Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shroud Magazine's 20 Recommended Reads of 2009

Book reviewing is a strange gig. Everyone likes different things. Taste and preferences vary. So do style and voice. As much as we don't want to admit it, it's often all a matter of opinion. One reader's bestseller is another reader's most despised literary atrocity ever put to page. That, and how to account for the way one book impacts some readers, yet glances off the head of others? Sometimes, it has everything to do with quality, style, taste, and timing. Other times, books simply hook readers in "just the right way".

I read. A lot. Far more books than the ones I review, and I have to confess that it's often the same with me: one book simply stays with me, though perhaps other books were just as well written, or maybe even better written. What I offer here is simply twenty books that have "stayed" with me over the course of 2009. I make no grand statements about them being the "Best Books" of 2009. "Shroud Magazine's Recommended Reads of 2009" seems a better fit. Also, I picked with no consideration of publishers, be they small, mid-list or other. I simply picked the books that "stayed with me", regardless of who published them. Likewise, I've not ranked them "first to last", just picked the twenty I remember most.

I'm a high school English teacher by trade, so I possess a love and respect for classic literature. I've studied literary criticism and Creative Writing at the Undergraduate and Graduate level, and I've been writing reviews for publication – both in print and electronically – for over five years now. However, before all that, as a kid...I was a rabid reader. I read because reading excited me, took me places I'd never been before. Though it may seem simplistic, for me it all comes down to that: did the book excite me, take me to new places, so much so I could read it again and again?

These are the books that excited me throughout 2009. Click on the title links to read the full review:

Jake's Wake, (Leisure Fiction), by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow

In “Jake's Wake”, Splatterpunk veteran John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow team up to paint a bloody vista that will remain entrenched in the reader's imagination long after the last page. An effortless collaboration, the narrative is seamless, unified. There's no guessing where Skipp ends and Goodfellow begins. They meld their differing styles smoothly to fashion a story that hits the ground running and never lets up, not until its surprisingly spiritual last page.

Bestial, (Leisure Fiction), by Ray Garton

“Bestial” moves at a blistering pace. Where “Ravenous” succeeded by instilling a creeping sense of horror, “Bestial” triumphs in its intrigue as the werewolves spread their influence throughout Big Rock. The humans aren't toothless in this installment, however, as surprise guests from another Garton novel make an appearance. Private investigators Gavin Keoph and Karen Moffet have been hired to investigate the strange events in Big Rock, and they're packing loads of silver.

The Golem, (Leisure Fiction), by Edward Lee

Ancient myths and legends often provide the best material for dark tales. They echo with resonance and history. In “The Golem”, Edward Lee harnesses this resonance with powerful and horrifying results. Under his dreadful ministrations, the golem comes alive and walks the earth. Unlike its legendary predecessor, however, Lee's golem is a dreadful engine of destruction, leaving piles of mutilated bodies and torn lives in its wake.

Pressure, (Leisure Fiction), by Jeff Strand

There are countless ways for authors to instill terror, but none so effective as exposing the cruelty hiding in the human heart. Jeff Strand does this – flawlessly - in his first mass market release. In a visceral narrative voice spiced with beguiling wit, Strand shows readers that humans are capable of far worse things than any supernatural monster.

The Absence, (Bloody Books), by Bill Hussey

Plumbing the depths of folklore, Bill Hussey crafts a winner with “The Absence”. As with “Through A Glass Darkly,” Hussey's prose is lyrical and flowing, but “The Absence” moves at a quicker pace than its predecessor. It's story doesn't lose any strength, however, and in many ways is more poignant: it's hard to pin down the ultimate villain. That's not to say there's no resolution, but rather to highlight one of its key themes: there's darkness in everyone, and though we fight it as best we can, often it consumes us in the end.

The Shore, (Leisure Fiction), by Robert Dunbar

In literary circles, it's often said that "style is the verbal identity of the writer"; that an author can be identified by the nature of their craft. Iambic pentameter suggests Shakespeare, lyrical prose evokes Bradbury, pinpoint word economy reveals Carver. In this way, Robert Dunbar's vivid imagery continues to blaze a distinctive trail. As he did in "The Pines", Dunbar captures the aura of a dying town perfectly, painting an entirely different portrait this time, one of winter and ice. Also, he explores the Leeds Devil's legend deeper, posing the question: what separates natural impulse from true evil?

The Strain, (William Morrow), by Guillermo Del Torro and Chuck Hogan

Reinventing an often-used story is a dicey thing. Depart from tradition, risk alienating hardcore fans. Retread a story that's been “done before”, risk the sharp tongues of critics who want “something new”. Sometimes, the best a writer can aim for is to tell a familiar story with fresh characters and circumstances, and tell it well. In “The Strain”, Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan repackage the classic vampire tale for a new generation...and they do it well; masterfully so.

Ghostwriter, (Hachette Book Group), by Travis Thrasher

What exactly should “horror” be? Some readers view it as entertainment, pure and simple. For them, the horror genre is a safe way to experience thrills and chills. Others view it as a vehicle for serious social commentary, an opportunity to address weighty issues through speculative storytelling.

Still others think it's the best way to depict the battle between good and evil, reminding us that too often evil wins, and that “good” can be far more frightening than we ever imagined. Regardless, most everyone can agree that storytelling with a purpose is the best possible kind, and that's what Travis Thrasher offers in “Ghostwriter.” This isn't a chilling story for the sake of thrills; Thrasher writes with a deeper purpose.

Prime, (Apex Publications), by Nate Kenyon

From Bram Stoker Finalist Nate Kenyon comes a blistering, fast-paced tale channeling the likes of “Blade Runner”, “Johnny Mnemonic”, even a bit of “The Matrix”. Offering social commentary as well as thrills and intrigue, Kenyon shifts from horror to science fiction and cyberpunk smoothly, enhancing an already strong storytelling reputation and widening his repertoire.

The Child Thief, (EOS Books), by Brom

“The Child Thief” is a haunting, almost sinister look at the darkness lurking beneath the fabled fairy tale of “Peter Pan”, the forever adventuring child of Neverland. Skillfully blending myths, legends and fairy tales, award winning artist Brom presents a starkly different Peter: egotistical, maniacal, sadistic, manipulative, half insane...and horribly alone. This golden eyed boy laughs loud, plays hard, and schemes endlessly for his own, demented good, recruiting lost children into an army destined to die horrible deaths, all so Peter can continue playing his twisted games.

