2B: What Could Have Been

When my new book, 2B, came out in February, I posted a blog entry about how long I had carried the idea around in my head before finally writing it.

I also mentioned that about ten years ago I made an aborted attempt to start the novel. I didn't get far, only a prologue and a part of chapter one. It didn't feel right to me, didn't seem to be working, so I abandoned it. And waited another ten years to try again, using nothing of the original attempt, not even character names. This time I was ready, the story flowed smoothly, and I created a novel I'm very proud of.

Since the book has been out for a little while, I thought it might be fun to post that early attempt so that readers of the novel could compare and contrast and see what almost could have been. Below is that early attempt, the prologue and part of chapter one.


I awoke in hell.

At least, I assumed it was hell. Where else would have walls painted such a queasy shade of puke-green? Where else would have lights so harsh they pierced the eyes like tiny luminescent blades? Where else would have beeping alien machinery attached to my body with tubes and needles?

“Mr. Dowry?” a demon said in a voice like rocks scraping the bottom of a polluted river.

I squinted against the assaulting light, trying to focus on the blurred figure that had appeared above me, no doubt a soul-sucking harpy come to inflict some unspeakable torment on me.

“Mr. Dowry, can you hear me?”

I tried to sit up, but fiery pain flared across my chest. I opened my mouth to cry out, to vocalize the exquisite anguish of hell, but all that escaped my lips was a hoarse rattling croak, a wounded sound, a dying sound.

“No, no, don’t try to move or talk,” said the demon in a voice far too compassionate for a denizen of Hades. “Not yet, anyway.”

I trained my eyes and concentration on the demon, and the fuzzy edges began to come into crisper focus. The demon was female, with a plump pleasant face and dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her thin lips were rouged and curled upward.

“Nice to have you back with us,” she said. “I was beginning to worry that you were going to sleep forever.”

I closed my eyes, and my mind filled with odd, disturbing, nonsequiter images. Running water. Bubbles. A tattered paperback. A familiar face seething with rage. “What…” I whispered in a voice as dry and lifeless as a shed snakeskin.

“Do you know where you are?” said the demon who was not a demon. Perhaps an angel, come to rescue me from an eternity of agony.


The angel laughed, a delicate twittering giggle. “Well, no, but I can understand why you’d make that assumption.”

Having used up all my energy reserves on the three words I’d managed to get out since awakening, I merely furrowed my brow at the angel, trying to convey through my expression and telepathy my profound confusion and disorientation.

“You’re in a hospital,” said the angel. “St. Christopher’s. I’m Nurse Horace.”

My eyes flittered about the room. The puke-green walls, the harsh light, the alien machinery. Not hell, but a hospital. Semantics, as far as I was concerned. Panic welled within me, setting off tiny but powerful charges of pain in my lungs. My mouth tugged down in a grimace, and I felt tears slipping down the sides of my face to pool on my pillow.

“Shhh, be still,” Nurse Horace said, a cool hand stroking my sweat-slicked forehead. “Doctor Randolph will be here soon. You’re going to be fine, just fine.”

I was retreating. Retreating from this room that had so easily been mistaken for a chamber of hell. Retreating from the unwanted knowledge that played at the corner of my mind, taunting me with nonsensical images that threatened to make too much sense. Retreating from this demon/angel/nurse whose voice was like honey. I closed my eyes again and retreated, back down the dark hole from which I had so recently emerged. Not all the way down, not as far as I’d been. I was still aware of the world above me, the commotion in that world as more people entered the room, but I ducked my head and stayed down in the dark, not yet ready to face the light.

Not yet.
* * *
Sometime later I began crawling out of the hole, up toward a familiar voice calling my name.

“Sean? Sean, can you hear me?”

I opened my eyes, and this time I knew exactly where I was. A hospital. I turned my head slightly, that small movement sending a flow of lava across my chest. Nurse Horace was by my bed, taking an empty pouch from a tall metal stand and replacing it with one full of clear liquid. She smiled down at me.

“Sean? Oh God, Sean, it’s good to see you with your eyes open again.”

My gaze shifted and located the owner of that familiar voice. A lovely young woman with wheat-colored hair and large green eyes, sitting next to the bed in an uncomfortable-looking chair with vinyl upholstery the same putrid color as the walls. Her full lips were pressed together in worry and fear, an expression to which they were unaccustomed.

“Melody?” I said, my voice still a croak but stronger than before.

Tears sprang from her eyes like lemmings from a cliff, and a stuttering laugh tripped out of her mouth. “Yes, it’s me,” she said, taking my right hand gently in her own and caressing my knuckles. “When Dr. Randolph called and told me you had regained consciousness, I was afraid to believe it. Then I get here and find you all coma-like again, I thought God was playing some cruel trick on me.”

“I tried to tell her,” Nurse Horace said. “That you weren’t comatose again, just resting, but the girl just wasn’t hearing me.”

“I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Melody said, looking at me like a precious family heirloom thought lost then found unexpectedly in a box in the attic. “But you’re back, you’re really back.”


“You mean you don’t remember?”

I tried to concentrate, attempting to rewind my memory beyond awakening in hell. The last clear memory I had was of running a bath after work. After that, there was only the kaleidoscopic mix of images, a puzzle with all the pieces spread out on the table, none of the pieces yet put together.

“Don’t worry about it,” Melody said, her mouth twisting back into that tight mask of worry. “It’s not important right now; all that is important is that you’re okay.”

“Ah, I see you’re up,” said an older man as he stepped into the room. His hair was a stunning shade of silver, his eyes kind and full of good humor behind wire-framed glasses. He was tall, six five at least, and wore a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck. I knew who he must be even before he leaned over the bed and said, “I’m Dr. Randolph.”

I nodded at the man. He looked like the father in some fifties situation comedy, which was simultaneously comforting and a bit creepy.

“Now then,” Dr. Randolph said with a grin, “I’m happy to say you’re doing quite well, given the circumstances. You won’t be doing any high jumps anytime soon, but you’re doing remarkably well for a young man who drowned less than forty-eight hours ago.”

“Drowned?” I repeated. “I drowned?”

A couple of puzzle pieces found each other and locked together. A face, a face I knew, blurred and rippling, a sensation of suffocation.

