Introducing: “Just Chew Your Way Out” by Matt Spencer

One

Look, when I say Let that bastard die, I don’t mean Let the next sad asshole step into my old place and keep him alive.

Revenge is just making up for a costly delayed reaction, except with better planning. I’ve had a long time to plan my revenge. So every man and woman in the supply caravan rumbling through that ravine down there in my way, so they gotta die.

From my hiding place in the crags, I count five wagons, each with three armed guards, all probably crack-shots with those speed-reload crossbows strapped across their chests. The train’s got two horsemen at either end, all stout, solid jackbooted Imperial leather-daddies, with broadswords bigger than they are hanging from their backs. Those guys don’t worry me. That lean, hooded rider in the lead could be trouble, though, the one with a snaky, alert, no-bullshit posture atop that giant draft horse he rides. I’m not in the mood to see what engravings he’s etched in the metal of his blade within the scabbard.

Still, he’s all weighted down in Imperial regalia, and here’s me, moving free and limber across the ridge, the way I like, wearing only cargo-shorts and heavy-duty black leather boots. Maybe I overdid it with the night-vision eye-drops. I have to wear wyvern-rider goggles just so those wagon-torches don’t scorch my eyes out of the sockets. There won’t be much honest fighting tonight. No one’s up here in the shadowed ridges but me…well, other than those scouts they sent to make sure the way was clear. But fuck those guys. They’re dead. By now, I hear, so are most of the citizens left in New Spiralla. They’ve spent the last few weeks starving without medical supplies.

For a moment, I wonder what the place smells like by now. If I never smell New Spiralla again, I’ll still probably never get that rancid zombie-piss stink out of my nose. This isn’t about the smell, though. It’s not about caring whether I’m the good guy or the bad guy here. This is about what Priest King Macose’s betrayal cost me.

This last month ain’t been hard, sleeping in the caves and cliff-side huts the locals used to inhabit…locals I was first hired to fight off. I was good at it, too. There was a time, the people of that city-state used to parade me around through their streets like I was some kind of hero. Even now, those memories are sorta nice. Such times now feel like a hazy past-life recollection.

Two

Like most people Spirelights move in with, those farmers and prospectors didn’t much like it when their new neighbors started throwing their weight around. Can’t blame ’em, but they’re also the ones who kept trying to kill me while I was passing through. Mostly they were descended from bandits who hid in the ranges, mated with whatever women they could steal, and killed off the indigenous pygmies. I don’t know who the pygmies killed off whenever they settled the region.

When old Priest King Macose wanted to hire my sword and magic tricks against the local trouble, I said “Sure, why not?” I didn’t mention what I’d really come looking for. Rumors went it was hidden somewhere in the New Spiralla temple, at least according to some drunks in that tavern in Finiston. Spirelight fighters are nasty pieces of work, scarlet-blonde holy warriors to the core, with no sense of humor. I wouldn’t want to piss one off. But the ones in New Spiralla were depleting like everything else there, so I came in handy. It might’ve been easier to make friends with the other side and just sack the damn place, but the Spirelights were the only folks for miles around with any good music. East Asterland really is that big a cultural sinkhole.

The temple looked and smelled more like a rundown drinkhall than a place for a Priest King to hold court. You know how these crumbling civilizations get during those last gasps of fading glory. What I’d come for was there, though, somewhere. I could feel it. It was just a matter of proving my mettle, then holding the gig, gaining the pompous old windbag’s trust so he gave me the run of the place. Then it would be just a matter of time and sneaky searching.

After the first few skirmishes, Macose really took a liking to me. Funny to recall, I got pretty fond of the old bastard for a while. When you spend your days running an under-equipped guerrilla counter-insurgency, through barren ranges full of enemies who were born with the salty mescal dust in their noses, it’s nice to have such an appreciative boss who likes to stay up, get you drunk and shoot the shit with you.

All my old troubadour gigs had nothing on the rock star these folks made of me. I could probably even have had the run of the temple maidens and gotten away with it…if I hadn’t had Rowan on the brain. I even wound up telling Macose all about her. Macose always looked like a giant peeled hardboiled egg to me, with barely useful marshmallow-slab limbs dangling like a rag doll’s, slimy yellow hair puffing out of the top of his head like puss oozing over those watery eyes and frog mouth, propped on his throne like most such decadent monarchs, a pudgy, petulant overgrown child trying to play petty tyrant. As I talked, though, he swelled up so regally, I could almost see the majestic ruler of his glory days, before his alabaster warrior-king’s build went to sod and New Spiralla faded into the dust of those foothills where it nestled.

It was his rightful pride, he said, at having a rare, extraordinary young man such as me in his service. “Like a knight in the great old tales,” he sighed, “on a quest to reawaken his enchanted slumbering princess…the strong, feisty, highborn maiden, who falls in love with a handsome young rogue, no less. Yet here you’ve paused in this quest, to come to us in our hour of need.”

Yeah, I know. The guy really talked like that. I swear, I couldn’t make this shit up! Still, you should have heard the rhythm and cadence in his voice. I’ll give the Spirelights this, they know how to bellow the lofty idealism so you want to believe it. I reminded Macose that I was just there ’til the situation was under control, which shouldn’t take much longer.

But beware the charms of sleeping princesses, Cassias my boy,” he said. “You go on dreaming your waking dreams as you fly off on your wild quest. But remember, the princess dreams also, beneath the spell…and dreams deeper. Who knows what realms her dreams draw her to. When you draw her back from the void, you don’t know what she’ll bring back with her, or where that shall draw her anew through this waking life.”

Yeah, well…” I leaned back in that immaculate chair and took another snort of top-shelf royal whiskey. “I guess we’ll just see.”

Oh, I knew what he was really getting at. I was supposed to come to my senses, abandon my self-serving quest over a girl, realize my true calling, my true duty, stay here as the Champion Sword-Mage of New Spiralla. I just kept drinking and talking about Rowan. Priest King Macose just smiled and shook his head, in that bittersweet way old men sometimes do, when they hear young men going on like that, making silly, starry-eyed asses of ourselves.

New Spiralla can rise again, over time,” he said. “Our people won’t fade into the night, Cassias. You won’t let us.”

He kept asking about the etchings in the palm of my right hand. That’s when I should have known something was off. A bit about those etchings: they line up with those on my sword handle. When the two press together, it creates a synergy that magnifies every deadly muscle memory reflex in my body a thousandfold…and I’ve had a lot of those beaten into me. It also turns the blade into an extension of my arm, more or less literally. I carved both renditions of the pattern myself, my palm and the sword handle.

Here’s what you might not get about Spirelights, though: they’re real big on racial distinction between folks, particularly when it comes to magic. Yeah, I know, wherever you go, you have all these rules about who is and isn’t allowed to learn what spells and traditions, based on your class, rank, race, affiliation, sexual orientation, all that horseshit. Whenever I decide to learn something new, I like telling the rule-keepers to shove it up their ass. I figured I could be honest with the Priest King, considering my unique mix of skills was keeping his little city-state from being overrun. To the Spirelight mind, though, there’s no distinction between socially acceptable and metaphysically possible. I didn’t realize the number it did on his mind, whenever I opened my mouth. Just by accomplishing everything I had, I’d become a being that couldn’t possibly exist. Yet there I was.

To find out what happens, pick up Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt, a collection of wild, weird, dark short fiction by Matt Spencer, coming in September from Back Roads Carnival Books, or read it as a Kindle Single coming June 22, which you can pre-order for just 99 cents, by clicking on the cover image below:

Chew Your Way Out cover

Follow author Matt Spencer on Facebook at Books by Matt Spencer and on Twitter at @MattSpencerFSFH

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Introducing: “Lambs of Slaughter in Blue and Gold” by Matt Spencer

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I’ve followed her for days, and I’ve almost gotten used to how much this hurts! It hurts less at night, but she sleeps too much then. She never used to. Often that was because of me, last time, when we both stood at the crossroads, the ones she’s headed back to now.

If I tried, I could keep her awake. She’d deserve it, right? She’s the one who makes it hurt. But I always drift behind her, and she never senses me. So why do I know how blue her eyes are, that that’s where this infernally tranquil sea floods out of? If I stepped in front of her, would she see me with her eyes now, or her eyes from back then? I only get to look at her face when she sleeps. She looks almost exactly the same! Even with the lights off, I can see that. At those times, I can almost relax, almost forget the shredding agony her blue glow locks me in when she’s awake.

