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The Scariest Part: William Meikle Talks About THE GHOST CLUB [Dec. 12th, 2017|07:00 am]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur
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My guest this week on The Scariest Part is author William Meikle, whose new story collection is The Ghost Club. Here is the publisher’s description:

Writers never really die; their stories live on, to be found again, to be told again, to scare again.

In Victorian London, a select group of writers, led by Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Henry James held an informal dining club, the price of entry to which was the telling of a story by each invited guest.

These are their stories, containing tales of revenant loved ones, lost cities, weird science, spectral appearances and mysteries in the fog of the old city, all told by some of the foremost writers of the day. In here you’ll find Verne and Wells, Tolstoy and Checkov, Stevenson and Oliphant, Kipling, Twain, Haggard and Blavatsky alongside their hosts.

Come, join us for dinner and a story.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for William Miekle:

In The Ghost Club I’ve undertaken the task of writing a collection of supernatural stories as told in the voices of famous Victorian writers like Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde and many others. It’s probably the most ambitious piece of work I’ve ever attempted, but surprisingly to me that in itself wasn’t the scariest part of the process.

I’m Scottish, and was brought up in a tradition of old songs rather than old stories. My grandmother loved to sing to us, and she had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of folk songs, hymns, gospel, snatches of jazz and popular records of the day — this was the early ’60s, so Elvis and the Beatles got more than their share among the Scottish tunes.

It was one of the old Scots songs that was the cause of the scary part for me, a seemingly innocuous little song that’s also a murder ballad, a lament, and a rather nasty tale of infanticide. We Celts are big on that stuff in case you haven’t noticed. That, drinking, fighting and herring fishing, but that’s another set of songs for another day.

I had got to the Margaret Oliphant story and I knew it would be an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ tale of a maid and a big house. Mrs. Oliphant was another Scot, and I wanted to reflect that in the story somehow. But I didn’t know the song was going to turn up until it did, right at the moment I needed it. Gran had sung it to us, and I’ve since performed it myself in folk clubs, back when the world was young, so I didn’t even have to look up the lyrics.

“She sat down below a thorn. Fine flowers in the valley
And there she has her sweet babe borne. And the green leaves they grow rarely.”

And I didn’t just write it down, I heard it in my head, clear as day, in my old Gran’s voice, so clear that it brought tears to my eyes and I had to stop and look round to make sure she wasn’t in the doorway watching me.

That’s not the scary part either, for I’ve had that kind of reaction to sudden memories of her before now over the years since she died.

No, the scary part came later. I’d worked on the story all day and got nearly finished, but I was getting tired, it was late and time for bed so I didn’t push it. I went to brush my teeth, and was standing by the sink when I heard it. It wasn’t my Gran’s voice this time, it was a child’s, a young girl by the sound of it, and it seemed to be coming from outside the window, out in our back yard. I heard it, loud and clear.

“She’s taken out her little penknife. Fine flowers in the valley
And twinned the sweet babe of its life. And the green leaves they grow rarely.”

I didn’t look out, didn’t dare to, and I stood there for a while in the brightly lit bathroom, waiting, but it wasn’t repeated.

It was a long while before I got to sleep that night though.

Writers, eh? We’re a weird bunch.

The Ghost Club: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s

William Miekle: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads

William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with over twenty novels published in the genre press and more than 300 short story credits in thirteen countries. He has books available from a variety of publishers and his work has appeared in a large number of professional anthologies and magazines. He lives in Newfoundland with whales, bald eagles and icebergs for company. When he’s not writing he drinks beer, plays guitar, and dreams of fortune and glory.

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Lord of the Flies [Dec. 8th, 2017|05:23 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Somehow, Golding’s classic LORD OF THE FLIES was overlooked in my reading history. Either the novel wasn’t assigned to me in high school the way it was for everyone else, or it was and I didn’t bother reading it (I neglected about half my school assignments; I was a bad student). But now, several decades later, I finally picked it up, and I’m glad I did. I didn’t completely love it — I found the first half rather slow and at times uninvolving — but I thought it was very good. It’s a deeply symbolic work, with symbolism that isn’t often very subtle, but it works well as an adventure story, too. I thought there were a few standout scenes in the latter half, though none so amazing as the one scene in which the titular character makes its appearance. At that moment, like no other in the novel, LORD OF THE FLIES feels vibrantly alive to me, and the story tips compellingly into horror territory (which is probably why the scene stands out so much to me). Overall, I enjoyed the novel and am glad to have finally filled this gap in my literary education. Sucks to your ass-mar!