Last Exit For the Lost, (Cemetery Dance), by Tim Lebbon

“Last Exit For the Lost” is a collection of dark, stirring tales from one of the most poetic writers working in the genre today, Tim Lebbon. Offering some of his best work to date, Lebbon weaves an entrancing tapestry of stories happening both near and far away; in locales mundane and fantastical, but one thing endures: his elegant style. He exhibits an almost casual mastery over his craft, moving in and out of genres and tropes fluidly, almost effortlessly. Even the hardest critic will be hard pressed to find a “weak link” in this collection.

Faces in the Fire, (Thomas Nelson Books), by T. L. Hines

Serendipity. Fate. Providence. Destiny. Words that describe the unpredictable, circuitous path of life. On the surface chaos rules, but when individual stories are pasted together, a pattern emerges; sometimes subtle, other times astounding. Bad things happen everywhere, but just as often, destruction breeds creation. In T. L. Hines' latest, four novellas tell separate yet joined tales connected at the smallest turns. It's a dark world, true enough. Many novels portray that. “Faces in the Fire” shows how that darkness serves to make even small glimmers of light brighter.

Rot, (Skullvines Press), by Michele Lee

When a genre convention is hot, there's the temptation for writers to jump on the bandwagon and cater to that convention wholesale, in the hopes of “riding the wave”. Currently, zombies are the vehicles of choice in horror fiction. There's Star Wars zombies, (decently enough done), literary zombies, and even zombie haiku.

“Rot”, Michele Lee's entry into the zombie pantheon, does something a bit different. She personifies zombies, gives them emotions and feelings and a painful humanity...then stuffs them into nursing homes and leaves them there, neglected, abused...left to rot.

Futile Efforts, (Cemetery Dance), by Tom Piccirilli

To say the fiction of Tom Piccirilli often defies convention or genre labeling would be a grand understatement. Better to say Piccirilli creates his own literary space, inhabited by beings of a dark but strangely beautiful grotesqueness, characters that offer readers twisted, warped reflections of themselves.

Depraved, (Leisure Fiction), by Bryan Smith

“Depraved” is a jet-fueled tale that begins fast and mean and never lets up. Smith blends multiple plot-lines together seamlessly, pulling readers into his characters' sprints for survival. This isn't just a recipe for horror “shock and awe”; however, as Smith crafts characters that provoke empathy, pity, even disgust...but are three-dimensional regardless, which pulls readers even deeper down this dark and twisted hole.

“The Gentling Box”, (Dark Hart Press), by Lisa Manetti

Lisa Mannetti's first outing – winner of the Bram Stoker Award for “Best First Novel” - is a significant work of substance, a weighty tale that's dark, disturbing and enthralling. It's not merely horror “du jour” full of sex and bloodshed, (though there's plenty here), it's a tragic tale rich with pathos, an expression of human suffering and bittersweet triumph.

“Star Wars: Death Troopers”, (Del Ray Books), by Joe Schreiber

No lightsabers. No Jedi. Nothing but dark space and the things shambling after you on a derelict Star Destroyer. They are hungry and dead, but not mindless. They are growing. Evolving. Planning...and very, very angry. They are swarming everywhere, and they have one desire – to feed.

Blasters just aren't going to work, this time.

Unhappy Endings, (Delirium Books), by Brian Keene

Short fiction collections of established, best-selling authors are often viewed skeptically. Is the collection simply a ploy to lure loyal readers into spending more money, or is it a fresh gathering of new stories from a never-ending wellspring of imagination?

Rest assured, Brian Keene's “Unhappy Endings” (Delirium Books) is the later. There are several winners and shockers here, and even the stories that don't leave as much of an impression don't detract from the collection itself. In many ways, that's the value of a collection; it's like a literary buffet. Readers can pick their favorites, and if one story doesn't grab them, they can move to the next.

Invisible Fences, (Cemetery Dance), by Norman Prentiss

Norman Prentiss' debut is a haunting tale of reminiscence and regret, of how things thought laid to rest long ago still lurk at the bottom of our souls. His prose is smooth, nearly flawless, and his narrative voice invokes a Gothic, literary tone. Best of all, the chills lie solidly in the strength and substance of the story, rather than something tacked on in pastiche at the end.

“Black Train”, (Leisure Fiction), by Edward Lee

Leisure's reprinted version of “Gast”, (Camelot Books), is staple Edward Lee – sexual, disgusting, revolting...and obsessively readable all the same. As he did in “The Golem”, Lee crafts sympathetic characters readers connect to, gives them realistic circumstances, then drops them into the middle of hell. This is why his work is so attractive: his characters tug readers into the farthest reaches of “suspension of disbelief”, pulling them down his twisted rabbit hole.


There you have it. Needless to say, I read and reviewed many great, entertaining books this year that didn't appear on this list. I also read plenty of great books for personal pleasure and not for review. Also, I've read many great books I haven't had the chance to review as of yet, and my TBR (to be read) pile is full of great books in need of reading and reviewing. Those reviewed in 2010 will be eligible for next December's list, even if they were published in 2009.

Have a safe and Happy New Year. Turn off the television, log off the 'Net, (which I'm about to do) and read something. You'll be happy you did. I promise.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Depraved", (Leisure Fiction), by Bryan Smith

“Depraved” is a jet-fueled tale that begins fast and mean and never lets up. Smith blends multiple plot-lines together seamlessly, pulling readers into his characters' sprints for survival. This isn't just a recipe for horror “shock and awe”; however, as Smith crafts characters that provoke empathy, pity, even disgust...but are three-dimensional regardless, which pulls readers even deeper down this dark and twisted hole.

Jessica Sloan has stepped into a nightmare. A damaged woman trying to remake her life, she's fallen victim to a sadistic rapist who assaulted her when she tried to buy a used car from him. Now she's driving out to the middle of nowhere, the used car salesman locked in the trunk, screaming. He raped her. Beat her. Daddy taught his little girl to be nobody's victim, so now she's going to take something back from her assailant... something he can't ever replace.