Now she walks around town, smells the summer smells of pollen, thistles, and fresh-cut grass. I smell it with her, scorching my brimstone nostrils. She drops by the same places where things happened. She hangs out with her friends, drinking and smoking up and playing the guitar she’s learning, telling ghost stories in the woods and graveyards and the abandoned sawmill lot, all the same spots we used to go.

No one tells the best ghost stories anymore, the ones I was there for, even when they sit on the same spots where things happened. Maybe I should do something about that. You can’t say I’m not in the unique position to do so. I have other things on my mind, though. She makes out with boys in the same spots in the woods where we used to make love, next to the railroad tracks or that sandy spot by the river. The town’s full of such places, places where things happened, and she never notices!

She hangs out in a coffee shop that used to be a speakeasy, back when we were both young and alive and together. We weren’t much older than she is now, but we got in one night, dressed in fancy hand-me-downs to look the best we could like the gangsters and dames we’d seen in the pictures.

By then, she was already used to drinking. I wasn’t. She thought it was so cute how I tried to act tough, pretended to hold my liquor better than I did, how I got snappy when she noticed.

It was one of them who ran that speakeasy. He wore a wide-brimmed hat like a preacher, but otherwise looked like the pinstriped gangster you’d expect to run a place like that. When he took an interest in us, we were scared out of our minds at first. We thought he knew we were too young, that he’d kick us out, tell our folks. Which I have to admit is pretty silly, considering the kind of place it was to begin with, but you know how kids are. The truth was, he’d noticed what we’d only faintly started to notice in ourselves. He bought us drinks and said things that made us sure he was off his rocker. By the end of that night, though, we understood plenty. He showed us things going on in that speakeasy that no one else saw. Or if they did, they mistook it for odd shapes the cigarette smoke made in the air. He got us plenty drunk, too.

She managed to sneak into her house that night, to pass out like a good girl. I woke up in the speakeasy’s basement. My pa beat me plenty when I staggered home with an obvious hangover, but I didn’t mind so much anymore. I just grinned through it, which made him think I’d gone crazy so he beat me worse. Now I understood that the pain was just weakness being chased out of my body, letting in strength I’d need for the new world my eyes had been opened to…a world of power we’d build right under the noses of this silly little town.

Now she drifts through it all, sleepy and sad, not quite sure about what…through the sea that bleeds out through the air around her, from her clear blue eyes. It’s the soft blue that hurts so much. After the last time, I awoke in the scorching blackness that’s almost red, a constant blaze that feels wonderful to me because I’m part of it. Bit by bit, it’s replaced everything but my memories. As I’ve learned to work this new ephemeral matter, I’ve mastered it. I rule it, along with everything it touches in the world it bleeds out into. My fingertips are needles, and my bones are sharpened with sword edges. In the realms I travel, I flex and flail my razor limbs, cutting to ribbons anything stupid enough to come against me. I suck in those bloody ribbons like spaghetti and grow ever stronger. But my blades can’t touch the blue that bleeds from her eyes, mingling with the reddish gold that wafts off her silky hair. Now I’m trapped in it, following her until she wakes up…to me, to everything she doesn’t notice yet.

To find out what happens, pick up Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt, a collection of wild, weird, dark short fiction by Matt Spencer, coming in September from Back Roads Carnival Books, or read it as a Kindle Single coming June 15, which you can pre-order for just 99 cents, by clicking on the cover image below:

Lambs of Slaughter cover

Follow author Matt Spencer on Facebook at Books by Matt Spencer and on Twitter at @MattSpencerFSFH

Indie Author Spotlight: Demon Riders by Jack Holder

One of the more enjoyable independent author creations I’ve come across lately, while navigating the regional convention scene, is Jack Holder’s Demon Riders, a small collection of interconnected short stories that form a loose, episodic fantasy novel. The premise is a simple one: a post-apocalyptic America where the remnants of humanity have reverted to a semi-medieval society, in which demons, gods, and other mythical creatures run rampant, some getting along with the surviving human population better than others. Of these creatures, malicious demons – hailing from some hell-like netherworld called the Pit – are the biggest problem. To protect the rest of us, we have the Riders, a ragtag Ronin/Magnificent Seven-esque band of traveling warriors, led by an enigmatic, hardass old curmudgeon called simply Harsk.

Demon Riders cover

Holder’s first three paragraphs, in my opinion, form a textbook study in writing a strong opening, introducing the reader to a world of dark fantasy. It puts you there immediately, by engaging all the senses, through a distinct point of view that leaves you wanting to find out more:

They always got boys.

Harsk took another drink. The tavern was home to him and his Riders, as much as anywhere was. There were barely enough lamps to bathe the taproom in a pale glow. The chairs were scattered around, to or three leaning against a wall to hide a missing leg.

He breathed deep. There was a lot to be said about the truth of a scent. Sights could be blocked, sounds muted, tastes overwhelmed, but the scent will always remain. Like the cigar smoke that hung in the chairs, the ash long sunk into the seats. Or the beer stains of a lager the bartender broke out for a new birthday, or one of the serving girls having a baby. There was blood from a bar fight, and there was old rain soaked into the roof, the scent of iron mixing with musty wood. It spoke of a place that had grown settled in the dirt, and was happy being humble.

It was perfect.

After an opening like that, you should know right away whether or not this book is your glass of beer.

Early on, while replenishing the ranks after a devastating skirmish, Harsk encounters a young woman who it turns out is pregnant with the spawn of a demon. Rather than killing her and it, as pragmatic wisdom would suggest, Harsk takes her along, under the protection of the Ride.

While Harsk is an enjoyably gruff, vivid enough heroic figure, the true heart and soul of this book lies with Kait, the half-human, half-demon progeny of that unfortunate girl we meet in the first scene. Kait grows up among the Riders, struggling with her duel nature, all while learning to hunt demons and defend humans who hate and mistrust her. Over the course of the stories, we get to know her as a scrappy adolescent, an awkward teenager, and finally as a seasoned warrior, all while still struggling to find her place in the world. Admirably, Holder gives Kait – and us, the reader – few easy answers. We get the sense that her struggles – like our own – are a lifelong process.

Demon Riders young Kait

The short-story series format hearkens back to the heroic adventure writers of classic pulp, such as Howard, Moorcock and Leiber, yet Holder’s stories refreshingly never quite fall into any recognizable “demon of the week” formulaic pattern. In fact, late in the book, one story shifts the focus onto some side-characters, putting a humanized face on the background culture in an unexpectedly poignant manner, and features no violence at all in the central emotional dramatic conflict.

There’s a simplicity and transparency to Holder’s imagination, which is both a strength and weakness when it comes to his writing. The world through which his heroes and monsters ride often seems to spring straight from his own weird daydreams onto the page, largely unconcerned with lofty, detail-heavy world-building. That sort of thing can be great, but isn’t always necessary, and chokes up too much contemporaneous fantasy writing into a bloated, pretentiously portentous slog. Sometimes, a glance is more evocative than an in-depth, Tolkien-esque explanation. I appreciate a yarn that just drops us into its setting with its characters, sink or swim, so long as I get a sense that the author has everything fully realized in their own mind. That said, there are times, particularly early on, where Holder strays too far into under-writing. He throws together a lot of disparate elements – Wild West, post-apocalyptic, medieval, magical realism, etc – with no cohesive sense of internal logic, as to how this world might have come together as it has, or how it sustains itself. The only reason I knew this was a post-apocalyptic setting is because, in one story, we find out that the state of Texas still exists, at least by name/geographically…and in some vague sense, the author’s impression of the local culture there, hinting at something that feels like it’s supposed to be social commentary, but which never quite resonates.

While Harsk is vividly painted enough, I’ve read plenty of characters like him. We’re told plenty about his harsh attitude and the cruel, unforgiving existence he leads, but beyond the aforementioned strong opening, Holder never quite internalizes what it’s like to be Harsk, in a truly visceral, psychologically palpable way, as with the best examples of such a grimdark archetypal characters (such as Conan, Ned Stark, or Roland the Gunslinger, to name a few similar fellows). It’s all the more fortunate, then, that the greater part of the book focuses on Kait, who Holder really seems to like and find most engaging, as did I as a reader. The world she lives in is all made up, built for pure escapism for the writer/reader’s enjoyment, but her feelings of displacement within it, of hostility, frustration, anger and confusion, all feel very real, often painfully so.

