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Posts tagged “Stephen King

Creature Features in Review: The Mist (2007)

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When I first heard of the film “The Mist” I knew nothing about it other than – a mist descends on a town and, hidden within the murkiness, there are… Things. Nasty things that kill people. I couldn’t help but laugh and shake my head. Just what the film industry needed, another knock-off film. I mean, we’ve seen this back in the eighties with John Carpenter’s “The Fog”. Not entirely sure we needed another film with a similar concept. But, then, I heard more about the film. Directed by Frank Darabont, he who made “The Green Mile”, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Walking Dead”. I’m a fan. Then I saw it was based on the work of Stephen King. Now, I’m not a fan of King because – for me – I find the books a bit too wordy to read (I have a short attention… oh look, a penny). That being said, I do like the ideas he has.  Then, of course, there was the cast list: Thomas Jane (in my eyes an under-rated actor) and several folk from “The Walking Dead” (Carol, Dale, Andrea… Was Frank doing a test run with the actors before hiring them for The WD?). What the hell, there was enough there for me to give it a go and – you know what – I’m glad I did.  Continue Reading

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Pet Sematary: Book in Review

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When reading such works as Pet Sematary, one often wonders if, as King states, “the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.” Pet Sematary invokes such fears of the human threshold for terror. Everyone has there own stigmas and taboos. The trick, I guess, is finding just the right spot to tickle. For me, Pet Sematary invokes that dark passageway, the images are heartbreaking and grotesque, and the storytelling is faultless. The characters are absolutely believable, and once you start off on page one, you’ll never stop. Pet Sematary, obviously, is one of my all-time favorites and is the 17th novel written by Stephen King between Feb 1979 and December 1982, the book was preceded by Christine (of which I’m reading now), and, as some of have called, a return to King’s typical format of storytelling. I think the latter is a critic response to a return to a Shining-esk format, as not many of those blowhards favored Christine. I’m not sure why, Christine is, thus far in my reading (and I’m nearing the end at the moment) a suburb story. But, we’re not here to talk about demon cars, we’re here to talk about another kind of demon. Shall we…?

The story follows…

Louis Creed, a doctor from Chicago, moves to a house near the small town of Ludlow, Maine with his wife Rachel; their two young children, Eileen (“Ellie”) and Gage; and of course the lovable cat, Winston Churchill, or Church for short. Their neighbor, an elderly man, and best character in both the book and film, by the name of Jud Crandall, who warns Louis and Rachel about the highway that runs past their house; it is used by trucks from a nearby chemical plant that often pass by at high speeds, and has “used up many family pets,” hence the trail leading to the Pet Sematary behind the Creed house.

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Jud and Louis become fast friends. Since Louis’s father died when he was three, his relationship with Jud takes on a father-son like quality. A few weeks after the Creeds move in, Jud takes the family on a walk in the woods behind their home following a well-tended path which leads to a pet cemetery where the children of the town have been burying their deceased animals, most of them dogs and cats killed by the trucks on the road, for decades. A heated argument ensues between Louis and Rachel the next day. Rachel disapproves of discussing death and she worries about how Ellie may be affected by what she saw at the cemetery. It is later explained that Rachel was traumatized by the early death of her sister, Zelda, who suffered from spinal meningitis — as her sister grew more deformed and mentally unstable from the disease, she began to lash out at her family, eventually dying in the back bedroom of their house. Rachel had been left alone by her parents to take care of her unstable sister and the sordid experience obviously scared her for life. Louis is furious at the thought of Rachel’s parents’ neglect and promises to have a better understanding of Rachel’s attitude toward death. This becomes one of the first clues to the relationship between Louis and his in-laws who had never looked favorably on each other.

On Louis Creed’s first day at his new job, a traumatic experience ensues at the University of Maine’s campus when Victor Pascow, a student who is fatally injured after being struck by a car. Pascow will soon play a pivotal role as a semi supernatural guardian in the Creed story. On the night following his death, Pascow’s ghost visits Louis and leads him to the cemetery and refers specifically to the “deadfall”, a dangerous pile of tree and bush limbs that form a barrier. Pascow warns Louis not to “go beyond, no matter how much you feel you need to.” Louis wakes up in bed the next morning convinced it was a dream, but discovers his feet and the bedsheets covered with dirt and pine needles. Louis dismisses the episode as a result of stress caused by Pascow’s death coupled with his wife’s anxieties about death. He accepts the situation as a bout of sleep walking. This situation is really what gives the book credence. It’s a very real situation, is it not? How often do we come across something strange and unusual or maybe even something possibly traumatic and rationalize the event into nothingness?

Moving on…

Louis is forced to confront death during Halloween, when Jud’s wife, Norma, suffers a near-fatal heart attack. Thanks to Louis’s immediate attention, Norma recovers. Jud is grateful for Louis’ help, and decides to repay him. A month later, during Thanksgiving while Rachel and the kids are visiting the dreaded in-laws, Jud discovers the crumbled corpse of Church, obviously run over by a truck. Louis is struggling over how to break the news to Ellie. Jud decides to make good on his promise to “repay” Louis and takes him to the pet cemetery, supposedly to bury Church. Instead, the elderly easterner leads Louis a few miles beyond the deadfall, the very one Pascow warned Creed about in his “dream” to “the real cemetery”: an ancient burial ground that was once used by the Micmacs, a Native American tribe ingenious to Maine. Following Jud’s instructions, Louis buries the cat and constructs a marker of sorts out of the small pile of stones he took out of the impromptu grave.

The next afternoon, the cat returns home. However, while he used to be vibrant and lively, he now acts strangely and “a little dead,” in Louis’ words. Church, who had started acting a tad lazily after having his “manhood” snipped, now after returning from the grave hunts for mice and birds much more often, and much more furiously, ripping them apart without eating them. The cat also gives off an unpleasant odor. Louis is disturbed by Church’s resurrection and begins to regret his decision. Jud tells Louis about his dog Spot, who was brought back to life in the same manner when Jud was twelve. Louis asks if a person was ever buried in the Micmac grounds, to which Jud answers vehemently no. And goes on to give us one of the best quotes in the entire book when he states, “Sometimes, dead is bettah…”

Fast forward several months later, Gage, who has just learned to walk, while playing in front of the Creed house, gets away from the family, almost sprinting towards the main road. Louis gives chase, but comes up short. Gage is tragically run over by a speeding truck. I believe this part in the book gives most parents a cringe. The thought of not being able to protect our kids, to save them, is a horrifying thought. In the story, Rachel sinks into a deep depression; Ellie becomes depressed as well. At Gage’s wake, Rachel’s father, Irwin, who never respected Louis or his daughter’s decision to marry him, obviously very drunk and bitter, berates Louis harshly, blaming Louis for the boy’s death. Louis snaps and the two fight in the funeral home’s viewing room, accidently knocking over the casket; Rachel witnesses the fight and becomes hysterical, seeing the cold arm of their dead baby, fall lazily from the coffin. Exposed.

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Overcome with grief and despair, Louis considers bringing his son back to life with the power of the burial ground. Jud, guessing what Louis is planning, attempts to dissuade him by telling him another story of the burial ground that of Timmy Baterman, a young man from Ludlow who was killed charging a machine gun nest on the road to Rome during World War II. His father, Bill, put Timmy’s body in the burial ground, where he came back to life, and was seen by terrified townsfolk soon thereafter. Jud describes Timmy’s behavior; he’d acted much like Church had, wandering listlessly along the road near his home, unable to speak and having a haunted look on his face.

Jud and three of his friends had gone to the Baterman house to confront the pair, but Timmy confronted each of them with indiscretions they had committed, sins Timmy should have had no way of knowing, thus giving the impression that the resurrected Timmy was actually some sort of demon who had possessed Timmy’s body. Jud and his friends flee the house horrified, and Bill shoots his son and burns his house to the ground, killing himself.

