Our newest novella is Qarinah of the Valley by Husni Totah. Qarinah is an updated dark fairy tale-like story about an ancient evil plaguing a town in Palestine. What struck me about the book is the horrific imagery, use of traditional tales in a new way, and the insight the book provides into a foreign culture.
The author is a first generation Palestinian-American. He grew up in the melting pot of diversity in San Leandro, California, and travels to the Middle East every couple of years ever since he was a child. He is fluent in Arabic (the language in which he originally wrote Qarinah of the Valley) and partially fluent in Hebrew. While attending high school, he was “accidentally placed into honors English,” where he developed a passion for reading and writing short stories and poetry. His first short story publication was in The Horror Zine, and he later self-published a novel, Planting Eden.
The following is an interview with Husni about his new book, which I am excited to publish through Muzzleland Press.
What is the book about?
Qarinah of the Valley is about a young girl named Raja Al Layl who has recently lost her brother. Left only with the mystery behind his death, and the death of her other two siblings, Raja continues her move towards adulthood alone and spiritually deprived, without any explanation for life and loss. After the year of her 14th birthday, after she culturally becomes a young woman, she starts seeing a valley of fire. Vivid hallucinations that soon become all too real. Raja starts seeing a burning woman that calls her name and hunts for her down. This woman stalks Raja late at night, while the girl sleeps. Raja begins feeling trapped in a schizophrenic hold, and soon cannot tell what is real. As this mysterious woman and her flames get closer and closer to seizing her, Raja starts asking more questions. She notices that there are more missing children, and discovers that there is something wrong in the town in which she has grown up.
All in all the book is about good and evil, deception and faith. Qarinah is about finding yourself in this world, and how one’s perception of life changes from childhood into adulthood.
What inspired you to write the book?
In the Middle East, we hear a lot of stories about people going through sleep paralysis where they are awake but they can’t move. Where many complain of someone sitting on their chest at night. We also hear a lot of stories of how very young children go to sleep and never wake up. Many look for a guiding source of reason, and in third world countries where education is limited, religion is used as the most common explanation.
Some of these “Wives’ Tales” were explanations when science and the medical field was very deprived. Today, there are many scientific explanations, for example, the infants passing in their sleep could be contributed to SIDS.
The true inspiring push for this tale was brought to mind when my grandfather experienced sleep paralysis.
How does your upbringing relate to the book?
I always felt different, not fitting in here nor there. Like Raja in the story, I often felt lost, alone, scared, and confused. I have been through all these emotions growing up, lost between two cultures, religions, and with different outlooks on the world.
There is an old phrase that I have heard in my travels that goes, “A wise man in the land of the crazy is insane.” There is no such thing as deviance. What is wrong in one society could be normal in another. Raja’s experiences of going through these unwanted visions make her feel even more lost and alone.
My upbringing, like the book, is just the search – the travels and understandings of different absolute opinions.
In the end, life is the search that will take you to the path you need to travel, the comfort of being ready to move on. The book is about the true search for the meaning of life.
Are you a person of faith? How does religion tie into this work? How can religion tie into the horror genre or writing in general?
Yes, I am a person of much faith. In a way, religion unlocks a whole new acuity on fears, and certain superstitions. Religion ties into horror because people see what they want to see, and religion to some is the lens through which they look to understand the world, especially when it comes to human fear.
I love faith in writing! It is a powerful tool of knowledge and insight into one’s thoughts. Readers can follow the trail of the writer’s feelings and imagination. I believe writing is just like art. When you look at a painting, many ask what do you see? They want the individual to guess what the artist has meant, what is the story behind his/her work. But the individual will never naturally see or understand the artist’s true intention. The individual only sees what they want to see and how certain objects, painting styles, and color is perceived by them. You see what you want to see, same in writing.
What is something new that you’re bringing to the horror genre with this book?
I am bringing in a new type of culture to the horror genre, at least new to the western world. I am also bringing a different view of what people would call ghosts, poltergeists, demons or exorcisms. A different angle of superstition that many probably have never seen as an explanation before this point.
Who should read this book?
Anybody looking to learn something new, and is willing to expand his or her horizons. There are many horror movies today made in America that have been taken from movies overseas, such as The Grudge, The Uninvited, The Ring, etc. New tales open up new horizons, allowing us to look through the eyes of the culture from which they came. When someone reads this book, I want them to go searching and excavating for different views on horror, and understand what horror is to Middle Eastern cultures.
What are your influences as a writer?
Certain human behavior, and physiological tendencies. In a way, even if people don’t understand each other, emotions are read the same way in every culture. I love letting my mind wander and I love living in my imagination.
Writers that have an effect on my writing would be Christopher Pike, Nicholas Sparks, and Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker. Stephen King’s IT is one of the most influential novels and films in my work. How innocent children could unite to fight a powerful, eternal fear. An understanding between a Jew, an African-American, an overweight child, a stutterer, a four-eyed smart mouth, an anxious child, and a poor young girl. They all could not fit in to the society they were brought up in, but their diversity unites them together as a powerful whole.
What’s next for you as a writer? What are you working on now?
To continue writing stories and explore the intersection of Middle Eastern culture and American culture. I am currently working on a new novel that deals with two brothers who are first generation Arab-Americans growing up in Oakland, raised by an abusive father.
Qarinah of the Valley is currently available here.