As the saying goes – in the case of both Kait and Harsk – any hero is only as strong as their villains. Holder’s demons are indeed a cruel, perverse lot, and he more than convinces us of the need for people like the Riders to stand against them. The circumstances of Kait’s conception is appropriately despicable and gut-churning, even though we only hear about it second-hand, and not in graphic detail. Whenever it comes down to brass tacks, the stakes feel real here. Yet not all of these demons are the simplistic manifestations of pure evil they first appear to be, even Kait’s father. It’s in their startling complexity where we find some of the book’s most intriguing surprises, as well as some unsettling moral ambiguity in our heroes.

Overall, the prose of this book flows smoothly and straight-forwardly, except for some abrupt shifts in character POV, which are at times jarring and momentarily confusing. The overall narrative voice ought to appeal particularly to young adult-readers, though Holder doesn’t shy away from strong language or adult content, where called for. In fact, the fourth story involves an appropriately pervy encounter with an incubus, which was where both the book and Kait as a character come into their own and hit full stride.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the lovely illustrations in this volume – both the cover piece by Alana Fletcher and the internal drawings throughout by Eric Muller. Rather than mere eye-catching decorations, the latter in particular come to feel like an integral part of the storytelling experience, complementing the prose and blending nicely with the overall imagery. Muller’s rendition of Kait presents the character as at once menacing, quirky, cute, and relatable. I like and relate to Harsk better in Muller and Fletcher’s artwork than I do in Holder’s prose. The character as drawn makes me think of Kris Kristofferson playing a hard-boiled Wild West Gandalf.

Demon Riders illustration

But I also enjoy watching Holder’s prose as he gets better and better, and I look forward to where he goes from here as a storyteller…especially since the final story ends on something of a cliffhanger, with multiple loose ends unresolved, which leaves the reader wanting more.

Jack Holder author photo

You can currently order Demon Riders as an e-book from Amazom, coming soon in paperback.

Want more from Jack Holder and his lovely illustrators? Check out arcaneinkdustries.com for new free stories every week.

Want more from author Matt Spencer? Subscribe for updates on this page, and/or sign up on this mailing list. You can also like and follow me on Facebook at Books by Matt Spencer and on Twitter at @MattSpencerFSFH.

If you’re an independent/small-press fiction author looking for an honest review/interview, drop me a line at msdragonwolf@gmail.com

Interview with comic-book writer/novelist Kurt Amacker

Kurt Amacker can seem like a walking contradiction at first, in some ways. Once you get to know him a bit, though, he only gets weirder.

Maniacal Kurt

That probably explains why we get along. He’s a man of an often stern, deadpan demeanor, though also ribald, frequently brazenly opinionated, also an educated, thoughtful, uncommonly articulate, sensitive friend, the kind of guy anyone should want on their side when life gets rough…a gentleman and a scholar, in the truest sense. He’s also, clearly, possessed of a wild, twisted imagination, manifesting itself vividly in successful underground comics like Immortal: 60, Tad Caldwell and the Monster Kid, Cradle of Filth: The Venus Aversa, and the forthcoming Dead Souls: Resurrection.

Dead Souls cover

His first prose novel, Bloody October, now available from Dark Notes Press, promised to be a treat. It was certainly that, decidedly not what the lurid retro-pulp cover-art would lead one to expect…though Kurt’s never been one to pander to expectations.

Bloody October cover

In any case, after I read an early copy of the novel, Kurt was kind enough to answer some of my questions on it.

In writing your take on the vampire tale,‭ ‬you smartly sidestepped a lot of tired‭ ‬clichés by fundamentally altering a lot of the typical‭ ‬“rules‭”‬ from the start.‭ ‬What core aspects of the vampire myth resonate with you strongest,‭ ‬and how did you seek to explore those themes and make them your own‭? ‬What works in this broad mythology‭ (‬of folklore,‭ ‬literature,‭ ‬film,‭ ‬etc.‭) ‬have stuck with you,‭ ‬and how did those influence/inform upon your story/characters‭?

KA:‭ ‬The aspect that resonates with me strongest is the existential‭ ‬dilemma‭ ‬presented by immortality.‭ ‬I explored this already in‭ ‬Dead Souls‭ (‬my first comic book miniseries‭)‬,‭ ‬but I wanted to show a character dealing with the more mundane aspects of it.‭ ‬John Devereux‭’‬s greatest problem is that he‭’‬s bored,‭ ‬and the world has changed around him.‭ ‬The‭ ‬“lonely vampire‭”‬ thing has been done to death elsewhere.‭ ‬I didn‭’‬t want the boredom and depression that would arise in his situation to look poetic or romantic.‭ ‬For reasons that are revealed in the book,‭ ‬he‭’‬s realized that he can‭’‬t help the people he loves after a certain point.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬he drinks a lot and distracts himself.‭ ‬That,‭ ‬to me,‭ ‬is more realistic than keeping a journal by candlelight,‭ ‬while staring at the full moon.

Vampire folklore and mythology didn‭’‬t influence John Devereux much as a character.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬we hearken back to those older‭ ‬stories‭ ‬from Eastern Europe.‭ ‬Jason Castaing meets Lord Chaz and Maven Lore,‭ ‬and they tell him about the‭ ‬difference between the vampires of folklore and more contemporary depictions.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬John and his situation were influenced more by offbeat or independent vampire films,‭ ‬like‭ ‬Nadja,‭ ‬The Addiction,‭ ‬Habit,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Vamps.‭ ‬I also read Christopher Moore‭’‬s‭ ‬Bloodsucking Fiends,‭ ‬because it had more of‭ ‬the tone and tenor I was looking for‭—‬sardonic,‭ ‬realistic,‭ ‬and just a little funny.

This isn‭’‬t the first story I‭’‬ve read to feature a humanized/sympathetic/misunderstood vampire as the main character,‭ ‬with misguided humans as the real antagonists.‭ ‬In other cases I recall,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬they were typically would-be-Van-Helsing vampire-hunter types,‭ ‬an obvious allegory for bigoted humans fearing and attacking what they don‭’‬t understand‭ (‬P.N.‭ ‬Elrod‭’‬s Jack Fleming novels come to mind as my first encounter with this‭)‬.‭ ‬On some level,‭ ‬the wannabe-vampire cultists serve the same function,‭ ‬seeking to pressure a creature they don‭’‬t understand into sharing his powers,‭ ‬with no idea what they‭’‬re asking for.‭ ‬This rings true on pretty much the same levels to me,‭ ‬about some of the worst tendencies we,‭ ‬as humans,‭ ‬are‭ ‬all capable of.‭ ‬How did that idea come about and evolve‭?

KA:‭ ‬People are obsessed with vampires.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve seen that fixation really feed into larger personal problems.‭ ‬You get the feeling that some people are leaning on this very powerful archetype to compensate for other things that might be missing.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬I think anyone that‭ ‬has‭ ‬spent time around fandom knows that this‭ ‬applies to many genres,‭ ‬sects,‭ ‬and subcultures.‭ ‬People can destroy their lives with an‭ ‬unhealthy fixation on anything,‭ ‬be that music or even‭ ‬Star Wars.‭ ‬I wanted to really push the envelope on that idea‭’‬s logical outcome.‭ ‬In this case,‭ ‬there is one vampire who absolutely refuses to share his‭ ‬“situation.‭”‬ That,‭ ‬in and of itself,‭ ‬should dissuade most reasonable people.‭ ‬If I ask‭ ‬you for half of your sandwich and you say no,‭ ‬that should be the end of the conversation.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬some people are so obsessed with an idea or a person,‭ ‬that they‭’‬ll do anything‭—‬even‭ ‬to the object of their fixation‭—‬to‭ ‬get near them.

