Cinder Allia available in hardback!

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New year, new edition… for the first time ever, Cinder Allia is now available in hardback! You can order it on Amazon or through any major retailer. Happy reading!

Best fantasy novel of 2017 (tied), CatholicReads.com

2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, finalist, fantasy

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division. Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love? Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most–her father–Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

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Mining the Public Domain

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As you may have heard, because of a 1998 revision to U.S. copyright law, January 1, 2019 marked the first time in more than 20 years that any copyrighted work entered the public domain. And while we all rush to download legal copies of works by Robert Frost and Edith Wharton, this also means those cherished works are now available to be used and abused by artists of every stripe for our own creative endeavors. So, it’s a good time to reflect a little on the creative process, what we owe our forebears, and what might or might not constitute an appropriate way to borrow (that is, steal) other people’s intellectual property.

I freely admit to being a shameless raider of the public domain. My first novel, Jennifer the Damned, is loosely based on Crime and Punishment (though I probably could have gotten away with publishing it even if the original were still under copyright.) My second novel, Cinder Allia, would certainly have owed royalties to both The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault if their copyrights hadn’t expired. I’m currently working on my most flagrant act of plagiarism to date, converting two related short stories by George Washington Cable into a novel. It’s blatant thievery… and it’s legal, and I fully expect to be able to say of the finished product, “This is mine.”

When I recently discussed the public domain with some friends, they asked me, “Wouldn’t you be horrified if someone else took the characters from your books and wrote whatever story they pleased?” Of course, my answer is Yes. I picture poor Margaret Mitchell rolling over in her grave at the publication of Scarlett (which was commissioned by her heirs; Gone With the Wind is still under copyright), and the thought that someday, some second-rate hack might do the same to Jennifer makes my blood boil. If I think about the public domain’s potential consequences for my beloved books, I suddenly want nothing more than to remain an obscure nobody in the hopes that my work will die with me.

I am an absolute hypocrite when it comes to the sanctity of intellectual property, and yet it is a hypocrisy from which there seems to be no escape. An author (or musician, artist, etc.) must be granted the sole proprietorship of his creations, or share it only with the appropriate collaborators, not only to ensure that he is paid fairly for the work but to maintain the integrity of the work itself. Yet there does come a point when it’s just silly to continue to extend royalty payments to someone’s heirs. Can you imagine the legal nightmare if we still had to hunt down the rights-holders every time we wanted to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays? It makes sense that there comes a point when creative works belong to everyone. The artists have lived their lives, earned their pay (or not, as the case may be), and they leave us with a treasure that becomes literally priceless. Their works become a layer in our cultural consciousness, a foundation not of bedrock but of clay. Their stories become ourstories, a past out of which we build our present and our future.

Of course, once a work has entered the public domain, there is no way to police who does what with it anymore. If you want to write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, no one can stop you. If you want to turn Pachelbel’s Canon in D into an incredibly annoying Christmas song,  alas, you can make millions. If you want to reimagine Crime and Punishment as a vampire novel, I might sue you, but only because I thought of it first. The clay is universally available to every would-be sculptor, which is both a blessing and a curse. What responsibility do we, the artists who mine and mold the public domain, have to the artists who came before? At what point should their artistic integrity give way to our creativity, and at what point do we need to rein ourselves in? How do we reverence the works we build on, and how do we build rather than destroy?

There are no easy answers, and it’s unlikely that any group of artists would reach a consensus on these issues. I will offer a few of my own thoughts, but I welcome all of you to chime in in the comments.

