Tag Archives: Interview

Horror After Dark Interviews Shock Totem

Charlene over at Horror After Dark recently interviewed me and John. Charlene is great and it was good fun!

Check it out here.

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A Conversation with John Langan

John Langan is well on his way to becoming a contemporary horror legend. Not only are his ideas brilliant, but the style and authority with which he crafts his fiction makes his work required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the genre. His stories have frequently appeared in best-of-the-year anthologies as well as several of the themed anthologies edited by John Joseph Adams and can be found in his two collections, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008) and The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013). Whether you’re a fan of monsters, literary analysis, or the weird, you’ll find something to love between the covers of either collection. Langan’s novel House of Windows (2009) is likewise recommended. Co-founder of the Shirley Jackson Awards and an instructor at SUNY New Paltz, Langan is also an accomplished academic.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with the man himself about monsters, family, writing advice, and his host of new projects on the horizon.

ZCP: Your work tends cover a wide range in terms of literary and genre horror. In one story you’ve placed readers in a classroom for a lecture about Poe while in the next you’re speaking with authority about space vampires. What’s it like to call so many corners of the genre home? Do you find your process changes from one story to the next?

JL: My process remains pretty much the same from story to story, which is to say, I try to write about a page a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, until the story’s done. What changes from piece to piece is the narrative voice, which adapts to and shapes the material of the story. Once I can hear the voice of a particular story, usually in an opening line, I’m off and running. If my work covers a lot of ground, then that’s because I see the horror field as a rather large and baggy tent. No doubt, it’s a consequence of growing up during the horror boom of the seventies and eighties, when so many writers were doing so much work that was widely-available, and all manner of reprint and year’s best anthologies were available, too. A book like Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, with its very catholic view of what might be considered a horror narrative, exerted a tremendous influence on my own thoughts on the matter. I see that variety as a fundamental strength of the horror field, a tremendous asset for those of us working in it.

ZCP: What draws you to write about monsters and madness? Did you have any childhood interests that steered you toward the horror genre?

JL: I write what I do because I love it, because it speaks to me and energizes me in a way that cuts right to the heart of who I am. I’ve always loved monsters: initially, the big ones, Godzilla, especially, and Gamera and Gorgo (who should have starred in a series of films of her own–what a missed opportunity!), and then the human-sized ones, the vampires and the werewolves, the gill-men and the zombies. I love their gaudiness; I love the way they embody what I see as one of the horror narrative’s central concerns, the irruption of the irrational into our daily experience. I expect my affection for them grows out of a number of different childhood passions: for dinosaurs, for comic books, for the mythology of the Greeks and the Vikings.

As for madness, I suppose it’s the complement to the monsters. If they represent that incursion of the irrational as an external force, then madness figures it as internal, a rupturing of the self by the self. I imagine my interest in it grows out of early exposure to the works of Poe, as well as to the history of Jack the Ripper and what was during my childhood the contemporary figure of the Yorkshire Ripper, whose crimes and taunts of the police terrified me, an ocean away. I would guess, too, that as someone who was a literature major in college and graduate school, I’m informed by the interest in madness that permeates so much of the literature of the last few hundred years, from the work of the British and American Romantics to a figure such as Rimbaud, and up through the Moderns and Postmoderns.

ZCP: In past interviews you’ve mentioned working on a second novel with a working title of The Fisherman. How is that progressing?

JL: I’m pleased to say that I finished work on The Fisherman at the end of 2013, and currently, my agent is shopping the book around. It’s the story of a pair of fishing buddies who venture to a haunted stream, wrapped around an account of the secret and terrible history of the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir in upstate New York. Fingers, obviously, crossed.

ZCP: You also have a third short story collection in the works, correct? You’ve said you view The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies as a continuation of your first collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. Will the new collection share traits with the first two?

JL: Absolutely: there will be the same mix of monsters and narrative approaches, anchored by an original, lengthy novella. If there is a difference, it’s that the stories in this book all cohere around the idea of betrayal. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part; it was more a matter of, when I was looking at the stories that would go into the third collection, I realized that every last one of them revolved around some notion of betrayal. This, in turn, affected my decision about the new piece I wanted to include. I haven’t started showing this book to publishers, yet; I’d like to have the novel settled, first. But I would imagine it will appear in either 2015 or 2016, with a fourth collection appearing two to three years after that, and a fifth another couple of years on from that, the Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.

ZCP: In 2011 Prime Books released Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters, which you co-edited with Paul Tremblay. Do you two have any other shared projects on the horizon?

JL: Paul and I have a few paragraphs of a story we’ve been planning to co-write for something like five or six years, now. Eventually, we’ll get to it. Paul’s an outstanding writer; his 2010 collection, In the Mean Time, is essential reading. Our other ongoing project is the Shirley Jackson Awards, of which we’re founding members. With JoAnn Cox, Paul is responsible for the smooth running of the whole shebang; I show up for the awards and look thoughtful.

ZCP: The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One, which is being edited by Laird Barron and Michael Kelly, is slated for release in August and contains your story “Bor Urus.” You’ve been a supporter of weird fiction for a long time. What’s it like to be included in the first wave of this new anthology? Do you think weird fiction may get more of the attention it deserves?

JL: I’m delighted that my story is appearing in the anthology, tucked in amidst truly stellar company. Of course, it’s always nice to have your work recognized, and for it to be in such a high-profile venue as this is the proverbial icing on the cake. Between the VanderMeers’ recent anthology, The Weird, and now this, it does seem as if the weird is on the cultural radar. Certainly, it would be nice for a writer such as Michael Cisco, who for a decade and a half has been writing brilliant fiction that exemplifies much of what I understand the weird to be about, to receive the recognition he so richly deserves.

ZCP: You’ve had a close friendship with Laird Barron for some time now. Any chance we’ll see you two team up as a dynamic duo to frighten readers?

