Tuesday, 4 December 2018

I Put a Book Together, and It Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done


I had an idea for a collection of horror short stories, each written by some of the talented people surrounding me. Contributors to Fear from a Small Place: Writers from Canada’s Smallest Province Unleash Their Greatest Fears were tasked with defining horror as they saw it, with the understanding that their story could be as short as they wanted it to be. Tying it all together was the theme of Prince Edward Island, a province that had been home to most of us at one time or another, or had touched each writer in some way. It was the fact that each of us had a relationship with PEI that was important here, not the Island as setting. 

I would edit the book, with my friend and co-contributor Laura Chapin doing a subsequent grammar edit, with notes added about anything she’d noticed as being amiss. I had a story in mind that I would contribute, and then I set out to invite the others.

Most people were interested in taking part, and began work on their pieces. Some declined or didn’t respond to my invitation. After my initial pass, I thought that the book could use a little more diversity in its make up, so I actively sought to diversify further. A few months later, I had to put that notion aside as nothing had panned out despite negotiations.

Disappointed, but not discouraged, my first “uh-oh” moments occurred. People began asking, “Why didn’t you ask so and so?” or saying, “I can’t contribute, but so and so can!”

Contributions began to come in, and I collected them, beginning the editing process. I worked back and forth with writers to make their stories the best I thought they could be without losing their personalities or the voice of the writer. 

I also began approaching publishers. Typically, it can take up to six months to hear back from a publisher, so I wanted to get to work on this immediately. I put together what was needed for submission, and I approached a handful of regional publishers. My thought was that the book would appeal most to them as Prince Edward Island was such a key component in the collection’s make up. 

“Interesting idea, but not a fit for us. You should try Acorn Press (a PEI publishing company)” was the response I got across the board. Of course, I’d already submitted it to Acorn. 

I was encouraged when, eight months after submission, I didn’t get a “no” from Acorn, and we started communicating, albeit sporadically. Acorn is pretty much a one-woman operation in terms of daily operations, and they have a sizeable publishing schedule, so this was understandable and expected. 

In the meantime, I continued editing the stories I’d received, and set about the design aspect of the project. I work at Graphcom here in Charlottetown, an advertising company, and my boss was a supporter of the project. He agreed to provide design and layout in kind. Another item checked off the list. 
Things were moving along, and up until this point, I’d been the only one who’d read the stories. A friend, whom it was appropriate to show the work to, asked to read what I had. I handed it over, and that was when I re-learned the lesson about not showing work until it’s viewer ready. To be completely honest, I believed that she hated it, and that threw me into a depression and a negative headspace about the project. Not a good state to allow myself to fall into with so much work ahead.

More stories began coming in, and I thought that our collection could use a more expected and typical dose of horror, so I contributed a different story than the one I’d intended.

As the deadline approached for all stories to be turned in, I sent out reminder messages to all, and gave extensions to those who needed it. As each deadline passed, it became obvious that a couple of writers just weren’t going to submit. Even with the best intentions, that happens. 

Finally, the submissions were in, a nice balance of fiction, poetry, illustrative stories, and even a short film screenplay. Still, I couldn’t shake that negativity that had crept in. I didn’t realize how much I’d let it affect me.

At this point, Acorn asked if I’d be willing to replace some of the contributors with other writers. I completely get that. A publisher is putting money into a project, and they are a business. As such, they have to make business decisions. Firmly believing that this project was very much what it was as is, I declined, but thanked them. They do essential and amazing work, and we need them very much. 

I then looked at how we could self-publish. One of the contributors worked locally at Kwik Kopy Printing, and I got him to look into cost. Once established, I applied for a grant from PEI’s Arts Council… and they promptly dissolved.

Keeping at work on the project, I handed the collected and edited stories to Laura. I don’t think she’ll mind me relating this part of the process, because we have moved so, so, so far beyond it… I asked Laura to only comment on the grammar at this point. What I don’t think I shared with her was that the negativity I’d been feeling since I’d received that initial feedback had me doubting everything.

A few stories in, Laura contacted me with “Dave, I don’t think this collection is horror.” And I absolutely lost my mind.  

I really did. In lieu of getting the “yes” I was craving at this point (not from Laura, from anyone), I heard only confirmation that the initial feedback I’d received was accurate. I was wasting my time and everyone else’s. 

Now I was set to hand the project over to any one of the contributors who wanted the responsibility, and I told them so. I laid out what was left to do from proofing through to the book launch and publicity.

What I’d left out of this account up until this point is the back and forth with writers, something I find very difficult unless they’ve learned to “kill their darlings”. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but one I learned immediately with my first professional writing job. Then there was the seemingly never-ending discussion about how many copies we should print, which I found stressful, but why? I guess it was just one more thing to coordinate and finance.

With my very public meltdown, public in terms of the contributors, I’d let off some steam, and was ready to move ahead. Yeah, I was embarrassed, but the truth was, I really did believe in this project. 

