Making the Old West More Gothic
By Marie Piper
I came up with MAIDENS & MONSTERS while bed-bound. Terribly dramatic, right?
Back in February, Chicago had a bitter cold winter, and I was down for the count for a few weeks with a one-two punch of bronchitis and a terrible sinus infection. All I could do was lay around, and so I figured I could at least write something.
For months, I’d been thinking about adapting THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to the old west. The Opera House/Music Hall comparison made sense to me, and I liked the idea of finding the “Wild West” counterparts to the well-known characters from Gaston LeRoux’s novel (and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, if we’re being honest.) So I did it.
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The result was CHRISTINE (Book #1) –
an adaptation of PHANTOM set in 1880 in a small Kansas town awaiting the coming of a railroad branch. Along the way, the book became more than just a straight-on adaptation. I’m a big believer in writing female friendships, so of course Christine got some friends. Four of them, in fact—and I decided they would be the leading ladies of four other horror/gothic novels-DRACULA, THE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and FRANKENSTEIN. Together, these five young women became the Maidens of Mapleton, and the series took off.
I’ve always loved adaptations, and I’ve read a lot of great ones. I’ve seen Jane Eyre set in the old west, and recently have fallen in love with Caroline Lee’s EVERLAND, EVER AFTER series—fairy tales in a small town.
But horror? Was I nuts? It turns out I’m not! (At least, I don’t think so…)
For starters, though these books are mostly considered horror, as I delved deep into them I came to realize that four of the five books don’t really contain any supernatural/paranormal elements.
Grandly, I declared a rule for the series: No supernatural elements.
And then I sort of kicked myself because that meant I had to figure out what to do with DRACULA. Because, you know, he’s a vampire.
In writing MINA (Book #2), there was so much good stuff to work with – Lucy’s three suitors, the disappearance of Jonathan Harker, and a big scary asylum. I don’t know if you’ve ever done any research into asylums/mental health treatments in the last few centuries, but it’s dark stuff.
Still, the looming spectre of the most well-known vampire in literary history stood waiting. I decided to make my Count (Count Dalca, which means lightning in Romanian) elusive and mysterious, sure. But I decided to explain his condition and quirks in a very (I feel) logical and time-appropriate way. I can’t spoil it here, but it comes down to money and what we knew of medicine at that time, and of course vice.
Three of these books are about medicine, and scientific discoveries. The 1800’s were a time of huge discovery and innovation in those fields, and so this town needed a doctor.
Enter Dr. Henry Jekyll.
LUCY (Book #3) will come out October 25th. Though the Jekyll & Hyde story is hugely famous and gives me a fantastic jumping off point, it’s also notably absent of female characters. The original 1886 novella features a maid or two, but no women characters of substance or even name. By 1887 when it started to appear onstage as a play, the character of Jekyll’s proper society fiancee appeared, and she’s been a part of the story in most film/tv/musical adaptations since then. So I decided to give her a book and a voice of her own.
Did you know that in 1880 scientists had figured out that Indian tribes chewed willow bark to alleviate pain, but hadn’t yet figured out and isolated the specific element in the bark that we would come to know as aspirin? Or that, in this same time period, it wasn’t uncommon to boil morphine into heroin and use it to treat patients? Me neither—but these kinds of discoveries came into play as things Henry Jekyll would be interested in. LUCY also takes place in December of 1880, which was right after the election of President James Garfield, the closest election in US History. Of course,Garfield would be assassinated by Charles Guiteau the next summer/fall.
All of this science and history has a place in MAIDENS & MONSTERS. I love history and research, finding tiny tidbits I can work in to enhance the book. Despite momentary quirks, it’s proving surprisingly easy to take and set these “horror classics” in my chosen time period and locale. These are books about science and architecture and religion and greed, themes which fit perfectly and are prevalent in the creation of America.
I hope MAIDENS & MONSTERS delights readers as a mystery romance series, but I also hope people will enjoy the liberties I took. I love the original books, and hope I did them justice.
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