JL: Laird is one of my favorite people, and one of the contemporary writers who most makes me throw up my hands and shout, “How did he do that?” We’ve been kicking around ideas for years, now; I think the first one centered on Godzilla vs. Cthulhu. (I actually wrote a couple of hundred words on it.) It’s something we still plan to do, once our plates become a little less full. Our latest plot involves a global pursuit and at least one monster.

ZCP: Aliens or Predators?

JL: Conan!

ZCP: Earlier this year you set up a new blog. You’ve already put up a list of works and interviews as well as some advice on writing. Any plans for the blog’s future? How would you say your overall use of social media has changed since your career took off?

JL: To put the matter kindly, I’ve tended to under-use the various social media platforms, from Livejournal, to Facebook, to Twitter, to whatever’s looming on the electronic horizon. In part, this has been a result of trying to balance those platforms with a marriage, a family, a day job teaching, and a night job writing. I’ve preferred to devote the majority of my writing time to working on my fiction. And, to be honest, I’m not particularly good at the kind of rapid-fire discourse that flourishes online. Probably as a result of my academic training, I prefer to take a longer time working through whatever subject or issue is in front of me, by the end of which, the online community will have moved on to the next thing. I used to feel worse about this, especially when I considered those writers who were all over the place on the web. More recently, I’ve noticed a) how many of those same writers haven’t written much except for their online commentary and b) how many of them will declare their need to go offline in order to complete their next work. This said, I have established a new blog. I wanted a single place where I could link to what I’ve published online, which turned out to be more than I’d realized. I imagine I’ll continue to use it to that end, and also try to employ it to somewhat the same end as my Facebook account, which is to say, as a place to bring together things I think are interesting and cool.

ZCP: What is one piece of bad writing advice you think gets passed around too often? What good piece of advice doesn’t get passed around enough?

JL: As a fan of the adverb, I’m annoyed at their continuing denigration. I understand the purpose of telling beginning writers to do without them, as I understand the reason why the whole “slaughter your darlings” adage is passed on to them. Both strike me as reductive and constrictive. My feeling is, if a piece of writing advice helps you to write more, then take it to heart. If it stops you from writing, then ditch it.

As for good advice: read. And do what you love. If you don’t love what you’re doing, then why do it?

ZCP: You currently teach as an adjunct instructor at SUNY New Paltz. Would you ever consider teaching in an MFA program?

JL: Depending on the program, sure. The biggest challenge to me doing so is location and duration. My family and I are pretty settled where we are, now–my wife has tenure; my younger son’s in middle school–which means I would need to teach either someplace locally, or someplace with a low-residency program. Of course, given that the low-res programs tend to be more genre-friendly, that might not be such a stretch.

ZCP: You’ve mentioned your family a few times now. How does being a husband and father inform your writing? Do you find bits of that portion of your life slipping into your work, or do the two remain relatively separate?

JL: I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without my wife and sons. When my wife, Fiona, and I first started seeing one another, she was completing her dissertation on the fiction of Jack Kerouac (not so much On the Road as Dr. Sax and Visions of Cody). We talked about her work on Kerouac a lot, especially his use of popular culture. Through those conversations, Fiona helped me to realize that popular cultural forms such as horror fiction were as capable of serious literary expression as anything, which had been something of an anxiety of mine during my twenties. Then, when we first started living together, Fiona and I watched reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after which, we would discuss the episodes. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who understands narrative in so fundamental a way as my wife; discussing Buffy (and later Angel) with her was like a master class in the dynamics of narrative. Once I returned to writing horror, and before our son was born, I would read whatever story I was working on to her and she would critique it–continuing, I suppose, my education.

More generally speaking, being a father to both my sons has made my life richer than I would have dreamed possible. With my sons in my life, even the bad times are better than they would have been, otherwise. There’s definitely been a bleed-over from my life to my fiction, from my older son asking me to write stories about certain monsters, to my wife and younger son appearing in not-too-subtle disguise in a couple of stories and my first novel.

ZCP: In the past you’ve given shout outs to writers. Is there anyone out there readers should keep an eye on who maybe doesn’t have the readership they should?

JL: There is no shortage of writers doing great work, right now. I mentioned Michael Cisco above as someone who’s been on the cutting edge for years and has yet to receive what I consider his due. I’m sure your readers are aware of Laird Barron and Sarah Langan (who is, incidentally, no relation); if they’re not, however, then I would heartily recommend all of Laird and Sarah’s fiction, starting with The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and The Keeper, respectively. The last few years have seen a number of very strong debut collections; I’d call attention to Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire and Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters as well worth your readers’ time and attention. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading new collections from Scott Nicolay and Damien Angelica Walters. Scott’s Ana Kai Tangata is out, now; I believe Damien’s Sing Me Your Scars and Other Stories will be released in the fall. As they say, run, don’t walk, to get them.

ZCP: Thanks so much for taking the time. Is there anything you’d like to say in closing? You have the floor.

JL: Thank you for inviting me to speak with you, and for asking such interesting questions. The only thing I’d like to add is a thank you to the people who have read and who continue to read my fiction. What success I’ve had, I owe to my readers, and I’m grateful for them.

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Hitting a Nerve: A Conversation with Lee Thomas

Lee Thomas is one of the strongest writers going today. If you aren’t familiar with his work, reconcile that. Stunning writing, believable characters, and horrific…well, horror. He’s the real deal, folks. Lee was kind enough to drop by ST Manor for some tea and playful banter…

John Boden: While I have a lot of your books, I have not read them all…yet. What I have read has been wonderful. Of all the possible charms I could go on about, the rich and realistic portrayals of emotion and character are staggering. Truly. There are also recurring themes of inner struggle as well as the given outer struggles. All of it delivered with such deft edge and detail. Do you put a lot of yourself in your work? Meaning, do you tend to infuse characters with struggles and feelings you have had or have?

