MONSTER OF THE WEEK by Brita Sandstrom
My favorite TV show when I was in the third grade was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Listen. It was the 90s—I was a very well-looked-after child, but in terms of the media I took in, I was a latchkey kid. And in my parents’ defense, Buffy never scared me. I watched Buffy fight monsters every week. They spooked and thrilled me, but they didn’t keep me up at night. A lot of other stuff kept me up at night, because listen, it was the 90s and children’s movies were apparently some sort of psychological experiment being run by children’s media companies (how else do you explain The Secret of NIMH?), but vampires and werewolves never frightened me.
One monster was different, though. I was afraid even to think of it, like the memory was hot to the touch. Over the years, I’ve rewatched those old episodes many times, but I always, always skipped this one.
In this episode, our titular heroine, Buffy, who slays vampires (keep up), winds up in the hospital with the flu, and realizes the children there are being terrorized by a monster only sick people can see. But since no one but Buffy is sick, no one believes her. I was terrified of that monster—“Der Kinderstod” it’s called—in a way I couldn’t understand, an unease that felt like abruptly being aware of how close you are standing to a deep and sudden drop.
I recently rewatched the episode, “Killed by Death,” for the first time in twenty years. These days, I sometimes watch horror movies to relax (a fact surely unrelated to any of this), and some part of my brain was determined to prove I, a grown woman in my thirties, wasn’t afraid of Der Kinderstod anymore, no sir. In my elementary school memory, Buffy’s friends doubt her right up until the end, when she kills the monster entirely through her own ingenuity, the whole process dragging out for hours; in actuality, the others’ doubt of Buffy’s senses lasts maybe five minutes, and quick research proves her right and her friends help her find and destroy the monster of the week. It’s a quick-paced episode, an efficient little plot machine. It really isn’t very scary at all.
And, there, was the audible click of realization. The monster is never the real monster, is it?
I remember my outrage that no one believed Buffy, the sting of that betrayal. How many times had Buffy saved them, proven herself worthy of their trust. How could they?
The monster is never the real monster.
Kids have an acute sense of fairness, probably because they get to control so little of their own lives. Unfairness is constantly being inflicted upon them, and there’s usually nothing they can do about it. And what is writing, after all, if not a way to carve out a little corner of control in a universe of swirling chaos?
Because the point I have been shouting in a muffled little voice since I was eight is this: just because you cannot see something doesn’t mean it is not real. Only now as an adult can I see the footprints of mental illness stalking through my childhood, the anxiety and depression that hounded me through rooms.
(What do you have to be sad about? There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Look. Look, there’s nothing there.)
Like most writers, probably, I didn’t intend to write about what I wrote about. Hollow Chest began as an assignment for grad school, one I was woefully, hilariously behind on, and the reasons why I was having such trouble were things I could not touch, lest they burn me. I had to magic weeks’ worth of pages into being over the course of a weekend, and what I wrote came out of me like coughing up saltwater. My main character, Charlie, is being stalked by wolves no one else can see, wolves who ate his brother’s heart, wolves he has to bargain with, wolves he wants to run from, but can’t. Pain is a wormhole to childhood, and it turned out I was afraid of what I always had been, those same invisible monsters.
But the monster is never the real monster, is it?
I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what was happening to me as a kid, the fear and sadness I felt—sadness about what? Fear of what? And when I couldn’t explain, I eventually stopped trying to. The real monster I remembered was the fact of not being believed, of no one trying to understand that I was fighting something. No one else could see it, but it was real.
I had no particular hopes while writing Hollow Chest (besides, “Please, God, let it be finished, I am begging you”) (it was not finished) (it is about to be out on shelves and I am still not completely convinced that it is finished). But my hope now is simply that it helps give a name or a shape or even a vague outline to someone else’s fears, someone else’s pain.
I hope that a kid can point to it and say, “This, this is what it looked like.” Because, listen : I saw it, too.
About the Author
Brita Sandstrom is a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Hollow Chest is her first book. She lives with her family and a collection of cats in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can visit her online at www.britasandstrom.com
The Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota will host a Zoom launch event for Hollow Chest on Tuesday, June 8 at 6:30 PM CDT featuring Brita Sandstrom in conversation with Anne Ursu. You can register for the event here.
About the Book
Debut author Brita Sandstrom arrives with a sweeping, unforgettable historical ghost story of the darkness around and inside us, and the courage it takes to keep hope alive.
Charlie has been having nightmares. Eyes watching him in the night, claws on his chest, holding him down. His dreams have been haunted for years, ever since German bombs rained down on London, taking his father’s life, taking his city’s spirit, taking his beloved brother, Theo, off to war in France.
Now Charlie is left to take care of his grandpa Fitz while his mother works, waiting for the day when Theo will come home. And with World War II nearly won, that day is almost here. Grandpa Fitz warns Charlie that soldiers sometimes come back missing a piece of themselves, but Charlie isn’t worried. Whatever Theo has lost, Charlie will help him find it.
When Theo finally does return, though, he is cold and distant. But Charlie refuses to accept that the brother he knew is gone, and soon, he discovers the reason for his brother’s change: war wolves. These are terrifying ancient beasts who consume the hearts of those broken by grief.
The wolves have followed soldiers back home from the front. And if Charlie truly wants to save Theo, he’s going to have to find them and get his brother’s heart back. But can a heart that’s been eaten ever be replaced?
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