A group of friends must band together to defeat an ancient evil in Daniel R. Mathews’s terrifying debut, The Unseen Kingdom. In a small New England town, thirteen-year-old Tommy Wilson’s biggest worry is coming out to his close-knit group of friends. All of that changes, however, when the boys discover a dream portal to R’lyeh—home to the Titan god Cthulhu himself. Inhabited by monstrous creatures and eerie children who have appointed Tommy and his friends their new “apostles,” R’lyeh becomes a horrifying yet darkly fascinating world that proves to be increasingly real. Meanwhile, the town’s population is suddenly overrun with a mysterious epidemic that threatens everyone. As the boys struggle to cope with what is happening, Tommy comes closer than ever to discovering the dark secret that lurks within R’lyeh itself—but will the price prove to be too costly? And, can the boys unlock the link between the secrets of R’lyeh and the devastation of their town’s population before it’s too late? A truly unique work of fiction, The Unseen Kingdom is an LGBT coming-of-age novel skillfully infused with edge-of-your-seat horror, resulting in a wildly entertaining novel that will leave you guessing until the very last page.
Halloween means different things to different people. In the last book bubble, we took a look at Tommy and Brian’s initial reaction to the holiday. It’s the magic of dressing up to become someone or something else, hanging out with friends and enjoying a few scares. However, tonight we’re going to follow Carlos and Jacob. For some people like Carlos and Jacob, Halloween affords a special opportunity. This is their night to openly go out on a date together, mingling with their classmates and the world, under the mask and makeup of their costumes. In some ways, you could say the boys are always forced to wear a mask, especially Carlos. While some of their classmates know about their relationship, Carlos’ parents are somewhat homophobic so he needs to be careful. Halloween represents their chance to be together with some plausible deniability and anonymity. For once, Carlos and Jacob completely blend in with the crowd because it’s Halloween. The one night everyone wears a mask, everyone becomes someone else and we can all be one without judgement or fear.
Happy Halloween Everyone! We’re going to keep the next two book bubbles on the light side. It’s once again the season of shadow and darkness. A time when the autumnal chill brings goose bumps to the flesh, and the creatures of the night stalk the boundaries of civilization and imagination. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and my love for the season only grows with each passing year. Even those who are not fans of the horror genre exhibit a soft-spot for Halloween. After all, if you’re going to suffer a few scares, why not embrace the season? As a child, Halloween had a magical connotation to me. A time of the year that my imagination could run amok, unrestrained and free as I glanced out at the darkness. I knew werewolves hungered for my flesh, the dead clawed at their wooden prisons and craven ghosts of lost souls passed beneath the decaying autumnal spender, looking to drag me into the shadows if given a chance. And what child hasn’t dared all these things, especially on Halloween night? The fear of that monster in the closet and under the bed becomes a rite of passage this time of year. In this excerpt, despite all the real horror they’ve endured, Brian and Tommy are enjoying Halloween for everything it entails.
Let’s discuss the concept of vulnerability. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock shocked audiences by showing a woman knifed to death in the shower. Since those days, shower scenes have become commonplace in horror. What made this scene so effective with audiences that it’s still used today? Try putting yourself in the place of the actress. Can you think of any moment in your daily routine that you’re more vulnerable? Alone and naked in the shower, with a curtain obscuring any potential attacker. This scene traumatized audiences long after they saw the movie and it’s completely understandable as to why. As humans, the majority of us share this common innate fear of vulnerability. Just the act of sleeping represents a point of vulnerability. In this excerpt, the character Brian is in the school shower. Because Brian is already self-conscious because of his sexuality and just had a run-in with a bully, he is feeling extra vulnerable. Add in a curtain of fog to block his visibility and soon we have an element of horror firmly in place. In this case, it would be an ill-timed supernatural event that would push the teen to the edge. This scene has the added benefit of letting the character (and the reader) know that there is no safe place or sanctuary for any of the boys.
