Each Halloween, Brett Schwaner locks himself in his house and grabs a horror story off of the bookshelf. It might be a volume of the Walking Dead, a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, or a remastered classic of Dracula. He anticipates the occasion each year, but this Halloween it’s his turn to frighten readers.
Although he’s written screenplays and newspaper articles (including contributing to Antigravity), Schwaner has always wanted to write horror. After he moved back to Louisiana from Portland, Oregon, Schwaner recruited Keith Hogan, a fellow horror fan and artist, whom he knew from the pre-Katrina punk scene in New Orleans, to collaborate on his idea for a story: 5th grade girls who strike a deal and end up with more than they bargained for. Through several twists and turns, that story became Guignol: A Tale of Escalating Horror. The illustrated novel, both Schwaner and Hogan’s publishing debut, was released this past September.
“We wanted to tell a horror story that hasn’t been told before.” Schwaner says, “I was watching old Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark episodes with my sister. We thought to ourselves, ‘ Why isn’t there something like this for adults?’ There are movies like Let the Right One In, but more commonly adult horror stories focus on adults.”
Guingol, titled after a French theatre genre where every character dies, follows Maelynn Maghee as she enters a new art school, eager to make friends. Another new classmate, Lily Langtree, immediately attaches herself to Maelynn and some other fifth grade girls. The new group of friends auditions for a play written by the tyrannical drama teacher Madam Jeanette—Guignol—loosely based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Much to Maelynn’s nervous surprise, Lily convinces Jeanette to cast them in the lead roles, despite being so young. Slowly, the school falls under Lily’s strange influence, and she uses that power to tempt Maelynn and the others with an offer for great power. Maelynn and the others accept. An unnerving transformation begins and they start craving something chewier than popularity and respect.
Guignol’s characters are not unlike Claudia in Interview with the Vampire, or Miles and Flora in the Innocents. But Maelynn, Lily, and others are the focus of the plot, not just ancillary characters. The majority of the horror in Guignol revolves around this group of girls. “There is a greater amount of tension in horror stories when the characters are too young, in above their head, and have to face horrible things. When I started writing this story, I wanted something that gut-wrenching and I couldn’t think of anything more jarring than innocent kids eating each other.”
Hogan’s illustrations add an eerie level of suspense. The vivid autumn colors and his renditions of the characters are expressive without being overly indulgent. His illustrations function to enhance pivotal moments in the story: some of them create suspense and mood, while other, more gory, pictures help punctuate the written scenes. While not a graphic or traditional novel, the words and images go a long way in roping the reader into Maelynn and Lily’s world.
Guignol is a solid debut from Schwaner and Hogan. Maybe it will find its way onto your bookshelf, to be picked up on Halloween, when you want to shut yourself in your room and read a scary story. Just double check the locks first.
Brett Schwaner and Keith Hogan will be signing copies of Guignol: A Tale of Escalating Horror at Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Store and Undead Con at the Hilton Garden Inn on Friday, October 30th, as well as the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on Saturday, October 31st. For more info, check out readguignol.com