BOOK HAVEN Story Notes



I'm the kind of reader that loves when an author includes story notes with a collection. I really enjoy getting that little glimpse behind the curtain. Therefore, if I release a collection without story notes, I usually try to put them here on my blog. These are the story notes for my most recent collection BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES.


"Book Haven" - I've spoken in a lot of interviews about how the title novella came about, so here I will talk about an aspect of writing this story that I had a lot of fun with. I set it in Greer, SC, where I currently live with my husband. Only the second published story I've set here, but I really enjoy using the places I know and frequent as the setting for my fiction. It gave me a thrill to scope out the town and figure out where I wanted to place certain scenes.

"Human Bones in a China Cabinet" - This story is the result of a contest. When my earlier collection FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER came out, I held a little contest where anyone who bought the book could send me some kind of receipt and be entered into a drawing. The winner would be sent an extensive questionnaire about his or her life, and I would use that to craft a story, something wholly unique that couldn't exist without them. I've done that before, and I'm doing it again now, and I always love that challenge. In this case, a very unusual hobby served as my inspiration.

"Welcome Home" - This story is the third story in a series. The first two stories - "Welcome" and "Welcome Back" - appeared in FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER. This trilogy was never planned as such. I wrote the first story thinking it was a standalone, until suddenly I had an idea for the second. Then again, I thought I was done, but then I came up with an idea of a way to conclude this little series.

"C U Soon" - I had the initial idea of someone so attached to their cell phone that they were buried with it. In this day and age where people are so attached to their devices, didn't seem a far stretch. I'm not letting myself off the hook either, if I forget my phone I feel adrift. Anyway, that initial idea led to another. What if someone started to receive text messages from the deceased from beyond the grave? I then came up with a twist for the ending that pleased me.

"End-of-the-World Benediction" - This is one of two poems in the collection, and this one was originally written for a weekly flash fiction challenge hosted by Shock Totem. I can't remember what the prompt was now, think it might have had to do with a man in a stadium addressing a crowd, but I decided to do something different and create a little narrative poem.

"Going to See a Man About a Dog" - I got this idea from my life. When I was very young, my father would leave sometimes and I'd be told, "He's going to see a man about a dog." I really thought he was considering getting the family a pet, and I was so ecstatic. When I got older, I realized that was simply what they said when he was going to buy drugs. That gave me the kernel that became this tale.

"The Sandbox" - This is what I consider one of my Twilight Zone-inspired tales. I can't remember where the initial germ of the idea came from, but I enjoyed doing something that I wanted to be evocative and surprising and maybe even a little moving.

"Wrong" - This is one of the older pieces in the collection. Funny story about the tale...it was lost and forgotten. I happened to be looking at my Facebook memories one day, and from 8 or 9 years ago I had made a post that I just finished a story called "Wrong." I didn't even recall that one, so I went to my short story file and could find no such story. I even checked an old laptop but nothing. So I turned to my friend Shane who reads all my work to see if he had a copy. He did and emailed it to me. Once I read it, I remembered it, but without the Facebook memory this story wouldn't be a part of the collection.

"Evolution" - Another story that is a follow-up to one that appeared in FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER. In that collection, I included a couple of tales that dated back to my college years, one of which was a post-apocalyptic piece called "Survival of the Fittest." At the time I wrote it, I envisioned it being the first in a series of stories about the characters of Dru and Lowell...but then I never wrote anymore. Actually polishing it up and publishing it inspired me to go back to that world. Thus "Evolution" was born and a college dream came true.



"The Bracelet" - This story was born when my husband bought me a little bracelet. I'm always incredibly touched when he gives me these thoughtful gifts. However, one day shortly after receiving the bracelet, I accidentally destroyed it. I had placed it on a table where it had apparently fallen off onto the floor. When I went to vacuum, the bracelet got sucked up into the vacuum and broke. I felt horrible and apologized profusely to my husband, who assured me it was okay. I believe he said something along the lines of, "It's not like anyone died." My mind being the way it is, I turned that around for a while and came up with this story.

"Click Bait" - This is what I like to call micro-flash, a very brief story that is less than a page long. I'm always seeing people posting video links on social media that say things like, "THIS VIDEO WILL MAKE YOU LOSE YOUR MIND!" And I thought, okay, what if that was literal?

"A Day Like Every Other Day" - The other poem in the collection. When I first got this idea of a man whose life is so routine that he wonders if he keeps reliving the past, I thought it would be a story. Yet I couldn't make it work, and eventually I realized that was because it wanted to be a poem.

"The Man Who Watched the Ocean, or Twelve Steps Down into the Sea" - This story was inspired by a trip my husband and I took St. Simon's Island. We went up into the lighthouse and I started to get an inkling of what would become this piece, but what really kicked it into overdrive was when I realized I could link it to an earlier story, "The Girl Who Watched the Ocean" which was in my collection CURTAIN CALL. Both can be read on their own, the link isn't obvious, but I think they both have a great emotional core.

"The Desk" - This story seems to surprise people. They think it's going to go a certain way, and then it goes in a completely different direction. I won't lie, that was my hope. I had a lot of fun delving into this story, and it's one of my favorites.

"When Gas Was 52 Cents Per Gallon" - This story came from a challenge an old college friend put to me, to write a story set at an abandoned rest stop or gas station. I seriously doubt this was the kind of story he had in mind, but inspiration takes me where it takes me and I just follow along.

"The Little Boy Who Lived in the Library" - Another Twilight Zone-esque tale, this one was actually born from my desire to write something set in the library I grew up with in my hometown. I wrote a coming-of-age novel THE SUMMER OF WINTERS in which I revisited a lot of the places important to me as a child, but I didn't fit the library in. The library in that town has been expanded and remodeled since my childhood, so for this story which I set in the 80s I rebuilt the library as it stood in my childhood.

"Waiting for the Fall" - I've always loved autumn, it is by far my favorite season and I could just live in autumn forever if possible. That got me to thinking about dying in autumn. This little emotional piece took shape from that musing.



"Tanner" - A Facebook friend once posted a picture from inside a tanning bed. Down near his feet, the way the bed was made almost created the illusion of a face. So that gave me the bizarre idea of a haunted tanning bed.

"Go to Sleepy Little Baby" - The cracked lullaby in this story is one my mother used to actually sing to me. I shared that with my husband, who found it amusing that my mother would sing me something so creepy. Thinking back on it led to this story.

"The Farm" - I have my friend, fellow author, and sometimes collaborator Aaron Dries to thank for this one. A few years ago he traveled from his home in Australia to the States, during which he did a little tour of locations used in horror movies. I was envious of this, because I'm just the kind of fan would love to visit the places my favorite movies were filmed. That also helped me create this story.

"The Hidden Cemetery" - The closing story in the collection came from actually discovering this little cemetery in my hometown that I never knew existed. I mentioned it to my mother, and she was equally surprised. She's lived in that town her entire life and never realized it was there. She later found out my older brother and sister were aware of it and used to go there to smoke and make out. As with everything in my life, it became a story.

BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07QGKZ46J/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i7

Origin Stories: Curtain Call and Other Dark Entertainments

Next up in my Origin Stories series is my 2016 collection CURTAIN CALL AND OTHER DARK ENTERTAINMENTS.



This particular collection came about simply because I decided to take a chance. Cemetery Dance is a publisher with a great reputation, and deservedly so. The idea of having a collection with them was very enticing. Because my friend James Newman had a previous working relationship with CD, we were able to sell the novel we co-authored, DOG DAYS O' SUMMER, to them. That book had not yet come out, but because of that, I was in a position to make a pitch to them if I wanted.

So I did. I pitched the idea of a collection. I was nervous, but in my pitch I expressed my passion for the short form, my belief that there was still a strong and viable market for it, and my respect for what they do.

The answer I got was encouraging, but I was told that they have such a backlog of great work waiting to be published that I could be in for quite a wait. However, they did have a digital line that had a much shorter turnaround time, ran by Norman Prentiss. I had published a collection as a digital-only title before, with Bad Moon Books, so I was definitely okay with that.

Norman had me send him a manuscript, which I did. There were twelve stories total, and he was very enthusiastic about the collection with the exception of two tales which he felt weren't quite strong enough. We removed those to bring the collection of a nice rounded 10 stories, and Norman proved a great editor, giving me great notes and suggestions to make the tales stronger. Norman is even the one who came up with the title of the collection.

I love all my children of course, but I have a particular affection for this collection. I feel all ten stories are very strong, many of them with emotional through-lines that give them real weight. I love the cover Norman provided as well, I think it's evocative and eye-catching.

I can't say this collection has garnered quite as much attention as I'd hoped, but it's still out there and I am still hopeful people will discover it.

You can purchase CURTAIN CALL AND OTHER DARK ENTERTAINMENTS here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01MF8HW19/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p2_i3

Origin Stories: Flowers in a Dumpster

I want to return to my Origin Stories series, in which I talk about how my books came to be published. Next up is my collection FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER.



This collection came about when I read on Facebook about a new publisher, Crystal Lake, that was looking for manuscripts. They had an open call for novels and short story collections. I was immediately interested in sending them a collection.

However, I was a little afraid because their process was different than I was used to. Instead of sending them a full manuscript, initially they didn't want to read any of my work. I had to send them a pitch, and sell them on my idea and on me as a writer. I had to describe my work, talk about how I went about promotion, that sort of thing. It scared me because I'm horrible at selling myself. I'm much more comfortable simply letting my work speak for itself.

To be quite honest, I was so afraid that I nearly didn't send a pitch. My husband and my fellow writing friend Harper Hull, however, kept encouraging and pushing me and simply wouldn't let me NOT send in a pitch. So it was at the last minute, right under the wire, but I did get one in.

At the time I was calling the proposed collection DO YOU WANT IT? AND OTHER STORIES, because I had planned to end the collection with a novella entitled "Do You Want It?" After some time passed, I heard back from Crystal Lake that they liked my pitch enough to want to see three stories that I planned to include in the collection.

I spent a lot of time mulling over which three to send. I wanted them to be exciting, entertaining, representative of me, but also different enough from each other to show my range. In the end I settled on "Past Lives," "The Support Group," and "The Bondaventure." Then I just waited.

The wait was excruciating, and at one point another friend of mine heard back that he didn't make it. I consider him infinitely more talented than I am so I figured there was no way I'd make it.

Yet I did. I got the email that I was one of the collection chosen and I was ecstatic. Then I had to put together the full manuscript. I wanted it to be a mix of newer stuff but also dipping back into some of my college material ("Survival of the Fittest," "Similar Interests," "Land of Plenty). However, the novella I planned to anchor the collection...once, I started trying to revise it I realized it was a very standard vampire story with nothing that really set it apart. I decided to drop it and replace it with "Kindred Spirit," a novelette that I co-wrote with my friend Shane Nelson.

Which meant I had to rename the collection. Months before, my husband had sent me a message when walking at a local cemetery. He sent a photo he took of a dumpster full of flowers and said, "Flowers in a Dumpster, wouldn't that make a good story title?" Yes...in fact, it was evocative enough to make a great collection title, so that became the name of the collection. FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER.

Everything about the experience with a joy. Working with Crystal Lake was phenomenal. Great editorial attention, amazing promotion. The collection did well, the book cover had blurbs from Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell, and it proved to me that when a publisher really gets behind a collection, it can do as well as a novel.

