Halloween is here, and The Blacksmith awaits.
The new book published by Darien Times Editor Susan Shultz explodes with images and themes that test the limits of our understanding of love, death, pain and friendship. Ms. Shultz channels masterful storytellers such as Shirley Jackson and Stephen King to weave a surreal yet familiar world, as she delves into psychology of a killer who is torn between her love of Sam and her passion for Blacksmith.
The only problem is, Blacksmith is dead. And Sam’s death appears imminent.
The book follows Ainsley, a librarian in a “sleepy New England town.” Ainsley seems doomed from the beginning, after living a childhood broken by losses that appear to root her firmly in what becomes her everlasting torture — her inability to disconnect life from death, or sex from murder.
But there is a strong human element to the story that draws readers in — elements that have nothing to do with the horror genre. Elements that even the faint of heart would likely appreciate.
“I’ve always been fascinated by horror movies and graveyards,” Ms. Shultz said, admitting that she has a dark side to her personality that might surprise some people.
“Ainsley is like two halves of my personality,” Ms. Shultz said. “Obviously I’m not a murderer, but there’s the one version of myself during the day that fits in, then there’s the one who is me that doesn’t really fit in.”
“It’s between what we struggle with and what we share with the outside world and who we really are,” she said. “That’s sort of what Ainsley is to me.”
There is a theme of isolation that recurs throughout the book. Ainsley is drawn to a graveyard behind her house where a Blacksmith seems to be buried. She develops relationships with several of the bodies buried there, creating her version of their histories, piecing together her deceased grandmother’s gossip and her own supernatural connections to the afterlife.
A Staten Island native, Ms. Shultz moved to Fairfield County from Westchester in 1996. While she loves where she lives, she said she never quite feels like she fits in, and that feeling is one that most people can relate to on some level.
Ainsley “feels that failure of fitting in with the perfect family, evidenced by the fact that she lost someone she loved and she’s unable to have the children she wants to have,” Ms. Shultz said. “She’s lonely.”
Ainsley’s isolation began early when her father left when she was born, followed soon by her mother’s suicide and her best friend’s death when she was in middle school — the last part Ms. Shultz drew directly from experience.
“I don’t think I ever really got over that,” Ms. Shultz said, recalling when her best friend died when they were 15.
“We used to walk home from school through this graveyard together, and then she was buried there, and I would walk home and I would see the dirt and the grave. I would stop there and sit and talk.”
When she lost her friend, also named Susan, Ms. Shultz said she began a lifelong fascination with death.
“I really probably never got over my friend dying,” she said. “I think it changes you completely, at a time of your life when your hormones in high gear, you’re trying figure out who you are.”
The experience connected her to her deceased friend, and she truly felt that, for a while, her friend was still around.
“I feel like when people die, it takes them a while to move on, and that they’re still around you for a while,” Ms. Shultz said.
Ainsley reflects both the sense of isolation that Ms. Shultz felt when her friend died, and also that connection to the afterlife that was a coping mechanism for Ms. Shultz and for Ainsley.
Ainsley, however, copes with her isolation in a much more sinister way. Ms. Shultz chose to write a book. Ainsley seduces men and kills them.
But Ainsley’s lust for blood is rooted in her strange diametric relationship with the self she wants to be and the self she really is. Her true self could be a monster. It could be a saint. But she doesn’t know because she doesn’t trust herself. And she doesn’t trust herself because the Blacksmith has a strange power over her.”
“I think that really what it comes down to, is the Blacksmith is what Ainsley wants in a partner,” Ms. Shultz said. “It’s his strength, he’s someone she can rely on, someone who is powerful that can take care of her, and he’s not going to judge her.”
“The Blacksmith — he works with metals, which is symbolic of this strength to her. She’s drawn to the Blacksmith because he’s a symbol of power. He’s what she’s looking for in a man, he’s what she needs,” Ms. Shultz continued.
All her dead friends in the graveyard behind her house are what keep Ainsley’s feelings of isolation at bay, Ms. Shultz said.
“Nobody, I think, in any of our lives knows everything about us,” Ms. Shultz said. “That’s an isolating feeling. For Ainsley, the only people who know her and see everything about her, the only people who won’t leave her, are the people who are buried there. They see everything, they’re always there, they’re not going anywhere, they’re not going to judge her.”
But there is a glimmer of hope. His name is Sam.
“The only person she really cares about, she’s incapable of bridging that distance because she feels that she’s not good enough,” Ms. Shultz said of her villain protagonist.
“Sam is interesting. As much as she loves him, he enrages her,” she said.
Sam and Ainsley exhibit the kind of relationship that many people can likely relate to. A woman, demure, not wanting to be overt with her feelings toward a man who is not taking the hint. Sam is so aloof that he shares with Ainsley tales of his sexual prowess, which Ainsley internalizes by burying her finger-nails into her hands.
The strange and primal connection between sexuality and death finds its way into the action several times.
“Ainsley is so isolated and tied up most of the time, I think it’s like, when she loses it, she probably does become animalistic, and she probably ties that lack of control across various emotions,” Ms. Shultz said.
The theme of burial also recurs in the book — the notion that human beings hide or bury things to protect themselves from pain or hurt or to just forget.
“It’s a combination of catharsis and other things that I’ve carried in my life and things that are symbolically buried, and bringing them to the surface,” Ms. Shultz said.
The idea for the book came as Ms. Shultz, a Wilton resident, would find antiques surfacing in her backyard after heavy rains.
“I started thinking about things that are buried underground, thinking if there were people buried there,” she said.
She entered the book into a competition in the U.K., and was later approached by the organization to develop it further.
“They said they really liked how all my villains were strong female characters,” she said. “They said the world is ready for a female Hannibal Lecter.” the cannibalistic serial killer from the famed Thomas Harris books, which became a success on film starting with The Silence of the Lambs.
The Blacksmith yearns to be turned into a movie. The literary qualities rely on subtlety rather than shock value, which could translate nicely into a psychological thriller along the lines of the aforementioned film and Alfred Hitchcock classics.
Ms. Shultz said she would love to see The Blacksmith turned into a film.
“It would be the kind of movie I would love to go and see,” she said. “The atmosphere would be very artistic. I don’t see it as a blockbuster, but a minimalist, interesting, Goth-type experience.”
When asked who would direct, Ms. Shultz said her dream director would be John Carpenter.
“I’m sure he’s probably busy,” Ms. Shultz said, laughing.
The book, which is available as an e-book through Lillibridge Press, is a quick read, and one that few people could start without finishing in one sitting.
“That’s the most common compliment I get, which really makes me feel good,” Ms. Shultz said.
Her favorite part is the end.
“I tried to figure out a way to have the ending leave people with very mixed emotions,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of ending you can call it. It is happy, sad, bad, unhappy. I wanted people to walk away and be like, ‘I don’t know what I feel like’.”
Ms. Shultz, a mother of two, has been at The Darien Times since 2005 and took over as editor in 2012. She’s written hundreds of shorts stories and poems, but The Blacksmith is her opus to date.
She also writes a monthly horror story for Exiles magazine and is considering publishing an anthology of her stories.
When asked what she hopes people will get out of reading The Blacksmith, Ms. Shultz said she’d like people who feel isolated to know there are others who feel that way.
Just as long as people don’t cope with their isolation as Ainsley did.
“It’s very personal for me, very emotional for me,” she said of her book. “I want people to be able to appreciate the horror aspect of it, but to get more out of it than that. I’m hoping that people will experience maybe a horror novel on a different level — people who maybe don’t like horror novels will appreciate and understand and feel some empathy.”