“Canada? Are you insane? I’m not driving all the way to Canada!” Sweat trickled down Dawn’s back. She unzipped her jacket. “And when during this road trip are you meeting us?” Silence. “David? You are meeting us, right?” Dawn’s voice jumped an octave, and she slowed the SUV to a stop. “David!”
“I-I love you, Dawn, but Foticella is everywhere. They quarantined the city an hour after you left.” David’s voice broke. “Everything’s lost.”
“Everything?” asked Dawn. Earlier that day, a white-faced reporter, apologizing for his stutter—he was only a cameraman yesterday—had stumbled through the teleprompter. His leg tapped against the desk as he barked out a list of quarantined cities, but New York wasn’t on it. Yet.
In 2019, I began work on my novel Her. Like most of my ideas, it started as an image: a mother holding her young daughter, looking out over a crumbling road as a weary sun set on a sickened, dying world.
I didn’t know then—how could anyone?
Stories of pandemics like COVID-19 have haunted science fiction for centuries. It’s no mystery why: deadly viruses plague our human history, wiping out generations and crippling civilizations. In our effort to understand and control disease, we’ve played with pandemics inside the safety of a fictional sandbox.
The imaginary shore of this storybook playground delivers waves of riskless horror. After all, we have reliable life jackets—also known as closing the goddamn book; this isn’t The Pagemaster—ready to yank us back into reality should we wade too deep.
But here in the sandbox shallows of an ersatz infection are descriptions of extraterrestrial tumors, angry gods boiling the faithful’s blood, black plagues triggered by incessant sin, the manifestos of a triumphant necromancer, and the conspiracies of a synthetic virus that ruins our bodies and then our world. Playing with fiction, with make-believe, with characters who stop breathing when you close the book or put down your pen is cathartic, harmless, and safe.
But I have a problem: my sandbox fucking broke.
I never expected to write about the horror of a pandemic during an actual pandemic. There is literally not enough wine for this. There are books about killer viruses—tons of them—but were any stories written during a global outbreak? Is there an author who penned while actually quarantined? Can I talk to them, because I have a question: when did science fiction crawl off my bookshelves and twist into this feverish nightmare?
Her is my thesis novel for my MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. Early this month, I approached the final, mid-March deadline with confidence: I checked commas and quotation marks and caught last-second misspellings, but then the virus, our virus, quite literally asphyxiated me. My partner, a nurse, was sent home from work with a prescription for antivirals, an inhaler, and orders to quarantine. As I reread the fictional trauma I’d written, it became my trauma. My raw, not processed, in the moment, holy-shit-they-closed-our-schools-and-are-considering-police-enforced-curfews-and-my-mom’s-70-and-I-have-a-chronic-illness-and-my-partner-won’t-stop-coughing-trauma.
In my post-apocalyptic horror, the fictional Foticella virus is an airborne spore. It causes reptilian scales, a deadly fever, leech-like tendrils, and a creeping, neurological sickness that turns corpses into hungry Wakers. Gross, right? I definitely haven’t checked my skin for scales at least twice a day. Why did I write this again?
Dawn, my protagonist, and her five-year-old daughter, Lily, navigate the collapse of society—our society—alone, lost, resource-poor and hunted by slavers, Wakers, and men who like to hurt women now that there’s no one left to stop them. Death is no longer the worst-case scenario.
However, despite the survival elements in my novel, Her is never a story about the virus. It’s about people: people who die, people who survive, and people who transform into giant assholes after they’re thrown off the edge of their safe, middle-class, Disney-vacation world. Foticella is a backdrop for humanity: the best and the worst of it. Sure, there’s green-eyed horrors ripping flesh from squealing infants, stone-faced government exterminations, and desperate survivors juggling with the morality of selling children to slavers for drugs—but those drugs are Synthroid, Lipitor, and Penicillin. Most survivors aren’t monsters; they’re just people with high-blood pressure and a loved one who needs life-sustaining medications.
Right now, our real-life hospitals are open. Our pharmacies still function. Our grocery stores are assuring us the essentials will still be there next week (on the backs of underpaid, undervalued workers, but that’s a rant for another day). COVID-19 hasn’t stolen our necessities, but we’ve already seen nurses begging for N95 masks, governors pleading for ventilators, and mothers sobbing for formula.