This evening we follow Carlos, the oldest of the protagonists from The Unseen Kingdom. This time, I’m not going to discuss the character, but rather a setup for a scene. As we approach Halloween night, I want to share some concepts used to create elements of horror in the novel. We’ve examined the characters’ family life and their emotional states as elements of horror. Tonight, take a look at something different. Carlos was on his way to Jacob’s house when a series of strange events befell him. He’s shaken those off with the thought of spending time with Jacob now dominating his mind. Before he reaches his destination, an elderly lady named Rose drives around the block multiple times, before crashing into a culvert. Carlos climbs down into the culvert and discovers an empty vehicle. He eventually locates her wandering around the swamp in shock. Sometimes horror doesn’t come from the character’s natural emotional state or even the supernatural itself. Sometimes horror flows from words and phrases placed in an inappropriate context. In this excerpt, Carlos has responded to an automobile accident and has likely prevented Rose from accidently falling into the water and drowning. She expresses gratitude but soon the conversation takes a bizarre and menacing twist. Sometimes just the right words make a simple scene horrific.
This evening we’re going to take a look at the lead protagonist, Tommy Wilson. The other boys suffer serious issues beyond those of the typical adolescent. While issues like abuse, PTSD and grief are universal problems, they represent the extremes that open the door for horror, since the situation is inherently tense and disturbing. These emotions are ripe for exploitation in the context of the overarching horror narrative. Tommy, on the other hand, is the every kid. He’s got a stable and loving family, close friends and a good heart. However, even typical adolescent issues give rise to vulnerability. Tommy is coming to grips with his feelings for Brian and struggles to embrace his identity. And like many kids, there is a bully that’s targeting him at school. He is a little naïve and immature compared to the others. However, none of these issues render Tommy especially vulnerable. Rather, the common thread that ties all of the boys together is their love and compassion for one another. Tommy seeks to protect Brian and the others, but he also searches for understanding. It’s difficult to comprehend the pain others feel unless you’ve experienced it yourself. For this reason, Tommy must endure the most difficult of journeys, one which may destroy him. How far would you go for those you love?
So over the past couple of days we’ve taken a look at some characters with real world problems. The origin of tension for both boys is grounded in the real world. This evening, we take a look at Brian Erikson. Brian is an intelligent, mature kid that carries around the burden of being the man of the household. His father had been killed in Iraq when he was eight and his mother never remarried. Brian has fallen in love with his best friend Tommy, and while he suspects the feelings are mutual, he can’t be sure of Tommy’s true feelings. Tension naturally arises as his feelings grow, but can’t be certain whether those feelings will ever be returned. So when Tommy’s life and well-being become threatened by supernatural forces, Brian becomes willing to do anything to protect him. It’s at this moment that those same forces can manipulate and use Brian, endangering his life and sanity under the pretext of protecting Tommy. In horror, even positive emotions such as love, compassion and empathy can become twisted and used against the protagonists. In this excerpt, Brian consents to the machinations of “The Unseen” and submits before them and their deity, Yog-Sothoth. Will these forces lead him to ruination or empower him to save Tommy?
Last evening, we took a look at Jacob Donaldson. When the supernatural intrudes upon his life, it raises the specter of the past in the form of his dad. We don’t know how real this threat might be, but the impact on the boy is palpable. This time, we pay a visit with Kevin Williams. While Jacob lives with the ghost of past abuse, Kevin is actively living the nightmare. Although, Kevin’s situation is far more complex than any of the other boys in the novel. Kevin and his dad once shared a close and loving relationship. However, marital problems followed by the sudden disappearance of his mother led to changes in both individuals. Kevin’s dad took to drinking, and Kevin fell into guilt-ridden despair, blaming his mother’s mysterious departure on himself. This sets up a cycle of abuse where Kevin’s father loses control, and the boy endures out of a sense of guilt, holding himself accountable for his father’s behavior. There is no supernatural component to this excerpt. It’s intended to be a tense and telling scene between a drunken father, and his dutiful but frightened son. Kevin is reaching the end of his endurance and longs for a release from his life of constant guilt and fear. He must find a new resolve or succumb to the darkness.