The only problem? Jessica has picked a spot for revenge that lies near the isolated rural town of Hopkins Bend, where something much worse than a simple rapist lies in wait. For generations, a family has borne the blight of a curse that has turned its descendants into twisted, mutated mockeries of humanity, depraved in every way imaginable.

That, and this darkness blights Hopkins Bend and the rest of its townspeople in nonphysical ways undetectable by the eye alone. The people of Hopkins Bend hunger. For many, many things, and the taste of human flesh is only one of their depraved appetites. To survive, Jessica and others caught in this whirling cesspool must go to nightmarish lengths, and that begs the question: is survival worth what they may become?

It would be a mistake to dismiss this novel as a simple “boobs, blood, gore and more” offering. Smith utilizes these grotesqueries to do what horror should do: reveal the inner fire that pushes some humans to survive, as well as expose the darkness lying within everyone; a darkness that often needs only one turn of an awful key to bloom in full.

Also, there is a higher wit at work here. In the midst of the novel's mad rush, Smith displays a circular irony, sporting a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, too. Finally, though it may sound odd, Smith shows admirable restraint in the depiction of the atrocities he inflicts upon his characters. For sure, “Depraved” is explicit, shocking, and bloody. Often, however, Smith leaves a characters' fate up to the reader's imagination, which can be more effective than gratuitous violence alone.

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"Feeding Ground", (Leisure Fiction), by Sarah Pinborough

In an end-of-the-world thriller that blends “The Rising” with “Aliens”, Sarah Pinborough has crafted an aggressive story that moves quickly and efficiently. Though a sequel to “Breeding Ground”, “Feeding Ground” can be read alone, because its occurs within the same time-frame as its predecessor, with a new cast, set in London. It's a fast-paced little gem that's a pleasure to read.

It's Blane Gentle-King's lucky day. A drug-dealing prince who rules a London apartment complex, he's languished the last three months in jail, accused of murder. His cell-mate has worn his nerves wire-thin. He hungers for action, desperate to return to his urban kingdom. He has plans – big plans – which don't include going down on a murder-rap. He needs to get out. Soon.

Something has happened; however, things have changed. Over the past weeks, fewer and fewer guards have stalked the prison, and the prisoner's meals have dwindled to one a day. At first Blane fears he and everyone else will starve behind bars, until his right-hand man and childhood friend Charlie Nash shows up to spring him. When he finally gets out, Blane faces a likewise dwindling London, a bustling city now crowded only with a menacing silence. Things have changed, but rather than fear this, Blane senses his chance to become the king he's always wanted to be.

The women of his apartment complex have become...infected. Impregnated. They've given birth to hideous monstrosities; but these things are different than those scrambling over London. They were born of life-long crack addicts, and they've inherited their hosts' addiction. They crave not only flesh and human blood but drugs, also...and Blane Gentle-King has just become their main supplier.

“Feeding Ground” boasts a strong cast of characters, too many to do adequate justice here. Pinborough balances the novel's action and exposition well, and a notable point: doomsday tales such as these often tread risky ground, they're either too depressing with little resolution, or they boast highly unrealistic solutions for the world's salvation. Pinborough handles this well, also. The world has changed. It will never be the same. Humans are now an endangered race. There is hope, however, enough to pull readers through; enough to make another installment in this series a much anticipated thing.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Night of Demons, (Eos Dark Fantasy), by Tony Richards

“Night of Demons” is the second installment in the dark fantasy series of Raine's Landing, a town forever cut off from the outside world. Ages ago, the original Salem witches settled there, then cursed it so no one could ever leave, lest they reveal their location to those who feared them. Veiled by magic, those passing through barely notice the town, newcomers don't stay long and soon forget their visit, while most are compelled to stay away completely.

Evil has threatened before; however, and now it looms again. Something dark prowls the streets, a malevolence from without that has infected an already damaged mind within. While those versed in magic can protect themselves, Raine's Landing is also home to thousands of regular people. Two of those are former cop Ross Devries and Cassandra Mallory, a gun-toting Harley-riding maverick with a knack for tackling the supernatural. United by their devotion to their fellow townspeople, bonded by shared scars, Devries and Mallory have often worked together to protect Raine's Landing from supernatural threats. They stand ready to do so again.

This threat is different, however – powered by an insane mind and a corrupt soul twisted by years of abuse. It works beneath the skin, finds the darkness in everyone, and gives life to people's hidden demons. Having lost both their families to magic, with everything they cherished ripped away from them, both Devries and Mallory are far more appealing targets than they are threats, making Raine's Landing's fiercest protectors two of their weakest links.

“Night of Demons” is well written and entertaining. Utilizing a split narrative that transitions back and forth between Devries' first-person narrative and the third-person omniscient narratives of supporting characters, Richards avoids the common downfall of bogging his story down in only one perspective. Perhaps the story's only downfall: it's simply just one more offering of “urban fantasy” in a “boom” genre, just another story following in the footsteps of much better series, such as the “Dresden Files” and others. Richards' handling of the craft rises above this, however, and urban fantasy fans are sure to enjoy.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interview With John Everson, Part I

John, perhaps one of the things that interested me most when I first perused your website is how far back your writing credits date – to 1994 – and how much time passed before your first novel, almost ten years. Was this intentional, or just the way things worked out?

A little of both. I didn’t really start writing fiction with the intention of becoming a novelist. I loved the short form (still do!) and I published dozens and dozens of short stories in the ‘90s in all sorts of tiny magazines and anthologies.

In high school and college I wrote a lot of short fiction and poetry while I worked towards becoming a journalist. I started publishing some of the horror stories I wrote in college sort of accidentally. I was working at a music magazine in 1992-93, and each month, there were a few days where I had some down time. My job was desktop publishing and I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to use that skill to compile all that old stuff I wrote years ago into a small chapbook?”

The idea was to put together this little hand-stapled collection of my work for myself, and maybe a few friends. As I did that and re-read my old work (I hadn’t written fiction in a couple years at that point), I started coming up with new story ideas, so I worked on them. Then I thought, “Hey, why not try to send some of these pieces to magazines?” I went to the library and looked up Writers Market magazine and found some places to submit to and garnered my first rejection slips… but I didn’t give up… and that’s how I started publishing horror fiction.