“Don’t strain yourself trying to remember,” Dr. Randolph said. “A trauma like this, you should be in no hurry to regain those memories.”

The puzzle was teasingly close to being solved, but I decided to let it go for now. And it was a relief. That face in my memory, twisted with rage, was a nightmare right out of some Wes Craven picture. Best to let the demons stay buried for the moment.

“How long was I unconscious?” I asked, my voice beginning to sound like its normal self again.

Melody and Nurse Horace both turned to Dr. Randolph, who reconfigured his face into a look of sympathy. “Thirty-seven hours.”

I pressed my head into the pillow, trying to wrap my brain around this. I had drowned and lay in a comatose state for a day and a half. This was no nightmare, no overly dramatic episode of ER, this was real.

“But you’re gonna be fine,” Melody was quick to chime in. “The worst is behind you.”

“Absolutely,” Dr. Randolph said, his TV-father smile resurrected. “It was touch-and-go for a while there, but you’re through the woods now. You’re going to be good as new.”

Good as new, I thought. Was that possible? After all this, would I ever be the same again?

This is what I remembered later, after the puzzle was completed:

It was Saturday night, and I was working the closing shift at Book ‘Em Dano, the bookstore/coffeehouse where I’d been employed for the past two years. The store closed at ten on Saturdays, but employees had to stay an additional hour for cleanup and shelving. I didn’t get to my apartment until well after eleven.

I lived only a few blocks from the store. So close, in fact, that I could walk to work on a nice day. Not that I ever did, but I could. My apartment was one of four studios in a light gray building that stood tall and rectangular like a cracker box. Two more identical buildings stood on the same lot. My apartment, 2B, was the bottom right apartment of the second building, the brass number and letter hanging crookedly from the door.

The apartment itself was a perfect square, a single room except for a cramped bathroom no larger than a closet that opened off to the left just inside the door. A kitchenette, separated from the rest of the apartment by a long bar, took up half of the right side of the space. In the far right corner was an actual working fireplace with a glass screen. A Murphy bed opened up out of the wall in the far left corner, across from the fireplace. At the very back of the apartment was a rusty metal heating/air-conditioning until like those in motel rooms. It was a tiny living space, but the rent was only three hundred and fifty a month, and that included all utilities but phone.

Stepping inside the apartment, I kicked off my shoes and tossed my keys onto the bar. The light was blinking on my answering machine so I hit the button to retrieve my messages. One from my Mom, asking why I hadn’t called all week. One from the Student Loan Corporation, reminding me that I was behind on the previous month’s payment. One from Melody, telling me to call her tomorrow.

And one from Jeff.

Jeff was my ex-boyfriend, the prefix very fresh. We had broken up only two weeks prior, but Jeff didn’t seem to fully grasp the concept. He called me regularly, begging me to take him back. He had dropped by the store a few times, until Yvonne, the manager, had threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave the property. Wednesday night he’d shown up at the apartment, obviously drunk, and serenaded me with a raucous version of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” One of my neighbors had called the police over that little display, and the cops had hauled him off for disturbing the peace. I’d had the presence of mind to have the police officers procure the key to my apartment that Jeff had never returned. The message on my machine was the first I’d heard from him since that night.

“Sean, man, why are you doing this to me? Huh? Are you punishing me for something? I need you, baby, don’t you understand that? We can work this out, if you’ll just give me a chance. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. You don’t want to throw away everything we’ve built this past year, I know you don’t. Or do you? Are you that selfish and heartless? Is that it? You were just toying with me this past year, making me your own personal little love slave or something, and now you’re done with me and you can just toss me out like yesterday’s garbage. It’s that easy for you, isn’t it? I mean that little to you, huh? ‘Oh, well, that was fun but now I’m through, hit the road.’ You spineless little fuck. You can’t treat people this way. You can’t be allowed to get away with it. You hear me? You need a reality check, someone to knock you off your goddam golden pedestal. You’re not such hot shit, and someday very soon you’re going to see that. I’m going to make you see that. I’ll be seeing you.”

I went to erase the message, but my finger paused above the button. Yvonne and Melody had been trying to convince me to take out a restraining order on Jeff, and I was beginning to think they were right. He was becoming more and more unstable, and it was starting to really frighten me. I decided to save the message, just in case I needed it to get a protective order.

My relationship with Jeff was one of those things that was a disaster right from the start, and everyone could see it but me. I knew he had a volatile temper and had gotten into more than a few fistfights, but through my rose-colored glasses I just viewed that as part of his passionate nature. He could be absurdly jealous, but I merely thought that was a sign of how much he truly loved me. Two of his ex-boyfriends claimed that he had beaten them, but I considered this to be lies spread by a couple of bitter fags. Melody had once broached the subject of Jeff’s temper with me, but I had reacted with anger, accusing her of wanting to sabotage my happiness. Love was not only blind when it came to my relationship with Jeff, it was also mentally challenged.

My wakeup call came in the form of a size 11 work boot. It started out as a silly argument, buried resentments clawing their way to the surface. We had rented a movie and were going to order a pizza and stay at my apartment for the night. I had asked Jeff if he would pay for the pizza because my funds were starting to get a little depleted. He balked, saying his job in a textile mill didn’t exactly leave him rolling in the dough.

“Well, look,” I’d said, trying to keep my voice calm, “I paid for the movies, and I almost always pay when we eat out, so could you just pay for the pizza this once?”

“You don’t always pay,” Jeff said, his voice gaining volume. “You make it sound like I’m just some big mooch. I got expenses of my own.”

“You live with your mother and drive her car.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jeff had roared.

“It means what it means,” I’d said, exhausted already. I hated to argue. “I just wish you could pick up the tab now and then.”

“How about I pick this up?” Jeff had said, taking one of his heavy work boots and tossing it at me. He threw it with force and it struck me in the side of the face. “How do you like that? That work for you?”

I stood there, dazed, staring down at the boot. And that was it, like a light went on, or a switch was thrown, or a dam broke, or whatever clichéd metaphor would be most appropriate. I had looked up at Jeff, his face scrunched up in anger, and I could see that he didn’t even seem to realize that he’d done anything wrong. He’d just hit me in the face with a steel-toed boot, and he still acted as if he thought he were the injured party.

