Tag Archives: Stephen King

The Troop

The Troop, by Nick Cutter, created quite a buzz upon its release late last spring. I paid it little mind and it wasn’t until the annual Boden family beach vacation that I picked up the hardcover and read the blurbs and breakdown, I decided to wait a bit as I have a fairly unwieldy TBR pile. A month ago we got the trade paperback in at the grocery store where I work. This impressed me and I looked at it with every pass I made by the tiny shitty book section. Eventually, I grabbed a copy.

There is a blurb on the back that essentially calls it a mix of Lord of the Flies and 28 Days Later. I love both of those works so I was all whoo-hoo! and anxiously dug in over the weekend. It is a nice, quick, pulpy read. Reminded me a lot of earlier King and some of those ooey-gooey 80s works from the pulp paperback rack at Hills. I loved it.

The story begins with Scoutmaster Tim taking his troop of five boys on their yearly campout on a remote island off the coast of Canada. During the first night, a stranger stumbles into their midst. A man disturbingly gaunt and pale yet voraciously hungry. He sets things on a rapid and downward spiral that will leave you dizzy. Without a chance to catch your breath, the pacing hastens, the sick man gets sicker, and Tim tries to help but endangers himself and the boys in the process.

The viral threat the man has ushered into camp soon becomes a catalyst for some real struggle as the boys find themselves sans supervision and left on their own to survive—the elements, the monstrously unsettling contagion, and themselves. We see their true colors shine through, and they aren’t all bright and pretty.

I’d really love to give more details, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say that I enjoyed The Troop a great deal. I found it invigoratingly fun and entertaining. Is it perfect? Not at all. The structure with the interview excerpts and science-y stuff messed with the flow for me (the science itself is a bit wonky), and the military conspiracy angle is as hokey as can be, but it’s just a book, so I rolled with it. Where it really shines is in its gross-out moments where the contagion shows itself and when we see the boys begin to show themselves. It is brutal in places and tragically sad in others.

The Troop is available from Simon & Schuster Books , which means damn near everywhere.

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Chaos

I had the pleasure of hearing Mary SanGiovanni read from Chaos at the Scares That Care! convention a few months ago. After the reading (and much discussion about haunted mental asylums, creepy places, and eyebrow bugs), I got a copy.

The tone, style, and vibe of the book took me back to 80’s pulp horror, though the setting is contemporary.

Chaos tells the story of Bridgewood Estates, built upon the grounds that were once home to Bridgewood Asylum before it was torn down. The asylum once being the setting for a grotesque and horrific explosion of violence. Now, only the old office ward remains. Unluckily for the tenants, something evil still stains the grounds, and has for decades.

Upon moving in, Myrinda and her boyfriend are greeted warmly by the neighbors. The old lady across the hall nervously extols the virtues of the place, but then the things that haunt the building loosen her nerve and she tries to warn Myrinda about what she’s moved into.

And soon the other residents begin to have their own sinister encounters: the writer who begins seeing the woman shambling in the yard, without feet or hands; the ex-cop who begins a blood-drenched courtship with the mysterious woman in 2-C, a courtship of sticky notes and gifts of flesh; the man who is ordered to murder his wife by the man on the TV. All of these characters and events weave a tale of paranoia and terror.

Bridgewood is the site of a hole between dimensions and the neighbors that are coming through are far from friendly. They’re insane and malicious. It will take all the courage the young couple can muster to try to resolve things before it’s too late for them and the other dwellers of Bridgewood Estates.

Having read a few of SanGiovanni’s earlier works and enjoyed them, I found Chaos to be a bit different. Whether or not it was intentional this seemed to have a nostalgic sense about it. As I stated at the opening, it reminded me of the “evil in a small town” kind of novels I devoured as a teen (and sometimes as an adult): Salem’s Lot, The Wicked, The Ceremonies…that sort of thing.

The writing is strong and vivid, with well-drawn characters and events. It was a great B-movie of a novel, fun and frightening. Probably excellent with popcorn.

Chaos is available directly through www.marysangiovanni.com.

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Mr. Mercedes

Stephen King is definitely the Alfred Hitchcock of the literary world. It’s likely he could take an inner city phone book and turn it into a riveting novel. Mr. Mercedes isn’t a phone book, but it sure as hell ranks up there with some of Hitchcock’s greatest hits. In fact, one might say that Mr. Mercedes is King’s Psycho.

