Dark Fiction and the CWG Harrowings Panel

July 20, 2022

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee. -  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions of St. Augustine

Dark Fiction and Me 

I wrote several manuscripts when I was away from the faith.  And to this day, even though I am a very, though not entirely different person, I still like the one I wrote about vampires best.  

The only problem is, I have no idea what to do with it.  It is too dark.  Too flawed.  Too who-I-used-to-be.

So, you can imagine my excitement, when I learned that the Catholic Writers Guild (or CWG) 2022 online conference was offering a panel called "Harrowings: Trauma and Darkness in Catholic Fiction."

The CWG Panelists

There were four people on the  Harrowings panel: a moderator, Dr. William Gonch, SciFi author, Matthew P. Schmidt, and paranormal and fantasy authors, J.B. Toner and Karen Ullo.

Although, I hadn't come to the panel to to ask about my own work, the question I found myself typing into the Q & A box was about one of my old, orphaned vampire stories.  I wanted to know if it was possible to fix a story written back when I was a different person, alone in the dark.

The Advice I Was Given

Matthew P. Schmidt

When answering my question SciFi author Matthew Schmidt referenced his own book, World of Wishes, which he started seven years earlier and had just recently finished.  Schmidt pointed out that the current plot of World of Wishes, hinges on a Catholic element, which wasn't even included in the original draft.  This missing piece, which was added in revision, made it possible for him to finish the book.

Schmidt's comments helped me, because I realized that there were important Catholic elements missing from my story too.  In the original vampire draft, I was writing from a place of faithlessness.  So I hadn't even bothered to include accepted vampire lore about the power of crucifixes and other sacramentals.  These were elements that I needed to add in, I realized, when I revised the storyline.

J.B. Toner

J.B. Toner, author of  Whisper Music talked about Anne Rice, and the great Victorian poet Gerald Manley Hopkins who "burned the poems he wrote in his youth when he became a priest." Toner went on to say this, about Hopkins and writing and darkness: 

[That Hopkin's burned his poetry] ...is kind of tragic but I get why – because I look back to things I’ve written in my life, when I was not being a good Catholic, and some of it is stuff that I am personally ashamed of because of the way it reflects on me as a person.  But, that is a separate question from: Is it artistically good and could it benefit readers?  And what we always have to keep doing is take ourselves out of it. Remove ourselves, remove our egos, from the process, because I’ve written this thing and if people read it it might make me look bad but it doesn’t matter…because it might help them.  Go back to it with what you know now, read through it honestly - if you think that it has potential to be good - [and] maybe you can fix it in light of what you’ve learned since you wrote it - then I think it’s absolutely worth a second chance even if, maybe especially if, it’s very hard to do - because that’s really where the best writing comes from.

These comments meant a lot to me.  At my core I know that ego is very much a part of this.  I was struggling with some dark things when I wrote my vampire story and I do worry about what people will think about me when they read it.  This is something I need to get a handle on.  

And the advice and encouragement meant a lot to me.

Karen Ullo

Karen Ullo, author of Jennifer the Damned (which I loved and previously reviewed here) and editor for Chrism Press, had some excellent advice as well.  She began by referencing a beautiful, literate novel (which I also loved) called City Mother.  Ullo edited this book for Chrism and shared a bit about the author, Maya Sinha.  As it turns out, Sinha began City Mother before she became a Catholic then went back to it after and saw there were Catholic elements already embedded there.   

Ullo went on to say:

The book couldn’t be written until she became Catholic because that’s what was missing from the story.  And honestly that’s what’s missing from the story of our own lives, the story of salvation… I highly recommend the Sci-Fi fantasy critique group to bring to find those elements that can be teased out - Because I suspect, just like Maya, our hearts are restless until they rest in thee - so  those element of longing, those elements of looking for redemption, looking for faith are always going to be there, no matter who wrote it at what point in time – if they were being honest.  So it’s there, whatever it is, it’s there you just have to find it.

I loved hearing this because I think that Karen Ullo is absolutely right.  We are always waiting to be redeemed, whether we know it or not.  This was my own personal experience, in fact, all through the darkness.  

Of God and Darkness

In the first few months, after the conference I took a stab at editing my old work.  I was trying to take myself out of my own way, as J.B. Toner had talked about.  But I couldn't really do it. So I didn't make a lot of progress on my revisions.

But I did pray about what I was trying to do and, as I did, one thing became clear to me.  If I was going to rewrite this particular story - evil would have to be evil.  It could still be bright and sparkly and pretty and but, underneath the glitz, the bad guys would have to actually do what bad guys do.  

Just as importantly, the good guys (or girls) had to really and truly oppose them.

So I took another look at the original manuscript and was surprised to see that this theme really was already there (in a confused sort of way).  And I began to feel that I might have something I could work with.

I started to participate in the CWG critique group.  As the weeks passed, I began to feel that putting my old vampire fiction up for discussion might be a good idea.  Finally, this week, I did just that.

I have not forgotten how, in the wake of NaNoWriMo, I was absolutely convinced that returning to my old fiction was a mistake (as is on record in this video and in episode 5 of the podcast).

And, the truth is, I'm still not convinced I was wrong about that.  I don't know if my vampire story is salvageable.  I don't know if I will ever publish it.  But, because of the Harrowings panel, I'm going to give it a shot.

As always, I will keep you in the loop. 


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