While writing Her, I walked crumbling roads littered with abandoned houses, peered into ransacked storefronts with nothing, not even an expired can of green beans left, and passed rusted cars transformed into tombs for screaming skeletons. I imagined our gutted world full of guilty ghosts and selfish survivors. How long until our foundations crumble? In my novel, it was nine months. Now I think I gave my fictional world too much time. We’re falling much faster, much harder, and what then? Who do you call when you’re bleeding, hungry, lost, and the phone lines don’t work? What would you do to get your child food, medicine, or shelter? Would you rob someone? Hurt them? Kill them? With what? A gun? A knife? A rusty can opener because that’s all that’s left? Where does your moral compass fall when faced with losing a loved one, because losing a loved one is trauma. Living on without them full of regret and remorse is horror.
In Her, everyone Dawn loves dies, except her five-year-old daughter—but what if Lily dies too? Dawn flounders in the shameful self-quarantine of survivor’s guilt. She can’t connect with her child who needs her, and, like most of us, like most survivors, she’s not a hero. She’s a shitty, selfish, ex-socialite. What is she supposed to do? What are we supposed to do?
I’m not a hero either. When I was nine, I watched my father die. His eyes and skin turned yellow. He had fevers and crippling pain, but the doctors said they couldn’t find anything wrong; there was no treatment. I wrote a construction paper book about what we would do when he got better. We’d watch movies, go to the park, and play board games, but my words couldn’t slow the zombification of my father. I had to watch his face sag, his legs stumble, and touch his paper-thin skin in an open casket before they buried him and all his dreams underground. He was a writer too, but he wrote about God: God will provide. God will forgive. God will save.
I don’t write about God. I write about the devil who took my father away and cursed me with the same disease. My eyes turn yellow too. Can I outrun this long enough to spill all the devil’s secrets?
Because my own secret is, as a horror writer, I’m always scared. Writers write to process life: loss, love, existential dread, etc. As an eternal scaredy-cat, most of my work has an autobiographical horror to it, and my novel is no exception. Dawn’s personal trauma comes from my past abusive relationships, postpartum depression, and pressure to be a “good girl” in a world that enjoys making painful patriarchal examples out of “good girls.”
So, while Dawn’s trauma was always my own, COVID-19 forced me to examine the trauma of every character. Suddenly, I was my anxious, conspiracy-obsessed antagonist—or is that my Facebook friend from college? Then I was Dawn’s hesitant friend Amy, a nurse who knew it would be bad before everyone else—or is that my best friend? I had a panic attack as Dawn’s love interest, Erin, terrified for my aging mother with the bad leg—or is that my former coworker who’s mother just had her knee replaced?
Every character in my novel who holds their breath and waits for the next infection, the next quarantine, the next death became my neighbor. I didn’t realize when I wrote about face masks, reactive government policies, and those peripheral friends who lean back in their smug social distancing chairs and tell you you’re overreacting to death, that I would write my actual future. I thought Dawn was my past.
Now, I can’t stop zooming out. My hands grab at spectral sand, but it slips through my fingers. This isn’t my sandbox anymore. When did I lose control of the backspace? These moments of social media hysteria, federal tantrums, abandoned GoFundMe’s, and panicked mobs scrambling for toilet paper—of all fucking things—are scenes ripped from the pages of my book. Help!
What did I do? What can I do?
As writers, do we have a responsibility in times of acute crisis? Do we document sorrow? Dictate dread? Illustrate illness? Should we ferret away the raw fear of our family and friends like twitchy, grief-robbing goblins? Will we open this stolen box of horrors a year or so later and have a screaming, paper mâché muse made of fake news, hysterical headlines, and racist social media posts?
And is that when I should revisit my novel? In a year? After I can detach myself from the thermometer beeping downstairs? When I can forget the lonesome creaking of my daughter’s swing? Do I wait until I can convert my county’s death tolls from neighbors into numbers?
Or, do I flood the internet with stories of slobbering puppies, Broadway medleys, and happy-filtered-endings to counter the chilling science fiction scene playing out my front yard: a literal choose-your-own-adventure horror story I have absolutely no control over but already know how the worst case scenario ends.
If you find out who the author of this version of Hell is, please send me their address. They stole my story, and I’d like it back. I want to change the ending.
If you’re wondering, I handed my novel in, and I passed. My friend asked me if I’m going to publish Her, but I’m thinking I should burn it instead. Perhaps it’s cursed. Perhaps we’re cursed. Perhaps I’m cursed.
Or perhaps the devil finally caught on to me because I’m definitely not done writing down all his secrets. I just never expected to be writing them down as they happened.