This is the part in the story in which we find ourselves begging the question: What if what comes back isn’t the deceased, but something else?

King craftily injects some possible clues for us to follow. Namely using Jud and his rationalized guilt, assuming that Gage died because he showed Louis the burial ground. There are also hints that at some point the burial ground was used for victims of cannibalism and that it became the haunt of the Wendigo, a terrible creature of the forest, whose mere presence gives men a taste for the flesh of their own kind. Through Louis, we later get a glimpse of the creature, but nothing really salable. What I got from all this was, in Jud Crandall’s words, the “ground had gone sour” and now acts as a conduit to a darker place, corrupting any animal or person buried there, and possessing the deceased with some sort of demonic presence.

Despite Jud’s warning and his own reservations, Louis’ grief and guilt spur him to carry out his plan. Louis has Rachel and Ellie visit her parents in Chicago again, not telling them his intentions. Louis meticulously exhumes his son’s body. This scene is one of the more powerful ones, the slow progression of madness mixed with the tragedy of losing a child. It was an equally heartfelt moment as it was a horrifying one. Finished with his work, Luis takes his son’s corpse to the burial site. Along the trail, the Wendigo nearly scares him away but Louis’ determination, combined with the power of the burial site…or perhaps his own creeping insanity, keeps him moving.

In a strange twist in the story, Ellie has a nightmare featuring Victor Pascow on the flight to Chicago. In Chicago, again Ellie has a seemingly precognitive episode, something very similar to Danny Torrance in The Shining, and something that King uses in most of his stories, including The Stand and Doctor Sleep, which I find to be interesting. Rachel, in her own mind, agrees with her daughter that something is strange regarding Louis’ behavior. She fears Louis may be planning suicide. Convinced something is amiss, Rachel attempts to fly back to Maine, but misses her connecting flight at Boston and decides to drive the rest of the distance. On the road, she passes the infamous Jerusalem’s Lot, and is pledged with “car problems,” as if some dark entity were preventing her from reaching Louis in time to stop him.

Louis buries Gage at the burial ground. Later, Gage returns as a demonic shadow of his former self, suddenly gifted with the ability to talk with intelligence. He sneaks into his old home and steals a scalpel from Louis’ medical bag — Louis, in a deep sleep after returning from the burial ground, is repulsed by Gage’s foul odor while unconscious but strangely does not wake up.

Perhaps something dark is at work here?

Across the street, Gage breaks into Jud’s house and taunts Jud about his wife’s implied infidelity, again displaying knowledge Gage should know nothing about, giving the audience the impression that this is not Gage at all, but something else entirely. Gage then brutally kills Jud with Louis’ scalpel. When Rachel arrives at Jud’s house, Gage kills her also (and, it is implied, partially eats her corpse). Louis, upon waking, see the footprints of his resurrected son and his open medical bag and missing scalpel. Louis, wanting to put an end to everything, kills Church and gives Gage a fatal doses of morphine, and then grieves for his son by sitting and rocking with the corpse in the corner of the hallway.

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Discovering the body of his wife, Louis, now utterly out of his mind, burns down Jud’s house, then carries Rachel’s body to the burial ground, saying that he “waited too long” with Gage but is confident that Rachel will come back the same as before. After being interrogated by investigators about the fire and revealing nothing about his involvement, Louis waits until nightfall for Rachel to return. Playing solitaire, he hears his resurrected wife walk into the house. A hand falls on his shoulder and his wife greets him with “Darling…” with the sound of gravel and dirt in her mouth.

Bringing the story to an absolutely chilling end.

The reviews for Pet Sematary are mixed. The New York Times in 1983 considered it to be an unlikely choice as “most frightening book.” But it was, very much so. Skillfully crafted from the mundane experiences of the American family, the mood thickens in a chilling and subtle way. King invokes the old short story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” by W.W. Jacob, where an old couple wishes upon a talisman to conjure up their dead son, who was mangled in a factory accident. It is a credit to King’s talent during this era to be able to keep the attention of readers with a story so banal…until it’s not. There is even a behind the curtain story in which King did not want to publish Pet Sematary because he thought he’d gone “too far.” Did he? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe it is the writer’s responsibility to push boundaries in storytelling, as long as it is done in an thoughtful, provoking, and intelligent way. And Pet Sematary certainly fits all three criteria. Personally speaking, Pet Sematary has influenced me greatly in my own work. Pushing boundaries through situation-driven story’s. Keeping true to the characters and fleshing them out as real people, and not meta-humans. Surrounding the mundane and banal with supernatural forces that cannot be fully explained and certainly do not glitter in the sunlight, but rather shriek from it, laying hidden in the shadow of the human heart.

My rating: 5/5

With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.


From Combat Veteran to Horror Writer

Before we get into this, there is a quote from Michael Herr in his book, Dispatches, that I’d like to share. It’s a long quote, so bear with me. Herr says:

“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them. Most combat troops stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights, but there were always the ones who couldn’t let that go, these few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras… We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult” (Dispatches, 1977).

My reasoning for sharing this quote from Herr is because, in more ways than one, his voice sums up my own feelings regarding my experiences in the Iraq War, OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom for those in the know), and writing/living with those memories today. Allow me to explain.

There seems to be a surge of “war stories” finding their way into the media nowadays. I’m in no way saying this is a bad thing; I wish there were more veteran writers. However, I have to be somewhat suspicious when I see books marketed as “another action-packed heroic tale of contemporary military service.” Such as from a Navy Seal’s perspective or some high ranked officer sharing their “retelling” of command with low fidelity storytelling. I’m not trying to be quip here, nor am I trying to call out any one individual. What I am trying to call out is similar to what Herr stated in the quote shared above. There seems to be this carnivorous appetite for war stories, but not war as it really is, rather war from a heroic narrative, or worse, war stories where soldiers are nothing more than pawns in a Mad Hatter’s political chess game. I feel these kinds of stories are for people who do not have a genuine interest in the reality of war from the perspective of, say, Joe-Shmoe from Littlerock, Arkansas. These kinds of stories are for people who want to be entertained, not enlighten to the cruel banality of combat.

For a long time, I didn’t write much about anything. A few poems, here and there, but nothing I was willing to share with anyone, under any circumstance. Well…except for maybe in death, if I was dead then I guess I couldn’t really do much about someone reading my work, could I?

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I signed up for the U.S. Army in Sept 2001 and was honorably discharged in February 2008. Roughly seven years of service, including three tours in Iraq, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, and finally 2006-2007. The last tour was probably the hardest, not only was my deployment extended for the great 2007 Iraq War troop surge (Operation Arrowhead, I think), but I took more hits than in any of my previous two tours, and on top of that, I had someone other than my parents waiting for me at home. My wife and I had just met a few months before I deployed. She stayed with me the entire deployment. We wrote dozens of letters to each other, we chatted on the phone and on the internet, and that’s if circumstances made it possible. She supported me, with more than just care packages, but by giving me focus, reminding me that I was more than just a soldier. Being away from her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Let me say, I don’t mean to sound callous towards my parents, I love my parents very much, but with my wife it was different. For the first time, I couldn’t imagine myself dying and not being afraid. Not just for the circumstance (bodily suffering) but for the recompense of leaving her behind (emotional suffering). I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be robbed of this imagined life we could’ve had together. I didn’t want to lose that. And I didn’t want her to suffer for my loss.

 

In 2008, after being pushed by family to get into college, I finally agreed. I’m glad I did. College helped with more than just furthering my career. Slowly, through the course from 2008-2014, I began to open up. I didn’t really want to at first, again, back to the “glamorization of war,” I feared any attempt to recount my experience would be a cheapening of it, a cheapening of other veteran’s experiences by attempting to sell my own. I didn’t want to do that, but I felt drawn to write something.

