Joe McKinney, Peter N. Dudar, and Yours Truly mounted a successful series of blog posts back in September called "Blogging the Ghost." We talked about our new paranormal horror titles, shared free stories, gave away some prizes, and invited some pretty cool folks along for the ride.
Now we're back, sharing essays about the writing life, wishing you all a safe and warm holiday season...and we even brought some presents!
If you missed our previous posts, please check them out at the following links:
Week 1: Click here
Week 2: Click here
Week 3: Click here
Now for the presents!
Amazon links to these titles:
Inheritance: Click here
Sunfall Manor: Click here
A Requiem for Dead Flies: Click here
We hope you enjoy these titles. And for the many folks who supported our efforts in 2012, thank you.
Why I Write the Dark Stuff
By Joe McKinney
In my day job I’m a patrol supervisor for the San Antonio Police Department, working the west side of town. The police officers who make the calls, who make the arrests, who keep the peace in the busiest part of the city, they work for me. I’m the one they call when they have crime scenes that need managing, or when something just doesn’t look right.
What that means is that I have to see a lot of dead bodies. And I mean a lot of them.
Like last week. One of my officers called because he had a decomp (police parlance for a body that’s been rotting in place for a good long while) and he wasn’t sure if it was suicide or homicide. So I showed up to the apartment and there was the dead guy, seated on the floor (or almost on the floor; his butt was about two inches off the carpet). He had a noose around his neck, though you could barely see it because his skin was so bloated and gummy with rot that it had sort of oozed over the rope.
“So, what do you think?” the officer asked.
“Suicide,” I told him.
“But he’s sitting down. Wouldn’t he have rolled over or something when he started to choke? That’s like an instinct or something, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said. “What you’re looking at is an act of will power. If you want to do something bad enough, you’ll see it through.”
He looked from me to the body and shook his head.
“Besides,” I added, “look at all that medication in there in his bathroom. Those drugs are for hepatitis and cancer. He did this because he was hurting pretty bad. And look up there.” I pointed to the ceiling where our dead guy had nailed the rope to the rafter. “He did that because he didn’t want the rope to slip off. And look at where he chose to do this, here in the bedroom, so his relatives coming in the front door wouldn’t have to see him. I bet if you look around here you’ll find a note. Probably in the other room, out of sight of the bedroom.”
The officer nodded.
We both stood there, staring at the body. The apartment didn’t have air conditioning, and it felt like standing inside an oven, even though it was the middle of the night. The smell was really bad.
The officer kind of chuckled and said, “So Sarge, I guess this is one for your next book, huh?”
I offered him a bland smile. Cops develop their gallows humor long before they learn that it’s actually a defense mechanism against the horror of confronting your own mortality, and this officer was one of the young ones. He still had a lot to learn.
“Go look for the note,” I said.
When he was gone I found myself looking into that suicide’s face and sighing. The suicides always get to me. Something about standing in the presence of someone so desperate to take control of their pain and their emotional devastation that they would resort to this makes me feel numb.
In the other room, the young officer was clumsily knocking around. Something fell over and broke. I almost called out to him to be careful, but held my tongue. You see, my mind had drifted from my day job to my night job. I was thinking about what he’d said about my next book. So many people seem to have that opinion about horror, and about zombie fiction in particular. To them, a book about shambling dead things eating the living must be nothing but gratuitous violence and gore. What else could it be?
Well, I take exception to that.
I started writing because I was scared of the future. My wife and I had just gotten married. Then we had a daughter, and the world suddenly seemed so much more complex. In the wink of an eye, I went from a carefree young cop – a lot like the one in the other room knocking stuff over – to a man with more responsibilities than he could count. I had obligations and commitments coming at me from every angle.
I’d been writing stories for a good long while at that point, starting sometime in my early teens, but never with the intention of doing anything about them. I would write them out on a yellow legal pad, staple the finished pages together, and leave them on the corner of my desk until the next idea came to me.
