I just finished reading Kyle Winkler’s novella, The Nothing That Is, and I wanted to tell you about it. I loved it because it’s: 1) Short. 2) Contains delightful similes. 3) Quirky and weird. 4) Set in the 80s. 5) Darkly funny. 6) Mentions food, eating, and chafing dishes. 7) Actually freaked me out a few times.
About this last point: I read mostly horror, and it no longer scares me. Yet I found myself reeling on the brink of terror from Winkler’s descriptions of cosmic horrors, like I was about to lose my grip on reality and become untethered, set adrift in the chaotic void. His narrative is reminiscent of early Ramsey Campbell, the master of paranoiac disorientation.
I adored the characters and characterization. Tension mounts to the point of unbearability (a good thing, don’t you think?). I heart Kyle Winkler because of sentences like these: “I felt like I’d fallen behind the couch of reality…” (me too) and “My red-drenched hands hung at my sides like gore mittens.” Yeah, baby!
And 8) You can’t beat cosmic horror from the mouth of a dead raccoon.
I’ve read a ton of how-to-write-fiction books including a number of texts on writing horror, but Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark is the best of them all.
It opens with an intro by Tom Monteleone of Borderlands fame demonstrating why Waggoner is qualified to write the book. He’s a prolific writer of both horror/dark fantasy and media tie-ins. In the preface, Waggoner reveals why he writes horror. We’re of roughly the same age, and his journey in many ways mirrors mine. (It’s great to meet a new member of the Horror Family. Weirdos unite!)
He progresses through chapters such as “Why Horror Matters” and “Things Unknown” and turns a corner with “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” He covers various subgenres of horror, generating unique ideas for stories, and building one-of-a-kind monsters. I especially enjoyed the chapters “The Horror Hero’s Journey” (Poor Bastard’s Descent into Hell) and the importance of including an emotional core relayed through immersive POV.
Every chapter is insightful, helpful, and entertaining. Each ends with exercises to enable eager writers to implement what they’ve just learned as well as three or four “voices from the shadows”—accomplished horror writers—who discuss what makes good horror and best advice for beginning writers.
Waggoner teaches college-level writing, so you’re getting a college course in a book. I love to study, so I consider it a textbook that’s also a tasty morsel of how-to darkness.
My rating is 4.6 stars. The book lost a few tenths because the type is so small. As I read through, I was hoping for a workbook that expanded the exercises. Well, Guide Dog Books/Raw Dog Screaming Press recently announced a companion workbook is coming, so I’m excited about that. I’ll be buying it, too, when it comes out. But I hope the type is a little bigger for those like me over fifty.
I can’t recommend this text highly enough. Whether you’re a beginning, intermediate, or advanced horror writer, you’ll get something useful to take your writing to the next horrific level.
NorCal Horror Authors Support Wildfire Relief with New Anthology of Scary Stories
Horror authors across Northern California have come together to release Tales for the Camp Fire, a new anthology of short stories, to support wildfire relief efforts. All profits from the sale of the anthology will be donated to wildfire relief funds administered by the North Valley Community Foundation.
On the morning of November 8th, 2018, the worst wildfire in the state’s history erupted in the foothills of Northern California. While emergency efforts were immediate, the Camp Fire burned for seventeen days before it was finally contained. It destroyed the town of Paradise and burned over 150,000 acres. At least 85 people died in the blaze. The impact of the fire was felt across the entire region as air quality became the worst in the world.
When a group of local horror authors got together, they asked what they could do. “We’re writers,” said San Leandro resident and author Ben Monroe. “How can we can help with our stories?” Soon they formed a plan to produce a charity anthology, contacting horror authors across the region to ask them to donate stories. Some wrote new pieces for the book, while others submitted favorite reprints for inclusion. In the end, the anthology topped out with 24 great stories totaling over 300 pages.
“Tales for the Camp Fire is a brilliant collection of truly creepy tales by horror’s hottest voices! Dark, funny, heartbreaking, and bizarre. Highly recommended!”
—Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of V-Wars and Glimpse
Tales for the Camp Fire is edited by Loren Rhoads and is being published by E.M. Markoff’s Tomes & Coffee Press. It is now available in both paperback and ebook formats through Amazon. Members of the publishing team are attending the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley on May 4 & 5, and will have copies of the book available for sale there. All profits from the book will be donated to the North Valley Community Foundation efforts to support the ongoing wildfire relief efforts.
“A brilliant editor and author, Rhoads skillfully weaves together a collection of new and old yarns to create an exemplary tapestry of horror literature that will spook fans of the genre for years to come.”