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My first attempt was during a creative writing class into my second semester at San Jacinto Community College. The assignment was to write a short narrative story. I wrote, “There will be Ghosts,” which was my ode to both my experiences and the Tom Cruise Vietnam movie, “Born on the Fourth of July.” From there I dove head first into fiction-writing. I began a little science-fiction piece which never came to fruition, and probably never will. I consider these first works to be a learning curve, not something I’d want to see published. A dabbling, if you will, in the creative cosmos, finding my voice and all that fun stuff. When I left community college to enter the university (University of Houston-Clear Lake), I had to put my fictional writing on the back burner and focus almost exclusively on my history studies. While this may seem like a setback, I do not see it that way. In fact, I believe these two years of hardnosed historical study gave me an element lacking in my previous fictional-writing attempts. Dedicating myself to my studies gave me a depth I wouldn’t have been able to include in my work otherwise. My studies focused on 20th century Germany, namely the Weimar Republic and Nazi eras. I also took  Vietnam War history classes, Texas history, and the Civil Rights Movement, each class taught from the ground-up. This is a somewhat relative new way of teaching history. Traditionally, history is taught from the top, that is, from famous generals and presidents or other such impressive folk. From the bottom-up, history is taught from the Joe-Shmoe perspective, the everyday lives of everyday people. It was fantastic. A new way of looking at our world and the people that fill it by giving them relevance. In 2014 I graduated from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelor of Arts in History…now what?

 

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Suddenly I found this huge pocket of empty space. My mandatory studies were over with nothing to keep my mind focused on. I decided to get back to fictional writing no longer for term papers, but something that would keep my mind busy, keep me sane, and present a challenge. I wrote two short stories soon after graduating. “Hobo: a horror short story,” and “Are you hungry, dear?” Both are of the horror genre. And before you ask, “why horror,” let me be brief and just say that I’ve always been a fan of horror and dark fiction, ever since my big sister let me watch “Night of the Living Dead” one Friday night. And even before then, I read Goosebumps and then grew into Stephen King. It made sense for me to gravitate to the genre that I felt more comfortable in. And besides, horror gives us the most honest and straightforward media for social commentary…sometimes we need that ugly non-decorum. And Hobo was as direct a social commentary piece I’ve ever written. Through storytelling, I discussed this growing issue with perspectives and homelessness and then threw that into a gory tale of cannibalism. Perhaps over-the-top…but it was fun to write! “Are you hungry, dear?” I was thinking about this problem with identity, are we who we are because of what we have done in the past, or can we be better. This, of course, was told in thru a story basically about a witch who performs a dark ritual on a pizza!

While these shorts were fun, they also gave me some traction toward my first full-length book, Reinheit.

Reinheit was published originally under Booktrope’s horror imprint Forsaken, and now currently resides with Shadow Work Publishing, was, to be frank, the most serious thing I’ve ever written, other than my wedding vows. But let me be clear, this was not my “Iraq War” piece, though, as a writer you have to draw emotion from somewhere, and it would seem a lot of my emotion still streams from my experiences in Iraq. I think some of that bled into Reinheit. As for the story, I tapped into my history studies and focused on Nazi Germany. I didn’t want this to be just a historical fiction piece, I wanted to say something about some of the issues going on in 2014, in the media, and on social websites, such as Facebook. The total disregard for looking at people as simply that, people. Reinheit drew from real history, but the story was really about the here and now. A school teacher dealing with an abusive husband, an SS officer pushing himself to carry out his ghastly orders, a thug of a husband who views the world from a very narrow hall, an old man looking for redemption, and of course, a curious armchair with a very dark purpose.

While penning Reinheit, I was able to develop my, what authors call, “writers voice.” When you read a lot, which is a must if you want to write, you kind of take on the voice of the authors you are reading. You need to write to chisel away all those voices, and hopefully find your own in the process. I think this is intended to be an ongoing thing. The more you chisel, the more defined your voice becomes, until maybe reaching some point when your aged and withered and giving lectures to a new generation of writers. Obviously, I haven’t reached this milestone yet. I’m still having fun with it. So, yes, writing Reinheit helped define my own voice and gave me the necessary encouragement to take the next step, writing my “war story.”

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Again, I couldn’t write something heroic, though I know a lot of whom I consider to be heroic. I didn’t want to pass the war off as some grand adventure. I wanted to rip the decorum off war, the shininess of it. I wanted to bring audiences into the preverbal trenches of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I wanted to bring an air of hardnosed poetry as Philip Larkin had done for his own generation with his masterpiece, “MCMXIV.” And above all this, I wanted to be direct and honest, no matter how difficult or depressing that may be. Even for myself, rehashing brutal memories. With my pile of one-subject notebooks (yes, I write everything longhand before MS Word), a set out on this endeavor. What I had titled Subdue was inked in about nine months, from paper to MS Word, and has recently been picked up by my new publisher. I cannot go into too many details about the book just yet, but I can say that within those pages are real, raw, and utterly difficult subjects. While hopefully still entertaining, because of the relationships between the characters, it was not written to entertain, it was written to discuss the reality of war and living with the memory of war, I wanted to talk about PTSD, anger, war-guilt, and suicide because these are discussions that need to happen by getting away from the myth of superman and disconnect of high-adventure combat by focusing on the naked ugliness of it and how we can live with those memories through expression…and the sad gut punching fact that many cannot live with the memories of war…

While there will always be “those” books that do not give much substance to the echoes of war, I’ve been seeing more and more veteran writers coming forward from the trenches, unabashed by unrepentant honesty. BRAVO! There was a recent Vanity Fair article called, “The Words of War” that included a few of these up and coming writers of poetry, novels, and screenplays. I felt encouraged reading it. Seeing fellow veterans picking up the pen and expressing themselves. I’m proud to be part of this “Lost Generation,” for as Elliot Ackerman, one of the veteran writers mentioned above, puts it, “it might have been better to be part of the ‘Lost Generation’ than the lost part of a generation.”

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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His paranormal/miltary series, The Subdue Books, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.

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Hellish Interviews: w/ Duncan Ralston

Adding to the already growing list of differing topics covered with Machine Mean, we’re adding something new! Hellish Interviews is as it says, interviews with hellish authors of the dark and unusual. Interviewing is something I’ve wanted to dip my toes in for some time,especially among horror writers. From my experience, horror writers tend to be the most normal people imaginable, which is odd compared to the macabre twisted things they write about. Getting to know writers better is interesting on more then one level. There are things we all can agree on, to a degree, and some be probably will disagree, and then there of tidbits of information ultimately new and exciting, which is what the act of discover is, is it not?

Joining me today is horror author Duncan Ralston. Duncan was born in Toronto sometime during the year 1976. He lives with his girlfriend and their dog where he writes dark fiction about the things that frighten, sicken, and delight him. In addition to his twisted short stories found in GRISTLE & BONE and the newly released THE BLACK ROOM MANUSCRIPTS, his debut novel, SALVAGE, will haunt various booksellers later this year.

Duncan Ralston

Machine Mean: So, Duncan. You’ve got a horror anthology that recently came out with Booktrope: Forsaken. What drew you into penning this anthology? Did you have any favorite anthologies that inspired this work?

Duncan Ralston:  I’ve always had a deep love of short stories. I started with the Alfred Hitchcock Presents books, moved on to Stephen King’s Night Shift and Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Now I’m reading a lot of Harlan Ellison shorts, Ramsey Campbell’s, and some small press crime and horror anthologies. Short stories are the bastard children of the literary world, but with horror and crime, they are often better than novels. To maintain a consistent level of horror and/or suspense throughout a novel can be difficult. Short horror cuts right to the quick. It doesn’t mess around. It makes its point and then it gets the hell out.

MM: If you had to put a label on your “writing voice,” what would that label be?

