Fairy tales can be twisted. They can take you to fantastical places where there are no glittering castles or Prince Charmings or talking rabbits in sight. They can cloak themselves in shadows and even verge on horror.
Josh Malerman never intended to write a fairy tale with his latest novel Unbury Carol. But when the ghosts of characters swirling in his imagination appeared in the flesh on the dusty trails of an Old West alt-verse, the story that accidentally turned into a warped version of Sleeping Beauty took on a magic of its own.
"There wasn't an intention to modernize Sleeping Beauty or anything like that but after a while — and when someone else says it — you can see exactly what they're talking about," the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author told SYFY WIRE in an exclusive interview about the tale of a woman whose mysterious illness plunges her into a deathlike state that could land her in her coffin if she cannot somehow claw her way out.
What first sparked Malerman's imagination was not some otherworldly vision of a modern fantasy, but a character who materialized in his mind's eye as a vague figure who took on a more human form. As the author wandered through the aisles of a grocery store with a lighter in his pocket, he imagined that lighter blasting fire into the aisles. An imaginary trail of oil behind him ignited a trail of flame. The culprit started to reveal himself as a devilish rogue with an awkward haircut and an arrogant bent, singsonging as he scorched the earth. Suddenly these fragments came together into character of Smoke.
"Smoke came to me in full, and I thought whoever he was, I wanted to use him somewhere," Malerman recalled. "Shortly thereafter, I was thinking about a woman who falls and dies several times a year and how the only way that scenario might work [is if he] is alive at a time when the instruments aren't sophisticated enough to detect her heartbeat. So then obviously a Western crossed my mind."
That was how the titular Carol Evers came into being. Malerman was still unsure of what to do with these two characters who had just made themselves known to him, but he knew he was going to use them somehow. Misunderstood outlaw and anti-Prince Charming James Moxie followed soon after. What Malerman wanted to avoid was the stereotypical knight in shining armor type who would ride in on his proverbial white horse and fly down the Trail with Carol in his arms before she was forever condemned to the grave.
"I didn't want to write a straight 'Oh, I'll save you!'" Malerman said. "I didn't want that guy in there but I liked the idea of an outlaw, which still puts you in a strange spot because people will expect a certain grit out of that character, which, in a way, is sort of meta."
Think of badass riders in vintage Westerns like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman and Malerman's own inspiration, Unforgiven, who gallop into the sunset with a still-smoking six-shooter on each side of their gunbelt, leaving wonder and speculation in their wake. Clint Eastwood's notorious Will Munny in Unforgiven is the enigma who got Malerman thinking of a character who would constantly have both the denizens of the Trail and the reader asking whether or not he is what he seems to be. In Munny's case, that was the persona of the serial killer he was in a past life; in James Moxie's, he could be a magician who may or may not have caused blood to bloom from his opponent's ribcage without ever drawing his gun. In this world, Moxie is a walking legend to which rumors cling like dust as he rides past the bars and saloons.
"In Unbury Carol, I replaced tall tales with magic tricks," said Malerman, whose fascination with sleight-of-hand magic constantly has you thinking twice about whether you saw what you just think you saw in your mind's eye.
The one thing that separates Moxie from the stereotypical trigger-happy outlaw is that he isn't driven by lust or defiance or thrill kills. Moxie is propelled by guilt, the guilt for having abandoned Carol for the perils of the trail years ago only for her to land in the spiderweb of the jealous Dwight Evers, who uses a magic of his own to make sure his wife appears dead long enough for her to be buried. He is the accidental badass who is far from an actual badass, a figure who has been so distorted by hearsay that nobody actually knows who the real James Moxie is.
Unbury Carol came out of thin air as spontaneously as the crack of a gunshot on the Trail, which Malerman describes as "an absolute wonderful blur, the kind of experience that you're always gunning for as an artist, where you're completely lost in what you're doing that it doesn't matter how much or how little you do in a day." The first draft took shape as a series of vignettes in an almost otherworldly 15 days, with more layers being added in the many rewrites that followed.
The author then realized he would need characters who were anything from catalysts to intermediaries, like Trail-watcher Edward Bunny, whose uncanny knowledge of where exactly an outlaw is found on the trail comes from a deck of cards he keeps shuffling and reshuffling in his pocket.
Is Unbury Carol really a Western? The wrong side of a fairy tale? Exquisite horror? Malerman believes it is neither and all of them.
"I'm almost always coming from a horror place, so if I'm going to write a Western, chances are it's going to have horror elements," he said. "In any genre I write, chances are I will be drawing elements of horror to the point where you ask yourself whether Unbury Carol is horror. I'd say it starts as a Western, but by the end, it does seem like more of a ghost story, more like a dark fairy tale — and it might just be a horror novel."
To find out know how magic can be something other than magic, unearth the secrets buried in Unbury Carol.