In Craig DiLouie’s new novel, Suffer The Children, vampires aren’t suave guys in capes or teenagers with sparkly skin, they’re children, all the children of the world, who died a few days earlier. But while this book deserves to be shelved in the horror section of your local bookstore, DiLouie says this isn’t just another book about bloodsuckers.
For those who haven’t read it, what is Suffer The Children about?
Suffer The Children is about the most powerful love in the world — the love parents have for their children — taken to an extreme where it becomes a source of horror, and quite possibly the catalyst for the end of the world.
In it, a horrible disease called Herod’s syndrome kills all of the world’s children. They return from the dead and ask for blood. With blood, they become the children they once were, but only for a short time. The parents are confronted with the impossible challenge of constantly giving them blood. The question of how far they would go for someone they love. The question of just how much they would sacrifice.
In the end, the only source of blood they will be able to get is from each other. The children in this story are essentially vampires, but they’re not the monsters. The monsters are the parents who go all the way to get blood for the people they love most.
Freaky. So where did you get the original idea, and why did you think this could be a good novel, as opposed to a good short story or movie or something else?
I started out in the horror genre by writing apocalyptic zombie thrillers. In these stories, the apocalypse is not cathartic, but is instead a terrifying place where you’ve lost everything and your survival hangs by a thread. For my next book, I wanted to stay in the apocalyptic space but try something different. I thought, what terrifies me the most? Of course, as I think this is universal, it’s if something bad ever happened to my family. So I wrote a book in which I faced my greatest fears as a human being. The resulting story has deep emotional resonance, as it’s really about human nature and the bonds we feel for other people. It’s a vampire story, but again, the vampires aren’t the monsters. The central focus of the book is on the people who love the vampires because they’re family.
As you probably knew already, people get really upset when you do anything bad to children, even in a work of fiction. Did this ever give you second thoughts about making Suffer The Children about kids?
While the children die and require blood to prevent themselves from dying again, otherwise, nothing bad happens to them physically. On every page, I made a conscious effort not to overplay the sensationalism inherent in the plot for spectacle or cheap shock. I didn’t want the material to be exploitative in any way, which I felt would have robbed the story of its authenticity and visceral connection with the reader. The result, I believe, is a story that is both authentic and disturbing.
When I first read the press materials for Suffer The Children, the line that stuck out for me was, “The inevitable question for parents everywhere becomes: How far would you go to bring your child back?” But whenever I hear this kind of question asked, I always think, “As far as I have to” immediately, I don’t have to think about it. And I don’t have children. Yet this idea comes up a lot in fiction. I mean, it’s why Oprah loved Cormac McCarthy’s The Road so much. Given that most parents, and most caring people, would also say, “As far as I have to” without question, why do you think books like Suffer The Children, which pose this question, remain popular?
Loving our children is a fundamental part of the human condition, and so it always has been, and always will be, a popular theme in literature. Suffer The Children invokes that condition and puts it to the ultimate test. That test is made even more terrifying as it’s not isolated to say a single family or community, but the entire world. Everybody is competing for blood and, eventually, the only way to get it will be from each other. The institutions we take for granted to protect us — the military, the police, paramedics, and doctors — they don’t collapse in the ensuring decline, but instead become gangs dedicated to getting blood for their own.
Obviously, with the kids coming back after three days, Suffer The Children has a religious connotation. Again, you must’ve known this, so the question becomes: Did you ever debate it being four days, a week, or a month, something that would’ve automatically make everything think of Jesus? Or was the three days intentional?
That was not intentional, though because of popular religious beliefs, it certainly offered resonance. Mostly, it was about the timing I needed for Herod’s syndrome to circle the globe, and for the resulting resurrection of its first victims. The overt religious content in Suffer The Children comes from a few characters who turn to religion to search for meaning in the deaths. When a loved one dies, it’s common to ask why God would allow such a thing.
Vampires have been depicted in a lot of different ways over the years. Which depictions of vampires did you look to for inspiration, and which did you look to for ideas of how not to depict the kids’ vampirism?
The first part is easy to answer. A major source of inspiration was John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling The Undead. Lindqvist, one of the greatest horror writers of our time, is brilliant at taking a popular trope, such as zombies or vampires, and telling a very human story in which character is at the forefront. Handling The Undead, for example, is a story about people with zombies, not zombies with people. In that novel, the zombies aren’t cannibalistic, they just want to go home, and their loved ones must deal with them. They love them no matter what. That was a powerful idea to me, and one I wanted to explore with vampires. My story isn’t about the vampires per se, but about the parents who are willing to do anything to spend just a few more hours with them.
Otherwise, as far as how not to present the children, again I followed the basic rule that nothing would happen to them that would be in the book purely for shock or in any other exploitative way. I don’t like reading that stuff, and I certainly don’t like writing it. I wanted the essential human question to take center stage and spark a visceral connection with the reader. The vampires in my book are normal children who happen to need blood to live because of their disease. Otherwise, they don’t act like what we know and expect of vampires at all.
On the flipside of the whole vampire thing, given that is about children dying and coming back to life, do you think someone who is not a fan of horror will like the book as well, or do you think it would be too much for them?
The early reviews of the book are telling me that I accomplished what I set out to do: make the novel a horrifying journey for any reader based on its premise and how it unfolds, not specifically by the actions surrounding the children themselves. It’s certainly a harrowing read, and therefore not for everybody. My view is it’s for horror fans, but I’ve been surprised by its positive response from people who don’t normally read horror, which I feel has to do again with the essential human question posed. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is far more gruesome and grim than Suffer The Children in my view, but it became popular because it is really a story about the love a father has for his son. That he’ll protect his son even when things are hopeless, even when the world is dying.
But I’m guessing you probably think this will impact parents more than people who haven’t had kids.
I suspect people with kids will find the journey more harrowing and visceral than those who don’t. Though, again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction to the book among people who don’t have kids.
Now, as a parent, how hard was it to write this book?
Suffer The Children was the hardest and most honest thing I’ve ever written. Writing it left me feeling raw. I really came to love the characters and went on a journey with them. In this book, it’s the adults who suffer, and as a father, I identified with them. I agonized over what was happening to them. I also admired them. Some of them become monsters, but there’s a form of heroism about it, because they’re doing it out of love.
Were there ever times when you cut something or dialed something back because you thought it was going too far?
No, I never felt that I went too far. But that’s up to the reader to decide, and every reader’s different. Not that going too far would be a bad thing; good horror fiction pushes boundaries. Look at books like The Girl Next Door; Jack Ketchum pulls no punches. But, again, I kept the scenes of the children dying and coming back matter of fact, without trying to make them especially grisly or unsettling. The resulting effect is actually much more horrifying, as it’s a book for adults, and they’ll identify with the adults in the story.
Lastly, Suffer The Children is not your first novel. If someone read it, and liked it enough that they wanted to read other books of yours, which would you recommend they read next?
People who enjoy Suffer The Children would probably like my zombie fiction. The Infection and its sequel, The Killing Floor, are action-packed, but have similar emotional depth as Suffer The Children; think The Walking Dead with the action turned up to 11. For straight-up action, readers might try my novel Tooth And Nail, which is a very realistic portrayal of a military unit fighting to survive in New York City during the zom-poc, or The Retreat, an eBook series of novellas I’m producing with the great Joe McKinney and Stephen Knight.