“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Today we are delighted to give the floor to guest author Cassandra Khaw, talking about the inspirations and influences behind her novella Hammers on Bone.
(Trigger warning: domestic abuse).
Stripped of its tentacles and its noir vernacular, Hammers on Bone is, more than anything else, an allegory of domestic abuse. The idea for its conception isn’t something I’m going to go into here – I’ve talked about it in other guest blogs already, and it’s not a pleasant subject to bring up. But there’s merit in discussing what lives at the heart of the novella.
Domestic abuse is unfortunately common. For all our pretenses at civity, our species hasn’t outgrown the idea of asserting dominance through violence. We chip at each other over social media. We snip, we argue, we undermine enemies with gossip, we circle each other like dogs in a ring, starved for openings to strike. Every day, we’re subjected to and we subject others to shows of aggression.
All for power.
And power is interesting. Power doesn’t have to be inherited or enforced by a strength of arms, doesn’t necessitate formalization. Power doesn’t need to manifest as a successful career, or an aptitude in sports, or even an enviable selection in mates. Power can be subtle, insidious, bought with the currency of friendship. Power can simply be this: the ability to convince someone that there is no way out.
That no one else loves you.
That no one cares.
That this is your fault.
That you are completely and absolutely alone.
There’s an entire treatise to be written about why someone would crave such control over another human being, and how it correlates, perhaps, to an absence of control over their own lives, or another variety of personal weakness. But at the end of the day, it’s all the same to the victim.
The mother figure in Hammers on Bone is caught in a cycle of abuse. For all that she understands that McKinsey, her fiance and antagonist, is a danger, she stays with him. In the novella, we see the compromises that she makes daily, how she attempts to displace his attention from the children, how she offers herself up in exchange. We see the way she protects and worse, we see the fact she understands that he’s in her head.
Why doesn’t she walk away?
Hammers on Bone complicates that proposition by adding otherworldly horrors, creatures that grow inside human flesh. But even without those eldritch aberrations, there’s a simple answer to that question: because it just isn’t that simple.
Abusers are insidious. They scream, they shout, they beat their victims unconscious. But then, they stop and they kiss the bruises they’d left behind, their voice full of contrition, full of shame-faced love. This time, everything will be different. This time, I’ll change. And besides, aren’t we both broken people, anyway? It’s you and I against the world, baby. No one understands you like I do.
Leslie Steiner’s TED talk on the subject explains the situation eloquently, as does the responses to the #WhyIStayed hashtag. Because of the good times we had. Because of the children. Because he promised he’d get help. Because I’ve been with him since I was fourteen, and I can’t imagine life any other way.
It’d be easier if we were better equipped as a society to deal with these situations. More often than not, the victim, should they come forward, is forced to itemize everything that’d happen, to provide justification and explanations. They’re asked to relive their trauma, over and over, interrogated on the specificity of each scenario. Did they goad their partner? Had they done something? What led up to this moment?
There’s something to be said too about the shame of being in that situation. Our parents, our friends, our siblings – they’re often the first to pass judgment on a partner. She looks like trouble. He doesn’t seem like he’d make a good husband. I don’t think you two would make a good couple. In the throes of early love, we ignore them, confident in our own selections. When that proves wrong? What happens next? If you’re lucky enough to have a good support network, there is healing. But not everyone is that fortunate and they often know so it, so they keep silent, curl into themselves as they try to make sense of a terrifying world.
With Hammers on Bone, I wanted to examine the worst-case scenario, what happens when you don’t break from the cycle. There are a lot of other things that inspired Hammers on Bone too: a desire to subvert noir, a love-hate relationship with Lovecraft, an affection for Cronenbergian body horror.
Mostly, though, I wanted to talk about abuse, how easy it is for it to happen, how we hide its scars and how we protect its monsters.
CASSANDRA KHAW writes a lot. Sometimes, she writes press releases and excited emails for Singaporean micropublisher Ysbryd Games. Sometimes, she writes for technology and video games outlets like Eurogamer, Ars Technica, The Verge, and Engadget. Mostly, though, she writes about the intersection between nightmares and truth, drawing inspiration from Southeast Asian mythology and stories from people she has met. She occasionally spends time in a Muay Thai gym punching people and pads. The novella is available on Amazon US | Amazon UK