And to think...I almost didn't send in that pitch.

You can purchase FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B018OJOJ3C/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p3_i2

Unpublished Fiction: Selected Scenes From a Life

I have become very lax in updating this blog, and I'm going to try to do better. I've decided to start with, I'm starting a new feature called Unpublished Fiction, where I post some of the short fiction I have never published. I'm starting with a non-horror piece called "Selected Scenes from a Life" which I wrote 14 years ago. The backstory is that after college, work and life stress caused me to stop writing altogether, but then in 2005 I began to slowly work my way back into writing. "Selected Scenes from a Life" was one of the very first stories I wrote, basically detailing a relationship in a few isolated scenes from the couple's life together. I was proud of the story then, and I am still proud of it. And now offer it here:

SELECTED SCENES FROM A LIFE

Michael probably should have started his shopping earlier. Mother’s Day was less than a week away, after all, and he had to send the package from England to the United States. But procrastination was an art form for Michael, and four days in advance was actually pretty good for him. Of course, just because he began his shopping today didn’t mean he’d actually buy anything today.

His mother had a penchant for jewelry, the tacky stuff made out of glass and wooden beads. Michael was doing fairly well these days so he figured he’d help upgrade his mother’s taste in accessories. Trimmings was one of London’s poshest jewelry stores, catering not to the super rich but discouraging the riffraff element. Michael thought he should be able to find a suitable Mother’s Day gift here.

Glancing into a glass display case, he spotted a delightful pendant. Small, tear-shaped diamond in a silver casing. Not overly large or gaudy. Tasteful. Elegant.

Michael raised a hand to get the attention of the salesclerk. “Can I take a look at this one, please?”

“Certainly, sir.”

The salesclerk unlocked the case and laid the pendant in Michael’s hand. The casing was attached to a thin, delicate chain. The overhead lights caught the diamond and made it sparkle.

“How much is this?” Michael asked.

“Twenty-five hundred pounds.”

“Hmm,” Michael said, thinking, Too much. I love you, Mom, but that’s much too much.

“It is an exquisite piece,” the salesclerk said. “The casing is pure silver.”

“Well, it is pretty, I’ll give you that,” Michael said, taking a moment as if he were actually considering it. “I’m gonna need to think on this one for a bit longer.”

“Of course, sir,” the salesclerk said with a knowing smirk, taking the pendant and replacing it in the case.

Michael scanned the case for something that looked more around the five hundred pound mark. Suddenly he felt that itchy, tingling sensation on the back of his neck that alerted him that he was being observed. He turned to find a young man, short and rather pudgy with a mop of curly brown hair, leaning on the counter a foot away, a strange smile twisting his lips.

“Yes?” Michael said.

“You’ve got a funny accent,” the man said in a thick English brogue.

Michael turned his attention back to the display case. “I’m American.”

“For an American, you’ve got a funny accent.”

Michael cut his eyes toward the man then away again. “I’m Southern.”

“Oh, how exotic.”

Michael couldn’t suppress a laugh. “I’ve heard South Carolina called a lot of things; ‘exotic’ is a new one to me.”

Michael turned and headed for a display of watches. The stranger followed behind him and asked, “Looking for a Mother’s Day gift for your Mum?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Michael said without making eye contact.

“I like your tattoo.”

Michael glanced down at the tattoo visible on his left forearm. An upside down pink triangle, a gay pride symbol he’d gotten immortalized onto his flesh in his younger days. “Ah,” he said, thinking he had this stranger’s motivations pegged.

“I’m not hitting on you,” the man said, correctly guessing at Michael’s assumption.

“You’re not?”

“No, I’m not gay.”

“Okaaay,” Michael said, drawing the word out. “So what exactly are you doing then? Because you’re starting to creep me out more than a little bit.”

“Well, my older brother is gay. Good bloke, but shy, you know.”

Michael rolled his eyes and told the salesclerk, who had been watching this exchange with discreet interest, “I’ll come back some other time,” and left the store.

The would-be cupid followed him out onto the street. “You’d like my brother. He’s funny, sweet as they come. Real salt of the earth.”

“Let me guess, he’s a Quasimodo?” Michael said without slowing his pace.

“Beg pardon?”

“Well, if he’s got his younger brother trolling jewelry stores for him, my guess would be that he’s not all that attractive.”

“I’ve got a picture of him, if you want to see,” the man said, digging his cell from his pocket and scrolling before holding the phone screen-first out to Michael.

“That’s really not necessary; I’m not interested. I’m sorry but … oh!”

Michael stopped in his tracks, eliciting angry stares and mumbled curses from those behind him, when he saw the picture. The man in the photo was tall, creamy skin, mischievous green eyes, thick wavy hair, and a smile that would charm the devil.

“This is your brother?” Michael said, taking the phone.

“Yes, that’s him.”

“Is this like a really old picture?”

“Taken just last week.”

Michael handed the phone back, trying not to seem as interested as he was. “And what makes you think your brother and I would be a good match?”

“You’re gay, aren’t you?”

Michael barked a laugh of disbelief. “You know, it may be hard for you to believe, but every gay man in the world is not necessarily a good match for every other gay man in the world. If that were the case, things would be much simpler—or much more confusing—but that’s not how it works.”

“Well, I know you’re good to your Mum. The baubles in Trimmings don’t come cheap.”

“Or maybe I send my mother expensive presents for Mother’s Day out of guilt for never calling or visiting.”

“Perfect, so I know you’re not a mamma’s boy.”

Michael couldn’t help but smile. If this man’s brother was half as charming as he was… “You don’t even know my name,” Michael said.

“True enough. What’s your name?”

“Michael.”

“Nice to meet you, Michael. I’m Gerald. My brother is Ferguson.”

“Are you serious about this, Gerald?”

“Very much so.”

Michael stood for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip. “Let me see the picture again.” Gerald held up the phone and Michael looked over the photo once more. Still handsome. “Does your brother know you’re doing this?”

“No.”

“And what makes you think he would be agreeable to going on a date with some stranger you picked up on the street?”

Gerald turned the phone around, tapped at the screen, then a click and a flash let Michael know his photo had just been taken.

“I’ll show him your picture,” Gerald said then held the phone back out. “Type in your number.”

“This is crazy,” Michael said, but he did as Gerald instructed.

“You won’t regret it,” Gerald said, taking the phone back from Michael. “Hopefully Ferguson will be calling you soon.”

“I’ll be waiting anxiously by the phone.”

Michael shook hands with Gerald and watched him walk away. The whole encounter left him feeling slightly dizzy, like he was on the verge of drunkenness. It was a strange feeling, but nice.

* * *

Ferguson glanced at the door every time someone entered the pub. His stomach was cramped and he was twisting his napkin in his lap. He feared he was about to embark on another colossal disaster.

When Gerald had told him what he’d done—accosted some strange American in a store and procured his phone number for his brother—Ferguson had been appalled and vowed that he would not call the fellow. But the picture Gerald had taken was intriguing. The American was fresh-faced, full lips and intense eyes, just Ferguson’s type. Finally Ferguson had decided what the hell and made the call.

The American, Michael, had seemed surprised that Ferguson had actually called, as surprised as Ferguson was to be making the call. To Ferguson’s relief, Michael seemed as bemused by this unorthodox situation as Ferguson himself. Ferguson had invited Michael for drinks, and Michael had accepted.

The door opened again, and Ferguson looked up to see the face from the photo. He raised his hand and Michael saw him, smiled, and headed over.

“Michael?” Ferguson said, rising.

“That’s me. You must be Ferguson.”

“Yes,” Ferguson said, shaking the man’s hand, not sure of the proper greeting in a situation like this.

The waiter took their drink orders, and the two sat in silence for a solid minute, glancing at each other then away, fidgeting with their silverware.

“So,” Michael said finally, breaking the stalemate, “does your brother act as your pimp often?”

Ferguson groaned and blushed. “I’m sorry about that; I’m terribly embarrassed. Gerald just worries about me, is all. He thinks I’ve been sad lately.”

“Have you? Been sad, I mean?”

“Somewhat, I suppose.”

“How come?” Michael asked then winced. “Anytime you want me to mind my own business, just tell me to.”

“It’s quite alright,” Ferguson assured. “Do you know what it’s like when you spend your entire life nurturing an ideal of what love should be? Part of you knows it’s overly romanticized and unrealistic, but you cling to it all the same. Then as you get older, you begin to see that the ideal is an impossible standard to meet, so you decide you need to settle. And you do, only that turns out to be a catastrophe as well. So you start to wonder, if you can’t have the ideal but you can’t even settle for less, what hope is there really?”

Ferguson looked across the table to find Michael staring at him with an unreadable expression, his beautiful lips parted slightly. “I’m sorry,” Ferguson said. “This is frightful first date etiquette, getting so maudlin right at the start.”

“I know what it’s like,” Michael said with a smile that made Ferguson warm all over. “So, is that what this is? A first date?”

“Isn’t it?” Ferguson asked, feeling slightly panicked.

Michael folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. “Well, in my country, drinks are like a prelude to the date, sort of an interview for the date. An opportunity for the two interested parties to get a feel for one another, to decide if a date is something they wish to pursue.”

“In that case, I guess I’m botching the interview.”

Michael favored Ferguson with that sunny smile again. “You’re not doing too shabby.”

Ferguson, suddenly flustered, fiddled with his shirt collar, stared into his water glass as if it held the secrets of the future, and tried desperately to think of something clever to say. All he could come up with was, “So, Michael, what do you do?”

He thought he saw Michael tense for a second before saying, “I’m a writer.”

“Oh, novelist?”

“Television,” Michael said, rubbing the back of his neck and biting on his lower lip in the most deliciously unconscious way. “I’m a, uhm, I’m a staff writer for Quark’s Quirky Quest.”

“The children’s program?”

“That’s the one.”

“My nieces love that program.”

Michael nodded and trained his eyes on the tabletop, little roses of color blossoming on his cheeks.

“You seem embarrassed.”

“Well, you know, it doesn’t quite have the ring to it that ‘novelist’ does. What about you?”

“I’m an actor.”

“Really? Been in anything I might have seen?”

“I’ve mostly just done some local theater. Very local. Not much of anything, really.”

Michael was quiet for a few seconds then said sheepishly, “I could probably get you an audition for Quark’s Quirky Quest.”

The two men broke into laughter, all tension and nerves dissipating in the laughter like rain from asphalt on a hot day.

“So,” Ferguson said, emboldened by the shared moment of jocularity, “in your country, if the prelude to the date goes well, what happens next?”

“Usually dinner, possibly a movie.”

“And if that goes well?”

Michael scratched his chin, affecting the posture of deep thought. “I suppose one person might invite the other back to his apartment for yet more drinks.”

Ferguson nodded, decided to push it one step further. “And if that goes well?”

Michael turned on that heart-melting smile and said, “Breakfast.”

* * *

Gerald was running late. The dinner party being thrown by Ferguson and Michael started at eight, and it was already a quarter past. Gerald eased more pressure on the gas and weaved through traffic. The couple’s flat was just a few blocks away.

Gerald smiled as he thought the words again: The couple. Gerald was, after all, responsible for the pairing, and he took great pride in the fact. When he’d impulsively badgered Michael into giving him his number to give to Ferguson, even he’d never dream it would lead to two years of marital bliss. But they were happy together. In fact, Gerald had never seen his brother happier, and it made him feel good to know he’d had a hand in making it happen.