When writing in the horror genre, you inherently will delve into the controversial and the disturbing. It’s the nature of the beast. You can’t hope to grip readers without pushing some buttons and you accomplish this through your protagonists. Last time, we discussed establishing tension and we’re going to continue that trend the next couple of excerpts. This evening we’re taking a look at Jacob. While he’s not the central focus of The Unseen Kingdom, he is perhaps one of my favorite characters. Jacob is a sweet and caring boy, and one that I put through hell during the story. I recently wrote an article called “What Horror Means to me” where I state that “I see horror as the searing fire to forge a compelling, sympathetic character who has the opportunity to grow.” Jacob is an example of a character seared by those flames and evolves because of it. While nothing “horrific” happens in this scene, it’s Jacob’s reaction to the voice of his father that should set the reader on edge. Without having given any previous backstory, his rigid posture, stuttering voice and nervous ticks shows that he is frightened of his father. Jacob suffered years of anxiety attacks and thought those days were behind him. Is this just a hallucination or is something else at work?
In celebration of Halloween, the next couple of weeks I’ll be reviewing some of my favorite individual scenes in my novel, The Unseen Kingdom. I hope to publish about a dozen book bubbles between now and October 31st. I’ll be addressing some of the key elements I used in an effort to build a compelling horror narrative and sympathetic young characters. One of the first elements of horror is the concept of establishing tension. This can take several forms, and varies with the sub-genre of horror you’re writing. For this first bubble, we’re looking at a scene where our group of protagonists have gathered for their weekend ritual of walking to the mall. However, Tommy has diverted the group to investigate the swamp just north of the mall. At this point, both Kevin and Tommy’s perception led them to experience a supernatural encounter in their own homes. The other boys are naturally skeptical of their comrades’ claims, especially given Tommy’s penchant for Halloween mischief. The first stop in Tommy’s investigation is an old, abandoned gas station on the southern fringes of the swamp. I love this scene because it’s the first time that a couple minor unexplained happenings put the characters on edge and establish in the boys’ minds that there may be something to Kevin and Tommy’s claims.
In the first installment, I discussed the concept of a hook that establishes a horror story and draws you into its world. I consider perception to be one of these potential story hooks. Your natural ability to see that out of place shadow on the wall, or that unexpected reflection in the mirror. In the second installment, we looked at emotional duress enhancing our perception and leaving us more vulnerable. For our final installment, let’s discuss a very different idea concerning perception. What is more frightening, the monster you believe is hiding in your closet, or the monster that is living in your closet? I know that sounds like splitting hairs but think about it for a moment. Isn’t the monster you envision in your head far more craven than the one most movies end up revealing? In my novel, I avoid making the monsters clearly visible until the third act. Why? I want my protagonists to only perceive them, to allow their imagination the fear to make them much more horrific in their minds. This is a Hollywood movie trick, keep the monster in the shadows until near the end. Since the audience can’t see the monster, what their minds conjure is more frightening. In this case, I’m keeping both my characters and, therefore, the reader in suspense.
In those quiet moments of solitude, alone with our thoughts, does our natural perception peak. I believe this is especially true in times of intense stress, contemplation or emotional duress. During these times, our adrenaline levels are high, attenuating our natural senses and making it easier to detect those out of place shadows and sounds. I think that adolescence is inherently rife with stress, duress and contemplation, and my characters are no exception to this. In this excerpt, we focus on Kevin whose father has become physically abusive. Kevin fears going home, knowing that the slightest misstep could set his father off. For this reason, he is constantly stressed and suffering from depression. These factors contribute to Kevin’s elevated awareness of something supernatural trying to reach out to him. Now, there are more specific reasons why Kevin and his compatriots are experiencing these events, but their ability to perceive them was tantamount to the plot. Suffice it to say for now, Kevin’s emotional turmoil has drawn him into the supernatural events initially experienced by Tommy. Unlike Kevin, Tommy’s source of stress is his mounting feelings toward his best friend, Brian. Will he be rejected by Brian? Will his friends and parents accept him when they discover the truth? Kevin and Tommy are seething cauldrons of emotion, enhancing their natural perception.
