A Stir of Echoes is a 1999 supernatural thriller directed by David Koepp. It’s based on one of my favorite Richard Matheson novels (in fact, one of my all-time favorite novels). In the film, protagonist Tom Witzky is hypnotized by his sister-in-law, who gives him the post-hypnotic suggestion: “Your mind will be completely open, like an open door, open to receive everything around you.” This suggestion turns out to be way too open-ended.
In one scene, Tom switches on a baby monitor at his son Jake’s bedside. This is a metaphor for being open and tuned into activity “upstairs,” or on “the other side.” Tom’s psychic abilities have been switched on artificially. But his son comes by them naturally.
Jake “shines” like Danny Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. In fact, one scene in which Jake and his mother wander into a cemetery during a police officer’s funeral, Neil the cop follows them and discusses Jake’s psychic abilities much like Dick Hallorann in King’s 1977 novel. I can’t recall if the cemetery scene is derived from Matheson’s 1958 novel, but if it is, Matheson’s version is the original. Like Hallorann, Neil says of Jake, “Boy’s got the x-ray eyes. … Daddy?” Maggie affirms his perceptions.
Jake sees and knows things psychically and has an “imaginary friend,” Samantha—a departed spirit who haunts him because he can perceive her. This spirit relationship is like Danny Torrance’s “Tony,” who’s actually a mediumistic spirit guide. After Tom encounters a vision of Samantha, Jake tells him, “You’re awake now, Daddy. Don’t be afraid of it, Daddy.”
With another child on the way, Tom faces giving up his dream of becoming a rock star. Yet he laments that he doesn’t want to be ordinary. When Lisa hypnotizes him the second time, he receives the command to DIG. He’s not sure what it means, but he tears up the backyard and the house trying to follow through. When Maggie challenges him, he tells her, “This is the most important thing that’s ever happened to me. The most important thing I’ve ever done.”
His digging, searching for the truth, leads him to the answer he’s been seeking. It dovetails with the most important thing Samantha needs: justice for the crimes that caused her death.
This one’s got the supernatural, psychic and mediumistic abilities, and crime. My favorite combination. If you haven’t seen A Stir of Echoes, I highly recommend it. But be sure to read the book first!
The Others (2001), directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is one of my favorite supernatural horror/psychological thriller movies. It’s got everything I love: horror, the supernatural, the afterlife, mystery, suspense, Christianity, and Spiritualism. It shows what a haunting is like from “the other side.”
I could approach this film in so many ways. But I want to point out some things about darkness and blindness.
While the screen is still dark before the opening credits, a voiceover begins in which a woman says, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” This is the first instance of information coming from darkness that can be taken two ways: as a mother telling her children a bedtime story (beginning with Genesis chapter 1, where God says, “Let there be light”), or a medium beginning a séance with a table full of sitters.
Grace lives with Anne and Nicholas in her island manse which she keeps in perpetual darkness because the children are photosensitive and will die if exposed to strong light. Yet light in the darkness is exactly what they all need.
It’s 1945, and Grace, played by Nichole Kidman, is still waiting for her husband Charles to return from the war. The previous house servants abandoned their positions some time ago. The children bemoan the fact that, like Daddy, everyone disappears and doesn’t return.
Because they cannot leave the house, Grace homeschools the children using a religious curriculum. She’s a devout Catholic who spends much time indoctrinating the youngsters about such subjects as the four hells, notably limbo for children. As a Christian, she believes in the afterlife. But her rigid doctrine blinds her to the reality that they’re all dead. Their experience fails to align with her beliefs, so she cannot understand the nature of their plight. How and when will the light dawn?
Grace tells Mrs. Mills, the head housekeeper, that she doesn’t like fantasies or “strange ideas,” which she says the children entertain. But the children are closer to the truth—Anne, especially—than their mother is. Anne hears and sees “others” in the house, including a boy named Victor. Yet even the girl is in the dark about the reality of the afterlife.
