Greg Ruth is best known for bringing his artistic talents to Dark Horse’s “Conan: Born on the Battlefield” and “Freaks of the Heartland.” “The Lost Boy” is Ruth’s debut graphic novel for Scholastic Books, featuring gloriously dark illustrations delivering the sort of chills you haven’t felt since you stayed up late reading “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” as a kid. As the writer and artist, he marries a found-footage style narrative with artwork that is both haunting and well-paced.
In the story, Nate isn’t looking forward to the prospects of moving to a crumbling mansion on the edge of the woods in a new town, even if it does mean having his own bedroom. Nate is resistant to the changes ahead of him, but his fate is waiting for him whether he likes it or not. When he finds a tape recorder hidden away under his floorboards, Nate is immediately drawn into the musings of Walt, a boy who disappeared and became the stuff of urban legend. As Nate listens to Walt’s tales of a magical world existing below the surface of every day life, he begins to realize the creatures Walt describes aren’t legends at all — they are real. And now they are coming for him.
Ruth spoke with CBR News about “The Lost Boy,” diving into what it takes to write horror for kids, as well as his inspirations, from “Twin Peaks” to the doll parts he unearthed in his own backyard.
CBR News: What was important to you about telling a horror story starring kids that’s made for kids?
Greg Ruth: This is an area I am particularly interested in — horror has gotten a bad rap overall (much of it is deserved) for being clumsy and terrible, but I think it really is something kids have a necessary and interesting relationship with. I grew up on a healthy diet of old monster movies, the “Creature Double Features” on Sundays, so I have long loved these kinds of stories. But elegantly done horror can be a real thrill for kids and a catharsis for them too.
Kids are tiny, mostly powerless people who live in an incomprehensible world run by giants and that world changes and expands for them daily. They relate to spooky stuff more than most adults because they can feel it more acutely. I truly believe horror and scary stories give agency to them in how to process what scares them. It provides a safe playground for them to engage in these issues whether they’re cloaked ghostly garb, Frankenstein face or kaiju monster suits. But you have to be careful with horror for kids too, because they are kids after all — each kid is totally different. Kids need to feel safer sooner. They might love the scare, but only when they know they’re safe afterwards. This is true of adults too, but with kids the window for easing them back to the ground is shorter. Otherwise it’s not fun anymore and they feel disempowered.
Horror stories are famous for having very clear rules — do these rules change when you’re telling a story for kids?
Horror for kids has an automatic set of rules that some mistake as limitations. I like limitations — they require me to think of ways around them. Most horror fails at its most essential goal — to be scary. Horror stories are really thrillers or suspense narratives with a darker or supernatural edge to them. If you think about it this way then a lot of the tropes that have defined the genre — the gore and murder — seem gratuitous. Kids lit demands many of these crutches get kicked away, and I think that’s a fun challenge. Instead of gore carrying the load for you, you now have to earn the moment through building the tension, through mood and a more sophisticated narrative approach. The limitations require a more thoughtful and elegant approach to the storytelling and that always makes for better results.
Kids are at a very receptive age when they begin their reading careers and that requires sensitivity to both the trust they bring and the stewardship of the stories you’re telling. Do it right and you can nab a horror reader for life. Screw it up and you can lose them for just as long. It’s important to provide a playground for kids to experience something scary and then get past it so they can be brave when they meet the spooky closet again later. And like most of us who don’t want to think about what’s behind that door… we really kind of do. We put our hands over our faces but leave a crack to see through because what we imagine to be there is always worse than what is actually there. So with “The Lost Boy” I wanted to put these kids into situations that were overwhelming and frightening, and then let them get out of it on their own. The adults in this story don’t always get it right.
The moment you realize the giants running the world are fallible is a spooky one emotionally, but it can be powerful and enabling as well. As long as an author provides the supportive landing from a fearful revelation, and doesn’t just get caught up in the thrill of the scary moment, scary stories can be a real tool for honing one’s personal agency at any age.
What is it about urban legends — like Walt’s mysterious disappearance fifty years ago — that will always be fascinating no matter how much time passes?
Every town, building or block has its own local horror tale. I grew up in a middle class suburban prefab neighborhood in Texas in the 1970s and 80s and we were surrounded by them — whether it was Flat-Hand Sam who wore a dirty white three-piece suit and carried flowers past our windows late at night, or the giant snapping turtle that lived in the ditch at the edge of the neighborhood and came out after hard rains to bite your feet off. I believed entirely in every one of these. The longer these sorts of stories are passed down, the bigger and more powerful they become.
All of us are tellers of stories, and recipients of them. It’s the first thing we do when we meet each other — we exchange the short story of who we are, where we came from and what we do in narrative terms. Urban legends are different in that they are tales we all share, but no one knows where they came from. They are the stories that tell us about where we live. No one ever knows who starts the legends, and they are almost always completely rooted in the place they come from. So who’s to say urban legends aren’t these places telling us the story of themselves?
Having Walt become this urban legend for the town — while we as readers are privy to the secret truth of his life through the tapes — was something irresistible to play around with. And that dynamic between how Tabitha sees him and how Nate empathizes with him was a great crucible for tension and drama.
The Kingdom is a rich, complete world and we aren’t given all of the details and context about its creation. For example, we hear about The Great Accord, but you don’t dive into what that is, exactly. You trust your reader to just go with it. How did you decide which elements were included in the exposition?
As a writer you never assume your audience is stupid. They came to the door and you want to let them in, so you have to build tangible real worlds that reflect how we experience our daily lives in some basic ways. That means spending time giving backstory to as much as possible even if it is never expressed on the page, because its absence will be felt and that saps energy from everything else. Everyday we walk by people and places that have an unseen history to them and makes our world a richer place, even when we take it for granted. When you’re creating a world in a story I think you need to do the same, and if you’re creating a whole new fantasy world, then you get to do this from the ground up. It’s a lot more work, but the result can be incredible.