King rocks the suspense/thriller genres here. Taking a step away from the deeply supernatural fare he’s known for, he proves that he is, without doubt, one of the world’s top writers. That he continues to come up with fresh material and interesting stories is further testament to his prowess. But he doesn’t leave the horror out, either. In fact, there’s one scene that will be impossible to get out of my head, probably for the rest of my life.

Mr. Mercedes tells the story of retired cop, Bill Hodges, who has taken to heavy drinking and flirting with suicide night after night since he left the force. Before he left, there was one particular unsolved case that haunted him, and continues to do so months and years later. An unknown subject stole a Mercedes and rammed it into a crowd of hundreds of local unemployed people, killing eight and injuring many others. The perpetrator was never caught, and that is what bothers Hodges the most. When the killer reaches out and taunts Hodges in the hopes of pushing the overweight cop past the mental tipping point, it instead revives Hodges’ passion, and renews his intent to take Mr. Mercedes down, even if it’s the last thing he ever does.

Hodges sets out to bring a killer to justice, and in the process manages to fall in love and care about not only himself, but others as well. Especially his estranged daughter, whose absence from his life is one of his greatest failures. Now though, he seeks redemption, and believes he can only find it by catching the murderer. Along the way, Hodges gathers an odd, ragtag team of crime solvers: a school-aged neighbor kid who happens to be somewhat of a genius, and a bipolar woman who turns out to be an incredible asset, despite her mental challenges. This latter character might remind you of Chloe from 24. In another comparison, this team is very much like characters from The Drawing of the Three, volume two in King’s epic Dark Tower series. In young Jerome we find shades of Odetta, and in bipolar Holly we find pieces of Eddie Dean, the young heroin addict.

The antagonist, on the other hand, is one of the creepier King has ever put on paper. One might compare him to Pennywise the Clown, only without the makeup and killer smile. However, Pennywise’s evil intent is alive and thriving here. There’s even a vague reference in this book, as well as nods to several other King books.

Without giving anything away, it’s worth your while to take your time with this book, in spite of the overwhelming urge you’ll likely experience to zip through to the stunning conclusion as quickly as possible. King handles tension and horror as masterfully as ever and his character development is in tremendous form. We find ourselves rooting for the underdog protagonists, despite the many mistake both sides make that puts everyone’s lives in peril.

Mr. Mercedes is available in hardcover through Scribner and is the first in a trilogy centered on the murders that take place in this first episode. Finders Keepers, the second volume, is slated to be released in early 2015.

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There Was Darkness In My Youth: A Duality Review

Growing up, I remember darkness. All right, that’s a lie; I actually had a pretty awesome childhood, with a few truly bad parts before high school. But having read two novels back-to-back recently in which their respective narrators recall coming of age through eerie and mysterious times, I sure feel like I’ve just emerged from a dark past. These novels were Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms and John Mantooth’s The Year of the Storm.

In The Bottoms, Harry Crane is recalling his childhood in Depression-era Texas. Now a retired old man, he views the twilight of his life with bitter acceptance and has come to value his youth with a humble nostalgia—even as he describes the twisted events of his adolescence in the 1930’s Texas countryside. Women were being gruesomely murdered, and he and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina) caught glimpses of an eerie entity known as the Goat Man in the woods nearby.

In The Year of the Storm, Danny recalls being fourteen when a major storm hit rural Alabama, during which his mother and autistic sister vanished. Almost a year later, a strange man named Walter Pike shows up, who claims to know where they’ve gone. The narrative is split with Walter as he recalls his teen encounters and a strange, bullied boy named Seth Sykes and the mysterious secrets that Seth harbored.

Both novels nicely explore the idea of discovering magic in the mundane, as well as the presence of magic as opposed to the mundane—and how sometimes, it really doesn’t matter one way or another of just what was “really” going on. What matters is that these character did go through their respective adventures and what they took from it all—a sense of finding themselves in the midst of the wild (and at times terrifying) events.

There was so much more than creeping menace and bewildering mystery that got to me in these novels. Lansdale and Mantooth nicely captured the heartbreaking sense of the relative if fragile innocence of childhood and how abruptly and unfairly it can be wrested away by forces and events beyond one’s control. And I’m not just talking about the narrator’s own journeys—I’m talking about nine-year-old Tom having to witness everything from racism and abuse to grisly murder, and teenaged Seth Sykes getting vilified by the ugliness of homophobia and bullying. There is a lot of darkness to be found in these tales, and not nearly all of it stems from the supernatural.