Who are they? “Ghosts?” her little brother asks. She tells him they’re not ghosts. “Ghosts aren’t like that,” meaning people—like the kids, mother, and servants. Rather, ghosts “go about in white sheets and carry chains.” This is simply more misinformation that blinds them to what the afterlife and spirits really are like.
When Grace herself hears evidence of others in the house, she rushes into the “junk room,” where everything, like ghosts, are covered with sheets. She finds a Victorian photo album of the dead, its subjects all with closed eyes, and begins to see the light.
Grace determines to leave the house for town to fetch the priest, but on her way, she becomes lost in a fog so thick she cannot see where she’s going. Miraculously, she meets Charles returning from battle. Because he is so shell-shocked, he’s unable to shed any light on their situation—until Anne tells him the truth. Although viewers are still kept in the dark about this secret, the result is that Charles departs.
Things come to a head when Grace awakes in horror to find that all the draperies in the house have been removed, spirited away. The house is filled with light, ghastly light. The “others” are forcing her to see the light. Upon searching the house, she discovers a photograph in the servants’ quarters. All three of the servants are dead. She’s been entertaining departed spirits.
During the climax, Grace and the children at last find the “others” sitting in an upstairs room. The old woman, the “witch” that Anne sketched, is engaged in automatic writing, scribbling words she hears from the other side. Words that Grace and her children are screaming: “We’re not dead!” This is a primary tenet of Spiritualism: the dead are only so-called, for “We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death” (https://nsac.org/what-we-believe/principles/).
I love how the books and movies required for my MFA course are tying into everything I’ve studied. I’m impressed with the writers’ knowledge of Spiritualism. For example, when Anne is dressed in her communion gown (looking like a ghost), her change into the blind old woman is a reference to trance mediumship and the Spiritualist phenomenon of transfiguration. This scene foreshadows the end in which the séance reveals “the other side of the story.”
Although the medium is blind to the physical, she sees in Spirit. Because of her contact with the other side on behalf of the living, Grace and the children do see the light. But only concerning their current state: they are dead, this is what ghosts are like, and the house belongs to them. Instead of allowing the light of their new understanding to enable them to move on like Charles, they determine they will never leave. The final shot of the gates being chained indicates that what remains within are only ghosts.
To disembodied souls, the “soul body” is just as physical and solid to them as their physical bodies were, and instead of moving on (because they don’t know they’re supposed to), they remain on the earth plane among people who are still physically embodied.
The only problem is that disembodied souls usually cannot make themselves seen or heard by those still living. When loved ones and helpers in the spirit world come to escort them away from the physical realm, they refuse to go because they don’t believe they are “dead” (physically) and have no concept or belief in an afterlife.
The danger for these souls is becoming stuck on the earth plane instead of progressing to the joys of life in the higher astral realms.
Lee Allen Howard, How to Tell If Your House Is Haunted
Horror writer John Grover lives in Massachusetts, not far from Boston, where he was born and raised.
“I first started taking writing seriously around the age of eighteen,” Grover says. “I’ve always loved telling stories ever since I was young. I used to staple paper together to make books and would write into them and draw pictures to go along with the story.” But it wasn’t until high school and his English classes that he really started to write real fiction. “My work is mostly horror with some dark fantasy on the side. My stories tend to have a Twilight Zone flavor or a bit of a creature-feature vibe.”
Which book inspired you to begin writing?
I was lucky that my English classes in high school introduced me to a lot of gothic and horror fiction. Most people would say they were influenced by Stephen King to write horror, but I was excited to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.
The author I remember inspiring me most early on was Shirley Jackson. Her story “The Lottery” amazed me at the time, and my favorite book growing up of hers was We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I still remember everything about it today and the class discussions we had in school.
How hard is it to sit down and actually start writing something?
Sometimes it can be very hard, but I try to manage it every day. I have no shortage of ideas but sometimes the motivation isn’t there. In those cases I try not to force it because I feel the work suffers if I do. I do something else or take a couple days off to recharge and then get right back to it. Most of the time the story flows and I’m in the zone.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I have. I actually wrote one book under a pen name. It didn’t really take off or do much in the way of sales. I had a hard time trying to market something under a different name and keep it a secret, LOL. Despite that, I have another book in the works under the same pen name and I’m going to give the experience another try.