“Get out,” I’d said, soft but firm. “Get out right now.”

Screaming had followed, but Jeff had left. He seemed to think that it was just for the night, and he had been honestly surprised when I told him we were through. Then had started the calls, the visits, the overall harassment. I considered myself an intelligent man, I wasn’t sure how I had ever gotten involved with someone so violent in the first place, but I just wanted to put it behind me.

Which would have been easier to do if Jeff had not continued to call and pop up.

I’d been planning to make a late snack and watch Saturday Night Live, but after the message I just didn’t feel up to it. Instead, I figured I’d take a bubble bath then hit the sack. I’d call Melody in the morning and see if she’d go with me to get the restraining order.

I went to one of my waist-high bookcases to pick out a book to read in the tub. I passed over books like Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, A Brave New World—books I’d never read, and probably never would, but I felt made me seem smarter just by being on my shelves—and selected They Thirst, Robert McCammon’s tale of vampires taking over Los Angeles.

And there you have it, the 2B that could have been. There is some stuff here I kind of like, but I do think I wasn't yet ready to tackle this story and am glad I waited.

If you haven't yet read 2B, you can find the novel here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08RWBT9CK/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0

Interview with Lex H Jones

Lex H Jones is a British writer who is making quite a name for himself in the field.

I've had the pleasure of getting to know him on social media, and even did a reading of the title story from his new collection Whistling Past the Graveyard to help him promote it. I asked if he'd let me interview him for my little blog, and I was thrilled that he said yes.

MAG: What was the first story you remember falling in love with as a reader?

LHJ: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I had an old illustrated children's edition of it that I would read over and over, and of course I then discovered the various film adaptations of it too. I remember going to see the Muppets version at the cinema, in fact. Not long afterwards I was bought a copy of the full unabridged book, and it remains my favourite story to this day.

MAG: What is the first story you remember writing yourself?

LHJ: I'm sure we were tasked with writing stories from the very beginning of school, but there's one that I remember very clearly. When I was around 7 or 8 years old, I remember we had a supply teacher (I think you call them substitute teachers in America), and he set us a writing task. The first thing we did was to read a story for children that were younger than us, and then we were told to write a story using the same characters, for the same reading age. When I look back on this now it seems like quite an elaborate creative writing task to give such young children, but I remember being very enthusiastic about it. If you told me "write any story you want for any age group" I'd have stared blankly at the empty page in horror, but having those boundaries imposed on it seemed to spark something in me.

The characters in the story were basically anthropomorphised vegetables, so it made sense to me to tell a story about them that was set outside in a garden area. I wrote one where they were playing hide and seek, and one hid in some nettles because he's an idiot. The moral of the story was that even in playtime you need to be a bit careful. The teacher took me to one side after reading it, and suggested to me, in a very British posh-person matter-of-fact way, that I ought to consider writing as a career choice when I got older. I'm not going to follow it up with "and so that's exactly what I did"..... because I didn't.....but that moment always stuck with me.

MAG: At what point did you start to think of yourself as a writer, realizing that it was something you really wanted to do as more than a hobby?

LHJ: I think probably when I was in my mid twenties. I'd been writing just for the hell of it up until then, but for some reason I decided to start letting people read my work. It was rough and, if I were to go back and read it now, probably quite embarrassing. But the people who read it saw something through it and asked me to keep going. A few years later I decided to start seeking publication for my work, and eventually I got lucky and landed a contract.

MAG: Who were some of your earliest influences?

LHJ: That's a tricky one because I can't honestly say there was a particular one. I liked stories, whatever format they came in. Books, comic books, films, cartoons, videogames, the stories I'd make up to act out with my action figures. I just loved stories, and wanted to create my own. The action figures were my first vehicle for doing that, and they would eventually be replaced with words. Which aren't quite as fun to play with, but at least you get books out of them. So there's a variety of influence in there from all those mediums. With regard specifically to authors, however, the first ghost story I was ever told was "Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You" by M.R James, which was told to me by my grandad. I loved that story and would ask to hear it again and again, along with the various other tales he would narrate. A few years later (when I was still far too young), I found my Dad's battered old copy of Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and that would be my first self-read entry into real horror books.

MAG: What was your first published story?

LHJ: The first work I got published was "Nick and Abe", a literary fiction fantasy novel about God and the Devil spending a year on earth as mortal men. It was a strange one for me because it wasn't the least bit dark or horror-infused, but it was just an idea that I needed to get out of my head.

MAG: What is your writing process like? Certain time of day, designated space, target word counts?

LHJ: At the moment (I write this mid-Covid lockdown) I don't have one. My day-job has been reduced to "spending all day in my home office working on the laptop", which means I'm absolutely not spending all my spare time doing that aswell. So my writing output has dropped significantly, bar a few short stories and some comic book scripts I've worked on. But in the 'before times', I would usually block out a couple of hours in an evening, lock myself in the office room and just write. No phone, no TV on, nothing to distract me.

MAG: What has been your most gratifying moment as a writer?

LHJ: Every time somebody sends me a message or leaves a review to say they enjoyed something I wrote, that's a gratifying moment. But the absolute best moment I think would probably when I walked into a branch of Waterstones (that's the UK's biggest book shop chain) and saw one of my books on the shelf. I'd always dreamed of that, and I couldn't quite believe it had happened. So much so that I went in again to see it the next day, because I wasn't entirely sure that I hadn't dreamed it.

MAG: Your new collection, Whistling Past the Graveyard, was recently released. Tell us about this book. How did you choose the stories you collected?

LHJ: Three (I think) of the stories were published before in other anthologies, and I chose those because they were particular favourites of mine and/or ones that had received a really nice response from readers. The rest of the stories in the book were new, and they were largely the culmination of years' worth of notes and half-thought out ideas that I hadn't fleshed out. You know those 'middle of the night' ideas that you don't currently have time to work on because you're already in the middle of a novel? A lot of them were those. Others were long-held story ideas that I'd never found the right place for. I wanted a variety, so you didn't get five werewolf stories in a row, for example, and I think (hope!) the book delivers that.

MAG: Do you have a preference between short fiction and longer fiction?