In the mid-‘90s, after I’d been publishing fiction for a couple years, someone gave me a newspaper clipping about the most popular suicide spot in England (a cliff with a bar at the top) which generated the idea that became Covenant. I spent several years tinkering with that book, putting it aside as I wrote more short stories, and then dragging it out again.

I sent the first finished draft out to editors in 2000, seven years after I first started submitting short fiction. And a couple years later, when I had gotten no “bites” on the manuscript, I did a large re-write on the novel and sent it around again. Still, nobody bought the book. Ultimately, I gave up on ever getting it a mass market release, and sent it to Delirium Books, who had already published my first short fiction collection.

Covenant first came out at the end of 2004. I continued to publish short fiction, but three years later Sacrifice, the sequel, came out, also with Delirium. And right after that, also in 2007, I signed the deal with Leisure Books to re-release both novels in paperback. That same year my third short fiction collection, Needles & Sins came out from Necro, just as I began to focus almost exclusively on writing novels, thanks to the Leisure deal. 2007 was a big year for me! But the change from short fiction to novels was a somewhat unintentional, but organic transition. I’ve since written very little short fiction, though I’ve produced more “words” of fiction per year in the past two years than ever before, since I produced new novels in 2008 and 2009.

Chart your path to publication for us. Is a writing career something you've always wanted to pursue, or did it develop later in life? When was your big “breakthrough” moment?

I've always been a writer in some form, and never really considered a career outside of writing. I wrote my first short story in grade school and published my first vignette in my high school newspaper. I was a reporter, editor and columnist for my high school and college newspapers, but I always leaned towards the creative “features” writing side more than news, which I never much cared about. I got my journalism degree from the University of Illinois and went on to be a beat reporter and music columnist for a local newspaper before finding a place at a monthly music magazine, Illinois Entertainer. And that’s when I first began submitting and focusing on developing my fiction.

I don’t know if I can peg a singular “breakthrough” moment. It’s been more like a series of small victories, each building on the last. There were lots of small moments in the ‘90s, when I cracked several markets I’d wanted to publish in, and got short stories accepted by Grue, Terminal Fright, Dead of Night, Bloodsongs and more.

The first big break would probably be the publication of Cage of Bones & Other Deadly Obsessions, my first short story book-length collection, which Delirium Books released in 2000. And then the first publication of Covenant in 2004. And then the Bram Stoker Award for that book a few months later in 2005. And then… the day I signed a two-book deal with Leisure for the mass market publication of Covenant and Sacrifice in 2007. And then the actual mass market publication of Covenant, when I was finally able to reach more than a couple hundred readers with my work. And then when I sold The 13th directly to Leisure in 2008. I had been really worried that I’d only get to do the “reprint” books with them and that would be it, so it was a big moment for me to sell a “new,” previously unpublished book directly to Leisure.

Going through your old online journal archives, I see you've served as an editor for Dark Regions magazine, a columnist for Talebones and also did some copy-editing, for both Necro Publications and Delirium Books. Which came first; publishing fiction or editing gigs...or did they develop organically at the same time?

The fiction came first because that’s what introduced me to the editors I ended up doing other work for. But copy-editing, web design, book layout…they all sort of organically followed. Because of my newspaper background and chatting about it on AOL, I ended up helping out on copy-editing Paula Guran’s Bones of the Children and Wetbones magazines. And Dave Barnett asked if I wanted to help proof Into the Darkness, his short-lived magazine in the early ‘90s.

When he retired ITD and started publishing books as Necro Publications, he asked me to continue proofing those – so I’ve worked on most of the books he’s released in the past 15 years – which means at this point I’ve gotten to work on a good chunk of Edward Lee’s catalog, since Necro has issued most of Lee’s hardcover editions. Because of my music critic background (I wrote Pop Stops, a weekly Chicago area newspaper column for The Star Newspapers for almost 20 years), I wrote “dark music” columns for Paula and Dave (when he briefly edited Bloodsongs). Those columns led to me to take on the Talebones “Bug Music” music column for a couple years.

The Dark Regions fiction editor slot came after I met Joe Morey, the publisher, at World Fantasy Con in 1997. We got along and a few months later he asked if I wanted to help read the slush-pile for DR with him and Ken Wisman, so I did that for a couple years until the magazine went on hiatus.

Basically, when I get involved with a press, I tend to pitch in wherever I can. My editing history, music critic track record and web design and graphic design background have led me to do a lot of things in the small press that surround the fiction, as well as writing it. When I first started working with Delirium on my collection, Shane Ryan Staley asked me to do some proofing for him since I had a history of doing it for Necro, so I worked on a lot of Delirium’s early titles, including the original version of Brian Keene’s The Rising. I also designed a couple iterations of Delirium’s websites, and created a website that Delirium gifted to Brian Keene (the banner I created for that old site is still in use on Keene’s current site, though the rest of the design is gone).

I got involved in the early 2000s with a local press, Twilight Tales, where I also did proofing, as well as book layout and cover design… and because of that work I started doing book covers for Delirium. I’ve since done a book cover for Bad Moon Books, as well as my own small press, Dark Arts Books, and I’ve copy-edited novels and short story collections for Earthling, Camelot and Cemetery Dance.

When did you really start hitting the convention trail? Before or after your fiction sales started to take off?

World Fantasy 1997 was the first big convention I attended, mainly because it was just down the street from my day job. That weekend paid off because it’s where I first met Neil Gaiman (not that he’d remember!) and where I met Joe Morey of Dark Regions and P.D. Cacek, who I asked a couple years later to introduce my Cage of Bones collection.

The first time I traveled to a convention was for World Horror Convention 2000, in Denver, and I went to that because Cage of Bones was going to be released later that year, so I thought I should try to promote it a little. After that, I became a regular at every World Horror Con (except for 2009), as well as attending a couple other major cons like Horrorfind and World Fantasy Con when it came to Madison, WI, a couple hours away.

I read one of your journal entries from 2000 detailing your surprise at having sat next to Brian Keene, not knowing who he was at the time. What's that like to look back and think, “Remember when I sat next to so-and-so and didn't even recognize them?”

