Todd Allen has taken the plunge from reading books to writing them with his debut novel, Sacra Obscurum. Sacra Obscurum grew from Allen’s first hand experience with New Brunswick’s mental health care system after he and his wife made an emergency trip to the hospital to visit a recently arrested family member. The process would ultimately lead Allen to a gauntlet of psychiatrists, diagnoses, and ‘assembly line care’.
His unexpectedly frustrating experience came about from the lack of long-term care options. When a patient would go through medical detox, and exhibited a positive response to a new medication, they would be quickly thrown out on the street again. Where long-term help was required, but space came in short supply, room would be made for the next assembly line patient. It was enough to inspire a horror story.
Allen explains that he learned to write “on the streets… at the bookstore down the street,” and receives a friendly jab in the arm from his wife for his threadbare joke. Allen was schooled from reading the works of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz; pillars of the horror genre. When it came time to start writing, there was no better place to look than to the people who have done it themselves. He began to see how the best writers were the hardest to catch in the act: like they could plant a seed of an idea and make the reader unaware of this suggestion. Allen describes Stephen King as an author “who can set up a story and develop a character better than anyone. He is still teaching me things every time out with every new book.”
For Allen, story telling is a liberating experience, “The world can be so overwhelming that it’s sometimes nice to escape to a place of my choosing, a place where I write the rules and make a statement. Writing is freedom.” Writing became a cathartic release, and as his story grew, he discovered he was spinning a larger tale. Allen sifted through his collection of little story ideas that he had been accumulating over time and brought them together to create his first published work.
Sacra Obscurum looks at the troubled relationship between a father and a son, and how it changes with the father’s passing. While the story contains strong characters, themes of family, friendship, and small town life, these more traditional elements are tested and respond to gruesome murder, demon possession, and truly scary stuff.
The novel centers on the personal and professional life of Matt Dawson, an experienced psychiatrist who has returned home to manage his father Stanley’s estate following his unexpected death. He has also inherited his father’s small private hospital that works and treats people with severe mental illness. Questions begin to arise and murders start to occur while Matt quickly realizes that he must pry the secrets from this small town before more people die.
Set in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, it’s not the first horror novel to draw inspiration from the seaside town. Allen sought to explore how secretive Maritime society can be; not necessarily to each other, but to outsiders. Allen felt that it was the perfect setting for a horror novel; Saint Andrews has a mountain on one side and the ocean on the other: the landscape leaves the town pinched in the middle with nowhere to run.
When it comes to reader feedback, the immediate horror every author faces when it comes to their first editor is always that initial read-through from their mother. Allen’s mother was explicit in her criticism: “Oh God! What is wrong with you? What is going on in your head?” Allen remembered thinking, “I just wanted to have some fun, mum.” Whatever fun, or horrors, or combinations of the two, are going through Allen’s head are available for readers to judge in abundance:
“Snakelike, it dragged the rest of its unlikely body through the window. Hips and legs went boneless as they plied and molded to fit through the pinched gap. Hand over hand the thing climbed down the wall, unrecognizable body parts in tow, tangled in light blue johnny shirt fabric. It slapped against the floor like a wet garbage bag. For a moment, it lay in a crumpled mass of ruined flesh. The joints snapped back into place and bones set with sickening crunches. Things began to resemble a man, not as divinely intended, but some mistaken recreation. It twisted and bent and soon it was standing, a more familiar bipedal form wearing a backward hospital johnny. While its grotesque skull held fast, the gangly thing twisted at the waist in a full circle so that finally torso and feet pointed the same direction. Black, lifeless eyes, doll’s eyes, never moved from the trio of stunned onlookers.” (Sacra Obscurum, Page 148)
Allen is currently working on other projects, but he may revisit Sacra Obscurum and this particular group of characters in the future. His initial ideas for the story went beyond this novel, but he decided to shorten it for a more concise read. Sacra Obscurum has a solid ending, and is effectively a stand-alone novel. However, Allen did reveal that he does have a larger story in mind.
Todd Allen’s debut novel can be found on Amazon, Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Damnation Books. To learn more and read an excerpt from Sacra Obscurum, visit his website at toddallenbooks.com.