DR: The Darkest Place of All is the Human Heart. Short and sweet, huh?

MM: Absolutely! Thinking about your inspirations, if you could pick one famous author, dead or alive, to review your work, who would that be? Why?

DR:  No question, Stephen King. I love a lot of authors from many genres, but King was my inspiration. And he was never afraid to call himself a horror writer, unlike some, as if the term itself is distasteful, and the genre should be looked down upon. Plus, he’s proven that horror isn’t just myths and monsters with stories like Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body, Roadwork (one of my all-time favorites, written as Richard Bachman), etc.

MM: Great answer! I’m a total freak about King as well. And I love the way he blends normality into these classic monster motifs. Speaking of which, what horror mythology would you consider focusing on most for your next anthology? Werewolf’s, swamp creatures, vampires, mad scientists, aliens, mummies, ghosts, or zombies, or any combination of the above?

DR: My next collection (I’ve already been gathering up some stories for it, but I won’t be putting it together for a while) will focus more on human monsters, the darkness within the psyche. Serial killers, crimes of passion, cults, crimes “against nature,” and against humanity.

MM: On the subject of anthologies, do you have a favorite film or television anthology?

DR:  Of all time? Probably The Twilight Zone. I just loved how it often took real world issues and gave them a dark twist. I know the plots seem a little hackneyed nowadays, following a pretty standard formula. But the formula is virtually perfect, so why mess with it? I’ve got a a novelette out (How to Kill a Celebrity) that’s inspired heavily by The Twilight Zone. It was fun to write. I love when stories surprise me, when I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen, and I was surprised by how it turned out. I hope other people feel the same.

I love anthology horror, though. Kolchak, American Horror Story, Masters of Horror, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Amazing Stories, Tales from the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside. There’s just so much you can do with anthology TV that you can’t with episodic. They’re the short stories of television.

MM: I couldn’t agree more. Love me some classic Twilight Zone! And I pretty much grew up ingesting Tales from the Crypt. So, I’ve heard you’ve got a full length novel coming out later this year? Salvage, right? Could you tell us a little bit about the book? What are some of the main themes?

DRSalvage is a novel about a man struggling with depression after the death of his little sister. His depression leads him to follow in her footsteps to the lake where she’d drowned, Chapel Lake: a valley flooded for a hydroelectric dam, with the ruins of a town below the water. The further he looks into her drowning, the more he believes foul play might have been involved. But he also starts to think the lake itself might be haunted. Depression, lost memories, childhood trauma and religious zealotry feature heavily.

MM: What inspired you to tackle the subject matter in Salvage? Would it be fair to say that faith, religion, and spirituality have deep roots in Salvage? Do you have any life experiences that helped you tap into the themes?

DR: My own memories of early childhood are very spotty, and I often wondered why that was, if other people’s memories of their own childhoods were mostly a mystery. One thing I do remember is a time when I was about three or four, my mother was invited to what turned out to be a sort of hippie Sufi commune, unbeknownst to her, and she brought me and my brothers along. It was a lot of holding hands and chanting, and since we didn’t go to church, it was my first experience with religion. It wasn’t exactly what I would call a fun time, but I think it’s the root of my interest in cults. Not that it was a cult, necessarily; I’m not even sure how faithful it was to the Sufism (which I believe is a sort of mystical offshoot of Islam, like what Kabbalah is to Judaism), since I was about three or four years old. I’ve always been interested in fringe groups, and atypical religions. Jim Jones, the Heaven’s Gate cult, David Koresh, Charlie Manson. The Svengali archetype is fascinating to me. I’m curious what makes intelligent, rational people follow maniacs to their deaths?

Plus, I’ve always wanted to write about God and religion in a horror story. It’s often used as a crutch to solve problems in horror (or used to be, like using the cross against vampires), and I thought it might be interesting to deal with it head-on, but without the Satanic overtones of most horror stories that deal with religion.

MM: How do you feel about your main character? The transitions? Are they a sympathetic character? Pitiful? Strong? or Despised?

DR: Owen Saddler starts out on shaky ground. He’s deeply depressed, but it hasn’t really occurred to him it could be a problem. He doesn’t much like the world around him. He’s in a downward spiral. I’ve been there myself, and it’s not a good place to be. After his younger sister drowns, he really feels he has nothing to keep him afloat–so to speak–aside from throwing himself into work. When his partner suggests he takes time off to grieve, instead of grieving (which he doesn’t want to do), he turns his sister’s death into mystery to solve. So in the beginning he’s possibly delusional, heading down a dangerous path, but he believes it’s the path to healing.

MM: During the process of telling a story, many writers tend to favor some of their characters over others, who would you think is your least favorite character? Why?

DR: None of them! Okay, I guess if I have to pick, it’d be Howard Lansall, Sr. He’s the sort of sad sack drunk who seems interesting at first, but you’d hate to meet at a bar. Gabbing your ear off, and complaining about his life, so drunk he doesn’t know he’s repeating himself.

MM: Why is water such a large focus in the book?

DR: Water heavily featured in my childhood. I grew up near a lake. I used to spend hours playing in the water, entire summers at another lake up north. I used to have dreams about draining the lake and finding treasures, hidden caverns, lost ruins. It’s also a nice metaphor for the subconscious, and buried memories, which is a big part of the book.

MM: Thanks for telling us a bit about your upcoming debut novel, SALVAGE. When can we expect to see its release?

DR: I’m hoping to see it released before Halloween, most likely late-October.

MM: Before we end this hellish interview, do you have any other projects you’re willing to discuss?

DR: ‘m percolating a thriller about a couple undergoing an unusual form of therapy, while I write my next novel. The blurb for this one is TOP SECRET, but I think it would be safe to reveal that it’s all about ghosts.

MM: Okay, last question. If you could create your own horror anthology on TV, what would that look like and why?

DR: There’s a lot of untapped talent in the indie author world. We had Masters of Horror (and it was mediocre, at best), so why not Indies of Horror?

And while it’s not technically an anthology, I’ve written a pilot for a series about the town of Dark Pines from “Beware of Dog” in Gristle & Bone. It’s about a small town psychiatrist dealing with inner monsters gone very bad.
MM: Okay! Thanks Duncan for stopping by and giving us our first author interview. I wish you all the best with your release of GRISTLE & BONE with Booktrope and the upcoming novel, SALVAGE.
DR: THANKS, THOMAS! Great questions!
9781620159378
And there we have it folks! I want to thank Duncan Ralston for taking the time to answer my questions. Hopefully i didn’t make things too hard on him! If you want to keep up with Duncan, check out his website here. You can purchase his book, GRISTLE & BONE, here. Duncan is also hosting a giveaway contest for GRISTLE & BONE. If you want to enter for a chance to win a free copy, follow this link. Duncan also has a short story that will be published in a newly minted horror anthology, THE BLACK ROOM MANUSCRIPTS, available here for purchase.

 

 


The Stand: book in review

stand1

And before you ask, yes, this is the complete and uncut edition review. In case you were wondering, because I know you are. When mentioning broadly that I was reading The Stand, it was by far the first question many mentioned, or stated thereof: “Make sure you’re reading the uncut or you’ll have to start all over again.” And they’re right. If one was to read The Stand for the first time or at least the first time in a decade or two, you may want to invest in this behemoth, M-O-O-N, that spells 1,000 plus page journey into the heart of the 1990s psyche. The Stand is as the New York Post commented roughly 25 years ago, “In many ways, this is a book for the 1990’s, when America [was] beginning to see itself less and less in the tall image of Lincoln or even the robust one of Johnny Appleseed and more and more as a dazed behemoth with padded shoulders. Americans seemed delighted but in an odd way humiliated when Vaclav Havel, a tiny man from a small country, entered the great halls of Congress and delivered an uninflated Jeffersonian address. ‘The Stand,’ complete and uncut, is about the padded shoulders and the behemoth and the humiliation.”

