In his new supernatural thriller, To Dust You Shall Return (hardcover, paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Fred Venturini plays with the “you can never leave this place” trope by having the person hoping to leave be a mobster. In the following email interview, Venturini discusses what inspired and influenced this horror story.
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is To Dust You Shall Return, and when and where does it take place?
Curtis Quinn is a Chicago mob legend with a particular set of skills and a price on his head. When the woman he loves disappears, Curtis follows her trail to the occult town of Harlow, where no one is allowed to leave, and an enigmatic, sinister overlord known only as “the Mayor” rules by an autocratic regime.
Beth Jarvis is a plucky teenager unwrapping the secrets of her hometown, Harlow, and the mysterious ceremony that awaits her on her eighteenth birthday. What Beth doesn’t know is the truth about her sister Kate, who escaped their strange town over a decade ago and has evaded the Mayor and his disciples ever since.
What Curtis doesn’t know is that Kate is the woman he’s fallen in love with, and she’s running from a threat far greater than the mobsters who want to kill him. His fate collides with Beth’s as she tries to escape Harlow and the disgusting fate that awaits her, and Curtis finds himself unraveling a mystery that leads to an impossible and terrifying conclusion: that the Mayor of Harlow is more than just a man, and the hardest target he’s ever tried to kill.
Yes, this is ripped off the back of the book, but I can honestly do no better. I get superhyped whenever I read that.
The novel is set in a small town in Southern Illinois, not unlike the ones I grew up in and around. I always think it’s kind of wild that there is a “small town good, big city bad” trope in Hollywood (I’m looking at you Sweet Home Alabama), but in horror, if you find yourself in a weird, small town, you better keep your head on a swivel.
Where did you get the idea for this story, and how did that idea evolve as you wrote this novel?
My wife keeps a journal. One night in 2014, she was doing her thing and I walked by and she asked if I ever peeked at her journal. I, of course, said no. I wasn’t even sure where she kept it.
“Don’t ever read it,” she said. “In fact, if I die? Just bury it with me.”
The comment was so out of left field after years of journaling that it stuck with me, and ended up being the genesis of the novel.
And is there a reason why Curtis is a member of organized crime as opposed to just a regular criminal?
One peek at my last name and you’ll know that I’ve got Italian heritage, so of course everyone just assumes I love Rocky, Goodfellas, and The Godfather…and they’re right.
While I’m interested in the war against the self being a reformed criminal can provide dramatically, having an organized system with its own code and power structure, lurking in the background, always hunting you, adds an element of tension and drama you just can’t get with pure internal conflict.
In an early draft of the book, the Coletti crime family played a larger role. I toyed with the idea of them being a tool that Curtis uses in his impossible war against the supernatural. While I dialed that back, I still think it adds a richness to his backstory and adds more intensity to the looming threat he’s running from.
I wanted Curtis to think he was running from the worst, most horrific thing imaginable, and then finding out the girl he’s with has actually escaped from something far worse…
To Dust You Shall Return sounds like it’s a supernatural thriller. Is that how you’d describe it?
I honestly don’t do it on purpose, but all my stuff is a genre buffet and doesn’t fit neatly on a single shelf.
Yes, I’d say it’s a supernatural thriller, but in my heart of hearts, this is a horror novel with my favorite character archetype, the “reactivated badass” from dozens of action and revenge movies, plunged right into the heat of it.
Imagine that John Wick shows up in Castle Rock and that’s what I’m going for.
To Dust You Shall Return is your third novel after The Heart Does Not Grow Back and The Escape Of Light. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on To Dust You Shall Return but not on anything else you’ve written?
Chuck Palahniuk’s writing always goes “on the body,” so that’s a huge part of what I try to do when writing something like this, especially with horror at the center of it. Not just what happens, but how it feels, how it sounds, how it tastes.
And yes, I’m a cliché, but Stephen King is the master of finding the macabre in the innocent, especially small towns harboring dark secrets.
I should also mention that Laird Barron’s Isaiah Coleridge novels, which are great, gave me confidence in what I was trying to do, as he also has a criminal removed from organized crime getting into some occult shenanigans.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of those have a big influence on To Dust You Shall Return?
Unforgiven had a pretty big influence. Of all the “reactivated badasses” in film, Eastwood’s Will Munny resists the pull to his dark side the longest. That added an incredible amount of tension and drama and made it one of my favorite movies, ever. It’s the rare case that the hero fails to change, and somewhat “loses” the movie because of it, but we cheer him anyway. It’s a masterwork.
I’m also deeply influenced by all the “chosen one” narratives out there, from the Bible to The Matrix. There is a chosen one myth, everyone believes it, the hero resists it, and then takes the mantle and some sacrifice ensues.
But what if the narrative were complete bullshit cooked up just to manipulate a dominated populace into compliance? What if the chosen one is mythologized so that hope can never be killed because it cannot be embodied?
My novel is a story about the power of story, for sure.
And to flip things around, do you think To Dust You Shall Return could work as a movie, show, or game?
I write all my books as “movies in my head.” I try to write cinematically. I live in a place where the only way to get a big-budget movie made is to direct it in my head.
So, yes, absolutely. I think it would make an excellent action flick if the mythology is condensed, but to really track and develop the reveals, the twists, the characters, like any long novel, it requires a TV series to unpack it all. I left so much story on the cutting room floor, decades before the events of the book and years after, that there is plenty of fun material to play with, and characters to explore.
If someone wanted to adapt To Dust You Shall Return into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Curtis, Beth, and the other main characters, and why them?
I’ve long thought of Curtis as the weathered, weary killer Denzel plays in The Equalizer movies, or Man On Fire. You want me to dream cast it? I’m calling Denzel or Dave Bautista. Dave would physically embody the character, he’s a fantastic actor, and he wouldn’t overwhelm the role the way The Rock would as he’s almost too large for life to take on some roles. Just my opinion there, if The Rock calls obviously, I’d tell him that I know my role and will shut my mouth.
I initially imagined the Mayor as the gaunt, thin Matthew McConaughey we get in True Detective. Him or Tom Hardy (like I said, I’m dream-casting here).
For Beth, Chloe Grace Moretz. I’ve worked on this so long that she may have aged out of it, and she’s no stranger to working in worlds such as this.
I also think Beth’s father, Marcus, is a key cog in the story. I imagined him as Bryan Cranston from day one, and I stick with that pick. He’s a father that can hide secrets.
Finally, if someone enjoys To Dust You Shall Return, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one and not the other one?
The Heart Does Not Grow Back is tied to Dust in unexpected ways, if you want a more literary bent on genre material. The Escape Of Light is a YA love story, Fred style. Think The Fault In Our Stars, but with burns. I was burned as a kid, so I always needed to write a story about a burn survivor. It’s almost a rule. I got this book out of my system and I’m really thrilled with the results, but folks who love YA love stories typically won’t like the action-packed horror and dismemberment that Dust will provide.