Stories, like hunger, drive us to fulfill them.
Outlining, researching, free-writing, and editing are tools we use to hunt for the story’s essence, but the joke’s on us. We’re constructing our own traps. We’re the prey. The story hunts and catches us.
I’ve become aware of the hunt as I’ve gained more experience writing. Story for me is more action than object. I want to go on a journey when I write, and the stories—the good ones—chase me out of my comfort zone.
I’m willing prey. I want them to come after me. I’m practically wearing a steak around my neck.
Silap Inua is an uncomfortable story. It’s about hunting and being hunted, visible versus unseen worlds, and coming-of-age sexual fears. It deals in power, possession, and voices.
Hunting started when pre-human primates on the African savanna left the trees. There’s a pretty good argument that hunting necessitated language because of the organizational and cooperative skills required to succeed. And by succeed, I mean not starve. Our ancestors had to compete with stronger, faster predators like hyenas and lions to survive.
Imagine planning a strategic group action without words. First, you might act out what you remember from the last hunt, or what you want to do in the next one. Then, you might draw pictures of your memories and plans to communicate them to others. These pictures and actions, and the noises you make while sharing them, become mutually accepted as specific names for things, and the development of language is off and running. Evolutionary magic.
I’m a bit romantic about it. I like to think the origin of all the arts (and religion) resides in the prehistoric drama of the hunt.
If story is the hunt, language is the weapon.
Breath/soul/speech as weapon compelled Silap Inua’s realization as a story. It began with the image of a beautiful mouth that killed with a simple breath. At first, I thought it was a fragmented memory from a forgotten film, then I remembered Ray Bradbury’s Fever Dream, which ends with a child breathing on ants and watching them die. The image in my mind had mutated into something much more feminine and erotic. No ants, and no children allowed.
I wanted my story to start with a child, though. The character behind the beautiful mouth suggested Athur Szyk’s illustration of the Snow Queen from my 1945 copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s tales. The Snow Queen was the only winter fairy tale I knew at the time. It’s an awful story in the way it’s obsessed with blinding the child couple to reality and forcing them to remain children even after they grow up. Some dysfunctional families try to do this. It’s also a patriarchal tale, as are most European tales, so I made up a patriarchal, dysfunctional family to place my child in.
What a terrible parent I am.
The Snow Queen captured me because it’s a long, wandering tale, and because the queen at its heart is undeniably sexy. Instead of getting deep into female archetypes, though, I took the tack of seeking out other winter fairy tales. I discovered Russian tales of a snow child who melts from the warmth of her grieving parents’ welcoming hearth, an Inuit demon Mu-ha-ha who creeps into the igloo with icy fingers and tickles lone sleepers to death, and the danger of paralyzing swarms of Nordic snow bees who entomb unwary travelers in their drifts.
None of these satisfied my search for my story’s soulmate. I finally found it in the Inuit folklore of arctic North America. These lengthy and meandering tales depict heroes who suffer the mundane trials of the environment under constant threat of starvation. They lose people and resources dear to them. They make difficult decisions in moments of peril that might undermine their safety, or the safety of their family. In these pristine and brutal stories, the hero is often merely the one who manages to survive.
Here were tales meant to eat up the long, cold night. Always, a journey was involved. Occasionally, there was magic, but not much. Reality was too present in the lives of the storytellers and listeners to concur with lies about happy endings.
I hunted for a happy ending, and its opposite pursued me. Stories, like hunger, drive us to fulfill them.
Silap Inua starts with a toxic fairy tale and travels far away from fairy tales to reach strange psychological places. I’ve written on my blog about how it intersects with my former job as a counselor and the current Me Too movement. I’ve questioned the validity of writing women’s stories that don’t meet the standards of feminists who want to see role models of female empowerment in fiction.
I’m glad there are people who write such stories. I’m not one of them. I write horror.
Horror hunts me, and I’m willing prey because there’s something really juicy about exploring how bad things can get. This one I struggled with and ran from longer than I’d like to admit because I thought I wanted to write a fairy tale. The unhappy ending chased me down and caught me in its jaws.
So I offer you Silap Inua, a bit mangled, not quite beautiful, still warm and raw from the hunt. I hope if it doesn’t fully satisfy, it will at least stir something within you.
Author Joanna Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Her short stories have been published in journals and anthologies including New Millennium Writings and Doorbells at Dusk. Joanna is a Contemplative Psychotherapy graduate of Naropa University who lives and works near Detroit. Follow her monstrous musings at. horrorsong.blog
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Featured Photo Credit: “Snow Queen” by PJ Lynch