I‭’‬ve also seen it when it comes to celebrities and working with talent.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve done some‭ ‬stuff with bands‭ ‬and other artists‭ ‬in the past‭—‬everything‭ ‬from live show production,‭ ‬location‭ ‬scouting for music videos,‭ ‬DJing,‭ ‬interviews,‭ ‬journalism‭ ‬and a passel of other‭ ‬things.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬I‭’‬ve seen otherwise reasonable‭ ‬people‭ ‬I knew really lose their cool‭ ‬when I had a chance to introduce them to someone famous.‭ ‬In some cases,‭ ‬people would outright lie or otherwise behave‭ ‬unethically‭ ‬to get the attention of the talent.‭ ‬I remember one girl in Finland trying to physically move me to get near a friend of mine in a bar who had been on television.‭ ‬There‭’‬s a sense of entitlement we‭’‬ve nurtured in people through the media,‭ ‬where everyone thinks they‭’‬re just a celebrity who hasn‭’‬t been discovered yet.‭

The cult‭’‬s fixation on John is a commentary on that kind of irrational obsession with vampires.‭ ‬He won‭’‬t give them his blood.‭ ‬He can‭’‬t even transfer his‭ ‬illness.‭ ‬When someone tries some vampire blood near the middle of the book,‭ ‬they become extremely ill.‭ ‬All signs point to‭ ‬“No,‭”‬ but they‭ ‬still‭ ‬won‭’‬t listen.‭ ‬The cult is so fixated on vampires that all other considerations,‭ ‬including John‭’‬s own wishes,‭ ‬are secondary.

The story almost seamlessly blends traditional horror elements with a naturalistic slice-of-life narrative approach‭ [‬such as,‭ ‬say,‭ ‬Charles Bukowski and Hunter S.‭ ‬Thompson‭]‬,‭ ‬as well as some cues lifted from classic hardboiled crime/noir fiction‭ [‬such as Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler‭]‬.‭ ‬What works from those latter territories stuck with you and how did they find their way into your approach‭?‬

KA:‭ ‬I‭’‬m going to confess something:‭ ‬I‭’‬ve read very little of the kind of hardboiled crime novels that influenced‭ ‬Bloody October.‭ ‬I mean to change that.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬I‭’‬ve seen a lot of noir movies.‭ ‬The Big Sleep,‭ ‬Dark Passage,‭ ‬Out of the Past,‭ ‬Panic in the Streets,‭ ‬and‭ ‬The Maltese Falcon are just a few‭ ‬examples.‭ ‬I really mined Amazon,‭ ‬Netflix,‭ ‬and the local library for movies that I thought might contribute to the tone I was seeking‭—‬more‭ ‬like a crime novel with horror elements than the reverse.

There‭’‬s a lot going on in this story…This book truly feels like it‭’‬s‭ ‬about more than just vampirism,‭ ‬not simply in the sense of what the plot consists of,‭ ‬but rather of what you have to say thematically,‭ ‬unconsciously and otherwise,‭ ‬about the human condition/experience‭ (‬the ups and downs of friendship,‭ ‬history,‭ ‬drug/alcohol dependency,‭ ‬the dangers of willfully irrational belief and cultish zealotry‭)‬.‭ ‬How did all these things find their way together in your mind with the central premise,‭ ‬and how did you approach exploring them thematically‭ (‬as in,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬how life-experience/observation/personal philosophy influenced this‭)?

KA:‭ ‬A lot of it is drawn from my own life and experiences.‭ ‬It‭’‬s not like there‭’‬s been this clamoring for‭ ‬“the real me‭”‬ or anything,‭ ‬but most of my work has been more‭ ‬influenced by history and other books,‭ ‬comics,‭ ‬and films than my own life.‭ ‬I wanted to write something that,‭ ‬while not necessarily confessional,‭ ‬was at least influenced by my life and experiences.‭ ‬To be clear,‭ ‬Jason Castaing is not me.‭ ‬If anything,‭ ‬he is what might have happened to me if I hadn‭’‬t joined the Marines and performed a‭ ‬significant course correction.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬the rest of it is culled from experience and observation.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve had friends‭—‬platonic‭ ‬and‭ ‬romantic‭—‬who‭ ‬were absolutely fascinating,‭ ‬and whose company I wanted very badly.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬then they‭’‬d disappear or back away.‭ ‬Then,‭ ‬they‭’‬d come back.‭ ‬Sometimes,‭ ‬the excuses,‭ ‬the stories,‭ ‬and the lies were just overwhelming.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬I wanted to believe them so very badly.

The emphasis on history really just comes from my love of a rich backstory.‭ ‬It‭’‬s probably a bit trite at‭ ‬this‭ ‬point,‭ ‬but I love when a story opens years before the main narrative,‭ ‬with something that incites the events of the main story.‭ ‬War‭ (‬and really,‭ ‬any‭ ‬military‭ ‬service‭) ‬are life-changing experiences for people.‭ ‬With my own rather unexciting stint in the Marines,‭ ‬I wanted to draw on that idea of life through a veteran‭’‬s eyes.‭

The use and abuse of alcohol are also just drawn from personal experience.‭ ‬I love a good drink,‭ ‬but it‭’‬s something that I‭’‬ve always tried to keep an eye on.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve seen both friends and family members gradually slip into alcoholism.‭ ‬They don‭’‬t‭ ‬realize‭ ‬that it‭’‬s a problem until it has been for a long time.‭ ‬New Orleans is filled with people that would probably thrive and succeed elsewhere.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬the liberal availability of alcohol is too much for them to resist.‭ ‬And so,‭ ‬they get stuck‭ ‬in a rut and on a barstool,‭ ‬talking about their unfinished screenplay,‭ ‬their plans to finally move to Europe,‭ ‬or whatever else.‭ ‬I made the bad decision to work with‭ ‬people‭ ‬like that a time or two,‭ ‬because they had good intentions.‭ ‬In the end,‭ ‬it came back to me in a bad way.‭ ‬Jason is very much an example of that.‭ ‬He could probably be a successful writer if he wanted,‭ ‬but he‭’‬s too busy drinking and talking to accomplish anything more than he already has.

The dangers of cultish obsession and irrational belief are similar to my earlier answer.‭ ‬Sometimes,‭ ‬people want to believe things that are patently dangerous‭ ‬because‭ ‬it shields them from something else unpleasant‭—‬be‭ ‬that their own shortcomings or‭ ‬circumstances,‭ ‬or their inability to respond to the world in a healthy way.

Throughout the story,‭ ‬you touched on some of the ways that John‭’‬s a man from another time,‭ ‬struggling to adjust to modern society.‭ ‬Ironically,‭ ‬the story is itself a period-piece of sorts,‭ ‬often throwing into perspective just how much our own world and society has changed in our lifetime,‭ ‬just in the last eighteen years.‭ ‬A‭) ‬Was that always part of the concept,‭ ‬or did you realize what era the tale was set in as you found‭ ‬your way into it‭? ‬B‭) ‬What sort of mental workout was it,‭ ‬finding your way back in time to that era,‭ ‬almost like John‭’‬s journey through time in reverse,‭ ‬if you will‭?

KA:‭ ‬I actually set the story in the late‭ ‬1990s for several reasons.‭ ‬First,‭ ‬I wanted to write a noir story,‭ ‬but something different than the‭ ‬traditional‭ ‬1930s and‭ ‬1940s setting.‭ ‬That would‭ ‬have just come out like Humphrey Bogart fan fiction with a vampire.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬Bloody October looks through the same‭ ‬lens of bittersweet nostalgia that we watch those old movies.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬it looks at a different time period.‭ ‬Second,‭ ‬the New Orleans gothic scene in the late‭ ‬1990s was a really exciting time.‭ ‬There was a group of dark rock bands that performed regularly.‭ ‬The community was really thriving,‭ ‬and the future looked pretty exciting.‭ ‬There have been dozens of books and movies about New York during CBGB‭’‬s heyday,‭ ‬and London during the punk years,‭ ‬and Los Angeles during the glam metal explosion.‭ ‬I wanted to give that kind of nostalgic sendoff for a period in my life that was extremely influential.‭ ‬I wouldn‭’‬t‭ ‬necessarily‭ ‬say that it‭’‬s my last word on my involvement with the goth scene.‭ ‬I still DJ at events sometimes.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬I‭’‬ve backed out of that group by degrees over the past couple of years.‭ ‬Writing‭ ‬Bloody October provided me with some closure,‭ ‬and allowed me to revisit an era that I remember fondly.
It wasn‭’‬t really a mental workout going back to that time period.‭ ‬I have an unfortunate knack for‭ ‬remembering minute details,‭ ‬especially when it involves interpersonal drama,‭ ‬romantic shenanigans,‭ ‬and anytime where I‭’‬ve felt slighted.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬I was able to just draw on the sense of awe I felt when I first started going to that bar on the corner of Decatur and Ursulines,‭ ‬and on all of the unfortunate details I‭’‬ve never been able to forget.