Well, at that time, Brian was still just a short story writer, just like me. We’d published in a lot of the same places, but neither of us had broken through to novels yet. So my surprise then was not so much that I’d sat next to “Brian Keene” but that I’d sat next to a guy who wrote a really good blog about the con. “Brian Keene” means a lot more now then it did then! But we’ve since crossed paths many times over the years – and a couple years ago he handed over the mantle of editing the In Delirium II anthology to me (he conceived and created the original edition).

My real “wow, I sat next to…” moment did occur at that 2000 WHC though, and I didn’t really realize the wow factor until much later. While I was sitting on the bed in a hotel room with GAK and Dave Barnett and others at the Borderlands Books party, Richard Laymon was sitting in a chair next to us. I remember him being really nice and easygoing… but I had no idea who he was. His catalog hadn’t started being reissued like mad here in the states yet, and I’d never read any of his work up to that point. So there was no starstruck response from me… I had no idea. I wish I had – it was just a year or two later that he died, and only after that that I discovered The Cellar.

Read our review of "The 13th", then read Part II of our interview with John Everson.

"The 13th", (Leisure Books), by John Everson

With perhaps his most intense offering yet, Stoker Award winning author John Everson has carved out yet another twisted tale of lust-spiced, bloody mayhem. In a narrative that pays homage to eighties slasher flicks but is also reminiscent of an Edward Lee gore-fest, Everson lays down a gruesome adventure. Bloody horror is about to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting town, driven by two masterminds whose desire for power is only eclipsed by the ancient evil they've conjured.

After failing to make the Olympic biking team, David Shale's not interested in a “normal” summer. Training is his focus, and the twisting, mountainous forest trails surrounding the small town of Castle Point is all he wants to follow. However, when David goes out one night, he encounters a bold, invigorating young woman named Brenda. Chemistry sparks between them and the beer flows, but tired from his training, David passes out at the bar. When he wakes, Brenda has gone, in David's mind just another “one that got away”.

David's future isn't Olympic bound, however, as something insidious spreads through town. Women in the area are disappearing, and coincidently, Castle House Lodge – a previously abandoned resort with a dark history – has reopened for business as a “private asylum for pregnant women.” Christy Sorensen is one of the newest faces in the Castle Point police department, but even so, she's certain something's terrible wrong at the asylum.

Eventually she and David join forces, as David becomes convinced that Brenda, a woman he could've loved, is trapped with other doomed women in the resort. Can they rescue her and any others in time? Or, will they be drowned in a bloody flood of truly “biblical” proportions?

Though there isn't just one character that's perhaps as strongly written as reporter Joe Kieran, (“Covenant”, “Sacrifice”), the overall cast of “The 13th” is balanced, perhaps Everson's strongest assembly of entertaining characters yet. Also, in a tale of blood sacrifice and demonic lust, Everson hits buried, quieter fears: that of hidden darkness in those thought closest. Hitting consistently on subtle terrors such as this is what will continue to carry Everson's career forward.

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Interview With John Everson, Part II

Your first three novels have been fairly extreme, dishing out the blood, guts, sex, and gore. All three have also dealt with demonic and occult forces. Is this going to be a mainstay for you in your novel-length fiction, or is it just where you're at right now? Is your short fiction different from your novels in any noticeable way?

I’m a huge fan of supernatural horror – the forces from beyond kind of stuff. I’m not interested in real-life “torture” horror or serial killer stories very much, nor do I have a personal attraction to vampires or zombies… I’m fascinated by ghosts and demons and witches and the like. Dark magic gets me going.

That said, my fourth novel, due out next summer from Leisure is called Siren… and it intentionally avoids the demon / ritual sacrifice tropes of my first three books. Instead, I focused on the dark mythology behind the Siren, and brought her into the modern age. I’m really proud of the novel; I think it focuses a little more on themes of obsession and desire and loss… it’s a more personal novel, I guess.

And actually that’s the kind of thing that tends to drive my short fiction. A lot of my shorter stories have focused on some emotion or issue that I was gnawing on… and that drove a short story. The last couple novels have really been straight horror “adventure” novels, without any underlying theme exploration. At least not overtly!

There has always been a thread of erotic horror and the supernatural in my short and long fiction. But I think my best short fiction, like “Bloodroses” and “Letting Go” really address some hard emotional moments.

Your first novel, “Covenant”, won the Bram Stoker Award for “Best First Novel”. If you can, tell us what you think it was about that novel and its story that pushed it over the top.

Honestly, I have no idea. I’m happy it won, because it certainly helped me gain more exposure and credibility. But I’m sure there were other first novels that year more deserving. I wrote Covenant to be a fun, dark, pulp novel that didn’t rely on the usual “monster” tropes. But there were no literary pretensions or breakout ideas really. It was a small-town, claustrophobic, “what’s that secret everyone seems to be hiding” kind of novel. Why are people jumping off a cliff and dying horribly on the same day every year… for the past 100 years? My goal was simply to write a demonic horror book that was entertaining with some good erotic horror, high tension moments. I’m just glad some people responded well to it!

What other projects have you got on the “burners” at the moment?

I’m finishing up a three-story e-chapbook for Delirium Books, which is cool. It will be my fifth release with Delirium, and my first since 2007. I’ve also got a couple other short fiction projects to finish for anthologies, and then I hope to begin working on my fifth novel for Leisure at the start of the new year!

You founded DarkArts Books ( in 2006. What challenges have you faced running a small press publishing company and pursuing your own writing career at the same time? What are some of the rewards you've enjoyed?

Well, it definitely has gotten more challenging over the past year! I used to divide my time between working on Dark Arts stuff and writing new fiction. This past year, I spent six pretty intense months working on Siren. In the midst of that I somehow scraped together a couple weeks to design the Mighty Unclean anthology for Dark Arts… and the rest of the time I’ve been on the road doing book-signings to promote Covenant, then Sacrifice, and lately The 13th.

The result is that a lot of the work of promoting Dark Arts has fallen to my co-publisher, Bill Breedlove, who has served as editor on four of our five titles. I feel a little bad about that, because I don’t want to short shrift Dark Arts, which was born out of a passion of mine to produce quality books – but there are only so many hours in the day, especially when you have a full time job that has nothing to do with horror!