Never once did it occur to me to do something with what I’d written. I just threw those stories away and forgot them. But then came adulthood, and parenthood, and I found myself groping to put the world in order, to regain some of the control I felt I had lost. I realized that writing could help me with that. I realized that I could focus my anxieties and make something useful of them.
And so I started writing a science fiction novel. It was a big space opera epic, and it was pure trash. Every word of it was awful.
The reason? Well, it wasn’t authentic. It wasn’t me.
The real me, the kid who sat at his desk filling up yellow legal pads rather than going out bike riding with his friends, was a horror junkie. I was crazy for the stuff. Horror was my first literary love, and I figured seeing as love was what drove me to return to writing that I should write what I love. I was feeling like the world was rushing at me from every side, so I wrote a zombie story about characters who had the living dead rushing in at them from every side. That’s when things started to click. That’s when it all made sense.
But it wasn’t just that simple. You see, I sincerely believe that fear is the most authentic, and the most useful, emotion available to the storyteller. It is as vital as love, and indeed, gives love its profundity, for what makes love, and family, and everything we treasure so valuable but the fear that it could all be taken away in the blink of an eye. For me, fear goes far beyond monsters. It is the catalyst for my creative process, and without that creative process, I’m afraid I would wither up inside. I’m not saying I’d end up like that suicide I just told you about if I couldn’t write anymore, nothing that melodramatic, but absence of that creative outlet would be a hole that nothing else could fill.
So that’s why I write the dark stuff.
In the Name of Love
By Peter Giglio
“Why do you write horror?”
That’s a valid question, and one I’ve answered more times than I care to count. I’ve prattled on endlessly about how horror fiction lends itself to socially relevant metaphors, how being in tune with darkness can put one more in touch with light, how horror is the perfect canvas on which to paint conflict.
Blah, blah, blah…
What I’d rather explore (briefly, I promise) is why I write, and I’d also like to offer my perspective on the fine line between genre fiction and general fiction, that lauded non-brand that tells potential readers, “Hey, this work isn’t pulp; you can read this without guilt, and it will make you feel smarter.”
Okay, I’m probably projecting a bit. I don’t know if it really says all that, but it often feels like it. After all, Stephen King and Anne Rice and Dean Koontz, though they write great genre fiction, don’t have to languish in such confines. Their tomes aren’t branded horror; rather, they’re shelved as fiction despite the recognizable tropes within their worlds. People who routinely say, “I don’t read horror,” will frequently admit to reading King. That’s my experience, at least.
Writers like King are essentially their own brand, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the time, they’ve earned the stature. King often tries to shake his literary credentials off, but he isn’t fooling me. He worked hard for his reputation, and I love his work deeply. Go, Steve! Go!
So I’m not here with sour grapes. In fact, I get pissed when people attack success. Regardless of what you or I may think of work from James Patterson or Stephanie Meyer, people read them, and any author who’s being honest will admit to envying the audience these icons have captured. Captured? Wow, that makes the whole thing sound nefarious. I like that. I also like that there are still examples of success in a crumbling market. Glimmers of hope.
That said, I can report with all honesty that I don’t write for fame. I laugh at friends and family members who call me famous. I’m not. Not even close. Most of my heroes, in fact—my mentors, the people I aspire to—aren’t even famous.
Strangers get this.
When I tell them I’m a writer, the first question is usually, “What do you write?” If I reply, “Horror,” they’ll often ask, “Like Stephen King?” and that just makes me want to test them a little. “No,” I might say, “like Richard Laymon.” Or I’ll throw out some other midlist name just to see if confusion sweeps their face.
And it does.
Fact is, midlist writers in any corner of genre fiction (though heroes to devotees of that particular brand) don’t mean shit to the average person at your local pub or bank or grocery store or…wherever you meet people. And if you, like me, aspire to those midlist heroes who write from the heart and gut, that realization can shatter your resolve.