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [Nov. 29th, 2017|09:16 am]
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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I give this one all the stars! What a fun, tight, and surprising novella! We all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but in reading Stevenson’s original novella I realized the source material is very different from what we know from movies, cartoon spoofs, and just general societal osmosis. We tend to think of it as Jekyll’s story, his scientific quest to isolate the parts of man that are evil, his stumbling upon the potion that creates Hyde, etc. None of this matches Stevenson’s vision.

The first pleasant surprise for me is that Jekyll is not the story’s protagonist. Our POV character is Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer, through whose eyes the mystery of Jekyll’s relationship to Hyde unfolds. I was also surprised to discover Hyde already exists when the story starts, and has for some time. In fact, the revelation that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same person is saved for the big reveal at the end!

Jekyll’s motivations are revealed to be quite different from what I thought from those other versions; he is far more selfish and desperate to walk on the dark side without tarnishing his good name. We tend to think of Jekyll and Hyde like Bruce Banner and the Hulk, with one personality going to sleep while the other takes over, but that’s not the case here. Hyde *is* Jekyll, with all his memories fully intact, but with his id finally released from the domineering superego of societal norms. Nor is Hyde portrayed as the hideously disfigured creature of the films. Instead, he is shorter than Jekyll (his child self, one could argue; a throwback to Jekyll’s own hinted-at wild youth) and sports an evil expression that implies, at worst, deviousness. He’s no monster, at least not physically. It’s his crimes, all of which happen off the page and are related to Utterson after the fact, that make him one.

Despite this 1886 novella’s archaic language (“cabinet” is used in place of “study,” for example, which was something I had to look up), DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a fast and highly enjoyable read. Without a doubt it’s one of my new favorites of classic horror literature.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The Scariest Part: Jason Ridler Talks About HEX-RATED [Nov. 28th, 2017|07:00 am]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur

I’m delighted that my guest this week on The Scariest Part is an old friend of mine from way back, author Jason Ridler, whose latest novel is Hex-Rated. Here is the publisher’s description:

Fall, 1970. Los Angeles has always been a den of danger and bliss, but even darker tidings brew in the City of Angels. Cults, magic, and the supernatural are leaking into the worlds of glamour and dives of the gutter. To the spectators walking down Hollywood Blvd, it’s just more proof that La La Land is over the cuckoo’s nest. But to former child magician and Korean veteran turned newly-licensed private investigator James Brimstone, it means business is picking up.

After attending his mentor’s funeral, Brimstone signs his first client: Nico, a beautiful actress with a face full of scars and an unbelievable story of sex, demons, and violence on the set of a pornographic film in the San Fernando Valley. The cops chalk it up to a bad trip from a lost soul, but Brimstone knows better.

He takes the case, but the investigation goes haywire as he encounters Hell’s Angels, a lost book of Japanese erotica, and a new enemy whose powers may fill the streets of L.A. with blood. He’ll have to use his Carney wits, magic tricks, and a whole lotta charm to make it out of a world that is becoming . . . Hex-Rated.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Jason S. Ridler:

Hex-Rated, the debut novel in my new series The Brimstone Files, is a supernatural mystery set in porn industry of 1970s LA. And the scariest part was writing the sexy bits.

I’ve written about love, lust, violence, horror and the grotesque for almost twenty years but this was a legit novel! And unlike Harlan Ellison and other heroes who wrote dirty books under pennames, I’d be using my own. What would the neighbors think? What might my family think???

Then I recalled a chat I had with my friend Weird-Ass Neil, back when I started writing fiction. Over hyper-priced coffee I complained that I was stalled. All my characters were lone wolves who had no family because I was worried that if I wrote a father, a mother, or sister…my real life family would scream, “That’s how you think of me? HOW DARE YOU!”

Ol’ Weird-Ass Neil’s about as blunt as a cement brick in the face. His response? “Sounds like you’re giving other people a lot of authority over what you can write, and they’re not even in the room. Dude, I think this is a recipe for mediocrity.” He was right. Fear of external judgment is the killer of creativity. If you please everyone, you’ll hate the work yourself. So I started writing about families and their influences (good, bad, and fugly) and my characters became vastly more interesting and “rounded” and I leveled up as a writer.