What are your favorite literary resources (magazines, websites, etc.)?
I used to have a subscription to Writers Digest when I was younger. I learned a lot using that as a reference while I was growing as a writer. For fiction over the years I’ve enjoyed Cemetery Dance, Shroud magazine, Flesh and Blood, and others. I also regularly visit Dark Markets and Ralan.com to stay up-to-date with the writing markets and publishing news.
What is the most important thing about a book in your opinion?
The ability for it to take you away from the world for a little while. It’s all about escapism, and I really feel books do that for us.
Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?
I check out my reviews but I never respond to them. The reviews aren’t really for me; they’re for other readers, but I do try to learn from any negative ones.
How much of yourself do you put into your books?
There’s a good part of me in all of my books, but I tend to pull from the people around me as well. I love to people-watch and observe everyday life. So I use a little bit of my friends’ and family’s quirks, habits, humor, and use a lot of my own experiences from traveling, reading, and going through daily life.
Which of your books took you the most time to write?
I’d have to say my dark fantasy book Knightshade: Perdition Bleeds. It has a very rich world and mythology, and I wanted to make sure I really got it right and it delivered the experience I was looking for.
Are there any recurring themes in your horror fiction? If so, what are they, and why do you think they keep cropping up?
Family ties seem to come up a lot for me. In my novel Let’s Play in the Garden, the central plot is about the children in the family playing a cat-and-mouse game with the adults as they try to uncover their family’s dark secrets.
In many of my short stories I have a theme of parental betrayal or something the parents are trying desperately to keep from their children. But it’s not all dark family secrets. In my “Underground” series, a post-apocalyptic story filled with zombies, family drives my main character to keep going and to protect those he loves.
In my new Kaiju book Behemoths Rising, the hero keeps his family in the forefront as he tries to save the world from a monster mash-up and the terror that comes with not knowing if his loved ones made it out of the crumbling city in time.
Has COVID affected your writing routine this year? If so, how?
I lost my job due to COVID in late March, but I didn’t let it stop my creative endeavors. I decided to use the time to throw myself into my writing. So it has actually lit a fire under me to write more and got me really excited about my writing again. I feel lucky that I’ve had the free time to dedicate to my books and be a lot more productive than I ever dreamed.
Tell us about your current project.
My newest book is a supernatural thriller set in the eighties called Goddess of Bane that is part of my “Retro Terror” series. It’s about a malevolent entity who seems unstoppable rising up in a small town to seek revenge for her defeat at the hands of the town’s ancestors. It’s filled with mythology, eighties schlock, and some gooey fun. I’m doing edits on it now and hope to have it up on Amazon at the end of this month.
Although fiction is a product of the imagination, if it’s set in the real world at least partially, there will be some real-life things you must get right. This means being accurate with your facts. In a contemporary story, if you’ve got a seasoned outdoorsman who drinks water directly from a still pool in a stream, you haven’t done your research.
Water can be contaminated with a variety of things risky to health and isn’t safe to drink without some kind of treatment, including filtration, chemical disinfection, or boiling. Boiling is best. If this isn’t possible in your story, you’ll get points for realism and accuracy if your character knows the dangers and does his best to mitigate them. If you don’t know your outdoor lore, readers who do will detect your gaffe and call you on it. (They may also quit reading or complain in a review.)
So it pays to know your facts when you write. And that’s where research comes in.
For instance, in DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural crime thriller, protagonist Kennet Singleton runs the crematory at a local funeral home. When I first got the idea about a young man who can discern the cause of death of those he cremates by toasting marshmallows over their ashes, I knew nothing about funeral homes or cremation.
One of the first things I did was conduct a general Internet search to acquaint myself with the processes of cremation and embalming. Then I went to visit a funeral home with a crematorium. A friend arranged for me to meet the funeral director, and I spent an hour there one afternoon learning about their process.