There are many potential hooks into a horror story, whether a novel or a screenplay. Sometimes it’s a car that’s broken down along some forgotten stretch of roadway, or a storm that’s trapped the protagonists in an isolated location. Perhaps the hook involves a house with mysterious or dodgy past, and unexplained events are occurring. Any of these situations could easily lead to horror and nearly everyone can easily identify with them, or perhaps experienced them at some point during their lives. In ‘The Unseen Kingdom’, my hook into the story deals with something a little more subtle, perception. I think nearly everyone has experienced that moment where they saw a shadow or shape out of the corner of their eye. Something that felt out of place or unnatural, yet occurred so quickly that only your subconscious registered that something happened. You’re left with a feeling of creeping dread that makes your skin crawl. But, what did you really see? That’s when your imagination takes control, magnifying your fear, turning those vague shadows and shapes into something more tangible. This is the situation our protagonist Tommy Wilson finds himself dealing with as he rides home on the school bus. Beware what you perceive in the shadows, as it perceives you as well.
Some true stories read like fiction, but for those who have to personally live through the experiences, the nightmare is vividly real. Daniel R. Mathews digs into the darkness of his past with his haunting memoir, The Demons of Plainville. As a child, Daniel struggles to find his footing in an upside-down world. His mother is mentally ill and addicted to drugs; she performs black masses to summon demons, is physically abusive, and plays brutal mind games that make him doubt his sanity and despair of ever making sense of life or himself. Even his father beats Daniel after “rescuing” him from his mother. Thanks to a few unexpected friends, Daniel survives his devastating youth and emerges stronger for it. But Daniel’s battles aren’t over. Finally free of his abusive parents, he now must face himself and wrestle with his sexual identity in a community that sees nothing wrong with homophobia. Candid and compelling, this is a triumphant tale of a young man who walked through the darkness, bravely faced his demons, and against all odds carried the faint light of hope with him every step of the way.
A recent review of ‘The Demons of Plainville’ began, “Crazy people don't know they're crazy” referring to my mother. I can understand where the reviewer was coming from because I always questioned my mental state, but my mother never doubted her own sanity. I was always the sick one. But, that’s the plight of any child isn’t it? When you’re young, you have no point of context to differentiate sanity from insanity. Part of this stems from (in my case) some degree of social isolation. With limited friends and adult role models, I was left with only my mother’s words to define right from wrong. Think of someone trapped in a cult, isolated from outside influence or information that furnishes context. In this excerpt, my mother discovered a little publishing enterprise I had begun at school. She tried to twist the entire thing around and use it against me. However, the effectiveness of her mind games were starting to decrease because a mentor had appeared in my life. He had given me a gift no one else ever had, a belief in myself and an opportunity to become a role model myself. My Scoutmaster had finally furnished that missing context. He believed in me, but forced me to validate that belief to him, my peers and most importantly, myself.
The key to mind games is repetition. I think nearly everyone at some point in their life had a false accusation leveled at them or aspersions cast upon their character. But I want you to imagine this being done to you, repeatedly over the course of many months and years by those you love and trust. At what point do you begin asking yourself, “What if they’re right?” What if these accusations came from multiple sources? This is the situation I had found myself heading into this particular excerpt. The previous year my Father had attempted to take custody of me and kept me with his wife and son for just under a year. This arrangement broke up when he had convinced himself that I was trying to make myself ill by keeping myself awake at night. He hypothesized that I was trying to make him look bad in front of a judge. This might have made sense if I was aware of a custody hearing, which I wasn’t. When I returned to my mother’s custody, the situation went downhill quickly. In this particular except, my mother had convinced herself that I was a drug abuser, pathological liar, and kleptomaniac. This incident still haunts me, not due to the forced confession but rather my inability to explain what happened.
For this next round of Book Bubbles, I’m going to focus on the damaging effectiveness of mind games. It really doesn’t matter whether this sort of “game” is played with an adult or a child, the consequences can be just as devastating. The difference is that a child will have a more difficult time identifying the nature of the game until their psyche has already been impacted while an adult with more experience may recognize what’s happening before it’s too late. This is really the essence of propaganda. If you tell a lie enough times, the audience will begin to believe it. Especially, when this “evidence” is propagated by the very person, the victim is dependent upon. Nearly every child looks up to their parents for affirmation, affection, and knowledge. When these normally positive attributes are twisted to assert emotional control over the victim, the child loses their sense of self. This particular bubble looks at one of the first memorable examples of this game being performed on me. This was my first real lesson in humiliation, self-doubt and self-loathing. It was the first time I had begun to doubt my own sanity at a very young age. When your parent repeatedly accuses you of wrongdoing and then beats a confession out of you, anyone would question reality eventually.
