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

Warren Rochelle Brings LGBT into the Happily Ever After

Back in college, I was lucky to have the talented Warren Rochelle as my Creative Writing professor. In the years since, he has published several fantastical novels, and now he has released his first collection of short fiction.

The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Tales consists of fairytale stories that are inclusive and bring LGBT representation to these types of narratives. I feel that sort of thing is extremely important, as does the author. Below is an essay he wrote talking on that subject.

Gay Themes and Characters Matter in Fairy Tales
by Warren Rochelle

Back in Fall 2019, as I was working on completing the manuscript for The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories, I found, on my office shelves, a modern fairy tale collection I hadn’t read. In this collection, gender roles are questioned, challenged and often reversed or even discarded, feminist values are asserted, women are empowered and have a choice as to whom they marry or not, and not all princes are charming. Princes and princesses have no problem challenging traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity.

They were a pleasure to read.

But I found myself left out, an Outsider. No characters like me. No LGBTQ+ people. The copyright was twentysomething years ago. Now, it’s 2019, and as I write this introduction, there are a number of published collections of gay-themed retellings of traditional fairy tales and of gay-themed original fairy tales. Is another one needed?

The “kill the gays” trope persists.

LGBTQ+ people are still the Other. We are still going to court so we can buy a wedding cake. Exclusion is still preached. Full human rights aren’t a given in too many places. If, as critics have argued, “fairy tales project utopian visions,” then we need to be present in this vision, if utopia is fully human.

These tales of the fantastic are my act of writing us into the story. All have gay protagonists, and all are love stories.

I believe love, in its myriad forms, is the most powerful force in the universe. Indeed, love is probably an essential part of the very fabric of the universe. Love is certainly essential to being human. Speculative fiction offers powerful metaphors and symbols to explore love, to interpret the human condition, to make sense of the human experience. Magic is a glimpse into the mysteries of existence. And love is a form of magic.

Yes, “happily ever after” is the traditional ending for fairy tales and yes, all too often stories with LGBTQ+ characters end in sadness. But I wanted to go beyond this familiar conclusion to a more human one. These stories acknowledge that happiness—even the possibility of happiness— comes with a price, and sometimes one must be willing to give up everything. I choose to end in hope. Happiness? Possibly. Love? Absolutely.

The lovers are many things, including gay. It would have meant so much to me growing up to have gay people in the stories I read and was told. It might have possibly changed the shape of my life. I’m sure that LGBTQ+ people are present in the tales that are the core stories of our culture but they have not been openly portrayed as LGBTQ+. I want LGBTQ+ people to be unmistakably visible and present and active. I want them to be fully human.

It’s September 2020 and I am writing this short essay at the request of a former student, the talented horror writer, Mark Allan Gunnells. As luck would have it, when I was working on the final proofs of this collection, just before publication, I came across an article in The Pink. News, by Lily Wakefield, about the work of a Cornish writer and scholar, Pete Jordi Wood. As Wakefield note, “Most people have never heard of a queer, traditional fairytale but [Pete Jordi Wood] has revealed that this is not because they don’t exist, but because they were erased by a homophobic academic … By the 1900s, a group of academics began to compile the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index, “a catalogue of the world’s folklore …” During this process, Thompson evidently decided to leave the stories with queer characters. Thompson, it seems believed them to “Unnatural Perversions” (Wakefield)

So, yes, fairy tale retellings are needed for diversity and equality and for stories that are metaphorically true. The fight isn’t over. Reading these stories, I hope, will make a difference.
So, here we are in plain sight, warts and all.

Once upon a time…
Adapted from the Introduction to The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories (JMS Books 2020)

If you are interested in buying a copy of The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories, it can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Wicked-Stepbrother-Other-Tales-ebook/dp/B08J6PWLWC/ref=sr_1_2?crid=5CUSE9GNK1CE&dchild=1&keywords=warren+rochelle&qid=1600775617&s=digital-text&sprefix=warren+rochelle%2Cdigital-text%2C426&sr=1-2

Ron Rash Returns

Ron Rash is one of my favorite authors and I believe one of our greatest living storytellers. I am thrilled that he agreed to allow me to interview him for the second time.

He recently released a new collection, In the Valley, which I have read and think is an amazing piece of work. I wanted to focus this interview specifically on this collection, touching on several of my favorite stories.

I’ve heard you say that the short story form is your favorite and America’s greatest contribution to literature. What is it about the short story form that you think makes it so potent?

I think part of it is it gives us much of the pleasure of poetry and its conciseness and visual rhythms (deliberate word repetitions that come across like a verbal refrain) as well as sound rhythms, that’s certainly part of it. Also at the same time, I think the reader has to come away from the story maybe not having every question answered but with a sense that the story is complete, that whatever the writer was trying to convey has been conveyed. A sense of fulfillment of narrative expectation.

“Neighbors” which opens the collection is a powerful story. When you first came up with the concept, did you already know the ending, what Rebecca would feel she had to do to survive in her community?