Lee Thomas: Yes. I imagine most writers do. A character is an author’s conduit to readers, so characters have to express feelings accurately, whether through action, speech, or thought. We all know what fear feels like, and we all know what love feels like. Granted I’ve never encountered a horrific visage of an old god on a fog-shrouded eve, but I’ve spun around in a car after losing control of it and felt that ice cold, near-paralysis in the process. I’ve waited in a hospital room while my partner was undergoing heart surgery, and I went through a spectrum of emotions about it. You use those things. Granted, that’s oversimplifying, but most adults have enjoyed and/or endured the range of emotions. They are available to us, and they need to be employed. When you’re writing, you’re not just dropping info and walking readers through a series of events, you’re trying to engage them and make them believe that what you’re sharing feels real, even though they know it isn’t. Characters are the primary way to do this. If what your characters feel reads as authentic, you won’t have readers pulling back and thinking, “Huh?”

JB: I recently read your novel The German. (I know I was late to the party on that one…all of them, sadly.) I would imagine there was a great deal of research that went into the historical aspects of that novel. It was so rich with detail. What was the inspiration for such a book?

LT: I enjoy research, though I try to keep it unobtrusive. I don’t want to weigh a reader down with a bunch of information that I might find fascinating, but which has no bearing on the story or the characters. With The German, I drew inspiration from a few places. They all hit at once within a relatively narrow window period. The first was a documentary on The History Channel, when they still did the occasional piece on history. It focused on a high-ranking German soldier who was openly gay. His name was Ernst Röhm, and it struck me as odd I’d never heard of him before. Fascinating stuff. That night I sat down and wrote what would become the prologue of the novel, and then it was out of my system, and I went back to other projects. Not long after, a week or two, I went on a day trip to Fredericksburg, a small town in the hill country out here, and they really play up the area’s German heritage. I hadn’t been living in Texas for very long at that point, but the fact it had been so heavily settled by Germans surprised me. Back in Austin, I found that there were still German music clubs and the like. So I had a protagonist and a setting (though I changed Austin to a smaller, fictional town named Barnard). The last piece was just random. I won’t go into it. It includes adult entertainment.

JB: I know you to be a music fan (a fellow “metal head”), so I feel obliged to ask: how important is music to your creative process? Some find it distracting, others can’t work without it. If you need or like music to create, what are some of the soundtrack favorites?

LT.: Music is important to what I do. Before starting a project, I’ll try to find music that might enhance the tone of a piece while I’m putting the first draft together. The first draft of The Dust of Wonderland, which was written in a compulsive haze over the course of a few weeks, was written almost entirely to NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine and the first Candlebox record. Back then it took effort, okay minor effort, to pop a CD out and throw another in to change the music. It didn’t really matter. I was so lost in the story the music barely registered. I’d occasionally think, “Head Like a Hole” must have played a million times by now, but it still sounded good so I kept going. I need dead silence when I’m editing, but when I’m writing I like to have the music blaring to mask other distractions. Sometimes I’ll rework a title from a favorite song and use it for a short story or book. I’ve done it a few times. Of course the story or book has nothing to do with the lyrical content of the song. It’s just that metal and horror share a language palette. The cadence of the words gets into my head. Most of the titles I do from scratch, but there are a few that would certainly sound familiar to the hard rock set.

JB: I am always quite interested to hear how people got where they are today. Did you always want to be a writer? How young were you when you first began that journey?

LT: I was always interested in reading, but I thought writers were the anointed few who were identified as brilliant and predestined to have writing careers. Turns out…not so much. When I was in the Third Grade, I wrote a series of illustrated “novels” based on the Universal Horror canon. My teacher caught me working on one and asked to see them all. He typed up the stories and photocopied the pictures and made books out of them for the class. Great teacher. That was the last inkling I had from educators that I might be a writer, or have any useful skills at all. When I was sixteen I wrote my first full-length novel: 400 pages of a painfully bad werewolf story that was basically a modern interpretation of The Wolfman. I wrote another when I was in my early twenties. I probably wrote 10 “practice” novels, but I didn’t think to do anything with them. Then, a friend of a friend hooked me up with a literary agency. They were legit and worked really hard for me, but my focus on characters “fraternizing,” which was their nice way of saying “the characters are doing too much gay stuff,” pretty much nailed the coffin shut for a while. I was fine with that. Writing was something I did, not a career I dreamed about. Early versions of Stained and The Dust of Wonderland were both written during that period, about 10 years before either saw publication. Then, in 2001 I took a speculative fiction course with Terry Bisson. He encouraged me to send some stories out, so I did. I sent out six stories and three or four of them got picked up. The first acceptance came from Brian Keene at Horrorfind.com. So yeah, blame Brian. Ha. One of the others went to Gothic.net, which was a pro market, and the story received some praise from writers I had heard of. It felt strange to suddenly have my work out in front of people, but it also felt pretty good. More short stories followed, and in 2004 my first published novel, Stained, was released.

JB: Being an avid reader, I find endless inspiration in the books I read. I try to get at least two books in a week. Plus all the submissions for Shock Totem. So I read A LOT. Are you a voracious reader and what sort of books do you like to read?

LT: I was a voracious reader as a kid. I picked up whatever book was lying around the house (some of which should not have been left lying around, I might add). I also made regular trips to the library, because we didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t buy comics or the books I saw at the grocery store. The library was always a good place to hang. I fell away from reading in my late teens and ever since I’ve gone in spurts. I’ll read a dozen books and then nothing for a while, usually when I’m working on a novel. A few years back I was a judge for the Shirley Jackson Awards, and I spent six months reading everything they sent my way. It was wonderful. It was also a little exhausting because I was, at the time, organizing a World Horror Convention, starting my masters degree, and meeting deadlines for my own books. I’ve read a few books recently that other authors have sent me to blurb or edit. It’ll be a bit before I can pick things up from the bookstore and see what’s new.

