What if a person’s love of reading grew to be such a desperate, all-consuming obsession, it literally became life-threatening? When I sat down to write The Reading Lessons, it was this one wiggly little thought that got me tapping away at my keyboard.
Parents, teachers, the fine people at Goodreads–they all tell us that reading is a wonderful thing. But what if it wasn’t a wonderful thing? What if the soul-enriching effects of true blue book-love pushed beyond the point where the experience was a thing of beauty and transformed it instead into something monstrous and altogether volatile? Is it possible to love books too hard?
It is in Hadley and Lucinda’s world.
Before I envisioned it as a novel, The Reading Lessons was a five thousand word short story that I was fortunate to have published in Son and Foe Magazine. It’s early life was big fun as people seemed to enjoy the story and/or be greatly disturbed by it. The experience taught me many important writing and reading lessons, and the story ended up on the preliminary ballot for a Bram Stoker Award.
Around this same time, several different novel concepts started bumping and banging into each other on the inside of my over-cluttered skull, yet I found myself returning again and again to the idea of a romance with books gone wrong. The short story touches briefly on the relationship between a young household servant and the rich girl who lives in the bedroom upstairs.
Set in the South during the 1920s, the hours spent in reading lessons gradually begin to breach social barriers as Hadley and Lucinda act out stories in anxious whispers behind closed doors. But as the pair age, they become more and more frustrated with their inability to take the relationship outside the family library, and these stolen afternoons develop into something much more dangerous. Soon, lynching isn’t the only thing to be feared.
Alas, when I decided to turn the short story into a novel, these reckless risky reading lessons became a torrid life-long affair. Swept up by the idea of books providing a unifying force strong enough to close the gap between race and class, I wanted to see where this frenzied search for forbidden literary passion would lead.
To make a proper start of it, I dove head first into a great and dusty pile of banned books. I love research! Imagine a world where kids have to sneak around to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It is in this repressed, pre-Victoria Secret catalog place in time that I decided to set my story.
Being a lover of naughty books, Lucinda introduces Hadley to a book club called READERS OF VIOLENT INDEFENSIBLE LUST AND EVIL, code name V.I.L.E. Banned or no, the books they find so lusty and evil are really pretty tame stuff, in the beginning. As time goes on, however, they become fixated on less savory tales, and these tales grow all the more unsavory when serving as a substitute for a love that must not be.
It’s the must not be part that really interested me. Books are just about my favorite thing in the world, so I would never wish to imply that they’re evil. Rather, it was my hope to use books as a basis for exploring the evils of prejudice. Everything that is sad or terrifying or wicked in this story stems from that.
The novel spans sixty years and endeavors to look at some of the changing and unchanging ways of prejudice throughout the century. I returned to my research and took a long look at everything from the Harlem Renaissance to the outsourcing of the servant class by the electric toaster.
In The Reading Lessons, there are two separate and distinct realities, the one that society creates, and the one that is of Hadley and Lucinda’s own making. Both of them have the potential to be deadly.
That said, I hope I haven’t completely scared you away from reading. Immortal Ink Publishing will be randomly choosing one person to receive a free copy of The Reading Lessons from the Release Notification sign-up list. Please consider signing up today.
In addition to The Reading Lessons, Carole Lanham is the author of The Whisper Jar, Cleopatra’s Needle, and twenty-four short stories. Visit her at carolelanham.com & horrorhomemaker.com