Gerald pulled to a stop in front of the building and hurried up the stairs. Ferguson answered the door with an expression of mixed annoyance and amusement. “Lose your way, little brother?”

“Fashionably late,” Gerald said, giving his brother a quick hug. “I’m nothing if not fashionable.”

“Everyone else is already here,” Ferguson said, taking his brother’s coat. “Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes. We’re all having drinks.”

“Then I haven’t missed much,” Gerald said, stepping into the parlor. He and Ferguson’s Mum was here, as was their sister Anne, her husband and their two daughters, and four or five of Ferguson and Michael’s friends.

“Gerald,” Michael said, handing him a glass of champagne and kissing him on the cheek. “Glad you could make it. Where is that lovely fiancée of yours?”

“Miranda is visiting her parents this weekend. She is sorry she has to miss this little celebration, but she sends her love and promises to be watching.”

“Well, have a seat, relax. Dinner will be served shortly. The television is set up in the dining room.”

Gerald sat down in a deep recliner, his nieces climbing onto his lap and digging through his pockets for change. Gerald was excited about tonight’s premier, almost as excited as Ferguson and Michael. Michael had finally left Quark’s Quirky Quest, developing his own program entitled The Adventures of Edmond Rex, sort of a spy thing with extra helpings of humor. Ferguson starred as the title character, a secret agent as bumbling as he was charming. Tonight was the airing of the first episode.

“Tell me, Michael,” Anne’s husband, Charles, was saying, “how did you come up with the idea for Edmond Rex?”

“It’s a little bit of James Bond mixed with a dash of Inspector Gadget with just a touch of Don Knotts.”

“With a description as clear as that,” Ferguson said, wrapping his arms around Michael’s waist, “I can’t imagine why you had such a hard time getting the program made.”

“Careful, dear,” Michael said, patting Ferguson on the cheek. “Your part can always be recast.”

“At home or on the show?”

“Both.”

Everyone laughed. Stephen, one of Ferguson’s mates from University, said, “Casting Fergie in the lead, that wasn’t nepotism, was it?”

“Absolutely, one hundred percent,” Michael said with a smile. “And I’m not ashamed to admit it. Can I help it if the love of my life just happens to also be the most talented actor in England?”

“If I’m that talented,” Ferguson said, “maybe I’m too big for the program. Perhaps I should be in motion pictures.”

“I was just being nice, honey. You’re okay, but Hugh Grant you’re not.”

More laughter. Ferguson kissed Michael, their love for one another evident to everyone in the room.

“A toast,” Gerald said, rising and holding his glass above his head. Everyone followed suit. “To The Adventures of Edmond Rex. May it be as enduring as Doctor Who.”

“To The Adventures of Edmond Rex,” everyone cheered and drank.

Gerald watched his brother and Michael embracing and smiled the smile of an artist admiring his greatest creation.

* * *

Michael opened one of the boxes in the living room and started pulling out books. The obsessive-compulsive part of him insisted he arrange the books alphabetically by author then title before placing them on the shelves. This took a bit longer, but it would save time when he or Ferguson were looking for a specific book.

After emptying the one box, Michael paused and looked around him. The living room was almost completely unpacked, just a few boxes left. Not much longer and the house would be all set up.

Michael still couldn’t believe he owned a house. Real estate. How very adult. Although his fortieth birthday approached, Michael still felt about fourteen years old most of the time. But here he was, an old married man with a thriving career and a new home.

The Adventures of Edmond Rex had been on the air now for four years, soon to begin filming its fifth. It was a smashing success, even airing in the States where Michael’s own family got to see it. During the breaks, Ferguson had made several movies, one of which—a romantic comedy called Love Fell on Me—Michael had written the screenplay for.

Michael opened another box full of photos. He smiled as he pulled out a frame which housed printed copies of both the picture of Ferguson that Gerald had shown Michael all those years ago and the picture of Michael that Gerald had taken to show Ferguson. The beginning of it all.

Six years, and Michael still loved Ferguson as much as ever. They had their ups and downs, certainly, their share of disagreements. There had been a dark period two and a half years ago when they had nearly split, but they always managed to work through their problems and come out stronger on the other side.

Michael started placing photos throughout the room. The unpacking would go faster if Ferguson were here to help, but he’d gone to meet Gerald for lunch and a movie. The two brothers didn’t see much of each other these days, Ferguson busy with his career and Gerald busy with his wife and the new baby. Michael was glad they were spending this time together.

The doorbell interrupted Michael’s thoughts, and he answered the door with a smile, always happy to have company these days so he could show off the new house. He was surprised to find Gerald standing on the stoop.

“Gerald, what are you doing here? Ferguson was supposed to meet you at the restaurant, wasn’t he? Did he get it mixed up?”

Gerald stood there in silence for a few seconds, his usually animated face drawn and pinched. “Michael, I … “

“Oh, never mind, come in,” Michael said, ushering his brother-in-law into the house. Michael went back to the boxes. “I’m in a frenzy of unpacking. I’m determined to finish today. I had no idea we had accumulated so much shit. Or shite, as you might say.”

Michael turned back to Gerald and his smile withered instantly. Seeing the expression on his brother-in-law’s face, Michael suddenly knew. He didn’t have to be told; he just knew. He didn’t want to know, but he knew.

“Michael, listen, … “

“Hey, look at these,” Michael said quickly, plastering a smile on his face like a mask. He reached into a box and pulled out two crystal cat figurines. “Your mother gave us these when Ferguson and I first moved in together. Remember?”

“I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but I have to tell you … “

“Oh, and look at these funky throw pillows. I don’t even know where they came from. Must be from Ferguson’s single days.”

“Michael, please,” Gerald said firmly, stepping toward his brother-in-law. “There was an accident and … “

“I don’t want to hear it!” Michael shouted, slinging a throw pillow across the room where it collided with some picture frames and sent them clattering to the floor. He leaned heavily on the back of the sofa, as if his legs didn’t have the strength to hold him up. Tears did not yet fall, but his eyes shimmered wetly. “Whatever you have to say, I don’t want to hear it. As long as I don’t hear it, it isn’t true.”

Gerald crossed the room quickly and let Michael collapse into his arms. The two men stood that way for some time, clinging to one another and weeping quietly.

* * *

Gerald was glad Michael had decided to come. When he’d found out Michael wasn’t going to the States to be with his mother for Christmas, he hadn’t been able to bear the thought of his spending the holiday alone in the barren flat he was currently renting. Gerald had insisted Michael spend Christmas Eve with him and his family. Michael had seemed reluctant, but he’d shown up nonetheless.

“More eggnog?” Gerald asked, slapping a hand on Michael’s shoulder.

“No thanks,” Michael said with a weak smile. “Gotta drive home.”

“Nonsense. Stay the night; you can watch the kids tear into their presents from St. Nick in the morning.”

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”

“No trouble. There’s plenty of room. Right, hon?”

“Absolutely,” Miranda said as she passed by with a tray of Christmas cookies, her and Gerald’s two children following at her heels, soon joined by Charles and Anne’s three youngsters.

“So how’s the show going?” Gerald asked. Michael had recently joined the staff of writers on the latest incarnation of Doctor Who. “Anything exciting coming up?”

“You know I can’t tell you anything about upcoming storylines.”

“Oh, come on now. Just a hint? I’ll give you one of my children. Hannah, I’ll trade you Hannah.”

Michael laughed, his first genuine laugh of the evening. Laughter hadn’t come easily to him since Ferguson’s death five years ago. “Thanks, but no. You’ll have to wait and watch like everyone else.”

Gerald sighed dramatically. “Okay, I suppose I have to respect that. Tell you what, you can have Hannah anyway, if you want.”

“I’m sure Miranda would be thrilled to hear that,” Michael said with a grin.

“Hell, she’d probably throw in Owen as well.”

“Family photo,” Fiona, Gerald’s Mum, called out. She was gathered on the sofa with Anne, Charles, their three children, Miranda, Hannah and Owen. “Come on,” she said to Gerald, waving him over. “We’re taking a photo with just the family.”

Gerald started over then turned to see Michael headed for the kitchen. “Hey, Michael,” he said, “aren’t you coming?”

Michael paused, looking at him uncertainly. “I thought this one was just for the family?”

“It is,” Fiona said, holding out her hand to Michael. “That includes you, dear.”

“Get your arse over here,” Gerald said. “Come stand next to me. You’ll look even more gorgeous by comparison.”

Michael stood there for a moment, a war of emotions playing over his face. A single tear escaped and fled down his cheek. Finally he walked over and stood next to Gerald behind the sofa, Gerald throwing an arm casually around Michael’s shoulders.

“Okay everyone,” said a distant cousin whose name Gerald couldn’t remember. “Smile.”

A click, a flash, a family immortalized.

2018 in Review

Another year has come to a close, so here is my obligatory blog post in which I recall my year as a writer. 2018 was another rewarding year for me.

Early in the year Cemetery Dance released the limited edition hardcover of DOG DAYS O' SUMMER, the werewolf novel I co-authored with my good friend James Newman. The book actually sold out through pre-orders and book club members before it was even officially released.



In March, Unnerving released the shared collection SPLISH SLASH TAKIN' A BLOODBATH, a tribute to slasher films that contained stories by myself, Eddie Generous, and Renee Miller. I had 7 stories in the collection, as well as one story the three of us wrote together.



Early August saw another Unnerving release. They put out the paperback and digital editions of DOG DAYS O' SUMMER, and it was great having the book available to a wider audience.



Finally, in September I self-published my novella collection DEVIATIONS FROM THE NORM. I had my friend Brian Knight help me professionally format it, had it proofed, paid for a professional cover. I was not able to find a publisher interested in the novellas, but I believed strongly in them and wanted the book available. I'm very proud of the result.



It has also been a productive writing year. For the first half of the year, I worked on a new novel entitled BEFORE HE WAKES, and the latter half of the year I've spent focusing on short stories. I am so passionate about the short form, but I hadn't really made it a priority in the past few years, and spending time working solely on short fiction was a revelation to me.

I didn't do as many events this year. Early in the year, I hosted a slasher movie trivia contest at Joe's Place in Greenville, and earlier this month I led a literary scavenger hunt for a book club at Joe's Place, and they donated money to the Greenville Literacy Association as payment. It was a great time.

Through it all, my husband and best friend Craig Metcalf has been by my side, making it all the more rewarding. I started a new job late in the fall, and I have big plans ahead for 2019.

And I thank all my readers who have taken this journey with me. See you next year.

Why I Deviated From the Norm

When I first conceived of the concept of a novella collection, I was incredibly excited. Some stories are simply too big for shorts but too contained for novels, and the novella is the perfect length for these stories. At the time, I was going through a period where I was writing a lot of novellas, and I had three that took familiar genre tropes (namely the vampire, the time machine, and the deal with the devil) and gave them my own unique twist. I thought this would make for an entertaining collection, and I came up with the title DEVIATIONS FROM THE NORM.



The next step was finding a publisher for it. Not to sound cocky, I am aware that I’m a small fish in a big pond, but over the last several years I had been lucky enough to find homes for everything I wrote. Novels, novellas, short story collections…I had the immense fortune of working with some tremendous publishers. Therefore, I expected to be able to find a home for DEVIATIONS without too much trouble.

