Meet the author: Q&A with Craig DiLouie, author of The Children of Red Peak

Earlier this month, I read and reviewed The Children of Red Peak, the disturbing, haunting, and utterly terrific new novel by author Craig DiLouie.

The author has kindly agreed to answer some questions, which I so appreciate! So without further ado, please enjoy these fascinating responses.

Did you always want to be a writer? How did you get started?

Thanks for having me as a guest, Lisa! I grew up on a small farm outside a small town in New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up but awfully boring. During my teen years, I discovered Robert E. Howard and fell in love. Though he’s best known as the creator of Conan, he wrote short pulp fiction in a number of genres back in the ‘30s. For me, it was the perfect escape. After a while, I caught fire with the idea that I could not only visit these worlds, I could create them. From that day on, I wanted to write. While most of my career has in been in writing—journalism and education in the electrical industry—it’s only in the past 10-15 years or so that my fiction writing career has really taken off. While it’s taken me so long to get where I am, I’ve gone so much farther than I ever dreamed. It’s been a gratifying and humbling journey.

Can you describe your path to getting published?

Well, I started back in the ‘90s. Back then, writers faced a Catch 22. The best way to get your work published was to already be published, which is still true today, though you now have more options for publication. I felt like a character in a Kafka novel, given a lavish invitation to a party I’d never actually be allowed to attend. In the early ‘00s, I lucked out selling a psychological thriller direct to a small press, which led to two more books getting published with them. One of these was Tooth and Nail, a zombie book I wrote on a lark. Sales exploded, a matter of having the right book at the right place at the right time. Its success led to two more zombie books, an agent, and finally publication of four books with Simon & Schuster and my current publishing home, Hachette. Along the way, I discovered a model for self-publishing that’s been a lot of fun and keeps me incredibly busy as a separate venture.

What are your favorite genres to read?

I tend to read the kind of thing I’m writing at the time, so I’ve been reading a lot of horror lately. That being said, I recently fell in love with Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, a fantastic retelling of Arthurian legend I highly recommend, and his Saxon Chronicles, which was adapted for Netflix as The Last Kingdom.

Do you have certain books that you’ve read over and over?

A few, and these are the books that stay on my bookshelf, while I tend to give the rest away to people I think will enjoy them. 1984, Blood Meridian, The Road, The Iron Heel, The Killer Angels, and The Handmaid’s Tale come to mind, among others.

Who are your favorite writers? Are there particular writers who’ve inspired your own writing?

This is a great question but one that’s a bit complicated for me to answer, as I love writers in different ways depending on whether I’m thinking about them as a writer or a reader. As a writer, I admire people like Jonathan Maberry, Josh Malerman, Peter Clines, David Moody, and many others who exemplify how to do great in their art and profession, handle success with grace, and remain generous and kind to colleagues. Then there are authors I admire as a writer simply for things they’ve taught me through their fiction—Jack Ketchum to not be timid when it comes to pushing boundaries, John Skipp for so perfectly finding the subtle comedy in horror, Michael Shaara for the well-placed, evocative adjective, and so on. As a reader, I probably most admire writers like Naomi Alderman and Claire North who can come up with brilliant concepts that challenge me and make me think.

What would you most want new readers to know about you?

Another great question. I guess I’d want them to know that with each novel I write, I try my absolute hardest to give them a few hours of escape into a realistic world where ordinary people they can care about will undergo extraordinary challenges, and that after they close the covers they will be invited to reflect on interesting themes. Fiction is very YMMV, so if I don’t succeed with every reader, I’d want them to know I cared and that I worked my heart out trying.

What made you decide to focus on cults in The Children of Red Peak?

The Children of Red Peak is a psychological thriller with elements of cosmic horror. The story is about a group of people who grew up and survived the horrific last days of a religious group that devolved into a cult. When one of them commits suicide, the remaining survivors come together to confront their past and the entity that appeared on the final night. It’s told in two timelines, one where we see them as kids growing up in a group and how everything goes wrong, and the other years later where they’re adults coping with trauma and ultimately trying to find closure on the tragedy by returning to Red Peak.

I picked cults because, well, they’re fascinating and mysterious. I wanted to show the only difference between a cult and any religious or similar belief group is in the level of harm. Thematically, I wanted to explore belief as a basic human trait—one could argue it’s actually a survival trait—and show how it can produce great moral achievements and happiness but also some of the world’s worst evil. The difference between a happy religious community and a hellish cult is a slippery slope as one can logically lead to the other. For me, that was fertile ground for horror and an opportunity to explore challenging ideas.