Comparisons of these books are often made to other novels and stories, from Stephen King’s novella The Body (and its 1986 film adaptation, Stand By Me) and Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and on up through recent titles such as Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter—but to me, that’s part of the charm of tales such as these. Everybody starts out somewhere; everybody has an innocent adolescence that hardens and thickens into maturity. Many an author (and director, and musician, and other artist) has to capture that sense of coming into her or his own. It’s a time-honored tradition for a person to recall darkness in her or his youth, and in tales such as these, it can be argued that that darkness can be the catalyst to one’s maturity.

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The Lee Thomas Burrito (Sort of a Review)

For every big name horror author that you hear about—Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Clive Barker or Brian Keene—there is an extremely unsettling number of lesser known writers who deserve to be every bit as famous or well known for their work. And I get that. Music works the same way. We all know about Johnny Cash, but how many have ever heard the great Jerry Jeff Walker? I love it when I am not only impressed by someone I’ve never read before, but impressed to the point where I must track down and read all I can from them. Lee Thomas impressed me like that.

I had the pleasure of reading Ash Street nearly two years ago, for review. I liked it. For some reason I forgot about Lee Thomas, until we connected online and discovered a mutual affinity for heavy metal. I got some more of his work and devoured them all—greedily. So the verdict would now be that he is amazing. You ought to be reading him. All of his work.

With his debut novel, Stained, Lee introduces us to what will become his recognizable style: strong, character driven with realistic attitudes towards the fucked up things that are going on. Said fucked up things in this novel include an almost viral evil that possesses its victims and then tweaks and perverts their deepest longings. Upon completion, I could barely believe this was a debut novel it was so strongly written. No wonder it won a Stoker! The original printing from Wildside Press is quite rare but worth tracking down.

The Dust of Wonderland takes on a Southern Gothic sort of premise and punches it in its ghostly face.

A man is called to New Orleans under tragic circumstances—his son lays in coma near death and the events that surround it all seem to tie to the frayed psyche of Ken Nicholson, a man who has built his unstable life on a shaking pile of secrets and stones. Things take strange turns and all fingers point to a man long dead. This book ups things a notch. The pacing is superb and the realistic characters and reactions are wonderful. Had Lee been putting these novels out in the early 80’s instead of this millennium, he’d be a paperback bestseller and mentioned in the same frantic fanboy breaths as Straub and King.

After that, I read his superb novel The German. I thought the others were good…this was fantastic! Gripping from page one and it does not let up until the last sentence. Reading like a shadowy memoir of sorts, it tells the sad tale of a small Texas town plagued by strange murders and the mysterious German who seems to be the one they want to be responsible. Straddling the barbed wire fence between To Kill a Mockingbird and The Stranger, The German is a gritty affair but reads smooth and generates a well of emotion and outrage. Simply put, it is one of the finest novels I have read.

His chapbook The Black Sun Set, from Burning Effigy Press, is a nifty cocktail; one part noir and two parts metaphysical horror. A chilling post card of sorts.

His collection Like Light for Flies shows us what Thomas is capable of in a shorter word count. The stories are eclectic and smart, some copping an early Barker vibe and a few holding a severely classic voice. You’ll read about a man and his dog and how they try to save the world from monsters from another dimension. There is twisted noir with supernatural shades. Plenty of shocks and cringe-inducing images, all handled with deft precision.

And there you have it, a sort of Lee Thomas burrito. A brief encapsulation of what I have read, save for Butcher’s Road, which I have not yet finished but will review upon completion.

Be on the lookout for my interview with Lee very soon!

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Horror Films FAQ

John Kenneth Muir’s breakdown of the horror fiction genre in his book Horror Films FAQ proves to be a delightful addition to anyone who loves a good, scary movie. Referenced in the book are typical horror staples such as The Exorcist and Psycho, but Muir is not content to only point to the canon of Hollywood classics. Instead, Muir expands his scope to include films that, while under the radar of mainstream Hollywood, helped to establish periods in the genre and pushed films to new and groundbreaking cinematography.