Moving me further ahead was the fact that Laura had finished her edit and returned with the confirmation that what we had here was indeed a collection of horror stories, many of them very contemporary in their interpretation. 

During this turnabout, a new government body that provides grants to PEI’s arts community was in place, and we reapplied. Happily, we were approved, though not for the full amount as the adjudication committee at the time (the members of each subsequent committee are different) supported the “giving less to more projects” philosophy. 

The book gets laid out and designed, published, we have a successful launch, we sell some copies online and at local bookstores (I get a crash course in what the latter entails, i.e. book stores take between 40-50% of the sales price), get some good publicity, including a positive review in Atlantic Books Today, and here we are. 
Reading back over what I’ve written here, the process doesn’t seem all that stressful. All I can say is that, at the time, it was. Oh God, was it! I guess that's because it's all laid out here like a blueprint, rather than the unknown as it was when it was in progress. On top of that, all of the emotion is taken out of it. Perhaps it’s all about the state of mind of the person who’s spearheading a project. Regardless, I’ve learned that a passion project can be a very difficult thing to carry forward, but it’s worth it. I’ve learned some other things as well, but I’m going to keep those private. 

I’m very proud of our book. I truly think it’s something rare, and it stands as a reflection of how a group of under-represented people - PE Islanders - express our fears. Contributors are: Kelly Caseley, Laura Chapin, Margo Connors, Marlene Handrahan, Henry Harvey, Don Heisz, Rob MacDonald, John MacKenzie, David Moses, Dale Nicholson, Laura O’Brien, Randall Perry, Sam Rainnie, Kent Stetson, Dave Stewart, Russell Stewart, Ann Thurlow, Rod Wetherbie, Ivy Wigmore, and Jenni Zelin.

Fear from a Small Place is available at The Bookmark and Indigo in Charlottetown, and here at amazon.ca  

Watch the teaser trailer below.


Monday, 26 November 2018

Burnt Offerings: The Novel


Like many horror fans my age I was introduced to Burnt Offerings through the 1976 Dan Curtis movie starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis and Lee H. Montgomery. A fan of supernatural horror, particularly of the 70’s variety, I couldn’t wait to see this, and eventually did during a TV broadcast. 

I thought it was okay.

Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy it more, and its source novel, written by Robert Marasco and published in 1973, is one that is regularly recommended on many lists of great horror novels. Being so familiar with the movie, however, I was disinterested in reading it due to what I imagined would be boredom by familiarity.

I was wrong.

Burnt Offerings is about a couple and their six-year-old son (he's 12 in the movie) who don't relish the idea of spending another hot summer in NYC. They find a country estate renting cheap, and at the wife's instance jump at the opportunity, towing beloved Aunt Elizabeth along. It isn't long before things amongst the family members are going badly, while the house seems to be regaining some of its former lustre... 

Though it may sound like something you've read many times before, it's absolutely not. Any similarities to other "bad house" stories are surface; here, it's all about what lies beneath the surface, both in story and in storytelling.

It's interesting that Curtis cut the opening section of the book which he'd apparently shot for the film, because it took too long to get to the main action. What this section does is to set up the all important dynamic between the characters and to give meaning to their motivations over the story to come. This reflects the main difference between the movie and the novel; what the movie can only touch on is the heart of its source material, the inner thoughts and motivations of its characters.

At its core, Burnt Offerings is as much about the disintegration of a family as they get everything they’ve always wanted as it is about anything else. A relatively short read at only 260 pages, it deserves to be included in the ranks of classic contemporary (an oxymoron?) novels like Rosemary’s Baby and The Haunting of Hill House. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Best Laid Plans...



I’d hoped to post a review of each of the books I’d read as a result of their mention in the essential Paperbacks from Hell, but after doing four, life got in the way. To catch up, here are some capsule reviews.

SUCH NICE PEOPLE
by Sandra Scoppettone
I really liked this book in which a schizophrenic son turns on his family. Varied characters, each with their own storyline, all headed off in their own directions until orders from SOLA take the Christmas holiday in the wrong direction. Some surprises during its climax, and well worth reading. 

HARVEST HOME
by Thomas Tryon
The author of The Other turns his attentions to a small New England town that operates according to ye olde principles. A fine novel that would make a good companion piece/counterbalance to The Stepford Wives.

LUPE
by Gene Thompson
I had this “evil kid” book when I was an evil kid, and to be honest, I only read the sex and violence bits back then. Reading the whole thing as an adult, I found it entertaining but silly, and the main character is irritating, coming across as wishing washy and whinny. Her husband also does a 180 part way through the novel that feels beyond forced. A decent time waster, but not a particularly good book.

BRAINCHILD
by Andrew Neiderman
The author of Pin torments a family when their brainy daughter decides to use them as a behavioural science experiment. Creepy and recommended. 