Otherwise, I was inspired by a reading of Genesis. God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountain and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham does this only to be stopped by God at the last moment. I wondered: What would that story be like if told from Isaac’s point of view?

What kind of research did you do?

I always do a ton of research for my books to ground the story and make its world as realistic as possible. In The Children of Red Peak, I made an even bigger effort as the survivors all have professions that relate to the ways in which they cope with the trauma they still carry with them so many years later. Beth is a psychologist specializing in trauma, which required a great deal of study to get right. Deacon is a musician who purges his despair onstage, which required a deep dive into the life of an indie rock band. And David is a cult exit counselor, which allowed me to study and present cults from a more scientific point of view. The result is a lot of challenging and intriguing information that enriches the narrative.

The depiction of the Family of the Living Spirit in their original setting seems mostly peaceful and positive, yet it was scarily easy for them to shift to a doomsday mentality. How does this relate to real cults that you’ve researched?

Yes, that’s where the real horror in the novel is buried—in how easily and quickly this isolated, relatively happy, devout religious community goes to hell on their slippery slope of good intentions. They believe God is constantly interceding in their lives and will end the world soon. As the author, I treated them and their beliefs respectfully but took them seriously at their word, that they really believed what they believed with all their heart. Then an authority figure in their lives comes forward and says yes, God talked to me, he’s waiting for us on a mountain, and we’ll be severely tested when we get there so that only the worthy can ascend. Of course, most of them are going to go, and when Heaven is the reward, what wouldn’t you do to get there?

This was a fascinating product of my research. I was far less interested in trying to recreate the Manson Family or the Peoples Temple or Heaven’s Gate and far more interested in exploring the psychology of why somebody gets into a group like this and how it can all go wrong. The product, again, is great horror, but the main horror doesn’t come from Red Peak but instead from within the human spirit, its yearning for meaning and life after death and its potential to be misled.

I was so distressed by the characters’ lives and traumas in The Children of Red Peak, and I remember feeling really moved by the characters in your other books as well. What’s the key to bringing your characters to life?

For The Children of Red Peak, producing the characters was challenging as I wanted them to start as children with basic personality traits that as adults have run amok as coping mechanisms, give them professions that reinforced and allowed them to act out these mechanisms, and then give them a very difficult choice when they return to Red Peak. This process started with a basic need for the character, and I went from there. So for David, he starts out as this kid who’s dragged across several state lines to live in an isolated community that’s very alien to him. The first thing he does when he gets there is hide. Once I pinned him as somebody who hides, I knew everything about him as a kid, adult, what job he’d have, even how he takes his coffee. By going right to the core of the character—what they want, what they need, their flaw or misbelief, and the wound that created the flaw—I have everything I need to create a living, breathing person on the page. By the end of the book, the characters really did take on a life of their own, and more often than not, they surprised me by telling me what they wanted to do and say next. I really came to love them, which is a hazard for writers of horror, a genre where you have to hurt your darlings.

I’ve been haunted by Our War ever since I read it, and the closer the 2020 election got, the more it was on my mind. Did you have our current political situation in mind when you wrote it? The scenarios in Our War seem terrifyingly possible to me. Did you mean the book to be a cautionary tale?

The book is absolutely a cautionary tale. When I wrote it, I saw the potential in growing polarization and tribalization in America to explode in civil unrest, violence, and possibly a far more catastrophic fracturing of the country. This is not new with our current president, it’s been in the works for decades. I could talk to you all day about this, so I’ll stop there before I dump an essay on you. I’ll just say I hope the novel stays fiction!

I know this is a terrible question to ask an author, but is there one particular book among all you’ve written that you’re especially proud of? One that feels most representative of your work as a whole?

I don’t mind the question at all, though my answer may sound like a bit of a cop out. First, I love all my books equally, though for different reasons—of course I would, right, as in a creative sense, they’re my children! But in the end, the work I’m most proud of is always my most recent. I say this because today I’m a better writer than I was a year ago, and not as good a writer as I’ll be next year. I’m constantly growing and learning as a writer, and I’m excited about what I’ll end up working on in the future.

Can you share anything about your next project? What can we look forward to in your future books?