JB: After I finished The German, I tore through Stained and The Dust of Wonderland. I can’t help but wonder why these and so many other incredible small-press offerings have not translated into crossover mainstream success. It sometimes seems as though the small imprints are an invisible fence, and I guess it’s open for interpretation as to whether they’re to keep us in or others out.

LT: I never thought of fences in regard to the small press. Many successful writers in our genre write for both major publishers and the small press. Tim Lebbon, Joe McKinney, Gary McMahon, and Tim Waggoner are just a few of those that come to mind. Granted, I know of few small press titles that are picked up and re-released by big houses. Norm Partridge’s Dark Harvest went from Cemetery Dance to Tor, I believe, but I can’t think of other examples just now.

The small press serves a valuable service by publishing quality books that are perceived to be non-commercial. It also produces a good amount of bad books, but then so does mainstream publishing. Most of the spec-lit writers I admire these days–Barron, Ballingrud, Langan, and just about everyone who’s published by Chizine–thrive in the small press, primarily. I could list a dozen folks whose work should be mass consumed but isn’t. Over analyzing it doesn’t really help things. Commercial trends are ocean waves and you can ride them in or continue to struggle against them. What you shouldn’t do is scream at the waves and complain about them going the wrong direction, because it’s a waste of breath.

For me the quality of the work isn’t in question. I’ve had interest from editors at big publishers for all of the titles you mentioned, but when it came time for the marketing folks to chime in, the books didn’t hit the right commercial notes. The sales teams didn’t think they could sell to a large enough audience and the editors came back with rejections. Not great, but it doesn’t make me question my skills. I’d love to make high five- or six-figure advances (or more) on all of my books, but that’s only happened a couple of times. I’m grateful for it. The fact is, what interests me in regard to content isn’t always perceived as having mass appeal, as noted above regarding the “fraternizing.” I accept that, after I stomp and fume for five or ten minutes. All I can do is keep writing stories that fascinate me, and write them as well as I can. There’s already an audience for it, and in time that audience will grow.

JB: I also started your collection, Like Light for Flies, and I am just as gob smacked with it as I am the novels. Truly unique and horrific, very much reminds me of the early masterworks of Clive Barker. Where do these ideas come from?

LT: Thank you. That’s great to hear. I wish I had a quick and snappy answer for you, but the ideas come from all over the place. There’s no real process involved. My stories don’t emerge from dreams or deep transcendental states. I see a news story and think, “This is exactly like a news story I saw last month, which was exactly like a news story I read the month before that,” and I sit down and write “Testify.” I watch a brain-blasting marathon of Italian horror flicks and think, “They must lose something in translation, because they’re awesome, but most make no damn sense at all,” and I want to do that, so I write “The House by the Park.” An editor asks me to write a story about a Bruce Springsteen song, so I throw on my favorite tune of his and the musical structure becomes integral to the structure of the story, and I come up with “Nothing Forgiven.” I want to write a story about my dog and think about her as part of an adventure, so I write “The Dodd Contrivance.” Somewhere in the process of writing, themes and metaphors emerge that tie into bigger issues. If effective I play those up. If not, I leave them buried. Whatever works for the story.

JB: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Lee. I have said many times, the greatest perk of working with Shock Totem has been the experience of getting to meet and befriend many wonderful and talented writers, and that definitely describes you. Anything you’d like to say or rant on before I have our driver take you home?

LT: Oh, just the usual promotional nonsense. “Buy my books.” “Leave your reviews on Goodreads or your favorite online retailer site.” “Tell your friends!” And more seriously, “Thanks for reading my work. I hope the stories hit a nerve or two.” And thank you, John! I enjoyed the chat. \m/

Visit Lee Thomas at his website and then spend the rest of the day tracking down all of his books.

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Bottom’s Up: A Conversation with Bill Braddock

Bill Braddock is a man of many talents, one of them writing. Brew is his debut novel and let me tell you, it’s an ass kicker. Full of enough grue and gore and ridiculous violence to sate the biggest horror hound appetite, and yet peopled with strong and real characters you can relate to…and others you wish you couldn’t.

Bill was kind enough to run out to Shock Totem Manor for a chat. (I say run as he is in shape enough to do that and still kick all of our asses without getting winded.)

John Boden: Brew is set in a “college town,” and growing up a stone’s throw from State College, PA (Penn State), it held an awful lot of obnoxious truth. The mentality of those football-headed folks, the fact that ALL can and will be sacrificed for the sake of that game…I could go on, but I fear it would be fairly negative. I know you hail from the same state as I, so I have to ask: how much “real life experience” found its way into this book?

Bill Braddock: Well, first of all, you nailed it…College Heights is my take on State College/Penn State, where I went to school and worked as a bartender. Virtually every place in Brew is based on a real spot, and some of the names are fairly obvious parallels—“Short Ridge” vs. “Shortlidge,” for example. I had great fun, traveling back in time and walking around my memories of these places, then prettying them up with plenty of chaos.

I considered simply setting the story in Penn State, but the town has gone through so many changes since I lived there twenty years ago, I either would have had to become the Michener of horror, doing extensive research and killing the fun, or I would have received an avalanche of e-mails pointing out my errors. While streets and stores change, however, I was confident that mass drunkenness and football mania still ruled. No need to change those.

The insanity that grew out of those football Saturday nights—that crackling weirdness, everybody hyped-the-eff up, looking for fun, looking to get laid or get in a fight or maybe overturn a car—all that, paired so incongruously with the ubiquitous laughter and hooting and celebration, weirded me out, resonating until it finally triggered this book.

