This weekend, 19 writers of Weird and speculative fiction will gather at Decatur CoWorks for The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, a one-of-a-kind one-day literary conference presented by The Outer Dark podcast which airs on This Is Horror. One of them is Kristi DeMeester, an Atlanta-based author whose work is at the forefront of a Renaissance in the Weird. Her 2016 story “The Beautiful Thing We Will Become” (ETERNAL FRANKENSTEIN) recently was chosen by editor Ellen Datlow for THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, VOLUME NINE, and two short stories selected for YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION (Vols. 1 & 3, 2013 & 2015).
Her first novel BENEATH is coming April 30 from Word Horde, and EVERYTHING THAT’S UNDERNEATH, her debut short fiction collection, will also be out this year from Apex Publications. Her stories have appeared in many of the top horror and speculative literature publications including Black Static, The Dark and more. At the symposium, Kristi will read from her work and participate on a panel about the Weird novel.
In this nonfiction piece, exclusive to ATLRetro, she goes behind her fiction to talk about the genesis of Beneath in some of the Weirder experiences of her Southern upbringing.
The first time I saw a demon, I was 6 years old.
Sweat-slicked and dressed in a denim jumper, I watched the preacher lay hands on a seemingly catatonic young woman, his fingers already anointed with the oil he kept in the pulpit, as he prayed. She gibbered and choked, her tongue locked behind her teeth as she bared them, but she was speaking back to him in tongues, and he answered, and from somewhere deep in the heat of that tent revival, someone else translated the conversation.
I don’t remember what it was she said, but I remember the heaviness of the silence that stole through the space. I squirmed further away from my mother to get a better look at the woman who had started to sway and twitch under the preacher’s touch. She did not speak again but opened her mouth wide as if to scream, but there was no sound, and then her body went rigid.
When she fainted, the good ladies of the church rushed forward with their blankets to cover her bare kneecaps and keep her modest. The preacher mopped his forehead with the handkerchief he kept in his pocket, and the young woman opened her eyes, her hands grasping for the preacher as she thanked him, thanked God for releasing her from this demon.
I saw that same scene played out again and again throughout my childhood. Always a pretty, clear-eyed young woman, her throat bare as she turned her face to the sky. Those women did not growl or scream or speak in a voice unlike their own, but there was spiritual warfare at work. Demons of lust, of alcohol, of impure thoughts had wormed inside, and I grew to fear these lovely women who had somehow opened themselves to the darker parts of the world.
Later, I would watch horror movies with my friends and laugh every time a demon appeared on screen. Demons did not look like scarred imps with mouths full of teeth. They looked like beautiful young women.
There is an inherent weirdness in this fanaticism of belief in which I grew up. In my world, the devil was not a symbolic representation of sin. He was flesh and bone and smiled from every corner. He was the lovely thing in the darkness.
This weirdness became the cornerstone of how I defined myself. It was this belief in the thinness between this world and the next that crafted a fallow ground for what would become my fiction writing as an adult. As I got older and drifted away from the fundamentalist religion my parents baptized me into, I went looking for the devil, the unknown, in books. I wanted to stare into the dark face of the sky, of the earth, and come to understand a bit more about what it was buried in my own heart that was worthy of fear.
BENEATH, then, was a natural progression from the weirdness that began when I was only six. Writing it was opening my arms to those lovely young women with demons trapped under their skin and asking them to stay with me before they slipped away and woke with tears in their eyes and thankfulness on their lips.
Weird fiction, for me, has always been about holding those women with me, and asking them the questions I’m afraid to ask myself because I know the truth in those answers.
And that knowledge is what’s truly terrifying.
ATLRetro is proud to be a sponsor of The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird on Saturday March 25. Read our Kool Kat of the Week interview with Michael Wehunt, another Atlanta-based author who will be participating, here soon. Attending memberships to the symposium are $25 and limited to 50. A few are still available at press-time. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s also a pre-party with author readings on Friday March 24 at My Parents’ Basement in Avondale Estates from 8-11 pm.