I believe, for better or worse, this above 25 year review remains true today as it did then. The Stand is ultimately about humiliation, or perhaps something more, perhaps humility as well and not just the embarrassment of a plagued ego. There is both hope and fear in that notion. Hope that we can still better ourselves. Fear that it’ll take a plague that wipes out 99% of our population to do so.

stand2

The Super Flu, or Captain Trips, within the confines of the book, was the mother of all plagues designed, more or less, to consume the ego of humanity. What could be done within the pages of Stephen King’s masterpiece? Not a damn thing. You died, or you didn’t die. That is all. There were no preparations to be made. No magic cure. No vaccine. No decontamination. The world ended and there was nothing America (as is the focus of the book) could do about it. With all our plans, our designs of purpose and political gain, the world (via The Stand) slipped comfortably into chaos, lashing out at times with cruel attempts to maintain control. I recall reading through the opening chapters and thinking, “Why didn’t the government warn people?” Thinking about it now, what could they say? News was already spreading. Hope seemed like a cheap sale to most, others gladly took it and clung to it. Not to sound to villainous, but these were the best parts of the book, watching people react, both good and bad, in the face of catastrophe. This is more or less the same reason why I enjoy Romero-esk zombie stories as well. Zombies are cool, but what’s even cooler is watching how people react in the face of such cataclysmic odds. What will they do? And in King’s book, after 99% of America’s population dies, what will the survives do? And what I found also interesting in this aspect was discovering the “no man is an island” concept. While this does not speak for everyone, but for the majority, we are a community based life. We are a commutative species that depends upon not just our own wits, but the wits of others too. We crave belonging. We crave companionship. We crave community or as they say “common-unity.”

In King’s epic The Stand, this basic need of common-unity is broken down into three groups. Yes, you heard me, three. The first two are easily recognized. Good, Mother Abigail and her Colorado haven. And the second, Evil, Randell Flagg’s strict Las Vegas commune. The third is not easily recognized, because it remains in the shadow, for a time. This third group are the moderates, the “silent majority,” to quote Nixon. This was the group watching the events between Abigail’s and Flagg’s group unfold. They were the quiet watchers, unsure of which group to follow, or to follow any group at all. Towards the end of the book, we begin to see this silent majority take shape as members from both Good and Evil camps begin to cut tides, searching for their own undiscovered country, their own America. This was, I think, out of concern. Like Frannie and Stu, there is an unsettling feeling watching the Bolder community grow and expand and mutate back into some symbolism of what America had once looked like. But wasn’t the old America, the old ways the same ways in which brought about Captain Trips in the first place? The same despite need for control and the terrifying escalation in which that desire ultimately brings?

stand3

So, in a way, you can say that The Stand is basically about the death of all certainty, for nothing can be for certain, and what life would look like or could look like in the aftermath.

Just like most of King’s stories, The Stand was a character infused story driven by situation. His characters are some of the most real personas found within the pages of pop culture. Some I enjoyed more than others. Nick Andros was entertaining to read, though he was a bit naive.  Stu Redman was also a favorite, being a Texan and all.  There was also Larry Underwood, Glen Bateman (for some reason, I always picture Ben Franklin when reading the bits with Glen), and I even liked the more so-called wicked characters, both Harold and Trash were both favorites, though more or less pitied. I was not really a fan of Frannie Goldsmith. I found her to be actually rather annoying in the story. My all time favorite character by far was Mr. Tom Cullen. I’m not sure if that’s an odd character to hang your hat on. Cullen certainly did not play a pivotal role in the opening or even middle acts. Though he is there in the those transitions, his character becomes more important later on in the final stages of King’s apocalyptic play.  And by apocalypse, I mean not the obvious understanding (doom and gloom), but rather, the literal Greek definition, the “unveiling of knowledge,” the lifting of the veil, so-to-speak. In this, Tom Cullen is strangely gifted. His character, at first glance is obvious thin layered, or so he seems. Being a mentally challenged character, we may have a tendency to quickly dismiss him as a simple persona. However, there are layers to Tom, more than meets the eye, as they say. He has a power, and not just in prophesy, but also in faith. Tom has an unadulterated faith in the goodness of people. Child-like, almost. And certainly a quality worth respecting in our adult haggard age.

My Rating: 5/5

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Often called The Hemingway of Horror, Thomas S. Flowers secludes away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow from Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.


Pet Sematary: a 26 year review

Imagine my delight after coming home from a hard day at work to find Pet Sematary staring at me from the Netflix feature screen, letting me know, “Howdy, we just added this here movie and thought you’d enjoy watching it.” Well Netflix, you bastards, you were right. I did enjoy watching it. And I so enjoyed the paranoid feeling that my daughter was going to come strolling into my bedroom with a razor sharp scalpel. That was fun too. But I suppose hearing the muffled patter of feet from our neighbors upstairs probably didn’t help matters much. Good times. Where were we? Oh yes, Pet Sematary. Lets talk about that, for a moment. Shall we?

pet sematary gage

Pet Sematary is my most favorite book of Stephen King. And I was delighted that he also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of my beloved novel. But before we dive into a full blown movie review, for purposes here, I feel as if I need to discuss what aspects of the book I have adored so much over the years and discuss if any of that mystique actually crossed over the threshold into horror cinema. The charisma of the book, for me, is in the banality of the story. The mundane picture into the lives of the Creed’s and Crandall’s. Everything is so exquisitely normal. So much so, that when the macabre is slowly injected into the plot, we hardly take notice, until the macabre is all there is. And that’s pretty much it. The things that are unexplained, are perfectly unexplained. Nothing should be fully laid out. Pet Sematary allows the reader to play a part in the story. And the book is chock full of wonderful little quotes, such as: “Sometimes…dead is bettah,” or “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier; a man grows what he can and tends it,” or how about, “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret,” or maybe, “What’s been tried once had been tried once before…and before…and before…” or perhaps the most philosophical one of the bunch, “That lesson suggests that in the end, we can only find peace in our human lives by accepting the will of the universe.” All together though, I think it really just boils down to the slow masterfully woven story that makes Pet Sematary so damn good.

Now…how about the movie?

Synopsis:

The Creed family – Louis, Rachel, and their children Ellie and Gage – move from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine, where they end up befriending the elderly neighbor Jud Crandall, who takes them to an isolated pet cemetery hidden behind the Creeds’ new home. While working at the University of Maine, Louis “meets” Victor Pascow, who is brought in with severe injuries from a car accident. He manages to warn Louis about the pet cemetery near his home before he dies, calling Louis by name, despite the fact they hadn’t met before. After he dies, Victor comes to Louis in a dream to tell him about the dangers inherent at the cemetery. Louis awakens and assumes it was a dream, but notices his feet are covered in dirt, indicating he had gone to the cemetery. During Thanksgiving while the family is gone, Ellie’s cat Church is run down on the highway by the house, Jud takes Louis beyond the cemetery, to the Micmac burial ground, and buries Church where he says the real burial ground is. Church comes back to life, though a shell of what he was before, he now appears more vicious. Sometime later, Gage is killed by a truck along the same highway. When Louis questions Jud on whether humans had been buried in the cemetery before he recounts a story of a friend named Bill who had buried his son who had died in World War II at the site but he had come back changed. Realizing the horror that he brought to the townsfolk, Jud, Bill and some friends tried to destroy Timothy by burning him to death in the house, but Bill was attacked by Timothy in the process and both were killed.