In addition to breakdowns of the movies that helped to shape the growing culture of horror, Muir explores monsters that have made it into the common realm of consciousness, such as the vampire, werewolf, mummy, and reanimated man (re: Frankenstein’s monster), and why the genre has persisted. The work is a dense text, rife with information on the different types of films, how the films evolved, and how the genre as a whole has expanded. Muir puts his considerable movie knowledge to use in the construction of this book, referencing films as early as expressionist “shudder films” through to the sub-genre of “torture porn” which have become prevalent.

The book is set up as a series of expanded lists ranging from directors, characters, and types of horror movies, and prepares the reader for what to find in the rest of the material. Muir pulls together his knowledge of the genre with an expert eye for what constitutes “good” horror movies, constructing a broad and in-depth reference text. Muir makes good use of the sections to explain how the genre has transformed due to a number of factors, not the least of them Americans and their ever-shifting fear mentality. One of the best things about this book is the early breakdown of films by decades, to showcase the way in which media and fear have changed over time to create the scare-and-shock culture of the horror movie today.

The amount of information in Horror Film FAQ can’t be overstated. Muir has compiled dozens of pieces showcasing the best of each sub-genre, and has broken the book down to reflect such. Each section serves as an explanative dictating the way in which the film impacted the horror community, the director’s evolution, and the shifting consciousness that propels the genre forward. The wealth of information and Muir’s keen insight provide both an explanation of the films as well as a great dissection of what actually makes the movie scary. It doesn’t at all hurt that Muir has an entire section devoted specifically to Stephen King films, either.

Muir’s book is dense and vivid, but one thing seasoned horror fans may notice is the very lacking section on both zombies and television. Aside from White Zombie, I Walked With A Zombie, and The Serpent and the Rainbow, the collective of zombie films referenced is fairly limited in scope, with heavy reliance on the Romero film culture of zombies, including Romero’s last (and arguably worst piece) Survival of the Dead. The section on horror television is also sparse, addressing new favorites such as The Walking Dead and old classics like Twin Peaks. But, there are no references to groundbreaking horror series such as Tales from the Crypt, Dark Shadows, or The Outer Limits, though there is a beautiful treatment of The Twilight Zone included.

Beyond the first glance, this book serves as a great beginners text for not only knowing which movies to see, but also for people seeking to have a deeper understanding of the genre. It provides a core understanding for the evolution of the horror movie, and its gradual turn from films bent on simply spooking an audience, to films that are as effective as they are emotive, introspective, and, in some cases (especially in the new day and age of “torture porn,”) disturbing. John Kenneth Muir puts to use an expert wealth of knowledge and keen introspection to render a reference book that would be a welcome addition to any collection.

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King Revives Our Favorite Demons

When I was 12, I experienced a horrid accident in which I lost the ankle bone and part of my foot in my left leg. Being summer in Michigan meant that it was nearly always 100% humidity, and hotter than Satan’s buttcrack. And me with a monstrously heavy, hot and unwieldy plaster cast from my toes to mid-thigh. It was a pain, to be certain. So I kept myself distracted through reading.

I’d already read through my mother’s entire collection of Sidney Sheldon novels, and went in search of something to take my mind off the infernal itching beneath my cast as my leg healed from surgery.

Tucked way to the back of the bookcase in the living room was a novel that intrigued me greatly.  I’d previously read Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, which was gross and creepy, and utterly delicious. This book had a very similar cover. I had never heard of the author, some guy named Stephen King, but I snuck the book back to my bedroom and set out to read.

The Shining scared the living crap out of me. I found myself, for the first time in my young life, unable to put the book down. Every waking moment was spent with my nose burrowed in the margin, the stench of mother’s chain smoking redolent in the pages and the ink.  I didn’t care. Little Danny Torrance was the most compelling character I’d ever encountered, and his story caused me to sleep with lights on for months afterward.

King made the executive decision to follow up Danny’s story with Doctor Sleep.

We meet up with a slightly older Danny in the aftermath of events at the Overlook Hotel, which, if you’ll remember, died a fiery death when the faulty boiler exploded, taking Danny’s father, Jack, with it. But not the horrifying *things* that dwelled there. Oh, no sir. They followed Danny and Wendy to their new home somewhere in sunny, warm Florida. In this way, we know that “redrum” can’t be far behind.

Jump to a future in which Danny is a burned out alcoholic drug addict, drifting from town to town, trying in each location to begin again. His attempts to outrun his personal and all-too-real demons ineffective.

It’s not long before his imaginary childhood friend, Tony, begins appearing at odd times, and Danny, now just Dan, dreads what it might mean.

It’s risky for any author to create a sequel to a much beloved novel, especially thirty-some years later. If the original is meant to be a standalone, the decision to create a follow-up can be seen as “selling out,” trying too hard to cash in on former glory. I would use as an example Black House King’s follow-up to collaborative novel The Talisman which he co-wrote with ghostmeister Peter Straub. Black House  sadly fell short of capturing the originality and flavor of The Talisman. That’s the same risk King takes with Doctor Sleep.

Thankfully, it pays off. Big.

King jumps forward quickly in time from Danny as a child, to Dan as a highly dysfunctional adult.  But the reader is allowed to see that trajectory which also allows us to take the ride along with him, and invest emotionally in the character’s seemingly endless plight.

King is a master of character development, and is at the top of his game in Doctor Sleep. Rather than allowing his protagonist to wallow in his self-pity for the entirety of the book, he brings in another character, a young girl named Abra, who has a Shining stronger than Danny ever did. And she is being pursued by a cult named The True Knot.

Allowing Dan to focus on something and someone outside of himself, it brings him to sobriety, because, like Chef Dick Halloran coming to his rescue decades before, only he knows what she’s going through, and has to save Abra.

King also writes children in peril better than anyone. Think of Jake in the Dark Tower series, or Travelin’ Jack in The Talisman. And of course, Dan was that character in The Shining. To be able to follow Dan into adulthood, where at last—at least we hope as we fervently flip through the pages—he’ll gain closure over his horrifying past, allows the reader to likewise experience closure. First, though, we, along with Dan, will have to deal with the dead woman from the Overlook’s Room 217 and several other nasties that are likewise pursuing Dan, intent on finishing long ago business.

Doctor Sleep is another shining star (pun intended) in King’s catalogue, and well worth reading.

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Ghost Brothers of Darkland County Soundtrack

I love Stephen King. I love John “Cougar” Mellencamp. And, yes, I am aware he dropped the “Cougar” some time ago but that’s what I’ve always known him as so I don’t really care. I also love producer T-Bone Burnett’s work. So when I first heard about this project, I was intrigued.

The legend goes, that in the 1990’s Stephen King received a phone call from Mellencamp that began with “Hey, this is John Mellencamp, I’d like to talk to you about an idea for a play I’ve got.” The idea was loosely based on an event that had happened decades earlier on Mellencamp’s Indiana property. From there the idea began to take shape and grow.

Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County centers around two sets of brothers: Jack and Andy are ghosts, killed in an apparent murder/suicide after escalated feuding; and their nephews, Frank and Drake, who are still alive but seem destined to follow the same dire path as their ghostly uncles. There is also Joe, the father of Frank and Drake and the younger brother of the deceased Andy and Jack. Joe decides he has his own secrets to reveal in hopes of staying the inevitable tragedy that his family seems marked for.

The events are narrated by a character known as “The Shape,” who seems to be some devilish being.

While the stage production has gotten mixed reviews, it is limited in its runs and has not played anywhere near enough for me to catch. When this soundtrack showed up in the mail, I was excited. Some of which died as soon as I saw Sheryl Crow on the artists roster. Blech!

There are over thirty tracks on this CD, more than half being snippets of dialogue from the play, read by an array of actors who include: Matthew McConaughey, Meg Ryan, Samantha Mathis, Hamish Linklater, and others.

Interspersed among the shards of dialogue are the songs, all penned by Mellencamp and performed by some of the biggest names in songwriting famedom: Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Kris Kristofferson, Ryan Bingham,Dave Alvin, Taj Mahal, and—sigh—Sheryl Crow…

Since I have never seen the play and all I had to go on, so far as story synopsis, was what I could dig up online and in the liner notes of this soundtrack, it’s a bit of a confusing listen. The dialogue is jarring and abrupt in its segues to the music.

The music is a mish-mash of Americana-tinged folk and ragged bluesy country/rock. When it’s on…it’s really on. An example being Neko Case’s incredible “That’s Who I Am,” which brings to mind classic Patsy Cline. Elvis Costello is at his kitschy, chameleonic best with his entries “That’s Me” and “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Me.” Dave and Phil Alvin—feuding brothers who seemed destined for destruction at one point—team up on a number or edgy, raw blues blasts. And the raw and ravaged voice of Kris Kristofferson works so well as the voice of the weary Uncle Joe.