THE AUCTIONEER
by Joan Samson
Based on its positive reviews I had high hopes for this one, but I found it a slog. An auctioneer rolls into town and starts taking more than what is reasonable from the locals. I liked the premise, but I was so frustrated by everyone’s refusal to act that it lost me. Because this book has so many fans I recommend that people give it a go and make up their own minds.

WHEN DARKNESS LOVES US
by Elizabeth Engstrom
The version I read contained two Engstrom novellas, the titular story and Beauty is…. I loved them both. Darkness centres around a pregnant teenager who is trapped underground and the aftermath of her plight, while Beauty tells the story of an intellectually challenged woman with a facial disfigurement who begins to develop her intellect. What really struck me in both stories is that the true horror is found in the way the people around both women react to them.  

HELL HOUND
by Ken Greenhall
A fan of Greenhall’s Elizabeth, I was looking forward to his follow up Hell Hound. It wasn’t a disappointment. Hell Hound tells the story of a psychopathic bull terrier - from the dog’s perspective - who makes his way from owner to owner until he meets his teenage equivalent. A terrific novel.

THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR
by Anne Rivers Siddons
Nicely crafted novel about a cursed(?) house that is built next door to the home of Colquitt Kennedy and her husband, Walter. Lots of surprises and tension as the next-door neighbours come and go. Recommended.

FEAST
by Graham Masterton
In this novel by the author of The Manitou, a traveling food critic attempts to bond with his distant teenage son by taking him on the road with him. A series of really unsettling surprises awaits them, including a well-connected cult of cannibals. Some silly bits don’t diminish its impact.   

THE FLESH EATERS
by L.A. Morse
Based on the infamous and perhaps only fictional 16th century Scottish cave-dwelling cannibal family of Sawney Beane, this thin novel is a fast read that unfolds likes a list of depravities. Though reading it doesn’t make you feel like a pervert like reading Eat Them Alive does, whether or not you should get your mitts on a copy depends on how much the subject matter fascinates you. To that end… I read it. The Sawney Beane legend was reportedly the inspiration behind Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. 

THE FOG
by James Herbert
Not to be confused with John Carpenter’s flick of the same name, this UK-set novel by the best-selling author of The Rats revolves around a government-devised gas that is released from the earth and leaves a trail of unfortunate and insane vapor-huffers in its path. A scramble to contain the fog and find an antidote for its effects ensues. Enjoyable, with a couple of truly gruesome set pieces, but I recommend the aforementioned rabid rodent book over this one. 

THE CIPHER
by Kathe Koja
Short on plot, but tall on character, atmosphere and dread, The Cipher is a beautifully written novel about a hole that appears in the floor of an apartment building’s unused storage room, and the metaphysical transformations that occur when objects descend into it. Not only that, but what are the conditions necessary for these transformations to take place? At times this debut novel from Koja, which perfectly captures a certain kind of 1990s slacker lifestyle, reads like modern poetry, and I mean that in a good way. Recommended.     

Friday, 2 February 2018

From the Pages of Paperbacks from Hell: Elizabeth




Elizabeth
Author: Ken Greenhall, Year: 1976

Elizabeth was the first Paperbacks from Hell mention I read that was really something special. I had enjoyed Smart as the Devil and Rooftops – they are the kind of books I was there for – but this was something else. A terse novel (I like ‘em that way) at 127 pages, this only means that author Greenhall is precise in his storytelling, seeming to choose his words carefully.

In telling the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who may be the recipient of some supernatural life coaching via an image in a full-length mirror (then again, she may just be your average teenaged psychopath), Elizabeth is creepy more so for what it hints at than it is for what it states explicitly.

After her parents die in an accident (maybe), Elizabeth moves in with some relatives and discovers the aforementioned mirror that reflects the image of Frances, a long-dead witch. Soon, the family's dealing with almost as much illegal sex as they are tragedies.

As I have never been a fan of the “haunted mirror” trope, I’m happy to report that it’s merely a device here, a means to an end. Much of the story is revealed through the inner thoughts of its main character, and Greenhall does an outstanding job of bringing us into Elizabeth’s head.

It’s that story that Elizabeth and Greenhall have to tell here, as well as the way in which the author tells it, that makes a lasting impression, and it’s a shame that the late Greenhall hasn’t received more recognition before now. Thanks to re-prints of this and others of his works from Valancourt Books, however, all of that could be rectified. 


          

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

From the Pages of Paperbacks from Hell: Rooftops



Rooftops 
Author: Tom Lewis, Year: 1981

The lurid promise of a psychopath stalking kids in NYC and leaving their corpses on rooftops was what lured me to this book. What I got, rather than a straight forward psycho-on-the-loose story, was more of a focus on a young, idealistic cop trying to catch the killer before his next mess, falling in love, and confronting a terrorist bloc, as well as the corrupt forces that arm them for a fee. Turns out, the book is all the better for it.

A fast read with more than enough surprises to keep the reader engaged, author Tom Lewis also gives enough depth to each victim to create impact, and he populates the book with people – Black, Puerto Rican – that are still underrepresented in genre fiction today. Worth seeking out.