LHJ: It honestly depends on the story. For ghost stories, I always prefer short stories. I just think ghost stuff works better that way. The discomfort and otherworldly feel of a well-done ghost story is difficult to maintain for hundreds of pages addressing the same idea. Eventually it just becomes the thing that's happening and you're used to it. You get far better writers than me who can handle this well, of course, but as a general preference I just prefer them to be short. But for something like a crime story, I like a full meaty novel.

MAG: Can you tell us about what you are working on now?

LHJ: Where motivation allows with the ongoing lockdown, I am working on my second children's book, and at the same time making some edits to an occult detective novel. At the same time I'm doing finishing touches on a film-script I co-wrote, and some scripts I've written for a comic book.

MAG: You've been very open on social media about being on the autism spectrum. Do you think this has an impact on your writing in any way?

LHJ: I think it probably does, most likely in ways I don't necessarily intend or notice. I've had a couple of reviews of Whistling Past the Graveyard that commented how they liked the way it was written, that everything was very clear and well-explained, even when dealing with eldritch otherworldly stuff. I think this is probably connected to my being autistic, as I am always conscious of explaining my thoughts very clearly, because being misunderstood is a source of great discomfort for me. I'm not good at 'vamping', at just rattling stuff off out of nowhere (I can't do smalltalk for this reason). I like to plan what I am going to say, and try to find that balance between giving the required information to ensure understanding.....but not going on for so long that the eyes of the other person start to glaze over. You and I have had many conversations, Mark, I'm sure you've noticed the (often unnecessary) length of my messages. I think I often seem more 'normal' in my writing than I do in person, as I can hide behind characters who don't struggle with situations the way that I do. I have time to think and plan what they will say and do in each encounter, in a way that we're just not afforded in real life.

I want to thank Lex for agreeing to stop by and chat with me. If you are interested in buying a copy of Whistling Past the Graveyard (and you should be), you can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Whistling-Past-Graveyard-Lex-Jones-ebook/dp/B08RY64CZJ/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=whistling+past+the+graveyard+jones&qid=1616230444&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Women in Horror: The Year of Reading Diversely

As mentioned in an earlier post, this year I have decided to read deliberately and diversely, reading only books by women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks. I want to highlight voices that sometimes don't get enough exposure, and also strengthen my push for greater visibility and representation.

In case you didn't know, February is designated Women in Horror Month. This started as a movement around twelve years ago, I believe, and is now an international phenomenon. The whole point of WiHM is to highlight women in a field where historically they have not had the same equal footing as their male counterparts. It isn't meant to denigrate male writers or to elevate female writers above them. As I said, it is simply about equal footing.

Therefore this month I have focused my reading on horror titles by female authors. And I have to say I've read some great ones. Thought I'd talk a little about them here.

- The Hunger by Alma Katsu. This one has become very well known, in part thanks to a great blurb from King. The hype is most assuredly deserved here. This book, which fictionalizes the story of the Donner Party while adding in some supernatural menace, is a great exercise in atmosphere and tension and dread. It builds slowly, inexorably, until the hopelessness the characters feel wafts off the page like an icy wind. She created characters who were interesting and compelling, and therein lies the novel's real strength. You invest in the characters and therefore everything that happens to them has great emotional impact. I also love that she didn't overdo the supernatural element, leaving it mysterious which only ratcheted up the suspense.

- Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Perhaps best known for her more recent Mexican Gothic, I decided to start with an earlier novel by this author. What she delivered here was a book about magic, but unlike any other book about magic I have ever encountered. This story is grounded very much in the real world, which in many ways makes the magical elements easier to accept. Because everything else about the world is so recognizable and relatable. She links magic with music, which is simple and genius because I think we all at one point in our lives have encountered music that seemed to get into our souls. As with the Katsu novel, the character work here is extraordinary, people that come off the page and feel like folks you actually know.

- It, Watching by Elizabeth Massie. I've been a fan of Massie's work for a long time, since discovering her astounding novel Sineater back in the 90s. She has bold vision and a strong voice. She also has a few collections out, and as a short story lover I was looking forward to tackling some of the short fiction. The tales in this particular collection are very short, many of them flash, and they show that as an author Massie has a quirky imagination. By that I mean the kernels of her ideas are so unique, I'm not sure anyone else would have thought of them. The closing story, "The Replacement," is by far the collection's most powerful work, clever and engaging but also packed with emotion.

- The Between by Tananarive Due. Due is a powerful voice in the horror field, speaking out for diversity and inclusion and visibility. I've enjoyed a previous novel and collection by her, and I wanted to go back and read her first published novel. What she has accomplished here is impressive on its own, but knowing it was her first published novel makes it even more so. The plot is one of those high-concept ideas that could go wrong in the hands of a lesser storyteller. Due handles it expertly. Her characters are well-drawn and flawed in ways that make them feel authentic. This is one of those books where I almost can't believe it hasn't been snapped up and made into a movie or limited series television show yet.

The main point of my little reading project this year, other than simply to highlight diverse voices, is to show that you can go a whole year only reading women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks and never lack for great fiction.

The books I just mentioned by these four very talented women prove that.

2B ... Almost Not to Be

2B Cover.jpg

I'm so excited to announce the release of my newest novel, 2B. I wrote this story in the summer of last year, and it just poured out of me. I blazed through it in two months. Yes, that's all it took me to write this one. Two months.

Well, twenty years and two months.

You see, I originally had the idea around twenty years ago. I was immediately excited by the possibilities the story presented. Perhaps too excited. For whatever reason, I felt a little paralyzed when I considered actually writing it. In some ways, the idea felt too good and I think I sensed I wasn't seasoned enough yet to tackle the themes the story would present. I focused on other stories and wrote those instead.

However, I never entirely forgot about 2B. I would think about it from time to time, toy with the finally putting pen to paper on it, but for whatever reason the time never felt right. I never felt ready.

Then about ten years ago I thought I was ready. I made a start, did a chapter and a half but I knew instantly it wasn't what I wanted. Looking back, I still don't think I had developed enough as a writer to do the idea justice, and I was so in love with the idea that I was terrified of not doing it justice. So I scrapped that chapter and a half and tucked the idea back into the corner of my mind again.

