Make no mistake, Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.
The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father.
Nathan is more reluctant about the move than any of the trio because of his traumatic past with his abusive father. But after Oliver experiences an emotional breakdown at school during an active shooter drill, they agree this may be the fresh start they all need.
At first, things seem to go well. Oliver makes a few friends in his new school, Maddie takes up a new hobby, and Nathan takes on a new role as a park ranger. As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.
Oliver falls into a feud with a new school bully and is rescued by a mysterious scarred youth who seems oddly familiar; Maddie’s hobby with wood sculptures results in a bizarre obsession; and Nathan sees a strange figure on his lawn in the middle of the night. It seems the town is haunted by the spirit of a serial killer who did most of his slayings under a bridge in the local park, which sits over a series of coal mines.
Oliver’s overly sensitive personality ultimately collides with a malevolent version of himself as the action ramps up toward a fierce, violent showdown.
Wendig skillfully alternates perspectives between the three family members over the course of the 500-page tome, allowing readers to become more invested in each character. While Oliver eventually takes center stage, the author roots the action in the family’s unique bond for each other, making each spell-binding chapter emotionally impactful and altogether terrifying.
This is horror at its grandest, darkest level: viscerally stunning and spooky good.
What does horror mean to you? Is it the loss of a son or a daughter or loved one to some tragedy? The stranger on the street? The person you thought you could trust, only to learn they’ve betrayed you? The deal you cannot rescind? Is it the monster under the bed? The dark unknown?
Not everyone is afraid of the same thing.
Horror is subjective, our fears deeply personal. Sometimes even irrational.
Naturally, you may not be terrified of all the stories served up in the +Horror Library+ series, but you’re virtually guaranteed to cringe from some of the selections. First published by Cutting Block Books and editor R.J. Cavender, the seven-volume series has been re-edited, redesigned, reformatted and reissued under the Dark Moon imprint from two-time Bram Stoker Award winner Eric J. Guignard, who promises to keep the best contemporary indie horror alive with a forthcoming volume.
He was kind enough to send me e-books of each volume in the series to date to review, so let’s dive in!
First, know that none of the authors here are household names.
That doesn’t mean they are not talented wordsmiths with vivid, and sometimes twisted imaginations that will make you quiver, gasp, or flinch in fear. A search on Amazon reveals some have gone on to publish additional works and, if you pick up enough horror literature, you are bound to see their names crop up every once in a while on the table of contents pages.
You never know what you’re going to get in a non-themed collection like this – there are thirty stories alone in Volume One — whether it’s a bizarre alien encounter with sluglike beasts or a grisly story of dismemberment and torture.
Fair warning:Some works are exceedingly graphic and tackle any number of taboos from sex to torture, incest to child abuse, and more.
Cavender makes an unusual decision in leading off the book with one of its grisliest, unnerving selections, “Palo Mayombe in Matamoros” by Boyd E. Harris. The story offers one possible, terrifying scenario accounting for the 1,100 random deaths of taxi drivers throughout the world over ten years beginning in 1997 in what’s touted as a piece of creative nonfiction. Harris, who goes on to co-edit a later volume in the +Horror Library+ series, pulls no punches as he graphically depicts the torture and dismemberment of the story’s main character. With no plot to speak of and no escape for the main character, it’s a torture to read.
In fact, if you were not a stalwart reader of horror, you’d close the book here. But in doing so, you would miss much more interesting and haunting stories – and authors — deserving of your time.
As odd as it may be to admit, that’s part of the fun of a collection like this: reading an adventure that challenges your sensibilities or morals, forces you to confront your fears, and dares you to look upon the darker side of humanity.
Just remember, if you don’t like one story, skip on ahead to the next.
Like many anthologies, some stories naturally stand out more than others.
Take, for instance, “Oren’s Axe” by Jed Verity, in which the titular character discovers a grotesque oddity at his doorstep in the dead of night. Wracked by disgust and fear at the sight of the thing, Oren is moved by its plight and surprises the reader by showing his compassion for the thing, first by snipping away a set of sutures over its lips, and second by giving it fresh water to slake its thirst. But as noble as his intentions are, as often happens in the case of horror stories, he is shocked by the thing’s sudden, unexplained outburst of violence toward him.
