Oh, the Horror!

A

s a student, Bracken MacLeod, JD ’00, reveled in the grip of a good story. He loved connecting the dots of a winning argument and drafting an airtight tale with his words.

“Trying a case isn’t about setting out a series of objective facts on the table and letting a jury pick them up and come to a conclusion,” MacLeod said from his home in Framingham, Massachusetts. “Trying a case is really about telling a story and making sure the narrative you tell is the most compelling.”

Or, as MacLeod likes to say, “Scratch a lawyer, find a writer.” After working as an estate litigator in Boston and hanging out his own shingle for nearly a decade, MacLeod, 47, found a long-lost muse in his keyboard six years ago. Instead of telling stories about his clients, he began telling stories about death and darkness.

And he was good at it. Really good.

The attorney-turned-author has enjoyed swift and critical acclaim writing horror novels, including last fall’s “Stranded,” which was nominated for a 2016 Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in a novel. Stephen King and Anne Rice are previous winners of the coveted Stoker awards.

“I didn’t want to be that dad who works all the time and says, ‘Man, I wish I had more time to spend with my kids.’ The decision was a no-brainer. I closed my law office so I could raise my son and follow my dream.”

From attorney to novelist

Author Bracken MacLeod, JD '00, at his Massachusetts home. His third novel was published in June.

In “Stranded,” MacLeod employs themes of isolation, paranoia and terror aboard the Arctic Promise as the crew contracts a virulent illness that consumes their bodies as much as their sensibilities.

“I was writing ‘Stranded’ in 2015, the year we got over 9 feet of snow in Boston in like six weeks. Every other day, it felt like we got another storm,” MacLeod said. But it wasn’t until MacLeod pulled on his boots and turned up his collar that research and reality collided—and nearly brought him to his knees.

“In the outline I gave my editor, crew members walked across the ice in knee-deep and thigh-deep snow toward something in the distance that was miles away,” said MacLeod, who has written creatively for most of his life.

“I went outside one day [after one of those 2015 storms] and walked around my house to dig out the vent tubes for my furnace—maybe 50 yards—and I was completely gassed. I didn’t get to go to the Arctic, but I got the next best thing.”

While at Quinnipiac, MacLeod’s social conscience guided his work. He was consumed with helping the less fortunate and fighting for their rights. An internship down the street at New Haven-based Connecticut Voices for Children only amplified his commitment.

“I came out of law school ready to slay dragons in the public interest and work in a field that would benefit children, particularly,” MacLeod said. “But those jobs are few and far between. Those organizations are often very underfunded because they’re competing for the same grant money.”

MacLeod, who passed the bar exam on his first try, began his career at a large, traditional law firm. He was gainfully employed and immediately respectable, but the element of passion was conspicuously missing from his work week.

“My first job out of law school, I worked in downtown Boston as an estate litigator. It wasn’t the work I had trained to do and had hoped to do,” MacLeod said. “It was a lot of fighting over rich people’s money. I found it very dissatisfying emotionally and very acrimonious.”

After 18 months, the acrimony ended with little fanfare and a pink slip. Haunted by his monthly student loan reminder, “Sallie Mae waits for no one,” MacLeod opened his own practice in Massachusetts.

For the next nine years, he practiced personal injury law and real estate law. Rather than slaying dragons or championing causes, he found himself focusing on billable hours to make ends meet. And that was never going to be enough, not for the horror writer stirring inside MacLeod.

“I had stopped writing in law school and grad school because I just didn’t have the time,” he said. “Around the time I left the downtown firm, I strongly felt that this piece of my life was missing.”

MacLeod’s wife, Heather, is a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company. When their son, Lucien, was born in 2011, they sat at the kitchen table and crunched the numbers, comparing the costs of child care and other expenses to the loss of MacLeod’s law income.

“I didn’t want to be that dad who works all the time and says, ‘Man, I wish I had more time to spend with my kids.’ The decision was a no-brainer,” MacLeod said. “I closed my law office so I could raise my son and follow my dream.”

MacLeod’s third novel, “Come to Dust,” was released in June. It tells the story of a 5-year-old girl who comes back to life along with children from around the world.

The implications of “Come to Dust” grow hopelessly entangled with a beyond-the-grave bond between a girl and her uncle that neither is willing to give up. The relationship, more powerful and more profound than any memory, is based on a real-life loss for MacLeod.

“I wrote the first half a few years ago and the second half last year. I started writing it after a friend [Bob Booth] asked me to write a novella for a project he was doing,” MacLeod said. “He got sick and I was rushing to finish it before he died, but it didn’t work out that way, and I really struggled with finishing it. It was just too painful. I clicked save on a thumb drive and just set it aside … I took it out again last year after I was offered a book deal. You can’t turn down a book deal. But I’m nervous about this book because it’s so personal and it’s wrapped up in all these feelings. I really want people to like this book, but you can’t write for everyone. You just can’t.”

In many ways, MacLeod’s views on writing are the same as practicing law. Without a purpose, the results are cold and uninspired. MacLeod has always known that truth.

“I had an early love of scary things. I remember back in grade school in the ’70s, I was about 10 years old and we had to write a Christmas story,” he said. “So I wrote this horror story about Santa fighting the alien from H.R. Giger’s ‘Alien.’ I loved it, of course, but my teacher hated it and called my mother.”

Even then, the little boy with the unusual first name—his mother named him after a strong, Scottish surname—understood that horror was in his soul, if not his pen: “It’s who I am. It’s who I will always be.”

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