I had a sense of it. That story is a little more interesting in the sense that usually I don’t have any idea how a story is going to end, but with that one I actually knew. I’d heard of an instance somewhat like that, and I saw the terrible irony. The reason I put it first in the collection is I wanted it to be a warning shot, this is what might happen in our country today if we’re not careful. We could get to that kind of tribalism. I think what’s interesting about writing about the past is that people can be reading about the 1860s and thinking how primitive and different these people are from us today, and you as the writer hope the reader has this moment where he or she says, “Oh, he’s talking about NOW.”

One thing that struck me about “When All the Stars Fall” was how well drawn and 3 dimensional the characters felt, an impressive feat for such a short story. Do you have any particular techniques you use when creating character, or do you simply let them come to life on the page?

I let them come to life pretty much. I just try to make them believable, and I think part of that is for the artist not to judge the characters. Eudora Welty said we should never condescend to our characters, and I agree with that. It’s about character development, and they seem real to me. The surprise in that story for me was the son. When we find out what he did, the bullying. To me that was a moment where our feelings about him, and his feelings about himself, really get taken up to another level. By the end of the story, particularly with one of the final images, you realize what he wants is what anyone would want, and he makes a decision with regards to how he’ll get it. At a terrible price and accepting a darkness in himself. No one is entirely good or bad, and I really believe that. I don’t give readers easy answers.

“L’homme Blesse” is one of my favorites in the collection, a truly haunting story. When did you first become interested in the ancient cave paintings, and do you feel they are examples of man’s innate need to tell stories?

I remember when I was a kid and being moved by the power of them. At seven or eight years old, I saw pictures of the paintings and found them kind of spooky because they are in these dark caves. I also think they hit us on some kind of deep, genetic level. If you are European, those were created by your ancestors. I’ve been rather obsessed with the images, and so far when I’ve been in France I haven’t been able to get to those caves, but I want to visit them the next time I’m over there. And yes, there seemed to be a need even 25,000 years ago to tell stories, rather for religious or artistic reasons. But I do think it is interesting that for whatever reason there seems to be something in us as human beings that we need to express to the world. And those paintings are very sophisticated. Anyone who thinks of them as primitive should really study them and you’ll find these are techniques that artists like Picasso and Monet were later exalted for.

In “Flight” you present a character who does some, shall we say, questionable things, but you also give her a backstory that doesn’t make you condone her actions but at least understand her better. Can you speak a little about how important the concept empathy is in your storytelling process?

Yes, that is one of the parts of storytelling I find most interesting. Not that you can a hundred percent understand another person, but you can imagine what that person might feel. I would also say that if we don’t have empathy, it leads to tribalism if we think we can only understand our own culture. In some ways, the idea of empathizing with those different from us has gone a bit out of fashion and I think that is dangerous.

“Last Bridge Burned” is a beautiful tale that talks about how even the smallest kindness could have profound effects for someone. Does that reflect a personal philosophy of yours?

Yes, because in my own life there have been people who through small kindnesses had huge ramifications on my life. I can remember when I was about ten years old, I went with my uncle to bale hay. I wasn’t really all that much help, but I remember how good it felt that my uncle had asked me to help. Then the next morning, I heard him come into my room when he thought I was sleeping, and I heard a jingling and he put something on my bureau. After he left I got up, and saw that he had left a few quarters and dimes for me for helping. It wasn’t a great deal of money, but it is something I never forgot. And outside of writing, I am personally trying to be more kind toward others even in small situations. For instance, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I try to be understanding. What do I know? That person could have just found out that a loved one had died. I fail sometimes at always being understanding, but I do try.

“Ransom” is a killer story that starts off feeling like a traditional horror story then takes an even more heartbreaking and unexpected turn. If you can do so without any spoilers, where did the germ of this one come from?

I think it started off out of simple rage about what the pharmaceutical companies have done. Essentially they’ve been responsible for a lot of this country’s addiction crisis. And my nightmare is that it is underreported. And I’m angry that for the most part they have gotten away with it. No one went to jail, despite the fact that they knew what they were doing. They had the research. I think where that story really works is that by the end we feel sympathy for both the characters. I didn’t want to give any easy answers, because that’s not the way things are in real life. For me, the story is a true tragedy.

Is it true that in the title story, “In the Valley,” you went back and added the section about Ross losing his family to the 1918 flu pandemic after COVID hit?

Yes, I was still working on the revisions of that story and I had had a sense of Ross’s backstory, but I decided to really emphasis it. I knew something had happened to his family, but I hadn’t specified what it had been. Could have been a fire or anything. Then when the current pandemic hit, using the 1918 flu pandemic just felt right. The main reason I wanted to write this story was because I wanted to tell Ross’s story because I always felt he had one that hadn’t been revealed in the novel Serena.

Without giving anything away, Ross in the novella shows a level of self-sacrifice that is almost epic in a heroic sense. Did you do that intentionally as counterpoint to the Serena character’s rather all-consuming self-interest and selfishness?

Yes, but I also think that the zeitgeist influenced that. Shakespeare said, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” To counter that, I think a lot of my stories feature characters who make attempts to make things a little bit better, doing the best they can.

I want to thank Mr. Rash so much for taking the time to speak with me. I recommend everyone try his work, and In the Valley is a great place to start. You can purchase it here: