Photo credit: Paul Leonard
When I made my way through the local book club circuit after the publication of my first novel, The Weight of Blood
, one topic came up again and again. People would remark that I seemed so normal, so nice — they were surprised that a pleasant Midwestern mom would write about such dark and disturbing crimes. I didn’t have an easy answer prepared for the question that would inevitably arise: Where does the darkness in your writing come from
? I would smile, and shrug, and drink more wine.
I used to think it was simply my nature, that the darkness was innate, but that’s not quite true. My earliest writings were as innocuous as any other child’s, though that wouldn’t last long. As the youngest of eight children, I wasn’t sheltered. By age five I’d seen horror films and centerfolds, knew the words to my brothers’ favorite Black Sabbath songs. I already had secrets of my own. People think of the youngest child as coddled, but in a large, struggling family, it often means you’re unsupervised or forgotten, that things might happen to you without anyone noticing.
When I was seven, my father, a Type A workaholic who smoked Swisher Sweets nonstop, had a heart attack and flatlined. He was resuscitated with a memory of a tranquil field, a voice telling him that it wasn’t his time. He decided to make a drastic change, to quit his job and retreat to the countryside. We moved from Iowa, where we’d been surrounded by friends and extended family, to the Ozark Mountains, where we lived in a remote and rough-hewn house in the woods between the East Wind commune and the compound of extremist group The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. A woman from the commune jogged past us, topless, as we waited for the school bus. When we met our nearest neighbor, an elderly widow, she warned, “If you see a grave in the woods, keep walking.” I learned that scorpions can crawl up the covers and into your bed. That tarantulas migrate in the fall, lurking in the trees and crossing roads in unsettling hordes. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was gathering material for what would one day be my first novel.
Writing doesn’t take me to dark places.
In this vast and ominous wilderness, my world narrowed. We were miles from anything resembling a town, my only companions two teenage siblings restless for escape. Our father did not believe in leisure or idleness. During any spare moment of daylight, we were put to work hauling wood, weeding the enormous vegetable garden, and picking rocks, a chore as dreary as it was endless. I was in second grade and felt like I’d joined a chain gang.
We were poor, desperately so. My father opened a shoe repair shop but had trouble carving out a living in a community wary of outsiders. He made barters when he could, repairing sewing machines at the commune in exchange for rabbits. Dad had a volatile temper, and the slow country life did nothing to calm him. He would make me get down on my knees every day and tie his shoes. He expected our absolute obedience, and earned it through fear. I tried to be small and quiet, to draw no attention to myself, to disappear.
The only work my mother could find was a live-in position cooking and cleaning for an elderly woman on weekends, and without her tempering presence in the house, we grew feral. I couldn’t sleep at night, my mind and body tensed in a constant state of alert. My brother and I shared an unfinished basement bedroom with one tiny window near the rafters. Spiders congregated above my bunk. When it rained, water seeped in through the cracked concrete floor, and the blood-red carpet remnant at the center of the room floated and grew toadstools.
I longed to be anywhere else, and I found my escape in stories. I wasn’t picky. I devoured stacks of my mother’s old True Story
magazines and Nancy Drew mysteries with brittle brown pages. I read the classics my older siblings brought home from school, Ethan Frome
and Animal Farm
and Of Mice and Men
. There was no library in town, so when school closed for the summer, there were no more books. The black and white TV, with its three channels, was my savior. While my dad was at work, I’d lose myself in Little House on the Prairie
and Scooby Doo
and The Facts of Life
. When the TV was struck by lightning, we couldn’t afford to replace it. I felt empty, scraped bare. When my children, with their iPads and pool memberships and overflowing bookshelves, say they are bored, I tell them about that summer, how my sister and I spent an entire afternoon watching a dung beetle as it tried and failed to roll a ball of manure over the threshold of our house like a humble backwoods Sisyphus.
I had an abyss of time, and nothing to fill it but my own mind. In the long, dull hours of hauling rocks and clearing brush, I imagined other people’s lives. I made up stories, sometimes about girls like me, girls who wanted something different from what they had but didn’t know how to get it. They struggled against the same obstacles, but I made them braver than me, stronger, more resourceful. These stories were dark, but there were hints of hope, moments of levity — the bits of light that keep darkness from consuming you, in real life and on the page.
When I was in junior high, my mother read a story I turned in for an assignment. It was about a girl who killed her father with a chainsaw while they were out cutting wood. Mom asked where I got such awful ideas. I wondered where I could have gotten ideas of any other kind. I’d spent countless hours covered in sweat and sawdust, had watched my dad lurch into the house roaring like a bear, drenched in blood, after the chainsaw kicked back and tore open his throat. What other sort of story would I write?
My novels revolve around crimes, but at the heart, I’m always focused on the characters and their families — the lives they scrape out in unseen corners, the sacrifices they make for each other, the things they do to survive. There are pieces of myself in each book. I’ve been inspired by real crimes in the rural communities where I grew up, and The Wolf Wants In
was especially personal, inspired by the unresolved death of my brother. I’ve been asked if writing about disturbing things takes a toll, if it depresses me, makes me fearful. Writing doesn’t take me to dark places. It brings relief, bleeding out the darkness like leeches, making room for more light to seep in.
My mother hasn’t disowned me over any of my stories. She told me that she’d pledged long ago not to get angry if I published things she didn’t like; she always knew I’d be a writer. In return, I make sure to tell people that none of the bad mothers in my novels are based on her. She is the one who taught me the importance of books. When I complain about my childhood, she says that it gave me something to write about.
Recently I asked my mom what had happened to a mean old goat we had in the Ozarks. She reminded me that we had kept him tethered with a boat anchor so he could roam but not get far, and then one day he was gone, anchor and all, so she assumed someone had stolen him.
Don’t you think it’s more likely
, I said, that he made it to the woods, the anchor got stuck, he starved to death or was eaten by coyotes, and some hunter will find a skeleton chained to an anchor in the middle of nowhere and wonder what the hell happened?
She asked how I could think such a terrible thing. I smiled. I didn’t tell her my other, worse, ideas. (No one liked that goat; I wasn’t convinced that his demise was an accident.) I knew her question was rhetorical, that she didn’t want a reply, so I didn’t say it out loud: What else would you expect from me
÷ ÷ ÷
is the internationally bestselling author of The Weight of Blood
, winner of an International Thriller Writers Award and a Silver Falchion Award for best first novel, and Arrowood
, an International Thriller Writers Award finalist for best novel. McHugh lives in Missouri with her husband and daughters.