My first choice publisher passed simply because I submitted two manuscripts to them at the same time. DEVIATIONS as well as a haunted house novel. They only had one slot available in their roster, and since they already had a pending collection with me, they wanted to go with the novel. I was more than happy with that, but it did leave DEVIATIONS homeless.

I looked into many of the other publishers I had worked with more recently, and unfortunately most of them were closed for submissions. I did find a few other publishers that said they would be happy to read the manuscript and consider it.

Yet these all resulted in rejections. Disappointing, but it is all part of the publishing game. I will say, however, that something that really frustrated me was that these publishers never read more than the first few chapters of the first novella.

Let me take a moment to talk about the novella that opens the collection, “The Unholy Eucharist.” This is my take on the vampire mythos, creating my own original origin story for the creatures. I consider this piece to be one of the most ambitious I’ve ever undertaken, delving back into history in a way I rarely do. I did a lot of research for it, and I had a wonderful time crafting the tale. It ended up being a story of which I was remarkably proud. To me, it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done…so I was rather surprised when this novella was the sticking point for publishers.

And yet I shouldn’t have been. My origin story dates back to Biblical times and incorporates Biblical figures into the narrative, including Jesus himself. I take great liberties with these figures and use them for my own means. Not because I was trying to make any type of statement on religion, but simply because that is where my imagination took me.

Some of the publishers felt that this would prove too controversial with readers, and that I would end up offending people. Interestingly enough, I got a comment from one publisher saying that as an atheist he was almost surprised that I had treated the Biblical characters with such reverence. (A digression, I sometimes see other atheists saying they can’t get into stories that treat Biblical figures as real. This to me is a baffling view, as we don’t have to believe vampires are real to enjoy stories about them, or werewolves, or zombies, etc.)

In any case, the publishers I sent the collection to all said they read only two or three chapters of “The Unholy Eucharist” before stopping because the religious aspects made it a hard sell for them. This truly did frustrate me. I put so much time and effort and passion into that story, it honestly made me a little mad that the publishers couldn’t even bother to read the entire thing before dismissing it. And while I understand the business aspect of publishing is paramount, it also left me a little disillusioned to think that there isn’t more risk-taking in the industry.

Also extremely frustrating was the fact that the other two novellas in the collection – “Kronoz” and “The Price of Success” – had never even been read by the publishers. I felt sorry for those stories, not even having the chance to be considered.

Yet I still believed very strongly in this collection. “Kronoz” and “The Price of Success” (the latter of which I wrote with my good friend Shane Nelson) I thought were highly entertaining and I wanted people to have a chance to read them.

And despite everything I was told, I believed strongly in the merits of “The Unholy Eucharist.” I felt like it was a rich and involving story with a nice twist at the end which could set up for even more stories in that universe. I really wanted to get it out there and give it a chance to live or die on its own.

So I started seriously considering self-publishing. I had experimented with that before, but only digital editions with crude cover art. This time I wanted to go all out. I contacted a friend of mine who has self-published a lot of his backlist, and he offered to use his Mac program that would automatically format the manuscript for print and digital. I got someone to do a thorough proofing of the book, and I hired a professional cover artist.

To me, that is one of the greatest things about this age where self-publishing is made so effortless. Yes, I know everyone complains that means the market can be flooded with substandard works, but it also means that works that are overlooked or considered too risky can still have a chance to find an audience.

I’m beyond ecstatic to be able to offer DEVIATIONS FROM THE NORM to readers. I do think it’s a collection that is strong and interesting, and I look forward to getting feedback from readers.

You can purchase the collection here: https://www.amazon.com/Deviations-Norm-Mark-Allan-Gunnells-ebook/dp/B07HLJJ692/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1539622244&sr=8-1&keywords=deviations+from+the+norm

The Cairn - Kevin Lucia Guest Blog

I was thrilled to be part of Kevin Lucia's blog tour to promote his excellent collection THINGS YOU NEED. Below is a little missive written by his character Gavin Patchett. Give it a read then go buy the collection. (And if you don't like reading here, I offer a Google Drive link to a pdf: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1fSQWhANYK0tAIdDgSjClKhEIOhyMIKtQ)



Of all the stories I've shared about Clifton Heights and its strangeness, the following serves as perhaps the best representation of the shadows which lurk here. It serves, also, as a nice coda for this brief exercise.

Everyone in town knows, of course, about Raedeker Recreational Park, and Raedeker Park Zoo, on Samara Hill Road (where I grew up, and once saw a strange white cat which terrified my father). Many folks know the stories about the “haunted” lion's cage, or the tales of the lonely teenage ghost girl who sings a mournful tune every Halloween on the old amphitheater in Rec Park. These stories and others like it are staples of Clifton Heights lore. Everyone knows them.

But most people don't known about the cairn. And quite honestly, I didn't know about them myself until I discovered them by accident. I was visiting Raedeker Park around Halloween, drawn by the above legends. Was I planning on turning them into stories?

Perhaps. That's the way it often works with me. I hear about local legends – like the girl in white who haunts Bassler Road, or the stories about Bassler House itself – and turn them over in my mind. If something catches, a story is born. More often than not, only a fragment comes to mind. I jot it down and forget about it until something jars the memory loose again.

In any case, I'd walked through Raedeker Park Zoo, poked around the supposedly haunted lion cage cage, and was standing on the old amphitheater up on the hill, where, as a kid, I watched countless Universal horror movies and westerns on a big white screen. I didn't feel much, except maybe a faint wistfulness, and it was hard to tell if it came from inside me, or somewhere else.

A trickle of a story idea was forming, however, but not about the ghost girl, not really. More about a boy who heard the legend and was determined to hear the ghost girl sing. And maybe the boy's father was a hard-driven pastor who hated Halloween, but not for the reasons the boy thought. Maybe his mother had been killed on Halloween, or right before? Maybe run down on the street while shopping for the boy's Halloween costume, killed in a senseless accident, which would make Halloween a continual reminder of what the pastor had lost.

The thought stopped there and petered out, but that was fine. I'd turn it over in my head on the way home, write it down, and forget about it until it bubbled back to the surface. If that happened, then I knew there was something to write about.

All thoughts about the wistful singing ghost girl and the boy with the pastor father who hated Halloween faded when I stepped from the ruins of Raedeker Park's amphitheater to the parking lot. Glancing right, I saw something I'd never seen before, for some reason, in all my visits there. What looked like an access road at the treeline, winding away into the woods, the way barred by an old wooden gate which looked like it was in as bad a shape as the ruined amphitheater.

I've thought about this often, since. Why did I see that old access road, on that particular day? It's not like I visited Raedeker Park as much as I did when I was a kid. It's conceivable enough that on other visits, I just didn't look in that direction.

But it still seems odd, to me. That I'd look to my right, that day, and see an access road – barred by an old wooden gate – which I'd never seen before, right when I was searching for story inspiration.

Of course, you know what I had to do.

*

The access road provided surprisingly easy walking, especially considering the condition of the old gate, which didn't look as if it had been opened in over twenty years. It certainly wasn't much of a barrier anymore, the gate and its two posts having rotted through long before. I walked around the gate, (because whatever fencing had been connected to it had also long since fallen into ruin), but I believe one good push would've knocked it right over.

The path looked oddly worn for all that, as if driven on regularly, though I saw no tangible signs of use. Certainly no signs of teenagers – soda or beer cans or bottles, crumpled cigarette boxes, other kinds of litter. For whatever reason, our teenagers didn't frequent this path, or where it led.

Which was telling, in and of itself. Teenagers are the same everywhere, I think. Ours are no better or worse than in other towns. If abandoned places exist, hidden from adult eyes, it's there they will congregate, and do the things teenagers do when parents and adults aren't around.

I did the same, their age. Back then, Old Webb, an abandoned elementary school which stood on Route 79 before the county bulldozed it down my senior year, served as a party hub for teenagers all over Web County, even as far away as Indian Lake. And while the teenagers partied there on Saturday nights, during the summer, adolescents liked to explore its shadowy depths. I logged several hours there myself, and another local writer – Kevin Ellison, owner of Arcane Delights, our used bookstore – has written a charming novella about his experiences there called A Night at Old Webb. It's the kind of story I could never write.

In any case, Clifton Heights teens gather in many places like Old Webb. There's old Bassler House, the abandoned farmhouse on Bassler Road. For every chilling story about what's happened inside its decrepit frame (mine included), there are scores of stories of teenagers (and traditionally, the football team every year, apparently after every home victory), who go inside and experience nothing out of the ordinary, past teenage drinking. On an odd note, I've occasionally wondered if their inebriation protected them, somehow, from Bassler House's purported malign influence.

But for all the usual gathering places around Clifton Heights, places exist which they notoriously leave alone. The old Lapierre house off Allen Road, for example. Also, the ruins of Mr. Trung's koi pond lie untouched. When I was a kid, Mr. Trung – a Vietnam man seeking to escape the memories of the Viet Cong – lived in a modest trailer out on Bassler Road (much closer to town), and grew blueberries. He also maintained a koi pond garden which was the envy of all Clifton Heights gardeners.

He died somewhat mysteriously, apparently suffering a stroke or heart attack, and was found floating face-down in the koi pond. By the time someone discovered him, the koi had eaten quite a bit of his face. In any case, no one ventures into the ruins of his strangely overgrown garden, or sits under the decaying, leaning gazebo, at its center.

Why?

I don't know. It's just one of the many places in Clifton Heights which exudes a kind of natural (unnatural?) essence which wards off the curious.

As I walked up the access road winding into the woods on the hill behind Raedeker Park, I wondered if maybe it was one of those places. I saw no signs that anyone had walked or driven along it recently, though, as I've said, it looked oddly well-worn, with no sign of overgrowth.

And I didn't sense anything foreboding about that access road, really. Whenever I drive past Mr. Trung's old garden, a cold shivers passes through me. I've never once had an inclination to stop and poke around. In fact, the novella I wrote about Mr. Trung and his koi, “Sophan,” (part of the novella duet Devourer of Souls), I wrote entirely by imagining what the koi pond looked like, because I've never dared (there, I said it), set foot in that old garden.

I felt no such ill sensations walking along that access road, however. If anything, I felt remarkably...at peace. Free. I've discussed the guilt I grapple with, over what happened to one of my former students, Emma Pital, which I wrote about in my short story “Lament.” I'm grappling with that guilt head on in my first novel (which I've just finished the first draft of), The Mighty Dead. It's a guilt I deal with on a daily basis. It lurks there, in the morning when I rise. It waits for my dreams when I fall asleep at night.

But as I walked along that access road, I realized something curious: I felt no guilt. Not a trace. I felt free and unburdened, in a way I've rarely experienced. For some reason, that unnerved me, and the memory of that freedom unsettles me, even today. It would be easy to say I've just gotten addicted to my guilt, in a masochistic sort of way, and that feeling even a moment of peace was just too strange a sensation.

I don't believe that was the case, however. Especially not after what I found at the end of that access road. I believe that sense of peace didn't come from me. I believe it was forced on me. I believe it came from the road itself, like the paralytic toxins secreted by those Venus flytraps that eat flies and spiders and, in tropical regions, small rodents. It sounds strange (unless you live in Clifton Heights, and understand our brand of strange), but I think that, as I walked along that access road, something was poisoning me (if that makes any kind of sense) with an alien sense of guilt-free peace, and that I'm lucky I made it off that access road alive.