In a way, I think I started to idealize the idea. Put it on a pedestal, viewing it as this perfect idea that I would only ever screw up if I tried to mold it into being. I actually think I had started to believe I would never really write it.

Then Adam Messer at Valhalla Books asked me if I would write a novel for him, to be the first solo-authored book from the new publishing company. I was honored, and I decided to give him several different ideas I had been considering to see what he responded to. Sort of on the spur of the moment, I decided to throw 2B into the mix.

Talking about the idea, describing the plot, got me excited and I fell in love with the idea all over again, and Adam's excitement fueled me.

So I sat down and two months later, the thing which had existed only in my head for two decades was finally an honest-to-God book with a beginning, middle, and end.

For me, it was worth the wait. I hope readers feel the same.

2B can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08RWBT9CK/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i3

The Year of Reading Diversely

I'm not really one for resolutions, but I did decide to undergo a little project for 2021. And that is I plan to spend the entire year reading deliberately, by which I mean reading diversely. For the entire year, I will read nothing but books by people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ folks.

A disclaimer. This is not to trash straight white authors or to suggest straight white authors don't produce great work. They do. However, as much as I love to talk the talk of diversity in literature, I've noticed that even I don't always walk the walk as much as I'd like. I go to my "comfort food" authors, the ones I grew up with, and those do tend to be straight white males. Nothing wrong with that, but there's so much other great literature out there that I keep putting on the backburner. No more.

And to be clear, this isn't a sacrifice or a chore. I will still read the stories that sound the most interesting to me, and I've no doubt I will still read highly entertaining and thought-provoking and satisfying tales. But this year all those highly entertaining and thought-provoking and satisfying tales will be written by people of color, women, or LGBTQ+.

I started out the year with a bang, choosing Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias. Gabino is a force in the horror/noir community and someone I have admired for a while. This was my first read by him, and my admiration has only grown. Coyote Songs is powerful and gripping and intellectually stimulating and written with a lyrical prose style that was breath-taking. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

Now I'm reading The Hunger by Alma Katsu and the collection Sea, Swallow Me by Craig L. Gidney. Enjoying both so far.

While I believe strongly in seeking out diverse voices and expanding our reading beyond our comfort zones, because it enriches our reading and exposes us to great stories we didn't even know we were missing, I want to be clear: this is a challenge for myself. And not even a challenge, because that suggests it's difficult. This is my privilege to read stories by such talented people and to truly enrich my mind and my life.

I'll post semi-regularly about what I'm reading this year, and feel free to read some of these titles as well.

Coyote Songs can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Coyote-Songs-Gabino-Iglesias-ebook/dp/B07JQG6X5P/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1IWC8FAKREQPS&dchild=1&keywords=coyote+songs&qid=1610298521&s=books&sprefix=coyote+songs%2Caps%2C1460&sr=1-1

2020 Year In Review

2020 has been a rough year for a lot of people, and I think most of us will be happy to see it ushered out and hope for a brighter 2021. However, with everything going on in the world, life has still had to go on. And as always, I offer up a glimpse of my writing life of the past year.

I have done a lot of writing this year and have found a new dedication and commitment. I started out the year still working on my novel The Advantaged. I was enjoying it but also struggling a bit. I also had started tinkering with a short play, as a sort of experiment, which I was calling The Dinner Party. When Covid hit in the spring, I found myself temporarily furloughed from work, and to keep my anxiety in check, I decided to pretend for that time that I was a full-time writer. I decided to put aside all other projects and start on something fresh.

I ended up writing a new novella called When it Rains. Pardon the pun, but it sort of poured out of me, and I felt great at getting something accomplished. I finished it a week before returning to work. When that was done, I returned to The Advanged with renewed energy and vigor and finished that novel as well.

From there I turned to a new novel, 2B, which happened to be an idea that I'd carried around for almost 20 years. I had even started it once about 10 years ago but abandoned it without getting very far. The time was apparently right because I tore through it, and it is a piece of writing I'm very proud of.

Inspired by finally giving life to an old idea, I next started on Triangle, a book I first envisioned back in college. I even incorporated it as a movie described in an earlier novel, Sequel. As we speak, I am deep into that novel, well past the halfway point.

I also found time to write several short stories and poems as well.

When it comes to publishing in 2020, I had one major project released. My novel 324 Abercorn, which is my take on the classic haunted house novel, is also a love letter to my home-away-from-home Savannah, GA. I was so happy to have that one out in August, and the reception it received was gratifying.

I also had several anthology appearances throughout the year. In April, The Horror Collection: Emerald Edition featured my tale, "Haunting at Stump Lake." Also in April Shallow Waters Vol. 5 with my story "The Visitors." September saw the release of two more anthologies I found myself in: Shallow Waters Vol. 6 featured two stories by me, "Anything for the Cause" and "Carmen's a Bitch", and Dead Awake included my story "Clown Craze." October, Halloween to be exact," saw the release of The Devil's Due with my deal-with-the-devil story "Genevieve and the Owl"; November One of Us, a charity anthology released as a tribute to the late reviewer Frank Michaels Errington, with my story "The Painted Panel"; and finally December ended the year with a bang with Halldark Holidays, which featured my tale "O Little Town..."

I held no live events this year, of course, but during the promotional push for 324 Abercorn I made many podcast and blog appearances.

Personally, Craig and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary and one full year in our beautiful new home. We have fared better than many this year, and I'm grateful to have a husband and best friend who is so supportive and loving.

On the horizon next year I have two novels set to release, and while I haven't decided on what project will follow Triangle I am more in love than ever with the art and craft of storytelling.

I hope everyone is staying safe and sane, and I wish better things ahead for everyone.

"O Little Town..." and LGBT Representation in Horror

I am thrilled that my short story "O Little Town..." appears in the new anthology Halldark Holidays. It is a cool concept and I share the table of contents with a lot of very talented folks. And best of all, I got to work with wunderkind editor Gabino Iglesias.

Iglesias, a talented writer in his own right, is also a strong proponent of representation of diversity in the horror genre. Like me, he recognizes this isn't about tokenism but about searching for the best talent out there, and that talent isn't exclusive to straight white men. Because he cast such a wide net, and specifically sought out diverse voices, Halldark is populated by many women, people of color, and LGBT folks like myself.

