This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Molly Tanzer, whose latest novel is Creatures of Charm and Hunger, the third novel in The Diabolist’s Library trilogy. Here is the publisher’s description:
Two young witches, once inseparable, are set at odds by secrets and wildly dangerous magic.
In the waning days of World War II, with Allied victory all but certain, desperate Nazi diabolists search for a demonic superweapon to turn the tide. A secluded castle somewhere in the south of Germany serves as a laboratory for experiments conducted upon human prisoners, experiments as vile as they are deadly.
Across the English Channel, tucked into the sleepy Cumbrian countryside, lies the Library, the repository of occult knowledge for the Société des Éclairées, an international organization of diabolists. There, best friends Jane Blackwood and Miriam Cantor, tutored by the Société’s Librarian — and Jane’s mother — Nancy, prepare to undergo the Test that will determine their future as diabolists.
When Miriam learns her missing parents are suspected of betraying the Société to the Nazis, she embarks on a quest to clear their names, a quest involving dangerous diabolic practices that will demand more of her than she can imagine. Meanwhile Jane, struggling with dark obsessions of her own, embraces a forbidden use of the Art that could put everyone she loves in danger.
As their friendship buckles under the stress of too many secrets, Jane and Miriam will come face to face with unexpected truths that change everything they know about the war, the world, and most of all themselves. After all, some choices cannot be unmade — and a sacrifice made with the most noble intention might end up creating a monster.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Molly Tanzer:
In the same way that dread is often more affecting than horror, not-knowing is worse than knowing. In Creatures of Charm and Hunger, apprentice diabolist Miriam Cantor has been hiding out with family friends in the north of England while her parents — also diabolists — remain in Nazi Germany, fighting from the shadows via arcane means.
When the novel opens, it’s been a while since Miriam has had a message from them. A long while. Miriam is a stoic, bottling up her feelings and throwing herself into her schoolwork. . .but what could be worse than that bleak, gnawing anticipation? That, to me, is the scariest part of anything, that state of not-knowing; the awful slowing of the minutes that comes from waiting for, if not necessarily anticipating something. “Try to put it from your mind.” “The answer will be the same whether or not you worried about it.” “You can’t change what will happen, so don’t worry yourself sick.” These little mantras, we offer them up like prayers, or apotropaic spells, hoping that this they will work, finally allowing us to effectively concede to ourselves that worry isn’t rational and we should be carrying on as usual until we hear what we hear.
So here is the thing: Am I a horror novelist? Honestly, I have no idea. No one can decide. It’s true, my novels have things like vampires and demons and evil funguses, but no one — and I mean no one — thinks anything I write is scary. It’s not! The sort of horror I deal in is social: “I wish I didn’t have to be at this party where I hate everyone and can’t leave,” “how can I explain myself out of this conversation I don’t wish to be in,” “my friend is mad at me and nothing I can do can fix it,” etc. So I have to make it count. I have to make it real. I have to make that kind of scary actually scary.
At the start of the novel, Miriam is bothered by her parents’ absence — of course she is. But she accepts it. What else can she do? But when she hears a rumor that her parents’ silence is due to them having turned traitor. . .that’s when she snaps. Too many uncertainties, too many variables. The not-knowing becomes too much for her. She decides to devote herself not to her diabolical school work, but to discovering the truth. That desire for some sort of data point beyond her faith in their hearts will take her down dark paths — ones untrodden by the wise, only the desperate.
Miriam succeeds — after much hardship and sacrifice, she finds out what happened to her parents. And then, of course, she has another question. . .one we all must ask ourselves, at some point in our lives: was the scariest part knowing, or not-knowing?
Molly Tanzer is the author of The Diabolist’s Library trilogy: Creatures of Will and Temper, the Locus Award-nominated Creatures of Want and Ruin, and Creatures of Charm and Hunger. She is also the author of the indie weird western Vermilion, an io9 and NPR “Best Book” of 2015, and the British Fantasy Award-nominated collection, A Pretty Mouth. She lives outside of Boulder, CO with her cat, the Toad.