All that said, Dark Arts Books has been very rewarding. One of our releases last year, Like A Chinese Tattoo made the final Bram Stoker Awards ballot. I’ve gotten to publish some of my favorite short fiction authors through the press, and hopefully put their stories in a design format that presents the fiction attractively.

And I’ve gotten to indulge my book design “jones” completely unfettered. The Sins of the Sirens book that I edited for DA was a project that I had wanted to do for years… a couple of the stories I had earmarked for an erotic horror anthology that Shane Staley and I talked about doing for Delirium (but which never came to pass). The lead-off story in Sins of the Sirens, from Loren Rhoads, was one that I had pulled from the slush pile and lobbied to publish in Dark Regions Magazine, but which my two co-editors voted down. It took me eight years and a different press, but ultimately, I got my way and published that story!

When and where is your next Con appearance?

I’ll be at the Horror Society’s Chicago B-Movie Fest on January 16. After that, the next one is Hypericon in Nashville, next June. I had planned to return to World Horror Convention next year and was really looking forward to finally seeing England… however, they moved the timing up on the con by several weeks from its usual spring dates… and it now is slated for March on the weekend of my day job's big winter board meeting… which I’m 99% certain I’ll need to attend. I can’t tell you how bummed out I was when I looked at the calendar and realized THAT.

But I’ll do Hypericon next year, and probably Dragon*Con… and I’m sure a couple of others will crop up along the way!

Thanks for spending some time with us today, John.

Thanks for bringing me into the dark light of the Shroud!

Visit, and

Friday, December 4, 2009

Interview with Lisa Mannetti, author of "The Gentling Box"

This is hinted at in your biography for The Gentling Box, but how did you come to full time writing, exactly?

I was taking care of my mother because she was ill and pretty much needed round-the-clock assistance, so I decided to go ahead and devote myself to writing full time. It was a pretty simple decision because it’s what I really wanted to do. It’s what I always wanted to do—despite the fact that my father kept reminding me from the time that I was about eight years old that people in the arts were frequently exiled, stuffed into asylums, and had tawdry affairs which resulted in lost ears and, that living in a garret--even in Paris--wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

But I was determined and further encouraged to make the leap to full time writing by the fact that a few years previously, while I was working on my doctorate at Fordham, one of my professors, James L. Tyne, asked me what I was planning in terms of my career and when I told him I wanted to teach college and write on the side, he told me that I should quit the program and just work on my writing because otherwise I’d probably get very little writing done. You could say that it might have been his way of suggesting the academic world would be a lot better off without my presence, but because I’m basically an optimist, I took it to mean he had faith in my abilities.

The Gentling Box explores a very specific time period. How much research was involved?

I did tons of research and ferreted out every book I could find that seemed remotely related to the subject matter. I really enjoy researching, so it was actually a lot of fun.... Except when I’d forget to return library books on time and would receive all those overdue notices; I think for a while there I was probably on the 10 Most Wanted List and my picture was glued on a panel under the front desk in libraries in eleven counties in New York and Connecticut.

Tons of truly successful authors research after the essential writing is done and I really admire them. Regarding my own work, I find that research will often spark a new plot element or some interesting idea I might not have considered previously.

I also use the Internet sparingly—and in the case of The Gentling Box, I eschewed it altogether because at the time, there was very little available that was reliable.

I still maintain that unless you are using a professional site (which often requires a fee) you’re not going to get the best research from the Internet. But what you can get is a window to other avenues to explore and in that sense, the Internet is a tremendous resource and, except for carpal tunnel syndrome, certainly easier in many respects than blinding yourself by reading through bibliographies or exposing yourself to nasty paper cuts while rifling card catalogs.

It says in your biography you worked as an adjunct English Instructor before turning to writing. Where did you teach? Did teaching English and Literature aid in your pursuit of a writing career, or hinder it?

I taught at S.U.N.Y. New Paltz and Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. I loved teaching, I loved the students. However, teaching, prepping for lectures, and grading 300 essays per term, left very little time for writing. Though I loved introducing students to writers that spanned the gamut from Peter Straub to Tennessee Williams to Matthew Arnold, my very favorite course that I taught was called Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education (you’ll understand this is when my father had me pretty well convinced I should be pursuing a career in teaching).

It sounds dry as hell, but I had a blast because basically I got to expose a bunch of future teachers to lots of liberal ideas and I had a lot of leeway teaching the course and as a class we sort of traveled back to the halcyon days of education for the sake of education and covered everything from the Holocaust to reading/viewing books and movies like Sophie’s Choice and Reversal of Fortune.

And, for anyone out there who agrees with the current mayor of NYC that tenure for teachers should be awarded on the basis of students’ test scores e mail me and I will tell you why in 5,000 words or more why that is a terrible idea. If you don’t want to hear from me, I can give you a list of students I taught who probably have the same point of view.

On your website you have a section full of Gothic cemetery photographs, and your biography mentions you take photos for greeting cards. Is this something of a hobby, or a pursuit as important to you as writing?

It’s definitely an avocation—though I love it and often times I need to work with graphics or visuals or sculpture in order to feed my creative jones. I came to the digital side of art because when I was taking care of my mother, I didn’t have a lot of space to work with watercolor or clay anymore. There were so many people in and out of the house (physical therapists and visiting nurses, for example) that I couldn’t just cover the dining room table with canvases and tubes of paint. Well, I could have, but there would have been no room for plates and food—the latter, you’ll understand is critical to the well-being of one’s convalescent and beloved mother. So, first I began scanning in photos (before I got a digital camera) and then, later, enhancing them. It took up a lot less room than art supplies and I discovered it was a lot of fun.

You have a link on your website leading to a site titled The Chancery House. Tell us a little about this site.

The Chancery House (which has received more than 3 million hits and oh, sorry for the cliché but if I just had a nickel for every visitor) began because I had these two rambunctious and delightful twin cats named Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn who actually inspired me to write a YA novel. Okay, I loved Mark Twain, I loved the cats (fluffy white fur and brilliant blue eyes) but they were maniacs. They actually proved any and all theories that names effect personality and destiny. When one was on top of the refrigerator (ready to pounce on my third cat, a sweet tabby named Charlotte Bronte) the other was down on the floor distracting her from the aerial blitz. They had more secret plans and more ability to coordinate attacks than the Luftwaffe.

