Kansas Is Haunted, Says This Writer Of Midwestern Gothic Novels
Kansas native Scott Thomas' writing style has been described as Midwestern Gothic. His new book "Violet" easily fits the definition of gothic horror, even if it doesn't match the genre's usual characteristics.
European gothic tales involve castles, wherein lie the sins and dark secrets of the aristocracy — beheadings and betrayals. In Southern gothic, Spanish moss-obscured plantation mansions hide the secrets of the slave owners. The Midwest isn't exactly famous for a particular style of structure that would lend itself to the gothic.
But, for Thomas, that doesn’t mean the genre isn't waiting to be developed here.
“The Gothic is an intensely personal literary genre, a mirror into which we must look, no matter how ugly the reflection,” he once wrote in an author statement. “We are being taught a lesson we’ve heard time and time again yet refuse to learn: we bury the past at our own peril.”
From the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he noted, to the Land Rush of 1889, white settlers took over and bent the land to their will. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced Native Americans out of their ancestral land and put that land in the hands of white settlers as well.
So, he said, Midwestern sins aren't so easy to forget about or hide — just like those perpetrated in the stories involving castles. In the absence of castles, Thomas says the setting for Midwestern Gothic is the land itself: It's the land that turns on the farmer or miner, the ancestors of those first white settlers and their ill-gotten plots of earth.
Thomas lives in Los Angeles now, but in his travels back home in Kansas, he doesn’t glance at a dilapidated house or business and then keep moving. He said he can’t help but think about the life that the place once contained, the memories good and bad.
"Clearly someone lived there at some point, things happened there, but now the windows are all broken out, and it's just the roof is caving in and you start to wonder what happened," Thomas said.
He said the stories of those long-ago lives might be good. But they might not be. And he admits his mind tends to go to the "might not be."
To create his stories, Thomas takes a few more steps toward that old roadside structure that for all the world looks haunted, and fills in the blanks.
And like his first novel, "Kill Creek" (named after that exit Kansas Citians see on the way to Lawrence), "Violet" takes place in the Sunflower State.
"There was something about Kansas that just felt right," he said.
Walking around a big city like Los Angeles, he said, it’s easy to lose yourself in your job and family and kind of forget that something is bigger than you. Not so in rural places such as Coffeyville, Kan., where he grew up.
"When a thunder storm would roll in and those clouds are green, and they're flying by so low it looks like you can touch them, and the tornado sirens start to go off, you very quickly know you are not in control, that there's something bigger at work here."
Because he's a lifelong lover of horror stories, he doesn't think of that "something bigger" as anything comforting. Just the opposite.
"Violet" is the tale of a woman, Chris, who spent a childhood summer in a southeastern Kansas lake house watching her mother die from cancer. To keep herself company, she invented an imaginary friend she named Violet.
The mother dies, the house and Violet are left behind, and Chris grows up.
But when Chris' husband is killed, she decides to go back to the lake house — no longer looking too welcoming — to recuperate with her own daughter. And who does her daughter start talking to?
"Violet may or may not have been in this home by herself waiting for Chris to return," Thomas said.
The story — and Violet — doesn't reveal itself all at once. Thomas describes the narrative as a "slow burn."
"I wanted it to be sort of creepy and kind of this tightening fist around you that, you know, it's too late when you realize that you can't get out of its clutches."
Scott Thomas spoke with KCUR on a recent episode of Central Standard. Listen to the entire conversation here.