Being a technical writer, I took copious notes and made sketches. I even tape-recorded the session so I could go back to it if I later couldn’t make sense of my notes. Back home I typed up the document, making computer diagrams from my sketches, and ended up with a 15-page document that I later referred to when I wrote scenes in which cremation took place.
I also read a lot of books on the subject of death, funerary tradition and processes, and cremation. I still have a carton containing these titles:
Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America by Stephen Prothero
Cremation in America by Fred Rosen
Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial by Penny Colman
Round-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral Underground by Tim Matson
What Happens When You Die: From Your Last Breath to the First Spadeful by Robert T. Hatch
I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch by Lisa Carlson
One Foot in the Grave: The Strange But True Adventures of a Cemetery Sexton by Chad Daybell
Cemetery Stories: Haunted Graveyards, Embalming Secrets, and the Life of a Corpse After Death by Katherine Ramsland
Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? by Kenneth V. Iserson, MD
Some of these books were more useful than others, but I gleaned something from all of them. I used this knowledge to build a foundational structure based on facts about death, embalming, cremation, funeral homes, and cemeteries.
I likewise did research on personal care homes. And more on marijuana growing, poisons, prescription drugs, sexual fetishes, crime, guns, and police procedure. (Yes, all of these are in DEATH PERCEPTION.)
All this said, must you know everything about everything? No. You can’t. Other funeral directors may do things differently in their places of business, and that’s okay. But my facts are accurate according to how one funeral director operates his crematorium.
As readers, we’ve come to expect the fully developed protagonist. After all, if the main character is a pasteboard creature, who wants to read the story? So writers spend a lot of time developing their protagonists, and, perhaps, their “helper” characters.
But one thing I’ve learned to do is to give my antagonist equal treatment. Early in my writing career, I created antagonists—what I called “villains”—for the sole purpose of frustrating my hero and his goals. This led to “cardboard villain syndrome.”
Your protagonist and plot are only as strong as your antagonist. He or she (or it or they) must also have a backstory that has led to the development of certain weaknesses, strengths, fears, desires, and goals. He might be an evil bastard, hell-bent on destroying your protagonist, but he also might be a decent guy who just wants the same thing your hero/ine wants, and has the gumption to compete for it. Or he wants the exact opposite of what your hero/ine is striving for, and is willing to fight for it.
Your villain cannot be a skeleton (unless we’re talking about that story I wrote in second grade). He/she/it/they must be fully fleshed using the same development tools you used for your protagonist.
The best information I’ve encountered in 20 years of reading and writing fiction—and reading about writing fiction—I discovered recently in Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist, in the sections “Weekend 1” and “Weekend 2.” (If you buy this book, be sure to get the original 1994 version, not the revised version.)
Ray leads you through the process of writing a brief character sketch (the broad strokes), plotting a timeline for life and story events, developing a backstory by asking “what if?” to probe motivation, and building a wants list—for your protagonist, your helper, and your antagonist, exploring where desires mesh and clash.
I followed such a process in DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor. My tag team of antagonists turned out to be well-developed and interesting characters equal to (well, not quite) the hero, Kennet Singleton.
By devoting as much effort to your antagonist as you do to your protagonist, you will have a stronger story, one that readers will love. Flesh out your villains, and you’ll flesh out your fiction.
As a creative exercise in second grade, Teacher had her pupils write a story. “Be as creative as you can be, children.” I penned—penciled, rather—my debut horror fiction on a ruled school tablet. Teacher, ostensibly pleased with her prodigy’s genius (more likely concerned with a tow-headed eight-year-old’s mental health), passed my work to the elementary school principal. (“Children, ‘principal’ ends with P-A-L—the principal is your PAL.” Keep reading, and then decide…)
Unknown to me, Principal Sprunger, also the president of the local Lions Club chapter in Berne, Indiana, read my story to the men of our little Swiss community and then in good humor fined my father a dime because the preacher’s son had written such an “awful tale full of skeletons, witches, and blood.”
That is the story of money first changing hands in relation to my fiction. (That dime never found its way into my pocket. If it had, I would have biked down to the White Cottage and bought myself a small soft serve cone, for sure.)