So, when I found myself at that crossroad of “Fear of External Judgment” again, I ran in the other direction. Hex-Rated is a pulp novel so there damn well better be some pulp sex. At the same time, the last thing I wanted was some kind of tribute to misogynist power-fantasies of that era. So I made Brimstone a sheet warrior, but a progressive and left-wing child of the Beats with an open mind and forward attitude about sex and sexuality. Yes, the sex in the novel is over the top and primarily built for hetero-normative modes, but it also fit his character and his attitudes. And, I hope, they’re fun to read!

Then, I waited for responses from the big bad world and the results have been HILARIOUS!

Some fans love those scenes for being salacious and ridiculous. Others say they’re “too much,” and Brimstone is “too good” at the beast-with-two-backs to be taken seriously. And my family, in true “children of the 1980s fashion,” skipped those parts like Fast Forwarding the “adult situations” in a teen comedy! I’ve walked the line, as Johnny Cash would say, with some folks loving the lusty bits, others hating them, and most folks loving the story and editing them to suit their interests.

That’s the kind of happy ending you only get when you don’t give in…to the Scariest Part!

Hex-Rated: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Jason Ridler: Blog / Facebook / Twitter

Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and left-wing military historian. His novels include Hex-Rated, the first installment of the Brimstone Files series for Nightshade Press, Rise of the Luchador, and Death Match. He’s also published over sixty stories and numerous academic publications. FXXK WRITING! A Guide for Frustrated Artists collects the best of his column of the same name, and his next historical work, Mavericks of War, is forthcoming from Stackpole Books. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is a Teaching Fellow for Johns Hopkins University.

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Legion (Not the TV Show) [Nov. 21st, 2017|09:26 pm]
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Legion (Exorcist, #3)Legion by William Peter Blatty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the twelve years that passed between THE EXORCIST and LEGION, its sequel, author William Peter Blatty honed his writing skills. For the most part, I found LEGION to be a much better written novel than THE EXORCIST, at least on the prose level. When it comes to focus, however, I found Blatty’s writing here as frustrating as ever. Whole scenes and conversations amount to nothing and go nowhere. The entirety of the story is crammed into the first few chapters and the last few chapters, with the middle chapters containing little more than filler, especially the multiple chapters that follow Dr. Amfortas, a character who ultimately winds up not doing much at all. If Amfortas were removed from the novel, nothing would change but the word count.

Lieutenant Kinderman is presented somewhat better here than he was in THE EXORCIST, but his dialogue still comes off like someone doing a bad impression of a nebbishy Jewish person. The dialogue of his mother-in-law, whom we meet in Kinderman’s home life, is even worse. The mystery at the heart of the novel is good, and the supernatural elements are chilling, and they alone are what save LEGION from being utterly forgettable. I’m a big fan of the film adaptation — released as THE EXORCIST III: LEGION and starring the great George C. Scott as Kinderman — but the end of the novel is both different from and, unexpectedly, worse than the movie’s. The film’s producers famously demanded that an exorcism be added to the climax, since the word “exorcist” was in the title and they thought that was what the audience wanted to see. I always thought it was a mistake and wondered what the real ending was. Well, now I know. In the novel, the killer’s motivation, which involves a character we meet only once in a complete throw-away of a chapter, is resolved off-page when we’re told that character died from a stroke, and so the killer just stops killing and — literally — lies down and dies. The end.

There’s a theological philosophy couched in the novel that’s interesting, something about who is really watching over the world since it clearly isn’t God, and I wish more time had been spent exploring it. I also wish it had tied in a little better with the plot. But then, I kind of wish everything had tied in a little better with the plot. Ultimately, LEGION is a messy novel with a few good scenes and a couple of good chills, but not a novel I would recommend to anyone but Blatty completists or fans of Lt. Kinderman who want to see where his adventures take him after THE EXORCIST. For everyone else, rent the movie instead, bad exorcism scene and all.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The Scariest Part: J.R.R.R. Hardison Talks About DEMON FREAKS [Nov. 21st, 2017|07:00 am]
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This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author J.R.R.R. Hardison, whose latest novel is Demon Freaks. Here is the publisher’s description:

It’s the night before the SAT test. The forces of darkness are stirring.

