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John Connolly joins WHERE NIGHTMARES COME FROM line-up

Huge announcement!

We’re really stepping up our game here at Crystal Lake Publishing. I’m happy to share the current WHERE NIGHTMARES COME FROM line-up, and update it with a brand new interview with John Connolly, author of the Charlie Parker books, as well as NOCTURNES, my favorite short story collection. Thanks to author Marie O’Regan for making this happen.

Author John Connolly

The rest of the line-up includes: Joe R. Lansdale, Bev Vincent, Richard Chizmar, Stephen King, Charlaine Harris, Jonathan Maberry, Lisa Morton, Ray Garton, Elizabeth Massie, Del Howison, Amber Benson, Tom Holland, Fred Dekker, Kevin Tenney, Tim Waggoner, Michael Bailey, Mercedes Yardley, Jason V. Brock, and many more…

There are a lot more names to announce (huge surprises), and we’ll reveal one new name every week. The book is edited by myself and Eugene Johnson. It’ll be out some time in October or November.

Follow the FaceBook page so you don’t miss out.

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Aug 30, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

The Deep End author interview with Richard Thomas

The Deep End author interview with Richard Thomas

 

Joe Mynhardt: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?

Richard Thomas: I was always a big reader. Won a spelling bee in fifth grade, and a reading challenge in sixth grade for most books read. In high school English was always my best subject, and even classes like spelling and mythology really resonated with me. I was reading Stephen King by then, starting with The Shining, which scared the crap out of me.

Author Richard Thomas

Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?

RT: For sure. I got into writing after seeing Fight Club, the movie. I went and read every book by Chuck Palahniuk and that woke me up, inspired me. I went to his website, The Cult, and hung out, taking classes with Max Barry (which got me my first novel, Transubstantiate), Monica Drake, Jack Ketchum (which got me Disintegration, my second novel, based on his idea to “write your worst fear”), and Craig Clevenger. That got me to The Velvet, another website, where I read CC, Will Christopher Baer (informing my neo-noir voice) and Stephen Graham Jones (who has been a huge influence and inspiration). Based on that success, and a story of mine, “Stillness”, getting into Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub, I decided to get my MFA. That was the first serious investment of time and money, but it wasn’t until last year that I decided to leave advertising where I’ve been a graphic designer and art director for 25 years, to write, edit, publish, and teach. I now do that full time.

Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?

RT: Getting that story, “Stillness”, into Shivers VI alongside King, I broke down and cried. My first true success as an author. I felt like maybe I didn’t totally suck, and that was the first time I got the thrill of the chase and win, and thought maybe this could become my career.

Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?

RT: My family is very supportive, and it’s very exciting when I have big news. When I was able to take the advance money from my books Disintegration and Breaker and buy us a new AC for the house, my wife saw it was real money, and not just a hobby. My kids are big readers and really like what I’m doing (yes, they can read some of my work). My wife can’t handle the dark stories, haha. When I went to Transylvania to teach, when I went to UC-Riverside in California as a guest author, when I started teaching at the University of Iowa in the summer—they saw it was real, and how it might be something we could all share in, together. When we drove cross country to LA for The New Black release party that was a blast.

Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?

RT: Early was King for sure, but I don’t write like him at all. I recently sold a story, “Nodus Tollens,” that was probably the first (out of 135 published to date) that actually sounded like him. For neo-noir, it’s definitely Baer. Stephen Graham Jones is a huge influence; he really raises the bar. For instance, his novel Mongrels (I saw an early draft and tried to buy it for Dark House Press but was too slow, but William Morrow did great with it) inspired my “we” story, “Asking for Forgiveness” (long-listed for Best Horror of the Year). His story, “Faberge”, which will be up at Gamut this month (July) inspired my story, “Undone,” which is a 1,500-word story in one sentence. I know, nuts. Anybody I’ve published in my anthologies or at Dark House Press or Gamut have influenced my work. In my MFA it was Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami and many others. I’m also a big fan of Benjamin Percy, Paul Tremblay, Damien Angelica Walters, Angela Slatter, Usman T. Malik, Brian Evenson, and so many other great voice. The list is huge.

Joe: Instead of just focussing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?

RT: Wow, that’s tough. Disintegration is definitely my most personal novel. For short stories, maybe “Victimized” since it’s one of the few that’s a female POV, and the women I beta-tested it with said I did a good job with that aspect of it. It’s almost 7,000-words, so probably my longest short story. I really like the two that came out last year, “The Offering on the Hill” (Chiral Mad 3) and “Repent” (Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories). I was able to somehow write and sell five stories so far in 2017, one, “Battle Not with Monsters”, landing at Cemetery Dance (again). Of course “Chasing Ghosts”, my first story in CD was a big deal. And the one I sold this year to Crystal Lake for Behold is very risky, thrilled that Doug liked it, “Hiraeth”. The work I’m doing this year is pretty out there. Hopefully people like it.

Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?

RT: I don’t write every day. It’s either on or off, working or not. I write in spurts. But luckily I type fast (70 wpm) so I can write a 3,000-word story in a day. My best day was 12,000 words at the end of writing Breaker (currently up for a Thriller Award), in one day. I wrote 25,000 words in 25 days. My biggest week was 40,000 in five days, the second half of Disintegration. If the writing fails that day, I don’t dwell on it. It happens all the time. I step away, do something else, and come back to it.

Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?

RT: I try to avoid writing rape scenes, but there’s an intense on The Soul Standard, in my novella, Golden Geese. I also avoid molestation, incest, beastiality, etc. I’ve only really written one story with molestation, “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears”, and that was a really hard sell, took forever, even though he exacts justice and revenge. Landed in an anthology with Jack Ketchum. And the only real incest is a storyline in Breaker, but it’s not really true, not what it seems. Out of everything I’ve written, that’s it.

Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?

RT: I love good food, movies, reading, getting outside and doing something physical (hiking, tennis, golf, basketball, biking, games, etc.).

Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?

RT: That not everyone wants you to succeed. There are so many haters. And people constantly surprise me—good and bad. When we launched the Kickstarter for Gamut, which ended up raising $55,000, there were so many people who not only didn’t back it, but did very little to spread the word and support ANY of my efforts. That crushed me. And then they’d send me notes asking when the doors were opening, since they wanted that 10-cents a word paycheck. That hurt. A lot. But then there were people that stepped up and donated books (such as yourself, Joe!) and other items, friends who chipped in several thousand dollars, no strings attached, as we got close, making sure we made it. A total stranger donated $3,000 and when I asked her why, she just said it was important what we were doing, and to just make it happen. She’s now a student of mine, very talented, her work will be breaking out soon, I’m sure. Those people offset the others. Inspired me to keep going.

Joe: How did being author change you as a person?

RT: It taught me to go after my dreams and to never give up. I don’t think I realised how much my writing career meant to me until I started having success, and realised how fulfilling it was, how important it was to me. I live a different life now, and I fight for every moment.

Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?