I continued to write through elementary and high school. The Brookville, Pennsylvania, Jeffersonian Democrat newspaper printed our school newsletter, for which I’d written a grisly Halloween story. They decided to reprint my story in the town newspaper. This should have overjoyed me, but they printed it anonymously and didn’t pay me for it, either. Bastards.
I placed a short story and some poetry in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s New Growth Arts Revue. I stopped writing for a few years, but started again when I envisioned a scene about a young man who had been shot in the stomach and stumbled into an alley to die. I developed this into my first suspense novel for the Christian market, WHEN THE MUSIC STOPS, long out of print.
After completing my master of arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, I entered the publishing arena and compiled a trade paperback anthology of shorts based on the Ten Commandments. THOU SHALT NOT came out in 2006. It’s a great collection of horror and dark crime. Check it out.
I’ve placed a few short stories for pay in the past decade, but after hundreds of rejections, two years ago I decided to take a different route.
One of the reasons I’ve had trouble in placing my work, especially novels, is because they don’t cleanly fit into a genre slot. Why is this important? Because brick-and-mortar bookstores need to know where to shelve a book. So part of the writing-for-print-publication process is writing for a shelf spot. (And length requirements in genre fiction in part are based on how many books will conveniently fit in a cardboard carton for shipping.) I think that’s just ridiculous.
I had been working on a novel proposal for Dorchester Publishing/Leisure Books. But after the debacle with their selling ebooks without remunerating authors, I stuffed that idea down the disposal.
In a nutshell, since second grade, I’ve learned that publishing by the traditional route is inorganically restricted and highly improbable. The royalties paid (if they pay)… well, suck.
So I recently published my second novel, THE SIXTH SEED for e-readers and trade paperback. It cost me nothing to post it, and I’ve been selling downloads at a 70% royalty. And I can add meta tags with no concern for a shelf spot or how I will otherwise categorize “a dark paranormal fantasy fraught with suburban Pittsburgh horror—family drama with aliens.”
I followed the same path for DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor:
Nineteen-year-old Kennet Singleton lives with his invalid mother in a personal care facility, but he wants out. He operates the crematory at the local funeral home, where he discovers he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
He thinks his ability is no big deal since his customers are already dead. But when his perception differs from what’s on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers. To save the residents and avenge the dead, he must bring the killers to justice.
So, you’ve written a novel and done your revisions and polished it as best you can. Is it ready to send to an agent or publisher—or to publish yourself? Hard to tell.
Instead of crossing your fingers and exposing your manuscript to the risk of immediate rejection, why not first let someone read your book and provide feedback? If they spot any problems with story, plot, characters, or writing, you’ll have a chance to improve your work before you send it to someone who’ll buy.
Writers have been doing this forever, passing on their finished manuscripts to a close circle of trusted readers. But for the new novelist, it’s one more step along the path of learning to become a published and professional writer.
Whom should you choose? It’s best not to choose someone who isn’t an avid reader, who doesn’t like the genre you write in, or who won’t give you honest feedback (meaning both praise and constructive criticism).
A good beta reader is someone who reads widely, reads in your genre, and can discuss with intelligence the elements of fiction (characters, plot, description, setting, dialog, narration, etc.). Your best bet may be another writer whose back you can scratch at a later date.
If you’re working to deadline, it’s wise to set a date for the review to be completed. Just make sure you give your reader plenty of time to read, and agree on the deadline beforehand.
If there are specific issues you’re concerned about—for example, “Does Mrs. Gulliver seem like a fully formed character to you, and are her motivations understandable and sufficient to fuel the brutal murder she commits?”—you may want to communicate these up front so that your beta reader can be on the lookout as she reads. And make it clear that you’re looking for constructive feedback to make your story better, not just ego strokes.
If you send an electronic file (.mobi, .epub, .pdf, or other), make sure the copy is marked “BETA” on the cover page. Ditto for a printed version. And if your printed version is looseleaf, put it in a binder to keep the pages from getting lost. Invite your reader to make comments in the margins as she reads.