I’ll be pitching some ideas to Hachette soon for my next big standalone novel. In the meantime, I’m working on a new self-published series about a carrier pilot in WW2 I hope to roll out by mid 2021. These stories are simple, fresh, fun dime novels and serve as a sort of palate cleanser for me between the bigger, more emotionally intensive novels.

Thank you, Craig DiLouie! I can’t wait to read your next books! Thank you for taking the time to provide such fascinating answers to my questions.

Author bio:

Craig DiLouie is an American-Canadian author of speculative fiction with notable works including Our War, One of Us, Suffer the Children, The Infection, and the Crash Dive series. His most recently work is The Children of Red Peak, now available from Hachette’s Redhook imprint. Learn more at www.CraigDiLouie.com.

Book Review: The Children of Red Peak by Craig DiLouie

Title: The Children of Red Peak
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: November 17, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Bram Stoker Award-nominated author Craig DiLouie brings a new twist to the cult horror story in a heart-pounding novel of psychological suspense.

David Young, Deacon Price, and Beth Harris live with a dark secret. As children, they survived a religious group’s horrific last days at the isolated mountain Red Peak. Years later, the trauma of what they experienced never feels far behind.

When a fellow survivor commits suicide, they finally reunite and share their stories. Long-repressed memories surface, defying understanding and belief. Why did their families go down such a dark road? What really happened on that final night?

The answers lie buried at Red Peak. But truth has a price, and escaping a second time may demand the ultimate sacrifice.

Reading The Children of Red Peak gave me serious chills — but I’m not sure whether this story needed the horror/supernatural element to have that effect. How can a story about childhood survivors of a death cult be anything but horrifying?

In The Children of Red Peak, we meet the three main characters — David, Beth, and Deacon, at the funeral of their childhood friend, Emily. Emily has committed suicide, leaving a note that says simply “I couldn’t fight it anymore”.

Fifteen years earlier, these four people, plus David’s older sister Angela, were the sole survivors of a brutal yet mysterious mass suicide out in the desert at a location known as Red Peak. A religious congregation, led by their pastor, endured weeks of starvation, hard labor, and mutilations before finally drinking poison (and murdering those who balked) — all with the goal of gaining eternal life in heaven, leaving behind the rest of the world to suffer the end times.

The survivors were all teens at the time, and after their rescue and extended psychological treatment, they eventually went their separate ways and made lives for themselves. But none are truly happy, and none can really explain what happened on that terrible day at Red Peak.

Through chapters that alternate between Beth, David, and Deacon’s perspectives, we learn about their varied current lives — Beth is a psychologist, Deacon an up-and-coming rock star, and David a cult exit counselor. We also see the characters start to allow their memories to resurface, so we get the backstory of the Family of the Living Spirit, its road to ruin, and the events of the final day in bits and pieces, until they eventually add up to a disturbing, terrible whole.

While there is a mysterious supernatural (religious?) element that comes into play, for me the true impact of this book lies in the description of the Family of the Living Spirit’s trajectory toward destruction. When we’re introduced to this community, they are a peaceful, religious, spiritual group living off the land on a small farm, devoted to the worship of the Living Spirit, but also living a joyful, celebratory life.

It’s only when the pastor discovers a miracle in the desert that the group’s emphasis on gaining eternal life kicks into high gear. With growing fervor for the apocalypse and their crossing over, the congregation evolves quickly into a doomsday cult. Choices are removed, blind obedience is emphasized, and increasingly destructive behaviors are held up as testaments to faith. It’s horrible, especially as we see these events through the eyes of people who were children at the time.

I’m not sure that I loved the climax and conclusion of The Children of Red Peak. The story of the cult and its destructive power is the true horror — for me, the addition of a supernatural element seems almost beside the point. Yes, it’s all very scary and horrifying, but even if this story were just about the delusions and failings of a group of brainwashed people, it would be just as scary and horrifying.

Maybe even more so?

The ending gives us a way out, so to speak. It allows for the possibility that the group’s beliefs might actually have had some sort of fulfillment, in its own awful way. And truly, there are no excuses. Whether the events were the work of a supernatural or divine being, it still resulted in suffering, death, and the permanent psychological damage done to the children who survived.

The Children of Red Peak is thought-provoking and utterly devastating. I came to really care about the characters, and found the entire story and the characters’ various endings heart-breaking and tragic.

This is a powerful read, and I just wish I had someone to talk about it with! Craig DiLouie is a gifted writer, and I will gladly read whatever he writes next.

