Dark Satanic Mills is the last story in Atlas Shagged to get a Story Behind the Story blog post because it’s the first one to be published. It came out in 2007 in Tales of the Talisman, and I wasn’t doing these posts back then. I didn’t even have this blog—my writing-related blog posts were still going up on MySpace (god I’m old). The first drafts came several years earlier, and in contrast to Dean Wesley Smith’s advice, they were rewritten and transformed radically by the time I finished.
As originally conceived, the story was going to be grimdark before grimdark was a word. A bleak, unflinching look at how horrible life can be and how we paper it over with comforting lies and illusions. I’m not sure what exactly prompted me to start down that road, because that’s not my usual style. Was it some particular horror that had happened in the world? Personal issues? I don’t know.
What I do know is that at one point in the story, the protagonist’s friend quotes from a magazine article that mentions in passing that every guy working in corporate America has had the experience of banging a hot coworker in the supply closet. That was something I’d seen in an actual article about dating and sleeping with coworkers and reading it just made my eyes roll (I do not for a minute believe every man has had that experience). When the friend talks about the article, the protagonist sneers that nobody has the kind of perfect lives the friend reads about in lifestyle magazines. In reality everyone’s just as miserable as they are.
Not a crucial scene, though I did enjoy venting. But then on the next draft I threw in the protagonist saying something to the effect of “I know all those articles are shit, because I used to write for those magazines.” And on the next draft followed that up with ” … which are all the tools of Satan to make us miserable!”
Suddenly it was no longer grimdark. I suppose it could have been, but over the next few drafts it mutated into a chick-lit parody. As so many chick-lit novels involved young women trying to make it in publishing (e.g., Devil Wears Prada) so my male protagonist became Cerise, a plucky Midwestern Satanist struggling to make it in Big Apple lifestyle-magazine publishing. Which is indeed all the work of Satan to make us miserable, hence articles built around Buy this $300 tie and finally get laid! or The high-sugar diet — science proves the pounds melt away!
Suffice to say, things got absurd fast. And I really love some of the little details, such as Cerise’ boss wearing clubbed-sealskin boots. Some details I did not love so much: there was some non-consensual sex offstage that made me a little uncomfortable when I reread it, so I cut that for this publication (I think it was appropriate for the setting, but it still didn’t work for me).
The title comes from an old English hymn tied to the movement against child labor, referring to England’s factories as “dark, Satanic mills.” Photo of a dark, not particularly Satanic mill comes from Diamond Environmental Ltd., all rights remain with current holder.