You’ve got to give Keith Deininger credit. He doesn’t rehash old similar themes in his work. Instead, he experiments and takes chances with narratives. I just finished one of his more recent novels called Within. At face value, this is a story about a haunted mansion, which we’ve all seen often enough. Someone new comes into town and purchases the crumbling mansion in a seedier part of town. Soon, those who are invited to visit one of the many parties thrown by the owner become possessed by the inner workings of the house’s evil presence. Indeed, the entire town falls under his spell. The malevolent antics of Mr. Klimt and his eerie mansion result in numerous character disappearances, terrifying hallucinations and dreams of our protagonists, and increased aggression and debauchery of townsfolk. I was reminded of two haunted mansion novels: the classic Ghost Story by Peter Straub (especially the impact on the town), and the most recent Slade House by David Mitchell. I felt Deininger’s Within ranked right up there with these two. However, that wasn’t the biggest unique surprise. The portrayal of Mr. Klimt, the owner of the mansion and the perpetrator of evil who throws lavish parties to entice the unwitting into his snare, is remarkably similar to Jay Gatsby. Many of the party scenes paralleled the festivities on West Egg. This was the first time I’ve ever seen the setting and characters of The Great Gatsby influence the plot of a horror novel. Keith Deininger has guts to try – and he pulled it off.
Odd Adventures with Your Other Father is a Kindle Scout winner written by Norman Prentiss. After reading just a few pages I began to see why the book was accepted for publication by Kindle Press. This is a genre-bending, no holds barred novel combining horror, comedy, love, and coming of age drama. The heart of the narrative is Shawn’s recounting his, well, odd adventures with his partner, Jack, to his teenage daughter. Jack died when Celia was four and Shawn thinks it time to share the year-long adventures the two young men had right after they graduated from college. Jack had a way of involving them in a series of thrilling and frequently terrifying exploits involving supernatural events, much to Shawn’s chagrin. The tales told by Shawn are uniquely different and quite terrifying (they’d make unnerving short stories in and of themselves). Prentiss’ literary skill makes these hauntings come alive and he manages to weave threads of humor that often had me smiling while gripping my Kindle. As the novel progresses, Prentiss is able to explore the complexity of human love and interconnected relationships among family. While Odd Adventures with Your Other Father can probably be categorized as horror, readers are treated to a journey of human emotion in a range often not explored in the genre. A fantastic read.
I don’t necessarily start out a novel with teenage main characters in mind. My first four books (three already published – Birth Offering, Dead Works, and The Disembodied) have a total of 7 adolescent central characters – 5 boys and 2 girls. Dead Works and The Disembodied did not start out that way, but the direction of the narrative shifted with the writing process. In both cases, early segments were scrapped or revised as I began to realize what the stories were about.
Undoubtedly, my career as a psychologist working with and studying adolescents informed my writing. I also found that kids provide all kinds of benefits when writing horror:
Write what you know.
That’s what everyone tells you anyway. Sadly, having a psychologist or a professor as my main protagonist in each of my books would be a drag. Although, now that I look at it, there is a mental health professional in many of my novels (published and unpublished). Oh well. Still, some peripheral characters were “requisite” psychologist in my books which meant I had to learn about other occupations – and work that I’ve never done.
How should a writer learn about other occupations? Research of course. Here are a few ways to make your characters be realistic…
For my novel, The Disembodied, I checked multiple sites for their take on Depersonalization Disorder. Now, as a psychologist, I was familiar with it. But, not as much as you’d think. I never encountered a case of it. I wanted to see how it was portrayed on the internet. I found a great description on the Mayo Clinic website, I even included the reference in the novel.
Writers can avoid looking like they don’t know what they’re talking about by checking out these available sources. They’re huge, and they’re right at our fingertips.
I struggled with exactly what to do with The Disembodied. When I finished the novel last fall, I was torn among submitting it to the small press which published two of my earlier novels, self-publish it in order to learn the process, or submit it to a Kindle Scout campaign.
My previous publisher, Damnation Books, had just been bought out by Caliburn Press around the time when I finished The Disembodied. I have full confidence in Caliburn after reading about the new owner’s plans for the company. After all, they already had two of my novels and had acquired the rights to my third which had previously been accepted by Damnation Books. I recognized, though, that the new owner would have a lot of details to iron out - so I decided to consider other options for The Disembodied. That left self-publishing or Kindle Scout.
I quickly learned that I needed to hire an editor to work on The Disembodied whether I went the self-published route or with the Kindle Scout. So, after securing my editor and while the editor was working on The Disembodied, I explored Kindle Scout more thoroughly and decided what the heck. Let’s do it. What really intrigued me more than anything was having the Amazon marketing machine behind me if I was successful in being selected at the end of the 30 day campaign window. Self-promotion is a huge drag and I don’t think I do it well, so the idea of being promoted by Amazon was a convincing factor. More money would be nice, but really, who goes into this to make money? I was honestly looking for more readers.
The editorial process took months, since I went with the whole shebang of story editing, copy editing, and line editing – not to mention proofreading. But Saturday, April 30th, 2016, the Kindle Scout Campaign went live. I have no clue about how many people nominated it. I know I nominated myself (narcissism 101).
Flash forward nearly four months. The campaign was a success! The Disembodied was released on August 16th. Now, all I have to fret about is potential readers becoming aware of its existence. No big deal, right? Sheesh.
The Lonely by Andrew Michael Hurley is certainly not what I expected. Promoted as a gothic horror novel, complete with an ecstatic blurb by Stephen King, The Lonely surprises because it really isn’t a horror tale. At least a horror tale that readers of the genre would expect. Reading the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads will clearly support this observation. While I am one of those horror fans, I must say that I was not disappointed in the novel. In fact, I found it suspenseful, original, and more than a little unnerving.
