From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Barbara A. Barnett

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Barbara A. Barnett to tell us a bit about her story “Mortis Persona.”

What was it about an actor playing the role of someone they knew that drove them mad?

With someone the actor never met, he has the advantage of both emotional and physical distance, so it’s easier to keep the deceased soul’s memories separate from his own. But it’s much more difficult to distance yourself from someone you knew, especially if you were as intimately involved as Caldus and Aper were. They have emotional expectations of each other, and they have shared memories that are going to be in conflict because they’re coming from two different perspectives. The latter aspect grew out of my fascination with how inaccurate memory can be. We can be so certain that we remember an event exactly as it happened, but then we see a photograph or a recording or reminisce with someone and learn that things didn’t happen quite the way we thought they did.  Since two people aren’t going to remember the same event in the same way, I imagined that having both versions overlapping in one’s head would become maddening to the point that the actor would become unable to distinguish between himself and the deceased soul sharing his body.

Why was Sabina willing to help Caldus, when she knew his plan would destroy him?

Caldus had grown very ill and was close to death, so helping him reunite with Aper was Sabina’s way of honoring his last wishes. Without her help, Caldus’ soul would have been released into the ether when he died while Aper’s remained trapped within his death mask. In their society, people believe that your soul vanishes into oblivion when you die, and that the death masks are therefore an honor for the wealthy, a way of preserving one’s soul after death. But as Caldus learns in his brushes with madness, the souls don’t dissipate; they all become one. So in actuality, the death masks are a prison rather than the honor the living think they are.  Caldus’ final act—with Sabina’s help, of course—is to release Aper’s soul from his mask so that they can be together again in death.

Did Aper really love Caldus, or did he just want to use him to stay connected to the world of the living?

When I started writing the story, it was with the expectation that Aper would have some sort of ulterior motive or big dramatic secret he was hiding from Caldus. But the story resisted going in that direction. The more I wrote, the more I realized that Aper truly did love Caldus and only wanted to be together again.

What happens to Aper and Caldus at the end of the story? Does Caldus resume his descent into madness?

In the weirdest of ways, Caldus and Aper live happily ever after. Since Aper won’t be returning to his death mask, he and Caldus are essentially sharing a body at the end of the story. Caldus most definitely goes mad as a result, but he’s dying, so the madness is short-lived. When he finally does die, both his and Aper’s souls will be released, and they’ll happily gallivant together off into the ether to join all the other dead souls who aren’t trapped in death masks.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

For anyone interested, I talked a little about the impetus behind and the writing of “Mortis Persona” in a recent interview Tracy S. Morris did with me at her blog. Other than that, I mostly just want to offer a big thank you to everyone who took the time to read my story, and of course much thanks to Fantasy Magazine for publishing it. I’m thrilled to have found such a great home for “Mortis Persona.”

William Sullivan is a writer, computer programmer, and musician living in Austin, Texas. You can find his website at