      First, it is possible to find a work that speaks to you, but which really could stand to be improved. This happens frequently in music when the cover version of a song far exceeds the artistry of the original. In the case of “Say Something” by A Great Big World, their lackluster single caught the attention of Christina Aguilera, who then collaborated with them on a new version that is about four million times improved, if we use the sales figures as a measurement. She added the dynamic, harmonic, and tonal contrast that the song sorely lacked, and the results speak for themselves. This is obviously not a case of mining the public domain, but the same principle can apply. In my current project, Cable’s stories speak to me, but he made deliberate narrative choices that required him to skim the surface of character development and conflict. Where he skimmed, I want to dive. Discovering a work like this is like finding a glorious but half-polished diamond. The desire is not only to finish the job, but to create a whole new necklace in which to set the newly-polished original. It cannot be done without reverence for the original work; why would anyone waste his time adapting something he thought was terrible? The point is to showcase the original in a new, more glorious light. Yet the process may very well require chipping away at pieces the original author would have been loath to part with, and any artist will bring his or her own unique perspective to the tale. In this life, I will never know what George Cable thinks of my story, and that’s probably for the best. But I can thank him profusely for providing me with the diamond, and hold myself to the highest possible artistic standards in the hope that I can play Christina to his Great Big World.

More often, however, it would be pure arrogance to think we could improve the works we’ve borrowed. Dostoevsky certainly doesn’t need my help; Cinderella has been adapted a thousand different ways, and her story still transcends all our meddling. So why do we bother? What is the appeal? There is an argument to be made for adaptations as the lazy man’s version of creativity, and an even more compelling argument that the appeal is easy-to-sell brand recognition. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies… Cool, I’d like to see Elizabeth fighting the undead. Hey, that Christmas song sounds like something I heard at a wedding… It must be good, even if those kids are pretty shrill. It is certainly possible to use the public domain as a shortcut to success, even when the new work is decidedly less artistic than the old.

But for those of us who profess motives other than gimmickry or brand recognition, there are more layers to uncover. Adaptations can be true art. Scarlett might be an abomination, but the 1939 film adaptation of Gone with the Wind remains one of the greatest movies ever made. Romeo and Juliet is one of those works we now think of as prime fodder for ridiculous adaptations, but it is itself an adaptation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Jonathan Larson’s Rent was based on Puccini’s La Bohème, which was based on the collection of stories called  Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. The world of storytelling, in whatever medium, would be very impoverished without adaptations.

It’s been said that there are only seven plots in all of literature, so it is to be expected that different writers will tell different versions of the same tale. The human experience is vast and unique to each individual, but also universal. We all experience the same emotions, if not always in the same proportions, and we all grapple with issues like survival, love, and justice, even if we come to different conclusions about how they should be achieved. Every now and then, a story encapsulates some aspect of our human experience so well that it becomes difficult even to imagine that part of our experience through any lens other than the story. If you think about falling in love with the “wrong” person, does your mind not inevitably draw you back to Romeo and Juliet? It doesn’t matter if the “wrong” person is from a different race, social class, religion, etc., or if the real people involved live someplace far removed from fair Verona. Two Indians of different castes have fallen in love and face resistance from their families; can you write that story without being influenced by Shakespeare? Even if an author who had never read Shakespeare made the attempt, readers and critics would draw the parallel. Some stories are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we cannot possibly escape them.

So, too, some stories become so deeply embedded in an individual author that it would be ridiculous to deny their influence. It is simpler, cleaner, and wiser just to acknowledge our debt. I could not have written a story about a terrible sinner who is dragged by grace toward redemption that did not use Crime and Punishment as a mold; Dostoevsky’s seeds had already taken far too deep a root in my imagination. This type of adaptation is not about slavish adherence to an original, and less still about enhancing the original, but only about making use of the raw materials that beloved stories have left within our minds and souls in order to give shape to our own creations.