RT: There’s a note at the end of Breaker that talks about abuse (the main character Ray deals with abuse in his childhood and in fact the title comes from his working in underground fight clubs and trying to break the cycle of abuse). She said thank you so much for putting that at the end of the book, that she cried, but it meant so much what I had to say about survival, and how the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t always a train bearing down, but something a way out of the darkness. That meant a lot. A few people have reached out to say thanks for what I’m doing at Gamut, when it comes to diversity. I’ve had a few gay authors, and gender-fluid authors drop me notes, as well as authors from different countries around the globe, even just authors saying thanks for supporting women. Which means a lot. But to me, I guess I don’t feel like I’m doing anything special, it seems like the bare minimum, to not judge or rejected based on anything but the quality of the writing and how it fits in at Gamut. It’s part of why we read blind, but I also make an effort to let authors know that everyone is welcome.

Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?

RT: To keep writing stories and novels, to be able to keep this dream alive, making a living as an author. It’s not easy. To make Gamut a huge success, to keep it going. Subscriptions have not been great, maybe 200 new since we launched. But if we can only get to double our base of 650, I think we can sustain just based on that. When you add in our editing services, our film series, our retreat, our first Best of Gamut anthology, and everything else—we have a shot. But it’s not going to be easy. I’d love to see some of my work adapted into films. When I write I can see it all unfurling, the film rolling. That would be amazing.

Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?

RT: Man, that’s a great question. I do think about it. I want my stories and novels to be worth reading in 10, 20, 100 years. I want them to be timeless. I know they won’t all survive, but I hope some will. I want to be part of the landscape, to be a name people recognise, and remember. And beyond that, I want to help other authors grow, find inspiration, evolve as writers, and make their mark. I’d like to help their dreams come true, as well.

Richard Thomas
It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares To Life
Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories
Tribulations
Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Aug 25, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

Cover Reveal for Jasper Bark’s QUIET PLACES – A Novella of Cosmic Folk Horror

Coming September 29th! Cover art by Ben Baldwin:

Cover art for Jasper Bark's QUIET PLACES - A Novella of Cosmic Folk Horror

In the quiet of the forest, the darkest fears are born.

The people of Dunballan, harbour a dark secret. A secret more terrible than the Beast that stalks the dense forests of Dunballan. A secret that holds David McCavendish, last in a long line of Lairds, in its unbreakable grip.

It’s down to Sally, David’s lover, to free David from the sinister clutches of the Beast. But, with the whole town against her, she must ally herself with an ancient woodland force and trace Dunballan’s secret back to its bitter origins. Those origins lie within the McCavendish family history, and a blasphemous heresy that stretches back to the beginning of time. Some truths are too terrible to face, and the darkest of these lie waiting for Sally, in the Quiet Places.

Quiet Places is folk horror at its most cosmic and terrifying. Blending folklore with psychological terror, it contains stories within stories, each one leading to revelations more unsettling than the last. Revelations that will change the way you view your place in the cosmos, and haunt you, relentlessly, long after you have put down this book.

Quiet Places is a novella in the Heresy Series story cycle and has been substantially rewritten and revised for this edition.

Jasper Bark
Quiet Places by Jasper Bark

Quiet Places by Jasper Bark

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In the quiet of the forest, the darkest fears are born.

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Writers on Writing Volume 1-4 Omnibus: An Author’s Guide
Run to Ground

Run to Ground

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Genre: Novella

Jim Mcleod is on the run.

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The Final Cut

The Final Cut

$4,99
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Some stories capture the imagination, others will be the death of you.

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Writers on Writing: Volume 1
Stuck on You and Other Prime Cuts

Stuck on You and Other Prime Cuts

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Genre: Novella

A word of caution gentle reader, these tales will take you places you’ve never been before and may never dare revisit.

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Stuck on You

Stuck on You

Author:
Genre: Novella

Cheating husband Ricardo could never keep it in his pants, and now it’s stuck in the worst possible place . His Mexican road trip becomes a nightmare straight out of urban legend when he agrees to take the wrong woman back over the border. A bolt of lightning sees him fused to his fellow cheater on a detour into the backwoods. Now he’s fighting wild beasts and raw nature just to stay alive in this dark comedy romance that blends erotic horror with black humour and extreme splatter.

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For the Night is Dark

For the Night is Dark

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Darkness, our most primitive fear since shadows first moved.

The Dark is coming!

Call your friends. No one should wander through the dark alone.

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  Crystal Lake Publishing   Aug 25, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

The Deep End interview with author J.S. Breukelaar

The Deep End interview with author J.S. Breukelaar

 

Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?

JS: I grew up in a small town in western New York State modelled on Little Ridge, in Aletheia. When I was a teenager, my family moved us to Sydney, Australia, which for a small-town American girl was like going to a different planet. I moved back to the States for a while and these days I straddle the two hemispheres pretty seamlessly, but I think that shock to my system—moving from a remote lake town to the big smoke on the other side of the planet—was profoundly disorientating and this sense of disorientation is in everything I write.

Author J.S. Breukelaar

Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?

JS: No. I was always an author, if not in action then in intention. The moment when I decided to stop taking crap jobs to support those intentions was when I was a young mother and my husband and I decided to go back to school. We had two kids and I was still doing all sorts of part-time jobs like temping and data entry and so on and one of my husband’s colleagues offered me another data entry job. It was worth $300 and I said no. I decided that hell or high water, writing for money—didn’t matter what kind of writing—to support writing for love was going to be the rule from then on. The next week, a friend at Time Warner Publications sent me a book for me to write a sample review. If it was any good, I could be a regular book reviewer for Who Weekly (the Australia-New Zealand title of People Weekly). They took my review and that, along with a gig ghostwriting fashion copy for a clothing manufacturer (like Elaine in Seinfeld for the J Peterman catalogue), was how I paid my way through school. Since then, all my day jobs have been writing or teaching.

Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?

JS: I got an article accepted by the San Diego Herald Tribune and I yelled so loud you could hear me down in Mexico. It was a total high. I sold my first fiction story to John Joseph Adams at Lightspeed. Cue more screaming and yelling.

Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?

JS: It hasn’t. Of course I’ve made some friends who I wouldn’t have made without being a writer, and my life is better with them in it. My family continues to be the air that I breathe, and the reason I do this is to make them proud, so I love it when they are. Except that probably would have been the case no matter what career I chose. Intense writing jags, when I don’t come out of my office for days at a time, are tough on my husband, but that’s what you sign up for, right? I try and make it up to him.

Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?

JS: Pretty sure that my early career was influenced by writers I read at college, and before that even. Cervantes first, then Poe, Melville, Shelley, Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Oates, McCarthy, Borges. I read, along with Cervantes, a lot of Latino writers and I’m sure they had a lasting influence—Cisneros, Fuentes, Bolano, Marquez—along with Straub, King, Shelley. And the list just gets longer—Stephen Graham Jones, Kelly Link, Joe Hill, Jeffrey Ford, Cathrynne Valente, Amelia Gray, Seb Doubinsky—I wouldn’t call them influences as much as wild rides thundering up the road just ahead of me, just around the next bend.

Aletheia novel, a supernatural thriller by author J.S. Breukelaar

Joe: Instead of just focusing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?

