Short Stories 366:305 — “Skin,” by Christian Baines

The end of October! Hallowe’en itself! This novella is the perfect mix of dark psychological/paranormal for me. I feel like I’ve repeated all month long my squeamishness with horror and how it often leaves me struggling to find horror I enjoy that doesn’t cross the line too far, but I’ll trot it out one more time because finding a paranormal nudging the edge of the both borders is a rare, rare treat for me, and Skin is the best example of this I’ve read in years.

I’m passing the baton today Christian Baines, to talk about his novella, Skin—which is excitingly now available in paperback—and holy flying crap, what a ride. So richly written, so incredibly twisted, timelines leaving you guessing, and so rewarding to me. If it’s possible to be darkly satisfied and still raw, that’s what Skin delivered. Grab it. Give it to all your friends who want to read something shadowy and twisted and vengeful.

As I said, I was also lucky enough to touch base with Christian Baines to blog about this novella, and here’s what he had to say:

A City Under Your Skin

Exploring Darkness and Deviancy in New Orleans

Hi everyone! Hope you’re all keeping well and safe, and finding ways to stay connected. Thanks for stopping by, and a huge thank you to ‘Nathan for having me on the blog. Always a pleasure to share inspirations and thoughts with you. Today, I’m sharing a bit about the setting of “Skin.”

New Orleans is a place that feels almost too charismatic to exist. I’ve had the privilege of visiting half a dozen times, of spending time with locals and cultivating friendships there. I’m continually fascinated by its literary history, its unique blend of cultures and spirituality including its rich Voodoo history, its ‘anything goes’ attitude (including its gay life), and its inescapable precariousness. From petty crime to hurricanes, New Orleanians know all too well what it’s like to live with the darker side of life, even while the city’s famed bons temps are rolling.

To a storyteller’s imagination, even if it seems like everyone’s written a story about New Orleans, there’s always somewhere new to go, provided you’re faithful to the city as a unique setting beyond the cliches. I was lucky enough writing “Skin” to have some great local Nola writers who kept me honest in that respect.

New Orleans’ Voodoo culture had fascinated me since I was a child, so I decided to combine it with the local gay life into some kind of story. I had routinely read and learned as much about that as I could about New Orleans Voodoo, trying to sort the spiritual and factual from the sensational and hokey. I wanted to explore some of the queer aspects of Voodoo lore, with one the strict rule – while this would be a horror story, Voodoo would not be its villain.

When it came to gay bar life, one thing about New Orleans I definitely wasn’t used to was the presence of hustlers. Curious and naïve, I got talking to some of these guys, plying their stories for the price of a drink and trying to sift fact from fiction. Some of them hid behind a well-rehearsed schtick designed to part you from as many bills as possible, but some were more genuine, and happy to talk. As in most stories that emerge from New Orleans, there would always be some truth to discover, even if it was in what was omitted.

What better setting and what better protagonists could I ask for a queer story about the unreliable surface of things?

Skin is the only overt horror book I’ve published so far, and of all my books, it’s the most divisive. It’s a non-linear narrative, and its two main characters, Kyle and Marc, aren’t my most likeable creations, but they are in some ways my most innocent. They’re not savvy and snarky like Reylan in The Arcadia Trust novels, or Eric in Puppet Boy. They’re two deeply flawed country boys trying to do the right thing way out of their comfort zone in a city ready to eat them alive – one in a relationship that ends in tragedy, the other in one that’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

The reaction to “Skin” has run the whole gamut from enthusiastic praise to graphic revulsion, and that’s okay. I never write a story with the intention of shocking or repelling the reader for its own sake. I never want my readers to have an unpleasant experience. What I do want is for them to feel engaged, drawn into the story, and to feel something as they read, even if it’s challenging. There’s some challenging stuff in “Skin.” It starts with a horrible crime and follows a young man’s fraught, sensual, and very twisted path to revenge.

I wrote “Skin” for readers who want to dive into the underworld and explore those darkened New Orleans streets the locals warned me about, but it’s also for readers who want a little bit of that wonder that only New Orleans in all its scrappy, dangerous charm can offer. I drew on real New Orleans history, and tried to bring that to life by subverting character stereotypes – often racialized, where New Orleans and Voodoo is concerned – wherever I could. I played with the chronology of the story, which has confused some readers, but that’s also okay. What’s important to me when readers approach any of my books is that they draw from it what the story says to them or what it brings out in them.

If repeated visits to New Orleans have taught me anything, it’s to leave my preconceptions and assumptions about the city at home. I ask the same of readers who pick up one of my books. I don’t make promises as to what the story will be for you, but I do promise to make the journey worth your while and to take you somewhere you weren’t expecting.

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