I have always had a particular fondness for Christmas. It was (and is) a big family holiday; the gifts of course, both giving and getting, the pretty tree, food, and family reunions. It takes place in the after-glow of my late December birthday, which I share with my twin sister. New York City, where I was raised, always had a special feel around Christmas. There is too, not a small aspect, my annual reading of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. I am, in fact, quite sentimental about Christmas.
At some point, in the late 1990s, writer James Howe contacted me—as he did a number of writers—concerning an anthology of short stories he was putting together: “Twelve stories about loss and hope.” (It would eventually be published as The Color of Absence.) I decided to see if I could write a Christmas story, something I had always wanted to try.
Some years prior to that moment, I met a curious man. The house I was living in became infested with fleas—cat problem. I had to call an exterminator. He came, sealed up the house, and set off an insecticide bomb. Then we had to sit outside for a couple of hours while the bomb did its thing, and it was safe to re-enter.
“How did you get into the exterminator business?” I asked.
“I was in the Vietnam War,” he said. “A few tours. They really taught me how to kill. When I got out I knew that if I didn’t find a legit way to kill, I was going to be in trouble. I became an exterminator.”
This man became the model for Anje Gabrail, (The angel Gabriel) the exterminator in The Christmas Rat, who gives my young protagonist, Eric, a different way to experience Christmas—and rats. Moreover, what I began as a short story, became (to my own surprise) a stand-alone novella, a scary, tense, story—which I thought might appeal to those who wanted to step away from the more traditional, sentimental Yuletime tale, good as a Christmas read-aloud for a class of cynical sixth graders.
A fable? An allegory? Maybe just a creepy story about what it feels like to be alive—really alive—on Christmas.
Not exactly “Merry Christmas.”
(As for Jim Howe, I wrote another story for his anthology.)