That, to me, is the gift we receive from mining the public domain. Every story, every piece of music, every work of art we encounter has the potential to plant a seed in our minds, to become clay for our souls, to help shape our understanding of the world and what lies beyond. The public domain gives us permission to allow those seeds to blossom, that clay to take shape. The law is designed only to affect the works of artists who are long dead. Just as the artists’ bodies decay but then give shape to flowers, grass, insects—or even rats and plagues—their works are left to fertilize new generations of artists in new and unexpected ways, both beautiful and terrible. The real miracle of the process is that, unlike a body, a work of art does not have to die to be reborn.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Recordings from Doxacon

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My Christmas gift to you is the recordings from 2018 Doxacon Prime held in Washington, D.C. on November 3-4. The best talk is, of course, mine, but there’s plenty of wit and wisdom to discover from the entire lineup. It was really a wonderful experience filled with smart, wonderful people, great hospitality, and lots of very nerdy, Christian fun. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Horror, Abuse Scandals, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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‎”Dost thou understand? I love thee!” he cried again. “What love!” said the unhappy girl with a shudder. He resumed,–“The love of a damned soul.” —Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

I have gone on record many times (most recently here) to promote the particular genius of the horror genre as a tool through which Christians can confront the realities of evil and (when the genre is at its best) defy them through Christ’s love, either explicitly or implicitly. So, when I read the article “Now is a Perfect Time for Catholic Horror” by Stephen Wingate, in which he calls for a revival of the Catholic horror novel as a means of confronting the recent abuse scandals, I naturally agreed that he was on to something. But until such time as modern writers are able to produce work that engages the “difficult literary interrogation between Catholicism and evil… [and] provides a necessary look into how the church has become the horror for some,” we would do well to remember that Victor Hugo already gave us such a novel. More and more, it seems to me that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a book for our times.

It may seem spiritually dangerous to turn to a novel that was once listed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books to help make sense of the current scandal,* but if we’re going to speak honestly about written works that pose spiritual dangers for Catholics, the Philadelphia grand jury report would be near the top of the list. In a world where the faithful have already been scandalized by villain-priests, there is no way to protect our souls from characters like Archdeacon Claude Frollo. We have already met such men in the flesh. We have seen the horrific effects of secrecy and denial; and if we owe it to the real victims to bring priestly crimes to light, we also owe it ourselves to revisit the prophetic novel that sought to do the same nearly 200 years ago.

When Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he was not “anti-Catholic,” as so many critics like to call him. What Hugo believed shifted radically and often during the course of his life, but at the time he published Notre Dame, he had not yet begun dabbling in spiritualism, nor embraced the kind of secular rationalism that characterized his later years. The Hugo of 1831 still identified with the faith of his baptism, even if he had become critical of the ways in which he often saw the faith abused among the clergy. It’s a spiritual space that many Catholics today will find achingly familiar.

However, the state of Victor Hugo’s soul when he composed Notre Dame is not only unknowable, but also irrelevant to a discussion of the work itself. The story is so powerful that it has endured across centuries and been translated into nearly every language of the globe. And what is that story but the interplay of light and darkness, faith and doubt, love and betrayal, within and through the Church?

The original French title of the book is Notre-Dame de Paris; the cathedral is the title character and, arguably, the protagonist of the novel. The chapter titled “Notre-Dame” is devoted to the cathedral’s architecture, a song of praise to the building and a lament for the stupidities of man that, over the centuries, ruined certain aspects of its design. The cathedral is “a sort of human Creation, mighty and fertile as the Divine Creation, from which it seems to have borrowed the twofold character of variety and eternity.” This architectural depiction serves as a literalization of the church’s role in the novel; and not merely of the small-c church, Notre Dame, but also the capital-C Church, Catholicism. For Hugo, both are capable of bridging the gap between the temporal and the eternal, but man’s caprice has “brutally swept away” so much of what made them beautiful.

In the fifteenth century world of the story, the church still has most—but not all—of its grandeur intact. On the morning when the deformed child who will become known as Quasimodo is discovered in the porch of the church, Hugo is careful to tell us that this porch used to house statues of St. Christopher and Antoine des Essarts, a saint and a sinner, which had both been thrown down some fifty years before. Both saints and sinners have already become targets in the slow degradation of the Holy.

