Fantasy, Vampires and Grace: An Interview with J.B. Toner
A young Catholic author sets out to reclaim the genre of vampire fiction.
Horror fiction may at first blush sound like an implausible genre for Catholics to compose in—or consume. There have, however, been examples of “Catholic” horror over the years. Perhaps the most famous instance is the original 1973 The Exorcist which, despite its flaws (theological and otherwise) attempts to give God his due.
Now a subgenre better known for its distortions of Catholicism, vampire fiction, is getting Catholic treatment. Following a four-year search, J.B. Toner, whose work has previously appeared in periodicals like Dappled Things, The Wanderer, and Literary Yard, found a forum for his debut novel Whisper Music. The novel, the first in a trilogy, is premised on an unlikely confrontation between Our Lady and a vampire.
J.B. Toner lives with his family in Massachusetts.
What role does your Catholicism play in your writing? Would you say that it’s inevitable that a Catholic artist feel Catholic to readers?
Well, I’m a cradle Catholic. There’s no doubt that my reason and imagination have been indelibly formed by the Faith, and I suspect that I’d be suspected of Catholicism even if I tried to hide it. Tolkien, as an obvious instance, wrote a whole trilogy with no mention of religion whatsoever, but it’s bursting at the seams with Catholic imagery just the same. But Whisper Music takes as a premise that the doctrines of the Faith are factually true; whatever the reader’s beliefs, he accepts by reading that the “universe” of this book is a Catholic one, demons and all.
Are you the same J.B. Toner who wrote The Bent Universe? How would you describe that book?
Same J.B. Toner! The Bent Universe is a series of connected tales that attempt to trace the workings of Divine Providence from the conception of the cosmos to its consummation, and just one day beyond. I self-published the book in 2007, and I’m very fond of it; but I would have to describe it as a bit of a mess. A lot of great ideas (I hope), in a form that would take another ten years or so to cohere. A mess with massive potential.
Your new book, Whisper Music, was recently published by Sunbury Press—is that right? Give us some details about how to find it.
That’s correct. You can order it through their website or from Barnes & Noble, but the easiest way is probably through Amazon.com. It’s available in hardback and electronic formats.
How did you get published?
I got published, ultimately, by sheer bloody-minded persistence. I finished Whisper Music in 2015, and it wasn’t published until 2019. I was determined not to self-publish again, and I looked into every company I could find contact info for! What made the difference was that I finally put the novel on hiatus and began publishing short stories in a great many online magazines, thus building up some credentials and a bit of a readership base.
I could see some people being put off simply by the premise of Whisper Music. How do you explain it?
Very glad you asked. The intendedly eye-catching tag-line of the novel is “What if the Virgin Mary was bitten by a vampire?” but that doesn’t actually happen. The protagonist, Danyaela Morrigan, is an ex-Catholic woman who’s been turned into a vampire against her will, and she goes to confront the Blessed Virgin for having (as she sees it) abandoned her. In a rage, Danyaela attacks her, and ends up spilling a single drop of her blood; but it’s made very clear in the text that Our Lady allows this to happen for the sake of Danyaela’s possible redemption.
If someone doesn’t particularly enjoy horror, should they still pick up Whisper Music? Or do you have other work that’s more approachable to start with?
Tough to say. I personally think of the book more as a theological action/adventure story (insofar as that’s a thing) under the guise of a horror novel, but the guise is very thick in places. If you’re not too put off by the likes of Graham Greene or Walker Percy, you may enjoy the story quite a bit even if you don’t care for horror as such; otherwise, I do have a light-hearted urban fantasy novel called The Shoreless Sea coming out soon from Beacon Publishing Group!
Tell us a little about where your stories come from. I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis, who famously began with pictures in his head, and the story followed, versus someone like Dorothy Sayers, for whom capturing the concept seems to have been very important.
Here I must plead the excuse of being raised on ‘80s action movies. Most of my stories begin in my head as fight scenes. The Shoreless Sea, for instance, began with the immortal question: who would win a fist-fight between a half-elf and one of the Nephilim? As I connect action sequences, a plot (hopefully) emerges. I actually try hard to follow Sayers’ model, as an excess of extemporaneity often paints me into corners; but in the end, I fly far more by the seat of my pants that I ought.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on now, or does that spoil the magic?
I’m actually just starting work on the sequel to Whisper Music. Or rather, not the sequel, but the second book of an intended trilogy. With any luck, it should be ready before year’s end.
Does a writer need to have a day job? If you could write full time forever, would you want to?
Oh my goodness, yes. To both. The dream, of course, is to make a living solely as a writer, but unless one is lottery-winningly, lightning-struckedly lucky, that will generally take a few years as one claws his way up the bestseller lists, and one does need to eat in the meantime. Again, bloody-minded persistence is key here.
How does writing, work, and being a husband and father fit together?
With difficulty and grace. I have mostly held custodial or maintenance jobs, which often allow me to write quite a bit in my head while I’m performing rote tasks, and I’m blessed with a memory good enough to let me hold large chunks of text in spectral form until I can get to a note-taking apparatus of one kind or another. Being a husband and father trumps everything else, but my beloved wife is generous enough that we always find at least one or two times a week for me to sneak away and scribble.
What’s the question you wish you could answer?
What a question! I guess my biggest concern with this book is the issue you raised earlier about the potentially off-putting premise: to what degree can a Catholic writer ethically write about blasphemy? I’ve talked to some fairly intelligent people about this over the years, and the consensus seems to be a pretty firm, “Dunno.” ... What I can say is that I know devout and educated Catholics who do not find my work offensive, and that my intent is never to glorify the evil I depict. ... Being a good Christian is always more important than being a good writer; but at the same time, writing is one of the chief paths by which I live out my Christian vocation, and I’d be burying my talents if I didn’t try to grapple with the Mystery of Iniquity. In the end, all I can do is tell the story I have to tell and trust that God will find a way use it for Good.