On the whole, I’d say I like the music. I think it would be a better listen if it was just the music. Leave the samples of dialogue out of it and let the music speak for itself. It would be a clearer, more enticing device. That said, I hope to get the chance to check out the complete work some day, without having to drive for days to do so.

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The Bloodied Halls of Academia: How I Survived As an Undergraduate Horror Writer

As anyone who has spent any amount of time writing fiction at the college level will tell you, genre bias is rampant in academia. As a recent graduate from a state university, I experienced this bias firsthand. Repeatedly.

While some professors remain open-minded, others turn their noses up at the first sign of science fiction or fantasy in their workshop classes. Many have never heard of your favorite horror or romance writer, nor do they care what your idols have written or what awards they have won. A select few ban genre fiction from their classes altogether, highlighting such clauses in their syllabi.


“Elves? Seriously?”

Some of you are probably nodding in agreement, thinking back to the times when you also hit these roadblocks. I tip my hat to you, brothers and sisters in arms. However, this article is not aimed at you. Rather, this article is aimed at those still wandering academia’s halls, as well as those about to enter them for the first time. College may not welcome genre writers with open arms, but that doesn’t mean they can’t thrive there, provided they know how to go about studying the craft in such an environment.

It is also important to note that I do not support the division of so-called “literary” and “genre” fiction. I am merely using such terms for the sake of clarity as well as to properly represent the division as it exists within academia.

The first and perhaps most important thing undergraduate genre writers need to realize is that the instructors are not their enemies, even if a few of them do ban any manuscripts containing zombies or elves. In my experience, this tends to be one of the hardest lessons for students to learn. In order to understand this, one needs to first examine the situation from the point of view of the instructors. Most professors do not read or write anything that could be considered genre fiction. They are literary through and through. They don’t know the tropes. They don’t know the shorthand. Writing that kind of thing is simply out of their element.

That being the case, would it be responsible of them to try to teach an aspect of writing they have little to no experience with? No, it wouldn’t, so they don’t. Instead they teach you what they do know, which is a lot. Lucky for you, this is mostly stuff you don’t already know, the stuff from the other side of the fence, which is great because you’ve got your side covered, or will with enough practice. Let them pass on the skills they’ve mastered. Read those James Joyce stories. Do those John Gardner exercises.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

The second thing, which is really just an extension of knowing instructors are not the enemy, is that genre writers need to let others know they are there to play ball. Work hard, get assignments in on time, and step up when it comes to commenting on the work of others, especially in class. If the instructors know you care, they will be more likely to take your genre of choice seriously. Instructors can be skeptical of students in general, and rightfully so.  I find that most undergraduate writers, even most creative writing majors, are nowhere near as serious about the craft as they think they are.

Another thing to realize is that you are likely working against a history of garbage genre fiction that has flooded their classrooms for years. I can’t even recall the number of manuscripts I had to read about teen mermaid romance or two-dimensional, clichéd vampires. I mean really terrible, awful, wouldn’t-wish-it-on-your-worst-enemy fiction. It can take some time to navigate through all that debris and gain an instructor’s trust, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Early on in my college career, I was waiting for one of my writing classes to start when a fellow student began complaining about comments she had received for a piece of fiction in a different class. Apparently the instructor told her the story was riddled with clichés. This upset the student because, as she explained to the rest of us early arrivals, genre fiction was supposed to be full of clichés. Wrong. This is what instructors are seeing, what you are working against. Bring the heat. Show them you can offer up originality with style.

Another way to gain the respect of instructors is to find the middle ground. Find the bridges between your world and theirs and use them to the fullest. One of the easiest ways to do this is to read writers whose work most closely rides the line between your genre of choice and the literary world. Instructors may not know who Richard Matheson was, but they’ve read Cormac McCarthy, and they’ll be more than happy to discuss horror elements when you put them in the context of The Road.

When I was attending classes, several of them used The Anchor Book of New Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus. If you’re taking college writing courses, buy this book immediately as it will give plenty of examples of authors I’m talking about. There’s a story in the book called “Two Brothers,” by Brian Evenson, which features a religious fanatic who attempts to cut off his own leg with a kitchen knife, people eating birds, and other strange elements. Another story, “The Paperhanger”, deals with the disappearance of a child. Both are straight-up horror. In fact, the former is one of my all-time favorite horror stories. However, they are also literary stories featured alongside a host of stories by other literary authors.

