Jordan Castillo Price is our guest blogger today and she talks about frail humans and our vulnerabilities –
From the title of today’s post, I’ll bet you thought this post was about vampires, since the pointy-toothed stories Channeling Morpheus, Sweet Oblivion and Hemovore all sprang from my keyboard and my imagination. Yes, and no. I was thinking about the facet of writing that really makes a reader squirm, be it from reading a horror novel, a thriller, or an “OMG are they really gonna kiss?” romance–and I think what’s common to all of these is the element of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is a deliciously ambiguous word. It doesn’t necessarily have the same negative connotations as weakness, passivity or frailty. Actors who are willing to take their performances to the next level by going one step farther than anyone else are vulnerable to an audience’s dismay. Artists who use their medium in a way that defies the conventions of the day are vulnerable to mockery and ostracism. And characters who fall in love are vulnerable to being shunned by the object of their desire.
Mark, the narrator of Hemovore, is normally a control freak. He lives in a world where the lethal and highly contagious Human Hemovore Virus is lurking on practically every surface–and he’s got it bad for his V-positive boss. After dealing with a botched-up blood supply which leaves him feeling helpless and stressed out, he and Jonathan, the object of his desire, make a whopping big sale. They go out to celebrate, and for the first time ever, Mark overindulges in front of Jonathan (who can’t drink…alcohol.)
[Jonathan says] “You will be sick tomorrow. We say masnapos in Magyar. The bad head.”
Magyar–what Hungarians call Hungarian. I’d learned at least that much from the tape, if not the vernacular for hangover. The streetlights stretched out before us like the vertebrae of a great, glowing snake. I focused on the one above us and thought at first that moths were swarming it, but then I realized it was much too cold for moths. And that it was snowing.
“You called me–your friend.”
“To the valet.”
“Just a few more blocks. Are you cold?”
“Nope. Feels good.” And if I leaned into him a little more as I said that, I’m sure it was by accident.
“You will stay here today,” he said as his building came into sight.
“You made that pretty clear when you were giving him that big old tip.”
“Oh, you noticed?”
“That tonight you’re spending money like it’s going out of style? I may be drunk. But I’m not–uh–what’s the word?
Jonathan shored me up. “Do you want to walk around the block?”
What I wanted was to go up to the studio and get to the part where he peeled off my clothes. Because if it didn’t happen while I was totally blotto, it never would.
I leaned on him harder and paused just before my face pressed into his hair. My God, it smelled amazing. Jonathan tried to keep walking, but I’d stopped, and I had a few pounds on him. More than a few–and I was holding his arm really tightly.
His hair was so close. So painfully close. What would it feel like against my face, my lips?
“You won’t catch it that way,” he said, so quietly that I wondered if he’d even meant to say it aloud.
The hemovore virus.
So Mark’s vulnerability here stems from several things. First, being drunk in front of someone else is very vulnerable, especially if they’re stone cold sober. His control, that he clings to so tightly, is suddenly gone–and suddenly every fiber of his being is straining for a touch of Jonathan’s hair, whereas if he weren’t full of gin, he’d probably go running for the disinfectant. And, of course, there’s the vulnerability of emotion, of him realizing that a lot of his OCD cleaning methods were a construct he’d put up between Jonathan and himself to keep himself safe from the probability of rejection.
In PsyCop, I put my protagonist Victor Bayne through the wringer every chance I get. I described it to my critique partner this way: if I ever have a chance to shit on his head, I do! This scene is from Criss Cross (PsyCop 2) where Vic is starting to get freaked out because he’s been having gastrointestinal issues and he’s worried that he might have an ulcer–and that could mean that he’d need to stop taking Auracel, the medication that switches off his ability to see ghosts. He’s at a diner with his new partner Roger, who’s just dying to know if Vic currently has any spirits in range.
I glanced up at Roger and he was staring at me like I had the moon landing playing in my eyes. “Anything?” he whispered.
I finally did roll my eyes at his ridiculous persistence–I just couldn’t quell it–when I saw a little girl with a pageboy haircut, wearing an atrocious plaid dress. She stood beside Roger, facing me from across the table. The back of the booth practically bisected her from left to right, and her head and shoulders poked out over the top.
I tried to recall if she’d been one of the files I’d scanned earlier, but it was too hard to tell. The photos I’d had were school pictures, kids against garish seventies backgrounds with freakishly fake smiles plastered on and their hair slicked into strange shapes that probably didn’t resemble its normal state.
I looked harder at the little girl ghost and there was something off about her. Most ghosts are off in some way, which is why people are scared of them. I looked harder at the girl. Her eyes were too intense, piercing, almost. And her neck looked mottled. When I realized what I was looking at were finger marks, she reached out toward me as if she wanted to hold my hand.
That was different. Usually they talk. I wondered if maybe she’d been a deaf-mute in life.
I hadn’t actually expected to feel her touching me, since all the ghosts I’d ever seen were totally noncorporeal. But her fingers were clammy and dead against the back of my hand. A wave of revulsion swept over me and I fought to keep my lunch from coming up. I jerked my arm away, then ran my fingers through my hair in an attempt to cover up the gesture. I had no desire to try talking to her, and even less desire to explain my reasoning to eager Roger. “Let’s get out of here,” I told Roger calmly. “There’s nothing to see.”
So, some of the vulnerabilities Vic is facing here? Illness is a big one. We all hate being sick because it means we need to rely on other people–and what if we can’t? What if we’re relying on someone to take care of us and they drop the ball and say, “Get your own damn ice pack.”
There’s also performance anxiety. Roger is the second new partner Vic has had since his trusty senior partner Maurice retired, and Vic is struggling with the idea that he’s the opposite of macho, and was never really cut out to be a cop in the first place–but that he took the job because he didn’t know what else to do at the time. (If you’ve read through to the latest installment, Camp Hell, you might deduce he took the cop job because he was feeling vulnerable from his horiffic psychic training, and being among a bunch of testosterone-driven guys with guns felt safer than going it alone.)
Finally, there’s the vulnerability of facing something supernatural that there’s no way to shield against. Vic is accustomed to talking to ghosts, not being touched by them, and the chill touch of the dead girl combined with his potential ulcer have his mind racing to a future where he’s stuck with no anti-psyactive drugs and a horde of spirits grabbing at him with their cold, dead fingers.
I saved my most crawly example for last, because it involves the body part that, for me, absolutely screams vulnerability: the throat. I hate having my throat touched. Hate it! Chin clamps down, hands spring up in defense…and usually I’m too late. The slithery, crawly feeling of something on my neck has left an indelible mark.
In this scene from Manikin (Channeling Morpheus 3) Michael has drugged a vampire with Roofies, which take a few minutes to kick in. Meanwhile, she’s clamped him into a Marilyn Manson-esque metal head brace inside a clawfoot tub and is shaving him with a straight razor in preparation for turning him into one of her “dolls.”
The straight razor splashed into the tub. Marushka slumped to the floor. “Michael?” Her voice sounded very innocent and small.
I almost felt bad for her. I groped my hands up the side of the metal brace and felt for the latch. I couldn’t imagine what the thing must have been, originally. Something a dentist might use while he was boring through a patient’s molars with a hand drill? Maybe a piece of medical equipment that heralded the dawn of brain surgery. I shuddered.
I found some screws and springs and knobs. I wished I’d gotten a better look when Marushka had lowered me down, placed a kiss on my forehead, and snapped the cold metal around my neck.
Water sloshed against the side of the bath as I pushed at the tub wall with my bare foot and tried to extend my reach. She’d even shaved my toes. It had never occurred to me that there was hair on my toes.
I stretched, and I felt something that protruded a good inch out of the mess of metal. A key. It was tightly seated. From my which-way’s-up position, I couldn’t tell clockwise from counterclockwise. My fingers were numb on the key and I couldn’t stop shaking.
Concentrate, I told myself. Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. A couple of turns and I’d be out of there. I grabbed the key, and I twisted it.
It fell out of the brace and clattered to the floor.
“No–” My voice sounded as small and pathetic as Marushka’s had when the Rohypnol finally hit her system.
The important thing, I decided, was not to panic. I’m tall. I have long arms. I’d figure out a way to get the key back. Never mind that the chances of me then fitting it into the right slot without being able to see it–and turning it in the proper direction with cold-numbed fingers–were slim to none. I’d get that key, because if I didn’t recover it by the time Marushka woke up, I was dead.
Because Michael thinks he’s indestructible, I really pile the vulnerabilities on him–and all of these particular instances are tinged with both fear and sex. Being restrained can be a turn-on because it strips a person of his free will, though if the person doing the restraining can’t be trusted, the restraint turns creepy. Nudity is a highly vulnerable state that can be sexual, too. In this case, Michael’s nakedness is rendered even more intense by him being shaved–so he’s not only naked, he’s more naked. More exposed. More vulnerable.
And then there’s the neck. The throat isn’t just my own personal hotspot–it’s a highly eroticized body part in both vampire and shapeshifter fiction. Michael, in particular, develops such a penchant for having his throat fed from that he starts covering it with a scarf, and he’d no sooner go out without his scarf on than he’d leave the house without his pants.
If vulnerability elicits such squirmy, conflicting emotions in us, why go there at all? Wouldn’t it be nice to just write a sweet romance where everyone’s happy, they all have sex and go to bed surrounded by teddy bears? Well, I guess I could. And you could read it, if that were your thing.
But for me, a story without conflict isn’t much of a story. I *like* the squirmy parts, because I think that without them, the characters are difficult to relate to. When we see someone else in a vulnerable state, there’s an immediate, gut-level empathy that happens, even if your reaction is, “Dang! I’m so glad that’s not me!” A vulnerable protagonist has something to lose–and that possibility, even though you suspect the story will end in a HEA–provides the tension that grips you and makes you keep on turning those pages.
The second edition of Body & Soul (PsyCop 3) is new at JCPbooks.com. PsyCop 1-5 is now available for the Kindle. And Sympathy, a sublimely vulnerable story of sweet, sad hope, will be available at JCPbooks.com this Halloween.