Illustration by Maggie Kneen (from "The Owl Keeper")
Not long after 9/11, I began writing “The Owl Keeper.” The world had changed overnight, becoming a darker, more frightening place, devoid of warmth and color, and with the darkness came a deep sorrow, a sense of lost innocence.
Also in 2001, I saw the film “The Others” – Alejandro Amenábar’s frightening ghost story which unfolds in an isolated house on the island of Jersey. The children who live there are both fatally allergic to sunlight, which means the windows are covered with heavy curtains, and ”no door must be opened unless the one before is closed.”
That’s when Max appeared, in my mind anyway: a frail sickly boy who was scared of most things in life, both real and imagined. Allergic to the sun, Max stayed indoors throughout the day, hiding behind closed curtains, away from the light. The one thing he didn’t fear, however, was the night.
In mid-2002 I read an article in “The New York Times” about Camp Sundown, where campers have a rare disorder that makes them unable to tolerate ultraviolet light. And so activities take place at night, when the children can venture safely outside.
When he was young, Max used to do brave things like go tramping through the forest with his gran after dark. He loved the stories she told him about the world before the Destruction—about nature, and books, and the silver owls. His favorite story was about the Owl Keeper. According Gran, in times of darkness the Owl Keeper would appear to unite owls and Sages against the powers of the dark.
Night after night, I dreamed about Max, alone beneath an ancient tree, in a world with no color, no seasons. Waiting, always waiting..
But Gran is gone now, and so are her stories of how the world used to be. Max is no longer brave. The forest is dangerous, Gran’s precious books have been destroyed, and the silver owls are extinct. At least that’s what the High Echelon says. But Max knows better.
The rise of the High Echelon was easy to imagine: an all-powerful regime that grabbed power following an environmental cataclysm (the Great Destruction), operating behind closed doors, hiring goons for their Dark Brigade, paying mad scientists to carry out deadly experiments. Years ago I’d lived in Spain, under the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and I knew what it was like to glance over your shoulder in a crowded café, worried that someone might be listening. Fear, I’d learned back then, was a powerful weapon.
Maxwell Unger has a secret. And when a mysterious girl comes to town, he might just have to start being brave again. The time of the Owl Keeper, Gran would say, is coming soon.