When the Dutch mother version of “The Shadow Of The Mole” came out in 2016, readers asked: “Why did you write a mystery novel set in WW1 with a hint of the supernatural?” Now that the English translation is available, the same question pops up again.
The answer is, at the same time, complicated and straightforward. Therefore, readers of ReadersMagnet, bear a moment with me while I try to explain that certain moments of my life hide behind this novel..
In August of this year, I’ll be sixty-nine. On the outside, I have had a good and productive life: I am a Belgian/Flemish full-time author of 43 traditionally published books in Holland and Belgium. Some of my novels were translated and republished in ten languages, and I won several awards – also in the USA – during my career.
On the inside, things were different for a long time. Until I was almost fifty, I felt like a miserable loser although I had been a travel writer in conflict zones for thirteen years and was a fervent martial arts student for twenty-six years. I told no one, not even my then-wife, of the inner fears that haunted me. They grew so intense and threatening during the years that I feared for my sanity and decided to consult a well-known Flemish female psychologist. I described my symptoms to her, especially the feeling that I was haunted by “a force” that made my skin prickle when it sneaked up on me, always behind my right shoulder. To my surprise, the therapist didn’t reason away my feelings but asked one question that changed my life: “Do you know why you have these PTSD symptoms?”
Of course, I had heard from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders before connected with war veterans’ mental problems. So I answered that, as a traveler in war zones, I had witnessed the results of nasty violence but that my symptoms didn’t resemble the mental problems of the soldiers I’d interviewed. “There are much more types of PTSD than known to the broad public,” she answered. “In my opinion, the symptoms you described don’t have their roots in your stint as a war correspondent. Have you perhaps been hurt deeply in your early childhood?” Before I could deny it, she said: “Something or somebody has hurt you to the core, isn’t it?”
Suddenly, my mouth was faster than my brain: I vomited – I use this word intentionally: it felt like vomiting – a confession about my suffering from an older boy’s transgressive behavior when I was around ten. I told her about the physical hurt and, far more painful, the shame and the self-loathing that accompanied it because I had not been able to defend myself.
“You couldn’t live with that self-hate, so your mind externalized it into the apparition that beset you,” she concluded.
From that day on, with the help of her therapy, my life slowly changed, and I managed to control my fears enough to change my life. Instead of remaining a neurotic travel writer searching for the evidence that I wasn’t a sissy, I switched to being an author of an extensive literary oeuvre. I’ve lived in a rural estate in East Flanders for the last eighteen years, surrounded by the horses I’ve learned to love. My current partner is an equine therapist. She has taught me to enjoy horses’ soothing and even healing powers and the mental honesty they provoke in me.
During this new stage in my life, I felt the longing to write a novelabout what had happened to me slowly mature. I had tried it before but couldn’t find the right tone and framework. I began to feel that I didn’t want to write an autobiographic story but an interpretation – or a parable– about what severe stress and mortal fear can do to you. I chose WW1 for the background. It was the first mechanized war in history, one of the most devastating conflicts ever. During these war years, the young discipline psychiatry began to investigate why court-martials had to send so many young soldiers to the firing squads for “cowardice during battle.” Progressive psychiatrists started to suspect that this cowardice under fire resulted from damaged nerves after long periods of intense battle stress. The symptoms of PTSD they found were amazingly versatile, bodily and mentally, and covered a staggering array of psychic disorders.
Slowly, a multi-layered story, as versatile as PTSD itself, ripened in my head and found its way on the pc-screen. “The Shadow Of The Mole” became a historical mystery, searching for hidden depths in the human psyche, showing what strange and damaged creatures we can be. It touches many aspects of life and shows, among others, the frailty but also the beauty of love, the lure of distorted sexual urges, the repulsiveness of war, and the many ways in which our cruelty manifests itself.
The result is a literary-historical mystery in which psychoanalysis plays an important role, and not everything is explained. The scenes in Vienna with Josef Breuer, mentor to the young Sigmund Freud, and his famous patient Anna O. are the key to understanding the novel, but the reader has to use it correctly.
I worked full-time for more than two years on this novel. It isn’t the most “commercial” novel I’ve published. Still, it fascinates experienced readers with its mix of war, psychoanalysis, suspense, budding romance, distorted sexuality, and hints of the unsettling presence of the archetypes hidden within us.
Vincent Dublado concluded in his recension for the A+ reviewer site “Readers’ Favorite”: “The Shadow of the Mole is as enigmatic as it is powerful. It is written with skill in the way it weaves scientific analysis with the inner lives of its characters. It’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys a cerebral story with a great blend of mystery, history, and psychoanalysis.”
Chapter I starts like this:
So softly treads the night.
Standing behind my right shoulder.
No breath reaches my skin.
Bob Van Laerhoven – Belgium/Flanders