*

Near the access road's end, it curved to the left and inclined sharply, enough to leave me panting slightly. When I took stock of what lay ahead of me, however, an excited (frightened?) shiver rippled through me, and I felt out of breath for entirely different reasons.

Cairn.

Familiar with Irish folklore and myth, I instantly recognized the dozens of conical, meticulously arranged piles of rocks for what they were. Cairn. Used as landmarks, or, very often...

As grave markers.

The access road cut down the middle, and though I didn't take a specific count, at least three or four or maybe even five dozen cairn stood on both sides of the road, more than I'd ever seen in one place. So many it didn't seem possible, and it came to me, again, that I was standing at the mouth of a graveyard of perhaps more than fifty souls gone to rest, in the woods up behind Raedeker Park.

Then, I lifted my gaze, and saw them, for the first time.

The ruined buildings of Zoo Town, the obvious homes for those who lay in rest at my feet.

Zoo Town is another one of Clifton Height's little known artifacts of the past, even among some of its most “informed” citizens. Only the oldest folks in town have heard of its existence, still fewer have ever seen it...which is very odd, considering it took minimal research on my part, after the fact, to find several entries about it both print and online “History of Webb County” accounts.

Like many small towns in the Adirondacks, during the 1930's, Clifton Heights played home to a small but vibrant Irish-American community. In many places throughout Adirondack Park, the Irish found work in the silver and tin mines, in stone quarries and lumber mills. In Clifton Heights, the Irish worked primarily at Raedeker Park Zoo and Carnival, tending to the animals, cleaning pens and the grounds, operating and maintaining the carnival rides. Up on the hill behind Raedeker Park, they built a small, rustic-but respectable two-street town which became known as “Zoo Town.”

After I passed through the field of cairn (I won't lie; I walked quickly, as a child flitting through a graveyard at night), and walked down one of Zoo Town's streets (again, it appeared oddly worn and recently traveled), I marveled at how well-preserved the old buildings seemed, after so many years. In my cursory examination, I saw not only narrow but sturdy-looking shotgun shacks with small front porches, but also longer buildings in the “center” of town, opening to both streets. One with rows of rusted metal cots bereft of blankets or mattresses (the town infirmary?) and a larger building, which could've possibly been a general store of sorts.

As I stopped in the middle of the street, turning in an entranced 360 degrees, staring, that reverent, hushed presence settled over me. It felt like (though it was surely a product of my imagination) that the entire town had merely stepped out, en mass, and was due to return at any moment. I wondered how the town had come to be abandoned, and I still wonder now, even after researching the matter.

On the surface, the historical account seems innocuous enough. After a rash of accidents due to malfunctions of aging, poorly kept carnival rides in the early sixties, Raedeker Park Zoo & Carnival became just Zoo, as the park closed its carnival due to hikes in insurance rates. With carnival rides dismantled, nearly half of Zoo Town's men and women lost work, leaving them to try and find employment down in Clifton Heights itself, or in surrounding towns, which was difficult, because only a handful of men owned trucks in good enough condition to drive to other towns. Because of this, young men either left town to find work elsewhere, or enlisted at the start of the Vietnam War, and subsequently didn't return home.

So Zoo Town had been dealt a blow it slowly bled out from, as more and more of its young either moved down to Clifton Heights and acclimated to life in town proper, or moved elsewhere. Then came the apparent, final death blow: an unsolved murder of a young girl from Zoo Town, her body discovered on what was then the amphitheater stage at Raedeker Park (And, as it usually does, my research had provided me with a workable source for the singing ghost girl legend, which I'm sure will fashion itself into a story eventually).

For some odd reason, even though the victim was from Zoo Town, the whole incident turned sentiment against Zoo Town. A notable religious leader at the time (I won't say whom, because I'm admittedly holding that back for the future ghost girl story), led the charge, claiming Zoo Town was a “devil's stronghold of pagan, old world rites and customs.”

Nothing came of the pastor's rantings, but it only worsened Zoo Town's bleeding out. More and more of its young left, now followed by many of its middle-aged citizens. As its elders began passing, (as they tend to do), Zoo Town became emptier, until sometime in the mid seventies (it's odd no one actually knows a specific date), the final Zoo Town resident either passed away or left, and Zoo Town fell abandoned, to stay that way.

Even so, recalling that strange hush I felt while looking around Zoo Town, I wonder what else happened. I wonder if maybe the story about the pastor leading a crusade against Zoo Town's “evil pagan rites” only scratched the surface. I certainly didn't sense the same foreboding I always feel when driving by Mr. Trung's old koi garden, or the weird sense of displacement I felt the only time I shopped at Save-A-Lot, a used and antique furniture store which is, weirdly enough, housed in an old school just outside town.

But I sensed something in the ruins of Zoo Town, regardless. As I said, either the sensation that its residents were due back any moment, or that, on some plain of existence I couldn't see, Zoo Town still bustled with life and industry.

My thoughts stuttered to an abrupt halt, however, when I heard a woman say from behind me, “Marvelous. Isn't it?”

*
I turned to see a striking woman about my age standing behind me, dressed in black runner's tights and a black windbreaker, though she didn't look tired or winded, as if from a recent run. Her likewise black hair was pulled in a ponytail, and eyes which looked more golden than anything else took me in as she approached. And I mean that, took me in. It felt like she was appraising me. Sizing me up, evaluating my worth.

Her face possessed high cheekbones and regal features. Her smile, however, was wide and friendly, and despite cutting an impressive figure, she put me at ease, instantly. I didn't feel uncomfortable around her, at all.

Which, in retrospect, troubles me. I know I'm probably acting paranoid, and that she was most likely just a runner, nothing more. But recalling the incident and the almost instantaneous wave of good will I felt wash over me in her presence, I can't help but think she was an extension of the road, and Zoo Town itself. I felt relaxed and comfortable in her presence not because she was harmless, but because she made me feel that way, to keep me docile, compliant...under control.

“You mean the cairn?” I gestured over my shoulder. “Yeah, I'll say. ”

Her smile widened. “So you know your Irish folklore. I'm impressed. Most folks these days don't know what cairn even are.”

I felt oddly pleased at her praise, like a dog who had performed a trick and now hoped for reward. “Well, I'm an English literature teacher, and I do love my folklore. It's kind of in my wheelhouse.”

She smiled wider, golden eyes twinkling as she stepped closer. “Indeed? How fortuitous. Irish folklore is very much in my wheelhouse, also.” She gestured at the buildings. “Do you know of this place, then?”

At the time, of course, I didn't. “Actually, no, which is hard to believe. I grew up in Clifton Heights, and I never knew this was even here.” I looked at her, and found it oddly hard not to be drawn into her gaze. “Do you know what it is?”

“Yes. It was a small community made up of Irish who worked in Raedeker Park Zoo & Carnival, as well as the lumber mill. Over the years locals began calling it 'Zoo Town.' It died out in the seventies when the Carnival closed. Work dried up. The young who could move away did, and eventually, those who were too old to move passed on.” She waved at the cairn behind me. “And there they lay, with the rest of their brethren.”

This, of course, was a truncated history which prompted me to conduct research of my own, later. I glanced back over my shoulder at the cairn. “Amazing. Definitely didn't learn about this place in history class.”

I gazed at the cairn for a few more minutes, suffused once again with that consuming sense of peace. “It's strange how the road runs right between the cairn,” I said. “I'd think it would be away from the road.”

“Another part of Irish myth,” the woman replied. “Are you familiar with ley lines? Faerie paths? What's called 'the night road?'”

I faced her again, and blinked in surprise: She'd taken two steps closer to me. “Uh. I've heard of ley lines and faerie paths. Not the night road, though.”

“Legend has it that they're all one and the same. Ley lines, faerie paths, night roads. Routes of elemental power connecting sites of power.”

I nodded. “Right. Religious sites, graveyards, churches, old battlefronts. So, according to lore, this road is a ley line...”

She tipped her head, “Or a night road.”

“...and it's connecting the cairn back there to...” I paused, thinking, trying to imagine where the access road led to, based on Raedeker Park's location on Samara Hill. “Does it come out on Shelby Road?”

The woman grinned, and once again, the ridiculous notion that I'd pleased her and would be rewarded possessed me. “Yes it does. It runs through Shelby Road Cemetery.”

I snapped my fingers. “Right. Yeah, that cemetery hasn't been used for decades. That makes sense. Ley lines are supposed to connect sites of power, graveyards among them, so, according to legend, this road would be a ley line...”

“Or a night road.”

“...connecting the cairn to Shelby Road Cemetery. And what is a night road, anyway? You've mentioned it a few times, now. As I said, I've heard of ley lines and faerie paths, but not night roads.”

The woman crossed her arms, looking immensely pleased I'd asked such a question. “Like the faerie paths, night roads are roads leading to other plains of existence. Legend had it that walking on a night road was to risk offending the faerie, and if you were found unworthy – or worthy, depending on the story – you would be taken down the night road with them, to run forever. Some considered this a curse. Others – lost folks, folks burdened by guilt, who felt they had nothing left to live for – considered this a blessing. They sought the night road, for release.”

I nodded slowly, a slight feeling of alarm piercing my odd sense of peace, especially at her mention of people “burdened by guilt.” I've mentioned my guilt. It sounds crazy...but when she said some people thought it a blessing to be caught up on the night road?

A part of me..responded.

But another part of me, thank God a stronger part of me, rose up and pushed down that sudden, weird longing. “That's intriguing. Definitely something to research when I get back.”

The woman stepped closer, arching an eyebrow. “Get back? Must you leave...so soon?”

At that moment, all the odd peace I'd felt in the presence of the cairn, and my strange enthrallment with that woman vanished under a cold shiver, one I recognized all too well, a cold shiver I've already referenced several times. Underneath it, however, like a faint whisper?

That longing.

To stay there.

Forever?

“Yeah, I gotta get going.” For some reason, I was loathe to admit I was a writer looking for inspiration. It was on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it and only said, “I just like to take walks and look around, is all.”

She nodded slowly. Did her eyes change, at that moment? Flicker a deeper shade of gold, looking far less friendly, and more...predatory?

Surely it was my imagination.

Surely.

“Well. It was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you find what you're looking for.”

It was a strange thing to say. But at that point, my desire to get as far away from this woman as possible overwhelmed all thoughts. “Thanks. Me too. Have a good one.”

I turned as quickly as I could without seeming impolite (for some reason, showing overt disrespect to this woman, regardless of my unease, seemed unwise), and walked back down to Raedeker Park.

*

I see this woman running often, now. Which of course shouldn't seem strange. She'd been dressed in running tights, of course. Lots of folks go running in Clifton Heights; I see them all the time. It's just odd, how often I see her. And how it seems like, even though she's never looking at me, it feels like she knows I see her.

But I'm sure that's just my imagination.

*
An odd news item, recently. Police found two locals' cars abandoned at the mouth of Shelby Cemetery, on Shelby Road. One of the drivers is missing. The other? Horribly mutilated. By an unidentified animal, and found on the access road in the woods, running from Shelby Road Cemetery.

I don't want to write this story.

I don't.

But I know I will.

It's what I do.

