the material fed to it. I didn’t need someone else to scare me, I could do it thoroughly enough on my own. Blood and violent deaths crept into even my early attempts at storytelling, sitting comfortably alongside princess adventures, and that nightmare fuel would soon get a historical boost. 

The paper crinkles in my anxious hands as I review the statement I’m expected to deliver shortly before a room full of my fellow seventh-graders. The words are real, a transcript from a witness in one of America’s most infamous trials. It speaks of the circumstances surrounding the horrific double murder of a man and his wife each by 40+ strikes from an axe. The man’s daughter stands accused of the crime—the part I wished to play as a budding actress but I’ll be a doctor instead. Finally, the teacher calls me forward and I take the stand—a chair at the front of the small classroom—to testify against Lizzie Borden. I’ve never been more excited to be in a history class.

Mr. Bergman, our teacher, was an unusual one. Not in appearance or demeanor. He was a tall, slim white man who wore glasses and spoke with a tense jaw due to a lacrosse accident in college. What set him apart for me was the way he brought the material to life. We retold urban legends, we made travel brochures for the Titanic. We reenacted the Lizzy Borden trial using court transcripts. History in all its gory detail brought to vivid life. Hearing the rhyming song is nothing to hearing first-person testimony from the people who were there. But the horrors of real life competed with the high gloss of the Disney Renaissance, the peak run of princesses who populated my earlier childhood until even they threw me a curveball. My dark imagination was ready to feed once again.

In middle school, I firmly joined the ranks of the “must read the book the movie is based on” set. My love of books combined with my determination to know every single thing about every single thing led me to some interesting places. By the time I turned 12, I’d read The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo—thanks to Disney’s 1996 musical film of the same name—and could recite the timeline of the execution of the Romanov family from memory—inspired by Fox’s Anastasia in 1997. Both were bizarre choices for children’s musicals whose source material left a young me reeling. However dark Frollo’s attempt to burn a family alive in their home is in the film, it doesn’t hold a candle to the happenings in Hugo’s novel—if you’ll forgive me the pun. Add to all of that my fascination with Shakespeare’s plays, my home city’s love of Edgar Allen Poe—he famously started his death spiral in a Baltimore gutter—and my second most borrowed library book, Truly Grim Tales by Patricia Galloway, my brain refused to separate gore and horror from the fantastical.

 Truly Grim Tales gave me my first glimpse at the horrific side of fairy stories—and the “bury your gays” trope after Cinderella’s prince is caught washing the feet of his male tutor and the king beheads him. I checked that book out of my school library in a steady rotation with Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories before I sought out the originals as collected by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. I was introduced to evil stepmothers forced to dance in hot iron shoes, a disguised princess discovered because she talked with the severed head of her beloved horse, a maiden whose hands are chopped off so the devil can take her. Terrifying, gruesome, and utterly exciting. Horror and fantasy would never be torn asunder in my imagination again.

Writing the Forge & Fracture Saga, the horror flows into the story organically. The interludes, whether it’s the attack at the Bear Garden from That Self-Same Metal or a horrific escape from a monster in an orphanage in the sequel Saint-Seducing Gold, are often the easiest to write. The amalgamation of gruesome bits floating around in my imagination seeps through in the most wonderful ways. It suits the world that Joan inhabits. The heads of traitors to the crown sat atop London Bridge tarred and on pikes. The bubonic plague ravaged the continent in waves. Executions were public and inhumane. These were the years that inspired Macbeth. Shakespeare’s own plays competed against dogs fighting bears at the Bear Garden across the way. The darkness belonged there, the stories I’d fed my imagination only drew it forth. However much Joan might wish for a lighter story, I and my readers are here for the wild ride.

Brittany N. Williams is the author of the Forge & Fracture Saga, whose latest installment Saint-Seducing Gold will be released on April 23 from Amulet Books. 

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