JS: I’m proud of my breakout story, “Lion Man.” That took me back to a house that had been haunting me for a while and unleashed a lot of other stories I didn’t know were in me. And I’m proud of a recent story, “Rogues Bay 3030” (Gamut), which is set in a different landscape, a more antipodean place that was harder for me to reach in my fiction, and I’m glad I finally did.

Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?

JS: Itchy all over.

Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?

JS: They’re all difficult.

Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?

JS: I always think about writing. I’m most relaxed when I’m working. I run. I spend time with my family. I’m a Netflix junkie.

Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?

JS: For my first book, which was about a DJ, I met a bunch of musicians and DJs. They were generous of their time and talents, but I’m not really still friends with them. For American Monster, I spent time on the road in Southern California, and people I met worked their way into the book, and I’m grateful for that kindness of strangers. The characters in that book are still very much my friends if that counts.

Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?

JS: Being organised. It’s a skill I haven’t mastered yet but it’s the one that, when I do, will give me special powers.

Joe: How did being author change you as a person?

JS: Not really at all. I wasn’t ever not an author.

Joe: Which response /comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?

JS: That’s impossible to say. Every single time anyone reaches out—either in person or on Goodreads or wherever— to tell me that something I wrote touched them in some indelible way, it pretty much proves to me that this thing with words is something we should all just keep doing the best way we can. Most recently I was at WFC and a reader commented that American Monster destroyed them and made them different after that, and by the end of the conversation we were both in tears. I’ll always be grateful for moments like that. Oh, and a beta reader for Aletheia told me that after she finished the read, she went on to an iconic novel by a bestselling author, and the whole time she was reading that she couldn’t get my characters out of her head. “How do you do that?” she asked. So I guess that thing we do, finding characters that live on in hearts and minds, is pretty much the end game here.

Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?

JS: Survival. I don’t mean that flippantly, or even in terms of the “business,” but literally. Getting this wascally wabbit under control is part of that, but it’s ongoing. Every time you think you’ve got it wrangled—words and sentences and story and character and time—it slips out from under and you’re back to that same old thing again. Process. Practice. Survival.

Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?

JS: I don’t think about that, honestly. Kind of like asking a bullfighter or a gladiator or a werewolf about legacies. You’re too caught up in going the distance to think about what happens after that.

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Aug 18, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

“The Smoke” by Randall Mincy

The Smoke

 

Randall Mincy

 

 

Sometimes you can see a faint pillar of smoke rising up out of the trees. On those nights where the wind doesn’t blow, but whistles, the same nights where no one has their car on the road and for some odd reason the crickets forget to cricket, and you find yourself out all alone with nothing but the Chemical Plant that sits close to State.  As if this wasn’t enough, the plant is continuously churning out this unnatural noise that just makes you question every breath of air you take. Only on nights like these is it possible to see the smoke.

The smoke itself could easily be written off as being a product of the ever present fog, or the “who knows what” escaping from the vents from the chemical plant, but to those who are unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse of this mysterious pillar, the sight is unmistakable.


Something about the smoke sets it apart. Just hearing about the smoke gives a person a sickening feeling, the same one your grandmother can get when it’s sunny and 75, not a cloud in the sky except for the one that has perfectly shielded just enough of the sun’s rays that you can stay outside for hours without getting too hot, but right as you are enjoying that perfect warmth Grandma walks back inside the screen door, only to warn you of the eminent storm approaching.


One who has caught sight of this eerie billow of smoke often has trouble getting a clear view. You see, for some reason there is a mystery as to exactly where the smoke arises from. It can barely be distinguished from standing on the train tracks, and if you go farther back toward I-64, for some odd reason, the smoke is hardly noticeable. Still, for one reason or another, a person knows it’s there. Many people can truthfully say that they have seen the strange fog, but few have been able to comprehend its existence.


Many locals who believe that there is more to the mysterious smoke than just coincidence, have erected many a tale to explain the occurrence, but one seems to stand atop the rest. A while back, when everybody still lived in the hills, there lived a group of miners who resided somewhere deep in the trees, not necessarily miles back to where no one could easily approach them, but in such a place that made it difficult to be found.  At the same time it was a place where it was easy to find lost souls meandering through the woods on the nights previously mentioned. 


As the story goes, there were three men: Artimus, Winley, and Job. And while the men were not related by blood, through some long-standing relationship, or a binding experience, they were brothers. And on those nights where the crickets forget how to cricket, and the wind doesn’t blow but whistles, the brothers would go out. It is never specified what made them decide to go on this unnatural mission, but what is known is that they were hunting. Hunting for sustenance, hunting for life. On those nights the men would wait, hoping for a curious soul to stumble upon their camp, not knowing what would be waiting in the brush.  

 

But on those nights the men’s hunger would take hold, and when an unlucky creature would cross paths with Artimus, Winley, and Job, no one ever heard a noise, neither a yelp nor a cry, not a grimace nor a moan. All that could be seen was the meek pillar of smoke, rising up from the trees, the smoke that smelled of human flesh.

©Randall Mincy – 2015

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Aug 04, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

New Release out today – BEHOLD!

Want to see something weird? Embrace the odd. Satisfy your curiosity. Surrender to wonder.

From Crystal Lake Publishing and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated co-editor of the smash hit Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories comes Behold! Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders.

Sixteen stories and two poems take you into the spaces between the ordinary—and the imaginations of some of today’s masters of dark and thrilling fiction.

  • A travel writer learns the terrible secrets at a hotel that’s not at all as it seems.
  • A disfigured woman and her daughter explore methods of weaponizing beauty.
  • An amateur beekeeper acquires an object that shows her the true
    danger of the hive-mind.
  • Drifters ride the rails seeking something wondrous that could change their fates forever.
  • A strange creature that holds our very existence in its hands shapes the lives of two lovers to touching and devastating effect.
  • A young man helps his grandfather—and something much more monstrous—atone for bargains made during wartime.
  • And much, much more…

Featuring Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, Lisa Morton, Brian Kirk, Hal Bodner, Stephanie M. Wytovich, John Langan, Erinn L. Kemper, John F.D. Taff, Patrick Freivald, Lucy A. Snyder, Brian Hodge, Kristi DeMeester, Christopher Coake, Sarah Read and Richard Thomas. Foreword by Josh Malerman. Illustrations by Luke Spooner. Cover art by John Coulthart. Brought to you by Bram Stoker Award-nominated editor Doug Murano and Crystal Lake Publishing. Tales from the Darkest Depths.

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  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jul 28, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

TALES FROM THE LAKE VOL.5 submission window opens soon!

 

We’re excited and pleased to announce Kenneth W. Cain as the editor for next year’s TALES FROM THE LAKE VOL.5 anthology.

The submission window opens October 1st. Come take a look at our submission guidelines.

 

Tales from the Lake
Tales from the Lake: Volume 5
Tales from the Lake: Volume 1

Tales from the Lake: Volume 1

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Dive into fourteen tales of horror, with short stories and dark poems by some of the best horror writers in the world.

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Tales from the Lake: Volume 2
Tales from the Lake: Volume 3
Tales from the Lake: Volume 4

Kenneth W. Cain
Darker Days: A Collection of Dark Fiction

Darker Days: A Collection of Dark Fiction

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Now that you’ve warmed by the embers, submerse in darker days.