Gavin Patchett
Clifton Heights, NY


Now people, RUN don't walk to buy the collection: http://getbook.at/ThingsYouNeed

Interview with Author Ron Rash

Ron Rash is a name that I feel everyone should know. He is a gifted poet, short story writer, and novelist, and I believe one of our greatest living storytellers. His work is diverse and evocative, mining the emotional depths of the human condition. I have had the pleasure of seeing him at several events over the years, and I was delighted when he accepted my invitation to allow me to interview him for my blog. He is warm, funny, and intelligent, and below is a transcript of our conversation. Enjoy.



MAG: At what age did you start to seriously consider becoming a writer?

RR: I started later than most of my friends. Actually, I was in college before I first tried to write poetry or fiction.

MAG: You are proficient in poetry, short stories, and novels. Did you dive into all three at once, or how did that evolve?

RR: When I was in college, I pretty much did short stories and poetry together early on. I can remember of the first five or six pieces I wrote, two were poems, three or four were stories. Actually, when I first got published in my college literary journal, I had a short story and a poem in it.

MAG: When did the novels come into play?

RR: I tried to write one when I was in my late 20s and failed. I tried again in my 30s and failed, but finally in my mid-40s I felt like I’d written something that was worthwhile. That was One Foot in Eden. So yes, the novels came later.




MAG: Excellent novel, by the way. Everyone always asks who’s your favorite novelist, but I want to ask who would you say is your favorite poet?

RR: I guess if I had to pick a favorite…I don’t know how you view Shakespeare. Shakespeare, to me, is the best of everything. If I had to pick an individual poet, purely a poet, it would probably be John Keats.

MAG: Your poetry has a strong narrative drive. I am particular fond of your poetry collection Eureka Mill, which through a series of connected poems tells the story of farmers driven off their land who go to work at a mill and live in mill houses. Did you write these pieces with the intention of doing a collection, or were they written individually and just pulled together when you realized they told a cohesive story?

RR: I had seen the mill villages start to disappear, and it was almost like no one was noticing that this way of life that had been so prevalent for so many people, not just in the south but at one time in New England, was disappearing. So I wrote five or six poems, and I started to realize that maybe I could do something that would be a collection of poetry that might also have the feel of a novel, a more expansive way of telling this story. After five or six poems, I started to realize this could be something bigger. I wasn’t sure what at first, maybe a chapbook, but I kept working and I felt better and better about it. Actually, it’s getting ready to be republished as a 20th Anniversary edition. It’s coming out in October, so it’s held up pretty well. (https://www.amazon.com/Eureka-Mill-Ron-Rash/dp/1938235444/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535483784&sr=1-2&keywords=eureka+mill)

MAG: One of my favorite novels of yours is The Cove. I found that bit of history about World War I (the American internment camps where Germans were held, and the plight of a certain German luxury liner’s crew) enlightening as I wasn’t aware of it.

RR: You’re not alone. Very few people seem to know about it.




MAG: True. The novel also spoke so eloquently of issues we face today. How much research did you do for that book?

RR: I did a huge amount. I love doing research. I’m just a curious person, and it’s always fun to learn about things I don’t know a lot about. I did a good bit of research, particularly on the ship. I actually found a book about the ship, and I had to order it from New Zealand. So yes, I did a lot of research, but also that cemetery is in Western North Carolina, pretty much near where I grew up, so I had some sense of it already. I think research is important to get the details as right as you can. You always miss something when you set a novel in a particular time, but at least I try to minimize it. And one thing I feel about this book and Serena, in particular, is that I was writing as much about the present as the past.

MAG: My next question is actually about Serena, which is perhaps the most well-known of your novels. It is excellent, and the title character is simply fascinating. When I read your collection Chemistry and Other Stories, I noticed that there was a short story called “Pemberton’s Bride” which is a shorter version of the novel, with a drastically different ending. I assume the short story came first?

RR: It’s kind of interesting. Even when I wrote that story, I already knew it was going to become a novel, but I felt like I could write something more concise and I thought that would be interesting. I was early into the novel at that time, and Rachel wasn’t even a character after the first page or two. The real change in that novel came later with Rachel. So yes, I was working on it but felt I had enough there to have a good story but all the while knowing I was going to do something more expansive. I also sort of did that same thing with the novel The World Made Straight and a short story called “Speckled Trout,” though in that instance I wrote the novel a couple of years after the short story.

MAG: Your most recently released novel, The Risen, is more contemporary than novels like Serena and The Cove. You seem to go back and forth between contemporary novels and period ones. Do you approach the writing differently when the time period you are writing about is more recent?

RR: Probably. The levels of research I have to do are different, and with contemporary novels I’m relying more on personal memory. Particularly in The Risen. In 1968 I was fourteen years old, and I really had that sense Eugene had, of all this amazing change and the love generation and optimism. But I was in a very small, conservative area in Western North Carolina, a small town of I guess 800 people, so it was like it was happening everywhere but there, but I was listening to the music, and as I say in the novel it was really like I was getting messages in a bottle from this other place. So certainly personal experience probably plays more of a role in that novel than any other novel I’ve written. I would say far more, actually.

MAG: It has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve ever read.

RR: Thank you. That book did not do as well as I might have liked, but I feel like it holds up. I think it’s a book that if you read it a second time, it may open up in ways the reader might have missed the first time. My goal was to write a book where the second reading, maybe even the third, would be where something really happens to the reader.



MAG: I will definitely be rereading it. In an interview, I heard you talk about short stories, saying that you believe them to be America’s great contribution to literature. I wondered if you could expound on that a bit. For instance, who do you think have been the most influential American short story writers?

RR: I think we can start with Poe, certainly. His influence on the French has been incredible. In a sense, he really was one of the most important short story writers and innovators. His short stories have been a great contribution to world literature, and then you see Hawthorne coming later. I think Hemmingway certainly has had a huge impact on world literature, particularly his short stories. And more recently Raymond Carver, and of course Flannery O’Connor continues to have a huge effect even outside the United States. I don’t know of a country that has produced greater short story writers. I think when we look at America’s great contribution to literature, to me it is pretty obviously the short story.

MAG: Short fiction is challenging, in that you have a smaller canvas on which to work yet still need to create a full world and authentic characters and a satisfying conclusion. Do you have any particular techniques you use to accomplish this, or do you trust completely to instinct?

RR: I just go by instinct, but I will say that almost every writer I’ve heard who does both will agree that to write a good short story is harder than writing a good novel. It’s not something I really want to think about too much. I really do want it to be intuitive, and the stories tend to almost always start with an image and then I just let it go where it will go. I’ve learned to trust that. The one thing I never do, though I did this early on until I learned it was exactly what was stifling me, is try to plot out a story. That, for me, doesn’t work. It’s almost as if you’re putting it all on a single rail, and those swerve moments that are unexpected are the moments that the short story really works. I work by intuition, even with novels. Everything I write starts with an image, Serena started with just an image of a woman on horseback.

MAG: As an avid lover of short fiction, I wondered if you had any other collections in the works?

RR: Absolutely. I’ve got one pretty much finished up. I’ve got twelve stories, and actually I’m probably going to have a novella where I bring back Serena to finish up her last job, which in the novel is left undone. She comes back from Brazil, but the story is actually focused much more on the loggers. In a sense, she’s not much more than a presence because it’s really about the logger Ross. I get into his backstory. So the collection is pretty much done. Over half the stories have been published. One just came out a week or two ago in Ploughshares, probably the one I think is the best. (https://www.amazon.com/Ploughshares-Summer-2018-Guest-Edited-McCorkle-ebook/dp/B07FMRJ342/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1535484146&sr=1-1&keywords=ploughshares) I’ve been working on a novel as well, and I’ve got a new publisher so they want the novel first since it’s my first book with them.

MAG: Do you remember your first public appearance as an author? If so, what stands out about the experience?

RR: My first public appearance as a writer was at the New York Public Library. I’m not kidding. That was the first reading I ever did. The first or second short story I ever published, I think it was the very first actually, was in a small literary magazine in North Carolina, but at that time General Electric had a Young Writers Award for writers under 40. They nominated it, and somehow incredibly it was selected by the judges. I think there were six of us who won. Rick Bass won, Rita Dove. There was a $5,000 first prize, and my first child had just been born. I said, “Can you just send me the check?” I didn’t want to go to New York, but they said, “No, you’ve got to come.” So I went up there and did the reading at the New York Public Library. That was my first reading. It’s funny, because I’m an introvert. I can fake it, but I remember thinking, Nobody up here knows me. If I screw this up completely, no one will know about it.

MAG: I believe you’ve done some events outside the country. Where’s the farthest you’ve traveled to promote your work?

RR: New Zealand. My books have done well in Australia and New Zealand. They’ve done well in Europe and China. Which I think is what you hope for as a writer. I’ve always had problems when people call me a “regional writer” because I think in a sense almost all of us are regional writers. James Joyce writes about a region. He’s as local and regional as you can get. All his books take place in Dublin. I think ultimately your goal, at least my goal, is to write stories that while very much of a particular place and culture transcend it at the same time. As I tell people, I think ultimately what I’m trying to do is capture something of what it feels like to be alive in the world.

MAG: I think really great fiction is universal, and yours certainly is.

RR: I hope there is a sense of that. Certainly I use a lot of world mythology, and I’m aware of it from different cultures. I’m pretty much a Jungian, and I’m pretty interested in the collective unconscious. The idea that certain archetypes are instilled in us that we all share, and I think a lot of times what the writer does is touch on those archetypes. It’s not so much that you’re doing it deliberately, but I think the reader senses, “This feels right. It feels true.” A lot of times it is not just human experience, but a kind of resonance from that type of archetypal aspect of our consciousness.

MAG: I’ve noticed you have little to no online presence, something I admire and sort of envy. I know from experience that these days publishers like their authors to do a lot of self-promotion on social media. Do you get pressure from your publisher to be more active on social media platforms?

RR: I think they’ve pretty much resolved that I’m not going to do that. I feel like the best thing I can do for my audience, my readers, is to put all my energy into writing the best book I can. Social media is just not something that feels right for me. Whether others do it is their business, obviously. I don’t do Facebook or any of that, it doesn’t interest me.

MAG: You seem to do a lot of appearances in the area, though.

RR: Yes, that’s different. People invite me, and I do a good number of fundraisers. A lot of times I do it because I want to support independent bookstores. Particularly in this region my books sell pretty well, so I know if I go to an independent that will help them. And I’ve done two literacy fundraisers in the last month, so I’ll do fundraisers for causes I believe in. Those are the kinds of appearances I usually do.

MAG: For fans who are interested in keeping up with your upcoming works, what would you recommend as the best way to keep abreast of your latest releases?

RR: My Amazon author page has all my work, and any new works I have coming out will be added. (https://www.amazon.com/Ron-Rash/e/B001IQX8XQ/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1535484189&sr=1-2-ent)

I want to thank Mr. Rash for taking the time to speak with me. His work is widely available, and I encourage everyone to give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Dog Days o' Summer - An Interview with my collaborator, James Newman

Earlier this year Cemetery Dance released a limited hardcover of Dog Days o' Summer, the werewolf novel that James Newman and I co-wrote together. That edition was actually sold out in pre-order before it was ever actually released. But Unnerving Press is now releasing the book in paperback and digital editions, meaning it can finally find a wider audience. To celebrate, I did a little interview with James Newman to talk about the book and how we came to work on it together.