I once heard a high pitched yelp from the basement only to discover they had a mouse cornered and the poor thing was shrieking loud enough to be heard on the second floor. Up until that moment, I had no idea mice could scream--or jump six inches straight up in the air beneath two sets of pillowcases lying on the floor. …

They were geniuses, they were adorable and, as a result, I never had to worry about entertaining guests with witty conversation because Tom and Huck took over every dinner party I ever gave and could win hearts and make friends faster than and Rachel Ray, Caroline Kennedy and Woody Allen combined. Anyhow, the premise of the book is that Tom and Huck are reincarnated as the familiars to a witch—though they long to be real human boys–and not magical cats—so they can get down to the real business of living large. By and by (as Twain would say), the beautiful witch loses her powers and they help out by opening a haunted bed and bed and breakfast called The Chancery House which is run by a couple of werewolves. It’s humorous, it’s supernatural. A kind of Harry Potter meets Bewitched experience as a novel.

In order to create a tie-in, the website was born. So. The Chancery House is a virtual haunted house with lots of fun, creepy rooms to explore and lots of things to do from carousing in cemeteries, to reading fiction, to sending free gothic e cards, to experiencing Lizzie Borden’s house with several horror writers and, should one be so inclined, purchasing art and t-shirts. And, answering this question is reminding me: I should probably send out the Tom and Huck book to some agents and publishers....

Can you share a little about your next novel, The Everest Hauntings? Any plans yet about where it will be published?

I’ve been fascinated with Everest for years and it’s become an obsession of mine—so much so that I’ve read at least 60 books on Everest and ancillary works, like Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna; Minus 148:The First Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinley; Between a Rock and a Hard Place; High Exposure by David Breashears; and Left for Dead. Each of these is more terrifying than the next. The first thing non-devotees need to know is that there are 200 or so bodies of those who perished which are still on the mountain. For the most part, it’s way too expensive to bring down a victim who dies there. And where there are tragedies—and bodies--there are often ghosts.

So. My main character, Maxie Breedlove, is a struggling hypnotherapist who also happens to be the economic black sheep among her highly successful siblings and comes up with the idea that she’ll climb the mountain and be the first to do so using self-hypnosis because there’s quite a bit of money to be made on the lecture circuit after you’ve climbed the highest mountain in the world. What she doesn’t realize during this epic climb is that by using self-hypnosis, she renders herself more open to frightening and threatening encounters with the spirits of those who have already died. In effect, Everest becomes not only a cold alien place that presents physical danger to those who strive to summit, but on a magnified level, an enormous haunted house.

I haven’t targeted a publishing house at all yet, though a few agents have expressed interest in seeing the completed manuscript.

At Necon 29, you screened a short video based on a story of yours, “Everybody Wins,” and mentioned the potential for a full length film based on the short story. Any developments there?

I always loved “Everybody Wins” as a story and I’m so pleased with the way the short film, Bye Bye Sally, directed by Paul Leyden (Jackknife Productions) and starring Malin Ackerman turned out. He was just outstanding—no phenomenal—to work with, and the film has gotten some excellent play at a number of prestigious film festivals. But, though it’s had excellent reviews and people really like it, as of this moment, I haven’t heard anything about a feature film, though clearly that would be wonderful.

Your biography also states you're a Tarot card reader, also. Hobby or life pursuit? When did you first dabble in Tarot?

I first encountered the Tarot when I was 16 and my best high school friend, Gayle Kimball, gave me a gorgeous set of Rider-Waite cards and an accompanying illustrated hard cover book. I took to Tarot like a duck to water, unfortunately, I found it so accurate it scared the holy hell out of me. I truly could not handle what was appearing in the readings.

Flash forward to about 15 years later when (before The Gentling Box was conceived) I knew I wanted to write a book about gypsies. So, I duly researched and taught myself (all over again) to read Tarot Cards. I never ended up using a single scene involving Tarot in the novel, but I was left with something that really is a life pursuit. I became more comfortable with the fact that I really did have e.s.p. and was psychic and studied pursuits like psychometry (really helpful when visiting the Lizzie Borden house) under Dr. Adrian Calabrese and actually worked with her as an editor when she was writing her first book.

I was also lucky enough to become friends with Carla Baron, a renowned, psychic: and I now do Tarot readings professionally.

I really enjoy reading for others (I never read for myself anymore). I find that in some ways it’s similar to writing in that you lose yourself and are just gone and are open to what’s out there around you. I’m always surprised when people tell me what I said during a reading—because I don’t remember, I’m tuning into my psychic energy—and really pleased to find out they think the reading was dead on. For a couple of years I’ve been working on a Tarot deck based on the tales of the Brothers Grimm with co-author Robert Dunbar and illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne, so I hope that one of these days, that project comes to fruition.

What other projects are on the burner at the moment?

In February 2010, my macabre gag book, 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave Your Lover, illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne will be released as a limited edition by Bad Moon Books. And in spring or summer of 2010, I have a novella called Deathwatch, which will be issued by Cargo Cult Press, and I’m really excited about both projects.

Still in the hopper are the following: a zombie short story for Joe McGuiness, a story for Michael Knost’s next West Virginia anthology, a story for H.L. Howe’s anthology, It Never Sleeps: Tales Inspired by NYC (PS Publishing) and a chapter on the Occult for Kim Richards’ Complete Guide to Writing Horror (Dragon Moon Press) and a few other short works I’m trying to cobble into stand-up-and-walk striding status for other venues and places.

I’m also on tap for a Ravenous Romance book or two (one about Lizzie Borden and the other a sort of Ghost and Mrs. Muir) and, thank god, I’m having the surgery on my kidney stones next week (Dec 10th), because I have more work than I can shake a stick at and being constantly ill for the last six months is not helping with these deadlines or the work I want to--and need to--get done...!

Why horror/dark fantasy? Does the genre itself attract you specifically, or is every story you write more dependent on the characters and their conflicts, with genre as a secondary consideration?

