Life’s Demons

If asked what scares you, you’d reply ghosts, monsters, goblins and the thing under your bed — if you were nine. Assuming you’re a bit older, your likeliest demons might be employment insecurity, marital discord, staggering debt  or that bump that didn’t used to be on your neck.

Remember this as you read or write your next horror novel. It doesn’t mean that vampires and serial killers shouldn’t be featured attractions,  but they’re only the visceral representation of what really frightens your protagonists — and your readers.

For instance, two of the most shudder-inducing scenes for me in the Stephen King novel, THE SHINING, appear early in the book and don’t involve ghostly bartenders or sinister topiary. One scene takes place after father and disgraced former teacher Jack Torrance nearly sabotages his opportunity to caretake the Overlook Hotel by smarting off to his arrogant employer. He’s warned by the friend who set Jack and his family up with the temporary gig that Jack is already on shaky ground, so he must call back Mr. Ullman and humble himself before the hotel manager. As he makes nice with the “officious prick,” Jack chews on bitter aspirin tablets to try to calm the tension headache raging within him.

This is such a tense scene because it foreshadows Jack’s growing anger and frustration with the direction his life is taking.We sense his panic and desperation. He and Wendy have a rattletrap car and probably not enough gas money to leave the old hotel and seek work elsewhere if this job falls through due — once again — to his personality flaws. The horror of the moment is one of impending financial doom, a spectre we can all see in this shaky economy.

The second scene is when Jack gives his son, Danny, a dormant wasp nest. The hornets become active at night in Danny’s warm bedroom and repeatedly  sting the young boy.  Although it’s an accident, it     reminds Wendy of that other time Jack had broken Danny’s arm in an alcohol-fueled rage. Wendy’s instinctive reaction is a mix of fear, hostility and suspicion. We feel Jack’s guilt, shame and bewilderment — as well as his smoldering resentment with the way his wife will never fully let him forget the sins of his past.

There’s not a whiff of ghostly activity in either scene, but both are powerfully effective because they set the tone for the supernatural events to follow and set up the reader to better relate to Jack and his family. Now we care about these characters.

I try to blend mundane and  otherworldly horror in my own upcoming novel, BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON (Samhain Horror, Jan. 2012). The bad guys here belong to two warring clans of vampires who’ve made their home for more than a century in the small Michigan town. But what’s really scary in a relatable way is how the economy has played such havoc with the lives of the stragglers who find their way to Babylon — a place suspiciously ripe with employment opportunity — that they must try to ignore every sign of trouble even as their numbers dwindle with every attack. It’s not vampiric forces providing the biggest chills, but the lack of options brought on by financial ruin,  a threat that looms like a shadow behind many of us today. So go ahead and ham up your horror fiction as much as you like, but ghosts, demons and serial killers have met their match in the real-life fears that haunt contemporary life. Keep this in mind and you’ll write a horror novel that we can all relate to, with thrills and chills far  scarier than the skankiest swamp creature. Check out BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON  if you’d like to read an excerpt or pre-order my novel from Samhain Horror.

Twilight Be Damned

“I believe John and I were bloodletting a rat…” reminisces vampire clan leader Miles Drake in my new novel, BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON.

Stephenie Meyer would recoil in actual horror.

Enough of the sexy, pouty, well-coiffed nightbreed, says I. BLOODTHIRST, from Samhain Horror, portrays them as God intended: cunning, repulsive, erratic, manipulative, pychotic. Not to mention “ancient,” and looking it. Whatever you do, do not waste your time romancing one of these damned things.

Times are tough and jobs scarce. It’s desperation that drives the Dunbar family and other down-and-outers to suspiciously welcoming Babylon, Michigan. This remote town has been controlled for more than a century by the rarely seen Miles Drake and his allies. But now a brash breakaway clan is doing away with the old traditions and rewriting the rules of engagement with humankind. The newcomers will pay the price. Never get caught in the crossfire of a vampire war. The siege of the Sundown Motel is on. The harvesting has begun. 

I make this one guarantee: if the movie ever gets made, pretty boy Robert Pattinson won’t get a part.

Hope you check it out. BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON goes on sale January 3, but you can pre-order by visiting Samhain Horror today.

Embrace the Disquiet

True story. Years ago my late wife, Ann, and I helped friends move. Jim and Dory were relocating to an apartment complex not far from a major interstate in the Cleveland, Ohio area. After the move, the four of us ambled into the back of the propertywhere we found a large open space.