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A Season in Hell

A Season in Hell

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Genre: Novella

Just one season can change everything. When Dillon Peterson is honored for his baseball career, he must face a ghost that has long haunted him. He is transported back through his memories to a single season in the nineties that broke his heart.

That was the season he met Keisha Green, the first and only woman to play baseball in the minor leagues. He sees what she goes through, what she must endure just to play the game both of them love, and this struggle leads to their friendship. As matters escalate, Dillon finds himself regretting his role in it all, as well as his career in baseball.

Proudly represented by Crystal Lake Publishing—Tales from the Darkest Depths.

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Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction

Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction

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Where darkness dwells, embers light the way.

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Writers on Writing Volume 1-4 Omnibus: An Author’s Guide
Writers on Writing: Vol. 4
Tales from the Lake: Volume 3

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jul 26, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

The Deep End interview…with Jonathan Winn

 

Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?

Jonathan Winn: I grew up in a very small town in Western Washington State surrounded by trees, trees and more trees. And since I didn’t have a large social circle growing up—my best friend was me and often only me—I spent most of my time alone sitting in my bedroom or under the shade of a tree.

But the solitude of being an outcast—no prom or homecoming or anything like that, really—forced me to connect with my imagination, the creation of elaborate worlds filled with magic and demons and angry gods that lived in the clouds somehow making me feel a bit less lonely. And that, right there, was the beginning of the world I still live in. A world where all my stories begin to this day.

In fact, there were many times I felt like the field I was walking through would come alive and get me or that there were things living in the trunks of the trees that could reach out and grab me and drag me in. Themes I’m still haunted by and that sometimes show up in my work (“Forever Dark” in Tales from the Lake Vol. 2, Martuk… the Holy, The Elder).

Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?

JW: The decision to be “a writer” was in May of 2005 when I was still primarily a screenwriter/playwright, a hat I’d only been wearing for a year or so.

But, you see, 2005 was the year the first script I’d written—a horrendous dumpster fire driven by hubris and encouraged by caffeine—had made its way, due to events began a decade before at Mark Sourian’s office over at DreamWorks. And that experience, even though I strongly doubt Sourian even saw the script—it was seriously that bad—gave me a surprising shot of confidence and drove me to double down to try and find a way to somehow make it work. It also helped that a friend of mine at the time, a big muckity-muck on Law & Order, knew a thing or two (or three) about screenwriting and saw a glimmer of strong talent in what I was doing, despite the fact I had, at that time, zero clue as to how, exactly, to do it.

And all of this was four years before I’d even considered writing fiction. So by the time I wrote word one on Martuk… the Holy, my first book in 2008, I was already living life as a writer.

Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?

JW: I’m not sure what you mean by “success.” Having a short story (“Forever Dark”) I kinda sorta wrote in an afternoon win second place in a contest that put me on an incredible table of contents was thrilling and definitely a success. Locking a book deal with an amazing publisher on the basis of a concept, a pitch, was a success.

But, for me, my drive comes from forcing myself to write outside my comfort zone. To change up rhythm and pacing. To break those earlier rules I’ve set. To push myself and the reader into darker, uncharted waters. In short, the success of my work doesn’t drive me; the need to terrify myself into temporary inertia by demanding I do something different, bold, daring next time out does.

Then again, I’m kinda weird that way.

Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?

JW: It hasn’t. My family and my tiny circle of real-life friends don’t read my work. So what I do, how it’s received, sales figures, reviews, and so on, none of that is ever discussed. Those rare times I get to see my real-life friends—schedules allowing—my work is the last thing we discuss.

Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?

JW: Ages and ages ago, I read a lot of Anne Rice. And although I now see her work differently, her The Witching Hour still stands in my mind as one of the best stories I’ve read. I also fell hard for Stephen King’s “1922” in Full Dark, No Stars. The brilliance of that collection actually was the beginning of what became Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast. My eidolon was prompted by that shining example of the kind of reading experience that could be accomplished with just short stories.

I guess I tend to be inspired more by stories than by an author’s body of work. Which is how it should be, I think.

Joe: Instead of just focusing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?

JW: Although Eidolon Avenue stands head and shoulders above anything I’ve ever done, without doubt or hesitation Martuk… the Holy, my first book, is what I’m proud of and captures perfectly the surprising journey I found myself on at that time: someone discovering, page by page, that he could really write!

For someone who’d never written a short story or an article or any piece of prose fiction to sit down (without an editor or even an experienced beta reader—I was new, remember, and knew no one in the writing community) and slam out an 80,000 word novel is beyond audacious.

Is Martuk perfect? No. But it’s ambitious. A sprawling epic covering two thousand years. It’s fearless and noisy, quiet and desperate. It’s wounded and yearning, violent and hungry. Martuk may lack the polish of its sequel Proseuche or Eidolon Avenue, which is on a different level entirely when it comes to the writing and storytelling, but what Martuk has in spades is the passionate, carefree excitement of a writer finding his voice.

And that, right there, is worthy of applause. In fact, sometimes I find myself wondering ‘Where the heck did that guy go?’

Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?

JW: If I did nothing but stare at the ceiling and be absolutely lazy, I chalk it up to life. If I was busy with rewrites on other projects or meetings or conference calls or outlining future work, I chalk it up to life. If the words simply weren’t there and I’ve learned if I push it I always regret it, I chalk it up to life.

In other words, life happens so I try not to sweat it too much. Until I find myself waking up in a panic at three in the morning to write a quick 500 or something.

Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?

JW: I’m not sure how to answer this because I’ve gone horrifically dark in my work. So it would appear as if nothing is off the table for me when it comes to what I’ll write about. I do know that a character showing a shocking lack of empathy tends to make me pause and dig a bit deeper to get the words on the page. Or any psychological tick that results in unapologetic cruelty makes me wince and sigh and sometimes even sob. But those words still hit the page even if I viscerally on a very deep level violently, loudly disagree with what my characters are doing.

Joe: What do you do to distract yourself enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?

JW: I’m always working. I’m always thinking of writing. Answering business emails. Outlining future projects. Polishing WIPs. Laying the groundwork to somehow, in some way, open impossible new doors. Even when I take my daily walk or hike or whatever, the wheels are still turning. They never stop, although I do take an hour each night to watch something on Netflix. But that’s it. I end my day thinking about work and I wake up, often too early, thinking about work.

A producer I met with recently made a point of mentioning my passion and drive and it was a compliment I cherished and carried with me for the rest of the day. ‘Cause lord knows to be carried by passion and drive to knock on doors that refuse to open is one heck of a long, lonely journey.

Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?

JW: Though others may disagree, I’m surprisingly shy, so most of the research I’ve done is online or via books I already have—usually world history, political history, history of the Catholic Church and the Pope, the earliest witch trials in the 13th and 14th centuries, etc.—so, no, I’m not friends with my research material.

Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?

