John McFarland | The Black Garden (Patrice Press)

St. Louis author John McFarland, a long-time writer of both Gothic and literary fiction, recently published his first novel, The Black Garden. I had a chance to sit down and talk with John prior to his upcoming reading at Subterranean Books in the Delmar Loop on October 29, 7-9 pm.

Can you tell us a little about The Black Garden—who are the characters, what is the story, and what’s the general tone of the novel?
The Black Garden is set in the year 1882, and the main character is Perdita Badon-Reed, a Boston woman nearing middle age. She doesn’t want to marry the guy she’s supposed to marry, so she gets a job teaching in an academy in a little town where her uncle is the parish priest (the town is called St. Odile and is based on St. Genevieve, MO). Once there, she realizes that the town is beset by an ancient horror which the townspeople have chosen to ignore as much as possible. She is moved to try to do something about it when a little girl she is close to is threatened by the horror.
The townspeople have made a bargain not unlike that of the citizens of ancient Athens, who were willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters to the Minotaur as tribute to Minos of Crete, in return for peace. In the case of Ste. Odile, the horror is an incubus who has been driven into a human host named Orien Bastide—who also owns everything in town, so basically everyone’s beholden to him for their prosperity. Also, his family has been there for centuries, and they’re so powerful no one wants to cross them.
Most horror fans are already familiar with vampires and werewolves but might need a little help here: what is an incubus? And why did you include one in The Black Garden?
An incubus is a type of demon which attacks women at night; the equivalent for men would be a succubus. The explanation for this belief, which dates to Roman mythology, is that it offers an interpretation of a physical state—which really occurs—in which people think they’re awake but they’re actually asleep. They feel a pressure on their chest and the presence of another being and they can’t move. Eventually (so the legend goes), the incubus will crush and kill the person. There’s also a sexual element to it; people feel a sexual threat or that they have been violated, sort of like some of the reports of alien abduction. I have experienced this state. I felt there was someone standing over me and that I couldn’t move, when in fact I was asleep. It’s frightening because you are helpless and can’t get away.
I decided to use an incubus in The Black Garden because I wanted to do something a little different—there are a lot of vampire stories out there already—and also because I wanted to use something which posed a more subtle threat.
The novel’s central character is a woman named Perdita Badon-Reed who leaves her home and the chance to make a good marriage in order to teach at a girls academy and pursue a career as a sculptor. That sounds like a very liberated woman for 1882—did you have any particular model in mind for this character?
Perdita would have been very unusual for 1882. I’ve always been interested with the types of lives led by creative women like the painter Artemisia Gentileschi in the 17th century and the sculptor Harriet Hosmer in the 19th. Perdita wants to lose herself and get away, and she does so secretly, with the aid of her uncle who can get her a job. She doesn’t tell anyone, even her best friend, because an artistic career would have been disapproved of, and she knows her friend will try to talk her out of it.
The name Perdita is unusual, or at least it’s unusual today. Did you have any particular reason for choosing that name, which (if my memories of high school Spanish are correct) means “the lost one”?
Perdita does indeed mean the lost one. I chose it in part because it’s the name of a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays (The Winter’s Tale), and there are lots of Shakespearean allusions in The Black Garden. There was a famous British actress (Mary Robinson) known as Perdita, and I also just liked the way the name sounded. In fact, I picked a lot of names for people and places in the novel based on their sound.
Did you have any particular audience in mind when writing The Black Garden?
Well, the audience for fiction seems to be mostly women, and I wanted to write something historical, so you could say that one audience is brainy women. But it’s also for anyone with an interest in classic 19th century horror stories or who has an interest in art history or Mississippi valley history.
The Black Garden draws on a long history of Gothic and horror fiction. Are there any authors who particularly influenced you in writing this novel?
Certainly Mary Shelley, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker, as well as H.P. Lovecraft. My writing in this book has been compared stylistically to Lovecraft (in a good way!). I deliberately adopted a 19th-century operatic tone to the book, with a sort of a recitative and aria form. My goal was to be subtle and underplayed most of the time, but also to build up to passages of heightened emotions.
There’s a lot about the early history of Missouri in this novel, including the town of St. Genevieve, which I think will particularly appeal to readers in the area. Can you say a little more about that and why you decided to set some of the novel in this area?
I have family connections in St. Genevieve going back to the 1750s. I have a distant ancestor who had been orphaned in Pennsylvania during an Indian raid and was brought to Kaskaskia Island as a baby, where a parish priest bought him for five barrels of whiskey. He was raised as a Frenchman at the Fort de Chartres in the Illinois territory and moved to St. Genevieve, where he became an early patriarch of the town.
I’ve always been interested in the history of the region and wanted to find a way to use this information. I did lots of library research (about 7 years worth, in fact) at several libraries including the downtown branch of the St. Louis Public Library, the Grey Eagle River Museum in South County and the Missouri Historical Society. I looked up all kinds of things: how many riverboat explosions were there in a year, how did they rescue people after a riverboat accident, how did they do public executions, how were taxes collected and so on.
I see you have a long career writing short stories. Are there any particular highlights you’d like to mention?
My most successful story was my first: “One Happy Family,” which I wrote in 1983-1984. It was published in the Twilight Zone Magazine and included in the anthology called A Treasury of American Horror Stories, which also included stories by Stephen King and people like that. It was also made into a movie (by students at the University of Delaware), and I found on a website that it had been selected as the favorite story by a reading group is Iceland. As far as literary magazines go, I’m particularly proud of publishing two stories in River Styx (published here in St. Louis) and one in Tornado Alley.
I believe this is your first novel—were there any particular reasons you decided to try writing in a longer form? And do you have anything you’re working on now that you’d like to mention?
Short stories are great and that’s the most comfortable form for me. But no one takes much notice of them, and I wanted to tackle a big project—it was sort of a life goal. So I wrote this novel. I also wrote a mainstream novel called The Plank Road, which I’m currently revising. It’s set in the Depression and is about lead miners who also play minor league baseball at night. I also plan to write a sequel to The Black Garden, which will be set ten years later than the current novel.
Could you tell us a bit about the process of getting this novel published?
I found an agent online (about 20 agents passed on representing me), and we had several near-misses including almost getting accepted by Harper’s. Then my agent’s husband got sick and she left the business, and I found my publisher in Patrice Press, located in Salt Lake City, UT. Their specialty is history books and they don’t usually do fiction, but they already had several books about St. Genevieve and decided to take this novel on as it has a very historical bent.
The author always gets the last word: is there anything you’d like to add about The Black Garden, people you’d like to thank, advice for budding authors, etc.?
My advice is to become part of a community of writers so you can bounce ideas off people and get objective feedback. When you’re too close to your own writing, it can be difficult to see it clearly. I didn’t do that for my first novel, and I wish I had.
I’d like to thank David Lancaster, the editor of Where magazine, who was a big help with the editing and was also very enthusiastic about the book. Elizabeth Donald was also very helpful with the editing, and the staff at all the libraries were great when I was doing my research. I’d also like to thank Julie Lally, who’s been helping me with the publicity.
You can learn more about John S. McFarland and The Black Garden from the book’s web site and the publisher’s web site Copies of The Black Garden can be ordered from Patrice Press by phone at (435) 833-9168 or by email at


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