Twin brothers, Bing and Ron Slaughter, know they’ve got to cram like their lives depend on it because their college plans sure do. If they don’t ace the test, they’ll be doomed to spend the rest of their days flipping burgers at the McDonald’s their parents run. That’s why they hatch a plan to meet up with the members of their punk band, the Ephits, spend the night studying at a secluded cabin in the woods, and maybe squeeze in a little jamming. What could go wrong with a brilliant plan like that?

Ancient evil. That’s what.

As a cataclysmic lightning storm rolls in, Bing, Ron and the rest of the Ephits find themselves tangled in a sinister plot to summon a demon. Yes, demons are real. To survive the night, the band must find a malevolent artifact, battle bloodthirsty monsters and stand against the most dangerous and powerful foe humanity has ever faced…the Golfer’s Association.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for J.R.R.R. Hardison:

I do OK in caves, but I don’t love them. It’s an imagination thing. I see possibilities — and I see them more clearly the darker my surroundings get. People get lost in caves, they get trapped in them, drowned in them. They succumb to hypothermia, starvation, bad air. And there are bugs. Troglobites, they call them. I’m not fond of bugs, especially not odd, pale, never-seen-the-light-of-day, bulging-blind-eyed troglobites that might get on you while you can’t see them, or worse, crawl up your nose when you’re dead.

My cave paranoia increases in regards to the safety of other people. That’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s just because I’ve always been pretty lucky, and I feel like I would probably blunder my way out of any subterranean void in which I was lost. But my luck doesn’t extend to other people, like my wife, and I don’t trust my adventurer skills anywhere near enough to believe I could help someone else if something went wrong. If a part of the cave floor gave way and a fellow explorer was hanging over the edge of a lightless abyss, I’m pretty sure their desperate fingers would slip through my clumsy grasp. If underground floodwaters suddenly surged around our necks, it seems like a foregone conclusion that I’d be unable to hold my breath long enough to pull my submerged companion from the icy deluge. And if a falling stalactite pinned a loved one, my well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get help would only result in blind wanderings that would doom her bones to molder in eternal darkness.

All of this is a long way of saying that the scariest part for me in writing Demon Freaks was a sudden silence in the lightless void below the craggy slopes of Mt. St. Helens. I’d decided to visit some caves to prepare for writing the sequence in which two of the central characters are lost in a maze of tunnels and caverns under the clubhouse of the evil Golfers’ Association. For the record, it is a mistake to first research the dangers of caves before physically going into them. Google searching turns up a wide array of stories that all begin by coupling a cave name with the capitalized word disaster, and then end with people dying. The Nutty Putty Cave Disaster, the Mossdale Cavern Disaster, the Cave Creek Disaster…the list goes on. The National Speleological Society also keeps a handy official Journal of Record of Caving Accidents and Safety Incidents that tracks American caving mishaps going back to 1961. The incident entries in this journal are suggestively spare, like, “Fatality. Falling stone,” and “Fatality. Fell into pit.”

After all that reading, it was with some trepidation that I found myself joining various cave tours and forcing myself to hang back just far enough from the group to lose sight of the others. But I never felt really unsafe. Even if I managed to get separated from the group, a guy with a walkie talkie would undoubtedly track me down, or another tour would come along in ten minutes. More often than not, a tour guide would just say, “Sir, please keep up.”

So that’s why I finally decided to visit a nearby cave on an unguided tour with my wife. At 2.5 miles, Ape Cave is the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States. It’s not a particularly dangerous cave, but as the website ominously informs you, “No cave can ever be considered completely safe.” They urge you to wear warm, heavy clothes (it’s generally about 42 degrees inside), to bring at least two light sources with spare batteries, and to never touch the walls. Never touch the walls? Yes. They harbor “cave slime,” which sounds like it might eat you alive, but is actually just an important food source for the troglofauna — the various creatures that live in the cave.

On the drive out to the cave, I managed to get myself a little worked up about the whole thing, much to my wife’s amusement. This was going to be just the two of us, inside miles of inky dark lava tube, no guide to pull our bacon out of the fire. She was rolling her eyes, but I was almost ready to turn back. Then we arrived at the site and found it swarming with other weekend thrill-seekers and inexperienced cavers. It was not just going to be the two of us.