MAG: When you approached me about collaborating, you already had the idea for DOG DAYS O’ SUMMER, as well as some of the first chapter written. Where did the initial idea for this story come from?

JN: This first question is easy. This one sprang from a love for coming-of-age tales, and a desire to write a cool werewolf story. I was excited to write about a guy who was not only a reluctant villain, but one who would be confronted by protagonists who didn’t want to hurt him if they had been given any other choice. It’s right there on the first page – our main character idolized this guy. I found that to be an intriguing dilemma for our hero, right off the bat. Thankfully my soon-to-be co-writer did as well.



MAG: Except for a couple of short stories, I had never really delved into the werewolf mythos before this. Had you written much werewolf fiction before this?

JN: Years ago, before I really started doing this professionally, I did start a werewolf novel called CHILDREN OF THE MOON. It eventually turned into something called THE PACK. There were some pretty cool ideas in it that have always stayed with me. I’ve thought a few times that they might be worth revisiting someday – who knows.

MAG: There is a lot of werewolf fiction out there. I have enjoyed books as diverse as Robert McCammon’s THE WOLF'S HOUR and Anne Rice’s THE WOLVES OF MIDWINTER. I was wondering what are some of your favorite werewolf tales?

JN: My favorite is definitely John Skipp & Craig Spector’s ANIMALS. I’ve been planning to re-read that soon, as a matter of fact. Such a great book. King’s CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF is worth a mention as well, obviously. You mentioned THE WOLF’S HOUR – I love that one too. Ray Garton’s RAVENOUS, which treats the shapeshifter’s curse like an STD. That was neat. I want to mention that the late, great Bernie Wrightson did a lot of amazing werewolf artwork that has always been very influential to me too, and not just in regards to DOG DAYS O’ SUMMER. His lycanthropes are the most vicious, bloodthirsty, TERRIFYING creatures you’ll ever see in that medium. Those things would take off your head with a flick of one hairy wrist before your mind could even wrap around what was standing in front of you.

MAG: Thinking back to my childhood, I think my first real exposure to the idea of werewolves was in the movie THE MONSTER SQUAD of all things. Do you remember your first exposure to the werewolf?

JN: I’m not 100% sure about this, but I’m thinking it was probably those old orange-and-black Crestwood books about the classic monster movies, specifically the one that focused on THE WOLF MAN. Along with the SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK books, that series of books played a huge part in shaping me into the horror fan/creator I am today.

MAG: From my perspective, our collaboration went incredibly smoothly. My favorite parts were the initial brainstorming sessions, bouncing ideas off each other that made the story evolve and expand, as well as each time I’d get one of your installments and see what great ideas you were bringing to the table. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the collaboration, and your favorite parts.

JN: Well, of course I had a blast. You and I work very well together and – I’m not just saying this – it was without a doubt one of the smoothest, most stress-free collaborations I’ve ever been a part of. As far as favorite parts? I love the back-and-forth banter between the boys. I think it feels very real. I also adore Mr. Martinsen and would even go so far to say that he’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever (co)written. I can imagine looking up to him just like our protagonists did, if I was that age and he was my teacher. It’s a shame he held such a terrible secret, and did such godawful things. Then again, if not for his . . . er . . . nocturnal hobbies, I guess we wouldn’t have a book, now would we?

MAG: We tried to deliver a werewolf tale with some traditional thrills while also putting our own stamp on it, twisting the myth and introducing some new wrinkles into it. What do you think is the most innovative thing the story brings to the werewolf mythos?

JN: Definitely the stuff about the “dog days of summer” and where that phrase comes from. I’m not sure that’s ever been done before. I like that little “injection of reality” into an otherwise impossible, supernatural tale. I also really dig how we treated the shapeshifter’s curse like an STD – while we weren’t the first to do that (as I mentioned above regarding Ray Garton’s book), it really works for our antagonist and the poor sap’s backstory. I’ll stop there. Plenty of folks out there haven’t read the book yet, so God forbid I ruin anything for them.

MAG: I know this territory has been mined quite a bit, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. As we neared the end of the collaboration, you had an accident that left you injured and you were actually recovering as we put the finishing touches on the story. What was it like, trying to work when you were in pain and trying to heal? Was it at all helpful?

JN: It wasn’t as difficult as you might think. It was a great way to fill each day, being out of work for six months and doing nothing but lying around eating pain pills like they were Skittles. If nothing else, it paid off a lot more in the long run than just watching Netflix all day! I think, because I was on medical leave from my day job, it enabled me to devote a lot more time to DOG DAYS than I could have otherwise (because you know, possibly more than anyone else, how slowly and I work, and how horribly unprolific I am!). That said, I did always have to “second-guess” myself and make sure I wasn’t writing a bunch of nonsensical gibberish thanks to the aforementioned pain pills. Thank goodness I had you keeping me in check all the way.

MAG: Standard question, but one I know I’m curious to know the answer to as a fan of your work. What are you currently working on?

JN: I’m finishing up a few short stories that I’ve been asked to submit to various anthologies and such, as well as starting on another novella collaboration with Mark Steensland (apparently I have a weird fetish for working with guys named Mark –LOL). Following on the heels of our erotic horror story THE SPECIAL, which folks should be able to read very soon, our next project is a coming-of-age suspense tale called IN THE SCRAPE. I think fans of MIDNIGHT RAIN and ODD MAN OUT are going to be pretty crazy for it when all is said and done. I hope so, anyway!

DOG DAYS O' SUMMER can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DCFMRRW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i3
You can find more work by James Newman here: https://www.amazon.com/James-Newman/e/B0082Z5L18/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_7?qid=1533491292&sr=1-7

Brian Hodge Interview

I've been a fan of Brian Hodge's work for many years now. Recently I read his excellent Cemetery Dance novella I'll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky and was reminded that he is one of the most talented wordsmiths working today. I asked him if he'd let me interview him for my blog and I was delighted that he said yes.



MAG: Was there a particular book or author that inspired you in your youth to want to become a writer?

BH: Not really, no. It was ingrained from such an early age that I had trouble imagining any other primary path. I itched to write as a preschooler, even before I’d been taught the alphabet.

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

BH: That would’ve been in second grade, when I wrote this piece about a rowboat of guys shipwrecked on an island, then they’re all eaten by monsters. Monsters that were probably inspired by dinosaurs. When you’re in second grade, you have to illustrate your stories, you know. It’s all about the drawings. The red crayon really took a beating that day.

MAG: What was your first story sale?

BH: If you don’t count prizewinners in high school and college literary magazines, that was “Oasis,” to David B. Silva’s magazine The Horror Show. That was the first sale of a manuscript I’d shipped off to a stranger across the country.

MAG: I believe you sold your very first novel. How did that come about?

BH: Also named Oasis, because it grew directly out of the story. I’d gone to this weeklong intensive in Boston called the New England Writers Conference. For our workshops and nightly homework, I did additional exercises with the story’s characters, and found I wasn’t ready to turn loose of them yet. My workshop leader was a Harvard professor and writer and former editor, and she met one-on-one with everybody in her group. As luck would have it, she met with me the final morning, so she’d had all week to gauge what I was doing. Over our breakfast meeting, she said, “You’re ready to be doing novels now.” My reaction was, “Are you serious? I’m just out of college.” But she was so adamant that she gave me a list of literary agents she was acquainted with, as a place to start once I had something to show them. She only did that for three of us out of twenty-some people. The agent who sold the novel to Tor was on that list.

MAG: I first became aware of you during the Dell Abyss days. Specifically I picked up your novel The Darker Saints, which remains one of my favorite novels with one of the most emotionally raw and authentic endings I’ve ever read. I thought Abyss was a line that really put out a lot of quality work. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences there?

BH: It was the right thing at the right time, and I loved being a part of it, and was fortunate to be there from the start. To this day I adore our editor there, Jeanne Cavelos, and always will, for being a friend as well as an editor, and for what I learned from working with her and what she instilled in me. This was early enough that I still needed some of the ego beaten out of me, and Jeanne was great about doing that in a gentle, diplomatic, stealth way. She was one of those editors who really brought out the best in you, and I always got the sense that she cared deeply about all her authors, whether they were onboard for one book or four. The convention panels and signings and other events she would organize were always fun, too. So it created a real shared experience that I’ve found to have had permanent benefits.

MAG: The Darker Saints, while not a direct sequel to your novel Nightlife, does feature the same two main characters in a new adventure. When you were writing Nightlife, did you know you were going to revisit those characters, or how did the idea for The Darker Saints come about?

BH: While writing Nightlife, I always considered it self-contained. I thought Justin and April would be left standing under the St. Pete end of the Tampa Bay bridge forever, and it was up to you to decide whether they shot each other or forgave one another their transgressions.

Next was Deathgrip, and then I started developing the core idea for The Darker Saints. I knew it was going to be more like Nightlife, a hybrid of crime and horror. I knew it was going to involve an organized crime mob in New Orleans that took a page from Haiti’s Tonton Macoute, in that they used voodoo as a weapon of terror and coercion. As I started fleshing out the factions and their conflicts, the story eventually opened up and invited Justin and April in. In hindsight, it made perfect sense, and I loved going back to them, even if it broke my heart by the end.



MAG: One of the protagonists of this novel works in the advertising field, and I actually found the bits with him coming up with a new coffee campaign rather interesting in their own right. Did you do much research into advertising?

BH: I didn’t have to. It was my background. Advertising was my major at the University of Illinois. At the time, at least, it was one of the top programs in the country for that particular academic track. The coffee thing was an extrapolation of a smaller project my senior year. I was writing these novels close enough to my college years that I cannibalized a lot of things from them. Same as how I used the Amazonian Yanomamö tribe as a central part of Nightlife. I knew about them from an extended study in my sophomore year anthropology course.

MAG: Last Darker Saints question, I swear, but there was a bit with a cat and a guy’s nose that was the kind of thing that one isn’t likely to forget. Where in your deep and fertile imagination did that come from?

BH: Half crime novel, remember? I was reading a lot of whacked-out crime novels at the time — Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, Joe Lansdale, and so on — and it was fun to inject a bit of that flavor into The Darker Saints. With that scene I was actually solving a tonal challenge: Justin needs some fast answers, and the colleague he needs them from isn’t talking, but the guy’s really just a weasel who’s in over his head, and doesn’t deserve to be harmed. So how do you subject him to enhanced interrogation to get him talking, without completely losing sympathy for Justin? That was my solution. Take this cat in heat and drape her over the guy’s face. Play it for sick laughs.

MAG: Your final Dell book was called Prototype. I really liked this one, particularly when your character spoke of his youth and the pain he went through during that time of his life. I related to that on a very personal level. I also recall that you had some lesbian characters featured in this one, and I’ve read some short stories where you’ve used gay male characters. You were actually one of the earliest straight male authors I remember utilizing LGBT characters, and I commend you for that. Was this an intentional decision or just something that came naturally to you? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

BH: It was never an intentional approach, at least in the sense of something like a quota system. It’s always been more about being true to characters as they materialize and show up for work, and this seems to be who they are. Either that, or it’s something baked in from the start by the idea itself, or the milieu. Something like “Little Holocausts,” that couldn’t be about anyone else but gay men. Either way, I’m not going to turn them away any more than I would in 3-D life. To me, characters are first and foremost human beings before they’re ever a part of a demographic.

