Rachel Harrison on her new horror novel 'Black Sheep'
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
When we meet Vesper in the new horror novel "Black Sheep," she's a prickly 23-year-old waitress estranged from her family for years. Her father is nowhere to be found. Her mother, Constance, is a horror movie scream queen with a taste for the macabre and zero interest in parenting. The only love Vesper has is from her aunt and her cousin, but was it really love?
RACHEL HARRISON: (Reading) It occurred to me then that our past is not the truth. It's warped by time and emotion, inevitably muddied by love and resentment, joy and shame, hope and regret. I couldn't trust my own memories, good or bad.
RASCOE: In Rachel Harrison's novel "Black Sheep," Vesper questions all her memories when she finally returns to the fundamentalist community that she grew up in to attend her cousin's wedding. And then - plot twist - we discover it's not a Christian fundamentalist community - uh-uh (ph). When this crowd is talking about the Lord, they are actually talking about Satan.
HARRISON: Satanism is sort of just a cover for how fanatical these people are. What kind of religion it was didn't really matter to me. It was more about how much they believed and putting these people - her family, her community - at odds with Vesper, my protagonist. So it was less about, how does this church I made up work? - or basing it on anything specific in reality versus just, what does it mean when you come from a community that believes in something with all their heart and you're - just don't buy it? And when you're alienated from your family and community, what does that do to a person, and where do you go from there? And can you ever go home again?
RASCOE: You know, Vesper talks about, like, Hell's Gate. They're believing the end times are coming and everybody else who's not chosen, they're going to burn and all this stuff. It made me think of, like, you know, growing up in church and you're hearing about, these are the last and evil days. There can be, like, a lot of very violent imagery that children are exposed to because I remember hearing last and evil days and being afraid 'cause I was, like, a little kid. I'm like, I haven't even lived yet. But everybody else will be happy. (Laughter) And it's, like, kind of bizarre.
HARRISON: It's interesting looking back because when you're young, you kind of just accept things as they are.
RASCOE: Yes. Yeah.
HARRISON: And then looking back, you're like, I was young to be hearing about that kind of stuff.
RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes. Yeah. And it was like - that was very scary. And I didn't have context for this.
HARRISON: In some ways, it can be very scary going to church...
RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah.
HARRISON: ...Especially if you were like me and it was like, sit still. Be quiet.
RASCOE: (Laughter) Is that some of what you wanted to convey? Like, sometimes these things can be scary in general.
HARRISON: Yeah. And everybody has their own different experience. I had some experiences with religion growing up. I went to a church that had pictures of the crypt-keeper in the bathroom that was like, Satan is watching you. Like, these things we experience as kids, they mess us up great so we can write about them later. For me, in that way, it was personal. But it was less about me thinking about how church is scary and more a product of doomscrolling, which I think we've all done quite a bit over the past few years, and just seeing a lot of cynicism and seeing people say, this is the worst time to be alive, everything sucks, it's hopeless, and having to ask myself, is it hopeless? And writing this book, through Vesper, she has that attitude of cynicism and just not having faith and feeling pretty jaded about it.
RASCOE: Obviously, there's a very dysfunctional family in this book, do you know what I'm saying?
RASCOE: That's kind of next level, but you know what I'm saying (laughter).
HARRISON: Yeah. I would hope everyone who reads this book comes away with it like, OK, my family isn't that bad.
RASCOE: Not that bad (laughter).
HARRISON: If anyone comes away from "Black Sheep" and is like, you think that's rough, come to Thanksgiving at my house, then we're in trouble.
RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah (laughter). You know, obviously most families are not going to be as dysfunctional as this, but, like, you do this really great job of showcasing that there can be this awkwardness in family where, you know, Vesper gets along with some members of the family. She's annoyed by others, seemingly always at war with her mother. But she has this loyalty, say, to her cousin, and that's what brings her back. And she forces herself into some type of reconciliation. What do you think about this idea of reconciliation and your family's always being with you or part of you or making peace with that?
HARRISON: Reconciliation is going to be different for everyone. I think in the beginning, Vesper has reason to have hope that it could happen and want it to happen. She goes home because she wants things to change. In those relationships, there needs to be give on both sides. She doesn't really get give on the side of her family. So in this situation, people have to read to see what happens. But I do have hope that people who have family issues can reconcile. But I also am a big believer in boundaries and protecting yourself. So I think with the knowledge Vesper has at the end of the book, I think she would advocate for boundaries as well. But it's our own - she had to go through the journey.
RASCOE: To journey to get there, to - you know, to try and see what happens. Ultimately, when people read the book, it's not that you want them to learn a lesson, but I guess, when people read "Black Sheep," what ultimately do you want them to take about this idea of belief?
HARRISON: I hope when they finish reading they, first of all, had a ton of fun reading it. I hope they were scared. And I hope that it's just food for thought. Just think about our relationship to faith and nature versus nurture. Those are big questions. I hope it just prompts some thought and that they sleep with the lights on...
HARRISON: ...And it keeps them up to think about these big questions.
RASCOE: That is Rachel Harrison. She is the author of "Black Sheep." Thank you so much for joining us.
HARRISON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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