The Evolution of "Footsteps"

In April of 2012, I signed a deal with Exciting Press to publish six short stories.

And on June 18, 2012, "Footsteps," the first of those stories was published. The story follows Rusty Hankover, a young man who hates his abusive father and loves rich women's feet in equal measures. When Rusty's dad comes up missing, his tabloid-loving mom is convinced he's become the latest victim of the Back Alley Cannibal. A chance encounter with a woman and her daughter will ultimately reveal the dark, grisly truth.

Many of my readers will recognize the theme of cannibalism in "Footsteps," as it plays a central role in my debut novel Inside the Outside. I first became fascinated with writing cannibal literature in 2001, while I was studying English at California State University, San Bernardino. I was taking a humanities course called Interoperation and Values, which, among other things, illuminated the world of corporate farming. I was struck by the abuse animals are made to endure in such farms and, having discovered this emotional chord, decided I wanted to articulate it in a story. I quickly realized, however, that (unless your George Orwell) writing about farm animals wasn’t a particularly dynamic idea.

During that same quarter CSUSB, I was also taking a creative writing class. The professor assigned us a sci-fi story to read about about aliens enslaving humans; upon reading it, she explained that the story was an allegory. This was the first time I could remember being introduced to the idea of an allegory, which Wikipedia defines as a literary device that "communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation." I loved this and decided I could use it to articulate the emotional chord I'd felt about farm animals by writing an allegorical story about people eating people.

I began brainstorming a short story idea about a cannibal farm. The more I developed it the bigger it got until, eventually, it became too big for my still-developing skill set. Before I gave up on the short story, I'd come up with a homeless mother and daughter, both of whom were cannibals. The mother killed people in order to feed herself and her daughter; the daughter didn't know there was anything strange about eating people, because it's all she knew. They weren't the main characters in my cannibal farm story, but they were the ones who stuck with me the longest. I didn't know what to do with them, but I knew that, eventually, I'd revisit that mother and daughter again.

A few years later, during a trip to Las Vegas, I was sitting in the dressing room of Rampage, while my girlfriend tried on clothes. As I sat there, it occurred to me that nobody knew who I was there with; for all they knew, I was just sitting in there by myself staring at feet beneath the dressing room doors.

Amused by this idea, I decided to write a short story about a guy who hangs out in women's dressing rooms under the pretense that he's waiting for his wife or girlfriend, but really he's just being a voyeur. I found that while I liked the premise, there wasn't enough there to turn it into a compelling story. So, like a mad scientist, I decided to combine the idea of the voyeuristic foot fetishist with the idea about the cannibal mother and daughter to see what that story would look like.

And that's how "Footsteps" was born.

Not long after I wrote it in 2005, "Footsteps" was published in The Pacific Review. It was the last short story I wrote, before concentrating my efforts on becoming a novelist. To my mind, it's always been the stepping stone that led to Inside the Outside, so I'm thrilled that fans of my novel can now see where my fascination with cannibal literature began.

Cannibals in the News

If you've found yourself on this website, then odds are you've either read or, at the very least, heard of my novel Inside the Outside.

The plot of Inside the Outside revolves around a teenage girl named Timber Marlow who grows up as a cannibal within a cult called the Divinity of Feminine Reproach. The cannibals in the Divinity perform a ritual called the Sustenance Sacrifice, before killing and eating their members.

Part of the fun for me in developing the Divinity was creating a group that sounded plausible to readers, even though it would probably never, ever happen in real life.

Well, this morning my brother sent me a news story with the following headline:

"Brazilian Police Swoop on 'Cannibal' Cult"

"Brazilian police have arrested a man and two women on suspicion of having murdered and eaten at least two women in what was described as a purification ritual."

So, of course, I needed to know more about this Brazilian cult. After a bit of research, I found this headline:

"Cannibal Gang 'Made Meat Pastries Out of Victims' Flesh"

"[Jorge and Elizabeth Pires da Silveira, both 51, and Bruna da Silva, 25] arrested on suspicion of having murdered and cannibalised [sic] at least two women in what was described as a purification ritual. The trio also apparently took some of the meat and cooked it into meat pastries which they sold on the street."

Obviously, this got me curious about how many other cannibal stories have been in the news lately, so I did a quick five-minute sweep on Google and, below, are a couple of the stranger stories I came across.

"'Cannibal Serial Killer' Arrested in Russia"

"Police said [Alexander Bychkov's victims] were killed with a knife. They found a diary at Bychkov's house which described how he cut up the victims and ate their livers. Detectives believe the alleged killer may be responsible for more murders because a series of people have gone missing without trace from around the small town of Belinsk in the last two years."