Despite all that, I write because I respect the written word. I write because I want to articulate my feelings through stories. I write because I love the process of creation. I love what I learn about myself and the world around me.
And, most importantly, I love good stories and storytellers.
My advice: Aspire to be what you love.
If you love money, go into banking. If you love stories, write. If you make money writing, congratulations—you’re a professional. Just remember, professionals in most fields aren’t wealthy or well-known. If you happen to make big money doing it, you’re part of a rare and endangered breed: someone who has their calls returned by Stephen King.
As a reader, I don’t care if your story is horror or romance or a thriller or a literary coming-of-age tale; if it hooks me in the first page, I’ll read more. If it holds me in its grip, I’ll recommend it to anyone willing to pay attention. I don’t care if you have a contract with a Big Six publisher, a small press, or if you self-publish (as long as you hire a good editor!).
A good story is a good story, and I enjoy building them the same way, I assume, a skilled carpenter enjoys building a fine deck.
Genre is essentially a way of keeping all the shelves at a bookstore (and the Amazon website) organized. It’s also a way of marketing: “If you like this, you’ll enjoy this!” The business side of me gets this and respects it. But that’s only half of me.
The reader and writer in me browses every section of a bookstore and every corner of a website that sells books, ‘cause he just respects a good story.
That’s the side of me I love.
And that’s why I write.
Drinking from the Poisoned Well
By Peter N. Dudar
A brief anecdote; one that I often like to tell to illustrate the insanity of writing.
I began my writing career after I graduated from college and moved to Maine. Those first few years were a period of great fecundity for me, regardless of the fact that most of the short stories I was producing were amateur at best, and at worst downright shoddy and formulaic. And when that productive period ran out, I went through a horrible period of writer’s block, which left me all but crippled. As time dragged by and nothing came out of me after countless hours of staring at a blank computer screen, I decided that I needed to do something.
I found a creative writing course through Portland’s Adult Education program, and even though I’d graduated from college a few years before with a bachelor’s degree, I felt that perhaps this would be the skeleton key to unlock my chained and hidden muse. So I signed myself up and, just like that, I found myself in an elementary school classroom on Tuesday evenings with a bunch of other writers whom also yearned to express themselves with the written word.
I’ll never forget that first class for as long as I live.
I made my way in and examined the room. All the desks inside had been rearranged to form this great big circle, with the teacher’s desk front-and-center astride the blackboard. Many people had arrived before me and a lot of the desks were already filled, so I glanced about and found an empty spot. As I sat down I noticed my neighbor to my immediate left; a woman with crazy hair subdued with colorful scarfs, a pair of eyeglasses with thick rims and leopard skin-colored tipples, and necklaces with beads and jewels that weighed her frame down like an anchor. I knew even before I set my pen down and opened my notebook that sitting next to this person was a bad idea. And I was right.
Our teacher came in and introduced herself, and then asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves and talk a little bit about why we enjoy writing.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? Sure, you can!
I listen to all the people around the circle introduce themselves, each giving some informal speech about their craft; some telling of the joy of simple things like journaling for historical purposes, others finding delight in poetry or prose, or what have you. One lady mentioned how she started writing by first making up bedtime stories for her kids, and then deciding to write them down so that her kids could one day share them with their children. It’s cool. But all the while, I’m looking at this psychotic broad beside me, who has been wriggling and itching and dying for it to be her turn. I’m suddenly sure that I don’t want to follow this lady, that maybe I’ll just excuse myself and run to the bathroom…and maybe even NOT come back. But I don’t. I bide my time.
And then it’s the crazy lady’s turn.