—Moaner T. Lawrence, author of “The Great American Nightmare”
The book includes stories by Clark Ashton Smith, the grandfather of horror in Northern California, as well as by Bram Stoker Award winners Nancy Etchemendy and Gene O’Neill. Tales for the Camp Fire ranges from fairytale to science fiction, from psychological terror to magical realism, from splatterpunk to black humor, all rounded out by a messed up post-apocalyptic cookbook. Through these pages roam werewolves, serial killers, a handful of ghosts, plenty of zombies, Cthulhu cultists, mad scientists, and a pair of conjoined twins.
About the Editor: Loren Rhoads served as editor for Bram Stoker Award-nominated Morbid Curiosity magazine as well as the books The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two, Death’s Garden: Relationship with Cemeteries, and Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues: True Tales of the Unsavory, Unwise, Unorthodox, and Unusual.
About the Publisher: Tomes & Coffee Press is an independent publisher of diverse and dark literature. Operated by Latinx author E.M. Markoff, it previously published The Deadbringer and To Nurture & Kill.
About the NCVF: The North Valley Community Foundation provides visionary community leadership by identifying emerging challenges in our region. NVCF brings together diverse groups of problem-solvers, mobilizes resources, and equips community leaders. We build and energize a community of engaged citizens and philanthropists who strengthen the common good.
I recently interviewed horror writer Matthew Brockmeyer. He lives in the redwoods of Northern California and has been writing about all of his life, although the path to making a career out of it, he says, has been a long one. “I write dark fiction and horror, usually with a both literary and transgressive edge to it.”
Tell us about your latest project. What’s it about? Under Rotting Sky is a collection of short stories I’ve written over the past four years, including previously published tales and new work. It’s a good example of who I am as an artist, for it really runs the gamut from literary fiction to historical fiction to classic horror to extreme horror and splatterpunk.
What else have you published, and where?
I have one novel out: Kind Nepenthe, a ghost story set in the far back hills of Humboldt County. It’s gotten a lot of critical acclaim and done pretty well. I’ve had short stories published all over, in anthologies, magazines, journals.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on a new novel about a young runaway punk-rock girl who falls into a cult of blood-worshiping pornographers. It takes place in San Francisco in the early 1980s.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Both, actually. I’d like to have each of my works stand on their own, but there are connections that run through them. Most of my stories take place in Northern California, so there is always an interconnection of place. But there are also recurring characters as well. Like the work of Irvine Welsh and Louise Erdrich, all the stories take place in a shared world.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I don’t think it really did, honestly.
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
Hmmm, interesting question. I want the story to be clear. I don’t want readers confused, but at the same time I like to drop red herrings and have some misdirection, the way a magician will divert your attention for a moment during a trick. Surprises and twists are great, but clarity is extremely important as well. It’s a balancing act, I suppose.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I do pretty exhaustive research. I’ve written a couple of historical fiction stories and became a member of the historical society, visited local history museums, sought out experts. I’m a voracious reader and will search out books on particular subjects, both fiction and nonfiction. I also love documentaries. I’ve been having a blast researching the early punk scene of San Francisco for my new novel.
What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)
I find myself writing about kids and childhood a lot, but I’m also a parent so a lot of that comes from there. I’m also obsessed with subcultures, hippies, punks, beatniks, goths, back-to-the-landers and cults of sorts.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Oh, I have some fun there. I have some wild character names: Coyote, Calendula, Diesel, Slug, Garbage, Roach, Eight Ball, just to name a few. I like nicknames that stand out and are unforgettable. But I also like to juxtapose names, for instance in my novel Kind Nepenthe, while most of the characters have crazy names, the main protagonist is simply Rebecca, because I wanted to show that she was lost in this crazy world.
Sometimes the names I choose are references to books I love; sometimes the names just have a great ring to them. Dickens always had the greatest names: Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Pip, Fagan, Artful Dodger. He even had a Master Bater!
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I usually read them, but it’s all subjective, so I don’t take bad reviews badly. People either like things or they don’t. It’s just the way it is; nothing is universally liked. Positive reviews are an affirmation, though, so they’re nice. You’ve got to have really thick skin to be an artist and put your work out there.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
White bread and soda pop.
What is your favorite childhood book and why?
As a wee child Where the Wild Things Are. The theme of releasing your inner beast is one I return to often. I see it really as a werewolf story.
From my teen years, Lord of the Flies. It’s really a horror story. It’s an amazing look at the ease in which humanity falls into tribalism. The scene with the talking pig’s head on a stake is so surreal and wonderfully grotesque. Extremely well-defined characters. That enigmatic ending. Just a fabulous story.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you and your work?
Although I like to entertain, I also strive to say something about our existential nature and what it means to be human. But while many of my stories are nihilistic, I’m actually a pretty positive guy. Many times I am literally writing out my worst fears, which is why some pretty horrible things often happen. In the end it’s just a wild rollercoaster ride.
