Guest blog from author Terri Bruce, talking about her book Thereafter, the second in her “Afterlife Series” (the first title being Hereafter). A bit of introduction for those who might not be familiar with the series; it goes something like this:
Nothing in life is free. Turns out, nothing in the afterlife is, either.
When recently-deceased Irene Dunphy decided to “follow the light,” she thought she’d end up in Heaven or Hell and her journey would be over.
Boy, was she wrong.
She soon finds that “the other side” isn’t a final destination but a kind of purgatory where billions of spirits are stuck, with no way to move forward or back. Even worse, deranged phantoms known as “Hungry Ghosts” stalk the dead, intent on destroying them. The only way out is for Irene to forget her life on earth—including the boy who risked everything to help her cross over—which she’s not about to do.
As Irene desperately searches for an alternative, help unexpectedly comes in the unlikeliest of forms: a twelfth-century Spanish knight and a nineteenth-century American cowboy. Even more surprising, one offers a chance for redemption; the other, love. Unfortunately, she won’t be able to have either if she can’t find a way to escape the hellish limbo where they’re all trapped.
Now, here’s Terri to tell you a bit about one particularly interesting aspect of Thereafter.
Thank you so much, Justine, for having me on your blog today. I’m super excited to be here to talk about the main setting of Thereafter—the creepy, dead forest!
The long, slow, death march feeling returned. She walked for a long time now without seeing the cat, continuing in a straight, uninterrupted line. The landscape eventually emptied out. The pavement faded away to a hard, gray ground that crunched underfoot, as if covered by frost, and the buildings became sparser until they were replaced with stark, black, leafless trees with twisted trunks, dark and pitted like they had been burned.
Soon even this scenery became vague and ill-defined. Irene wasn’t sure if it was simply that the dull gray sky melted into the dull, gray ground giving no sense of a horizon, or if the world really was fading away, but she could only see about a hundred yards ahead. Beyond that, the landscape simply melted away. Not fog or mist, exactly; it was more like there simply wasn’t anything there, as if the scenery was being created as she went.
Occasionally, she would see a pile of the beach stones on the ground or another person flashing between the black trees at a distance. Some instinct kept her following the cat, even though she desperately longed for some company. This eerie, somber wood was starting to wear on her; she felt weighed down, as lifeless and gray as her surroundings, filled with an unnamed melancholy.
After a while, she stopped for a rest. She had no idea how long she’d been walking. According to the Mickey Mouse watch strapped to her wrist—another present from Jonah—it had been a few hours. However, she had no way of knowing if the watch was still working, and the unchanging light around her gave no indication of whether time was actually passing.
My “Afterlife” series, of which Thereafter is the second book, combines afterlife mythology and customs from every culture and religion. For Thereafter, and particularly the dead forest, I drew heavily on Sumerian, Buddhist, and Japanese mythology. The Sumerians described the afterlife as drab, gray, and washed out, where the food was “as dust” and so were the people. While that sounds like a really awful place to have to visit, as a writer I couldn’t help but be drawn to such a vivid and visceral description. I knew I had to use it in a story.
In Japanese ghost lore, forests filled with slimy black trees often play a pivotal role—ghosts of drowned maidens and women who died in child birth often lure unwary travelers to a black tree, where the traveler is killed (often by being hung from the tree). I combined these two elements together to create the gray, horizon-less land of Thereafter, populated with black, desiccated trees. I wanted the feeling in this scene to be one of despair, as if all happiness had been drained from this world; I wanted Irene (and the reader) to feel dead. While writing this opening scene of Irene marching numbly through the forest as her despair grows, I listened to Florence and the Machine’s “Heavy in Your Arms” over and over and over. It definitely helped set the mood; sometimes a little too well. This was definitely one of the most depressing things I’ve ever written.
But setting the setting didn’t end there; to the surreal (and depressing) dead forest was layered an additional element pulled from the Buddhist state of Bardo—the sense that nothing there is real. The Buddhist state of Bardo in an indeterminate state a soul enters upon death; in Bardo, the spirit grapples with demons and visions that are manifestations of the spirit’s subconscious. That is, nothing in Bardo is real, just the demons we inflict on ourselves. In Thereafter, nothing in the forest is as it seems, and, in most cases, may not even be real. Irene touches one of the trees and hears a choir of children singing. The trees aren’t really trees—they are her mind’s way of interpreting something that it can’t fully see, only sense. After all, Irene is dead. She no longer has a physical body, which means she doesn’t have physical eyes, so how can she really see anything?
While the dead forest of Thereafter is terribly bleak and depressing, I have to say I’m quite proud of myself for being able to combine elements from such disparate mythologies/cultures into one cohesive whole. Sometimes, writing this series feels a bit looking cooking—I take a dash of this and a handful of that and then season with a pinch of this and…ta da! Something new and interesting! There can be challenges to combining so many different and diverse mythologies, but when they come together so perfectly, as they did in the dead forest, it feels really great. I hope that readers agree!
Terri Bruce is doing a blog tour during the month of May to promote her book. She’s also holding a Launch Party Blog Tour Giveaway May 1st – May 31st with 2 $50 Amazon gift cards and 5 signed paperback copies of Thereafter (U.S./Canada Only). Pop on over to Facebook to find out more, and follow her on her tour.