All this being said, I love that town, insanity and everything. It ruined me on college ball forever, but I had a blast there, an absolute blast.

JB: I adored the fact that the heroes were all sort of “unlikely” in that they were the misfits and shadow people that are never on the scope of popularity. Was this a conscious choice or just how it turned out?

BB: Brew was a situation-first-characters-second story. I knew the central event, knew I wanted to tell a story like Richard Laymon’s One Rainy Night or Jack Ketchum’s Ladies Night, but I didn’t know the characters until I started writing. Herbert arrived first, then Steve, then Cat, then Demetrius, I think…and it wasn’t until I’d gotten well into Demetrius’s side of things that I realized all my heroes were outsiders.

Later on, I discovered that this is a recurring thematic concern of mine, the idea of people whose native strengths, due to societal circumstances, end up becoming paradoxical liabilities… until something big comes along, turns polite society on its head, and yesterday’s outcasts become today’s heroes.

JB: As gloriously over the top as this novel is, it is not entirely unfeasible. I mean, instead of the shambling undead, you give us mobs of ourselves, stripped of all objective reason and hyped up on animal aggression. I found this much more terrifying. Also the fact that in an isolated college town in central Pennsylvania, some shit like this could go down and linger for days before anyone really caught on and showed up to do anything about it, which amplifies the horror.

BB: Brew is far-fetched, but yeah, it’s not entirely impossible. Even the synchronized insanity, which is probably the least feasible aspect, isn’t completely out of the question. I had fun researching the book, and after gathering what I could on my own, talked to a chemist, a paramedic, and a pharmacologist. The more I learned about less-than-lethal technologies, brain science, and pharmacology, the more frightening (and frighteningly plausible) this all seemed.

I love traditional zombies. The inexorable slow shamble of their mindless mass attack seems to me the perfect metaphor for tireless pressure of the mundane world. Busy work, pointless job duties, paying bills, applications and permits, stuff that only rolls around once or twice a year, like remembering to shut off and drain the hose bib before winter hits, things that kill us not because they’re difficult in isolation but because they just keep coming, keep coming, keep coming…

And what do they want? Your brains.

Z-apocalypse stuff is fun because it takes all those mundane tasks that worry at our brains, solidifies them symbolically as a monster—a physical threat—and allows the strong individual to shrug off the maddening trivialities of day-to-day existence and get down to some this-shit-actually-matters-and-therefore-my-performance-actually-matters activity. Refreshing.

Despite my love of the walking dead, however, I wanted something different, something more in step with both the real-world madness I’d witnessed at Penn State and the cultural fears of the moment. In the 21st century, random violence, whether you’re talking about terrorism, school shooters, or the “knockout game,” rules headlines. Personally, I am frightened by violence outside logical cause-and-effect, from a beer keg I once saw tossed from one of the upper floor balconies of a high rise apartment at Penn State to the cancer that took my mother to bullets fired from shooters unseen.

You also mention isolation. When I was a kid, one of the coolest things about Penn State was its isolation. Forty-thousand people roughly twenty years old, most of them scuffing around without a full-time job. I decided to employ the other side of that particularly shiny coin by telling an apocalyptic tale versus a post-apocalyptic one. That’s why the whole story takes place in a matter of hours rather than days or months or years. I didn’t want the cavalry to get there in time to solve the problem. I wanted to leave that up to my outcasts-turned-heroes.

JB: It was a very cinematic read, in that I could totally see it playing out in film form. I would imagine there may be some interest in that. Is this something you would be on board with?

BB: Thanks. I’d really dig seeing Brew on the big screen, and I think it would make a fun movie. My excellent publishers have been talking to some absolute rainmakers on the West Coast, but I’m not holding my breath. It hasn’t even been optioned yet, and these things are a long shot. Still, even long shots do work out from time to time, and that would be really cool, so one of these midnights, I might have to sacrifice a goat or something.

JB: Have you always liked horror? What was it, if any one thing, that lured you to the dark side?

BB: I’ve always loved horror. As in always. I blame my brother, who was six years old and tended a tall stack of horror comics. My brother wouldn’t share, and my mother didn’t allow me to read them, since I’d been having night terrors all the way back to the crib, so I made it my daily mission to sneak in there and read those things. My brother, who went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering, went so far as to rig up a homemade alarm built out of a screaming toy motorcycle. All too often, he would catch me in there, and he was merciless, as protective of those comics as a mother wolf with its pups. Other horror writers can pontificate all they want about the genre, but I’ve taken countless ass whippings in the name of horror. I’ve bled for horror. And I’m cool with that.

JB: What is on the horizon for Bill Braddock?

BB: I’m always writing, man. Right now, I’m mainly pounding away at a mainstream thriller, but I also have a couple of short stories I’m dying to write, a horror novel I’ve planned and can’t stop thinking about, and about 1,000 pages of work piled up on my long-time pet project, Perils of the Road. Given the positive response to Brew, however, I’m thinking of writing a collection of stories set on that same apocalyptic night. I’d call it Microbrews.

JB: That would be brilliant, the Microbrews thing. You aren’t messing with me, are you? Anyway, I don’t care. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me a bit. You’re the bee’s knees!

BB: Thanks so much, man. I’ve had a blast talking with you, and it’s awesome to find myself in the Shock Totem camp. You guys really know how to throw a party! As to Microbrews, not messing with you at all—and your enthusiasm just pushed me one step closer to writing the thing. Thanks!

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A Conversation with Voice Actor Georgie Leonard

Georgie Leonard is a playwright, screenwriter, voice artist, and actor from Bristol, United Kingdom. She was chosen to play the female roles in the audiobook Exquisite Death put out by In Ear Entertainment. She reads both of my stories in the audiobook, and she did a wonderful job on two very different pieces. I asked Georgie if she’d be down for an interview, and I’m so excited that she agreed.