Yes, it was a very cool way to spend an afternoon. Yes, there were a few heart-racing moments that involved scaling a slick lava wall or scrambling on our bellies through narrow crevices. And yes, I saw a few fearsome cave crickets. But for the most part, it was a pretty tame adventure.

There was one moment we found ourselves alone and out of ear shot of the crowds. We were crouched below a bulging ceiling of blobby black rock in a section of tube about six feet across, and I suggested we turn off our lights to get a better feel for the darkness. The second we flicked our switches, we were blind. In the absence of other sound, my wife’s breathing seemed very loud. Then there was a soft scrabbling and the sound of her breathing stopped. It just stopped.

I listened, strained actually, to catch the whisper of another breath. I reached out, groping for her in the pitch. But there was nothing. Nothing. The eyes of my imagination opened wide and beheld every account of every caving disaster spread before me. “Fatality,” I thought. “Fell into pit.”

And then someone else’s flashlight beam hit us. There was my wife a few feet further than expected, caught in the act of creeping away, a big grin on her face. She insists that she was just “helping” my writing process by holding her breath so that I could feel the full effect of the cave. Me, I don’t believe that for a second.

Demon Freaks: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

J.R.R.R. Hardison: Website / Twitter

Jim has worked as a writer, screen writer, animator and director in entertainment and commercials since graduating from Columbia College of Chicago in 1988. He is the author of The Helm, which YALSA praised as one of 2010’s best graphic novels for young readers, and has directed animated commercial and entertainment projects, including spots for M&M’s, AT&T, and Kellogg’s. He co-founded Character LLC in 2000 and has given story advice to many of the world’s largest brands, such as Target, Verizon, Samsung, McDonalds and Walmart, and has even appeared on NBC’s The Apprentice as an expert adviser on brand characters. Jim lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, two kids and two dogs. Fish WielderJim’s debut novel, was released in 2016, and Demon Freaks, his second novel, was released in October 2017.

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The Scariest Part: Tracy Townsend Talks About THE NINE [Nov. 14th, 2017|07:00 am]
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This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Tracy Townsend, whose debut novel is The Nine. Here is the publisher’s description:

A book that some would kill for…

Black market courier Rowena Downshire is doing everything she can to stay off the streets and earn enough to pay her mother’s way to freedom. But an urgent and unexpected delivery leads her face to face with a creature out of nightmares.

The Alchemist knows things few men have lived to tell about, but when a frightened and empty-handed courier shows up on his doorstep he knows better than to turn her away. What he discovers leads him to ask for help from the last man he wants to see — the former mercenary, Anselm Meteron.

Reverend Phillip Chalmers awakes in a cell, bloodied and bruised, facing a creature twice his size. Translating a stolen book that writes itself may be his only hope for survival; however, he soon learns the text may have been written by the Creator himself, tracking the nine human subjects of his Grand Experiment. In the wrong hands, it could mean the end of humanity.

This unlikely team must try to keep the book from those who would misuse it. But how can they be sure who the enemy is when they can barely trust each other? And what will happen to them when it reveals a secret no human was meant to know?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Tracy Townsend:

It took every ounce of my will to keep from answering the phone on the first ring.

It was a Monday morning, and I was waiting for the call from the literary agent who’d read my manuscript with such fervor, we’d spent the last weekend chatting over email about my career. He’d read the whole manuscript in five days, then scheduled a call. We were to discuss a revise and resubmit, something he didn’t usually handle over the phone. This was Very Serious Business.

When my phone finally blazed to life, I did my best to be good. Disciplined. Focused. Professional. And I was, mostly.

I answered halfway through the second ring.

The conversation glowed with praise and visions of my potential. The agent had been looking for a writer of adult fantasy for while. He wanted something smart, nuanced, and dark. Something stylistically complex. He saw the right signs in The Nine. I listened. I paced. I always pace when I’m on the phone. It helps keep me from talking too fast. When we got to the part about the agent’s concerns, I had to sit down and take notes. Everything was fine (my now pent-up energy notwithstanding) until we got to his last concern.

“About the aigamuxa,” he said. “I’m not sure about them.”

My heart had been racing. Suddenly, it clogged with an emotion I couldn’t quite parse. Disappointment. Frustration. And, yes. Fear. I was ready to hear that he thought ogre-like antagonists with eyes on their feets were just too weird. Or that he wasn’t sure how they could be perceived as a threat, given that bizarre anatomy. I was ready for any of a half-dozen skeptical reactions to The Nine’s antagonist species, because I’d fielded them already with beta readers and critique partners. I wasn’t ready for this conversation, though.