Or, consider “Little Black Box” by Eric Stark, in which the seemingly innocent appearance of a small black box in place of the daily newspaper heralds a mysterious, inescapable invasion. The fear comes not so much from the boxes themselves – they don’t do anything other than grow in number – but in the unknown origin of the cubes and the stark realization that there is nothing anyone can do to escape them. “Who’s afraid of a little black box?” his lead character asks. Who indeed?
A simple mosquito bite leads to another unforgettable calamity in John Rowlands’ entry, “One Small Bite.” The ensuing outbreak is eerily reminiscent of the current pandemic’s spread. It hits a little too close to home during these harrowed times, but that’s what makes it so powerful.
“The Mattress” by John Peters is another story that will linger long after reaching the end. It’s a modern-day update on an age-old story of a succubus whose unyielding sexual assaults makes a long-lasting impression upon her victims. At the very least, you’ll think twice about ever buying a “slightly” used mattress again.
“Flamenco Amputee” by Paul J. Gitschner offers up a strange audition by prisoners willing to risk life and limb to impress a panel of judges to earn their freedom.
A shadow-like spider skulking around a mother recently risen from the dead is an eerie Creepshow-like tale of love and family sacrifice in Mark E. Deloy’s “Momma’s Shadow.”
Marcus Grimm entertains readers with a cautionary tale when making the deal of a lifetime in “A Hell of a Deal,” while eerie wishmaster Heman Black solves problems in a unique way in “Dark and Stormy Wishes” by Bailey Hunter. And in “The Exterminators,” Sara Joan Berniker reminds readers to read the fine print on their contracts.
A Boy Scout learns sometimes virtuous deeds are not worth that little badge in Curt Mahr’s shocker, “Helping Hand.”
The main character in Kevin Filan’s “The Remembering Country” is forced to recall an incredible secret about the beast within him.
And, in one of my favorites, M. Louise Dixon leaves readers in awe with a tale of giant worms in “Las Brujas Del Rio Verde.”
Sleep with the lights on
Oftentimes, there is little in the way of explanation for what transpires in each story, which is what makes short horror like this so incredibly weird and exciting. The answers are left to the readers’ own imagination.
By the same token, most stories end on a shocking or tragic note. These are not tales where the final girl prevails in the end, nor should they be.
These are tales that will make you go to sleep with the lights on, if you dare sleep at all.
Some devious and cunning minds will gather in Franklin (TN) this week for the Killer Nashville writing conference. I wish I could be with them, but this whole Covid pandemic thing has convinced me otherwise.
I’m fully vaccinated (although apparently a third shot is in the cards), and KN organizer Clay Stafford promises the conference and hotel are taking precautions, but I’m not comfortable taking any chances. Heck, I’m still masking up everywhere I go and I’m still using Walmart’s pickup service for my groceries until this all blows over.
Killer Nashville is one of my favorite events every year, which makes missing out so difficult.
The four-day event held each August (this is its 15th gathering after skipping last year because of the pandemic) attracts some of the best authors from across the globe for informative, educational, and entertaining panels on writing mystery, crime, and thrillers across a variety of mediums, including novels, short stories, and screenplays.
The event is typically headlined by a few best-selling authors. Past guests have included Jeffery Deaver, William Kent Krueger, Joyce Carol Oates, Otto Penzler, Max Allen Collins, Anne Perry, and Janet Evanovich, to name just a few. This year’s conference honors guests Walter Mosley, Lisa Black, and Tennessee’s own J.T. Ellison.
In addition to a nonstop slate of panels presented by attending authors and other guests, the event features an awards banquet for best published and unpublished novel in numerous categories, a mock crime scene to test your deductive skills, and pitch meetings with agents and editors.
But perhaps one of the best aspects of the conference is just meeting and networking with folks. I’ve met numerous authors and am fortunate to call them friends. The writing community at Killer Nashville is just that – a community of writers who genuinely support and encourage each other in all phases of their writing journey.
The event, of course, wouldn’t be the success it is without the vision of KN founder Clay Stafford (there’s a great interview with him here) and dedication of his staff. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside each of them over recent years as a book reviewer, Claymore contest reviewer, and volunteer. I even served on a panel one year, which still blows my mind.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.
Writing Week in Review
My co-writer Jay Wright and I finished some revisions to our crime feature script Kings of Mississippi and submitted it to the Finish Line Screenplay Contest. We got some excellent feedback on our first read through from one of their readers that strengthened some of the emotional elements of the script. Now we wait and see if the revised script makes the quarterfinals cut.