Mercedes M. Yardley: So Georgie! Please tell us how you came into voice acting. And why audio books? What’s the draw?

Georgie Leonard: I’ve always loved the idea of voicing a character in a Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli (HMC’s Sophie is my spirit animal) or Disney film (ideally I’d play Belle in Beauty and the Beast, but I guess I’m a little late for that!) but even with that interest, my foray into voice acting was almost more of a happy accident than a planned move.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with Mark on a couple of different voice-based projects in the past, which is how I became involved with this particular recording.

Why audiobooks in particular? I love, love, LOVE reading and I think getting to read books to people as part of my career is pretty damn awesome!

MMY: I’ll agree with you about Studio Ghibli. I think anybody who takes part of their work in any form would die happy!

How does an audiobook differ from other voice work?

GL: I’ve been lucky enough to have varying voice work over the few years I’ve been professionally working  as an actor, with projects as diverse as session-singing to radio dramas. From my experience, audiobooks are different in that it’s just you and the mic—there’s no accompaniment in the form of music or another person in there with you. Whereas when you are working on a radio drama/online podcast drama, then you tend to have at least one actor in the room with you. Even if it’s just to deliver one line! Though it really does depend on the project!

MMY: Have you had any favorite projects that you’ve worked on? What made them memorable?

GL: Each project I’ve worked on has been so different to the last, and so it’s rather difficult to compare them to each other! As this is the first set of (hopefully many!) audiobooks I’ve worked on, it’ll always be special to me! But I always love projects where I get to work foley as well as act.

MMY:What do you do if you have a piece you’re not particularly excited about?

GL: I’m yet to have a piece of audio work that I’m less than enthusiastic about, but I suppose the trick is to treat it as any other job. If you’re that unsure about it before you perform it, then you shouldn’t take the job!

MMY:How do you prepare for voice work? Can you share any tricks of the trade?

GL: Plenty of water, and try to avoid dairy for at least a day before! If I have time beforehand, then I also try to run through a few vocal warm-ups- there’s nothing worse than sounding croaky when you’re supposed to have a light and clear voice for something.

MMY: Tell us what a basic recording session is like. (the room, the mic, what you do, etc.)

GL: Well, it differs from place to place. One recording I did for a songwriter had me standing in a booth made of mattresses and duvets for sound dampening!

For In Ear, the recording studio is pretty bare, but fully functional. It’s not like you need much in the way of anything other than the recording equipment, a chair, and something to rest your script on anyway, so it’s a good room without any distractions.

MMY: What projects do you have coming out, and how do we contact you?  (this is the chance to pimp your stuff!)

GL: At the moment, I am currently working on a BBC drama production that will be televised next year, and have a few projects lined up to begin after that is done shooting. Plus there’s hopefully some more work with In Ear Entertainment coming my way!

I’m all over the place! Twitter, Facebook, my website to name but a few! Pop along and say hi.

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A Conversation with Author Todd Keisling

In his Goodreads profile, author Todd Keisling admits that he is “awkward and weird” and that if you were his neighbor, you’d probably die. Mercedes M. Yardley recently sat down with Todd to get the details on his latest projects and jot down pointers on how to dispose of cranky men who steal things off your lawn.

Mercedes M. Yardley: Todd, you started out with A Life Transparent. Its sequel, The Liminal Man, was a 2013 Indie Book Award finalist in the Horror/Suspense category. Congratulations. Are you currently working on the third book of the trilogy? Did you plot the trilogy out start to finish before you began?

Todd Keisling: Thank you! Being a finalist for the award was a big surprise and an even bigger honor. Initially, I didn’t plot the trilogy from start to finish. A Life Transparent (or ALT) was originally intended as a standalone story, but about a year after its initial publication I had an idea for what became its sequel, The Liminal Man.

That second book was a monster and went through many iterations (I think the final version was draft #5). When my editor finally got her hands on it, she gave me a choice: either add another 150 pages to make the existing ending work, or change the ending and complete the story with a third novel. I took some time to think it over, wrote a broad outline for what a third book would look like, and decided to move ahead in that direction. So to answer your question, no, it wasn’t a planned trilogy.

I spent most of this year working on some shorter fiction since TLM took so long (almost four years) to complete. I really just needed a break from that storyline. That being said, I’m in the early stages of the final Monochrome novel, and while I have the high points of the novel already plotted, I’m still trying to keep the process as organic as possible.

MMY: What’s the draw to writing a series vs. a standalone work? Do you do standalone as well? How do you keep the series fresh?

TK: That’s a good question and I don’t have a straight answer for you. I’ve written standalone novels before, but the Monochrome books are my first real series. I find it’s interesting to watch a character develop over the course of multiple titles rather than a single work. It’s liberating in some ways, and constraining in others: liberating in that I don’t have to tie up loose ends right away (which leaves a sense of mystery, keeping things fresh for the reader), but constraining in that some minor plot detail written in the first book can come back to bite me on the ass in the final book (which makes me cry). Those loose ends that were left untied in the first book always have a way of becoming tangled up in your plot later on, and fixing them always makes for a fun exercise in problem-solving.

It’s just a lot to juggle at one time, and for the third book I’ve started keeping track of extensive notes and details in Scrivener. You know, so minor character names don’t change halfway through, or so one person’s eyes don’t suddenly change from blue to brown.

Overall, I’m enjoying the experience, but I’m also looking forward to being done with the series so I can work on other ideas. Honestly, I think I prefer writing standalone fiction, and I don’t see myself doing another series any time soon—not without planning it, first.

MMY: I know you’re working on a collection of short stories. There seems to be a resurgence of the short story, lately. Would you consider yourself more of a novelist, a short story guy, or both? What are the pros and cons of each form?

