This is a little piece I wrote about how my novella SKINSHIFT came to be. It’s actually a rather creepy story unto itself. This piece was published in DarkFuse magazine at SKINSHIFT’s original launch. SKINSHIFT was recently re-released by Crossroad Press and is available in ebook form at Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and more.
INSPIRATION STRIKES IN THE STRANGEST PLACES
What would you do? Would you stay—or would you be too scared?
Forget cruises, fancy destinations, and anything involving a commercial airplane. Give me a good road trip any day! My boyfriend and I have driven through quite a lot of the Lower 48 over the years, with a ton of pictures to prove it. We love to hit the back roads, to find the unusual and the weird. The weirder, the better.
In the summer of 2013, we were roaming through the middle of nowhere (Middle of Nowhere being one of our favorite spots), hunting for a campsite we’d seen on our map app—when we had cell reception, that is. By this point, there was no signal to be had, so we were off the grid, incommunicado, and hoping for the best.
After heading down a lonely dirt road for a while with nothing at all on either side, we saw what looked like a site amongst some trees and turned toward it. The remains of what appeared to be a cow skeleton lay scattered right at the turnoff. We pulled in farther, and lo and behold, there was a weathered old picnic table. And not another soul in sight. Not a vehicle. Not nothing. We’d found our place to stay for the night.
We started unloading the camping gear and getting the feel of the place. There were some menacing-looking biting flies around, but nothing too bad. We had a table (albeit a little the worse for wear), a fire ring, a nearby stream, trees surrounding the site, and what appeared to be an ancient wooden outhouse a short distance away at the end of a narrow path. And we had it all to ourselves. Cool.
Then we noticed the bonus feature: skulls. Skulls of all kinds. In all sorts of places.
There was one on the picnic table that appeared to be from a deer-like creature. Just sitting there on the far end, facing us, as if it’d been expecting guests. There was what appeared to be a horse skull and another sheep- or elk-like creature’s skull fastened to the birch next to the site. A bovine-looking skull lay on the ground on the other side of the picnic table. Hung on another tree were more elongated skulls, like wolf or fox. All the skulls were well-cleaned and in excellent condition.
While we were standing there trying to make sense of what we were seeing, something made a loud bang. I nearly jumped out of my skin before realizing it was just the outhouse door slamming. I hoped it was just due to wind.
But there wasn’t any wind.
Never did figure out why it picked right then to bang like that.
We stood very still and listened as hard as we could for sounds of humans, animals, anything. What if some survivalist type had taken over the site and we’d walked into what he considered home? We didn’t see any other sites nearby. This certainly wasn’t an organized and patrolled campground by any stretch of the imagination. But there was nothing more. Nothing but the buzz of some big black flies and the sound of the nearby creek coursing over stones and logs.
When had these skulls been left there? By whom? And why? We stalked around, looking for answers and finding none. Eventually, we decided whoever’d left them wasn’t going to join us—or at least we hoped not. So, after watching some bats flit around for a while, we settled in for the night. Nothing bad happened, and we left everything as we found it when we left the next day.
Of course, now a seed was planted in my head. How could I not use this as the germ for a new tale? At the time, I was still in the midst of writing BLOCKBUSTER, so I had to set the idea aside for a while. When I wrapped BLOCKBUSTER up in early 2014, I decided I wanted to do something shorter—a novella—and I just had to use the skulls in there somehow. And so began the concept for SKINSHIFT.
The skulls made an inspiring image, a great start, but they were only that: a start. How to build a story around them? What characters would I create, and what role would the skulls play? As I noodled it around in my head, a character came to mind. Dominic Donato. He’s not a good man. In fact, he’s a rather evil man. He begins the story alone, injured and abandoned in the Mojave Desert, seething with rage and hell-bent on revenge.
Dominic learns some powerful new skills, skills that enable him to survive his ordeal, to convert his rage into action, and the skulls figure into this. And that’s as much of a spoiler as you’re going to get out of me. I hope you enjoy SKINSHIFT, and that it makes you think twice the next time you’re driving along a desolate desert road and you see a vulture circling high in the air. You’d better watch out. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
As always, thank you for your support and thanks for reading!
Pleasant dreams—or not,
Lisa von Biela
Stella squinted through the smoky haze. Damn if her drink wasn’t empty again. She leaned forward and signaled Kevin the bartender to hit her up again.
He cast her an appraising look as he dried a beer mug. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough tonight?”
“No. Not hardly.”
“Well, I do. Go on home, Stella.”
This wasn’t the first time Kevin had cut her off. Knowing there was no use arguing with him, Stella slapped down a few bills and nearly knocked over the bar stool as she stood to leave. She glanced around to make sure no one noticed, then straightened her dress and slung her purse onto her shoulder.
Stilettos clattering, she tottered out of the bar and took a moment to steady herself against the building. Stood up again. She checked her watch. One in the morning. Bastard was supposed to meet up with her hours ago. Fortunately, she only had to negotiate a few blocks in her treacherous heels and she’d be home.
Late at night, this old neighborhood cleared right out. She suspected that’s why her dates stood her up so often. The buildings were tired and run down, so the area just didn’t look like a party mecca. Even her old girlfriends had deserted her. They didn’t feel safe coming here, they said.
Well, fuck them. Rent was cheap, and she could walk to whatever she needed—the corner grocery, the salon. The bar. She never had any problems.
She sighed and started walking home. It wasn’t all that far, but she wondered if she shouldn’t bring flat shoes with her next time. The cracks in the sidewalk were pure hell on her favorite stilettos.
Stella hardly noticed the flutter of soft wings as, one by one, they gathered, clinging to the eaves and awnings along her way. She left the spill of blue neon from the bar and ventured into the night, punctuated by the occasional street lamp. As she turned right at the corner, she saw a couple of the lights on that side had been smashed into oblivion.
The increased darkness made it harder to see the cracks in the sidewalk. Stella slowed her pace to avoid catching her heel in one. She had trouble focusing, and admitted to herself that she might have had a drink too many.
Partway down the block, her heel caught and she stumbled, falling against the side of a building. Pain flashed in her hand as she scraped the skin on the rough brick surface. She leaned against the building and pressed her injured palm to halt the bleeding.
A shadow emerged from the alley only a few feet ahead of her. Still rubbing her hand, she noticed it, but made no effort to flee.
“Need some help?” The harsh voice was not that of a Good Samaritan. The shadow moved onto the sidewalk and stepped toward her. As he drew nearer, she could see he looked solid and strong beneath his T-shirt and jeans. She could also see the menacing sneer on his face.
Shaking her hand to erase the last traces of pain, she stepped away from the building, pulled her purse strap back up onto her shoulder, and continued walking home, right toward the man in the shadows. As she was about to pass by him, he grabbed her arm and spun her toward him.
As the man began to drag her into the alley, they came. They came on soft wings, like leathery butterflies of the night. Nearly soundless, they leapt from the ledges where they’d hung and fluttered down.
He released Stella and screamed as a cloud of bats engulfed him. They swarmed; they closed in, avoiding his flailing arms with ease. Soon they all dug their claws and teeth into his clothes, his flesh.
Stella smiled as they lifted him up, up into the night.
When he was gone from sight, she straightened her dress, hitched her purse strap back over her shoulder, and continued on home.
She loved her neighborhood and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.
*Originally published by DarkFuse, July 2013.