The Morgan family and Tredegar House have always fascinated me, in particular Evan Morgan, Papal Knight, sexual predator and Satanist, along with his more tragic sister, Gwyneth Morgan, who died in mysterious circumstances.
In ill health, weakened by enteric typhoid and drug abuse, Gwyneth was a severe embarrassment to her family and was all but incarcerated in the “Niche,” a large house in Wimbledon.
In the early hours of Thursday, December 11, 1924, she slipped out of the house and vanished. Six months later, her body was fished out of the Thames near Wapping.
The mystery is manifold. By all accounts, Gwyneth was severely ill, unable to walk far without feeling tired, and spent much of her time in bed. On the night she disappeared, London was shrouded in one of those legendary fogs, an impenetrable “pea-souper,” and the nearest entry point to the Thames was Putney Bridge, four miles from where she lived.
It’s hard to believe that a semi-invalid could walk four miles in thick fog through unfamiliar streets and fall into the river at Putney Bridge. The fact that her decomposed body was found in Wapping, even farther away, compounds the mystery. It would have to have floated along one of the world’s busiest waterways beyond Hammersmith and Rotherhithe without being seen.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the press. In the absence of hard facts, newspapers had a field day with theories involving white slavers, Chinese opium lords, and lesbian lovers.
In this context, The Gift was born.
Whilst the ostensible heroine in The Gift is an orphan, Lizzie McBride’s interaction with the Morgan family drives the story.
Born in a Liverpool slum, Lizzie McBride is the daughter of an Irish seer who dies when Lizzie is twelve, leaving her in charge of two younger sisters and a grieving father. When her father commits suicide, Lizzie is caught between two worlds. An aunt and uncle decide the three orphans would be better off with them in America. Just as they are about to board ship, Lizzie, on impulse, runs away, and her life changes forever.
Pursued by a vengeful aunt, Lizzie cannonades into the young and charismatic magician, Aleister Crowley, who for his own reasons introduces her to Lady Gwyneth Morgan, daughter of the richest family in Wales and sister to the flamboyant occultist, Evan Morgan.
Unknown to her, Lizzie possesses one devastating gift. When the occult world discovers this, governments and powerful individuals seek her out. Only one man can protect her: the magician John Grey.
Though there are elements of the fantastic, the novel is grounded in historical fact. It involves real people and historical events as it explores the occult underbelly of the English aristocracy and its links with the emergent Nazi movement.
The Gift is the first book of a trilogy, beginning in 1912 and ending in 1941. The three books trace the occult rivalry between two sisters, Elizabeth and Elsie McBride, and interweaves historical events and the cracks between—the ultimate prize, the unlocking of Hell.
The second book, Bloodline, traces the corruption of Elsie and the love/hate relationship between the two sisters.
The final book will describe Elsie’s attempt to engineer a bloodbath—World War II—through the occult manipulation of diplomacy; it ends in a struggle to the death between the two sisters as Operation Barbarossa begins.
The three books are inspired by the rich but wasted lives of Evan and Gwyneth Morgan, and the dynamics of three fictitious characters, Elizabeth and Elsie McBride, and the magician John Grey.
I recently interviewed Christopher Conlon, prolific author, poet, and winner of the Bram Stoker Award.
Christoper, tell us about your new novel, Annabel Lee.
Annabel Lee stems from my lifelong love of Edgar Allan Poe. He was my first favorite writer, from virtually the moment I discovered his work when I was eleven or twelve. For several years I was all but obsessed with him, reading every word of his I could find—even things like his literary criticism, which I couldn’t really understand, and yet I loved the way he used words. “Annabel Lee” was my first favorite poem, which ignited a love of poetry I still have more than forty years later. My novel is narrated by Annabel Lee herself—telling her own story, in her own words. It turns out that Poe got a lot of things wrong! My Annabel tells the true tale.
What have you published so far, and where?
Lee, I have a website at http://www.christopherconlon.com, where interested parties can check out my bibliography. I’ve done something north of twenty books, the best known of which are He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson, which was a genre bestseller and won the Stoker Award, and my novel Savaging the Dark, which Booklist placed in their list of the ten best horror books of the year and Paste Magazine called one of the fifty best horror books of all time. I’ve worked with a lot of the major players in the horror field—Tor, Cemetery Dance, Dark Regions—and had work in anthologies like Masques V and magazines like Dark Discoveries. So I’ve been around for a while.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: where you’re from, how long you’ve been writing, what kind of fiction you like to write.