“I think fantasy readers need a villain they can hate or fear. Something morally concrete. The aigamuxa,” he paused. “They actually have good reason to hate human beings. They were colonized and enslaved. Now they live on the margin of society, without any rights or security. Of course they hate people. Anybody would. How can you ask the reader to see them as the monsters?”

I blurted the words out before I could stop myself. “That’s not what I want at all.” So much for being professional.

My pen dropped from my hand, rolling off the notepad to sit beside my keyboard. What was I thinking? This agent had New York Times bestsellers on his list. Clients with movie deals secured on their debut novels. “Sold at auction” was quickly becoming his middle name. Why wasn’t I just saying, “Of course! I can change that!”?

“Let me explain,” I said, getting back to my feet to pace. I took a breath and tried to speak slowly. “The aigamuxa aren’t villains. They’re antagonists — the ones who oppose. And they are people. They may have claws and razor teeth and eyes on their feet, but they’re still people. They’re not wrong to hate humanity. I want the reader to recognize that. I want the reader to be afraid for the protagonists and to root for them and also recognize that what threatens them isn’t just evil for its own sake.”

“But readers need to know they’re on the right side. Tell you what. What if the aigamuxa are this proud warrior people and they lost some battle to humanity, and then got left alone to lick their wounds, so now they want revenge for the blow to their pride? Like Germany after World War I, perhaps?”

I shook my head. “My characters have done terrible things. They aren’t the good guys. And mankind isn’t, either. They’ve treated the world like it only exists to fuel their knowledge of divinity, or like it’s some kind of puzzle God wants them to solve. If they were only good, what’s so scary about a book that records God’s judgments? What would anybody have to be afraid of, if we could be sure we were in the right? I don’t want to coddle my readers. I don’t want a story with neat moral boundaries and tidy, clean conflicts. It’s full of wounded hearts and people who have been done wrong. Monsters should get the same treatment.”

Another pause. “It’s your story. You should do what you think is right. I’m just not sure that’s going to work.”

We talked a little more, then hung up. Months later, I sent him the revision. As it turns out, the agent didn’t think it worked, but another agent did, and offered representation just hours after the first emailed his regrets. We went on to sell my book of washed-up mercenaries and antagonists with just causes and heroes with baggage and existential uncertainties. Fighting to keep my monsters human (and my humans a little monstrous) was the scariest part of The Nine because it was a battle for the soul of the book itself. I hadn’t set out to do something simple with my readers’ hearts, even if might sell more easily or get better reviews. I had set out to explore what scares me about human nature, what hope we have of redeeming ourselves, and what happens when we’re called to account for the wrongs we’ve done.

I had to write a book I was too scared to give up on. I hope it scares you the same way.

The Nine: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Tracy Townsend: Website / Twitter / Goodreads

Tracy Townsend holds a master’s degree in writing and rhetoric from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from DePauw University, a source of regular consternation when proofreading her credentials. She is a past chair of the English Department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, an elite public boarding school, where she currently teaches creative writing and science fiction and fantasy literature. She has been a martial arts instructor, a stage combat and accent coach, and a short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers. Now she lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois with two bumptious hounds, two remarkable children, and one very patient husband. Her debut novel, The Nine, is the first in the Thieves of Fate series, published by Pyr November 14, 2017.

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The Exorcist [Nov. 6th, 2017|03:55 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur

The ExorcistThe Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve seen the movie a thousand times — it’s one of my all-time favorites — but I thought it was finally time to read the novel it was based on. Turns out, THE EXORCIST the novel is almost identical to THE EXORCIST the movie, which I suppose should come as no surprise considering William Peter Blatty wrote both of them. (It should be noted that Blatty got his start in screenwriting, not novel writing. He even wrote the screenplay for the excellent Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau film “A Shot in the Dark”!) The novel delves a little deeper into discussions of witchcraft and the lives of the people around Chris MacNeil, such as Willie and Karl, her housekeepers, and Sharon, MacNeil’s assistant and Regan’s babysitter, but overall it’s nearly identical.