Let’s wrap-up our look at the occult in The Demons of Plainville. I wanted to end this discussion on a more positive note. When we began our look at the occult, I took a neutral position. The occult refers to something beyond our normal understanding or the study of supernatural forces. While this was a used as a tool both control and instill fear within me, it also unlocked my imagination. I have to confess that some experiences compelled me to begin writing. I owe my inclination to the genre of horror in part due to my exposure to the occult at home, but the greater influence was one of my closest friends, Todd. Unlike my mother, I never felt any threat or fear when discussing the occult with Todd. Todd was a horror fan, and, in fact, the first horror movie I’d seen without adult supervision was with him. We went to see John Carpenter’s movie “The Fog” together, thanks to an adult who vouched for us at the ticket booth. Todd owned an occult book that was geared toward summoning spirits and demons. I knew he didn’t really believe it, but he loved reading to me. In this excerpt, we went into woods and performed a ritual. It left a lasting impression on me.
This excerpt represents an interesting shift in the dynamic between my mother and I. A shift that would place me in a more adversarial role in our relationship. I can’t say whether my mother’s gesture here was a ploy to make me the villain in a game of growing brinkmanship or whether it was a genuine act of repentance. Perhaps, the truth lies somewhere in-between the two. Regardless, her words set me on an unexpected journey that would grant me the strength to deal with the battles to come, and would plant further seeds of torment and doubt into my adolescent brain. As with the previous excerpt, she is painting an increasingly dire scenario where summoned forces were a direct threat to me. This time she took it a step further and reported a manifested entity physically assaulting her, and, of course, reminded me that such entities were a greater threat to me. Yet, for the first time she offered some modicum of protection. She gave me the cherished crucifix of her departed younger brother and recommended I start attending church and the Boy Scouts. She never stopped the masses, but for the first time she pushed me in a new trajectory. It would be a direction that lead to something she never envisioned for me, empowerment.
Today, I’m starting to connect the dots on how the occult was ‘weaponized’ for lack of a better term. While it had always been impressed upon me that being outside the ritual was a bad thing, but that thing was never really quantified before. After we had moved to Boston, my mother’s attitudes toward myself and the masses, in general, had changed. Previously, the masses were more ‘innocent’, asking for little more than good luck and health. After the move, something had changed in the dynamic and the prayers turned toward darker requests. Prayers for vengeance against enemies, wishing them sickness and death. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the consequences of being outside the circle likewise darkened. I was warned of physical torture, possession and other consequences that caused my imagination and subconscious to spin its gears. It would be shortly after this excerpt that I would no longer be included in these masses, and my relationship with my mother rapidly disintegrated. Essentially what she had done was implanted a series of fears and wonders into my adolescent imagination, then went out of her way to directly expose me to these dangers. It was yet another game, a play for power to control my psyche and exercise a level of control that was difficult to escape.
Last time we defined ‘The Occult’ in broad terms, and discussed that the subject matter, like any system of belief or faith, is not inherently harmful. However, the impact varies with context and application. Today, we will look at the darker side of Occultist practices. In this excerpt, I detail one of the masses my mother performed where I was not included. This is more significant than it sounds, because it had always been impressed upon me that being outside the ritual circle represented both physical and spiritual danger. The concept is simple but frightening especially in the mind of an imaginative child. When you perform the ‘Black Mass’ (at least as taught to me by my mother) that the ritual summons ‘demons’. The summoning party is protected inside the circle, but anyone outside the circle was open to attack or possession by those demons. At some point my mother made the conscious decision to keep me outside the circle. I was aware of the ramifications of being outside the circle and this would be impressed upon me a number of times of the course of my childhood. The consequences would mean physical assault, possession, torture and more. My mother wanted me to be aware of these facts and that it could happen anytime, if not already.