It was a romantic evening, perfect springlike weather, so we held hands with our respective partners and went for a stroll under a moonlit sky. The field was vast and lined with a black border of high trees that hid any glimpse of the highway beyond. In fact, we couldn’t even hear the sound of cars as we strolled farther and farther into that open field.

Weird, I thought to myself, wondering how such an impressive expanse of ground could remain so hidden from a highway so close. Then our gaze fell upon piles of fist-sized rocks that didn’t look randomly arranged. The spooky tone of the evening was contagious. We were all in our twenties then, so Jim and I took pleasure at making the women draw ever-closer and clench our hands tighter as we whispered stories about the devil worshippers who perhaps still lurked in the shadows.

Naturally, none of us actually thought it was anything more sinister than bored teenagers. But it was so much fun to pretend to believe otherwise.

Many years later, Warner Books published my horror novel, YELLOW MOON. In one scene there’s a vast field under a moonlit sky under which a winged toad is eating…well, I don’t want to say too much for those who haven’t yet read YELLOW MOON, but we’re getting to the point here.

I’d captured this brief moment of time and found a way to use it years later in my novel. That’s what horror writers do. Turn their life experiences into easy fodder for the word processor. Not  many of us have interacted with serial killers, demons or winged toads, but we all have those casual, nearly meaningless snapshots in time from which to draw plot inspiration. Maybe it’s an overheard snatch of conversation in an elevator. Or a simple walk in a moonlit field behind a cookie cutter apartment complex.

We take whatever we find in our world and turn it slightly askew in ways that produce shivers, over-the-shoulder glances or dark,  dry chuckles.

And here’s where the rubber meets the road. Many years after YELLOW MOON came out, I got together with Jim who, like the loyal friend he is, had read my book.

“The scene with Skippy in the field, you recognize that, right?” I asked him.

Jim looked at me blankly.

“Dude, remember when the four of us took that walk after Ann and I helped move you and Dory into your apartment in Bedford Heights?”

Still blank.

“The rocks. You at least remember the rocks — right?”

But no matter how much I prodded, I couldn’t dislodge a single memory of that evening from Jim. Why? Because it hadn’t made an impression on him — and why should it? His psyche wasn’t built to retain such a trivial moment and magnify and distort it with all sorts of imagined weirdness. Mine was. Yours too, if you have a serious talent for horror fiction.

Which reminds me of a Stephen King essay which I’ll paraphrase here. He asked his readers to image a scene in which he’s sitting late at night in front of a dark body of water with the western writer Louis L’Amour. King wrote (or words to this effect), “He’d be thinking about a cattle range war for water rights while I dwelled on what lurks within that dark water.”

And I’d be right there churning up shivery thoughts with him.

You too? 

David Searls is a horror writer whose novel Bloodthirst in Babylon will be released  January 3, 2012. You can pre-order today.

Dark Matters

Congratulate me…I finally know what I’m doing. It was easier coming up with a name for this blog — a darker moon, all lower case — than a purpose. Yes, it was to be horror-concerned, since I’m a horror writer. But…then what?

My first post was about my dealing two horror novels to Samhain Publishing. BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLONwill be released on January 3 and MALEVOLENT in July, 2012. So I used that first blog post to preach  the importance of never giving up on your neglected book manuscripts. Mid-preach, it sort of dawned on me that I was, well, preaching. Or teaching, as I prefer to think of it. Influencing. Coaching. Whatever you want to call it.

And a calling, it became. I’m going to use this soap box to connect with horror writers and readers. This might include twenty-year vets with a lot more experience and success than me, as well as wannabes with a collection of rejections slips voluminous enough to paper a wall or two.

And readers, God bless ’em. I said readers. Of horror fiction.

Wondering about those emphatic italics? I use them to underscore the defining difference between this blog and many other sites that are peripherally concerned with horror. I don’t want to talk about how Dawn of the Dead kicks Night of the Living Dead’s ass. It might, but I don’t want to talk about it here. I want to exchange views with readers. Men and women and teenagers who’ve actually read (as opposed to seeing the movie) Peter Straub and Edgar Allan Poe and Dan Simmons and Poppy Z Brite and Shirley Jackson and Robert McCammon and…you get the idea.

