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Story Behind the Story #38: The Christmas Rat

The Christmas RatI have always had a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for Christ­mas. It was (and is) a big fam­i­ly hol­i­day; the gifts of course, both giv­ing and get­ting, the pret­ty tree, food, and fam­i­ly reunions. It takes place in the after-glow of my late Decem­ber birth­day, which I share with my twin sis­ter. New York City, where I was raised, always had a spe­cial feel around Christ­mas. There is too, not a small aspect, my annu­al read­ing of Dick­ens’ Christ­mas Car­ol. I am, in fact, quite sen­ti­men­tal about Christmas.

At some point, in the late 1990s, writer James Howe con­tact­ed me—as he did a num­ber of writers—concerning an anthol­o­gy of short sto­ries he was putting togeth­er: “Twelve sto­ries about loss and hope.” (It would even­tu­al­ly be pub­lished as The Col­or of Absence.) I decid­ed to see if I could write a Christ­mas sto­ry, some­thing I had always want­ed to try.

Some years pri­or to that moment, I met a curi­ous man. The house I was liv­ing in became infest­ed with fleas—cat prob­lem. I had to call an exter­mi­na­tor. He came, sealed up the house, and set off an insec­ti­cide bomb. Then we had to sit out­side for a cou­ple of hours while the bomb did its thing, and it was safe to re-enter.

We talked.

“How did you get into the exter­mi­na­tor busi­ness?” I asked.

“I was in the Viet­nam War,” he said. “A few tours. They real­ly taught me how to kill. When I got out I knew that if I did­n’t find a legit way to kill, I was going to be in trou­ble. I became an exterminator.”

This man became the mod­el for Anje Gabrail, (The angel Gabriel) the exter­mi­na­tor in The Christ­mas Rat, who gives my young pro­tag­o­nist, Eric, a dif­fer­ent way to expe­ri­ence Christmas—and rats. More­over, what I began as a short sto­ry, became (to my own sur­prise) a stand-alone novel­la, a scary, tense, story—which I thought might appeal to those who want­ed to step away from the more tra­di­tion­al, sen­ti­men­tal Yule­time tale, good as a Christ­mas read-aloud for a class of cyn­i­cal sixth graders.

A fable? An alle­go­ry? Maybe just a creepy sto­ry about what it feels like to be alive—really alive—on Christmas.

Not exact­ly “Mer­ry Christmas.”

(As for Jim Howe, I wrote anoth­er sto­ry for his anthology.)

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