Horror novelist explores Saint John's creepy side in debut book
With fog hanging over old-growth forest and breakers crashing against jagged cliffs, the Fundy coast can have an uncanny, Maritime-gothic mood, which Laura Keating thought was perfect for her debut horror novella.
Agony's Lodestone is described as Blair Witch meets Stranger Things and takes place in a fictionalized version of Saint John, called Lancaster Falls — more specifically, in a wilderness preserve bearing a strong resemblance to the Irving Nature Park.
"A place like New Brunswick, I feel like there's a lot there that people don't see. And so there's a lot that people can imagine," said Keating, a big fan of Stephen King, who has similarly fictionalized Castle Rock and Derry, based on places in Maine.
When you give it a new name, you can have more artistic licence, said Keating, to "move boundaries" and "place things where they're not quite supposed to be."
"It's like, this is familiar, but there's something not quite right."
Keating now lives and writes in Montreal, but she used to live in Saint John, and she grew up between Saint Andrews and Harvey, places that have really inspired her work as a writer.
New Brunswick is a lot like any other place, she said, with interesting cities, towns, countryside, rural areas and "a certain unknown element," which lends itself well to horror.
Compared to New York City, for example, the setting of countless tales, it's much easier for readers to project something new onto less familiar landscape.
"That's where a lot of horror happens," Keating said.
Other New Brunswick places that get shoutouts in the book include Moncton, Magnetic Hill and the Stonehammer Geopark, a UNESCO-designated area with a billion-year geologic history, covering most of southern New Brunswick.
The lodestone in the title refers to a part of a compass.
"It's meant to be sort of that charged guiding point that draws us forward," said the author.
As for the plot, Agony's Lodestone tells a time-bending tale of a family with deep fractures and dark secrets. There are three sisters and a brother in all, but one sister has been missing for decades when a terrifying new lead arrives in the form of a creepy videotape.
Clues lead them to Cannon Park, where they encounter a haunted forest and time and space begin to shift.
The physical nature of that predicament turned out to be a good reflection of the emotions that haunted the characters about the night their sister left, Keating said.
"Isn't that exactly what happens when people are in the midst of guilt and grief? You wake up in the middle of the night, and you think about it over and over. You try to replay events and to make things different, and you can't."
Memory is a double-edged sword to Keating.
"You try to live a life as good as you can, so that you actually have pleasant memories. But sometimes life just happens around you, and you're not always in charge of that."
She wrote about other flaws of memory in this passage:
She'd read once that the mind cannot tell the difference between the memory of an event and the event itself. The tape was a living memory, but like a memory, it could be altered or become faulty, affected by choices.
"We all misremember things," she said. "Sometimes we're too hard on ourselves. Sometimes we're too easy on others."
In the book, Keating writes about broken relationships between an outcast brother and his sisters. She finds writing about sibling relationships fun and natural, but in real life, she noted, she's on good terms with her own three sisters.
"Siblings are your first friends, but they're also the first people you fight with. And you learn and you grow through those relationships. They help you to understand [yourself] and you can help them understand themselves."
Keating described herself as "a spooky kid" who loved Halloween. When she started writing in high school, it was in the fantasy genre, but she found her groove as a writer after rediscovering that childhood love of horror.
She had multiple short stories published before this novella, whose journey to publication was "amazingly short."
She started writing it last winter, had a manuscript by spring and polished it a bit more over the summer, before it was accepted by Tenebrous Press, publishers of "new, weird horror," based in Portland, Ore. and Romania, three days after she'd sent it in.
This book is classified as adult horror with adult themes and "scary moments," but Keating thinks it could be appropriate for teens, as well.
Release is scheduled for April 14.
"I'm just very very happy and excited," said Keating.
Indie horror writing is experiencing a "golden age," she said. "A very dark garden" is blooming with a greater diversity of voices.
The stories coming out are "fresh, mind-blowingly creative, and will make you want to sleep with the lights on."
Horror films, likewise, are doing well, said Keating, despite cinema attendance being down.
She thinks it's all a sign of the "anxious, turbulent times."
"Horror is a way to release those anxieties, to see resolution to fears and disaster when the odds seem impossible," she said. It's a "safe place to explore and confront fear head on."
Keating also has a collection of short stories coming out from Cemetery Press by the end of the summer, with mostly new stories, and she's working on another novella and a novel.
Just about all of them have New Brunswick connections.