On the acknowledgments page,‭ ‬you sort of allude to ways in which the narrator,‭ ‬Jason,‭ ‬has some autobiographical shades of yourself,‭ ‬but at the same time decidedly isn‭’‬t you.‭ ‬How much of that was conscious when you first wrote him‭? ‬By what route did Jason evolve into his own distinct character in your mind,‭ ‬with a life of his own,‭ ‬as opposed to just dropping yourself in as an‭ ‬“everyman‭”‬ for the reader to relate to‭?

KA:‭ ‬Initially,‭ ‬I cribbed a bunch of my own biographical details as temporary filler for Jason‭’‬s backstory.‭ ‬I was trying to get the story out,‭ ‬so I plugged in bits of my own life with the intention of changing them later.‭ ‬Some of them absolutely were changed.‭ ‬A couple of others stayed in place,‭ ‬because other aspects of the story grew out of them organically.‭ ‬It would have been a pain to retrace so many steps and rewrite subplots and ideas from the beginning.‭ ‬Jason evolved with the story,‭ ‬as I realized the impact the situation would have on him,‭ ‬and the consequences of his actions.‭ ‬He‭ ‬isn‭’‬t a terribly likeable person.‭ ‬He‭’‬s not even a very good writer.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬there are just so many‭ ‬scenes of smoking and drinking,‭ ‬because New Orleans is just like that‭ ‬(especially back then‭)‬.‭ ‬I realized that I‭ ‬would‭ ‬have to acknowledge his emerging alcoholism and incorporate it into the story.

I should reiterate that,‭ ‬again,‭ ‬Jason is not a Mary Sue.‭ ‬I‭’‬m not a journalist,‭ ‬though I did write for an entertainment website for a few years.‭ ‬He drinks far more than I do or have in the past.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬I‭’‬m married,‭ ‬so I haven‭’‬t‭ ‬destroyed‭ ‬all of my interpersonal relationships.‭ ‬I also don‭’‬t know any real vampires.‭ ‬Jason is more like an extrapolation of where my life could have gone.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬I joined the Marines,‭ ‬met my wife,‭ ‬and thankfully‭ ‬have‭ ‬had the support of friends and family to keep me out of a rut like that.‭

You‭’‬ve spoken elsewhere about how John,‭ ‬in an earlier draft,‭ ‬was a far more unsavory fellow,‭ ‬who became far more humanized and relatable as the book developed.‭ ‬How else‭ (‬interrelated and otherwise‭) ‬did the story start out seeming like one thing,‭ ‬and how did it evolve from there‭?

KA:‭ ‬The book was intended to be more of a droll comedy when I first started writing it.‭ ‬Think something along the lines of‭ ‬Reality‭ ‬Bites or‭ ‬A Confederacy of Dunces,‭ ‬with a series of dry observations about New Orleans‭. ‬A lot of John and Jason‭’‬s interactions were based on the latter putting up‭ ‬with‭ ‬an enormous amount of BS from his friend.‭ ‬John was more of a wanton drunk and party animal.‭ ‬In the earliest draft that retained that characterization,‭ ‬I realized that,‭ ‬vampire or not,‭ ‬no one would put up with John for very long.‭ ‬He was completely unlikable.‭ ‬As the story built,‭ ‬I realized John would work better as a man out of time desperately trying to adjust,‭ ‬and even be‭ ‬“cool.‭”‬ Without a bunch of‭ ‬gags‭ ‬a la‭ ‬Austin Powers,‭ ‬that was much more interesting to explore.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬John isn‭’‬t even that old.‭ ‬I think part of it was a commentary on how society is pretty dismissive of older people because they were,‭ ‬shockingly,‭ ‬raised in a different time and haven‭’‬t adjusted their values overnight.

‬Comic-book,‭ ‬screen-writing,‭ ‬and prose-fiction writing have many commonalities so far as basic storytelling chops,‭ ‬yet each requires its own set of skills and mindsets.‭ ‬Was that a difficult transition for you‭?

KA:‭ ‬It was.‭ ‬Comic books can have as many or as few words as you care to write.‭ ‬They‭’‬re obviously‭ ‬dependent on the visual images.‭ ‬Writing a novel means managing over‭ ‬100,000‭ ‬words.‭ ‬Dealing with the mechanics alone is exhaustive,‭ ‬much less‭ ‬revising‭ ‬one‭’‬s way through plot holes,‭ ‬internal consistency,‭ ‬and plain bad writing.

How would you describe the difference between working within these two different‭ ‬mediums‭? ‬What sort of new skill-sets/mental approaches did you have to master‭? ‬In what ways would you say that dictated the kind of story you told,‭ ‬and how‭?

KA:‭ ‬Comic books are fun to write.‭ ‬They‭ ‬are a mental trip to an‭ ‬amusement park.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬you can just describe the visuals in instructive terms for an artist.‭ ‬It doesn‭’‬t have to be pretty or interesting.‭ ‬It‭’‬s‭ ‬just to help the artist draw your ideas.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬visuals will always guide and influence the dialogue.‭ ‬It‭’‬s just fantastic seeing your ideas rendered visually a short time after you describe them.

Switching to prose means taking on the entire workload,‭ ‬outside of some really generous friends who helped edit and proofread for me.‭ ‬Your skills as a writer are laid bare before the reader.‭ ‬You can‭’‬t rely on an artist,‭ ‬or disguise your middling prose with snappy dialogue.‭ ‬Comics are great,‭ ‬and I love them.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬they‭’‬re usually done in collaboration between a writer and artists.‭ ‬Granted,‭ ‬I letter my own work.‭ ‬That makes the writing process that much more involved.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬writing prose was more difficult than I imagined.‭ ‬I won‭’‬t lie about that.

Which comic-book writers inspired/influenced your craft in the storytelling mediums,‭ ‬and how‭?

KA:‭ ‬Oh lord,‭ ‬there are so many.‭ ‬In terms of style,‭ ‬I‭’‬d say Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.‭ ‬Besides the fact that they are simply amazing writers in both prose and comics,‭ ‬they often write the latter as if they are simply illustrated stories.‭ ‬If you extract their comic scripts from the art,‭ ‬they‭ ‬often stand on their own.‭ ‬James O‭’‬Barr and‭ ‬The Crow were enormously influential when writing‭ ‬Dead Souls.‭ ‬I like Ed Brubaker‭’‬s modern noir sensibilities.‭ ‬Warren Ellis is a master of juggling intricate,‭ ‬obscure concepts and keeping them tied into the story.‭ ‬I‭’‬m also very fond of Bronze Age Marvel creators like Roy Thomas,‭ ‬Marv Wolfman,‭ ‬Gerry Conway,‭ ‬and Larry Hama.‭ ‬Again,‭ ‬those guys wrote dense comics that read more like novellas.‭ ‬Modern Marvel and DC Comics are very spare.‭ ‬Some of them are outstanding,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬but they are meant to be read quicker.‭ ‬In the Bronze Age,‭ ‬there was this notion that you should cram as much story into an issue as possible to give the reader more bang for their buck‭ (‬or,‭ ‬35‭ ‬cents‭)‬.

Which prose authors did you study finding your way into this new storytelling medium,‭ ‬and how‭?

KA:‭ ‬I don‭’‬t think I really studied anyone assiduously.‭ ‬It‭’‬s weird,‭ ‬because I didn‭’‬t alter my reading habits much for‭ ‬Bloody October.‭ ‬I read‭ ‬George R.R.‭ ‬Martin‭’‬s entire‭ ‬A Song of Ice and Fire a couple of years ago.‭ ‬I started rereading Robert E.‭ ‬Howard‭’‬s Conan cycle.‭ ‬Then,‭ ‬I picked up Thomas Mallory‭’‬s‭ ‬Le Morte D‭’‬Arthur in the‭ ‬original Middle English.‭ ‬I‭’‬m enjoying it,‭ ‬but it‭’‬s obviously a pretty dense book.‭ ‬It goes slowly.‭ ‬At the same time,‭ ‬I read the odd‭ ‬short story from H.P.‭ ‬Lovecraft,‭ ‬or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,‭ ‬or Oscar Wilde,‭ ‬or whomever will last me through a soak in the tub and a drink.‭ ‬I try to champion‭ ‬“Literature with‭ ‬a capital L,‭”‬ but I admit to straying from that diet more often than I‭’‬d like.‭ ‬I read Vladimir Nabokov‭’‬s‭ ‬A Pale Fire a couple of years ago,‭ ‬and I loved it.‭ ‬That is a clever and‭ ‬thoroughly‭ ‬well-written book disguised as a memoir and literary‭ ‬criticism.‭ ‬It‭’‬s strange,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬because I don‭’‬t often read in concert with what I‭’‬m writing.