JW: Prioritising my time. Saying no, politely but firmly, if my calendar is already over-scheduled, but always leaving the door open to future opportunity. Realising my worth as an artist who offers something which should be valued. How to exist and work on no sleep and obscene amounts of caffeine. Not defining myself by bad reviews or good reviews, but how I feel in my heart and in my gut about what I’ve put on the page even if it finds zero readers.

Joe: How did being an author change you as a person?

JW: Being an author made me braver. More courageous. Being an author helped me to care a little less—a lot less?—of what people thought of me or of what I wrote. Being unloved and disliked—‘cause, hey, not everyone is gonna love what you do or like how you do it—taught me how not to define myself through someone else’s eyes. I’m finding this skill, in particular, immensely valuable as I continue marching forward.

I’ve also discovered, especially as I venture deeper into other avenues, that taking the time and making the sincere effort to really be a good person does matter. Being honest, being kind, working hard, pitching in, doing your part, keeping your promises, being responsible, working for an end result where everyone wins… That all matters.

Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?

JW: It’s amazing how seldom readers reach out with their thoughts. But it’s also understandable since reading, by nature, is a private journey you take with the author and I suspect most readers often have trouble finding the words to describe that journey. And that’s maybe how it should be.

I do have to say it was pretty cool when, in 2012 or something, a friend of mine showed up at my door in tears and, without a word, gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever had and then said they’d just finished chapter 49 in Martuk… the Holy and anyone who could write something that monstrous and devastating and heartbreaking and haunting needed a hug more than anybody on Earth. So, yeah, that was cool. Weird, but cool.

Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?

JW: To have my name become synonymous with writing that is strong, stories that are courageous, characters that live and breathe and are emotionally engaging. Narratives that make you pause and think and reconsider. And words that challenge your preconceptions, test your faith, shake your core and leave you different after the read than you were before it.

I want my words to linger long after you’ve closed the book.

Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?

JW: If people can find strength in my failures and inspiration in my successes, and then draw on that to find the courage to be more of who they dream of being, I’ll be happy.

 

Jonathan Winn
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  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jul 14, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

SETTING: THE KEY TO SPECULATIVE FICTION by Bruce Boston

 

Why do many readers—your potential readers—pass over realistic contemporary fiction and choose to read speculative fiction instead? They can certainly find compelling plots and characters in mainstream fiction. There are more books from which to choose, from classics to potboilers, and no lack of adventure, romance, suspense, and conflict. And most literary critics would contend that in the best mainstream fiction one encounters superior writing and greater emotional and ideational depth than in the best speculative fiction.

Yet speculative fiction offers one distinctive and significant element that is lacking in mainstream fiction: the creation of an imaginary setting. The reason many readers choose speculative fiction over mainstream is because they want to leave the cares and concerns of everyday reality behind and be transported to a completely different world.

Further, an imaginary setting is not only essential to the definition of most speculative fiction, it generally plays a far more important role in it and a qualitatively different one than it does in mainstream fiction. In speculative fiction, setting is less a backdrop for action and characterization and more a key element that is intimately related to plot, character, and the story as a whole. In fact, one might argue that story elements such as plot and character are far less relevant to the success of a speculative fiction story than its setting.

Look at classic SF novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Logan’s Run by William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. In both these books, the conflicts the characters face and the direction the plot takes hinge completely on the environments the authors have created. Huxley’s very human “savage” becomes confused and tortured by his exposure to a hi-tech dystopia based on scientific humanism. Logan must embark upon a journey of discovery beyond his cloistered environment so that he will not be terminated at the age of twenty-one (thirty in the movie). The ideas that resonate through these novels would have been impossible to communicate without the settings their authors created. Both of these novels and many others in the speculative genre, with regard to their thematic content, can be viewed in terms of a dialectic. The setting presents the thesis; certain characters offer an antithesis; the resolution of the plot leads to a new thesis which often manifests itself as a changed environment.

Unlike most mainstream fiction, where the environment is not only a real setting but a relatively static one, the environments of speculative fiction are both imaginary and capable of transformation.

Even in speculative fiction stories where the overall setting remains unchanged, such as novels involving a journey or quest, it is often setting— not plot—that moves the narrative forward. The resolution of plot in such novels, in the broadest sense, is a foregone conclusion. Good will triumph over evil; the journey will be successful; the quest will be completed. What keeps the reader involved and anticipating more are the particulars of the fascinating environments through which the protagonists pass and the adventures they experience as a result of exploring those environments.

Framing a Speculative Setting

One way to approach setting in speculative fiction as a writer is to view its creation in the same way you would the creation of a character. If you’ve published a novel, or even a long story, and you encounter someone who has read it and has questions about it, odds are, if you are inclined, you’ll be able to say much more about the major characters in your story than actually appears on the page. This is because you’ve lived with them in the creation of the work. You’ve chosen certain actions for them and discarded others. You’ve explored their inner thoughts and conflicts, their values, their likes and dislikes.

Thus just as you might give a character long blond hair, a manic desire for revenge, a tendency to be deluded about his/her own importance, and a fear of snakes, you might give your setting automated walkways, a manic desire for consumption, an autocratic social structure, and an indifference to its ecological impact on the world around it. And just as a character might evolve and change as your story progresses, so can your environment.

An obvious example of the identity between character and environment in speculative fiction is the SF story we’ve probably all read at one time or another where a planet is revealed as a sentient consciousness. If you view your environment as a character, as having a kind of sentience that you create, if you bring it to life for yourself in the course of creating it, there’s a good chance it will come to life for your reader and greatly enhance whatever story you are telling.

Mainstream versus Speculative Settings

When it comes to creating a setting, the mainstream writer has certain advantages over the writer of speculative fiction. Suppose my mainstream novel deals with a character who becomes successful in the fashion industry. The action begins in small-town Kansas, moves to Manhattan, and then to Paris. Contemporary readers are already familiar with each of these settings, and with the fashion industry, either from personal experience or the media (movies, television, books, the Internet). The mainstream writer can bring them alive with a few deft strokes that play on this familiarity. If I have a scene where two of my characters meet at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, I don’t need to go into any great detail describing the Eiffel Tower and its surroundings. Most readers will know them already. Just mentioning the Eiffel Tower, and noting that the streets of Paris were jammed with honking traffic that rainy afternoon, will evoke a very specific setting.

This advantage extends beyond specific environments such as Manhattan or Paris to all the general settings of contemporary life. Flying in an airplane, riding in a taxi, sitting in a classroom, buying a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor. Each of these phrases calls up associations for us that we share in common to a large extent.

However, suppose I’m writing a speculative fiction novel set in the 25th century on the planet Tarjel. The action takes place in a city built by aliens. I have two characters meet at the foot of the Centauri Monument. Unless I’ve already described this world, this city and its structures, and the nature of this particular 25th century, I might as well have my characters meet in a vacuum. The planet Tarjel and the Centauri Monument evoke nothing in themselves, except perhaps a vague sense of the alien.

Thus in certain kinds of speculative fiction, you need to build your world from the ground up. If the setting of your story is different enough from what we experience in everyday life, this may need to include the political, cultural, and religious values of the world you are creating.

