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Deconstructing The Hoard—the inspiration behind Alan Ryker’s new novel

I find television about addiction and compulsion extremely interesting. I can sit and watch programs like Hoarders and Intervention for hour after hour. The shows have a sideshow quality. I think that must be why they’re so popular. People enjoy watching and wincing and laughing and saying, “I can’t believe anyone would live like that!” And I can’t deny that some part of me reacts that way, which makes me feel ghoulish, like I’m feeding on other people’s misery. But on another level, I empathize with the shows’ subjects.

Like a lot of writers, I have anxiety issues. I always have, going all the way back to my first memories. On the first day of preschool, I was the kid who hid in the coatroom and cried. Of course, the thing about behavior like that is it draws more anxiety-causing attention. So while I’ve learned to better mask them, I have the same impulses to avoid social situations where I don’t know people. I still hate the first day of anything. Part of me is still the kid crying in the coatroom, I guess.

When a person suffers from anxiety or depression, they tend to fall into behaviors that give them a little dopamine bump. For at least awhile, it’s unconscious, and it can lead to weird behavior. You’re like a rat pushing a button for a piece of food, but the human mind doesn’t think of itself in terms of dopamine reward. So there’s all this justification and even delusion. If you get a bump from shopping, you’ll convince yourself that it’d be stupid to turn down such a good deal, even if your bank account is almost empty, and even if you can’t use the items.

The funny thing is, watching programs like Hoarders actually gives me a bit of a bump by proxy. I get addicted. Netflix added a new season, and not only did I watch the whole thing in almost one sitting, I went back and watched all the rest. I jokingly told my wife I was doing research for a book, and I immediately thought, “Why not?” I knew it would be a fun challenge to portray a hoarder not as a joke, but as a person for whom a reader could empathize.  I also wanted to try to portray how a person might enable a hoarder they love even if they know it’s killing them.

Of course, when you’re writing horror, you immediately stretch any situation to the most horrific extreme. Seems reality beat me to it. One particularly horrible episode of Hoarders involves a woman who walks barefoot through her trash-filled house, and her feet are so bug-bitten and infected there’s talk of amputation.

The bugs made me think of parasitic infections, which made me think of the fungus that turns ants into zombies, and the recent theory that the protozoa in cat feces might be driving people insane. These various concepts began to take concrete form in my mind as a new creature, and I asked myself how it would evolve, what it would want and what would drive it into the open.

So roll that all up with my preoccupation with representing Kansas in the horror scene and a dash of my desire to portray rural people as real people instead of hick stereotypes, and you’ve got The Hoard. It’s gross. It’s violent. But it comes from a real place, and my hope is that the reader will be moved as well as entertained.

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