In my previous world-building study, I noted the mix of normal and abnormal details to help create an other-wordly atmosphere in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Nature is the focus of such details, as someone or something is altering the environment.
Not all stunning stories have to dwell on the environment, however. Sometimes a writer can build the world with pieces of society, of the “normal” one experiences when moving about in daily life. In Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call, that normal is, well, pretty f’d up. But a girl like Nessa isn’t going to let the new normal of her world dictate when she dies: not the doctors who want to put her to sleep because she has polio, or the Sídhe who hunt all of Ireland’s adolescents in the Grey Land.
To look at how Ó Guilín builds this “normal,” I’m going to focus on the first ten pages of the novel.
Page 1: “She knows nothing about the Three Minutes yet.” This second sentence starkly contrasts the first line about Nessa turning ten and overhearing her parents argue. That’s a pretty bland normal–kids hear their parents argue all the time. But what is this “Three Minutes”? The fact it’s capitalized tells us that whatever this is, it’s important. It’s something worth arguing over. The rest of the page tells us parents are desperate to hide the Three Minutes from all children under ten. Why? We have to keep reading.
Page 2: “Oh for Crom’s sake.” What ten-year-old says this? Biff and Bash are eager to cram “poop,” “patoot,” and “pee pee water” into as many conversations as possible. I’ve heard a few kids Blondie’s age say “damn,” “shit,” and even one “bitch.” But never “Crom.” Does this have to do with where she lives? We don’t know the place yet.
“This is the first hint of the fear that will never leave her again; that will ruin her life as it has ruined the life of everybody in the whole country.” Okay, something is definitely wrong in this country. There’s a desperation among adults to keep kids as innocent as possible. Referencing pagan deities instead of the common God when cussing. The Three Minutes must be pretty nasty. But what is it? We have to keep reading.
Page 3: “She has never asked herself where all the teenagers were.” Now we’re genuinely unsettled. That’s a huge chunk of population utterly absent, and not just from a town, but from a country. What in Sam Eliot is going on?
“But if she refuses to let the doctors put her to sleep, this is the future: Sometime during her adolescence, the Sídhe will come for her, as they come these days for everyone. They will hunt her down, and if she fails to outrun them, Nessa will die. Before we were unsettled, but now we’re downright scared. Not only is euthanizing disabled children considered both logical and preferential to letting them live, but all children at some point must be prey to some group. If you don’t know what the Sídhe are, you can gauge by Ó Guilín’s choice of the phrase “they come these days for everyone” that this group is damn powerful. The chances of human beings having that kind of grip on an entire country’s psyche is possible, but something about Nessa’s “hysterical, horrified” screaming when told about the Three Minutes says we’re not dealing with our normal human villainy.
Page 4: “Everything is old and everybody is old too.” Nessa is at a bus station, where old folk stand guard, sell tickets, drive the bus, and so on. Ó Guilín points out Nessa and her friend Megan are the only youths there, again to emphasize how little young blood there now is in this environment.
“The tired engine burps fumes of recycled vegetable oil so that everything smells deep fried.” Not only is this a great sensory detail, but it also builds on the previous hint about everything being old. Why would the bus be operating on vegetable oil? If the bus looks ready to fall apart, then surely new buses can be built, right?
Page 5: A big, middle-aged police sergeant waits by the bus, brandishing an iron needle four inches long…he swabs it with alcohol and jabs it into the arm of everybody getting on….”My apologies! Iron’s supposed to hurt them.” As far as we’re told, everyone around Nessa looks pretty normal. Whatever these Sídhe are, they have the capability to look like us. Damn.
When Megan steps up to face the needle, the sergeant makes extra sure she’s no spy. She takes the iron well enough, but the second he withdraws it, she kicks his feet from under him and twists his arm up behind his back so that the adult, twice her size, is on his knees before her. Kid fighters have been in stories for a while, but this is a very blatant disregard for the adult authority in society. I love this touch: so many adults in this environment are elderly and withered. They’ve been utterly inept at stopping the Sídhe from doing whatever they do to kids, so the kids have to take it on themselves to be the violent warriors in order to defend themselves.
Page 6: Shortly after Lifford, they roll over a bridge into what used to be Northern Ireland. Nobody cares about that sort of thing anymore. The only border recognized by the Sidhe is the sea that surrounds the island from which they were driven thousands of years before. No human can leave or enter. No medicines or vaccines or spare parts for the factories that once made them; nor messages of hope or friendship; nothing. WHAM. Ó Guilín brings reality down like an ambush of arrows. This is why everything is so old. This is why there are no young people from elsewhere. And what’s better (for the reader) and worse (for the characters) is the motive Ó Guilín gives in one line: “the island from which they were driven thousands of years before.” Ireland was theirs, until the humans took it.
What enemy could be more terrible than one that’s ancient, magical, and really, really angry?
Page 8: “We’ve had a Call,” she cries. “Driver! You have to reverse! Reverse!” A boy vanishes from the bus, and the Three Minutes begins. If the bus does not reverse to where the boy vanished, what happens? Considering the panic of the driver as his passengers direct trailing traffic to go around them for the reversal, it must not be good.
The boy’s body reappears and thumps down hard onto the floor. Nessa is relieved to see that it’s not one of the really awful ones. Okay, I have to leave out Ó Guilín’s description, because when he continues describing what “isn’t” awful, it just makes me shiver with what does constitute as “awful.” Let me just promise you that the boy–and Megan’s reaction to him–make you as a reader determined to find out the breadth and depth of the Sidhe’s “sense of fun” (9).
Page 9: A few of the old people are crying and want to get off the bus, but it’s not like the early days anymore. They might disturb the body as they try to step over it, and that’s just not allowed…the Recovery Bureau agents [will examine] him properly in Monoghan. So this way of life isn’t just in Nessa’s town, or even county. This is a country-wide deal, with the government just as invested as everyone else to figure the Sídhe out.
Page 10: The Sídhe stole him away for a little over three minutes, but in their world, the Grey Land, an entire day has passed, panic and pain in every second of it. With this revelation of the time difference we get a taste of the horror it means to be Called for the Three Minutes. Surviving anything horrific in our reality for three minutes is hard enough–hell, the inability to breathe or see while driving kids home from school was f’ing agony, and that was without being chased by vengeful hunters. So now we know that these kids can’t just run for three minutes–they have to be capable of outrunning, out-hiding, and outwitting these Sídhe for an entire day and night. What can we humans possibly do to prepare young people for this kind of torture?
We have to keep reading to find out.
As tempting, as “easy,” as it is to simply explain how our story’s world operates, we must remember that readers open our books to experience a piece of life in motion. Life doesn’t pause, pop up a screen, and run a slideshow explaining how things work. We have to catch the snippets of lessons as we can, and pray to the gods we didn’t mishear. As you blaze the trail through your story, consider where such snippets may be placed, be it in a hero’s school book, a symbol under a rock, or in the mouth of a bat. Make the lessons and discoveries worth the hunt.
After you answer The Call, where will you stand: for humanity, or for the Sídhe? The Invasion, Ó Guilín‘s latest chapter about the Sídhe of the Grey Land, is now available in the UK from Scholastic. It comes to the US March 27th.