You‭’‬ve accomplished some impressive feats from a rather grassroots/underground start,‭ ‬including some hefty collaborations with some big names in the game,‭ ‬such as Dani Filth.‭ ‬What advice do you have for aspiring storytelling voices,‭ ‬on getting one‭’‬s foot in the door,‭ ‬and circumnavigating the business from there‭?‬

KA:‭ ‬It‭’‬s all about‭ ‬networking,‭ ‬with a hefty dose of good manners and a basic understanding‭ ‬of how to work the system.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve always told people that you can talk to any artist or performer you want if you can think of a good enough reason.‭ ‬I really wanted Dani to see my work,‭ ‬so I just contacted the record company and asked if we could do an interview in the back of the first issue of‭ ‬Dead Souls.‭ ‬That was just a matter of patiently navigating the system.‭

And,‭ ‬as for aspiring storytellers‭—‬just‭ ‬start creating,‭ ‬and take yourself and your work seriously.‭ ‬The opportunities to get your foot in a door will emerge‭ ‬over time.‭ ‬You have to‭ ‬prove that you‭’‬ve got the drive to keep going.‭ ‬Seeking out opportunities is always good,‭ ‬but forcing yourself into situations is rarely advisable.‭ ‬You can send all of the submissions to comic publishers that you want.‭ ‬Most of them won‭’‬t even be seen.‭ ‬Now,‭ ‬creators have all the tools they need on hand.‭ ‬Why wait for someone else,‭ ‬when you can just put out your own work‭? ‬After that,‭ ‬spend time with the people in that world.‭ ‬Go to conventions.‭ ‬Hang out with other creators and artists.‭ ‬Talk about work with them.

Circumnavigating the business of writing and creating isn‭’‬t easily described.‭ ‬All I can say is don‭’‬t be afraid to ask questions,‭ ‬pay your taxes,‭ ‬and do lots of research.‭ ‬You‭ ‬learn by doing,‭ ‬and you will make mistakes‭ (‬so many stupid,‭ ‬stupid mistakes‭)‬.‭ ‬That‭’‬s okay,‭ ‬though.‭ ‬Even a blown opportunity is a learning experience.‭ ‬You know what not to do next time.‭ ‬

So what‭’‬s next in the works,‭ ‬in comics/prose/etc.,‭ ‬that readers have to look forward to‭?

KA:‭ ‬The reboot of‭ ‬Dead Souls is still‭ ‬in the works.‭ ‬Monty Borror from‭ ‬Cradle of Filth:‭ ‬The Curse of Venus Aversa is doing the art.‭ ‬He‭’‬s almost done the first draft.‭ ‬After that,‭ ‬we‭’‬re going to revise the art and add the old lettering‭—‬revising‭ ‬and rearranging as necessary.‭ ‬It won‭’‬t be a quick process,‭ ‬but‭ ‬Dead Souls has always felt like an open wound to me.‭ ‬I want to be proud of it.

There‭’‬s also another prose novel in the works.‭ ‬It‭’‬s about feuding community theater companies trying to put on the same play before one another.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬there‭’‬s some magic and psychological horror in the mix.‭ ‬You wouldn‭’‬t expect anything less from me,‭ ‬would you‭?

Certainly not.

Find out more about Kurt Amacker at http://www.darknotespress.com/. Bloody October and the rest of Amacker’s titles, are available from Dark Notes Press and from Amazon.

Matt Spencer’s The Night and the Land

Love ya, Geek Mountain State!

Geek Mountain State

Local author Matt Spencer has a new book out titled The Night and the Land. Here’s the plot description:
Among the local hippies and squatters of Brattleboro, Vermont, Sally Wildfire is on the run, hiding from her cruel, relentless family. She finds unexpected love with Rob, a bristly young man freshly awoken to alien sensations and ancestral memories of a long-forgotten realm…setting them both on a collision course with a brutal rite of passage, as the Wildfire family leaves a trail of mangled corpses on the road to Brattleboro.
The Night and the Land (published by Damnation Books) is Book One in the Deschembine Trilogy, the tale of two feuding races from another world. The next book, The Trail of the Beast, will be released in August, 2015 from Damnation Books. The third volume, The Blazing Chief, is forthcoming.
Buy The Night and the Land here.

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Interview with Dark Fantasy Author Rebecca Croteau

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Over the past few years, Rebecca Croteau has become one of my favorite authors. There’s really no point in obfuscating the fact that she’s also been a close, treasured friend for far longer than that. We first met in college, as fellow aspiring writers who bonded over our obsessive enthusiasm for the craft of storytelling. In the years since, it’s been a pleasure, a privilege and an honor to keep in touch, watch each other’s styles develop and solidify, sticking it out through the rejection-slip years as few manage, and finally cracking the professional scene at around the same time with remarkable serendipity. Somehow I always sensed it would turn out like that. Rebecca’s always been one of those winners you can spot and bet on straight out of the gate. Sometimes it’s fun to be right. She’s a woman of endless wit, empathy, passion, thoughtfulness and unique insight, and it’s all there on every page of her work. She’s a versatile storyteller with an unmistakable voice, who at this point I’d gladly follow into just about any territory.

So far as weird writers singing each other’s praises, she always makes me think of HP Lovecraft’s memorial essay to Robert E. Howard: “It is hard to describe precisely what made Mr. Howard’s stories stand out so sharply; but the real secret is that he himself is in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-making policy he could adopt — for even when he outwardly made concessions to Mammon-guided editors and commercial critics, he had an internal force and sincerity which broke through the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote. Seldom, if ever, did he set down a lifeless stock character or situation and leave it as such. Before he concluded with it, it always took on some tinge of vitality and reality in spite of popular editorial policy – always drew something from his own experience and knowledge of life instead of from the sterile herbarium of dessicated pulpish standbys.” Swap out some pronouns and such there, and I couldn’t say it better about Rebecca Croteau.

Croteau’s paranormal page-turner Clearer in the Night (Penner, May 11, 2015) is raw, angry, scary, and viscerally, emotionally and psychologically unapologetic, while also gorgeously atmospheric, expertly paced, and sexy as all get out. In short, it’s a damn good yarn.

Tell us a bit about Cait as a character,‭ ‬who she is to you,‭ ‬where she evolved from,‭ ‬and what about her story grabbed you and pulled you through the writing of it to the end‭?

RC:‭ ‬I wrote Cait when I was in the midst of the worst depressive episode of my life.‭ ‬What blew me away was how fierce she‭ ‬was,‭ ‬how even when she was tempted to give up,‭ ‬she refused to be destroyed by forces outside of her control.‭ ‬In a way,‭ ‬I wrote myself a lifeline,‭ ‬and then used it to haul myself out.‭ (‬Uh,‭ ‬and meds,‭ ‬and therapy.‭ ‬In a big way.‭ ‬Because wow,‭ ‬that year sucked.‭)‬

In the broad strokes,‭ ‬Clearer followed a fairly well-trod werewolf-story plot,‭ ‬yet wound up feeling like an utterly fresh,‭ ‬unique take,‭ ‬for a combination of reasons.‭ ‬How did you approach making this mythological creature your own‭? ‬What,‭ ‬to your mind,‭ ‬sets this take on the subject apart?

RC:‭ ‬When I started writing the‭ ‬original‭ ‬draft of this book,‭ ‬what was huge on the market was Anita Blake,‭ ‬Meredith Gentry,‭ ‬Twilight‭—‬all‭ ‬these books that told‭ ‬stories‭ ‬of mythological creatures basically being neutered and made tame.‭ ‬It was incredibly boring.‭ ‬I grew up reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz and watching Nightmare on Elm Street.‭ ‬I wanted to be afraid of werewolves and vampires.‭ ‬So I wrote a book that scared me.‭

But as I started exploring the characters that happened in the story,‭ ‬what I started to think about was how unbalanced all these paranormal relationships are.‭ ‬You‭’‬ve got these men who are supernaturally powerful,‭ ‬often hundreds of years old,‭ ‬and these young,‭ ‬naïve‭ ‬girls.‭ ‬Especially in Twilight.‭ ‬It‭’‬s creepy,‭ ‬seriously creepy.‭ ‬So I‭ ‬found‭ ‬myself playing with that quite a lot as well.‭ ‬More than one early reader has messaged me as they read the first part of‭ ‬the‭ ‬book,‭ ‬asking‭ ‬“I don‭’‬t like Wes.‭ ‬I‭’‬m not supposed to like Wes,‭ ‬am I‭?‬” To which I generally reply with an enigmatic grin and a digital shrug.

