I am off in Houston, Texas for the Texas Library Association conference.  Luckily, I thought this would be a great time for an introduction of one of our guests of honor for this year’s Mo*Con.  I’ve already written about how he inadvertently inspired my recent novella, Bleed With Me, so I asked him to write about some of the themes that tend to pop up in his work.

HUMANITY IS A FUNNY THING

By Nate Southard

Hello, everybody.  The incomparable Maurice Broaddus has asked me to write a bit about the themes that pop up in my work.  When he asked me to do this, I’ll admit I panicked a bit.  I’ve never considered myself terribly good at critical analysis.  Throw in the wrinkle of discussing my own work, and I get this quick jolt of terror, followed by a dark feeling that I’m going to find an entertaining way of sounding like a pompous twit.

So now that I’ve cut my own legs out from under me, let’s begin.  Also, hi.  I’m Nate.  I write things.  Usually scary things.

When I first decided I was going to give this writing thing an honest try, I knew I would be working primarily in the horror genre.  After all, it’s the one that’s always beckoned to me, and I knew I wanted to write the kind of stories I liked reading.  The interesting part is that I decided back then I wouldn’t write about monsters.  All of my villains would be real, flesh and blood people.  I had no desire to write about zombies or vampires or ghosts or any other kind of creature that didn’t exist in the real world.

Funny how things work out.  In no time at all, I found myself neck-deep in creatures, falling in love with the gruesome, weird, and mysterious.  At the same time, however, I found myself writing a lot about humanity and what it means to be a person.

My first published book was a nasty little revenge novella titled Just Like Hell.  There are no supernatural elements in it, and to this day it remains the most brutal and uncompromising thing I’ve written.  Several publishers passed on it because its lack of anything otherworldly made it too extreme.  In the book, a closeted gay high school football star is kidnapped, along with his lover, by other members of the football team.  The treatment they endure at the hands of these angry, ignorant sadists is nothing short of horrific.  The story was inspired by two things: the inhumane treatment a friend of mine endured when he came out of the closet, and a study I read that stated a vast majority of gay rapes are committed by straight men looking to put their victims “In their place.”  I was disgusted by these things, and I think that might be why the trio of jocks who serve as Just Like Hell’s villains are the most monstrous characters I’ve created.  The ability of one person to treat another so horribly is so alien to me, but it happens.  Sadly, it happens every day.

My novels continue this theme in various ways.  I don’t want to go into my novel Red Sky, as discussing that without tossing around spoilers feels all but impossible.  My recent novel Lights Out, however, is a different matter.  Lights Out, which is a novel about a maximum security prison attacked by vampires, confronts the questions of humanity and what makes a person either human or monster in a slightly different manner.  The heroes of the novel are largely criminals.  Some are murderers, and some are worse.  Not one of the prisoners in the novels fictional prison is wrongly imprisoned.  They’re guilty of their crimes, and more than a few are unrepentant.  Still, many of them manage to band together to protect their lives and their humanity against a threat that is greater than all of them.

Occasionally, you see this theme creeping into other popular works.  In both the original comics and the big screen adaptation, Watchmen featured a human race on the brink of war that is brought together by the promise of a greater threat.  It’s a nice reversal of a theme we see far too often: that man is the real monster.  I know I’m more than a little guilty of this myself, considering the villains in Just Like Hell, but I’ve lost count of how many novels feature both supernatural beasts and this concept that mankind is much worse that anything that goes bump in the night.  Almost every popular zombie novel or film has featured this concept in some form or another.  There’s the motorcycle gang in Dawn of the Dead, the military in 28 Days Later, the Governor and his community in The Walking Dead, and so many more.  All of them point to this vague idea that mankind isn’t worth saving, that humanity is a worthless principle.  I beg to differ.

In a lot of ways, this idea that man is the real monster and that nothing can supplant humans as the dominant form of horror on the planet is terribly depressing.  We see it every day.  All around us, we see signs that mankind wants nothing more than to find new and impressive ways of hurting ourselves.  Racism, sexism, religious persecution, and a whole host of other forms of hatred rear their ugly heads on a daily basis.  You’d think we could combat these things.  You’d think we could look around and say, “Hey, we’re all just humans.  Maybe we should set this baggage aside and try to get along.”  Maybe someday.  After all, stranger things have happened, and humanity’s a funny thing.