And Then There Were None

And Then There Were NoneAnd Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Believe it or not, I hadn’t read any Agatha Christie before, so I thought I’d start with what is perhaps her most famous mystery, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. The book held a number of surprises for me, some good, some not. Getting the things I didn’t like out of the way first, I was very surprised by how sparse the prose is. There’s very little in the way of description or detail, to the point where it reads almost more like a script than a novel. (Although in Christie’s defense, I found there was often just enough for my imagination to fill in the blanks.) There’s not much in the way of characterization, either. In the earlier parts of the novel, I had trouble telling the difference between several of the characters, particularly the older male characters like Justice Wargrave, Dr. Armstrong, and General Macarthur.

Still, once I got used to Christie’s style, I enjoyed AND THEN THERE WERE NONE very much, especially as the story went on and the number of suspects dwindled while the number of victims grew. I’m proud to say I figured out at least one small part of how the mysterious U.N. Owen pulled it off, but certainly not all of it, and I most definitely did not guess Owen’s true identity. I can see why this is such a popular novel. It’s the ultimate locked-room mystery, where the room is a remote, isolated island and there’s a good chance the killer is still be locked in with you. Definitely worth reading!

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The Scariest Part: Douglas Wynne Talks About THE WIND IN MY HEART

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my good friend Douglas Wynne, whose latest novel is The Wind in My HeartHere is the publisher’s description:

Miles Landry is trying to put violence behind him when he takes up work as a private detective focused on humdrum adultery cases. But when a Tibetan monk hires him to find a missing person, things get weird fast. Charged with tracking down the reincarnation of a man possessed by a demonic guardian from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Miles is plunged into a world of fortune-tellers, gangsters, and tantric rituals.

The year is 1991 and a series of grisly murders has rocked New York City in the run up to a visit from the Dalai Lama. The police attribute the killings to Chinatown gang warfare. Miles — skeptical of the supernatural — is inclined to agree. But what if the monster he’s hunting is more than a myth?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Douglas Wynne:

By the time a book is released, it’s usually been a while since I wrote and revised it. My memory of the details can be a little foggy. With each round of edits and proof reader corrections the story feels farther away from the close up immersion I had in the early drafts. You tend to just zoom in on the corrections and areas for improvement an editor suggests and work through them. Then, when release time comes around, I scan through and pick a couple of passages to read at bookstore events (ah, remember bookstore events from the Before Times?) or these days on Zoom and hope I still like what I’m reading now that I have some distance from it.

But with every book I’ve written, it seems like there’s always one scene that stands out and lingers in my memory. A scene that doesn’t fade over the many months of the process. A scene that comes to mind first when I think of that book. Sometimes I can remember writing it. What music I was listening to at the time and how it felt to get lost in the story. Other times I might remember getting sucked in again while editing, like I’m reading someone else’s work, with even my constant inner critic holding his breath for a few minutes.

When I sat down to revisit The Wind in My Heart for this post, I knew which scene that was right away, and (as usual) I think it might be the scariest part. I have a lot of different goals as a fiction writer and they vary depending on the genre or project at hand. I’m often considered a horror writer, though I dabble in fantasy, crime, and sci-fi. But my one aim above all others is to build suspense, in small ways and large. Suspense about what a character might say next in a dialogue, about some intriguing bit of backstory only hinted at when it’s first mentioned, and ultimately about who lives and dies and how characters come out the other side of a book changed.

Then there’s the suspense of a man we’ve come to care about venturing down a dark hallway toward flickering candlelight, registering the mingled scents of spilled blood and incense in the cloying air, and wondering as he touches the grip of his gun if it will do him any good against what he’s about to confront.

That’s the scene that stayed with me. Miles Landry, a hardnosed private eye hunting down a reincarnated demon and beginning to wonder if there might actually be something to this weird case he took on for what he thought would be an easy payday from some superstitious Buddhist monks. The previous night, Miles visited a fortuneteller the monks sent him to, and after a cryptic I Ching reading she told him about the bad vibes she got off a peacock feather he retrieved from a murder victim. The feather is one of Miles’ only clues in a series of murders rocking Chinatown, so when he finds it missing from his coat pocket the next morning, he goes back to the fortunetelling parlor/herb shop of Lily Lao, thinking she might have pocketed it after pretending to be freaked out about it. Maybe people are playing games with him.

But what he finds in the candlelit backroom of the shop is no game.

I may have got my own hair up while writing that scene, but it wasn’t the only scary part of writing this novella. I was raised Catholic and have digested as much Catholic horror as anyone, but for the past twenty odd years my real spiritual affinity has been with Tibetan Buddhism. Those years of study armed me with the details and philosophy to write a supernatural thriller from a somewhat exotic point of view. But it’s one thing to write about stuff you don’t believe in and another to take on a spiritual system that’s close to your heart. Add to that the fear of misrepresenting a culture I wasn’t raised in and you have a recipe for trepidation.