Yet the church is still intact enough to provide refuge for outcasts. The monstrous child exposed on the bed for foundling children is reviled by all the “good” Christians, but the young priest, Claude Frollo, chooses to adopt him. It is an act of true charity performed by a young man who has already taken on the guardianship of his baby brother after the death of their parents. This young Frollo is a rising star of the Church and a brilliant scholar. He names the foundling Quasimodo, which means half-made, “either to commemorate the day on which he found him [Quasimodo Sunday], or to express the incomplete and scarcely finished state of the poor little creature.”

Quasimodo Sunday is another name for the Second Sunday of Easter. It is taken from the opening words of the Introit, or Entrance Chant: Quasi modo géniti infántes, rationábile, sine dolo lac concupíscite, ut in eo crescátis in salútem, allelúia. This is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 2:2, and in the current English translation of the Missal, it reads, Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation, alleluia. This translation has lost the sense of “half-made,” that we are not merely infants but incomplete beings, who can only be made whole by receiving the “milk” of Christ. But Hugo understands the Latin well; for him, it is only the half-made “apology for a human being” who is able to accept the Church’s invitation.

[Quasimodo’s] cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face and looked at him with only tranquility and benevolence. The other statues, those of monsters and demons, had no hatred for him–he resembled them too closely for that. It was rather the rest of mankind that they jeered at. The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him. He would sometimes spend whole hours crouched before one of the statues in solitary conversation with it. If anyone came upon him then he would run away like a lover surprised during a serenade.

As long as he remains within the church, Quasimodo is happy. Yet the part of the church that makes him happiest—the bells which he is assigned to ring—also make him deaf. “Thus the only gate which nature had left wide open between him and the world was suddenly closed, and for ever. In closing, it shut out the only ray of light and joy that still reached his soul, which was now wrapped in profound darkness.”

It seems to me that Hugo isn’t quite consistent here. By making him deaf and closing the gate to the world, the cathedral has prevented Quasimodo from ever again being subject to the world’s scorn, or at least from hearing it voiced. He becomes even further encased in the church that has been “his egg, his nest, his home, his country, the universe.” Hugo wants to have it both ways: Quasimodo’s joy is both in the church and in the world to which the gate is now closed. But he is not clear about what light Quasimodo ever received from the world; the hunchback experiences nothing but abuse every time he leaves the church.

For Quasimodo, the cathedral fulfills Christ’s promise: Come to me, all you labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Father Frollo—who baptizes him, teaches him to speak, and gives him a purpose in life as the cathedral’s chief bell-ringer—serves the genuine role of a father. If the story had ended before either of these men ever laid eyes on Esmeralda, it might have been a happy tale.

In the years since he adopted Quasimodo, Claude Frollo has turned his scholarly pursuits away from theology first toward true science, then toward alchemy and sorcery. Rather than pursuing the Truth of God, he has idolized human knowledge, twisting the virtue of his keen intellect into a vice. The Claude Frollo who meets Esmeralda is a very different man from the one who first met the helpless child Quasimodo.

Esmeralda is a young gypsy dancer, physically as unlike Quasimodo as it is possible to be: lithe, beautiful, entrancing. Yet, like the hunchback, she is a lost child in need of a parent, a lost soul in need of succor. Esmeralda was stolen from her cradle to be raised among heathen strangers. But this time, Father Frollo cannot love the outcast enough to bring her into the church’s grace. Esmeralda stirs in him the same impulse toward love that Quasimodo did, but Frollo is no longer capable of anything but “the love of a damned soul.” He seeks not to shelter, but to possess; not to give, but to take. The Father has become an inversion of himself: no longer one who gives life, but one who takes it. Frollo is even able to acknowledge these changes:

And when, while thus diving into his soul, he saw how large a space nature had there prepared for the passions… he perceived, with the cold indifference of a physician examining a patient, that this hatred and this malignity were but vitiated love; that love, the source of every virtue in man, was transformed into horrid things in the heart of a priest, and that one so constituted as he in making himself a priest made himself a demon.