TK: I’d like to believe I’m both. I used to write a lot of short fiction, but I turned away from it for a while after writing ALT. After TLM’s publication, I realized I had a number of ideas for stories that had accumulated over the last few years. I wanted to try my hand at shorter fiction again, and I quickly discovered that particular art form is even more difficult than I remembered. Two of the stories in the collection (titled Ugly Little Things) aren’t even “short” by today’s standards; at 14k and 17k words, they’re more novella than short story.

I think novels are fun because they allow for so much development and exploration. The canvas of a novel can stretch as far and wide as you want it to. The danger, of course, is that it can become overwhelming at times, and something complex can require years of commitment. Short stories are harder to execute, but more rewarding if you manage to pull it off. The usual word count restrictions that come with the typical short story markets are also fun to work with, but can be a thorn in your side if you have an idea that begins to take off and grow beyond your original scope.

Ultimately, I believe in letting the story be what it wants to be, which works well in the realm of novels; with short stories, you have to be a lot more hands on, directing the story where it needs to go.

MMY: Musical inspiration. You have it. Tell me how the process works when you’re writing. Do you have something playing at the time? Do you purposely seek out soundtracks for each piece you’re working on, or does it happen to be whatever you’re listening to at the time?

TK: I always write to music. Whenever I sit down to work, I’ll try to find a piece of music that fits the mood or theme of what I’m writing. Doesn’t matter if it’s lyrical or if it’s an instrumental piece—if it fits, I’ll listen to it on repeat until I’m finished working.

I got the idea from Chuck Palahniuk. Several years ago I read an interview in which he talked about listening to the same song over and over while writing. The idea is to listen to something so much that it puts you in a kind of meditative state. Doesn’t matter what kind of music—if you listen to it enough times, you’ll eventually tune it out. I have no idea what the science is behind it; I just know it works for me.

MMY: I met you a bit earlier, but we really started to talk after being in the Exquisite Death audiobook together. Was that your first audiobook? What was the experience like for you? Would you turn your other pieces into audiobooks as well?

TK: As a matter of fact, Exquisite Death was my first audiobook and my first anthology. I had a great time working with In Ear’s Mark Chatterley, and I hope to submit one of my longer stories to him in the near future. I love audiobooks (otherwise I never would’ve made it through Atlas Shrugged) and podcasts (Pseudopod, NoSleep, Welcome to Night Vale, et al), and I intend to pursue having my other work adapted for audio.

MMY: You’re an analytical guy as well as a creative. Does this grounded side help you as a writer?

TK: I think it’s a blessing and a curse. The creative side always wants to rush ahead; the analytical side throws up its hand and says, “Wait a minute. Let’s think about this.” It’s sort of like the classic angel/devil dynamic, with one on each shoulder, keeping one another in check. I’ll have an idea that seems really cool and great, but I always have to think through the logistics—even if I’m completely making it up, I still have to make sure that what I’m writing works within the universe I’ve created.

Something my editor, Amelia, has always done is ask my why or how things work. Even if it doesn’t end up in the story, she asks me those questions as a way of reinforcing my understanding of the plot, scene, whatever is under scrutiny. If I can’t give her a straight answer, that’s usually a sign that I need to a better grasp of what I’m writing about. Sometimes I do have a clear answer; other times I don’t, which has led to several scene rewrites.

I’m trying to approach the final Monochrome book in a more analytical manner, creating a working document filled with questions that a reader (or Amelia) might have. The questions can be about anything, from character motivation to the repercussions of certain actions if they come to pass within that narrative’s universe. Once I answer them, I try to poke as many holes into them as I can, and if they don’t hold up, I try to think of a different solution.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this, but as I head into the final book of an unplanned trilogy, I feel it’s a necessity. Yeah, it’s a little grueling and painful, but I think it will make for a much tighter narrative a year down the line.

MMY: You write horror that easily crosses over into thriller territory. Does the ability to straddle both genres help or hinder your marketing?

TK: In some ways it helps; in others, it hinders. Writing a book that can be classified as a number of genres works well from the angle of appealing to as many people as possible. People who normally don’t read horror or suspense have emailed to say they loved my books, and I think that’s because the stories defy genre.

Unfortunately, the flip-side of that coin means that it may also put off people who stick to a particular genre. My books are speculative fiction, but you’ll find them in the Horror category even though they aren’t 100% straight horror. Some diehard horror fans probably don’t like that; the same goes for the folks who like thrillers or suspense stories—they want serial killers, not weird supernatural creatures. I have both, and they go out for drinks at the end of the day when the work is done.

This defiance of genre is my “brand,” I guess, and it makes the marketing aspect much more difficult. I’ve thought about compromising, sticking to one particular genre to make things easier for myself, but I don’t think I’d be happy doing that. The stories are what they want to be; it’s my job to record them as accurately as possible, and if they happen to deal with parallel realities, monsters, murderers, and noir-like atmosphere, then so be it. I’ll write them down. Maybe people will want to read them.

***

If you’d like to get in contact with Todd or check out any of his work, you can contact him through his website, Facebook, Twitter or his author profile on Goodreads.

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And the 2013 Flash Fiction Contest Winner is…

Stabat Mater
by Michael Wehunt


As many of you know, throughout the year we host a bi-monthly flash fiction contest on our forum (not to be confused with the bi-weekly one-hour flash challenge). From those bi-monthly winners, an overall winner is chosen by a neutral judge, to be published in the next issue of Shock Totem.

This year’s judge was up-and-coming horror scribe Bracken MacLeod, author of the excellent Mountain Home. (Click here for our review of Mountain Home and here for our interview with Bracken.)