However, you are not the first speculative fiction writer. You are working in a tradition. If your readers are also familiar with this tradition, which most of them will be, you share some of the advantages of a mainstream author. None of us has ever walked on the surface of another planet, but through television, movies, and books, we have done so many times. If your story is set on the surface of the moon or Mars, even those who do not normally read speculative fiction will already have a readymade image of the setting in their minds. Most SF and fantasy readers will already have experienced sword and sorcery kingdoms, hi-tech mega-cities that cover an entire world, FTL travel to other star systems, totalitarian corporate states, worlds devastated by nuclear holocaust, etc.

Yet the more original your setting—and it should be original, at least in some of its specifics—the more it differs from contemporary realities both in our everyday lives and what we experience through the media, the more you are going to have to include telling details to bring it to life.

One advantage you have over the mainstream writer is that as long as your setting stays true to itself, as long as it complements your story and interacts in the right way with both plot and characters, you can create any kind of world you want. It is sometimes said that writers play God with their characters. As a speculative writer, you can also play God with your setting. In fact, this is exactly what you should do.

The Five Senses and More: Borrowing from the Everyday

We live in a culture that is primarily visual in its perception of reality. We use sight more than any of the other senses to judge and cope with the world around us. As a result, our other senses have to some extent become atrophied, both actually and in the attention we give to them.

One of the most common mistakes I see beginning writers make when creating an imaginary setting is relying exclusively on visual descriptions. If you want to bring a setting alive for the reader, you can use all of the sense impressions of your characters to describe it.

A few weeks ago I attended an arts-crafts fair held in a local park. It was a sunny day and quite warm. Many of the display booths had colorful pennants hanging from them. There were vendors selling food and a variety of other things. I could smell food cooking. I could hear music and the sound of children playing. The ground beneath my feet was uneven in places. In one area that was crowded, several people jostled against me. I bought a pita stuffed with ground lamb and vegetables and it tasted like cardboard.

We’ve all had a similar experience in the real world, and what makes it real is that all of our senses are receiving impressions. The same goes for a setting in fiction. You can see that it would not be hard to transpose an experience such as this to the marketplace of an alien planet circling Betelgeuse. Yet if you limit yourself to the visual, if all you do is describe what the marketplace looks like, it remains one-dimensional, as if your reader were viewing it on a flat television screen rather than walking through it.

There is no need to include sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste in every scene. And visual descriptions will probably remain the most significant and effective in creating your physical setting. Yet if you let your readers hear, touch, smell, and taste the world you are creating, it will become all the more convincing for them.

But that still may not be enough. Our perception of an environment in the real world consists of more than sense impressions. How we feel about these impressions, and what we think of the environment as a whole, are perhaps of even greater import. Is your character pleased by the festive atmosphere of the marketplace or disturbed by the strange mix of odors in the air? Is this a fair that was held for a particular reason, and if so, what? Was it to celebrate a banner harvest? To acclaim the return of conquering heroes from a war in which an entire populace had been ruthlessly slaughtered?

All of the above are available to you in creating your setting. There is no necessity to use them all, particularly in a single scene. But being aware of them as you write, and learning to use them effectively, can help you to create rich and believable environments that readers are going to want to inhabit.

Here are two techniques I have used that you may find of value.

When I’m working on a story with a speculative setting, a world very different from our own that I need to create, I think about the story and the world in which it is taking place as I drift off to sleep each night. With regard to setting, I don’t just consider it in terms of the scenes of the story, but I let my mind take an imaginative journey through other parts of the world in which the story is taking place. In this way you may generate additional information for the story, but more importantly, the world you are creating will begin to take on a broader and deeper reality for you. Again, the more real your setting becomes for you, the more likely you are to convince your readers of its existence and bring it alive for them.

The second technique can be used in concert with the first or on its own. Returning to the idea that setting in speculative fiction is akin to character, give your setting a temporary sentience and pretend that sentience is your own, just as you would with a character. Take on the values of the society you are portraying, the physical characteristics of the world you are portraying. How does this world feel about your characters, about itself? This can lead to some interesting insights, not only in terms of the setting but with regard to your narrative and the story as a whole.

The Setting beyond the Setting

Beyond the physical and cultural setting in which a story takes place, there is another kind of setting that one experiences as a reader. It exists in all fiction, though it comes to the forefront and is most obvious in the work of authors who exhibit distinctive voices and views of reality. When you read Kurt Vonnegut’s work you not only travel with his characters to the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden or share an alien zoo cage with them on the planet Tralfamadore, you inhabit the world and the values created by Vonnegut’s satiric, often dark, and slightly quirky view of reality. When you read Hemingway, you not only travel to a bullfight in Spain or with a safari in Africa, you inhabit Hemingway’s view of the world with his specific code of values and behavior. Surely, if Vonnegut wrote Hemingway’s stories or Hemingway wrote Vonnegut’s, even if the physical and social settings remained the same, the experience of those settings for the reader would change drastically.

This setting beyond the setting, which might be called a meta-setting, applies not only to moral and philosophical perspectives and individual perceptions of reality, but also to simple questions of individual tastes. If you love the rain and dense forests, your description of rain in a dense forest will no doubt be colored in some positive way by this preference. Likewise, if you hate the rain and find dense forests frightening, the reverse will most likely apply.

How much your own particular voice, values, and tastes will become a meta-setting that colors the physical and social settings of your stories is something you will discover in the course of writing. It is also something to consider with regard to the question of whether you are writing a story mainly as a means of self-expression and artistic creation or writing the story to sell to a particular market.

* * *

In writing speculative fiction, you can create compelling characters and a superlative storyline, but unless you take your readers to a different world and make them believe in its existence, to experience it as if it were real, you are much less likely to hold their interest. So learn to inhabit the world you are creating. Walk down its streets. Breathe its air. Taste its food. Experience its pleasures and its terrors. Enjoy the imaginative creation of setting the same way you do with characters and plot, and there is a good chance that your readers will, too.

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jun 30, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

The Deep End interview…with Paul F. Olson

Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?

Paul F. Olson: I spent the first eleven years of my life on what had once been an operating farm in Wisconsin, and then my family moved to Mackinac Island, Michigan—a small island located between the state’s two peninsulas, in the straits that link Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The island is a major tourism and summer travel destination. Motor vehicles are banned there, so transportation is by foot, bicycle, or horse and carriage. In the winter months, the visitors and summer folk leave, the snow comes down, the lake freezes over, and the island becomes a virtual ghost town. The entire school, kindergarten through to twelfth grade, had fewer than one hundred kids. There were three in my high school graduating class. I tell that to people now, and they say, “You mean three hundred.” No, I mean three.

 

So yeah, I had a lot of formative experiences growing up, both in Wisconsin and on the island. My family owned a bookstore on the island, and working there introduced me to a world of writers and reading that I never would have experienced otherwise. Later on, I created and ran a branch of the store selling used and rare books, which was another invaluable experience. Going to such a small school was important, too. By default, I became responsible for a lot of my own education, which turned me into a lifelong learner. And the fairly limited range of extracurricular activities also helped nudge me in certain directions—for example, editing the school newspaper for three years, which taught me a lot.