Frollo believes what we in the 21st century will recognize as a common argument: that the Church’s insistence on clerical celibacy, the denial of natural passions, is the root cause, or at least one of the root causes, of clerical sexual abuse. Frollo believes this argument, but his story does not illustrate its truth.** Lust is hardly Frollo’s only, or even his primary, vice. He does not chase after every skirt he sees, nor are his sins primarily driven by the desire for physical gratification. Rather, Frollo punishes his body, often working without food or sleep toward his goal of transmuting matter into gold. Frollo’s sin is the same as Adam and Eve’s: he covets knowledge that will make him godlike. His desire for Esmeralda has less to do with sex than with possession, because she—like transmuted gold, or Eden’s apple—is beautiful, forbidden, and unattainable.

When Esmeralda rejects his advances, Frollo destroys what he cannot possess. He turns her over to be hanged for a crime she did not commit. But Quasimodo has learned well from his father, and he follows the example of the younger, better Frollo; he adopts the orphaned child. In the novel’s most iconic scene, he snatches Esmeralda from the gallows and gives her sanctuary in the cathedral.

[He clasped] her closely in his arms, against his angular bosom, as his treasure, his all, as the mother of that girl would herself have done… at that moment Quasimodo was really beautiful. Yes, he was beautiful—he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast; he felt himself august and strong; he looked in the face of that society from which he was banished… the human justice from which he had snatched its victim; those judges, those executioners, all that force of the King’s, which he, the meanest of the mean, had foiled with the force of God!

But the image of the triumphant outcasts wrapped in the consoling mantle of the church is not to last. The church is still Claude Frollo’s domain. He is the first to assault Esmeralda’s sanctuary, and Quasimodo cannot bring himself to kill his father in her defense; Esmeralda must wave a blade at Frollo herself. Her gypsy friends come next in an attempt to save her, which Quasimodo mistakenly foils because he cannot hear them speak their intentions. Then the King orders the sanctuary violated for the sake of ridding his kingdom of the supposed “sorceress.” The church’s ability to protect the powerless proves to be fleeting. As the king’s army closes in, Frollo alone has the power to save the girl, and he offers her a choice: life as his lover, or the gallows. Esmeralda replies, “I feel less horror of that than of you.” She goes to her death rather than submit to his lust.

I can only imagine how many real victims might see themselves reflected in Esmeralda. How many came to the Church looking for refuge, only to have their pastors, bishops, or archbishops issue fresh attacks by ignoring or disbelieving their accusations? How many faithful Catholics have felt like Quasimodo, carrying our wounded brothers and sisters into the bosom of the church for protection, only to be scolded and threatened by the very men we looked upon as fathers? How many predatory priests have used their power to issue ultimatums as appalling as the one given by Frollo to Esmeralda?

Frollo is true to his threat. Esmeralda dies on the gallows. An enraged Quasimodo pushes Frollo out of the tower of the cathedral where the two of them have watched the execution, and though Frollo catches himself on a pipe, the hunchback refuses to save him. As for Quasimodo:

About a year and a half or two years after the events with which this story concludes, when search was made in the vault of Montfoucon… they found among all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of a garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrezarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a difficult book for Catholics. It calls into clear relief the potential horrors of trusting a Church that is led by a man or men as corrupt as Claude Frollo. It is a lesson that we cannot afford to ignore, yet the book leaves us with very little hope. I choose to read the ending as an intimation that perhaps Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Esmeralda’s mother (represented by the empty bag) have found union as a family after death, but it is also legitimate to read the ending as one of pure despair. According to the novel, a hopeless grave is the sentence the Church has imposed upon those who trusted her, whom she betrayed. I have no doubt there are many who believe it, and we ignore this conclusion at our peril.

