Worldbuilding my way to Horn Gate...
On one level, my new paranormal novella Horn Gate exists as a racy comic book written by a character in another one of my books.
The thing is, I'm nearly finished with a new comedic contemporary romance called Bad Idea about a comic book artist and a creature FX designer. As the book came together, I realized that my main character was channeling his anxiety and frustration into a racy comic that would upend his life. This comic ended up becoming a turning point for him emotionally and professionally and at the urging of one of my betas I decided that I would write the comic-within-the-book as a separate novella.
At the time, I had no idea that Scratch #1 would become Horn Gate. My reclusive comic book artist from Bad Idea has issues about his appearance and sexuality…not closeted exactly, but he lives a cautious life completely under the gaydar. It made sense then that the "very graphic novel" he writes would need to be provocative and weird and slightly deranged. My comic book artist needed to take stupid risks and unleash his inner demons, so I opted to just let him play with his own ideas about beauty, obsession, and possession.
Going in from the contemporary novel and my comic book artist character, I only knew that:
- The superhero named Scratch was an incubus … traditionally a sex demon who seduces and corrupts the innocent, but in this case he was an ambiguous antihero.
- The protagonist/sidekick character was human and had intense body shame and anxiety.
- The villain was a puritanical figure called the Judge who wielded a gavel the size of a sledgehammer.
- The setting was urban, likely New York and involved some kind of supernatural mystery.
I wanted my incubus to be driven by something other than "wanna date?" attraction, I figured my main character Isaac needed to be as unlikely an object of desire as possible and that the story would be about him falling for Scratch and becoming his mortal sidekick and lover. Because this was a "comic book" narrative, I wanted a sexy origin story that introduced our magical superhero and his nemesis, as well as a larger mystery to be solved. Because Horn Gate was a novella, I had to get a lot of worldbuilding covered quickly; I made Isaac a librarian in a rare book room who'd have facts about demonology at his fingertips.
Since I was writing about an incubus I figured it would get super-kinky and juicy pronto…most demon romances waste no time getting kink-tastic. Nope. It felt more interesting to look at how a creature who feeds on desire could connect with a human. The book is definitely erotic and obsessive, but not really about horns and humping. To help me cut to the chase, the novella opened with Isaac finding Scratch imprisoned at an exclusive sex lounge; some kind of biff-pow comic-bookish rescue seemed likely to ensue and maybe an infernal gangbang. Not even close. Writing as my Bad Idea hero I found out he was more Neil Gaiman than Zalman King so the Horn Gate characters inhabited this intense, obsessive, gothic world of magic and skullduggery. What had begun a goofy lark started feeling like an entire ominous world of its own.
Scratch became a gorgeous predator who lives on touch. To maximize the contrast between the lovers, Isaac turned into a chunky librarian with terrible skin, contact phobia, and hideous self-esteem. His fictional creator in Bad Idea wrestles with body image and social pressure, so these details mirrored a lot of anxieties in that book as well. Likewise, because Bad Idea's protagonist feels conflicted about being Jewish, I decided that my demonology would be rooted in Kabbalah. One of the oldest synagogues in the country is on the Lower East Side on Eldridge Street…so I decided to situate my imaginary rare library nearby.
This is when things got spooky. To emphasize the cultural imprint, I gave the "sex lounge" an old Hebrew name for hell (Gehenna) which translates as the "Great Pit" and when I went looking for a likely location in the tenements of old Manhattan, I discovered Pitt Street. At the intersection of Pitt and Grand is an odd dogleg alley where a speakeasy had been hidden in the 1920s. Even weirder, as I wrote the story I realized I was pouring in all this authentic material I know about medieval demonology and Gematria from university so that Horn Gate really would be a kind of spooky, seductive mystery (or as my boyfriend says, "Scooby Doo with Boners").
Writing in the persona of my conflicted Bad Idea hero, I embedded odd esoteric puzzles that invoked real investigation in the service of Isaac's infatuation. Isaac was too bookish to be a punch-and-grapple sidekick so his adventure became a kind of "DaVinci Code" codebreaking that channeled his obsession with Scratch into the pages of an occult labyrinth only he could solve. I'm a stickler for details, so I traced Isaac's path backward from sex club to library: Pitt to Grand to Orchard to Division. The corner of Grand and Pitt was perfect for a hellish nightspot called Gehenna. The corner where Division met Orchard called to mind the angel standing at the gates of Eden so it became the location of the library where Isaac leaves his innocence behind. :P The streets of New York conspired to help me!
With Scratch, I didn't want to just plop in a dumb horns-and-pointy-tail demon so I also reinvented the idea of an incubus; this beast didn't just squirt or drain jizz from the unwary, but rather that he devours touch and attention….and his powers transform his lovers in beautiful, scary ways. As he feeds, he ingests fear, pain, and grief in ways that wreak spectacular havoc on the victim's body to reveal their true natures. All kinds of cool discoveries about physical phobias and desire appeared and resonated deeply with the characters in Bad Idea as well. Incubi are often identified as personified wet dreams (yes, really!) corrupting humans with lust. Another name for an incubus is a "nightmare" because they carry the sleeper away and can't be reined in.
As for the Horn Gate itself, the object (and thence the title) came from in Homer's Odyssey. In book 19, Penelope explains to her (unrecognized) husband that dreams pass through one of two gates: a Gate of Ivory which allows false hope and delusions into the mortal world and a Gate of Horn which releases all prophecy and inspiration. These two opposed dream gates recur as symbols used by a whole passel of writers: Plato, Virgil, Spenser, Pope, Eliot, Auden, etc. And oddly enough, Kabbalistic tradition describes the "mouth of the great abyss" as a portal through which spirits pass when they have no power. Scratch's intentions were so cryptic that he needed to seem both like a true savior or a complete fraud. I really loved the idea that Isaac had to make an impossible choice based on instinct rather than logic (which mirrored a plot-line in Bad Idea as well).
The question is Horn or Ivory: how do you know when your true destiny shows up?
Since Scratch was my comic's superhero and an incubus exists as a kind of seductive dream, I felt that what Isaac offered him was a way to reopen the Horn Gate into a magical realm that had been walled off. Likewise, since the villain was this puritanical Judge who clamped down on tenderness, eroticism, and fantasy, he wielded a massive ivory hammer in an attempt to stop true dreams from sneaking into the world. From there, my book essentially plotted itself…and several other novellas besides. By the time I'd finished, it felt as if the Gehenna sex lounge really existed under Pitt Street and that the Division Street Library housed a forbidden tomes with unholy powers.
Summoning Scratch has been a wonderful kick in the ass, adding unbelievable depth to the contemporary novels about his fictitious creators. When the time came for my brilliant friend Rey Arzeno to paint the cover art for Horn Gate, he was so taken by the world it inhabited that he immediately proposed drawing the comic AS a comic once we had some time. I'd love to make that happen, and he seems pretty adamant. Who knows what we'll conjure up? :)
More significantly, building the world of Horn Gate unearthed a host of themes in Bad Idea; hidden strands I'd never noticed suddenly floated to the surface. Essentially, I wrote this novella in character AS the comic-book protagonist of Bad Idea, which has opened up an entire world that I can't wait to explore further in the further adventures of Scratch.
Damon has graciously offered up along a copy of Horn Gate to give away to one of our fabulous readers. To enter just leave a comment and let us know whether you believe in destiny and fate... or not :-)
We'll choose the lucky winner on Friday, May 10th, at 11:59 EST.