Bone Carvers is secretly the oldest book I’ve ever written – and in its original iteration, it was terrible.
Once upon a time, my mom and I drove to Missouri – or from Missouri, I don’t recall which way we were pointed – to drop me off at college. Along the way, we pulled off for gas at a tiny little town that shall remain unnamed. A mile or so from the Interstate, Anonymous immediately creeped us out, and never stopped. The houses universally had cracked stone foundations. The few people out and about stared, and not just in the curious rubbernecker all small towns off the beaten path share. These people actively looked pissed, like we were intruding on some great and secret thing. Weirdest of all was the feeling of disuse.
I’m going to try to explain that last part by describing something completely different. Have you ever watched a film supposedly dating back decades, but every car in the movie looks brand new and pristine? How the environments lack a completely lived-in look? Anonymous was the complete opposite of that. Things that felt like they should have been new or healthy had this strange feel to them like nothing had ever been used quite the way it was meant to. Trees hung instead of reaching to the sun. Plants looked as though they wanted to strangle each other. Windows were almost uniformly grimy or dirty. And I say that not to insult their economic condition, because you walk one block in any direction from my home town’s main street and you’ll find evidence of horrible economic straits. I say it to paint a picture. This place was the very definition of “not right.”
We got our gas. I got a Pepsi – a year or so out of date, if I remember right – and we got the hell out of there before the locals came at us. On our way again, my mom said to me, “You should write a book about that place.”
Six years later, I did just that. Originally titled Hamber, it was a novella (more or less, I think it was 60k long or so) about a series of people pulled to a small, disturbing town ostensibly to help a man find his lost daughter, who had been kidnapped by the locals. As it turns out, the people haven’t stumbled into town on accident – they’ve been drawn there by the mystical powers of the town itself, to be sacrificed in a series of sick games-playing by the locals.
Sound sort of familiar? Sure. And there were more elements that share some basic DNA with the final product. As it turns out, the daughter is to be made a sacrifice to a living organism that turns out to be the town itself. She’s being kept in the deep heart of the town, well underneath the surface, and is already being grotesquely conjoined to the being when her father finds her. He kills her, thinking he’s doing the right thing, but in fact, he’s making the sacrifice the town needs to be sated, and the whole process will start itself again with a new batch of people.
It was terrible in that it was basically torture porn without any real plot to it. The experimental head-hopping I did – basically third person omniscient with rapid-fire paragraph hopping – was far too confusing and would’ve been dizzying as a reader.
The one highlight was the father-daughter relationship, built on a brutal death. The mother, suffering from brain cancer, became abusive and vicious, often beating her daughter when she was in a mood, which was frequently. The father, to spare the daughter, murders his wife with pills, and tells his daughter it was just her time. The daughter, struck mute by the abuse, becomes something of a shut-in, and her father is barely clinging to his own sanity, haunted by visions of his dead wife coming for him. By the end of the novel, the horrors of what he’s inflicted on both his wife and daughter lead him to welcome whatever unnamed plans the Hamber people have for him.
I sat on that draft for six years without a rewrite. It was bad enough that I didn’t think the idea would ever see the light of day, until I had a chance to reintroduce the idea of Hamber in The Ghost at His Back, and later in its own novel Bone Carvers.
Even the name Bone Carvers isn’t original to this novel. That stemmed from a failed sci-fi novel I wrote back in… 2013 or so, which won’t be shared here because I think it’s going to be a project I revisit in a year or two. But almost everything about the plot was dropped or refitted to match the current universe and the plot needs of the Rankin Flats series, becoming the grim, fast-paced novel it is today.
Bone Carvers is one of the more technically solid novels in the series. I think if I had to do it over again, I’d have extended Garrett’s stay in Hamber and let the residents psychologically torture him some more before he finds the tub.
Speaking of which, let’s get gruesome.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BONE CARVERS
As I’ve mentioned before, in every novel, at one point or another, I penciled in a way Brianna could die. In no book is that so evident as Bone Carvers. In fact, right up until I wrote the first draft, the plan was for Brianna to never know if she was the “real” Brianna or not. That’s why in the final draft, the doppelganger is having those mysterious cramps and pains when she’s shapeshifting. The plan was for her to change one last time into Brianna, and find she was incapable of changing back, and then leave it as a complete unsolved mystery as to who was the real Brianna and who lived at the end of the novel.
For a standalone novel, that would have been a FANTASTIC ending. But I was already running full-tilt at darker themes, and after the emotional gut-punch that was For All the Sins of Man, I wanted to end on a slightly happier note.
In any case, scaphism is not a new torture method, but it was certainly new to me when I researched the topic for this novel. Its actual use is somewhat steeped in ambiguity, but if it was used, it seems to have started with the Persians. They would coat their victims in honey and milk, and leave them between two boats or in a tub-like container to rot. No, literally, to rot. Flies would be attracted to the milk and honey. In the meantime, the victim festered in his own feces and urine. Open sores would eventually fester, maggots would eat the flesh, and the victim would essentially be eaten alive incredibly slowly.
It was disturbing enough that if Garrett was to walk in and see it, it would shatter his mind. In short, it was perfect. Disturbing. But perfect.
One of my favorite elements from Bone Carvers is the messed-up star-crossed lovers Fletcher Brown and Holly Callahan. I love writing about villains with backstories, and these two practically fell onto the page together. Fletcher’s start as an unwitting criminal – a bad guy, but perhaps redeemable – is based off my own discomfort with scenes in movies where characters heads spin and whip around at furious speeds (see: Legion – I know, I know). His visions mark him as one of the universe’s psychics, along with the likes of Sloan and Rhys.
His journey, and that of Holly’s, is dark and creepy and winds up influencing the end of one of my favorite characters from the series. I don’t generally like audience stand-in characters as a rule, but I’m awfully proud of the way Fletcher Brown turned out.
And then there’s the end of the novel. If you’re reading my series for the first time, pay attention to those last few chapters. There’s something special being built there, something that gets paid off in a big way in later novels. Or I hope you see it that way, anyways.
Yeah. In retrospect, Bone Carvers is a solid entry. It’s not my favorite in the series, but purely from a thriller perspective, I think it has the strongest backbone.
Tomorrow, we talk about Band of Fallen Princes – and how alienating butt sex jokes can be. Stay tuned!