Later on, in my mid-twenties, I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area for ten years, before eventually returning to northern Michigan and settling in a more typical “small town” of about five thousand people. So, I’ve lived in a wide variety of places. But growing up in fairly atypical, isolated circumstances left its mark in many ways. If nothing else, it made me more independent, self-reliant, and introspective, which it turns out are all helpful qualities for a writer to have.

Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?

PFO: Like many writers, I’ve had to go back and forth several times in my life between full-time writing and balancing my writing with a “day job.” I’ve been writing stories since I was seven or eight years old, and taking it seriously since seventh or eighth grade. I first began to realise—or at least hope—that it could be my career when I was fifteen or sixteen and working in my family’s bookstore.

I was fortunate to be able to make my first break to full-time writing when I was in my late twenties. I was managing bookstores for a large chain (B. Dalton Bookseller—anyone remember them?) in the Chicago area, and left to launch my magazine Horrorstruck: The World of Dark Fantasy, a non-fiction trade publication for fans and pros. The magazine did well. At the same time, I was selling some stories. The late Dave Silva and I put together a proposal for a ghost story anthology called Post Mortem, which got us an agent, the wonderful Lori Perkins, who got us a fantastic publishing deal with St. Martin’s. Lori also was able to sell my novel The Night Prophets to New American Library. So with all of that going on, I was able to write and publish full-time for a couple of years, which of course was an awesome, amazing experience.

Then life happened. The horror boom of the 1980s went bust, and almost simultaneously my wife and I became the parents of twin girls. I hung on for a while, wrote and did the Mr. Mom thing while my wife went back to work, but eventually a day job once again became a necessity. I did a couple of years as a marketing director for a non-profit arts organisation, but we wanted to get out of Chicago and get back up north, which led us to the small town of Manistique, Michigan, and took me in an entirely different career direction.

I did two stints as the editor of the weekly newspaper in Manistique, separated by three years as news director of the local AM radio station—seventeen years in all, the majority of it spent working twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days, six or seven days a week. I remember waking up one day around 2010 or 2011 and realising that other than a few long weekends here and there, I hadn’t had a vacation since 2001. And worse: it had been longer than that since I’d written anything that wasn’t a news story. I stuck it out for a couple more years, but then one day hit the wall hard. I was fifty-two, the kids were grown and out of college, I was getting a divorce after thirty-one years of marriage, and I was about as physically and mentally burned out as it’s possible to be.

 

I made big changes after that—moved a few hours away and slowly, sometimes painfully, taught myself to write fiction again. I felt like a guy who was once in great shape but spent twenty years sitting in an easy chair. He joins a gym to get fit again, and yikes, he finds that every single muscle in his body has atrophied. He needs to build up those muscles again. He needs to relearn how to use them. It’s long and it’s not easy. That was me five years ago. But the story has a happy ending. Today I’m writing, teaching English and creative writing to at-risk high school kids in the Upward Bound programme every summer, and doing a lot of community volunteer work.

You know, I don’t think I came anywhere close to answering your question. But that’s the story, for better or worse.

Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?

PFO: The day I sold my first short story was probably my most rewarding day as a writer. I’d been trying to sell things for several years, without success. I didn’t mind the rejections, which I knew were par for the course. And every once in a while, the form letter would include a little personal note of encouragement scribbled on the bottom, which felt like a tremendous victory in those days. But like all beginners, I did spend a lot of time wondering if I was chasing a pipe dream. Is it ever going to happen? Am I good enough to make it happen? One day in 1983, I sent a story to Dave Silva at The Horror Show, which was really just getting started back then. Dave rejected it with a lovely handwritten note, asking me to send him something else, which of course I did the very next day. Lo and behold, he bought it and sent me a cheque for $10, a quarter of a cent per word. I photocopied the cheque before I cashed it, and I still have that photocopy. It’s one of my most cherished possessions. But I don’t have to look at it to remember the thrill I felt, not just that day but for several weeks afterwards. It felt, literally, like I was walking on air. I’ve had much larger sales and many bigger paydays since then, but none was ever quite as satisfying. It was the answer to the question I’d been asking. Yes, I could make it happen, if I was willing to work hard enough.

Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?

PFO: You’d probably have to ask them that question! But seriously, it is a difficult question to answer, in part because I’ve never been anything but a writer. It’s not as if I spent twenty years selling insurance or building houses and then suddenly threw it all aside to write books. The people who know me have never known me as anything else. It’s normal to them. It’s who I am. Even if the writing I was doing was a marketing brochure or an article for the newspaper, I was still writing.

Something else that just occurred to me: I am a fairly private person and hold my writing close. I can be gregarious and outgoing when I have to be, if I’m teaching or doing a workshop or giving a reading. And among a group of writers, I can talk about the craft and the business for hours on end. But I don’t do that with friends and family. I don’t talk about the daily ups and downs, the word counts, the business setbacks, the editing woes. I don’t talk about my plots and characters. In fact, I never talk at all about a work-in-progress while it’s in progress. I’m sure there are days, maybe a lot of them, when it comes through anyway, when people think I’m angry or sad or under the weather, but really I’m just lost in whatever story I’m working on. I do make an effort not to inflict all of that on others. As to whether I succeed . . . well, like I said, you’d have to ask them.

Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?

PFO: My list of influences is huge, and it’s still growing. It’s a special joy to know that I’m fifty-eight years old, have been a professional writer for thirty-five years, and still regularly encounter new writers who impress me, excite me, and make me want to get better. Just a short time ago, I discovered the work of Paul La Farge, whose book The Night Ocean was so good that I almost couldn’t move when I finished it. I was knocked flat by his talent. This may sound strange, but it’s a real treat to come across a writer so good that you immediately feel excited and energised, ready to sit down and write the Great American Novel, yet simultaneously want to retire from the business forever because you know you’ll never be half that good.

Looking farther back, I’ve been influenced by everyone from Dickens to Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, you name it. Wallace Stegner is my idol. John Barth. Phillip Roth. Vonnegut. The list goes on and on.

In the horror genre specifically, I grew up reading and loving all the classics, but it was specifically the trio of Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and Fritz Leiber who taught me how to escape the past and become modern. Later came Ira Levin and Tom Tryon, then King and Straub and my real role model, Charles L. Grant. Charlie is on my mind every day, every time I tap a key on my laptop. He heads up my list of favourite writers, regardless of era or genre. And he was an editing god. I tried so hard to sell a story to Charlie and never made it, but the kindness he showed me, the advice and encouragement he provided, will be with me forever.

Joe: Instead of just focusing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?

PFO: I hope all my stories capture a piece of who I am. I suppose that’s a process that happens naturally. As opposed to having a story say what you wanted it to say, which for me seems to be a much more elusive goal. I don’t know how many times I’ve started to write about X and ended up with a tale about Y. That’s part of the magic, the journey you take when you start out to write. It’s like a walk in the woods, and it’s easy to end up on a different path than the one you started on. Or to lose the path entirely and end up hacking your way through the underbrush. I enjoy that exploration. Writing would be boring if the route was smooth and clear and all the mile markers showed up where they were supposed to be. That’s one of the reasons I don’t outline very often. Having a GPS is great when you need to be to your cousin’s wedding on time, but otherwise I’d rather just go wherever the road takes me.