By now you know the plot. A family, accompanied by their Catholic priest, family friends, and other parishioners, travel to a desolate part of the UK for a retreat. The purpose of the retreat is to once and for all complete a ritual which will cure one of the family’s teenage sons who is stricken with autism (although I cannot recall if this diagnosis is ever revealed as such). The narrator is the young man’s younger brother who recounts the tale as it occurred nearly forty years ago.
The geographical depictions are a central part of the story. The atmosphere, complete with fog, rain, and constant overcast skies, is a character in itself. The damp and gloomy houses haunt the reader on every page. The dank chill is always evident. There is even an old mansion that is off the coast and only accessible during low tide. The gothic nature of the tale oozes constantly.
The natives resent the presence of the pilgrims. And, there is something not quite right about these people. There’s a hint of witchcraft and pagan rituals, and there are veiled threats towards the visitors. The author keeps explanations for the strange events just beyond our grasp, and the depiction of the climax is ambiguous enough that it may not be to everyone’s taste. All of the action is reported through the first person account of a fifteen year old boy, and his experientially-limited frame of reference adds to the mystery. Oh, and the visiting retreatants are conservative Catholics (this being the 1970’s). The depiction of their beliefs and rituals is so well done that the reader can’t help but observe that these also have a bizarre/pagan feel to them (and I’m a Catholic, so my reaction wasn’t due to unfamiliarity).
Anyhow, I really liked this book. But, be aware, it is not a traditional horror story. Those who disliked it often referred to it as boring. These folks were clearly expecting standard horror fare. It’s not. But it is eerie, strange, and atmospheric. If you’re in the mood, give it a shot.
William Meikle has the uncanny ability to turn out high quality horror and speculative fiction on a pretty rapid schedule. I realize that sounds like a back-handed compliment but I don’t mean it to be. He’s very prolific and manages to produce original stories every time without rehashing old plot lines. I wish I could do that.
My latest Meilke read was The Dunfield Terror, which concerns a deadly fog that mysteriously descends on a remote coastline of Newfoundland. This fog is unlike any other, causing massive death and mayhem to whatever it touches. The body count is high (and characters are dispatched in gruesome fashion) and there are especially menacing creatures to further contribute to the pandemonium.
Mr. Meilke uses two alternating narratives, present day and the 1950’s, to tell the story. The present-day action involves a return of the fog during a brutal blizzard, while the flashbacks recount the origins of the fog. Both stories are captivating and instill constant peril and suspense, but I liked the present day account better. I felt the characters in the flashback were not quite drawn as well. However, I’m only talking a small degree of difference. For some reason, a third narrative (and another series of flashbacks) is incorporated towards the end. These seemed unnecessary to me in terms of plot development. Ironically, though, I enjoyed that sequence better than the 50’s storyline. Go figure.
Overall, a strong hair-raising tale and a solid 4.5 read – rounded up to 5.
December Park by Ronald Malfi is a coming of age story in the tradition of Boy’s Life and The Body. Readers going into expecting a traditional Malfi horror tale may be disappointed. This isn’t a supernatural novel. Oh, there is the running narrative about a sinister individual who abducts teenagers, but this plot provides the backdrop for the adventure story of five teenage boys who try to solve the mystery. The missing kids are never heard from again, and suspense builds as the boys gradually gather clues as to the identity of the perpetrator. You know they are going to come face-to-face with the creep at some point, and there are enough red herrings to keep the reader on edge. This novel is over 700 pages, so there are numerous story lines beyond the child abduction mystery. And these stories, believe it or not, are where Malfi’s writing really shines. The interaction between the five boys is clever and realistic. Malfi captures the banter and exchanges between the kids—and they feel “right” for guys in their mid-teens. Then there are the other real-life issues the kids face: bullies, personal grief, girls, parent relationship problems, and summer school. They add a sense of normalcy to the story. All of them cleverly portrayed. At times, the coming-of-age detail is excessive and threatens to derail the action. I think the editors could have pruned at least ten percent which would have resulted in a tighter flow. Nonetheless, the final denouement is riveting (although a tad unbelievable), and ultimately satisfying. The final pages address adolescent relationship issues, and the ending is bittersweet. A solid 4-star read.
The Eye That Blinds by S.E. Scully is a novella published by speculative fiction publisher DarkFuse. The story involves three young adults in their twenties who have been close friends since college. Two have actually been romantically involved in the past. While the basic plot centers around the destructive impact of social media on their lives—and their subsequent lack of trust of one another—the unfolding events are chilling and creepy. Scully is a fine writer and the interaction among the characters is convincingly portrayed. A final page count of around 80 pages means the story blazes along. The author smartly keeps the action and narrative superficial, and you hardly notice the reliance on unlikely psychotic breaks by some characters, simultaneous dumb decisions by other characters, and unbelievable coincidences to propel the story along. Still, a fun 3-star read.
Flesh and Coin by Craig Saunders is about a hospice where the dying are being haunted and, in some cases, killed by something called the Shadowman. The main characters include two nurses (one kind and caring, the other sadistic and insensitive), a patient near death who is trying to make sense of the goings-on while barely surviving in a morphine daze, the hospice director, and a police detective. The characters are well-developed for such a short novella and the atmosphere is alive in detail. You experience the sights and smells of elderly patients in their last days. There are a number of interrelated subplots including the origins of the ghostly Shadowman, a patient’s violent and criminal past, an illicit affair between a nasty nurse and the hospice director, and a curse administered by an ancient gypsy woman. The latter was an enjoyable character and her appearance really pushed the story along. While the disparate subplots don’t quite hold together in a seamless narrative, the story was creepy and the plot clever enough to maintain interest – and the pages flowed.
Anthony Hains is a horror & speculative fiction writer.