Several years ago I read a book by Roméo Dallaire about the Rwandan genocide titled, Shake Hands With the Devil. Dallaire is the former Force Commander of UNAMIR, the peacekeeping force deployed by the U.N. to Rwanda prior to the genocide. He wrote the book about his experience during that atrocity, and how his failure to stop it affected him (it left him with severe PTSD that led to his medical dismissal from the Canadian Forces and almost killed him). It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking book written by a man struggling with guilt and trauma. If you think you know horror because you read Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, you need to sit down with Shake Hands With the Devil. See how it shakes you in a way evil cosmic clowns and squidfaced monsters never will.
He followed Devil up with a book about his post-Rwandan humanitarian mission, titled, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children.
As you can surmise from the title, it’s about the atrocity of using child soldiers to fight in war. And as you can also gather on your own, the truth at the heart of it is, you can take a child and create a vicious killer, because children are malleable, eager to please, and don’t have the same kind of physical or psychological capability to resist indoctrination that adults do. Armed with a machete or an AK-47 and properly indoctrinated, that child is a killer. But, when you shoot that soldier, he is a child again. Because emotionally, he’s always been one. War is one kind of horror. And destroying childhood itself in order to wage it, is another—an atrocity piled on top of tragedy.
It got under my skin like very few books do. Even the title haunted me. I wanted to write something to explore the idea of this duality between killer and child. But I didn’t want to just redo what Dallaire had already done. Not that this isn’t an oft-explored concept in dark fiction. From Children of the Corn, to Village of the Damned, and The Brood, this idea isn’t alien to horror. But the concept of real innocence lingering underneath the monstrosity of killer children doesn’t get enough exploration, in my opinion.
Another title occurred to me as I was contemplating the story taking shape in my head. Who Can Kill a Child?, or rather, ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?
The movie itself is not bad, as a predecessor to Children of the Corn,1 it has a decent amount of suspense, and comes close to transgression, though by the end, it’s pretty by the numbers.2 The setting, however, inspired me again, and I came up with the idea for my titular Ciudad de los Niños, the City of Children.
I moved the setting from Spain to Mexico, and wrapped in my interests in both the narco-occult murders in Matamoros in 1989 and the continuing phenomenon of secuestro exprés.
I wanted to create a very blurred line between atrocity and empowerment. I wanted to explore the idea of child soldiers, but in a way that hinted at the adversarial relationship between adults and children. If it’s adults that destroy childhood by forcing them to be soldiers, what if someone amassed an army of children for the sake of protecting them from adults?
I like moral ambiguity. I like stories with no clear good guy, that make the reader really examine who they’re rooting for and why. I got a rejection for this story from one publisher, the relevant portion of which read: “we never understood why we should care about a dirtbag narrator.” Why indeed? Because the narrator is an unequivocal dirtbag. But he’s a dirtbag who loves his kid. Or thinks he does anyway. It’s up to you, the reader to determine which way love flows in this story, and whether the narrator’s daughter is better off with him or with my stand in for Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte. I’m not holding your hand along this path. I’m just pointing the way.
La Bestia awaits you in Ciudad de los Niños.
The Woods Have Been Waiting
NEXT STOP: Easter Eggs
1 The movie ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? came out in 1976, while King didn’t publish his story until ’77 (though he may have written it earlier—I don’t know), and the movie adaptation wasn’t released until 1984.
2 It’s based on a novel titled, El juego de los niños (The children’s game), though I haven’t read it.