I’m from the Central Coast of California originally, but I’ve lived in the Washington DC area for the past twenty-nine years. In all that time I’ve been writing. I began with my own homemade comic books when I was five or six and graduated to prose fiction around the time I discovered Poe and then The Twilight Zone, my other great formative influence. Most of my fiction has a “weird” edge as a result, though I’ve written mainstream and literary fiction too, not to mention poetry.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I’d have to say the eighty dollars or so that I used to by a Sears portable typewriter when I joined the Peace Corps in 1988. It caused some problems occasionally with airport security people, but I used that little machine all throughout my time in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. I wrote all my first published poems on it. I was the only Peace Corps Volunteer in the entire country with his own typewriter—it just wasn’t something people brought along from the U.S. But it kept me writing throughout the whole experience.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Well, this answer could go into some dark places, since both my parents were drunks—my mother died of cirrhosis when she was forty-nine and my dad was arrested for driving under the influence at least twice that I know of. They certainly said any number of things to me that proved language had power, and in a way I think I’m still recovering from some of them. But I discovered that I could also fight back with words—and I did so, through my writing. Maybe I’m still doing that, I don’t know.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I’ve never based a character on a real person. I might use some aspect of a real person as part of a character—a habit of speech they have, say. But why base characters on people I know instead of using the most powerful tool in the whole writer’s toolkit—my imagination?
What does literary success look like to you? Do you think you’ve attained it?
Hmmm. Interesting question. There are the obvious material signs of success, which for the most part I have not attained. My income as a writer isn’t large, nor is my readership. On the other hand, my books get published, they’re generally very well reviewed, and I’ve even received an award or two. Is that success? Some days it feels like it is. Other days, no.
Have you read anything that really made you think differently about fiction?
When I was in my early twenties I discovered the fiction of Truman Capote, who definitely made me rethink the possibilities of fiction. I’d never read any of the so-called Southern Gothic writers, and his way with language was almost as potent, and as revelatory, as Poe had been for me a decade earlier. Any horror reader should be familiar with Capote’s stories “The Headless Hawk,” “Miriam,” “Shut a Final Door,” “A Tree of Night”… and of course his great nonfiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
What was your hardest scene to write?
Generally speaking, I don’t find writing hard. Once I’m going on a project I rarely get stuck for any significant period of time. But I’ll admit that there was one scene in Annabel Lee that caused me fits because I simply couldn’t figure it out. I had my heroine in a dramatic situation from which she needed to escape, but I just could not figure out any way for her to do it. I was writing on the book day after day, coming closer and closer to that pivotal scene and still not knowing what would happen! Well, the clouds parted at last, and it came to me in a rush only a day or two before I had to write it. The writing itself, once I had the approach to the scene, wasn’t difficult.
Does your family support your career as a writer, Chris?
Oh, sure. My wife reads all my work. It was a different story when I was young—my parents definitely did not support the idea of this weird kid writing all these stories and sending them off to magazines that always rejected them. I got no support at all from them. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?
I’m not sure what a grammar Nazi is. Is someone who points out an error a Nazi? I don’t know. I try the best I can with grammar, but I make mistakes—which I usually discover upon reading through a brand-new printed and bound copy of one of my books!
How often do you write?
Not as often as I used to. When I was in the Kalahari Desert thirty years ago I wrote every morning in the pre-dawn hours, before I went off to my job teaching at a secondary school there. Now it’s more sporadic. Most of my writing nowadays I do in the summertime.
What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
The same thing that’s the hardest about any regular disciplined activity—getting started each day. Once I’m going, though, I just go.
What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?
Having ideas. People who aren’t writers always think that ideas are the big thing. They come to somebody like me and say, “I have this great idea for a story!” and generally want me to write it and for us to split the proceeds. But any idiot can have an idea, and many idiots do. The idea is the least of it. It’s how the idea is fleshed-out, developed, written. That’s the real work.
Do you read much and, if so, who are your favorite authors?
Lee, I would be extremely dubious of any “writer” who said that he or she didn’t read much. Reading is all! It’s everything. It’s the foundation of all the writing any writer will ever do. For me it’s Poe, as I’ve mentioned, and Capote, and Tennessee Williams, all the Southern Gothics, along with the Twilight Zone crew—Serling, Matheson, Beaumont and the rest. Joyce Carol Oates. The early Bradbury. But also different types of writers—I’ve read all twenty-three of Anita Brookner’s quietly beautiful novels of British middle-class life. H.G. Wells, George Gissing, W. Somerset Maugham. James Baldwin. Proust, Turgenev, Chekhov. Science fiction guys—Asimov, Pohl, Clarke, Simak. Just all sorts of things, really. And I haven’t even mentioned poetry! But that’s what I’d tell anyone who wants to be a writer: Write, yes, but for God’s sake read. Start reading and never, ever stop.
I had to agree with Chris on this reading point, and I enjoyed hearing all his answers.