I also tweaked a short horror script I wrote called Kurupira and entered it in the Fresh Blood Selects contest.
My other short horror script Skin, which just narrowly missed the Finals stage in the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition, failed to even make it to the quarterfinals in The Script Lab’s Free Screenwriting Competition. Sigh. Of course, there were 13,000 entries overall and only the top 1,000 made the first round of cuts. I’m sure Skin must have been right there knocking on the door, though, probably at No. 1001. Yeah.
And I made a little more progress on my spec script episode of What We Do in the Shadows. If you’re familiar with the FX show, you know it’s about a trio of vampires living in Staten Island. In my episode, Nandor and his familiar Guillermo attend a “Vampires Anonymous” meeting, while Laszlo and Nadja go to a Little League baseball game. To coin a phrase, hilarity ensues.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, I had planned to start on my feature script Jerry Lonely, but I’m still outlining it. Hopefully, I’ll have all the major plot points worked out and be ready to do the actual writing in September. The title has piqued the interest of several readers who want to know more, but all I will say about it at this point is that I’ve been watching The Godfather movies as prep work.
Which brings me to: My writing calendar.
Every couple of months or so I revise and prioritize my list of ongoing writing projects. I have a list of screenplays (shorts, TV pilots, and features) and other writing projects (shorts stories and novels) that I try to juggle. I try to match it up with upcoming contest or submission deadlines and then go from there.
Often, my plans go to hell, and I find myself having to reconfigure them a couple months later. But at least I’m trying.
I plan to use these weekly blog posts in part to help hold myself accountable to my writing plans by posting updates on my progress each week. My goal in the week ahead is to finish the first draft of the What We Do in the Shadows script and outline a TV pilot script. Check back here next week and I’ll let you know how I did.
What I’m Reading
Last week, I posted about the importance of reading and I’ve been making progress on my to be read pile.
I read the pilot script for the Emmy-nominated Hacks and listened to a streaming panel with the creators and actors, courtesy of Deadline’s Contenders series. There are more than a dozen other panels with the creators and stars of other Emmy-nominated shows on the platform, all free to view online.
I also finished reading a screenplay from one of my fellow Tennessee Screenwriting members and will be sending him some notes after I post this.
Meanwhile, I’m reading Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger, which I should finish by the weekend. I’ll then start on The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. I’m reviewing both books for BookPage.
The mindset of a writer—from the relationship between character and author to the process of creating a literary work—is an exploration that fascinates many readers. Michael Ondaatje, the author of several critically acclaimed literary novels, including The English Patient, considers himself an archaeologist. Not the kind that roots around in the dirt for prehistoric skeletons, but the kind that extracts memories and transcribes them to the written page.
Michael Ondaatje discusses his novel, Warlight, at Parnassus in Nashville.
“Many of my books—many writers—are in an archaeological situation of unearthing story, of unraveling clues and events to find out what really happened, who was the patient and so on,” Ondaatje explained during a recent visit to Parnassus Books in Nashville to promote his newest novel, Warlight.
Like an archaeologist who may discover a tiny fragment of a bone prior to exposing a larger find, Ondaatje’s books tend to begin with something very minimal, “almost like a clue,” which in turn leads to a more encompassing narrative. In The English Patient, it is a nurse speaking with a patient in bed. “I don’t know who he is, I don’t know who she is,” Ondaatje said. But as he wrote further, he began the process of discovering who they are, how they got to this particular point in time and how each feels in this moment that gives rise to their fascinating story and relationship.
“A lot of novelists know where they are going to go, which is just terrific for them. I just don’t,” he said.
In Warlight, the author (born in Sri Lanka but now a Canadian resident) had only an image for the first sentence: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”
“Right away I had the possibility of not just the parents and the children who invade their lives,” Ondaatje said. “They kind of take over the story and govern what happens to Rachel and Nathaniel in the story. So I could kind of go anywhere with that.”
The first line immediately evokes the possibility of adventure, whether ominous or joyous or both. The narrative ultimately follows Nathaniel into adulthood, where Ondaatje adds another perspective as Nathaniel is able to reflect on his memories of his childhood.