Which other characters in the story resonate most vividly with you,‭ ‬and on what levels ‭?

RC:‭ ‬Mrs.‭ ‬Dennis took on a life of‭ ‬her‭ ‬own.‭ ‬In the original draft,‭ ‬she was just this lady showing up with food for Cait‭’‬s mom,‭ ‬and then there was‭ ‬just‭ ‬SO much more for her to do.‭ ‬There‭’‬s still a lot‭ ‬of story to tell about her,‭ ‬how she got involved in all the things she‭’‬s involved in,‭ ‬and what she‭’‬s willing to do to maintain what she sees as the status quo.‭

Of course there‭’‬s the other stuff going on,‭ ‬paranormal elements we don‭’‬t necessarily associate with werewolves,‭ ‬at least not in the sense they‭’‬re used here.‭ ‬There‭’‬s the telepathy,‭ ‬a secret organization‭ (‬which I don‭’‬t want to spoil so much about here‭)‬,‭ ‬and all these other colorful,‭ ‬ambiguous characters running around with their own agendas.‭ ‬You weave all these potentially disparate elements to create a unique new tapestry.‭ ‬How much of this world-building was consciously crafted,‭ ‬and how much did it all just fall into place intuitively as you went along‭?

RC:‭ ‬I think all of it was a combination.‭ ‬Like,‭ ‬the‭ ‬secret organization.‭ ‬Stuff‭ ‬kept happening at the church,‭ ‬and I found myself asking why is Eli always here‭? ‬Okay,‭ ‬let‭’‬s give him a reason.‭ ‬Cait‭’‬s telepathy happened very late in the drafting,‭ ‬as I recall,‭ ‬and I had to go back and retro fit a lot of‭ ‬the‭ ‬story to make it work,‭ ‬but it added‭ ‬something‭ ‬important to her character for me.‭ ‬

This town Meredith Falls seems to be full of weirdness,‭ ‬just under the surface of what‭ ‬most people perceive as mundane daily reality.‭ ‬It all catches Cait off guard,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬so she‭’‬s in over her head,‭ ‬yet she might be surrounded on a daily basis by residents who are‭ ‬“in the know,‭” ‬for whom something like werewolf-attacks would hardly be a‭ ‬blip on the radar.‭ ‬She has passing encounters with all sorts of enigmatic figures.‭ ‬Sometimes just a sentence or two would make me go,‭ ‬“Wait,‭ ‬hold up,‭ ‬that person sounds like their story could be its whole own book,‭ ‬or at least a short-story or novella.‭”‬

RC:‭ ‬Heh.

So how did this weird little town evolve in your imagination‭? ‬Did you just explore and discover it while you followed Cait around through it,‭ ‬or did you have much of it pre-mapped out‭?

RC:‭ ‬My favorite series novels have these sorts of connections.‭ ‬I love paranormal arcs,‭ ‬but I‭’‬ve always found that they have a chronic problem‭; ‬the main character has to keep facing bigger and badder threats in order to keep the reader interested,‭ ‬which means they have to keep getting more and more powerful.‭ ‬Dresden had to become the Winter Knight,‭ ‬Anita had to become whatever‭ ‬the‭ ‬hell she is now,‭ ‬Meredith Gentry had to keep gaining hands of power.‭ ‬Sooner or later,‭ ‬I would roll my eyes and find something new to read.‭

As a reader,‭ ‬the arcs that could keep my attention were Charles de Lint‭’‬s Newford stories,‭ ‬or Stephen King‭’‬s Derry books.‭ ‬Because‭ ‬each story focused on a different character or scenario,‭ ‬loss was more possible.‭ ‬Even when Harry Dresden fell into Lake Michigan at‭ ‬the‭ ‬end of‭ ‬Changes,‭ ‬I don‭’‬t know anyone who was like OH GOD HARRY DIED,‭ ‬it was more,‭ ‬“Okay,‭ ‬how is Butcher‭ ‬going‭ ‬to write himself out of THIS‭?‬” It leaves the reader with a lack of tension in the story,‭ ‬if you‭ ‬know the main character‭’‬s‭ ‬going‭ ‬to make it out somehow.‭

There are some characters in Meredith Falls that I know damned well are getting their own books.‭ ‬The fiddler who turns up late in the book is the romantic hero in my current WIP.‭ ‬There‭’‬s‭ ‬something‭ ‬going on at Strange Brews that I haven‭’‬t quite‭ ‬figured out‭ ‬yet,‭ ‬but that little coffee shop is an important part of this town,‭ ‬and we‭’‬ll be visiting it again.‭ ‬And of course,‭ ‬there‭’‬s‭ ‬the‭ ‬organization.‭ ‬But‭ ‬other than deliberately inserting the fiddler,‭ ‬once I realized who he was going to be,‭ ‬no,‭ ‬it was all organic,‭ ‬happening as I followed Cait‭’‬s exploration of her world.‭

Cait‭’‬s story goes to some pretty harsh,‭ ‬raw emotional places,‭ ‬both through Cait‭’‬s inner psychological journey and through some of the other equally interesting characters we meet‭ (‬good,‭ ‬bad,‭ ‬everything in-between,‭ ‬and a case or two of‭ ‬“the jury‭’‬s still out on that one‭”‬).‭ ‬Digging deep into that sort of territory takes no shortage of nerve and guts.‭ ‬Particularly in dark/horror-themed fiction,‭ ‬that sort of warts-and-all rawness can get too intense or even controversial for some readers.‭ ‬Do you ever step back from some extreme place you‭’‬ve found yourself and go,‭ ‬“Maybe I need to dial this back a notch or two,‭”‬ or is that the time to go,‭ ‬“In for a penny,‭ ‬in for a pound‭; ‬go for broke or go home‭”‬? Where‭’‬s the line for you‭?

RC:‭ ‬So the original ending of the book was‭ ‬just‭ ‬Cait,‭ ‬sitting home alone,‭ ‬saying that she wanted to go out dancing.‭ ‬Essentially,‭ ‬I was saying that after everything she‭’‬d gone through,‭ ‬nothing had really changed‭ ‬for her.‭ ‬I sent it to my alpha reader‭ (‬i.e.‭ ‬the only person who sees my drafts after nothing has happened but spell check‭)‬,‭ ‬and for the first time in fifteen years,‭ ‬she emailed me back and was like‭ ‬“No.‭ ‬Fucking well NO.‭ ‬This is too goddamn dark,‭ ‬and you go back,‭ ‬and do it again,‭ ‬and you do it RIGHT this time.‭”‬ So I changed the ending to give it as much hope as I could manage,‭ ‬given everything Cait had gone through.‭

Other‭ ‬than that,‭ ‬I push for the darkness.‭ ‬I refuse to write angst for angst‭’‬s sake,‭ ‬but to my mind,‭ ‬one of the benefits of horror and fantasy settings is that the horrible creatures and nightmareish settings‭ ‬can stand in‭ ‬for things that we‭’‬d never be able to say in realistic fiction.‭ ‬If you pitched a book to a publisher and said‭ ‬“I want to write an exploration of how reality TV hurts kids,‭ ‬and makes us all participate in our own cultural destruction,‭”‬ you would be laughed out of your pitch,‭ ‬but set that in Panem,‭ ‬and you have a brilliant,‭ ‬wonderful,‭ ‬amazing series that goes a thousand times darker than realistic fiction could ever get away with.

You‭’‬ve been building your fiction-career both on dark fantasy and straight-up erotica.‭ ‬The fantasy writing also includes its share of hot,‭ ‬steamy scenes.‭ ‬I seem to recall you mentioning something about how the smut-factor can create confusion about how to market it.‭ ‬I think of horror/dark-fantasy authors I read all the time growing up‭…‬Poppy Z.‭ ‬Brite,‭ ‬Clive Barker,‭ ‬Anne Rice,‭ ‬hell,‭ ‬Stephen King sometimes‭…‬None of those folks were prudes about letting their characters sex it up between running around being menaced or being menacing.‭ ‬As we‭’‬ve discussed elsewhere,‭ ‬mixing horror and eroticism is at least as old as vampires in popular fiction.‭ ‬Why the‭ (‬perceived by some‭) ‬need to differentiate now,‭ ‬do you think‭? ‬Am I missing something‭?