Let's discuss some more difficult subject matter in my memoir, 'The Demons of Plainville'. This time let's tackle the occult. First, let’s establish a perhaps oversimplified definition of what the occult means. In broadest terms, the occult simply refers to something beyond normal understanding or is otherwise mysterious. In the context of the memoir, the occult specifically refers to the study of supernatural entities or forces beyond our contemporary academic knowledge. There is nothing inherently wrong with the subject matter or practitioners thereof. I confess that as a writer, the subject the occult is both fascinating and exciting. However, there is a dark side to occultist practices, but then there is a dark side to nearly every system of belief, faith or philosophy. It’s all in the application and context of how that belief is applied and used. In my mother’s case, her occultist leanings were specifically geared toward Satanism. Now in this excerpt, I had no idea there was anything wrong with this practice, I was not aware specifically aware of what Satan or even demons really were outside a vague notion established by television. This was my first recollection of the ‘Black Mass’ and it left a lasting impression. However, subsequent masses would take on more chilling connotations and we will discuss that next time.
We covered some interesting ground this week. We discussed using weather in a scene to set the mood or tone of the scene or chapter. From drab gray skies to bright blues skies and warm summer breezes. Weather can be very emotionally evocative when used right. We mentioned using weather to reflect a passage of time, as blankets of snow yield to crocuses and spring showers. We also mentioned the idea of setting plot points based on the weather, for instance trapping the protagonists in an isolated location due to a storm. Finally, we mentioned the idea of using the weather to foreshadow coming events or tying the weather with a certain character as I did with my mother. I'm going to leave you with this excerpt that describes the passage of Hurricane Gloria in eastern New England. Hurricanes in New England can be rather dry depending on what side of the eye you're on. That's the trick with the weather in fiction unless your event is supernatural the weather phenomena can vary. The desert southwest gets plenty of thunderstorms, but frequently there is no rain. So if you are trying to portray realistic conditions do a little research first. Next week I will deal with some tougher subjects in: 'The Demons of Plainville'
How many of you heard the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night." Chances are you've heard this before, but with a negative or humorous connotation. The first thing that probably comes to your mind is "that's cliche". I submit to you that is not so much the problem as that it's a soulless assertion. It's the classic literary sin, "telling and not showing." Using a big storm as a plot device in a horror movie is cliche, but if the story is engaging and the storm impacts the protagonists in a logical way, then the cliche is irrelevant. Imagine 'The Shining' without the blizzard, or 'The Evil Dead' and countless other movies and novels where the plot is significantly driven by the weather. The key is to know when to paint the vivid picture of the weather as I attempted in this excerpt. It's not enough to say "It was a big blizzard," because that would not carry much weight with the reader on how this event fundamentally changed my life. I needed to try and capture the wonder and awe of what was dubbed at the time 'The Storm of the Century'. I wish I had elucidated on the blizzard more, but then to be honest the manuscript was running long. Sometimes you need to pick your battles.
There really is no limit to the use of meteorological terms and conditions in literature, whether the genre is fiction or non-fiction. In this excerpt, I use weather to show the passage of time. The chapter began during the harsh winter months, where the city of Boston is frequently embraced by a frigid blanket of white and battleship gray skies overhead. However, the chapter ends with the coming of the spring and summer months. We typically associate spring and summer with a time relaxation, optimism and hope. So, you could say that we accomplished two things with one simple paragraph. We denoted the passage of time between chapters, and we also foreshadowed some events to come in the upcoming chapter. Summer humidity and heat brings the danger of thunderstorms that arise quickly and can lash out with deadly precision. What better way to describe someone with dangerous mood swings? Next time we'll discuss the use of weather for transitions and setting mood.
I have several obsessions in life, and one of them is meteorology. There is a lot of artistry in the weather, and as such it's such a perfect fit for literature. There really is no limit what you can use weather for in a book, and probably even more adjectives and verbs that can go along with it. This week I'll be addressing the lighter side of my memoir by focusing in on the importance and symbolic uses of the weather in various chapters. In this scene, I describe the approach of a summertime thunderstorm and its impact on the surrounding environment. Thunderstorms are nature's most powerful force. While a real memory, it serves to show how small two young boys and even the forest itself is in the face of this force.
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