The strength of gathering as many diverse voices as possible is that even on a similar theme, you can get original and unexpected perspectives, the old can become fresh again. Speaking for myself, being gay has an impact on my writing in that my life contains concerns and struggles that a straight person doesn't experience. Not saying that is better or worse ... merely different, and thus can color my writing.

Trust me, I'm not suggesting straight people can't write gay characters, or white people characters of color, but I am saying you will get a nuance from minority writers that are different because they've lived it.

I love to people my stories with LGBT characters not necessarily to make some kind of larger point, but simply because we exist and haven't really been represented in my favorite genre to a large degree. It's something I do naturally, without much thought, but which sometimes I am reminded can be surprising to genre readers. My last book, the novel 324 Abercorn, featured a character who works as a drag queen, and an interviewer commented that he couldn't remember the last time he encountered a drag queen in a horror novel. So this got me to thinking about ways both large and small my being gay impacts my stories.

Which leads us back to "O Little Town..." As with a lot of my stories, I placed gay characters at the center without making a huge deal of it. In fact, I don't think I ever use the word "gay" in the entire story. In some ways, I find that kind of revolutionary, presenting gay people as normal and natural.

However, as I said, being gay is going to come with certain baggage and experiences unique to the community, that straight people haven't had to endure. I wasn't thinking of any of this consciously during the writing of the tale, but afterward I looked back and noticed small little moments that spoke to this.

First, early on the couple at the heart of the story has a sexual moment. It's not super relevant to the plot and could have been removed without affecting the overall story, but I'm glad it is there. Because too often I see gay character presented as asexual, eunuchs. I have read books where you know a character is gay because the writer says at the beginning that they are gay, but there's nothing else to indicate that. The argument I hear is, "Well, gay people aren't always thinking about sex, always having sex." And that's true. Neither are straight people, but most stories with straight protagonists have some mention of sex or attraction or romance. But sometimes -not always, but definitely something I've noticed - when straight people write gay characters, they underplay the sexual aspect of being gay to the point that we come off as Ken dolls with nothing but smooth plastic down there. So yes, on a slightly subconscious level I think I like to show that my gay characters are fully realized human beings, which includes a sex drive and a need for romantic love.

Another thing I realized I did in "O Little Town..." was drop in these small little lines that speak of a larger concern in the characters' lives. For instance, one of the main characters comments that it would be a nightmare to spend Christmas with his family ... only his family would never invite them anyway. Even today, with all the progress made, a lot of gay people face ostracization from their families, especially in my neck of the woods. People who have to choose between being true to themselves and giving up the family they were born into. Parents disowning children because of who they are attracted to. Even in the post-Will and Grace world, this happens.

At another point, the other main character is thinking about how he and his husband worried about settling down in a small southern town, and the fact that their neighbors were casually pleasant to them was a true blessing. Again, especially in the South, you encounter a lot of ignorant rednecks who all have an opinion about your relationship, who aren't afraid to make that opinion known, all in the name of Jesus and patriotism and "family values." So yes, gay people sometimes have greater concerns when choosing where to live than school districts and proximity to downtown.

I didn't belabor these points, didn't get all preachy; each issue had exactly one line and I moved on. Yet those issues may not have been raised at all by a writer who wasn't LGBT, or conversely may have received too much focus in the story. I'm not saying being gay makes me a better storyteller, but it makes me a different storyteller. It gives me a perspective that can produce fiction that is unique to my experience.

And that is why diversity in horror can only benefit and enrich the genre. Because you can get a lot of unique and surprising stories, even when exploring familiar tropes.

So thank you to Gabino for casting such a wide net and letting me play in his sandbox.

You can check out Helldark Holidays here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08QVV6FNV/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0

Closing the Door on ASYLUM

It was ten years ago when Apex Publishing (originally under the imprint The Zombie Feed) published my novella ASYLUM.

It was a huge deal for me at the time. ASYLUM was only my second published work, and the first one to truly explore LGBT characters and themes in depth. With that piece, I established what interests me most in storytelling, which is taking the familiar tropes I loved growing up and putting my own stamp on them, particularly by reimagining them through an LGBT lens.

Apex showed a lot of faith in me by publishing a piece so heavily focused on a cast of almost exclusively LGBT characters when other publishers had expressed trepidation about that. They not only published it, but they did not promote it as anything more than an exciting zombie story. The LGBT content was treated as no big deal. Which of course it isn't, but at that point in my publishing career I can't express how vital it was I found a publisher who agreed. In fact, the original cover seen above appealed to me because it was so traditional for a zombie story.

ASYLUM didn't become a runaway bestseller, didn't make me millions, nothing like that. It did, however, go on to become one of my bestselling books, and in many ways I feel it is my "signature title," the one most associated with me. I have received a lot of great feedback on the piece, and straight audiences embraced it as well as LGBT audiences.

A few years ago, Apex even released a new edition of the book with a great new cover and I penned a follow-up short story, "Lunatics Running the Asylum," which appears at the end. It felt great to give the story a new lease on life.

Now, a decade later, Apex has decided the time has come to retire the title, and ASYLUM will be going out of print at the end of this month. I have no hard feelings, as they did right by me with this book and my experience working with Jason and the folks at Apex has been phenomenal. I considered self-publishing an edition to keep it on the market, but truthfully Apex has done such a great job promoting the book over the years, I don't believe I could reach anyone they already haven't. Maybe sometime in the future, but not now. You still have a few weeks to grab a copy if you want. You can even get it at a discounted price from the publisher directly.

So at the end of November, we will be turning out the lights and closing the door on ASYLUM. It has been a wild ride, but it's last call. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.


Interview with Shane Nelson

I've known Shane Nelson for a lot of years. He's not only a good friend, but a hell of a writer. We've even collaborated on two novellas. This Hallowee we both have independent stories appearing in the anthology The Devil's Due, so I decided to take this opportunity to interview him for my blog.

MAG: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? If so, what can you tell me about it?