Of the five bi-monthly winning stories from 2013, Bracken chose “Stabat Mater,” by Michael Wehunt, as the winner. The contest prompt for this story was this Harlan Ellison quote from a Tor.com interview:

“In the introduction to this new edition of Web of the City, Ellison writes of a possible legend about Ernest Hemingway intentionally destroying his first novel. From the introduction:

“Yes, the story goes, Hemingway had written a book before The Sun Also Rises, and there he was aboard a ship, steaming either here or there; and he was at the rail, leaning over, thinking, and then he took the boxed manuscript of the book…and threw it into the ocean. Apparently on the theory that no one should ever read a writer’s first novel.”

The quote was referring to the reissue of Ellison’s first novel. For the contest prompt, I asked participants to write about tossing away their firstborn child and base it on the same theory Ellison describes above. I also asked that they not take the easy road and write something that involves sacrificial/religious offerings.

To read what Michael did with the prompt, check out “Stabat Mater” in the next issue of Shock Totem, due in January 2014.

Congratulations, Michael!

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A Conversation with Bracken MacLeod

I first met Bracken MacLeod at Necon in 2011. After a day of just noticing this semi-scary tattooed bald man with a ferocious goatee, he endeared himself to me with his untethered audacity…making fun at the newly dead Amy Winehouse within minutes of the announcement she had passed. I saw hearts.

So before we delve into the shortish interview he was gracious enough to allow me to conduct, let me tell you what I have learned of the man in the years since Necon. His name is Bracken…that’s exactly like the terrifying sea monster loosed by the Gods in Clash of the Titans, but with a B. B for Badass! He is a very smart and very humble man, a father, husband and former lawyer. He also writes gripping fiction, not always horror but quite often visceral and dark. I’d been lucky enough to read several shorts before Mountain Home arrived at Shiney Acres and I could already count myself a fan. Mountain Home cemented it.

With no further dithering, let’s talk with Mr. MacLeod…

John Boden: I just reviewed your debut novella, Mountain Home, and I wanted to jump right in to discussing it. One of the reasons this novella works on such a personal and chilling level, is that it could have been plucked straight from the headlines. A week doesn’t go by where there isn’t some sort of gun violence, rampage…or some horrific event. Was there one thing in particular that inspired this tale?

Bracken MacLeod: Novella? They all can’t be Under The Dome. You’re right though, Mountain Home isn’t what the big publishers call “marketable length,” even though at fifty-six thousand words, it’s technically a novel. Part of what gave me the freedom to keep it that tight was a conversation I had with one of my literary heroes, John Skipp (who also told me I should never name drop), about a project he was putting together at the time. He was getting ready to launch a line of short novels designed to be all chiller, no filler. Books you could read in the time it took to watch a (long) feature film. I took that to heart, cut all of the padding, and I think that’s what made the rhythm and pacing of this story pop the way it does. But that’s not an answer to your question.

I find real world violence much more frightening than any monster or demon someone can dream up. Right before I started this book, Anders Brevik shot up that summer camp in Norway. I wasn’t inspired by that, but I can’t say that it wasn’t in the back of my mind when I sat down to write. I wanted to tell a locked room story and needed a way to keep a disparate group of people together and under constant stress. Given that in the last thirty years there have been sixty-two different mass shootings in America, it seemed like the most plausible scenario—and one that scares me a whole hell of a lot.

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A Conversation with Photographer Stacy Scranton-Morgan

Stacy Scranton-Morgan is a popular photographer, and I’ve run into her at several different conventions. She’s not only great at taking pictures of the panelists and speakers, but also takes wonderful behind-the-scenes pictures of moments that wouldn’t otherwise be captured. Stacy also takes headshots, which is a necessity for every author. I tracked her down and asked for a little advice on how to take a decent author’s photo.

Mercedes M. Yardley: Hi, Stacy! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. As authors, we’re used to using words and phrases to convey nuances and emotions. As a photographer, you do things visually. It’s a completely different world.

Take the subject of author’s photos. They can be quite daunting to a writer. Suddenly one photo is going to basically encapsulate us as a person. They’ll be used online, on the backs of our books, and as promotional tools. The experience of taking an author’s photo can be terribly awkward. This is where your expertise comes in.

Is it possible to take a good photo if the author is extremely nervous? What would you suggest is the best way to calm down?

Stacy Scranton-Morgan: The first part of the question reminds me of the episode of Friends when Monica and Chandler were having their engagement portraits taken. Chandler was so nervous that he just could not get a good picture. So I would say there are those extreme cases. Most people, especially ones that are not used to having their photographs taken, do get nervous in front of the camera. The best thing you can do is try to relax and have fun with it. Take a few deep breaths. When I’m photographing people, I try to have fun with them. I like to joke around and get them laughing a little bit. By being a little goofy, it usually helps to loosen up my subject. Just remember, you have the easy job. You just have to sit there and be yourself.

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A Conversation with Grimm’s Russell Hornsby

Russell Hornsby has acted in films and television for well over a decade, appearing in shows like Lincoln Heights, Grey’s Anatomy, Law & Order, and movies such as Meet the Parents and After the Sunset. He now appears weekly on NBC’s Grimm, a show that is kind of hard to explain.

Matt Betts: I don’t want to be cheesy by starting out quoting IMDB, but I’m going to be that guy anyway.

Russell Hornsby: Okay, go ahead.

MB: According to IMBD, Grimm is an “American police procedural television drama series.” And they also categorize it in the genres of fantasy procedural, horror and mystery. Grimm is a pretty hard show to pin down and describe, isn’t it?

RH: Yes. I have a tough time myself and I don’t know if I always get it right. I’m glad someone is able to do it.

MB: Well, there’s just a little bit of everything in it. There’s action, there’s horror, there’s fairy tale, and it is all blended together so well.

RH: I think, as you said, they do it so well and I hope, sooner rather than later, that it would just be its own genre. You know what I mean?

MB: Absolutely. With all of that in mind, what made you want to take the role of detective Hank Griffin?

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