But while the story and the characters of THE EXORCIST remain indelible classics, the novel has some problems that kept me from fully enjoying it. One of the biggest issues for me is that Blatty keeps Regan mostly off the page for the first half of the novel, even after the possession begins. She’s talked about a lot more than we actually get to see her. It has a distancing effect that dilutes the horror of the story, which is something I’m pretty sure Blatty didn’t intend, and indeed he corrected it later with the screenplay. But the result of keeping Regan away from the reader for so much of the novel is that we get a lot more telling than showing, which is definitely less fun to read. (There’s significantly less of this in the second half, although it’s still there in places, and I have to wonder if all this telling instead of showing is a holdover from Blatty’s screenwriting experience.)

Another problem that kept me from fully enjoying the novel is the prose. It’s lifeless, clunky, and clipped, to the point where I grew confused in a few places about what Blatty is trying to convey. There are way too many one-word sentences, for instance, as if Blatty were rushing, still writing in short hand for a film script instead of penning the more immersive prose of a novel. Interestingly, the writing becomes significantly better in the second half of the novel, and the fact that this improvement accompanies Regan’s reappearance on the page strikes me as no coincidence. As a writer, Blatty is fully engaged in the second half of the novel, as everything comes to a head, and seems quite happy to leave the more shallow and skittish first half far behind.

One last issue I had was with Lieutenant Kinderman. In the film he’s a great character (wonderfully portrayed by Lee J. Cobb), but in the novel comes off as a kvetching Jewish stereotype. Since I myself am a kvetching Jewish stereotype, I found this somewhat grating.

I might be nitpicking ridiculously, but I think this is one of those rare occasions where the best version of the story is the film adaptation, rather than the novel it’s based on. Or at the very least, I came away from reading THE EXORCIST preferring the movie.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Paperbacks from Hell [Oct. 22nd, 2017|10:30 am]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur

Paperbacks from Hell: A History of Horror Fiction from the '70s and '80sPaperbacks from Hell: A History of Horror Fiction from the ’70s and ’80s by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Breezy, charming, and informative, Grady Hendrix’s PAPERBACKS FROM HELL is an affectionate trip down memory lane for those of us who love horror literature. Separated into sections that focus on themes, Hendrix’s well-researched book dives deep into the trends that informed both the plots and the cover art, providing a reliable and welcome education that consistently maintains a chatty, friendly voice. His summaries of many of the novels are hilarious, perhaps even more so when you realize he’s not exaggerating; the novels really were that over the top! (Nazi S&M leprechauns, anyone?) The full-color cover art reproduced throughout the book is a real joy. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them I recognized. I highly recommend PAPERBACKS FROM HELL for anyone with an interest in, or nostalgia for, horror literature’s most gonzo era.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The Sky Is Yours [Oct. 12th, 2017|02:11 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur

The Sky is YoursThe Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was thrilled to get a sneak peek at this novel thanks to an ARC from Penguin Random House! All the promise that Chandler Klang Smith showed in GOLDENLAND PAST DARK is both confirmed and built upon impressively in THE SKY IS YOURS, an epic adventure tale set in a richly imagined world that has gone on way past its expiration date. The alternate near-future of Empire Island comes to life in astonishing detail through Smith’s colorful, expert prose, as well as through the eyes of the three main characters as they’re let loose into the city to find their own ways (and themselves): Duncan, the selfish, spoiled son of a wealthy family; Swanny, Duncan’s fiancee, whose love of old Gothic romances informs not just the way she sees the world but also the path her life is about to take; and Abby, the naive, feral girl rescued from an island of trash to live in what is basically another island of trash.

While many of the science-fictional elements in THE SKY IS YOURS are satirical, I hesitate to call the novel itself a satire. It’s definitely wacky and whimsical in places–Smith’s sense of humor is evident on most pages and takes many forms, from bawdy jokes to the way certain scenes are presented as film scripts or video game charts–but it can also be quite dramatic and serious. It’s a hopeful novel about what it takes to grow up and find your place in the world, even if the world is dying; a deeply cynical novel about whether such a world is even worth saving; and, in some ways, a bittersweet novel about first romantic relationships, all the dreams, passion, and disappointment that go hand in hand.

THE SKY IS YOURS is a remarkable achievement by a writer with a seemingly boundless imagination. Smith’s creative energy fills each page to bursting. Like its characters, THE SKY IS YOURS exists in a balance between two worlds, the literary and the science-fictional, and readers who enjoy both will find it to be a treat both delicious and filling.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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