Douglas Wynne is the author of the dark fantasy and horror novels The Devil of Echo Lake, Steel Breeze, and Red Equinox. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son just a stone’s throw from H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham. You can visit him at his website or follow him on Twitter.
Hero. The word implies ability. Heroine even more so because she usually has societal obstacles to overcome. In the science fiction and fantasy genres our heroes and heroines are so often amped up with super-human abilities that it can seem like a culture completely at odds with disability. And yet, we all sort of intuitively understand that while heroic stories are attractive and empowering outlets for the disenfranchised, we can’t take those stories seriously when the protagonists are too perfect, too powerful. Every hero needs his kryptonite for us to become invested in the drama. We crave points of contact, and those are usually the hero’s weaknesses. His broken parts, her missing pieces—the traumas and atrophied areas that make them human.
We’ve seen the trope of dead or absent parents or guardians in almost every modern hero myth. There it is within the first few minutes of any adventure movie, and—I must confess—there it is in the opening lines of my latest novel. But it endures for a reason: by disabling our young heroes, by removing the security and support from their lives, we force them to become resourceful, to navigate the adventure by their own lights.
If you look to mythology and shamanism, you find a recurring theme of sacred illness. The child chosen by the invisible powers to be initiated by the local shaman is first singled out through a period of terrible sickness, a brush with the Other Side. This near death experience marks the chosen one with a worldview that qualifies him or her to become a healer of others.
So it’s in the depth of our disability, our vulnerability, that we discover the secret of our power.
The shaman is part healer, part artist, and part guardian—interpreter of the invisible and often unpredictable forces that threaten to overwhelm the tribe. The shaman is attuned to the cycles and rhythms of the cosmos and of the psyche. Microcosm and macrocosm. As above so below.
Becca Philips, the protagonist of my cosmic horror novel, Red Equinox, wouldn’t think of herself as a shaman or heroine, but her own disability and artistic way of looking at the world sets her on the path to becoming both. An art photographer and urban explorer, Becca suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Both her art and her brain chemistry make her sensitive to the balance of light and darkness in the world around her. And when she discovers fractal tentacles emerging in her photos of abandoned buildings in flood-ravaged Boston, she is drawn into a struggle to understand and confront monsters from a parallel dimension.
You could argue that all disabled people know what it’s like to do daily battle with monsters that most of us can’t see. Or choose not to. Maybe compassion is the superpower of the able, granting us the perception of a hidden world.
In writing Becca, I was surprised to find a reservoir of strength and determination that belies her disabling depression. She rises to meet the challenges that befall her with the inheritance of a talisman in a city on the brink of apocalypse.
I modeled Becca in part after my wife, who has struggled with seasonal depression for as long as I’ve known her. There were times during the writing when I worried that Becca might be too capable, and that readers who also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder might scoff at her heroism. Shouldn’t she be curled up in fetal position under a blanket?
But I also thought about those times when my wife surprised me by taking hold of her own power with both hands and, lifted on a wave of adrenaline, overcame great obstacles to achieve things like a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, or the founding of her own business.
People with psychological or other internal disabilities are often expected to just get over it. You don’t hear people telling someone in a wheelchair to “snap out of it,” but people with depression are often expected to. And when the disability has an ebb and flow, or a cycle tied to the seasons, it’s easy to get used to the more functional side of a loved one and forget that with the fading of the light, their chemistry is going to change, and the strength you’ve become accustomed to in them is going to wane.
Becca faces her invisible monsters on the cusp of that tipping point: the autumn equinox. She worries about whether or not she has the courage, strength and energy to face the monsters in her past and present. She is haunted by the possibility that her family history of mental illness will undermine her best efforts and unravel her. She grapples with the question of whether or not she has agency over her genetic trajectory.
Do any of us have the ability to defy the gravity of our brain chemistry? To break free of the cycles we’ve worn down into a familiar rut with each lap around the sun?
Do characters have it in them to surprise their authors?
They do. And Becca Philips did. But… I like to think that heroism isn’t necessarily about overcoming our special needs. It may in some cases lead to that, but I believe that like the shaman’s apprentice, we find the spark of our heroism, the mark that identifies and ultimately empowers us, in the wounds that set us apart.