Yet there is one element missing from the portrayal of the Church in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it is the most important one of all. Jesus Christ is hardly mentioned, and certainly never active. If the cathedral itself is the protagonist, it is a very humanized cathedral. It has “borrowed the twofold character of variety and eternity,” but it remains “a human Creation.” It is endowed with characteristics of the divine, but not the Divine Presence Himself. Quasimodo communes with statues and bells, but he never receives the “pure spiritual milk” his feast day calls for. The true warning we ought to take from the book is not merely that sexually corrupt priests pose a significant danger to the faithful. We hardly need a novel to tell us that. The real tragedy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is that Quasimodo places his faith in the Church as an institution, not in Christ, her head. No human institution—not even one established by God—can ever be worthy of such faith. Those stone saints whom Quasimodo befriended failed to do what all true saints do; they did not lead him to know and love the living Jesus. Quasimodo is, unwittingly, an idolater; the church is his god. If there is anything we Catholics must be clear about in the context of our current scandals, it is that we do not worship idols. We worship the One who suffers with and for us. It is Christ, not the clergy or the Church, who will save the Esmeraldas and the Quasimodos from their graves—and, in His mercy, He will reach out a hand to the Claude Frollos while they plummet, too.

 

* The Church removed The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the Index of Forbidden Books in 1959.

** I’m not convinced that Hugo believed Frollo’s argument that celibacy must, by its nature, corrupt the priest—or, if he believed it in 1831, he had certainly changed his mind by the time he wrote the unforgettable portrayal of Bishop Myriel in Les Misérables.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

How Monster Stories Can Be Good For Our Souls

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I have an essay in The Federalist this week, which is a little preview of my talk at Doxacon on November 3. Just in time for Halloween, “How Monster Stories Can Be Good For Our Souls.”  Enjoy!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Chilling Tales from Living Catholic Writers

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Ask any group of reasonably well-read Catholics to name a living Catholic horror writer, and, since the death of William Peter Blatty early last year, the only one they can usually come up with is Dean Koontz. (I should know. I’ve made the experiment on multiple occasions.) But during the past decade or so, as we have seen a small but intentional movement toward the cultivation of Catholic fiction, a few brave authors have begun to delve into the darker side of the spiritual realm and still emerge with their faith unscathed, or even strengthened. If you’re looking for good stories to send shivers up your spine that will not leave you in the depths of atheistic despair, the authors below are worth checking out.

Tim PowersTim Powers is an acknowledged master of fantasy with dozens of novels and short story collections. His work has inspired spin-off video games and even the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. He’s also a practicing Catholic. At a talk he gave last year, which I attended, Powers said, “Any reader who goes looking for specifically Catholic fiction would be a bit at a loss with my books.” He went on to say, “What fantasy fiction does is to literalize metaphors… To un-literalize all of our stuff defeats the purpose of the genre… but of course, any story can serve both purposes.” In other words, you may have to do some metaphorical thinking to find the Catholic themes. Powers writes primarily “secret histories,” that is, history reimagined as if the real events had in fact been shaped by supernatural forces. Just skimming the list of his novels, you’ll see words like voodoo, zombies, psychic vampire, magic, werewolf… in other words, a little something for every creepy taste.

Eleanor NicholsonEleanor Bourg Nicholson is one of our former editors at Dappled Things. Her novel, A Bloody Habit, was released by Ignatius Press this summer. My full review is forthcoming in our next issue, but suffice it to say, it’s Victorian skepticism and Dominican vampire slayers at their best. As Nicholson said in a recent interview with Catholic World Report, “If evil isn’t evil, and sin isn’t sin, and vampires aren’t vampires, the thrill of the Gothic is reduced to lame angst. I find angst very boring indeed.” There is nothing boring about A Bloody Habit, and I’ve heard rumors that she’s working on a sequel with werewolves!