So much of “The Lost Boy,” especially within the lands of The Kingdom, are drowning in back story. Every locale in the Kingdom exists on a map I created and each area has its own history, laws and events that inform its character. Each character has a long history of how they might relate to another character based on tribal ethics or experiences we may never know. I have that back-story all figured out, and can go into it in long detail, but for the sake of the narrative I only address it when it moves the story forward. All that backstory needs to be succinctly evident within the narrative or be part of the plot or it’s just noise. The right balance has to be struck.
Comics are an exercise in acute brevity. As a friend of mine once wisely said, each panel should tell us something new. But it’s a visual medium, so I also get to draw impossible places and show them in a way instantly that would take prose pages to achieve. It was important to me that The Kingdom is as real a place as the town, and to find the right balance so the lack of previous experience with the Kingdom becomes an asset. I wanted every step into those woods to answer one question but always leave the reader with two new ones.
You can’t forget that the place your story is happening is a character, too. The Enterprise is a character as much as Arrakis is in “Dune” or Middle Earth or the town of Twin Peaks. If we remember to give them a story and history then they become places the reader wants to return and wants to learn more about. It’s one of the most exciting parts about creating new worlds — you get to play God, and the magic comes when that invented world starts telling you what it wants and what it needs. Then you enjoy your own new world as a visitor too. You go back and be Dorothy again instead of being stuck behind the curtain as the Wizard. To me, when that happens, it means you’re doing it right.
You include some chilling images — a living doll, tree monsters, shadowy woods filled with warrior insects — where did the aesthetic inspirations come from?
Everywhere and everyplace. As I said earlier, I grew up gobbling up scary movies and old stories. I loved monster and alien films and all of that reverberates when I get a chance to swim in those waters as an adult.
One of the characters — The Vespertine — comes out of old stories of trees in haunted forests and its design derives from alien abduction mythology. When I was younger and heard that at any given time there are equal amounts in weight of humans to ants on this planet, it just blew my mind. That apartment buildings are like insect hives and the way we respond to leadership can be seen in the way bees or ants respond to their masters, etc. So the Buglings come from that place and the notion that even though they are small, they are numerous and maybe we’re doing their bidding on this earth rather than the other way around.
The dolls and toys come of what I’ve dug out of the ground behind my old Victorian house in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts — the riverbeds are lined with debris where folks here used to throw their trash back in the 1800s and on. I’ve dug out old doll heads, porcelain hands and statuettes. I’ve found old linen bodices in the walls of the house, and other buried toys still smiling through the years of dust waiting to be found again. Even the Gate Trees behind Walt’s house in the story comes from a pair of weirdly knotty old trees down the road from where I live. So much of this book comes from just living here, or maybe I came to live here because of all this stuff. Hard to know sometimes.
Your book is primarily narrated by found audio from a tape recorder and is reminiscent of the trend of found footage horror movies. It’s so difficult to convey audio in a written medium, and you executed it well — what kind of considerations went into that?
The funny thing is I started developing this story about a year before “The Blair Witch Project” came out and this found footage rage hit. Initially it was going to be the transcriptions via comics of the reels as if Nate discovered them in the old tree house before it was demolished or something — I can hardly remember now. I have a reel-to-reel recorder just like Walt’s and even recorded some interviews with it to get a sense of it. Ultimately it was a little too cute as a device and when found-footage grew into a genre unto itself, it was better to push away from it a bit. The novelty wore off quickly and I’m glad it happened like this or I’d never have the chance to build a better story.
Some of this also came out of how it was developed at Scholastic — they loved Walt’s story but were keen to find out more about Nate and also tie it into a present day story that would relate to present day kids. Once we started building a response around the finding of those tapes… the whole world exploded.
The primary origin of all this was my favorite fictional audiophile, Agent Cooper from “Twin Peaks.” I remember being enraptured by this show as it aired when I was in college and wondering about his adventures as a kid. I decided to write my own version. Once you start letting the story take you someplace, you never know where it will go.
You left the ending open to continuing the story. Do you have plans for a follow-up book?
There are two more volumes in mind that are companion chapters of the same larger final conclusion, and I have tons of maps, compendiums and side stories I could see done. So I guess the answer to that is yes. Whether we get to do them or not depends on how well this one sells, but even if we never return to conclude or answer these questions we made sure this book had a proper arc that holds up on its own accord.
I like my stories to have this quality — there are very few stories I’ve written that don’t have seeds of more to come in them. I don’t want the reader to feel like the story’s over and finished when they get to the last page, but rather feel like it’s them that’s leaving the world and while they’re off doing the dishes or going to school, it’s continuing on without them. It makes it feel like a place to come to, a real physical thing.
Even if we live to be a thousand years old, no story is ever really wrapped up. There’s strength and power in the bittersweet feeling when you’re at the end of a book you love. We want endings as readers — it’s built into us. We have a beginning and an end, so we take comfort in stories that reflect this. We don’t want our end to mean the end of the world, just our part in it. Even if you’re a kid and aren’t yet aware in some way of this sense of mortality, you still understand it. It makes sense and it feels natural. So I don’t believe in tying everything up in tidy little bows — the effect of that is reductive to the world you’ve created.
I live in an old Victorian house in a small rural town and I love the feeling that there are a hundred or more years of history in the building, as much as I adore the idea there could easily be a hundred more years beyond our time here. I’m just part of the bigger, longer story of this place. I’m a caretaker rather than an owner. It reminds me of something I heard about painting while in art school, “No painting is ever finished; it just stops in interesting places.” The best stories are like that, too.
“The Lost Boy” goes on sale August 28. For more from Greg Ruth, visit www.gregthings.com