Scary Castle Ruin

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Falling In

In the late 1960s, I traveled briefly in the south of France and stayed at a place where a ruined fortress topped a nearby mountain. Local people told me that it had belonged to the Knights Templar.

I've never been back there since, I don't have any photos of it (the one shown here is of the famous Cathar stronghold Montsegur, which looks similar), and Castle RuinI don't recall its name or exact location. But I can still picture it quite well. It was smaller and less intact than Montsegur, but it had the same kind of powerful, eerie presence—a grim reminder of a mysterious and violent past, commanding the miles of surrounding countryside to the Mediterranean coast. It was also strikingly solitary, with no buildings or other signs of modern life anywhere around it. There was a sense that even with the Templars gone for several centuries, nobody wanted to get too close.

That memory was one of several pieces that clicked together in my mind and got me started writing Next, After Lucifer in 1982. The ruin became in my imagination the fortress of the novel's arch-villain—renegade Templar Guilhem de Courdeval, who made a pact with the powers of evil.

Courdeval and the story are entirely fictional, but there is an element of historical truth in the background. The Templars were accused of (and viciously persecuted for) idolatry, heresy, and blasphemy, charges that bordered on outright black magic and demon worship. The accusations were largely trumped up and certainly exaggerated, although some bizarre admissions along those lines did surface at their trials.

When I first started writing, I didn't have any intentions of getting into horror fiction. I didn't have any intentions of writing at all until I was in my mid-twenties, and then I only tried it out of curiosity—I wasn't one of those folks who knew from an early age that it was what they wanted to do. But it quickly became a passion and then took over my life. I think of it as something like a gambling habit—no matter how many times you fail, you keep going back, hoping for that big score.

I was very lucky to be where I was (Montana) and when (the mid-1970s). There was already a well-established writing community, especially in Missoula, and I got to hang out (often in the bars) with people like Richard Hugo (Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg), Jim Welch (Winter In The Blood), Bill Kittredge (The Willow Field), Jim Crumley (The Last Good Kiss), and other luminaries, along with plenty of wannabes like myself. We tended to divide our time between working days, drinking nights, writing when we could, and trying to get laid as fate decreed, generally with a lot more success at the first two of those efforts than the last two.

(A note about the working part. None of us rank-and-filers were making any money writing, so most of us had more or less fulltime jobs, often with skills we'd developed on unrelated fronts—cops, ranchers, loggers, teachers, health professionals, a whole gamut. My own was construction. In 1973, I started as a union apprentice with, and I hold a journeyman's book from, the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, Local 153, Helena, Montana. I formed concrete, hid steel, and everything else that went with that turf, for most of thirty years. It's one of the things I'm proudest of in my life.)

Genre writing wasn't exactly ostracized by the writers I knew in Missoula, circa 1975—it just wasn't really on anybody's radar. To the best of my knowledge, Jim Crumley was the first to step outside of those lines. He'd already published a terrific, well-received military novel (One To Count Cadence) that was tough and gritty, but still in a literary vein. But then he followed that up with the first of several detective novels, The Wrong Case.

Maybe that was what triggered the next, still subconscious step in my head—the realization that somebody I actually knew had written this wonderfully entertaining book, which in a way was complete fantasy, and yet was also just as true and real as his novel about the army. But the rocky soil of my brain still needed a lot of pulverizing before that idea started to sprout.

In the next few years, I had a couple of modest successes (the main one being a story published in The Atlantic Monthly, which won an Atlantic First award in 1979)—but I also racked up several thousand pages of failure, doomed to richly deserved oblivion. (I do not exaggerate that count, and we're talking typewriters and even longhand.) Eventually, I snagged a Stegner fellowship in creative writing at Stanford. It was a great opportunity and I tried my damnedest to use it well, but ironically, that was when I slammed up hard against my illusions. I showed up there in the fall of 1981 with a 400 page "literary" manuscript, confident that I could shape it into my first novel. The next spring, as the fellowship was ending, I ripped up the last remaining 12-page section, and sent it after its trunkload of predecessors to that big trash bin in the sky. That's one of those life-moments I remember with bleak, icy clarity. I went back to Montana and to my carpenter work.

And I spent a lot of time eating my heart in frustration. This is an overused metaphor, but it's the most accurate one I can come up with: I felt like I was some kind of cage and I had the sense that I'd built it myself, Bone Pilebut I couldn't even see what it consisted of, let alone a way out.

That was where things stood when the idea came to try a horror novel.