Ask questions. Express strong opinions. Exchange tips. Point out new markets and agents and editors who will actually read your manuscript versus agreeing to perhaps eventually glance at your elevator pitch a year or two after their stated deadline. I’ll even start things off with a shout-out to Don D’Auria at Samhain Publishing. Check out his submissions guidelines at samhainpublishing.com.  Yes, he actually wants to see your full manuscript.

See what I mean? It’s about learning something you maybe didn’t already know about reading or selling horor fiction. Or offering a word of advice or encouragement to others trying to make a go of it in that scary field. Let’s build a community of horror…

…fiction…

…readers…

…writers…

…and enthusiasts. 

Eh?

David Searls is the author of horror novel Bloodthirst in Babylon, to be released in January, 2012.

Never Let the Corpse Grow Cold

 
 
Hi David,
 
Thanks so much for sending me the ms and synopsis of Malevolent, and please excuse the delay in getting back to you.
 
I enjoyed MALEVOLENT quite a bit and I think it would make an excellent addition to the Samhain horror line, and so I’d like to offer you a contract.
 
With that June 14, 2011 email, everything changed. The novel I’d been trying to sell since 1992 finally had a home.

I immediately recognized the name of the message sender. Don D’Auria had been the legendary editor of horror titles at Leisure Books for a decade or longer. But when he contacted me that day last summer, he was writing in response to a manuscript submission journeythat had actually started some eighteen years ago. He was writing as the editor at Samhain Horror, a  new imprint of a small press best known for–ready for this?–romance and female erotica fiction. Whatever. They were also handling horror now. His reply was the one every fiction writer dreams of receiving.

MALEVOLENT wasn’t my first published novel. That honor went to YELLOW MOON, bought by Warner Books and released in 1994, right at the ass end of the horror novel craze brought on by Stephen King, Peter Straub, John Saul and others.  

When I circulated MALEVOLENT in the early nineties, agents shrugged. Editors asked to see a pitch letter and a synopsis rather than actually reading my book. (I  equate the judging of a book by its chapter outline or plot synopsis to  hearing the description of a joke rather than the telling of it. The magic is in the telling, not the describing.)

When I couldn’t sell MALEVOLENT, I went on to write another and even better novel, called BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON. Or at least that’s what I told Don D’Auria when he asked, after accepting MALEVOLENT, whether I had anything else sitting around the house collecting digital dust. 

Why yes, I replied. I happen to have the best novel I’ve ever written. Don had me send the 120,000-word  BLOODTHIRST his way on June 15, and I had this reply by the 20th:

I’ve read BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON and, as expected, I loved it.  It’s really terrific and I’d be delighted to have it as part of the Samhain line.
 
 There’s a lesson here, all ye frustrated writers with unsold manuscripts moldering in your closets or on a clunky old zip drive. Take then out.  Read them with a fresh and more mature outlook. Be your own toughest critic. Maybe that old book really is as laughably bad as you feared it might be. Maybe even worse. Or . . .
 
Maybe there’s something there. Not perfection, probably, but something that can be revived with a bit of effort. After all, you’re smarter now than you were, say, twenty years ago.More experienced as a writer. More mature. (Not older, God forbid.) When I took another look at MALEVOLENTwith the distance of several years, I could instantly see that my chapters were too long. It was slowing things down. I needed faster transitions. If I cut quicker and more frequently between scenes and character points of view, I could keep things at a breakneck pace. It was obvious…with fifteen or eighteen years’ hindsight.
 
Also keep in mind that editors switch jobs. Agents die or retire. Whoever wasn’t thrilled with your manuscript at the XYZ Agency is probably long gone. Not to mention the fact that you’ve got literaryagencies and ebook publishers that weren’t even in existence during your book’s first life.
 
New audience. New possibilities. Try again. Or, if you make the tough call that your old work can’t be resuscitated, ask yourself if there’s an organ ot two ripe for transplant. Maybe an intriguing character, a setting or a plot point you can repurpose.
 
At least give it a shot. Take that old novel out and, at the very least, read it again. Whatcha got to lose?
 
Samhain Publishing will release BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON as an ebook on January 3, 2012. The trade paperback comes out about three months later. MALEVOLENT will see sinister life (finally) simultaneously in book and ebook format in the summer of 2012.
 
David Searls is the author of Bloodthirst in Babylon, to be released in January, 2012.