Demons are a fascinating concept to me, largely because they’re the most untapped of the great movie monsters.
Vampires? Played out. Werewolves? Snore. Ghosts? Blah. But I think there’s still a lot that could be done with demons, if we just had the imagination to think outside the box we’ve put the devil in.
Unfortunately, the creative world seems to be stuck with three stereotypes of demons:
1.) The loud, feral, violent, sex-crazed, Catholic demons you see in every possession film that knocks off The Exorcist.
2.) The snarling Buffy-esque minion-type demons with copious movie makeup that are basically indistinguishable from orcs.
3.) The hunky antihero fallen angel whose fall from Heaven was nothing compared with how deeply he falls in love with our virtuous young heroine, with whom he can never be due to X, Y, and Z. (I obviously love the antihero part; the rest not so much.)
Protestants have their own demon myths, but for some reason the “Protestant demon” has never really caught on in pop culture, to the best of my knowledge. Pop Christian fiction contains plenty of demon stories, most notably Frank Peretti’s super-popular This Present Darkness and C.S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters. Sometime during my undergraduate film studies, almost a decade ago, the thought first occurred to me that someone should write a horror-fantasy story about these Protestant demons, but one that’s not in any way religious and can appeal to a broader audience. And soon, as so many story ideas tend to blossom, “Someone ought to do this” morphed into, “Why not me?!”
At first I thought the most interesting approach would be to portray “a day in the life of a demon” as he roams a city tempting people to this vice or that. I actually wrote a short film script and took steps to make this as a college project, but eventually abandoned it when I couldn’t figure out how to make the script interesting enough to warrant all the trouble it takes to produce a film.
The name of the main character in that short film script, by the way, was Thorn.
I set that idea aside, thinking I’d abandoned it, never to return. A few years later, a close friend and I were brainstorming ideas for a feature-length film we wanted to make, and we settled on making a horror film. A horror film about demons. But it couldn’t be anything like my earlier demon idea, since this one was supposed to be terrifying.
So we spent weeks discussing the movie’s story world, which quickly grew much weirder than any demon story I’ve ever encountered. Demons that can possess dead bodies! And they put people in trances and take them underwater to drown them so they can use their dead bodies to kill more people! Wait, what?
It got so wacky that we realized we wanted to keep the movie focused on the emotional drama of realistic characters’ lives. So we kept the story world we’d created, but diminished its presence in the film. All the demon stuff is now subtle, in the background. You almost never actually see the demons in the film (don’t all the best movie monsters stay in the shadows?) and the movie is largely centered around the human characters and their personal struggles. We spent a whole summer filming this movie.
We called it Sanctuary, and after years of post-production, you’ll be able to see it soon.
The film’s production didn’t go well. In the years since we filmed it, my friend has been able to do reshoots and perform various post-production tricks to bring the film up to snuff (it’s actually become a very solid and entertaining “B” movie), but in the immediate aftermath of the shoot, we were extremely disappointed. It was our first attempt at making a “real” movie with a crew and a respectable budget, and because we were total amateurs, a lot had gone wrong on set. An entire fourth of the movie didn’t even get shot! But all that’s a longer story for another time.
I walked away from that experience profoundly discouraged. I’d poured tremendous emotional and mental energy into getting that movie made. I loved it, especially its story world. And we’d apparently failed when we tried to make it.
More years passed. I made more movies, and grew increasingly aware that I enjoyed writing the screenplays much, much more than I enjoyed making the films. I started reading more sci-fi and fantasy and realized I enjoyed reading those books a lot more than I enjoyed watching most sci-fi and fantasy movies. And then my aunt, who is also a writer, introduced me to the work of Hugh Howey, whose career was just starting to take off at that point. I started following him online, and even met him briefly at a con.
If you’ve ever stumbled across Hugh’s writing online, you’ll know how insanely passionate and optimistic the man is about self-publishing. I can’t say for sure that without Hugh’s influence, I wouldn’t have started writing Thorn. I think I wrote some rough notes for the idea before reading any of Hugh’s stuff. But his encouragement supercharged my drive to stop making movies, and to start making books.
Demons were what I wrote about, of course. I already had these two separate demon ideas—one a day-in-the-life drama about Protestant demons, the other an intense survival thriller about freaky murderous demons—and although neither idea had quite worked on its own, I still loved them both.
I decided to combine the two into one single idea. They complemented each other well. The day-in-the-life story made the survival thriller seem grounded in the real world. And the survival thriller gave the day-in-the-life story much-needed senses of direction and adventure. And in order to combine the two different story worlds, I had to create a much deeper mythology that spawned a whole fireworks show of new ideas in my head.
Around this time I was getting much more interested in philosophy and ethics. I’ve always been drawn to them, but finishing grad school and finally getting a chance to sit down and think for a change gave me the opportunity to question some of my philosophical and ethical assumptions, and amend my views on some important things. A lot of this meditation made its way into the Thorn books. It lent them their contemplative edge, which seemed to fit well with the day-in-the-life stuff in the earlier books, and then got super intense when Thorn’s changing views were put to the test under life-or-death circumstances as the story continued. I feel like I grew a lot as a storyteller and as a person while writing these books. And unlike earlier filmmaking experiences, which more or less pummeled me into submission and then kicked me repeatedly until I grew up, the Thorn books allowed me to grow along with them in a healthy, collaborative relationship. Thorn’s growth, in a way, reflected a more extreme, dramatized version of my own growth.
I won’t write any more about what the books mean, since I think it diminishes a work when the author goes into excessive detail about all the gears and whistles that make the story work. (Although Thorn certainly does have some cool gears and whistles hidden beneath its surface, and if you find one and want to e-mail me privately, I’ll enthusiastically gush about it to you.)
And I won’t say much about the process of actually writing the books. There’s not much of a story there to tell. I outlined them and then I wrote them a page at a time. If you don’t include the year-long break I took to edit my graduate thesis film, the Thorn Saga took two years to write. I originally planned for it to be a three-book series, ending at Sanctuary, but the story world expanded quickly, and I realized there was a larger, deeper story there to tell, so before I even started writing the second book, I was already outlining books four and five.
Perhaps the wildest anecdote from the writing process is that the character of the Judge didn’t exist in my outlines of the books. As integral as he becomes to the story, he wasn’t part of my original plans at all. I just wrote him in for convenience’s sake in the first chapter of the first book, and he grew into one of the most important characters, and a damned fun character to write at that.
All in all, this has been a tremendously challenging project, but I’ve had more fun writing the Thorn Saga than I’ve ever had writing anything else. I’m especially proud of the story world, and of some of the plot twists that happen along the way. And hopefully I’ve managed to do something original and exciting within the demon sub-sub-genre.
If you’d like to check out the first book in the series, you can buy it here for $0.99. Book four releases in two more weeks, and the last book in early August.