Possession is an addiction.

Sydney’s spent years burying her past and building a better life for herself and her young son. A respectable marketing job, a house with reclaimed and sustainable furniture, and a boyfriend who loves her son and accepts her, flaws and all.

But when she opens her front door, and a masked intruder knocks her briefly unconscious, everything begins to unravel.

She wakes in the hospital and tells a harrowing story of escape. Of dashing out a broken window. Of running into her neighbors’ yard and calling the police. The cops tell her a different story. Because the intruder is now lying dead in her guest room—murdered in a way that looks intimately personal. Sydney can’t remember killing the man. No one believes her.

Back home, as horrific memories surface, an unnatural darkness begins whispering in her ear. Urging her back to old addictions and a past she’s buried to build a better life for herself and her son. As Sydney searches for truth among the wreckage of a past that won’t stay buried for long, the unquiet darkness begins to grow. To change into something unimaginable. To reveal terrible cravings of its own.

I suck at titles, or collaboration: a love story

You know how aggressively mediocre movies aren’t good enough to be worth your time and aren’t bad enough to be fun? The working titles I come up with tend to hit that un-sweet spot. The first draft of this novel was called In the Blood. I figured, hey, “blood” is a time-tested horror signifier, so that nails down the genre for the curious reader. And adding “In the…” cleverly reflects the story’s addiction-and-relapse element, and also the theme of the struggle to escape your true nature. Genius!

One of my first readers suggested changing it to The Swimmer, which I immediately adopted because I have enough self-awareness to know that coming up with titles is something I’m better off ceding to others.

The book remained The Swimmer as I queried agents. It was still The Swimmer when it landed at Orbit/Redhook. By that point, the title was cemented in my mind. I began to entertain dreamlike notions of cover concepts. The designs in my head skewed early-aughts literary, with stately fonts and indications of grandeur within, like I was Ian McEwan. I thought The Swimmer struck just the right note of “vaguely ominous,” evoking everything from an out-of-place ripple near your raft in the middle of the lake to a magnificent creature trawling the depths. It also conjured up a fastidious, solitary person—an early morning lap swimmer whose obsessive routine is suddenly upended by a Mysterious or Violent Circumstance. (Note: the book is about none of those things.)

When my editor and the team at Orbit pointed out that The Swimmer is more “extremely vague” than “vaguely ominous”—as in, it could just as easily be a biography of Michael Phelps as a psychological horror tale—I conceded that the title was not going to cut it. I’ve always been a loner when hammering out a draft, but an eager collaborator during edits and all other phases of the process, so I was happy to brainstorm titles with people far more suited to the task. And thus, The Seven Visitations of Sydney Burgess was born. This was yet another valuable lesson in not being too precious, and at the same time being grateful that writing and publishing involves the creative energy of many people working toward a common goal.

The Plural of “Lego” is “Lego”

According to the eagle-eyed copyeditor who worked on this book, saying “Legos” is technically incorrect. But! I grew up saying things like “You wanna play Legos?” and “I organized my Legos into color-coordinated bins, isn’t that awesome?” So it felt weird to have the eleven-year-old kid in my book say “Lego” like a fussy aristocrat. The point is, sometimes being wrong, and insisting on remaining wrong, is actually right. You know?

Setting out to write something “scary” is self-defeating

When it comes to horror—especially what horrifies you personally—everyone’s mileage varies. That’s what makes horror such an endlessly fertile and creatively limitless genre. I love everything from grimy ‘70s underground films to ‘80s slashers to classic Stephen King doorstops to the creepy horror-adjacent tunes of Scott Walker to the unsettling vibes of Brian Evenson’s short stories and other weird fiction greats. But, at least for me, actually sitting there with the blank page staring back, trying to think up a Scary Moment, is the quickest way to writing something flat and hilariously non-frightening.

There’s an evolution of dread that can only rise organically from a combination of incident, character, and prose all working together to create something ineffable—the kind of skin-crawling moment that can’t really be planned or plotted. When it manifests on the page after some trial and error, it’s a beautiful(ly horrific) thing.

Structure whips plot mechanics into shape

I’m not a very detailed plotter. In the same way that writing with the sole purpose of eliciting fear responses in readers is an exercise in self-conscious futility, outlining the story in advance makes it feel stale to me. I prefer the journey of discovery—but horror thrillers tend to benefit from a destination. What shaped my early drafts into something much more propulsive was the advice of a friend who helped me land on a rigorous structure I could self-impose to keep the story from meandering.

Each section of the novel—or “visitation”—is divided into six chapters, alternating past and present. This not only gave me guardrails to help rein in dangling story tendrils, but also gave the novel a unique feel that complemented its atmosphere. For me it was less of a formal conceit than a way to help organize all the thriller mechanics I was playing with.

A cold open needs a delicate balance

I love a good cold open. Breaking Bad is pretty much the apotheosis, of course—tighty-whities, RV, gas masks, gun, desert…

I’ll go ahead and argue that if Cranston wears boxers in that scene, its attention-grabbing potential plummets. It’s such a wonderful world-building detail that makes you perk up with immediate investment in the character. What kind of man is this, wearing his tighty-whities? There’s pathos here that a nice pair of plaid boxers just can’t evoke.

Anyway, my novel begins mid-home invasion with the line, “The man in my house is wearing a mask.” As I was writing, I was haunted by a comment from a fantasy writer (Brandon Sanderson? It might have been Brandon Sanderson) about the problem with starting a book in the middle of a battle scene—namely, that readers haven’t yet formed personal connections with the characters doing the fighting, so the battle has zero stakes. The challenge with a cold open is to make the world instantly lived-in and the characters feel like three-dimensional, emotionally resonant people without bogging down the action.

To strike that balance, I approached the scene a bit like a painting, laying in stray details that resonated later on—vacation photos on the mantel, everyday stuff in an opened junk drawer, a quick reference to rehab to situate Sydney’s life in context.

From the very first paragraph, Sydney’s not just a character experiencing Plot, but a person moving through her world of tragedy, struggle, redemption, temptation, and horror. She’s in a sort of tactile conversation with the elements of her life and the past that’s waiting in the margins to swamp her in bad old urges.

***

Andy Marino was born in upstate New York, spent half his life in New York City, and now lives in the Hudson Valley. He is the author of seven novels for young readers, most recently The Plot to Kill Hitler trilogy. The Seven Visitations of Sydney Burgess is his first novel for adults.

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