SN: I know that there were others, but the first “serious” story that I wrote was in the fourth grade. It was a story called “The Black Passage”, which starred yours truly—I was the narrator—and my best-friend at the time, Anthony Lambert. It’s a story about the two of us, just a pair of young kids, and the dangerous adventures we have when we explore an old abandoned house in our home town. Inside the Mitchell House we find a secret passage in the back of the old fireplace. Following that passage leads us to a secret room that contains all kinds of stolen art treasures. This leads us into tangling with thieves, mobsters and the police. Not bad for a couple of kids who had to be nine or ten. I know it’s more than you asked, but the other story that stands out for me was written a couple of years later, in grade 5 or 6. It was my first real horror story, a “novel” called Hell House. I often joke that it was “inspired” by the 1981 movie Hell Night, but it was a little more than inspiration, as it is set in an old house with a bloody history, a house in which a group of partying teens get slaughtered. That led me down a road to more and more slasher stories. Hell Night had four sequels, in fact!

MAG: At what age did you seriously start to think of yourself as a writer?

SN: That would have started after I wrote Hell Night. I had loved to write before that—every time there was a writing assignment in school, I was the annoying kid cheering about it—but after finishing that story, I felt like I had actually accomplished something, if that makes sense. And it was right after that when I began to write regularly. I would write all the time—in my room, at my desk, in front of the TV. So, it would have been around age 12 when I really began to feel like I was a writer.

MAG: Who were some of your biggest inspirations and influences as a storyteller?

SN: If I were to look back to my childhood—ages 10-18, let’s say—I would probably name two writers as being my biggest influences. The first was Stephen King. I know that’s probably not a surprise—how many other writers, horror writers especially, don’t cite him as an influence? I grew up reading his novels and short stories and there was something about them that just called to me. His stories were so real, so down to earth and believable… I was instantly drawn to them. I know that I learned much of my own style and technique from reading King’s works. And, of course, his movies were equally big for me. I was one of those writers of the 80s who grew up with early satellite TV, so I had movies at my fingertips. I saw them all, from Alien to Xtro. And I loved King’s movies, even the bad ones (and there were a lot).

The other writer from that period who influenced me the most was Ray Bradbury. It was his magical creativity and his lyrical prose that I loved. That and his sense of nostalgia. The harkening back to the past was something that I had always felt, even as a young kid. I was constantly turning back and looking at things behind me. So, naturally, Bradbury drew me. I remember the first Bradbury story I read, “All Summer in a Day”. I read it in school and it was an emotional punch to the gut. I remember loving and hating it at the same time, wanting to be able to write something like that.

MAG: I know when you were young you used to type out your stories and bind them and even create your own covers. Did you let your family and friends read these? If so, what kind of feedback did you get?

SN: To be honest, I didn’t let many people read those stories until later on in my high schools years, around grade 9 or 10. My sister might have read a few of my stories, but for the most part I kept them to myself. I’m not sure if it was about a lack of confidence in the writing or if it was just that I was writing for myself and loving it. I did put together a couple of short story collections with hand-made covers that I sold to people in the neighbourhood. My first best-sellers, haha. But I really didn’t have a very big audience for those works. A handful of people might’ve read them.

MAG: Your story, "The Devil You Know",appears in the anthology The Devil's Due. Do you remember where you got the initial germ of the idea for that story?

SN: To be honest, this is one of those stories that have slipped off of my radar. I honestly can’t remember where it came from or how the idea surfaced. I know that at the time my wife and I were struggling with fertility issues and trying to have kids, and I was thinking a lot about what life would be like both with and without kids. I’m sure that must have had some kind of an impact on the origin of the story. But beyond that, it’s all a guessing game for me!

MAG: Since the theme of the anthology is deal with the devil stories, what are your favorite tales of that ilk?

SN: That’s a tough one. It’s hard to decide what constitutes a deal with the devil. Is it something like The Picture of Dorian Grey or is it “The Hell-Bound Train”? Needful Things is a story about deals with the devil. There is also the classic that I studied in school, “The Devil and Daniel Webster”. Those would all be stories that come to mind. But I think one can stretch the idea of a deal with the devil to cover a lot of ground.

MAG: You previously co-authored a deal with the devil story with me, "The Price of Success", which is in the book Deviations from the Norm. What are your favorite aspects of that kind of story?

SN: I loved writing that collaboration with you. Writing with another author is fun for a number of reasons. First, you get to share that frisson, that electricity that comes when you have a great idea and build on it. Bouncing ideas and thoughts back and forth, building something up from nothing. That’s great fun. The whole planning, even if it is just in very rough form. Then there is the back and forth process, getting to read what your partner in crime has created. Sometimes that’s even more fun. I mean, I know where the story is going, but to see how someone else moves it along is exciting. It’s like half-knowing what to expect, and half-having no idea at all. I also like how very often I naturally try to mimic the other style, though still writing in my own way. There’s just something fun and exciting about a collaboration.

You can find The Devil's Due here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B088P7HBPH/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i9
Find more from Shane Nelson here: https://www.amazon.com/Shane-Nelson/e/B08DDB4Z5J?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000

Michael Schutz Interview

My good friend Michael Schutz is a hell of a talented author. His work is fresh and exciting and evocative. I was so happy that he was willing to sit down to talk to me about writing, his life, and the release of his new book Plank Children.

Writers often start out as avid readers. Do you remember the first book that made you fall in love with storytelling?

MS: In the first grade I read The Black Stallion and fell in love with reading. My mom had borrowed my aunt’s typewriter to work on her resume, and she let me use it. I opened The Black Stallion to the first page and typed out the first paragraph. It fascinated me how letters formed words that became sentences that put pictures in my head. I wanted to do that! For real—with my own words; form my own sentences, build paragraphs, and create stories of my own. My love of storytelling was born.

At what age did you start writing your own tales?

MS: I would have been six or seven when I started scribbling my own stories. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I must have been writing a lot because for Christmas of my third-grade year my mom and dad gave me a typewriter. It wasn’t much more than a toy, but I loved it! I wrote my first “novel”—all of twelve pages: XT, a bit of a Terminator rip-off. I banged out tales on that until that little machine fell apart. Next Christmas, a top-of-the-line electric typewriter waited under the tree! I wrote my own bloody twist on A Christmas Carol that afternoon.

What was the first story you ever had published?

