In a recent virtual event, host Terri LeBlanc of Swamp Fox Bookstore in Marion, Iowa, was running down author Catherine Schaff-Stump’s career as an indie author.
“She writes fantasy for children and adults. She writes funny stories, dark stories—this last one’s pretty dark, Catherine.”
“Yeah, it is,” the author agreed with a big smile.
How dark? Well, The Wrath of Horus, the third book in her Klaereon Scroll series, is set in the bucolic environs of . . . Dante’s Inferno.
Pretty dark, indeed. Dark enough, in fact, that the book carries a warning up front about the content.
Schaff-Stump, who teaches English at Kirkwood Community College, is also the author of the middle grade Abigail Rath Versus series (in which a monster-fighting teen first learns her skills from the monster movies her dad stars in) as well as an ongoing serial, The Autumn Warrior and the Ice Sword, unfolding on the Kindle Vella platform.
But the January 12 event for Swamp Fox Bookstore (which you can watch on Facebook) focused on The Wrath of Horus. The Klaereon Scroll series is, as Schaff-Stump put it in the interview, “a gothic series of books which follows five generations of a family of binders. They have contracts with Egyptian gods, and they have to fight these gods when they hit the age of 16. If they lose, the god gets to control them and enslave them; if they win, they get to kind of control the gods. And there’s all sorts of cosmology underneath this, which is basically about the gods living up to their potential, the Klaereons living up to their potential. . . . This is this big, giant family saga with dark overtones and deities and stuff.”
The new novel is about the second generation of the binders, and the darkness on display comes from Schaff-Stump’s own experience over the course of writing the book. She began the novel in 2019, a year during which she had what she called “some fake heart trouble. We spent the summer of 2019 wondering if I had a heart problem. Nothing sobers you up as much as thinking, ‘Oh, this might be it. I might get a pacemaker, and this might be the beginning of the end.’”
In 2020, determined to “come back, and . . . come back big,” she joined a women’s horror writing group (“Those guys were dark, let me tell you.”), which included an Inferno scholar. “It occurred to me that one of the things I could do to these poor people is I could put them in Dante’s Inferno. . . . And, oh my god, you can’t send someone to Dante’s Inferno without horrible things happening.”
And then, we all know about the dark turn 2020 took. “Of course, the world turned to crap and a lot of us were channeling a lot of dark stuff.”
She suggested that the next book may be more upbeat. But for now, this book stands as it is, “full of trauma and really, kind of at the same time, my love letter to Dante and his most interesting poem.”
The passage that Schaff-Stump read delivered on the darkness. Her characters wage battle with Minos, who stands at the entrance to the second circle of Hell and dispatches souls to their appropriate punishment. He wraps his serpent tail around the sinners until the number of the tail’s encircling matches the number of the circle of Hell to which they are bound.
Schaff-Stump’s scene featuring Minos is violent, bloody, frightening, and involves a fair amount of eyeball plucking. Hell is not for the faint of heart, and it seems clear that The Wrath of Horus isn’t either.
After the online event wrapped, Schaff-Stump and I spoke for a few minutes by phone. During the event, she had mentioned that her serial adventure has an Iowa setting. As she put it to me, “If it’s not in Fairyland, it’s in Iowa.”
I asked if she considers herself an Iowa writer and what that might mean to her.
“Yeah, I am an Iowa writer,” she said without hesitation. “It’s inescapable that who you are and where you live will influence your writing.” From the language patterns to the moral choices of characters, she suggested, your home and experience will underpin your stories.
“My characters,” she said with a laugh, “have the traits we consider positive in the Midwest.”
On March 16, Schaff-Stump will read “Value,” a short story set in the world of the Klaereon Scroll series, on Story Hour (StoryHour2020.com, a site devoted to livestream speculative fiction readings. The event starts at 9 p.m. and promises to be a good introduction to this indie author’s work.