This woman stands up and introduces herself, and then embarks on this long stream-of-consciousness tirade of how life has been so cruel to her, and that she “writes herself sane” to keep her poor brain for revolting against her. We get to hear every little misery this woman has endured (who knows how many of them were fictitious?) and how writing has saved her life, and blah-blah-blee-blah. By now half the class is wriggling and itching with awkwardness and discomfort, and that’s including myself. I really don’t want to go next, and have to follow up after crazy lady and how her five cats died in a fire and her twin sister was raped by an orangutan in a freak zoo incident (okay, maybe I made that last part up, but only because I’ve mentally blocked out her real stories in my bid to rid her from my brain).
Finally, crazy lady sits down, and it’s my turn.
“My name is Peter,” I begin. “I write because I enjoy making shit up.” (The class chuckles) “I signed up for this class mostly because I’m trying to work through writer’s block. I guess I just don’t have a lot of difficulties in my life, or inner demons I need to face, which is probably a good thing. I have to believe, though, that if I did have a lot of problems, I would be better suited if I went to the doctor and got some medication.”
More laughter…except from crazy lady, who looks absolutely flabbergasted. I can tell I’ve insulted her, but part of me really doesn’t care. I’ve created conflict, and conflict is good. It’s inspiring. For both of us.
Looking back now, I can see where I was wrong in my behavior. I was young and cocky back then, and I didn’t really know shit about having anxiety or coping with the possibility of bad health or mental illness. And, of course, I can see now where the notion of “writing oneself sane,” is possibly one of the sanest things a writer could do. After all, writers deal with telling lies, but those lies spring forth from truths that we all know and experience. You can’t write perfectly about a loved one dying until you stood next to their coffin and gazed at the waxy remains of them, and realizing that the lifeless thing you are saying goodbye to looks nothing like the person you knew when they were still alive. You can’t write perfectly about love until you’ve had your heart broken, when you can still smell the scent of your lover on your pillow as you lay your head down to sleep at night, and then wake up sobbing in the morning because you know she isn’t coming back. Then, when you put these experiences into words, someone who has also suffered can read them and find empathy. They can make that connection.
Writers are haunted people. We’re held prisoner by the voices of stories that want to be written. We’re slaves to an inner thirst for information and experience just so we can find the right words to tell our stories. And for the horror writer, this information and experience we thirst for is not glamorous or pretty, and by no means is it safe. The well we drink from has poisoned water. One needs to look no further than Edgar Allan Poe to see how his mastery at storytelling is precluded by his own personal miseries.
And what of the “ghost writer?” What of those folks (present company included) who long to pen the perfect ghost story? What are the experiences they seek out to gain knowledge and find the right words?
I think for each of us, it begins with the notion of an afterlife; what awaits us when we die? Ghosts are the spiritual remnants of a human being whose body is no longer alive and whose soul no longer has a vessel to travel in. Which begs next these three logical questions: 1) Where is the soul supposed to go? 2) What is holding the soul captive, so that it can’t or won’t move on? And 3) How are we, the living, to deal with the ghost when we encounter it?
The spiritual part of us (at least in our minds), looks to religion and philosophy to begin sorting these concepts out and come to our own unique belief system. The rational part of us seeks books or articles or essays about the act of dying and how the body shuts down. But the writer in us…how far are we willing to go?
Here’s the Bucket List for the ghost writer:
Attend a séance. Be present at the death of a loved one. Spend a night in a haunted house/hotel/mental institution. Take photographs in a cemetery. Take video/audio recordings of supernatural activities. Leave flour/powder on the floor to capture ghost prints. Play with a(n) Ouija board. Take mind-altering substances to try and commune with the dead. Dress in dead people’s clothing or procure their personal belongings. Build a shrine or altar for the dead. Have a Tarot or psychic reading performed. Visit historical places where mass murders or suicides occurred. Visit the graves of horror authors. Learn about local folklore and urban legends. Place ourselves in instances of mortal danger. And, above all, read more ghost stories.
As I’ve said, the well we drink from is poisoned. We seek to fill our minds with dark thoughts and notions. I think this is probably why horror writers are also some of the nicest, friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s because we know how to value and celebrate life. It’s because we know how to “write ourselves sane.”