From time to time, when you’re really lucky, there is a story that veers off in an unexpected direction but still ends up where you wanted it to be. There’s a story in the Whispered Echoes collection, “Faith and Henry Gustafson.” I had a very clear picture in my head of where I wanted that story to go, and I was brimming with confidence, sure the writing would be easy. But suddenly, three or four pages in, I went right off the path and crashed into the trees. Just like that, I was writing about something else entirely, and a story that was going to be fairly straightforward was suddenly anything but. If I was a younger writer, I might have stopped for a day or two and thought things over, or even dropped the story in my desk drawer for a while. But I’d been in the business for a while by that point, and I knew enough to trust my heart and just keep going. I’m glad I did. When I was done, I was shocked to discover that the story said everything I had originally wanted to say, but in a much different—and better—way than I had ever expected.

Writing the final story in Whispered Echoes, the novella “Bloodybones,” was a similar experience. I had some definite plans for that story. I even had a few set pieces mentally sketched out before I started to write. I was almost certain I knew exactly where I was going. But the story, apparently, had different plans. By the time I was finished, almost nothing in it was what I’d originally envisioned. Yet, somehow I’d managed to encompass all the themes that are important to me, and I’d told a story I really liked a lot. I’m very proud of that one.

Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?

PFO: Gee, Joe, why do you ask? Have you been spying on me?

It doesn’t feel good to miss my target (which is 1,500 words, by the way), but really, I don’t worry about it too much. The longer you do this, the more perspective you gain. There will always be days you miss the mark, but often they are followed by days where you exceed it. I’ve had days where I struggled and fought and sweated my way to 500 words, and finished utterly exhausted, then cranked out an easy 2,000 words the next day. It all balances out in the end. And for beginning writers, it’s important to remember that writing every day is more important than how much you are writing. Doing 1,500 words is great. But you know what? Even ten words is better than none. The critical thing is sitting down and doing those ten.

Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?

PFO: That’s an interesting question. Because I tend to write quiet horror, a lot of people might expect me to say I have trouble writing about violence, about blood and gore. But that’s not really true. I can do the “wet work” when I have to. I just prefer not to. I like my chills a little subtler.

One thing I’ve tried and failed repeatedly to write is humour. I admire the great humourists of the world, past and present, and often, when I’m at the bookstore, I find myself searching for a great new comedic novel to read. But when I try to write it myself, I just can’t get there. Sometimes I’m able to fool myself for a while. I tell myself, “this is really working.” But then I print it out and read it and, nope, the words are just lying there flat on the page. It’s the opposite of funny. It’s anti-funny. I’m not sure why. Maybe my wit is so dry that it just crumbles to dust and blows away. Or maybe I’m just no good at it. In real life, people think I’m very funny. I can “leave ’em laughing” with the best of them. On the page, not so much. But I keep trying. Maybe one of these days, I’ll finally get it.

Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?

PFO: I guess I’m always thinking about writing, although not necessarily the project I’m working on at the time. I sort of automatically compartmentalise those things. When I step away from the keyboard, the project moves down to another level of my brain, where the unconscious continues to tinker away with it until it’s time to write again. Sometimes I’m shocked at the things that have developed when I sit down to start a new day of work. Where did that come from? I certainly didn’t think it up myself. Except, yes, I did. It just happened somewhere deep down, way below the surface, when I wasn’t looking. Meanwhile, the top level of the brain is always busy looking for new ideas, processing the things I see and running them through the writing filter to see if they have potential, storing away descriptions, capturing snippets of conversation. There’s probably a third level in there somewhere, too, where all those new ideas go to be worked on until it’s time to finally write them down. It’s probably best not to question the whole process too much, to just let it happen. It’s like seeing how the sausage is made. Once you understand it, you can’t eat any more ballpark hotdogs.

Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?

PFO: I’ve heard it said that an author is someone without any useful skills. That’s a humorous remark, but I hope it’s not true. I like to think the skills writers possess are very useful. Most of them are craft-related, but a few are more general. How to engage with the world yet remain apart from the world at the same time. How to talk to people of different backgrounds, and more importantly how to listen to them. How to cope with rejection. How to cope with failure. The importance of persistence. How to be alone for long stretches of time. Self-awareness. Self-motivation. Imagination. Empathy. Come to think of it, you can’t really put any of those things on a résumé. In that case, there’s always “good spelling and grammar.”

Joe: How did being an author change you as a person?

PFO: I like to think it kept me from changing. Being a writer has enabled me to maintain a lifelong love affair with magic and mystery, adventure and discovery. Most people grow up at some point and lose their sense of childlike wonder. I’ve been able to hold on to mine, to keep my imagination alive, much longer than the average person. I consider that a great gift.

Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?

PFO: About four years ago, out of the blue, I received a Facebook friend request from a successful writer and editor who told me that my 1989 novel The Night Prophets was one of the first horror novels she’d ever bought, and that it had helped kick-start her career as a writer. Those were powerful words. Keep in mind, I’m not a household name and that novel had been out of print for several decades at that point. It had been years since anyone had even mentioned the book to me, and suddenly here was someone telling me that reading it had been a formative experience for her.

In the early days of Facebook, I also received a note from someone who went on at length about the boom days of the 1980s and how much he had enjoyed my magazine Horrorstruck. I’ve been blessed with a number of comments like that over the years. I only produced the magazine for a couple of years, but many people still seem to remember it fondly, which is extremely gratifying. But then he went on to mention my writing. He said that back in those days, he always looked for my name on magazine content pages, and if he saw it, he automatically bought the magazine. Comments like that are beyond wonderful. You work alone, you send your stories out there, if you’re lucky they get published, and then, often, you never hear another word. You wonder if anybody is reading it at all, or if it matters. And suddenly, years later, you get a note like that. Talk about making a writer’s day! That’s one of the reasons I like to get in touch with writers whose work I admire. Artists too. Everyone in this business needs—and deserves—to have their day made once in a while.

Joe: What is your lifelong goal as an author?

PFO: On the simplest level, it’s just to do good work, to write good stories and entertain people. On a deeper level, I have to go back to my role model, Charlie Grant. He was the guy I wanted to be when I was starting out. He wasn’t insanely successful. He wasn’t a name brand like Stephen King. He didn’t earn millions of dollars or have Hollywood knocking on his door. But he made a living writing, he did incredible, ground-breaking work as both an author and an editor, he was respected and admired by his peers, and he did it all while being a good, decent guy. Thirty or thirty-five years ago, that was all I ever wanted. And it still is.

Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?

PFO: I’m insanely proud of my daughters, who are now 28 years old and both incredible human beings. I don’t need any more legacy than that.

If you mean a writing legacy . . . of course, I’d love to be in print forever. But I know that’s asking a lot and probably unlikely. But if someday, somewhere, in some distant future, somebody stumbles across a story or novel that I wrote, reads it, and says, “Hey, that was a good story,” that would be more than enough for me.

Whispered Echoes

Whispered Echoes

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Journey through the Heart of Terror

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  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jun 23, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More