RC:‭ ‬I think it‭’‬s less about the erotica and dark fantasy,‭ ‬because as you say,‭ ‬they‭ ‬blend very well.‭ ‬Romance and dark fantasy,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬can make things complex.‭ ‬Romance writers are some of the most amazing,‭ ‬wonderful,‭ ‬and passionate readers I‭’‬ve ever encountered,‭ ‬but they are also very aware of the expectations of their genre‭ (‬most specifically,‭ ‬the happily-ever-after ending‭)‬,‭ ‬and can be justifiably brutal when a book that they expect to be romance turns out to be‭ ‬something‭ ‬else entirely.‭ ‬So we had multiple conversations at Penner about how to best position this book to get it in front of‭ ‬the‭ ‬audience that‭ (‬I hope‭!) ‬will enjoy it.‭ ‬In‭ ‬the end,‭ ‬it‭’‬s packaged very much as a New Adult book,‭ ‬which carries a certain expectation of romance.‭ ‬I do think it‭’‬s a‭ ‬romantic‭ ‬book,‭ ‬with interpersonal themes and stories very much at‭ ‬the‭ ‬forefront,‭ ‬but readers who expect a story primarily about the girl being torn between two hot guys are not‭ ‬going‭ ‬to get the book they‭’‬re‭ ‬looking‭ ‬for.‭ ‬I hope that they like the book they have in front of them,‭ ‬but I have put on my flame-proof suit,‭ ‬just in case they‭ ‬don‭’‬t.

I do think there‭’‬s room for a lot more in the New Adult genre than erotic romance,‭ ‬and I hope that‭ ‬Clearer can help to expand those boundaries a‭ ‬little‭ ‬bit.‭

A lot of the spirit of your work puts me very in mind of classic Victorian Gothic horror which I‭’‬ve always loved,‭ ‬particularly in the erotically charged elements‭ (‬which you make your own through a‭ ‬more conscientious,‭ ‬modern lens,‭ ‬and are of course allowed to be more overt‭)‬.‭ ‬Who/what were some of the authors/books/storytelling traditions that informed upon‭ ‬this book and these characters‭? ‬What notes on the craft did you bring from there to here,‭ ‬and what would you have to say to aspiring storytellers about that‭?

RC:‭ ‬I‭’‬m such a horrible lit major.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve never gotten into Victorian literature at all.‭ ‬Everything I‭’‬ve read in that strain has been second and third generation at least.‭ ‬Outside of Dracula,‭ ‬actually.‭ ‬I love Bram Stoker‭’‬s Dracula intensely,‭ ‬because of the things it says about sexuality and independence,‭ ‬and how women in particular are punished for wanting.

If I had to point my finger at a single book that defined a lot of how I think about feminism,‭ ‬and women,‭ ‬and women in fiction in particular,‭ ‬I‭’‬d have to look at‭ ‬The Handmaid‭’‬s Tale.‭ ‬I read‭ ‬that book over and over in my early teens,‭ ‬and there‭’‬s still so much there.‭ ‬The‭ ‬book is so focused on the feminine,‭ ‬even though it‭’‬s very much about how men are basically enslaving fertile women as breeding machines,‭ ‬and it still‭ ‬explodes my‭ ‬mind‭ ‬every time I go back to it.

I suppose what I love the most about Dracula,‭ ‬the second-generation Cthulu type stories,‭ ‬and the more modern explorations of detective stories in urban fantasy is the way that it plays with this idea that the world around us is a veneer laid over‭ ‬this‭ ‬seething‭ ‬underbelly of The Real World,‭ ‬and how the characters we‭’‬re reading about are protecting us in our sheepish ignorance.‭ ‬Urban fantasy of course has its roots‭ ‬in the magical realism stories of Latin America,‭ ‬with Isabelle Allende‭ ‬and Gabriel Garcia Marquez‭’‬s books being‭ ‬the‭ ‬most famous.‭

I‭’‬m rambling.‭ ‬Advice to the would-be storyteller:‭ ‬read.‭ ‬Read in your genre,‭ ‬and out of it.‭ ‬If you‭ ‬hate it,‭ ‬read it until you understand why.‭ ‬If you love it,‭ ‬read it until you understand why.‭ ‬Do more of‭ ‬the‭ ‬stuff you love than the stuff you hate.‭ ‬Write until you figure out how you write,‭ ‬and then keep doing that. Also, hone your marketing skills. Read blogs about marketing, publishing, and the industry side of things. I strongly recommend Seth Godin for marketing, Writer Beware for industry news. If there was ever a time when writers could afford to take the first offer that came at them, that time has passed. The flat-out truth is that while your publisher will (hopefully) do everything they can to market you, the most impassioned connections come personally. I’ve reached out to the community that arose after everything happened with Ellora’s Cave and the Dear Author lawsuit last year, I’ve reached out to friends who write reviews in parallel industries, and I’ve made the most of connections I have through college and writing communities. The only thing that hasn’t changed in the writing profession in the past decade is that word of mouth sells books. I honestly think that’s the one thing that will never change when it comes to books and stories. An impassioned fan is your best ally.‭

Whatever the genre territory,‭ ‬your narrative voice is one of one of the liveliest and most unmistakable I‭’‬ve read in a while.‭ ‬As a storyteller,‭ ‬what would you say are the strongest overarching,‭ ‬driving obsessions in your work‭ (‬as in themes related to characters,‭ ‬their psychology,‭ ‬the challenges they face and how they cope,‭ ‬etc.‭)?

RC:‭ ‬Aw,‭ ‬thank you‭!

I‭’‬m obsessed with relationships between women in general,‭ ‬and between sisters in‭ ‬particular.‭ ‬Sisters are a big theme in this book,‭ ‬and mother-daughter connections are huge in the sequel that I‭’‬m working on.‭ ‬Family connections,‭ ‬how we oblige and forgive each other.‭ ‬How women operate in our society,‭ ‬and how they gain and lose power.‭

One‭ ‬thing that I‭’‬ve been‭ ‬thinking‭ ‬about‭ ‬quite‭ ‬a lot lately is‭ ‬what‭ ‬a feminist superhero looks like.‭ ‬A lot of the female superheroes that we look to get their power through the abuse or protection of men.‭ ‬Carol Danvers gets her powers because Marveil protects her from an explosion.‭ ‬Natasha Romanova is conditioned and abused into‭ ‬becoming‭ ‬the Black Widow.‭ ‬Do not even get me started on the BS that is the origin story of‭ ‬the‭ ‬Slayers.‭

Cait is not exempt from this,‭ ‬not at all.‭ ‬But I want to continue to‭ ‬examine‭ ‬that idea,‭ ‬how women gain and lose power in their own narrative,‭ ‬separate from abuse and male narrative.‭ ‬There‭’‬s bigger stories happening‭ ‬in Meredith Falls,‭ ‬and Cait will have a part to play in those stories,‭ ‬though it‭’‬s going to be a while before she gets her happily ever after.‭

So what‭’‬s the next big thing to watch for from you,‭ ‬in fantasy,‭ ‬horror,‭ ‬erotica,‭ ‬or whatever else‭?

RC:‭ ‬I don‭’‬t have release dates yet,‭ ‬but I have stories forthcoming in anthologies at both Circlet Press and Cleis Press.‭ ‬In Circlet‭’‬s‭ ‬Coffee:‭ ‬Hot‭!‬,‭ ‬I have a lesbian erotica sci-fi story called‭ ‬“Flavor Profile of a Smuggler.‭”‬ A lot of things are up in the air at Cleis after their sale to Start,‭ ‬but I‭ ‬believe‭ ‬that‭ ‬Kristina Wright‭’‬s‭ ‬For Play anthology is still going to be released,‭ ‬and I have a story called‭ ‬“Telling Bedtime Stories‭”‬ included.‭ ‬It‭’‬s‭ ‬a somewhat unconventional M/f/f story.‭ ‬I‭’‬m working on the second Meredith Falls book,‭ ‬and hope to have it in front of an editor before the end of the summer.‭

People‭ ‬looking to keep track of what I‭’‬m up to should follow me on Twitter,‭ @‬ReeCroteau,‭ ‬it‭’‬s where I blab the most.‭

Rebecca lives in the wilds of New England with her family. She is owned by two cats. She has a fountain pen habit. You can also follow her at www.rebeccacroteau.com.