Well, there’s no question I’m drawn to the dark side when it comes to writing and literature—but that’s because it’s a way of understanding the human condition. I really have lost all patience with books, stories and movies that are nothing more than slash fests—which is actually a kind term for these non-works that might as well be the print or screen version of something like the telephone directory: blood, guts, gore, grue, stabbing (consult the ad on page 291 b), terror....

As a kid, I could watch bad movies or read bad novels and sort of enjoy them strictly because they were campy; nowadays most of these also-ran type works don’t even have that saving grace.

Whether I’m reading or writing, I’m generally striving to go after the deepest levels of human emotion, the places where it hurts right down to the soul.

However, all of that said, I’m a huge fan of humor and though comedy comes at those deep places from a vastly different approach, both humor and horror are skewed ways of viewing life and hitting home. The best comedy addresses what’s inside our darkest thoughts and makes light of those fears and assures us that it’s okay to laugh about these matters.

True tragedy is not adventitious: it has to proceed because the heroine or hero has made choices that lead to that particular outcome. To get into high literary criticism for a moment, in that sense, a train accident is not ‘tragedy’—however awful and terrible it is for the victims and their families--because the people dead or injured made no choices: life simply happened. Of course we have empathy and sorrow for all concerned when we read about terrible things that happen in the news, but when it comes to literature, to books or stories or to cinema, what we want to read about or view is what led the engineer take the drugs or the drink that resulted in the crash, what led the passengers to choose that particular train that day and why?

As a writer, when you delve into those questions and really pay attention to all the nuances and leave your own judgment (of the characters) out, you’re approaching something that needs to be said—and it doesn’t matter what genre you choose.

In a strange way, as much as journalists imitate the style of fiction writers, as fiction writers, we also sort of need to approach our fiction as digging down, getting all the “facts,” and standing back and letting the big picture speak for itself.

Finally, any advice for those pursuing a writing career, themselves?

I’m going to use school as an example here, not just because I taught, but because in my experience, jobs can be fuzzy, and a little harder to make analogous.

When you’re in school, every day you have classes: you may be called on for an answer, you have to take quizzes, tests and exams. There’s a hierarchy and you know where you stand all through the semester. The typical school day is the equivalent of your story or your book: that’s the stuff you have to get right.

When you don’t get it right, you live to fight another day and you study harder, or switch majors, or do whatever you have to do to make grades—you put more effort into a term paper than a quiz, because the grade on that paper will influence your final grade more.

But the other side of school is homework. No matter what you’re writing now, you have “homework” and “studying” you must do. Sure, some people can sit in class and never open a book and get an A for the course. Others, might put in 20 extra hours a week and get a B minus, but at some level, everyone is absorbing information to get the grade that satisfies him or her.

As a writer, be aware there’s a lot going on behind the scenes (just like homework or studying) that may not be directly reflected in your story or book--and here at least I’m not talking about research for that piece. “Homework” and “studying” for writers may include: getting a mentor, reading books about your genre, subscribing to magazines, looking for agents and publishers, going to conventions and conferences, finding a buddy or critique group that can evaluate what you’ve written and tell you what’s working and what’s not, checking in with professional organizations and message boards, and seeking other venues like writing retreats or writing boot camps that offer professional expertise.

Read widely both in and out of your genre. Reading is critical—read everything you can get your hands on. If you don’t love reading, how will you bring that story to life for your readers?

Also, try to have fun when you write...of course it’s frustrating sometimes; but without a little laughter, a little risk, a little willingness to get on the highest roller coaster, it would be just like any other dull job. And chances are you didn’t take up writing so you could practice crawling, but because you wanted to soar.

However, if you’re writing and having a flat out, demon-driven day from hell (and we all have them), when the sun goes down over the yard-arm, pour yourself a small scotch and call your best friend. Bitch for 30 minutes. Then, read a book that made you fall in love with stories, and when you get up the next day, get back to work.

Thanks for spending some time with us today.

Interview with Lisa Mannetti, author of

“The Gentling Box”, (Dark Hart Press), by Lisa Manetti

Lisa Mannetti's first outing – winner of the Bram Stoker Award for “Best First Novel” - is a significant work of substance, a weighty tale that's dark, disturbing and enthralling. It's not merely horror “du jour” full of sex and bloodshed, (though there's plenty here), it's a tragic tale rich with pathos, an expression of human suffering and bittersweet triumph.

Imre and Mimi are gypsy horse traders in nineteenth century Budapest, and while life has never been easy and they are often poor – nearly starving, at times – they've survived on each others' love and that of their only daughter, Lenore. Everything changes, however, when news reaches them that Mimi's mother Anyeta is dying. She requests her daughter's presence so she can impart to her “secrets...things inside me that belong to her, and to her daughter, if she has one.” Imre is dead-set against this, for Anyeta has been nothing but a source of pain and treachery. He sees this as Anyeta's last chance to hurt them both.

There's a reason for the saying, “blood is thicker than water”, however. They eventually return to Anyeta's “gypsy troupe”, Mimi's old home. What they find is shocking: not only is Anyeta already dead, but she's been murdered. Even worse, Anyeta was possessed of a curse offering immense powers but an awful fate: that of eternal banishment within her own corpse after death, unless a transfer of blood is made to another living being...

Anyeta's been murdered, her blood spilled. Could her essence now lurk hidden amongst others? What follows is a tale of deception and seduction, as both Imre and Mimi are forced to accept mantles they never wanted. An ages-old evil has eclipsed their lives, and it's ultimate goal soon becomes very clear: Imre and Mimi's daughter Lenore, the perfect, youthful vessel for its whims.

Mannetti's first novel shows impressive depth. Flashbacks to Imre and Mimi's early romance are handled well. In lesser hands they would've been cumbersome and tiring. Here they are focused and emotional. Even the “gentling box” itself - and the terror it invokes in Imre – is cleverly crafted. This is indeed a very literary work; however, what makes it so? “Literary” is thrown around often these days, with perhaps little understanding of the term. When something is literary, it makes a statement on the human experience. That's what “The Gentling Box” does; that's what makes it so powerful.

Visit and Buy it today.