Rachel and Ellie go on a trip and Louis remains home alone. Despite Jud’s warnings and Victor’s attempts to stop him, Louis exhumes his son’s body from the cemetery he was at and buries him instead at the Micmac ritual site. Victor appears to Rachel and warns her that Louis has done something terrible. She tries to reach out to Louis, then to Jud, informing him that she is returning home. She hangs up before Jud can warn her not to return. That night, Gage returns home and steals a scalpel from his father’s bag. He taunts Jud before slashing his Achilles tendon and kills him. Later, Rachel returns home and begins having visions of her disfigured sister Zelda before she had died, only to discover that it’s Gage, holding a scalpel. In shock and disbelief, Rachel reaches down to hug her son and he kills her as well.

Waking up from his sleep, Louis notices Gage’s footprints in the house and realizes his scalpel is missing. Getting a message from Gage that he has “played” with Jud and “Mommy” and wants to play with him now, he fills two syringes with morphine and heads to Jud’s house. Encountering Church, who attacks him, he kills the cat with an injection. Gage taunts him further within Jud’s house and Louis discovers Rachel’s corpse, falling hanged from the attic before he is attacked by his son. After a brief battle, Louis kills Gage with the morphine injection. He then lights the house on fire, leaving it to burn as he carries Rachel from the fire. Despite Victor’s continued insistence not to, Louis determines Rachel wasn’t dead as long as Gage was, and that burying her would bring her back to him. Victor cries out in frustration and vanishes as Louis passes through him.

That night, playing solitaire alone, Rachel returns to the house and she and Louis kiss. Unknown to him, she takes a knife from the counter and as the screen goes dark, Rachel stabs Louis -Wiki.

pet sematary movie poster

Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am! There you have it. Notice any subtle changes? I hope so, if you’ve read the novel, at least. For starters, let me say that the soundtrack is totally on point. Elliot Goldenthal certainly out-did himself on this one. And with the addition of the Ramones, pure classic tunes, man. However, despite the chilling score at the opening of the film, Pet Sematary is revealed in what feels like bright light. There was no darkness or creep factor. The only cemetery that is creepy during the day light is the one from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and this picture ain’t it. Okay…not a good start. Next, we find ourselves in a sprint to get the characters introduced  and on screen and in the race I feel that the relationships are less genuine. Not to mention the slap in your face foreshadowing at the very beginning with little Gage walking toward the road and here comes big Jud to save him from a barreling tractor truck. Pace is typically something only books can afford…or if movie producers are willing to add an additional hour or so to the movie. Unfortunately, people have little patience with movies. They want action-action-action, explosions, gore, and sex. While those things are good to have in a movie, but come on! Sit back, enjoy the damn story for crying out loud! Stop and listen. Open your ears, you might learn something. Okay…I’ll step down from my old man soapbox. But still, that’s part of the reason why this movie feel so…discombobulated. Popular scenes from the book flash at you and unless you’ve actually read the damn thing, I doubt they had as much of an impact. This especially goes for the funeral scene with Gage and his grandfather confronting the father and the fight and the very end of the movie when Louis takes his dead wife to the Micmac burial ground. Where the hell is Steve Masterton? He had one of the best damn scenes in the book, watching mad-Louis walking in the woods. And lets not mention the ending with Rachel coming in through the door. In the book, the ending gave me chills. In the movie…ugh, whatever…

 

 

Some scenes that had been changed that were still effective includes perhaps when Louis unearths his son and rocks him back and forth in his arms in the graveyard. As a father myself, I found that scene very profound and one of the rare occurrences where Dale Midkiff’s acting was passable. In fact, I found most of the acting in the movie fairly awful, including the beloved Next Generation actress Denise Crosby, who played Rachel Creed like some ditsy blonde. In the book, Rachel was a strong character. Flawed, sure, but strong, especially at the end, working by her own intuition that something wrong was happening and not the prodding of some damn ghost. Speaking of which…come on! Victor Pascow was very creepy in the book and adding him in additional scenes in the movie came off as kinda corny. The only real talent in the movie comes from the late great Fred Gwynne, who played lovable “Down Easter” Jud Crandall, better known for his historic role as Herman in The Munsters (1964-66). Second best acting has to go to Church…the damn cat! Freaking creepy eyes, man!

So much more awful things could be said of the 1989 movie adaptation of Pet Sematary. Yet…somehow it was still a good movie! Despite all the flaws, it is still an enjoyable watch. Partly because, I think, King wrote the screenplay, and who knows what the editors did to his original script. Most of the really important scenes are there, mostly. And while “reboot” is kinda a no-no word, I think Pet Sematary would benefit from a really authentic re-make. Many may disagree. My strongest hangup on the idea is replacing Fred Gwynne as Jud…the dude had some serious acting chops and is one of the most iconic roles. I for one am not totally against remakes; I’m against terrible cheap remakes. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

My Rating: 3/5

 


Opus Questions with Kit Power

Inside the imagination of horror writers you’ll find untold curiosities. Strange and unusual stories crafted from equally appalling minds. But where do horror writers get their ideas? Certainly, from the world around them. No doubt. For the world, historically speaking, can be both strange and unusual. But I think equally important, horror writers hone most of their craft from reading the works of others. It most certainly feels like a prerogative. To write, you must first read. Thus, here with Opus Questions we delve into this line questioning. What do horror writers read? What works have helped shape their own words. What books have inspired these wordsmiths of the macabre? So, to keep things interesting and to be a bit villainess on my part, I’ve asked my guests to tell us what their favorite books are and why. And they can pick only two. You heard me. Just two!!! (laughs manically) So, without further ado, here is…

Kit Power:

It is, of course, impossible. Two favourite books? Just two? I’d struggle with the two favourite books I’ve read this year. Of all time? Ludicrous bloody question. Quite impossible.

I have therefore done what any honourable person would do – I’ve cheated. Here, then, are not my two favourite books, but rather the two books that I think have had the most direct and immediate impact on my writing life. Without these two books, I’m fairly confident you wouldn’t be reading this now. So, you know, blame them.

Or rather, as both books were written by Stephen King, blame him, I guess.

First up is IT. I read this book when I was eleven years old, and read it every year for the following ten years at least – normally over winter. Something about short days and long nights made this epic tale of the summer of 1958 deeply appealing – even with all the child murders, shape shifting monsters, and bowel loosening terror.

IT, Stephen King, 1986

IT, Stephen King, 1986

That first time though – jeepers. The book is dedicated to kids, thus giving the entirely false impression that it may be in some way suitable for them. It isn’t, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with the text will attest. It emphatically isn’t. For example, (and spoiler alert, I guess, but for heaven’s sake sort your life out and go read the bloody thing) the opening chapter of the book involves a six year old boy having his arm ripped off by a clown that isn’t really a clown but a monster that lives in the sewer.

Chapter 1. Things do not improve from there, to put it mildly. There was at least twice, during that first read through, when I had to abandon the book for a while, so vivid and terrifying were the nightmares (and for that matter, daymares) it invoked. The first was a passage concerning the strange death and even stranger life of a ten year old psychopath called Patrick Hocksetter, and the second involved the Losers Club preparing to storm what was clearly the haunted house from hell, which I wasn’t expecting any of them to survive.

But really, the book doesn’t let up at all – cruelty after cruelty, monster and human alike, a catalogue of horrors that avoids monotony by sheer force of imagination, of personal touch, of characterization.

Not Safe For Kids. And yet… reading it transformed my outlook. About what fiction could be. About what it could do. The notion that a horror story containing kids could have the kids get killed was a violation of what I’d thought of being a fairly iron clad rule of fiction – threat, sure, temporary cruelty or hardship, absolutely, but vicious death? Never! Impossible. And yet…

It was suddenly clear to me that actually, it was possible that there were no rules. That the gloves could come all the way off.

That anything was possible.

That’s the reason I write the kind of fiction I do – whatever the genre, this insight is my north star, the question I ask myself when I edit, draft, polish. Did I go all the way? Did the story?

So for better or worse, IT is why I write what I write.

The reason I write at all is “On Writing.”