Andrew SeddonAndrew Seddon is an author who comes highly recommended to me, but whose work I have not yet had a chance to explore. However, the brief glance I took at the samples available on Amazon convinced me that I need to move him up on my To Read list. Seddon is the only author featured here who has not written a vampire novel. (What can I say? Vampires drink blood to achieve immortality. It’s a trope that resonates with Catholic imaginations.) Instead, Seddon prefers good, old-fashioned ghost stories. He has two collections of spooky short stories, Tales from the Brackenwood Ghost Club (2017) and What Darkness Remains, just released last month. He also writes science fiction, historical fiction, and devotionals.

Lastly, there’s me, which I mention because if you go looking for work in this tiny niche of Catholic-themed horror stories, my name will probably come up. My own contribution to the genre is my 2015 novel Jennifer the Damned, published by Wiseblood Books. It’s about an orphan vampire raised by nuns. Like Nicholson, I’m not a fan of modern quasi-vampires. Jennifer kills people. Things get messy. Metaphors are literalized.

If you know of Catholics or other Christians who are writing quality chilling tales, please share them with us in the comments! (I’m looking at you, Orthodox brothers and sisters. Vampires came from your neck of the woods.) The realm of the Gothic is fertile soil for the Christian imagination, but for a reader, it can be daunting to try to find the wheat hidden among the detritus of chaff. I hope this helps.

Happy haunting!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

What Was In Lady Vivienne’s Poison

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cinder allia

I almost never post the kinds of things fans seem to want from an author: short story spinoffs of novels, cut scenes, behind-the-novel glimpses into how a story evolved. I suppose it’s because I’m not a very good fan myself. I want to read a book (or watch a movie, etc.) and judge it on its own merits. I want it to be complete unto itself, to satisfy my appetite for story in its own right, and I don’t much care what else might be out there to supplement it, especially because the supplements are usually of lesser quality. I don’t begrudge anyone for being a fan. To find something you like and desire more of it is far more sensible than my approach. It’s just not an approach I know how to take.

Not surprisingly, I write the way I want to read: with an aim toward creating the most complete, satisfying work I can, which needs no supplementation. If I cut something, there was a reason, and it needs to remain cut. If I left out a piece of information, it’s likely I don’t know it any more than you do. You can ask me until the cows come home how Helen turned Jennifer into a vampire in Jennifer the Damned, and my answer will always be the same: Jennifer doesn’t know, therefore she never told me.

But I do know what was in Lady Vivienne’s poison in Cinder Allia, and I’ve decided it’s time to let my fans know, too.

If you haven’t read Cinder Allia, fair warning: there are spoilers ahead!

If you have read it, you know that much of the plot centers around the fact that the invading Darrivant army is using poison-tipped arrows that steal the Arman soldiers’ free will and turn them into mute slaves who must fight for the enemy cause—and it is Allia’s wicked stepmother, Lady Vivienne de Camesbry, who brews the poison. In the book, I never told you how she did it because there never seemed to be an appropriate moment when Vivienne—the only person who knows—would dare to mention it, even to herself. The secret is far too valuable.

Prince Raphael conducts experiments to try to distill the poison’s secrets. “He was certain the potion contained iron, granite, nightshade, and traces of some creature’s blood, but none of that information put him closer to understanding how it worked.” If he had only had a way to identify from which creature the blood had been procured, he would have found his answer.

It came from a fairy.

Lady Vivienne has never shrunk from murder. Exactly how she killed a fairy… I suppose that’s the stuff of the kind of spinoff I usually never write, isn’t it? Since I haven’t written it, I don’t know the answer. But I do know that she only had access to the blood of a single fairy, and therefore she could not have continued producing the potion forever. There was always a time limit on her decision to either defect to the Darrivants or to secure her place among the Armans by selling the secret of her potion… and, of course, blaming her stepdaughter for its existence.

The only magic in Cinder Allia is fairy magic. The fairies themselves only employ it for good, even if they are not always successful in achieving their aims. It takes a human with murder in her heart to appropriate such a pure gift for an evil purpose.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.