MAG: Another thing that has always impressed me about you is that you write a lot of short stories. I’m a short story lover, and I believe you are one of the best short story writers working today. Some writers, once they start publishing novels, turn away from the short form. What is it about short fiction that keeps you coming back?

BH: Loads of reasons. Bottom line, I like the form. Beyond that? Editors keep asking me to do them. I like being a part of good anthologies, books I’d want to read anyway even if I wasn’t contributing to them. Maybe an invitation to this project or that sparks an idea I wouldn’t have had otherwise, so now there’s a responsibility to that idea to bring it into fruition. Not every idea warrants a novel-length exploration, and I don’t discriminate, or think, oh, this isn’t worth the time. Short story, novelette, novella, novel … it doesn’t matter. I love them all. Mostly I want to do justice to the ideas, bring them to form and let them fill whatever space they need.

Plus I’ve come to think of shorter fiction as playing an ambassadorial role. Readers who’ve never heard of you might encounter you in short form, audition you for a half-hour, then decide to move on to your novels and collections. I know that happens, because people tell me about it.

And, finally, you never know what’s going to click in the right place at the right time. A few years ago, I did a piece called “The Same Deep Waters As You,” for the third and final volume of editor Stephen Jones’ trilogy of anthologies involving Lovecraft’s town of Innsmouth. I was just stoked to be a part of the project itself. But then the story was printed and reprinted four times within about a year, in multiple formats, so it alone has brought in more income than a lot of people see from a novel. Now it’s been optioned for development as a TV series by a London-based production company. You just never know. All I can do is go all-in on the project at hand, and whatever happens, happens.

MAG: While we’re on the topic of short stories, I have to ask about your story “Asleep at the Wheel” from the anthology Freddy Krueger’s Seven Sweetest Dreams. As a huge fan of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, I ate this anthology up, and “Asleep at the Wheel”, which wove in rock’n’roll and Nancy Thompson’s house, was a favorite of mine. How did you come to take part in this project?

BH: Somehow, really early on, I fell into the good graces of the editor, Martin H. Greenberg. The best description I ever heard of him was that he was a human book factory. He edited or co-edited or compiled nearly 1300 anthologies. Marty had asked me into a few projects, and I never said no, and gave him 100% of what I was capable of generating at any given time. So when the Nightmare on Elm Street book came along, he must’ve trusted me enough to pull it off under bonkers conditions. From invitation to delivery was ten days.

Weirdly enough, it turned into one of the most exhilarating creative experiences I’ve ever had. I spent the first few days planning, bingeing all the movies that were out at the time, and making notes. What worked for me? What didn’t? One thing that gnawed at me, at least with the later movies, was their Breakfast Club approach to characters. I’d be thinking, hmm, it’s a stretch that these people would ever voluntarily hang out together. That was how I gravitated toward a more unified cast of characters, this ethereal goth-rock band, so they’d have various creative and personal dynamics going on, all within their overarching collective dream.

So, five days planning, then I went on an overnight campout next to a lake with friends, and blew my brains out with tequila. Got up the next morning, chugged a bottle of Gatorade, and went home and got to work. I lived and breathed and ate it for five days, and finished with an all-nighter. After I sent it off, I took my pistol and some cans out to a remote spot and blew through two boxes of ammunition, to vent off steam, then came home and slept for about 20 hours. It was an amazing experience.

MAG: In 2010, you released a digital short called “Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls” which subsequently got reprinted in a few Best Of anthologies as well as made into an audio story which is still available on Pseudopod (http://pseudopod.org/2012/08/17/pseudopod-295-just-outside-our-windows-deep-inside-our-walls/). It is an emotionally affecting tale of troubled children seeking escape. Where did you get the inspiration for that one?

BH: It came out of something I almost never do. I never write disembodied fragments that don’t belong to some larger context. Except this time I did. I’d reread Thomas Ligotti’s first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and it was like there was some residue left behind that needed an outlet of expression. So out popped that narrative of the boy’s imaginary magic show, where he sawed people into pieces and recombined them to the delight of his audience. The imagery and feel seemed very Ligotti to me. Then it sat hibernating on the hard drive for two or three years before I went back to it. It was probably necessary to give the initial connection to Ligotti time to fade, because I didn’t want to mimic him the whole time. I had to get back to approaching it as myself again. That upstairs room, that was my room for a time. That park was the park I grew up next to. That was my fingernail scratching the frost off the inside of the glass of the dormer windows.

MAG: A novel of yours I absolutely love is Wild Horses. It’s a fun and exciting caper type novel with a lot of humor in it. I thought you handled it expertly, delivering an engaging and satisfying read. At the time it was considered a bit of a departure for you. Can you tell me a little about the inspiration for that one, and was it as much fun for you to write as it was for us to read?

BH: The first seed was a one-off line in an article I’d read, that mentioned two women in a bar fight in this desert town. For whatever reason, that stuck in my filter. I kept wondering, who are these women? Why are they fighting? How did they end up in this dusty little dead-end town? I wrote it up as a novelette, and awhile later Doli and I were with some friends on a cross-country road trip. My friend Amy read it along the way and put the idea in my head that the story could keep going.

It was the ideal time to hear that. This was right after I finished Prototype. Back then, I didn’t know how to do something like those Dell Abyss novels other than living them on the inside, sort of like method acting, and experiencing the characters’ traumas as if they were my own. I’d live like that for months. Each book got darker, and each one required a longer recovery period. Doli was to the point of thinking, “I don’t think I can go through this with him again,” which was a terrible position for me to have put her in.

So it was just as much a move of self-preservation. I was afraid if I kept going the way I had been, either the next novel would turn into a self-parody, or I would self-destruct. Take your pick. OK, then, time for something completely different. I’ve been reading a lot of whacked-out crime novels? Let me try writing a whacked-out crime novel.

And yeah, it was a load of fun. I’ve never had characters take over to any greater degree than this crew did. It was like every morning they would throw me in the trunk of a car and we’d get a little farther down the road.

MAG: Your most recent release is the novel The Immaculate Void, out through ChiZine. If I’m remembering correctly, originally this was going to be the name of a short story collection. Could you tell me how it evolved into a full-fledged novel?

BH: It was an accident. I’d contracted with Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi, of ChiZine Publications, for my fifth collection. The master plan was to return to the approach I used with the first two. The Convulsion Factory and Falling Idols were both thematic collections that concluded with a chunky new novella that resynthesized and echoed a lot of the themes of the foregoing stories.

I’ve been prone to going through phases, and over the past several years I’ve been big into a cosmic horror phase, so this new collection would reflect this. I had the title, The Immaculate Void, and for the concluding novella I was using the Latin translation, “Vacuum Immaculatum.”

Then I got to work on it, and it just kept going. It kept not ending. It finally came in about three times the length I thought it might be. When I turned in the full manuscript, I didn’t feel right about it. The balance was off. As a book, it was now this lopsided mutant. What I wasn’t ready to admit to myself was that it was a story collection bolted onto the front of a novel, and each half robbed the other of some of its identity and impact.

After a few days, Brett asked me, “How long is this new piece?” When I told him, he came back with, “That’s a novel!” To my enduring gratitude, he and Sandra decided the best solution was to make two books out of it, so each component could stand as its own thing. I had a new novelette called “One Last Year Without a Summer” that was perfect to bat cleanup for the reconfigured collection, which got a new title, Skidding Into Oblivion, and was rescheduled for next February. Everything is all the better for handling it that way.



MAG: Could you tell me a little about the inspiration for The Immaculate Void?

BH: Before I even had a story, the underlying aim was to grapple with an inner conflict I was feeling. If cosmic horror has a central tenet, it’s the meaningless of life and human existence. But it’s not just on the page … some of the key writers mining this vein, and readers, really hold that view. This was part of H.P. Lovecraft’s makeup, and as much as I respect his work, I don’t think I’ve ever read an interview with Thomas Ligotti where I didn’t come away feeling miserable.

But that’s never been my own outlook. I’ve just found it useful sometimes to work as-if. A lot of what I’ve done involves characters who find the meaning in the events they’re caught up in, or create their own meaning. In early preparation, I read some anti-natalist stuff — the philosophy that it’s better to have never been born. I develop ideas by having conversations with myself on yellow legal pads, and the first thing I wrote when I started making notes was “anti-anti-natalist.”

Then while I was first trawling for ideas, I came across one of the phrases allegedly back-masked into “Stairway to Heaven”: There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer. Again, caught in the filters. The rest of what people think they hear in backwards “Stairway” I find silly, but that phrase creeps the shit out of me.

So I got to thinking, okay, suppose you have this little girl, she comes within moments of being murdered in this archetypal toolshed. Are you going to tell her, her brother, her family, that it’s objectively meaningless whether she came out alive or not? Are you going to tell the families of the earlier kids who didn’t make it that it doesn’t matter? Are you going to maintain that with people who had no connection to any of it, but were horrified and appalled simply because they’re fellow, feeling human beings? Then I got to thinking in terms of meaning playing out on a timescale that makes even the age of our universe a blip. It unfurled from there.

MAG: How long did it take you to complete the first draft of The Immaculate Void? Did you do much revision and editing after, or did you do that as you went along?

BH: I’m not sure … it took a lot of months, not including a break in the middle to work on other obligations. But none of the usual norms applied here. I started developing the idea and writing shortly after I had an accident that ripped up my left patellar tendon. I spent months having to work at the dining room table because, in the leg brace, I couldn’t fit at my desk.

Worse than that was the loss of energy and focus. I’m used to working out pretty avidly, and at the time was training for my brown belt test in Krav Maga. When you’re abruptly cut off from that level of activity, you go through what’s essentially a neurological withdrawal. Your brain chemistry changes. So everything took longer, and wore me out easier, and I was already doing therapy exercises three times a day. I had to swim against that for roughly the latter half of 2016.

But once the draft was done, it was mostly done. I tend to do all the heavy lifting upfront, to get as much right the first time as I can. After that, it’s mainly repeated tweaking and pruning and polishing, and later on, Sandra helped bring it the final yards with a few good editorial pointers.

MAG: What was your writing process like for this one? Did you have a set schedule?

BH: While I started out hobbled, by the end, I was more or less back at my usual methodology, and it was some of the reading I did while laid up that helped me refine it further. I’m totally sold on the power of a great morning routine. I get up around 5:30 and head outside, usually, for a run or a session with the jump rope. This summer, I’ve stepped that up to the Tough Mudder training regimen. Then I’m back inside for a green drink and a cold shower. It all leaves me feeling turbocharged. Doli’s made the coffee during that time, and then I get after the day’s word count. That’s the ideal, anyway. Everything got rocked again after I lost both my parents in April — the day The Immaculate Void was published, I woke up to the news that my mom had just died. So as the executor of their estate, I’m still contending with the responsibilities of that. It’ll be a while yet before life is entirely back to normal.

MAG: Brian, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your work.

BH: I’m happy to do it. It’s a lot more fun than chatting with insurance companies and the IRS.


If you haven't read Brian Hodge yet, you need to. You can find his work here: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B000AP1SVU?_encoding=UTF8&node=283155&offset=0&pageSize=12&sort=author-pages-popularity-rank&page=1#formatSelectorHeader