When did Halloween become such a big deal? As a kid, trick-or-treating with my sister, I don’t recall much neighborhood decor besides the jack-o-lanterns grinning on the porch or some fake spiderwebs strung across the hedges. Now Halloween seems more popular than Christmas. Specters dangle from the trees on my block; front yards become graveyards; seasonal store displays border on disturbing. Is this sudden fascination with the macabre an expression of some collective national fear? Why do we embrace what frightens us?
Writers know. Our fears can be fruitful ground for storytelling. I developed the idea for Blue Karma after a hurricane affected my neighborhood’s plumbing; the glimpse of life without a ready supply of water sobered me about a critical resource I’d taken for granted. Syzygy explored my concerns about the kind of planet my hypothetical children would inherit if I chose to reproduce. My new novel, Binary Chop, takes fear to the most personal and visceral dimension yet.
I started experiencing orthopedic problems in my late 20s, but with good management, they don’t interfere too much with my activities. So I didn’t think much about it until I submitted medical paperwork to get a common assistive device at work last year. The approval declared I was eligible for the accommodation, proud owner of a certifiable disability. I blinked at the word for a few seconds, startled. Sure, I can’t sit for extended periods, or bend in certain ways, and my dancing days are pretty much over, but I hadn’t considered myself disabled.
Someday soon, I might have to. My mother and sister were recently diagnosed with a genetic connective tissue disorder, which explains a lot of the degenerative conditions they’ve dealt with over the past decade. I display the same indicators. Although my symptoms are nowhere near as bad as theirs (yet), there’s no way of knowing how it might progress. I could remain comparatively unscathed or break down in any number of ways. It could happen tomorrow, or next year, or ten years from now.
My body is a time bomb and I can’t read the clock.
As an athlete and generally energetic person, the thought of losing my mobility terrifies me, especially since it’s my key means of coping with rampant anxiety (itself a likely product of the same disorder—go figure). Every time I go for a run, I wonder if it will be my last. My feet speed up, longing to flee my own biology, but only race toward decline.
Rather than let the latent terror corrode me, I wrote it into a story. My heroine, the stubborn and snarky detective Petra Vallée, relies on physical abilities to do her job and keep her PTSD in check. When a disaster in the line of duty almost destroys her, she must adapt to a whole new way of being while solving a homicide case linked to her accident. Petra is no avatar—her character originated as a hybridized homage to two dear friends of mine, and the story idea arrived long before the diagnosis—but many of her struggles came to mirror my own.
- The combustible mix of anger and horror when part of your body suddenly stops working? Check.
- Deliberately pushing past medical limits, rather than miss an opportunity? Check.
- The social awkwardness of looking “normal” on the outside, while physical malfunctions grind away within? Check. (The next time you judge a person without a cane for parking in a handicapped space, remember that not all disabilities are visible.)
- Concealing pain so people won’t treat you differently? Check, but it’s hard when our partners know us so well. Admitting a degree of fragility is the hardest part when self-sufficiency is a core element of your identity.
As I projected my worries onto Petra, she reflected her resilience back to me. Walking through a fictionalized hellscape beside her gave me a source of vicarious strength. If she can overcome disabilities far worse than mine, maybe I don’t have to dread my physical future. Stories provide a test environment for our own fears, disguised with comforting sci-fi fixtures like cyborgs or space elevators or rising sea levels. I hope Binary Chop—which, Petra’s character arc aside, is more cyberpunk mystery than disability treatise—offers a little affirmation to readers with physical challenges, and a little empathy to those fortunate enough not to have any.
The autumn season seems a particularly appropriate time for writers to reap this bountiful harvest of fear. Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), a harvest festival celebrated by my Celtic ancestors and many contemporary pagans, was a liminal time when barriers between the human and supernatural realms thinned. The association with spirits and seasonal death cycles evolved into what we now celebrate as Halloween. Beneath the plastic skeletons and comic headstones lies an ancient kernel of communion, a way for us to control and face our own mortality.
If you can cross those boundaries within yourself, writing about what scares you yields a cornucopia of relatable tales for readers who live under the same shadow, and can offer them a flicker of light.