While Stephen King’s fiction may have a stigma in the college classroom, the bloody antics of Brian Evenson’s work does not. That same anthology contains a story by Aimee Bender, who focuses primarily on magical realism. Bender is often spoken of in the same breath as Kelly Link (I actually heard them both mentioned no less than a dozen times at a writing festival at the university a few years ago when all the grad students were experimenting with that kind of thing). Kelly Link edited the fantasy half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for years. Bridges. Use them.

The third thing current and prospective students need to know is they should be doing as much learning outside of the classroom as inside of it. I’m not just talking about reading and writing on your own either, although you absolutely need to do those things. What I’m talking about is creating your own learning environments. The easiest way to do this is to start or join a creative writing workshop. As someone who has run a workshop for the last five years (it’s still going despite the fact that many of its members have graduated), I can honestly say you’ll learn just as much, if not more, about writing from a private workshop as you will from a workshop class—if you do it right.

How does one go about creating an effective workshop? The biggest thing is that you don’t let just anyone join. That may sound elitist, but believe me when I say it’s necessary. From my experience, the average writing class of 20 people contains anywhere from three to five students who actually know what they are doing and are dedicated to writing. These are the people you listen to in class, the people whose comments you read first when you get a manuscript back. Unfortunately, the rest of the class is usually more obsessed with the idea of being a writer more than they are actually interested in writing.

Pull aside the go-to people and ask them if they’re interested in a private workshop. Odds are, they’ll have some go-to people themselves. After you have a core group, only bring in people that ask to join. This makes sure you’re getting people who take the initiative. However, always remember to say no when the need arises. If the girl from class who is constantly checking Facebook while everyone else discusses manuscripts asks to join, tell her no, you’re full. If the guy who always turns in assignments two days late wants in, tell him no, you’re full. Often these people like the idea of being part of a workshop, but don’t actually do any real work.


“No workshop forda you!”

I also recommend focusing on the level of commitment people have rather than their current skill level, though it’s important to have at least a few people in the group that are better writers than yourself for the sake of growth. Ideally your workshop should contain no more than seven people. Any more than that and things get unwieldy.

In addition to seeking out like-minded individuals on campus, connecting with other writers via the Internet is hugely beneficial. The wonderful thing about the writing community is that people are so willing to help others. I find this to be particularly true when it comes to veterans wanting to pass on their knowledge to the new blood. Join a forum. Join a Facebook group. Drop another author an email. Build connections. Be a part of the online writing community. Aside from interning at Shock Totem, I’ve recently been given the opportunity to do some freelance work in the game industry. Both of these developments evolved out of meeting awesome people on forums. I can’t stress enough the importance of making connections with those who share the passion for the craft.

So if academia has got you down, fear not. There are plenty of wonderful resources waiting to change your college experience for the better. Connect with the instructors. Connect with other students. Connect with fellow writers online. Writing genre work at the college level needn’t be painful or alienating. In fact, surviving as an undergraduate genre writer can be remarkably easy, provided you know how.

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A Conversation with Writers House Agent Alec Shane

I had the pleasure of meeting Alec Shane at the annual World Horror Convention in New Orleans this year. Alec is a friendly, savvy guy who is aggressively building up his client list. He’s also one of the few agents who actively represents horror. Talking to him was a pleasure, and I get the impression he isn’t a guy who lets the grass grow under his feet.

Alec was gracious enough to stop by for an interview. Read up on what he has to say, and then send this man a query!

Mercedes M. Yardley: Very few agents seem to represent horror. Why is this? And why do you choose to do so?

Alec Shane: One of the best parts of being an agent is that you get to represent the kind of books that you love. I grew up loving horror of all types—Stephen King is more or less the reason I’m sitting here today answering these questions—and so it only makes sense that I would be drawn toward the genre now. I learned very quickly that, as an agent, you have to really believe in the book you are representing, and if you are as passionate about the project as the author is, then you will be much more willing to throw yourself into getting it out into the world.

The role of the agent is changing every day, a lot of what we do is editorial, and it’s a very tricky market at the moment, and so it’s especially important to remain very selective in what I do and don’t take on. Horror happens to be a genre that I love, so here I am. I also love a lot of other kinds of writing—mystery/thriller, historical fiction, middle-grade, certain types of nonfiction, and sports to name a few—but horror will always hold a special place in my heart.

MMY: So you personally enjoy horror and dark fiction. Any favorite books or movies?

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