The process of discovering his characters through their memories and interpretations of events—rather than simply listing events as they happen—adds authenticity and richness. “In The Cat’s Table—some people think of it as a memoir, but it’s a novel—it was supposed to be a story about an 11-year-old boy [coincidentally also named Michael] on a ship and his journey,” Ondaatje said. (The author took a similar trip in his childhood from Sri Lanka to England.) “But there came a group of people getting involved with the boys on the ship, so it became a story not just from the point of view of the boy.” Like the characters in Warlight, Michael also offers his interpretation of events from that of an adult looking back on his journey.
As with a spelunker of fossils, Ondaatje’s process is one of patience and intuition. He writes the first three or four drafts by hand (“I don’t think I could write on a computer or typewriter. I need to see the scratches and doodle. It makes me feel closer to the story.”) and avoids thinking about sentences as he’s writing them (“I just try to see what’s happening as clearly as I can, not just physically but mentally, about how people are thinking about what’s happening.”).
It’s a lesson in trusting the process, and it allows readers to act as archaeologists, too. “In a poem, you don’t say everything. You suggest. The reader is a participant. In prose, I want to keep that.”
I didn’t discover Karen Robards until she’d written her fifty-second book.
Well, why would I? She writes historical romance novels. Not exactly my thing. I like my novels more hard-boiled: crime, mystery, suspense, action-thriller, that sort of thing. Horror and sci-fi are also favorites.
But with book No. 52, The Ultimatum, Robards muscled in on my book reading radar. (Of course, her recent appearance at Parnassus Books in Nashville also helped draw my attention.)
The Ultimatum is Robards’ first foray into the realm of the action-thriller novel and features her feistiest, and perhaps sexiest, heroine to date, Bianca St. Ives. Part con artist, part savvy businesswoman, Bianca is all-action. The first hundred pages find Bianca in a bit of a bind: first as a $2 million heist goes horribly awry and, second, as she must use her cunning and expert fighting skills to escape capture. Unfortunately, her father, Richard St. Ives, isn’t as fortunate and is killed in an explosion.
With her father’s loss weighing heavy on her, Bianca tries to put her life back together and keep her security consultant business afloat. But when the U.S. government comes calling, claiming that her father is still alive, she is thrust back into the thick of things as bait to lure him out of hiding. With her life on the line, Bianca discovers a secret conspiracy involving genetically enhanced super soldiers and the truth about who she really is in an action-packed finale in the mountains of Austria.
“If you’ve ever wondered where the equivalent of Jack Reacher was for women, the answer is, in this page-turning global crime novel,” Robards said in a tweet about the book.
As Robards writes late in the novel, “It’s all fun and games until the Glocks come out.”
Persistence Pays Off
After 52 novels, it seems Robards is doing something right.
“You have to stick with it. It’s a really hard profession,” she says. “I’ve written 52 books; they’re all two-book contracts, so you have no job security beyond that. It’s a very solitary profession. It’s kind of draining. The last month of a book is misery, but it’s a good kind of misery. It hurts so good.”
Robards initially went to law school. She didn’t even think about writing books until her professor assigned the class to write “something publishable.”
“I didn’t know what was publishable,” she admits. “So, I went to the bookstore and historical romance was really, really hot. I bought a bunch of those books, went home and read them. They were great. I thought, I can do this. I sat down and wrote fifty pages of what I called The Pirate’s Woman. It had lots of action, lots of dialogue, and lots of sex.”
The rest of the class all wanted to write the Great American Novel.
“They had themes and symbolism, but I was good with what I wrote. Until the professor said we’re going to read what you wrote aloud. If I had known I was going to have to read it, I would never have written it.”
When Robards finished reading and looked up, she thought she had really wowed them.
“And then they laughed and laughed. My professor got up and said, ‘Karen, you’re a really a good writer, but we’ve got to do something about your choice of reading material.’”
Robards was naturally demoralized.
“I was embarrassed, my feelings were hurt. I was angry,” she says. “On the other hand, I thought what I had written was good. It wasn’t great literature, but it was a good entertaining fifty pages. I just thought, no, I’m not going to let them limit me in that way. I wanted that more than anything.”
Robards dropped out of law school, took a job in an orthodontist’s office, and wrote on a legal pad during her lunch hour while squirreled away in the rest room. The rest, as they say, is history as her book eventually sold and a new writing career was born.
The most important lesson she’s learned along the way is to have the commitment to write every day.
“Writing is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. “I can’t have a bad day. You always have to be the very best you can be. You have to be able to concentrate and write that book and make it as good as all the other books, no matter what’s going on around you.”