The timing was perfect, that’s all. I’d gotten the book as a birthday present three years ago, after finally finishing The Dark Tower series which reignited my interest in King (yeah, I didn’t hate the end or the last three books. Sorry.) It sat on the shelf as I frantically completed a year of distance learning to improve my CV. I picked it up either as the course was finishing or just before.

On Writing, Stephen King, 2000.

On Writing, Stephen King, 2000.

And just POW! ‘Do you need permission to write? Very well, I give you permission.’ Lightbulb. Fireworks. Pick your choice of overworked synonym.

I loved writing. I loved it so much. I even didn’t completely hate writing essays about a subject I detested to get a qualification I needed. This realization collided with the fact that I’d been spending 8–10 hours a week for the last year on this course. That’s 8–10 hours of time a week ‘spare’. Unclaimed.

Wasted.

Would I go back to watching lame telly, or acquiring PS3 trophies? That would feel… not good. Should I perchance enroll in another course, maybe start trying to complete a degree course? My very soul shriveled from the thought of another five years spent thus wise engaged.

There was Another Way. Another Choice. The author who had most shaped my philosophy about fiction, and done so by raw example, had just advised me that writing fiction for fun was one of the greatest, most rewarding and pleasurable pursuits known to man, and that the more seriously you took it, the more fun it was. He’d shared his approach to the craft, which married so closely with my own I found it eerie (I guess not thinking then how it must be a fairly common approach overall – there may be more than one way to skin a cat, after all, but probably not a ton more).

Best of all, I had Permission. Permission to write. Permission to take it seriously. Permission to set loose that imagination in the service of telling a story, and making others feel by sheer force of language.

I sat down and wrote my novella Lifeline in three weeks. I still haven’t looked back.

 

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I want to thank Kit Power for taking the time and sharing with us a bit about the books that have helped shape his strange and unusual mind. Kit Power is an up and coming wordsmith of macabre. He has several anthologies he’s contributed to, all available on Amazon. His novella is also available, Lifeline. You can find Mr. Power lurking about on Ginger Nuts of Horror as a contributing writer and reviewer for the site. Or you can find him on his own site, here, discussing the art of writing and the world of horror entertainment. Kit Power will also be featured in the up and coming horror anthology, The Black Room Manuscripts, coming later this summer.

 


Opus Questions with Daniel Marc Chant

Beyond this door is another dimension. Another reality utterly unfathomable to the human mind. Real terror exists, I’m afraid. Its the same fear that pulls your eyes to the nearly shut closet, the over-consuming cawing of the mind, like some hellbound raven. The persistent thought that something indeed in hiding under your bed. Yes. Beyond this door leads to a world of unrestrained imagination. Of sight and sound. Of shadow and superstition.  At the summit are the limits of knowledge. Below, are the pit are our fears. But on this highway we’ll find discovery and a wanton taste for delicacies untold. On this road we’ll discover the opus cravings writers of macabre crave most. For every wordsmith craves knowledge. So come, cross the threshold. What is there to fear, but fear itself?

Daniel Marc Chant:

When Thomas S. Flowers asked two books I’d recommend I was wracked with indecision and frustration. Each fleeting moment of thought made me focus on a book I’d read and consider it for inclusion, often the latest one that came to mind would replace the one before it, and so on. Like a mad carousel of interchanging novels my head spun round and round, unable to settle or decide on just one – let alone two.

It’s immediately obvious to those that know me I’m a massive fan of Lovecraft. I’ve had so many discussions on Lovecraft’s influence on not only my life but the lives of those more talented and verbose than I.  So while I felt I could include any of his work in a ‘best of’ list his impact on me is no secret. I felt obliged to include other authors. I usually rely on two stock answers to questions – “My favourite author is H. P. Lovecraft and my favourite film is John Carpenter’s The Thing.”

Thanks to this challenge I cannot rely on these answers so will attempt to capture my adoration for the genre I now occupy, the one of the mysterious and the macabre.

These tales had a meaningful impact on me for various reasons and, if you haven’t read them, I’d strongly suggest you do.

After all there’s nothing like a good book. But there’s especially nothing like sharing a good book.

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Hell House is written by Richard Matheson, most of you probably know him by his little known work entitled I Am Legend.

Hell House, Richard Matheson, 1971

Hell House, Richard Matheson, 1971

While I Am Legend tends to steal the spotlight Hell House is equally as terrifying, personally I think a thousand times more. Small time indie author Stephen King once commented, “Hell House is the scariest haunted house novel ever written. It looms over the rest the way the mountains loom over the foothills.”

First published in 1971 it tells the tale of Dr. Barrett and his wife Edith together with two mediums Florence Tanner and Benjamin Franklin Fischer. It’s a classic set up as millionaire William Reinhardt Deutsch, on his death bed and desperate for some form of immortality, hires the team to investigate the possibility of life after death. The group heads to Maine and stays at the notorious Belasco House, regarded as the most haunted house in the world.

It’s a wonderful premise and one that doesn’t fail to deliver throughout its brief 288 pages. The house was the site of ancient blasphemy and the walls of the titular Hell House now cause those within its walls to deteriorate into madness and insanity.  There are some wonderful subtexts at play here as the house preys on each person’s weakness – each character serving as a vessel for wider societal issues with spirituality, arrogance, insecurity, pent up frustration and more all swiftly eviscerated, challenged or twisted by the malevolent house.

It’s because of this the book played on my mind, and still does. The book spends its first half carefully building tension, creaking doors but never slamming them, and the whole book is peppered with a bleakness and eeriness that I find lacking in a lot of horror. It’s all the more impressive given its age that it can still shock, still surprise and still offend those of a delicate nature.

It’s often described as a product of its time (aren’t all books that?) but I say silence the naysayers and pick a copy of this up. Dim the lights and light a candle and read undisturbed. I guarantee it will get inside your head. And it will stay there.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is well known in literary circles and beyond. He’s a titan with a massive legacy. He’s given us Willy Wonka, James and a Giant Peach, The B. F. G. and more. Reading his books is a rite of passage for young readers.

The Witches, Roald Dahl, 1983.

The Witches, Roald Dahl, 1983.

First published in 1983, when I was a mere 5 years old, I can’t exactly recall when or how this book came into my possession. All I know is that I read it in a night. The words and Quentin Blake’s illustrations captured my young imagination like a trap and I didn’t so much read this book as experience it.

Witches have cropped up throughout society and literature for hundreds of years, most famously in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but in Dahl’s tale witches are trying to rid the world of children by turning them into mice because the smell they give off is odorous to witches. It’s down to a small Norwegian boy and his cunning grandmother try and save the world’s children from these hideous bald vultures.

It doesn’t pull any emotional punches despite the fact it’s a kids book. It’s dark, subversive (some have claimed it’s sexist and/or misogynistic) and has a genuinely sad and depressing ending (something the film adaptation chose to leave out).

Reading Roald Dahl’s books made me feel like he had respect for me as a reader, not as a child, but simply a young reader. I think Neil Gaimain is similarly capable of not pandering and talking down to young readers but instead challenging them and shocking them. I firmly believe that if you give children respect in fiction they will give fiction respect. It’s why Roald Dahl remains one of the best loved children’s authors of all time.

 

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I want to thank Daniel Marc Chant for taking the time and telling us a bit about the two books that have influenced and shaped his tastes for the strange and unusual. Daniel Marc Chant is a delectably brilliant author who has recently released his debut work of horror fiction, Maldicion, available on both paperback or eBook. Daniel is also the mastermind of an upcoming horror anthology that has pooled together some amazingly talented indie writers, The Black Room Manuscripts. You can keep in touch in Daniel Marc Chant on his website or on Twitter.