"Cannibal Mafia Bosses Ate Traitor in Spain"

"A mafia traitor was beaten to death with a hammer and then eaten by Serbian gangsters, police believe. Officers said Milan Jurisic, 37, was killed in Madrid by criminals from the Zemun Clan, a mafia group from Belgrade. His remains were then ground up with a meat grinder, cooked, and eaten, according to a confession by another Zemun Clan member, Sretko Kalinic, nicknamed 'The Butcher.'"

Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.  Or, in my case, truth is pretty much right on par with fiction.


The Evolution of Timber Marlow

Upon finishing an overwhelmingly mediocre high school career and having not planned for anything beyond Grad Night at Disneyland, I enrolled at Chaffey College.  After spending five years earning my two-year degree—and a brief layover at Cal State Fullerton—I transferred to Cal State San Bernardino, where I fell in love with the craft of creative writing.  It was at Cal State San Bernardino where I first dreamt up the creative potential of marrying cannibalism with literary fiction.

But long before that ever happened, my godfather, Willard E. Pugh, starred in Wes Craven’s 1985 horror film, The Hills Have Eyes Part II.  At eight years old, this movie was my first introduction to cannibalism and for at least a week after watching it, I refused to go upstairs by myself for fear of running into Pluto, the film’s scary bald cannibal.

While at Cal State San Bernardino I took a humanities class that, among other things, persuaded me to become a vegetarian.  Both the lectures and the literature in the class presented me for the first time with a behind-the-scenes look at how animals raised for consumption are treated (and often mistreated).  I felt like there was a dramatic core there worth writing about and decided the most dynamic way to harness it would be to replace the animals with people.  A couple years later, my first crack at cannibal literature—a short story called “Footsteps”—was published in The Pacific Review.

For about a year or two, I attempted to write my first novel.  While, in its completed state, there are flashes of what I like to think of as fine literary prose, overall it just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.  Of course, I didn’t come to this conclusion by myself.  I have a tall pile of rejection letters from agents and publishers alike, all of them echoing the same sentiment—thanks, but no thanks.  With my ego sufficiently bruised and my dreams all but crushed, I became very cynical about the publishing industry and decided that, if I was going to get published, I needed to pander to what I imagined the system wanted.

In the winter of 2005, I decided to write a novel about a female serial killer, figuring this would have the publishing world licking their chops.  I knew that if I was going to write a story about a killer, that, in order to keep myself interested, the killer would have to be the main character.  I also knew that making my main character a killer would be a tricky endeavor, because most readers don’t want to sympathize with a killer—they would rather be scared of them for 300 pages or so, before watching them get their comeuppance.

So, my first order of business was to figure out why my killer was a killer and, more importantly, why my reader should care about her.  I decided my killer killed not because she was a sociopath, but because she was raised in an environment where killing was routine, just a normal part of everyday life.  I then decided that an environment like that couldn’t reasonably exist in mainstream society, so it made sense that my killer should be born and raised in a cult.  In order to make the killing in my fictional cult a reasonable necessity, I decided its members were cannibals.  In order to make the killing routine, I decided they should have public sacrifices two or three times a month, which my killer would grow up watching.  In order to isolate my cannibal cult from the real world—something I figured was necessary in order to ensure the enclosed nature of this strange community—I tucked it away on a combine in the San Bernardino Mountains.  I named my killer Timber Marlow.

As Timber’s story unfolded, I found myself becoming less cynical about publishing.  I also found that I was no longer writing this novel to pander to the publishing industry or to nurse my bruised ego, but rather because it was the best story I had to tell and I felt an overwhelming responsibility to tell it as well as I could.  I also came to realize that this was a much more personal story than I intended it to be, that Timber was, in big and small ways, sewn from fragments of my own life and experiences.

I was born to an overwhelmingly religious family, half of whom were Catholic and the other half Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I attended church every Sunday of my life at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Catholic Parish. Being Catholic was a choice someone else made for me, a choice for which I had no say in the matter.  And it was a choice I never questioned, because, in my small world, I never knew anything different.  Though I didn’t stop attending Mass until I was 18, I never really felt connected to the Catholic faith.

I spent the next decade or so trying to sift through what I genuinely believed about the world as opposed to what I was taught to believe.  It was about this time, ten years later, that I discovered Timber Marlow.  As I got deeper into her story, I came to realize that Timber Marlow wasn’t really a killer after all—at least not a serial killer.  She was just a kid who, through lessons and observations, cultivated a very absurd view of the world.  She was never given an alternative view to these lessons, nor did she have a say in what she was raised to believe.  And it wasn’t until she decided to run away from all she had known in an attempt to understand the world around her that her life would truly begin.