This is your precious intellectual property. You may want to include a copyright statement and warning on the title page and in the footer of every page, along with the specific reader’s name.
On the title page: “BETA COPY 1, date”
In the footer of every page: “Copyright 2013 Your Full Name. Duplication prohibited. Beta Reader’s Name – Beta Copy 1 – date”
This way, if you create more than one version, even if a page is removed from the binder, you’ll know where it came from. Print a fresh version for your next reader with the footer changed appropriately.
Once you hand your reader the manuscript, leave him alone. Don’t call or text every day, asking about his progress and whether or not he likes it. The exception here is inquiring about progress as you near your agreed-upon deadline.
When the reading is done, it’s time for a talk with your beta reader. You may want to prepare and print a list of questions about characters, plot, description, setting, dialog, narration, and so on. If they fill it out, you have their answers in writing.
If you sit down to interview, make sure you put her at ease and encourage her to speak his mind candidly about his opinion. Then, let him talk, and keep your mouth shut. Resist the urge to jump in and explain everything (although you should answer questions when asked, or if you’re unclear about what they’re saying). Above all, turn off your emotions, turn on your smile, and THANK him for the hours he’s spent helping you.
If you get published, a nice touch is to mention him in the acknowledgments section, gift him a signed copy of the book, or take him to dinner. Or all three. If his feedback was valuable, you may want to call on him again.
Then, you evaluate the feedback. It may be a good idea to get another reader’s opinion before you overhaul your manuscript based on your first reader’s input. Fix obvious errors, naturally, before printing a fresh copy for your second reader. But remember that opinions are just that—opinions. No two readers will agree on everything about your book. However, if two or three readers point out the same problem, it’s a good sign that you need to do more work.
I followed this process with DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor. My beta readers were Kerri Knutson and Gary Reichart, whose feedback I appreciate very much. You’ll see them mentioned on the acknowledgments page with a few treasured others.
Backstory is everything that happened to the protagonist before the story begins. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby calls this the “ghost.” The ghost is usually some negative event from the past that still haunts the protagonist in the present. This past trauma is the source of the hero’s current psychological and moral weakness. It’s his internal opponent, what Truby describes as the “great fear that is holding him back from action.”
In DEATH PERCEPTION, my just-released supernatural thriller, young protagonist Kennet Singleton’s backstory ghost is his father’s drunken violence, resulting in his father’s death and the loss of his mother’s eye. Lack of a good role model has crippled Kennet from striking out on his own; at 19, he still lives with his invalid mother in a personal care home and holds only a part-time job at a local funeral home.
However, Kennet’s natural hypersensitivity toward his father’s moods and abusive behavior birthed a psychic gift that blooms when an old prophetess lays her hands on him. Later he discovers that he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
When he begins believing in himself and using his gift to avenge the spirits of those who have been murdered (ghosts of a different sort), Kennet finds the courage to stand up for himself and forge his way toward independence.
Good stories dramatize the process of a flawed character overcoming past wounds on the path to wholeness. Even in a tale of horror and supernatural crime, Kennet’s “ghosts” find justice—and peace.
Lee Allen Howard is quickly becoming a huge favourite of mine. He crafts his characters so well and gives them depth, flaws and realism that you expect from a much more seasoned writer.
DEATH PERCEPTION is a well-thought-out story about Kennet, a troubled yet gentle young man who lives in a nursing home with his elderly mother. He has a job in a crematorium working for a profit-driven, moral-less boss, but Kennet does his job with dignity and provides a graceful ending for all the people he deals with, regardless of cost.
Then people start dying in the home where Kennet lives… and the death certificate doesn’t quite match up with what Kennet sees as the cause of death. Kennet’s gift is to see how people die, and therein lies the problem.
I loved this. What a great read. Kennet is a character that I really want to read more about [because] he was brilliant. I loved his outlook, the way he related to everyone, his spirit, everything about him.
DEATH PERCEPTION is smart, funny, engaging, and endearing. A true work of art. I love this book and I hope there will be many more Kennet stories.