by Alexandra Sokoloff
Well, you’re not going to catch me out there shopping! Instead I thought I’d blog a little about holiday books. But not exactly the way you think.
It’s a little strange for me to think of myself as a holiday writer, first because my own family is so exceedingly casual about holidays. The actual date means very little; as long as we celebrate within a month or so of the day, it counts. A typical Christmas for us has traditionally been munching down avocado and turkey sandwiches while reading the (now sadly defunct) Weekly World News (Bat Boy! Alien Spawn!) aloud around the table, and ending the evening with an Absolutely Fabulous or Fawlty Towers marathon.
And since I cross mystery, thriller and supernatural, and my books fall very much on the darker side, I’m not the first person you would think to put in that cheery holiday category, either.
But then, I don’t write cheery holiday stories. True to form, my take on the holidays is a little, well, warped. And yet holidays figure prominently in almost everything I write. I’m not trying to be outré about it, honestly, it’s just that there’s so much more to most holidays than the “Good tidings to all,” overcommercialized surface we usually get.
The truth is, holidays are like candy for a supernatural author because they are so metaphorical and simply dripping with thematic and visual imagery. You don’t have to work half as hard to create an atmosphere because the imagery and meaning have been there for thousands of years – it’s all imprinted on our unconscious.
My first novel, The Harrowing, takes place over a long Thanksgiving weekend. It’s an anti-Thanksgiving weekend, really: five troubled students at an isolated college have decided to stay in their creepy old Victorian dorm over the holiday break because they don’t want to go home to their dysfunctional families.
While I have to say up front I have a great time at Thanksgiving now, in the past it’s always been an anxious time of year for me. Any holiday revolving around food (and what holiday doesn’t?) is fraught with tension because, to be perfectly blunt, I was a dancer, with all the attendant food issues. I also have this theory that Thanksgiving became a major holiday mostly to give couples a way to split up their annual holiday visits between the two different sets of in-laws.
Take that familial power struggle, add football and alcohol and the necessity of someone, meaning the women, being chained to an oven for a good two or three days – and the potential for disaster is I believe higher than average.
But that makes Thanksgiving an almost perfect holiday for me, in a genre sense.
I write (and read) supernatural stories with a strong psychological component, so I’m always on the lookout for psychological crucibles. The premise of The Harrowing is that five lonely and troubled college students combine to attract an equally troubled spirit, and I wanted to create an atmosphere that was so tense that whatever haunting was taking place might be explained simply as the collective neurosis of the young characters. Thanksgiving instantly provided all the gloom, bad weather, abandonment and anxiety I could possibly hope to cram into a concentrated time period.
And it’s a completely realistic situation right from the start: students do stay at college over the holidays, they usually do so because they don’t want to go home, and there is nothing on earth spookier than a deserted campus. Perfect for a ghost story.
But on the warmer side – the story is also very much about completely disparate people coming together as a true family, the first real family any of them have ever had, and Thanksgiving is a perfect setting for that theme, as well.
I’m sorry to say that in my second novel, The Price, I may have corrupted the happy holiday ideal even further. The Price is set in a labyrinthine Boston hospital, where someone who may or may not be the devil is walking the wards, making deals with the patients and their families. Because I figure, if there is such a thing as the devil, and if what he wants is human souls, then trolling in a children’s hospital would be like shooting fish in a barrel. What wouldn’t you do if your child was dying?
In The Price the featured holiday is Easter, and of course a key theme is resurrection. Idealistic Boston District Attorney Will Sullivan is the golden son of a political family, with a stellar reputation, a beautiful and devoted wife, Joanna, and an adorable five-year-old daughter, Sydney. Will also has a real shot in the Massachusetts governor’s race… until Sydney is diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable tumor. Now Will and Joanna are living in the twilight world of Briarwood Medical Center, waiting for their baby to die, and going out of their minds with grief. But around them, patients are recovering against all odds, and the recoveries seem to involve a mysterious hospital counselor who takes a special interest in Will and his family.
Then one terrible night Sydney is rushed into emergency surgery and is not expected to survive… but instead almost overnight she goes into remission. Except that Will doubts this miraculous recovery, and must race to uncover the truth in order to save his family.
Easter is the season of miracles, and perfect for the story, which goes from the bleak, cold, stark hopeless dead of winter (in Boston! The very thought strikes terror into my Southern California soul…) to warm, lush, colorful, abundant spring when Sydney miraculously starts to recover (and believe me, the one actual winter I ever spent on the East Coast, it really was a miracle to see spring arrive seemingly overnight). The themes of sacrifice for love, redemption through suffering, salvation, return from the dead, and above all, what we are truly willing to do for those we love – are all part of the deep mythos of Easter. It’s also easy to get your main characters into church (those gorgeous Boston cathedrals…) where certain moral and thematic issues can be played out, and the idea of the devil in the flesh – or perhaps just in the main characters’ minds – does not seem so far-fetched.
As an added bonus, Easter is an incredibly visually rich holiday to mine when one of your main characters is five years old. Easter bunnies, chocolate eggs, fluffy flowery dresses… the latent set designer in me just had a great time with that one.
And to further stand the idea of happy holidays on its (their?) head… or maybe I mean take it back to the source, my police procedural Book of Shadows around pagan holidays, the Summer Solstice, Lammas, Mabon. Good grief, I can’t even do Halloween in the traditional sense… it’s got to be Samhain!
But I guess that’s my point, here. Holidays are so much more than tinsel and glass balls and getting trampled to death at Wal-Mart to the canned soundtrack of holiday music that malls and radio stations and elevators and grocery stores bombard us with relentlessly (now starting Christmas carols before Thankgsiving, please someone just kill me). There are layers of meaning to every holiday that resonate to the very core of human existence. And it’s all there for every author to explore and every reader to experience.
Give me the off-beat holidays, any day.
Wishing a profound, mythic, and non-fatal holiday season to one and all.