I wanted the fifth Tufa novel, Gather Her Round, to be a monster story.
Writing a series is a balancing act between giving your readers what they want, and giving them something new. We’ve all read those series that have gone on too long, and we can tell the authors are just going through the motions. I try very hard not to do that.
With every book in the series, I try to introduce a new broad concept that I haven’t used before. It can be as simple as changing the point of view, as in Chapel of Ease, which was written in first person. It can be as complicated as deciding to spend the first two-thirds of the story following the antagonist around instead of the hero, as in Long Black Curl. So for Gather Her Round, after writing about human monsters, I wanted to have a real monster. But it had to be the right one.
First, I ruled out the supernatural. Whatever my monster turned out to be, it would be from the material realm: in other words, less Ghost Shark, more Jaws. Then I scratched through options like Bigfoot, which might or might not exist; I wanted no one to doubt the reality of my monster.
Second, I eliminated any idea of some strange hybrid mutation. Yes, the Oak Ridge laboratory where the Manhattan Project was born is in east Tennessee, but that strayed too much into the realm of science fiction for a Tufa novel.
So: what was left?
Since the tale is set in the Appalachian mountains of east Tennessee, a few things automatically presented themselves as contenders. Black bears are native to the area, can grow pretty damn big, and are quite capable of killing people. I remember one of the great pulp novels of my teen years, Bonegrinder by John Lutz, in which (SPOILER) the supposed “lake” monster turns out to be a bear severely burned in a forest fire. But at the same time, a bear in the mountains is kind of…obvious.
Some other wildlife, with a little careful exaggeration, might be considered monstrous. The mountain lion was once common in the area, then considered extinct there, and now might be moving back into its old territory. Also known as a “catamount,” it already provided the motel name in my fictional town. Wolves were a possibility, but only the smaller red wolves live anywhere near the area, and those were only recently reintroduced.
Two pieces of information eventually crystalized my final idea. First, I learned just how dangerous feral and wild pigs had become. It’s astounding how much damage they can do to property, and they’re certainly capable of injuring people. And of course, there’s the semi-legendary Hogzilla.
So monster hogs can, and do, exist. It wouldn’t require much exaggeration to make one into the threat I needed. And yet, I kept circling the idea without embracing it. Even after learning some truly terrifying things about wild hogs, they still seemed somehow…common.
But then I found this:
An elite team of organizations and specialists dedicated to the elimination of wild and feral hogs. An Avengers of wild animal control, if you will. I would never have thought of that. Of course, I invented my own fictional team (Instead of WHEAT, I have WHOMP: the Wild Hog Offensive Management Program), and made war veteran Bronwyn Chess part of it. And then I was off.
Gather Her Round is about more than monsters, of course. Mainly, it’s about how sins of omission can be just as bad as the more deliberate kind, and how we can do horrible things without really meaning to. But for the story to work, the monster had to work. And I hope he does.
Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (birthplace of Tina Turner). He’s been a reporter, editor, photographer and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. His novel Gather Her Round is available March 7th from Tor Books.