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:
One of Us
Our War

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 books on my TBR list for fall 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books On My Fall 2020 TBR.

So many books to look forward to! Most are upcoming new releases, but I’m including a couple of books from my shelves too.

(Click on any of the book cover images to see larger versions.)

  • A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
  • Dying With Her Cheer Pants On by Seanan McGuire. A collection of three new stories… and of course I’ll read anything she writes.
  • Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Serpentine by Philip Pullman: A new novella set in the world of His Dark Materials.
  • The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman: It’s been almost a year since I bought a copy of this book! It’s about time to read it.
  • The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
  • The Children of Red Peak by Craig DiLouie
  • A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong
  • The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
  • Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett — my next Discworld book

What books are you most excited to read this fall? Please share your TTT link!

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Book Review: One of Us by Craig DiLouie

Known as “the plague generation” a group of teenagers begin to discover their hidden powers in this shocking post-apocalyptic coming of age story set in 1984.

“This is not a kind book, or a gentle book, or a book that pulls its punches. But it’s a powerful book, and it will change you.” – Seanan McGuire

They’ve called him a monster from the day he was born.

Abandoned by his family, Enoch Bryant now lives in a rundown orphanage with other teenagers just like him. He loves his friends, even if the teachers are terrified of them. They’re members of the rising plague generation. Each bearing their own extreme genetic mutation.

The people in the nearby town hate Enoch, but he doesn’t know why. He’s never harmed anyone. Works hard and doesn’t make trouble. He believes one day he’ll be a respected man.

But hatred dies hard. The tension between Enoch’s world and those of the “normal” townspeople is ready to burst. And when a body is found, it may be the spark that ignites a horrifying revolution

One of Us is not for the faint of heart. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful book that leaves an indelible mark, despite being really hard to take at times.

In One of Us, something has happened to human genetics. A sexually-transmitted bacterium that causes genetic mutations has spread like wildfire. By 1970, one in three births is teratogenic — the babies are born with inhuman features, some resembling animals, others mostly human but distorted, such as the boy whose face is upside down.

Prenatal testing has become mandatory, with mandatory abortion of abnormal babies. High school students’ most serious class is health education, where they learn the risks of the bacterium and where abstinence is promoted as the only way to be sure not to pass it along. And the teratogenic babies are never, ever kept by their parents — instead, they’re deposited in homes, where the children are raised in abysmal conditions, watched over, controlled, and kept separate from the “normal” population.

As the book opens, it’s 1984, and the first generation of plague children is in their teens. The question looms — what will happen when then become adults? Do they have rights? What sort of future might await them? Complicating matters further is the discovery that some of the plague children seem to have special powers — like Goof, the boy with the upside-down face, whose funny ability to finish other people’s sentences is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his telepathic abilities.

The plague children are well aware of how the rest of the world views them — and for some, it’s time to demand more. Do they rise up and overthrow their masters? Is non-violent protest the way forward, or is the only way to tear down an unjust world to burn it down completely and rebuild it themselves?

The characters in One of Us are remarkable and unforgettable. Enoch is known to his friends as Dog (Enoch being his “slave name”, according to the group’s intellectual leader, Brain). Dog has the facial characteristics of a dog, but he has the soul of a boy who just wants friendship and freedom and a happy life. Brain is described as looking like a mix between a gorilla and a lion, and his intelligence is off the charts. Then there’s Edward, known as Wallee, who is described as looking like a bowling pin with a face, moving on a mass of roots/tentacles. The plague children’s appearances may be frightening, but inside, they’re still children, and they live life on a daily basis knowing that they’re hated, feared, and shunned.

It’s a powder keg, and yes, it does explode. The build-up makes it clear that violence is inevitable, even as we see all the places along the way where different actions or decisions might have led to different outcomes.

There’s so much to One of Us. It’s an exploration of societal injustice and divisions, and what happens when unreasoning hatred takes the lead. It illustrates the terrible outcomes of an “us vs them” mentality, where a middle ground is never an option. And it’s also just a flat-out terrifying, deeply engrossing story of genetics run amok and what such a world might look like.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not a book for the squeamish — there are some scenes with very high ick factors, so trust me and stay away if you can’t stomach such things.

That aside, I wholeheartedly recommend One of Us. It’s disturbing and awful, and also an incredibly powerful read.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of his recent novel, Our War, one of my top reads of 2019.

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The details:

Title: One of Us
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Science fiction/horror
Source: Purchased