Even when her son had cancer, Robards recalled how she had her notebook in hand.
The Ultimatum was recently named one of BookList’s Top Ten Romance Novels for 2017. But don’t let that fool you: this “romance” novel packs plenty of punch for any action fan.
“I’ve written 52 books and Bianca is one of my favorite heroines. I really, really like her and I enjoyed the process of writing her,” Robards says, adding that another adventure with Bianca is already in the works.
As author Ed Kurtz so eloquently puts it, “Sometimes people kill for profit, sometimes revenge, and sometimes they do it just for the fun of it.”
In his new anthology NOTHING YOU CAN DO: STORIES (Down & Out Books), he demonstrates the theme with seventeen tales of crime, murder, and vengeance.
“I hope these stories entertain more than anything else,” Kurtz says, “but if the dubious morality of the characters in this collection doesn’t serve as something like a mirror the reader isn’t too keen to look into, I’d be a bit disappointed.”
After 11 novels featuring private eye Nick Polo—the latest being POLO’S LONGSHOT—and 22 books overall, you might think Jerry Kennealy has this author thing licked. He’d be the first to tell you otherwise.
“I’ll never get it licked, but this was a fun book to write: expensive wine, glider crashes, and interesting characters,” Kennealy said. “And, as in all of my books, it never would have been written without the help of my Shirley, my beautiful wife and in-house editor. She’s a very detail-minded person. I’m not. So, I ramble along and she will come up with some interesting findings, like, ‘Jer. The character Polo is talking to on page 223, died on page 110.’ Oops.”
This time around, Polo is enlisted by billionaire Paul Bernier to find a kukri, a priceless golden jewel-encrusted 14th century dagger, designed by the Emperor of India. The dagger has a long, bloody history, passing between warlords throughout the ages, including Saddam Hussain. The search has Polo bumping heads with Bernier’s vindictive stepdaughter, his eccentric household staff, a Miami con man, a crooked private investigator, a drug dealing nightclub owner, a New York Mafia Don, and two vicious murderers.
Even as the excitement over Susie Steiner’s first crime novel, Missing, Presumed, is reaching new peaks, the author’s second book in the series featuring Detective Manon Bradshaw, PERSONS UNKNOWN, hits stores this month. Missing, Presumed was recently shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, one of the UK’s most prestigious awards for crime fiction.
If anything, however, the new book ramps up the stakes for Steiner’s protagonist, with those she loves among the suspects in a high-profile murder case. Add to that a detective who is five months pregnant while trying to be a good mother to her two children, and the complications multiply.
“The story is based on a real miscarriage of justice, which took place following a stabbing in London in 2011,” Steiner says. “I heard the story—or the remarkable ‘twist’ in the story—from a lawyer friend of mine over dinner. I then contacted the barrister in the case, and interviewed him, then the solicitor, and got a copy of the pathology report. So the spine of my story took place in real life.”
Armand Rosamilia has a lot going on in his head. At any given moment, he could be writing a crime thriller, a zombie novel, an over-the-top humor book, or a paranormal thriller. With more than 150 stories published—from shorts to novellas to novels—the only time he’s not writing is when he’s sleeping.
“I keep it all in my head,” the New Jersey boy and Florida transplant says. “I usually write three to five projects at once. I’m not sure how I do it. I just do it. “
Rosamilia’s latest, DIRTY DEEDS 3, continues a crime thriller series starring main character James Gaffney. This time around he’s called upon to give testimony against The Family, a branch of the New Jersey mob operating in Philadelphia. The Philly crew takes exception to Gaffney’s impending testimony and attempts to eliminate him.
Danny Gardner first made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. So, what’s he doing scribing dark, gritty tales of crime in 1950s Chicago? Turns out the author of A NEGRO AND AN OFAY (Down and Out Books) has also toiled in scriptwriting, acting, and directing—a real Renaissance Man of the literary arts.
“When you take them separately, it seems like a lot,” he says. “But be it stand-up, or screenwriting, or acting, it all comes from my deep, spiritual love for words. First, comedy and acting gave me a career and, eventually, a small place in pop-culture. Now that I’m a published novelist, it’s the ultimate expression of that love. I’m always going to write, be it the next Elliot Caprice novel, or just doing improv on stage for ten minutes. That’s who I am. That’s how I love myself the most.”
Read the full interview with Danny Gardner in the May issue of The Big Thrill.