MS: In 1995—I had just started my sophomore year at college—a trucking magazine ran a story of mine. My dad was a long-haul trucker, and the industry’s main trade journal ran a fiction contest. I didn’t win, but Truckers News picked “Here There Be Spyders” as an Honorable Mention. I had illustrations, too! That was an amazing feeling!

Do you believe that as a gay man, it is important to have LGBT representation in genre fiction?

MS: It is vital to have LGBTQ representation in genre fiction. Diversity of every kind. As a gay horror reader, I would have loved to read stories with characters I identified with when I was still young and closeted. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was starving to see myself in books and on screen. Over and over again I would relate to a character right up to the point when he went chasing after girls. I still get that pang in my chest when I see or read a character I like, in a story/film I’m getting into, and suddenly he has a problem with some girl.

I always intended to write gay characters, and to present them as ordinary folks who happen to be gay, just like they might have blue eyes or dark hair. While all my early (and mostly unpublished) short stories featured gay protagonists, my first two novels, Blood Vengeance and Edging starred straight protagonists—although Brennan in Blood Vengeance was supposed to be gay; he turned out to be straight. (I am planning a revised edition of Blood Vengeance, the book I wanted to write but simply did not know what I was doing yet, and I see Bren as confused, along the road of accepting his homosexuality.)

I have recently realized that leaving out explicit sexuality makes my characters essentially eunuchs and does a disservice to gay characters and gay representation. No, we are not defined by our sexuality, but anyone and everyone’s sexuality and sensuality is indeed important to their essence. You and I have discussed that quite a bit. My works-in-progress feature sex much more prominently. It is so freeing!

Do you feel that this particular time in history is a good time to be an openly gay man writing horror fiction that features gay characters? Do you feel the horror audience embraces this kind of diversity?

MS: That is a difficult question to answer. In the U.S. this is certainly the easiest time to be a gay writer and/or writer with gay characters. But perhaps the best time would have been in the 80s and 90s when bigotry and homophobia ran rampant, when we desperately needed representation. Of course, there has been a rolling back of progress these last few years—here and abroad. The gays and lesbians in Russia are practically being hunted down. It is a nightmare in the Middle East. One always must be vigilant. Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement need to stay strong as well. We must keep the fight in the forefront.

Can you recall the first time you encountered a gay character in horror fiction?

MS: I remember reading Stephen King’s IT in 7th Grade and nearly swooning during the bully-handjob scene. When Patrick tells Henry “I’ll put it in my mouth if you want.” Oh Lord. I must have read that scene a thousand times! In the 80s and 90s, most gay characters or gay storylines were like that, though—out of the blue; brief; often used for shock value. Or to illustrate morally corrupt behavior. Clive Barker’s “In the Hill, the Cities” gave me my first glimpse of a gay relationship. They were just a couple on a drive. No sex. No aberration. The fact that Mick and Judd were on the verge of breaking up—just like any couple could end up: bickering, wondering why the hell you’re with this person.

In Plank Children, the main character Miles is an openly gay man with relationship worries. I like that you made him feel so fully realized. How important was his backstory and relationship troubles to you in creating him as a character?

MS: In general, when I write my horror stories, I strive to create a skeleton of what I simply call “drama” over which to drape the scary, creepy, disturbing elements. Drama being reality-based, real-world, hopefully-relatable elements. So just in the most basic sense, the breakup and fallout was vital to the story.

Speaking specifically about Miles, his backstory is key to who he is right now. Just like any actual person, his trials and tribulation, rewards and awards, disappointments and successes have molded him. That’s true of any character. One must know who these characters are to give a damn about them. They need to have flaws and complicated pasts to become real on the page. Miles’s past informs every decision he makes in this novel and sets him on a path toward either destruction or redemption. Recalling a previous question, Miles’s relationship story felt like a great opportunity to show that gay men’s relationships are exactly like everyone else’s. I think everyone out there knows his pain and paranoia and the sum of his neuroses from their own past relationships.

The novel is incredibly atmospheric and chilling. Did any parts of it creep you out during the writing?

MS: The bathroom scenes gave me that thrilling sense of cringe that I love—you need to find out what’s back there, but at the same time you really don’t want to see it. But the part that truly creeped me out personally was the punishment boxes in the basement. And what’s scratching to get out of them.

What was the process of finding a publisher for this one like?

MS: Finding a publisher for Plank Children was a long and winding road. Permuted Press published my first novel, Blood Vengeance; when they bought that one, they accepted the next book—Edging. Shortly after the publication of Blood Vengeance, the press restructured and they let Edging go. Another former Permuted Press author had just started a small press of her own, and Kindra Sowder read Edging and loved it and accepted it for Burning Willow Press. They were great people, and I offered them my next book, Plank Children. I had my whole writing career planned out with Burning Willow. They published three of my short stories in as many anthologies. I had a novella ready to send them as well, but I had a lot of work left to finish Plank Children before anything else. Then last year Burning Willow Press closed their doors, making Plank Children a free agent. The search for yet another publisher began. Quite a few Burning Willow Press authors found homes in Three Furies Press; I gave them a try, and they found Plank Children quite creepy and picked it up. Between shuffling publishers and an incredible difficult time writing the book, I doubted whether Plank Children would ever actually make it. But it has! Of course, I don’t think I’ll truly believe it until I hold a copy in my hands!

What are you working on now?

MS: I have been struck by the novella bug. They are the perfect length for many of my ideas, which are too complex (or long-winded, depending on one’s opinion) for the short story form, yet they don’t have a big enough world to fill a novel. 25,000 – 40,000 words is becoming a sweet spot. Invasion, a sci-fi horror is complete and making the rounds. The second draft of Admitted We Were Powerless waits on pause while I see Plank Children over the finish line. I have several short stories in mind—two brand new ones written and a handful of old ones to re-tool and make them more fully realized stories—and perhaps a collection of them soon! And indeed I have two notebooks of outlines and notes for my next novel. The thing is, I’m a terribly slow writer, and I haven’t the foggiest when you’ll see those. Stay tuned!

I want to thank Michael for stopping by. I had a chance to read an ARC of Plank Children, and it isn't to be missed. You can get your copy here: https://www.amazon.com/Plank-Children-Michael-Schutz-ebook/dp/B08FPKL919/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=plank+children&qid=1602064993&s=digital-text&sr=1-1