Richard Thomas is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in more than a hundred publications. His latest novel is Disintegration. Thomas wrote about his trip to Romania for us.
When the opportunity to teach a horror workshop in Bran, Romania, in the heart of Transylvania, in the shadow of Bram Stoker’s castle, came up, I couldn’t say no. The atmosphere, the setting, the beauty of Romania paired with the dark shadows and strange whispers of haunted castles, forests, and homes—it was a dream come true. Some eighteen hours of flights, transfers, loudspeakers emitting German and then Romanian — I was disoriented and nervous from the minute I got in the long check-in line at O’Hare. And those moments would keep popping up throughout my trip—feelings of dread, of anticipation, of something lurking just out of my periphery.
In my second novel, Disintegration, the setting is essential to the novel—the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago in winter, everything dead or dying, the omnipresent sensation of isolation and despair. So much is falling apart, disintegrating around my unnamed protagonist, as he falls down a rabbit hole. Having witnessed his family’s death, he is now resigned to kill the worst members of society, the only way to regain a bit of control and find any meaning in his life.
How did the setting infiltrate this novel? In so many ways.
It starts with the apartment, the aqua refrigerator and stove, a sawhorse in the kitchen with nails sticking out of it, torn drapes and bent blinds, the wind whispering at the rattling window frames, the cold and rain battering the thin glass. It expands to the streets, the dark moments where our anti-hero slips out to do his work: “Every time I kill I get a new tattoo,” he contemplates as he rides the Milwaukee Avenue bus south to his latest assignment, a possible pedophile disguised as an art gallery owner. “I have a lot of tattoos.” It is the gray dirty mush, snow falling from the sky, a singular light bulb at the end of an alley, the distant thumping of bass behind a locked door of reinforced steel. It was important to me to remember these streets where I lived for ten years, to mark the places I used to hang out, to imagine where my distraught protagonist might go to drown his sorrows—pubs and dive bars, filled with a mixture of punks, hipsters, bums, and sirens. You wouldn’t find my guy in a Starbucks sipping a latte, nor would you see him in Ikea picking out bookshelves. No, he might slink into a diner to wolf down a desperate meal, or even set foot in a Walgreens to quickly grab cat food for the one creature in this world that hasn’t abandoned him, but the places, the mood, the way the world distorted around him—all of it was a crucial backdrop, a canvas on which to splatter his pain and suffering.
Back to Transylvania. What did I see here that might work its way into my future writing projects, short stories and novels?
There was a wooden door in Castle Bran, the only unique detail a heart carved out of the center. It was rather innocent, compared to some of the doors, displays, rooms, and implements of torture. Only later, when the two pictures of it were studied, side-by-side, could you see that something had shifted in the blink of an eye. If you zoomed in, was there a face hidden in the shadows? To say that the image of Nosferatu gazed back at us, well, that would be crazy, right? Figment of the imagination, most likely.
And when the dogs barked up and down the valley at night, the moon high over the steep hills, a memory of old men with scythes working their way up and down the long grass, slicing and cutting, the only thing more stressful to a sleeping author was when the dogs stopped yapping in unison, the crickets as well, and silence slipped over us all. In the archway of my room, the curved doorway seemed too tall at night in the dark. There was nothing standing there, in fact, nothing I should worry about as the creaking outside my door settled in every night at almost the same time. A paper bag in the woods is not a skeleton, the splattered mess on the road to Bucharest just another reminder of what might happen if you take a step or two to the left, out into traffic. So much of Romania, especially out in Bran, is dipped in history, the old world a place where the supernatural doesn’t seem strange or unique, simply part of the way life is lived, old gods still worshipped, old rituals applied without much thought. The setting of Romania, of Transylvania, is the people, the slow pace, the woods, the creeks, the feeling of a predatory nature just out of sight, things dying in the shadows every day.
On our first night in Romania, the innkeeper gave us rosaries and garlic boughs and implored us to come with him, as he had brought two priests from the village to bless us. The proceedings, spoken in Romanian, only added to the ancient sense of doom, or at least, preparation for disaster. The smoking incense, the dried herbs dipped in holy water, the tiny wooden cross he made us all kiss. (Nobody declined, regardless of religious affiliation.) For a moment I wondered if he was really asking for protection for us, or just the hotel. I imagined for a second that his words were not to bless us and ask for protection, but to offer us up, as a sacrifice. Witness these Americans, they play with the dark arts, they do not understand, keep the evil at bay, but if you must take a soul, let it be one of theirs. This is what I think they’re really saying. I’m sure that’s wrong, my paranoia bubbling to the surface.
When I turn to my left now, back home in my office, I gaze at the mask that the hotel owner gave me, the wide-open eyes, the bared fangs, carved out of wood fifteen years ago by an elderly artist in Moldova. I want to believe that what he said — that the carving is imposing in order to scare away the spirits, not summon them, bring them closer. When my wife refused to touch it, I laughed, at first. I respect the presence of this work of art, this spirit, and ask it for a partnership: may we exist in the presence of each other in harmony, in the pursuit of art, not in the channeling of demons or their ilk. We seem to have come to an agreement. But when I fell asleep last night, I was transported back to Romania, the barking dogs, the shrieking peacocks, the image of a bonfire that started out as a triangle, a pyramid, quickly dissolving to red hot coals and ashes, hypnotized by the flickering flames, something dancing in the shadows.