Opus Questions with Duncan Ralston

Greetings Boils and Ghouls, on this episode of Opus Questions we’ll be hearing from the fiendishly talented Duncan Ralston. If you’ve been following this chain of segments on Machine Mean, Opus Questions is all about finding out what horror writers enjoy reading, what books tickle their fancy, what novelizations have terrified them, haunted them, forced them to turn on the light. Opus Questions is also about discovering what books have inspired up and coming wordsmiths of macabre. For every writer has their favorites, the ones they hold dear. Because part of being a good writer, you have to be a good reader. You have to read — prolifically (grammar?).  So, to keep things interesting and to be a bit villainess on my part, I’ve asked my guests to tell us what their favorite books are and why. And they can pick only two. You heard me. Just two!!! (laughs manically) So, without further ado, here is…

Duncan Ralston:

When someone asks “What’s your favorite (book, movie, TV series, song)?” I find the answer about as difficult as choosing what to order when everything on the menu looks good and I haven’t eaten since breakfast. For the sake of Thomas’s request, I’ve narrowed it down to the two books that influenced me to start writing. Stephen King’s Night Shift, and Clive Barker’s Books of Blood were my first journeys into their terrifying minds, and still resonate with me long after reading. They aren’t necessarily my all-time “favorites,” but they’ve inspired me to achieve similar heights in my own writing.

Night Shift was on the shelf at the old cottage, and its creepy cover called to me… You may know the one: the hand covered in eyeballs and wrapped in gauze (this was the double cover, with the eyes peeking out from holes in the flap). It refers to the story “I Am the Doorway,” where an astronaut brings home an alien stowaway that uses him to peek into our world. Night Shift effectively blends science fiction, horror, terror (if you don’t know the difference, pick up his seminal non-fiction book, Danse Macabre), and gross-outs. Most may not be the best King shorts, nor the most chilling, but they are memorable for the far-outness of their concepts, and the sheer amount of adaptations they produced.

Night Shift, Stephen King, 1978

Night Shift, Stephen King, 1978

“Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road” serve as a sort of prologue and epilogue to the novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. “Children of the Corn,” about a couple who stumble into a creepy religious town where there are no adults, was made into more sequels than it deserved. “Trucks” became King’s directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive, with Emilio Estevez and an AC/DC soundtrack King probably listened to while he wrote the script. My favorite of the bunch when I was a kid, “Battleground” (which I copied from memory for a school assignment on my dad’s Tandy laptop), was adapted well in the Nightmares & Dreamscapes miniseries, with John Hurt as the hitman besieged by the toymaker’s box of animated soldiers.

In a recent reread, I found two decidedly non-horror stories work very well for their surprising level of emotion and honesty. “The Last Rung on the Ladder” is a haunting story about siblings, trust, and suicide. “The Woman in the Room,” the first short film by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Walking Dead), is a sad tale of a man’s inner demons and remorse as he prepares to pull the plug on his dying mother. I have a feeling King, whose mother had recently passed, wrote the story to purge his own demons, and those feelings shine through (darkly) on the page.

The book also stands out in my mind for two quotes about writing that have stuck with me, one from John D. MacDonald, and the other from King himself. In the Introduction, MacDonald wrote that when he met people at parties, someone would always said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write,” to which he began gleefully replying, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon.” In the Foreword, Stephen King answers a question in a similar fashion: when asked “Why do you choose to write about such gruesome subjects?” King responds, “Why do you think I have a choice?”

I think he was on to something.

“I have seen the future of horror… and his name is Clive Barker.” This quote by Stephen King was splashed across the covers of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood omnibuses that I happened across at my local library. (For a small town, the Millbrook Public Library seemed to have just about everything a young horror fan required to keep himself sane.) Barker’s short stories are still some of the most visceral and imaginative I’ve ever read. His prose is often spare, but always vivid. It was Barker’s work that inspired me to try my hand at writing fiction outside of school assignments. My first few short stories as a teen were very Barker-esque, featuring sado-masochism and love-starved demons.

Books of Blood: Vol 2, Clive Barker

Books of Blood: Vol 2, Clive Barker

The omnibuses open with the eponymous frame story, in which we learn the Books have been carved into the flesh of a phony psychic by the ghosts of a haunted house. From there we take a ride on “The Midnight Meat Train,” following serial killer Mahogany into the depths of depravity. “In the Hills, the Cities” contains some incredible imagery and heavy metaphor, and introduced me to openly gay protagonists, which is significant mostly because I almost chose Barker’s 1996 novel, Sacrament, as my favorite, a book often criticized by cretins for a handful of explicit gay sex scenes.

There are other stories that return to my imagination like the animated dead from time to time: “The Body Politic,” in which our hands revolt, lopping each other from the oppressive shackles of our bodies and skittering off to conquer the world. In “Down, Satan!” a man seeks the attention of God by building a Hell on Earth. “The Age of Desire” is a chemical aphrodisiac experiment gone wrong. “The Forbidden,” a story about the power of legends, became the basis for one of my favorite horror movies, Candyman. It was Barker’s collection, filled with gruesome imagery, insane twists, poetic style, and in-your-face sex and violence, that made me decide to publish a short story collection of my own.

Stephen King once wrote that short stories are becoming a dying art. Everybody wants longer novels, series, sequels. I believe there will always be a place for them. Anthologies are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the horror genre. Short stories have the benefit of being read in one sitting. For a writer, there is no better spark for the imagination. Both Barker’s and King’s short stories have been and continue to be a huge inspiration for me and my writing.

DuncanRalston

I want to thank Duncan Ralston for taking the time and telling us a bit about his two favorite books and how they’ve inspired him in his our disturbed quests. Duncan Ralston is the author of Gristle & Bone, a collection of fantastic and terrifying short stories. His debut novel, SALVAGE, will hit eBooks and paperback shelves this summer. You can find and keep up with Duncan via his website The Fold and/or you can follow him on Twitter and/or Facebook.


IT: a modestly late book review

Well, who says any book review is late? By months or even by near thirty years? And yes, it has taken me about thirty years to read this particular piece. And before I begin, let me say IT is not my first nor my favorite of Stephen King novels. Curious what is? Pet Cemetary has always been a special book for me. Its so normal till its not and when its not…well, let’s just say things get very dark and haunting. Especially in the woods with that creature you never really get to see!

Now, as for IT.

This book was a great read. The story of seven friends growing up in the 1950’s America was beautiful. And the histories a details of everything made the characters and places feel real and rooted in reality. In my mind, whatever the creature IT was, demon, space monster, outer dimensional being, whatever, felt as if it could really exist. The monster had its own history, of sorts, and thoughts, which gave a deeper way of understanding its desires and wants. Of simply made sense and so became all the more terrifying! The two time lines worked and moved the story along, smoothly. Till the end where everything comes at you in great globs of speed. The minor character were also beautifully tragic and welcomed. I loved hating Tom Rogan. And a loved hearing all the Derry town history, a lot of it was despicably chilling, like the lumber dude who chopped up all those people with an Axe.

My favorite character was Ben, both past and present. And I enjoyed his happy drive into the sun set ending with Bev. I cannot think of a character I didn’t care for except for maybe Stan the man Uris, mostly because of his obvious and painful absence. And when he was around, his character was annoying.

And now for the not so goods. The ending felt jumbled together. Yes, what’s going on in Derry is important but dang. A few paragraphs would have been nice. And what was with that one chapter where for some strange reason, they all have sex to be able to find their way out. I felt that bizarre part was not fleshed out (pun intended) to give it enough meaning and depth. Other than that, the ending was sweet and happy, strange for a work of horror, but welcomed. There was a mix of sadness with all the memory loss going on and the loss of those who did die. The end for Tom Rogan was disappointing. I really wanted him to suffer. Not the quick end in which he got.

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All in all, I’d give IT 4 out of 5 stars!! A great long read with lots good detail and historic memory. And still fresh, even after thirty years!!