The tantric Buddhist concept of gods and demons is different from the Western view, and it’s part of what I find fascinating and alluring in the Tibetan worldview. In a nutshell, it’s a more psychological model. There’s an explicit understanding that the deity of compassion or the wrathful demon protector is a potential of consciousness inherent in every human mind. Those potentials can be activated with a series of intensive practices under the guidance of a qualified teacher whose job is to make sure you don’t over identify with the possessing spirit and have a psychotic episode.

The villain in my story identified with Yamantaka, Lord of Death, and now embodies him as a reincarnated serial killer. I find hope in the Buddhist idea that we may all, with practice, learn to embody angels of compassion. But the flipside of the coin is never denied. We all carry wrathful demons in our psyches, too — forces that must be tamed and rehabilitated. And the right conditions can awaken them. Maybe that’s the scariest part.

The Wind in My Heart: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / Bookshop

Douglas Wynne: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Goodreads / BookBub

Douglas Wynne is an author of horror thrillers, including The Devil of Echo Lake, Steel Breeze, and the SPECTRA Files trilogy. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and his writing workshops have been featured at genre conventions and schools throughout New England. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son and a houseful of animals.

The Writing Life

The Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, And a Lot of CursingThe Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, And a Lot of Cursing by Jeff Strand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A charming and highly readable non-fiction book about what it’s like to be a writer. Author Jeff Strand doesn’t offer the reader any how-to-write advice in THE WRITING LIFE (there are plenty of those kinds of books available already) but instead focuses on what to expect once you’re published, liberally peppered with his own amusing and often self-deprecating anecdotes. It’s a fast, funny read that will have Strand’s fellow authors nodding in agreement and chuckling in recognition, while giving aspiring writers a chance to rethink whether the craziness of a writing career is really what they want. While there’s a definite “isn’t this funny and/or ridiculous” tone to Strand’s authorial voice, there’s actually a lot to be learned from THE WRITING LIFE, not the least of which is how to cope with a writing career that, to paraphrase the author, you quite honestly thought would be more successful by now. Highly recommended for writers and interested readers alike.

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The Scariest Part: Keith R.A. DeCandido Talks About ANIMAL

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my good friend Keith R.A. DeCandido, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for some years now. His latest novel, co-written with Dr. Munish K. Batra, is Animal. A portion of the novel’s proceeds will go to the San Diego Humane Society, as well as a number of other animal funds and sanctuaries. Here is the publisher’s description:

Renowned surgeon and humanitarian Dr. Munish K. Batra and international best-selling author Keith R.A. DeCandido have worked together to bring you Animal, a pulse-pounding, thought-provoking thriller that will leave you questioning whether noble intentions justify horrific acts.

Interpol Agent An Chang has been chasing a masked serial killer for more than twenty years, a killer who targets those who harm innocent animals. When the serial killer strikes again — two people dead near a meatpacking plant by a culprit wearing a cow mask and soon after the CEO of a water park is brutally killed by someone wearing an orca mask — Chang heads to California to finally catch his vigilante killer.

What Chang shockingly discovers in California sends him on a wild-goose chase from the streets of Shanghai to around the globe. What Chang is beginning to understand is that the killer’s motives and history are far deeper than anyone realizes. So, who is the real animal?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Keith R.A. DeCandido:

I don’t know if Chapter 15 of Animal is the scariest part of the thriller that I cowrote with Dr. Munish K. Batra, but it was certainly the hardest part for me to write. And that was against some pretty stiff competition…

Animal is about a serial killer who specifically targets people who harm animals. Dr. Batra has spent a great deal of time travelling the world providing humanitarian aid to Third World countries as well as nations that have suffered natural disasters, and in those travels, he’s observed a lot of instances of cruelty to animals.

An incident that particularly stuck with him was seeing dog and cat carcasses being hung in shops in China, intended for food. As someone with a dog as part of his household, Dr. Batra found this appalling — as did I when he and I discussed it. The backstory of our killer is that he was living in Shanghai when his dog was taken and killed to be made into food, along with many other dogs.

When it came time to write that part of our killer’s backstory, I was dreading it. I wrote it from the POV of the child, who was five years old at the time. I had to draw on my experiences dealing with five-year-olds (I teach karate to children, including a lot of four, five, and six-year-olds), as well as my memories of having a Golden Retriever, Scooter (who unfortunately died at the ripe old age of fourteen in 2015).

One of the scariest aspects of growing up is losing your innocence. A child is often lucky enough to see the world as uncomplicated, rarely having the need to make hard choices about life—or even easy ones, truth be told. Particularly children who are fortunate enough to live in stable households, they’re able to live their lives without worry or cares.

So when tragedy strikes, it can be devastating. In this case, we have a kid whose father (a diplomat) is away from home a lot, and his mother is emotionally distant. He loves his older sister, but she can’t spend every moment with him.

Their dog Nandita, though, is another story. She loves the boy unreservedly, and is always there to play with him and snuggle him and run with him and lick him and love him. There is no love on this Earth more devoted and all-encompassing than that of a dog — especially a Golden Retriever.

Which means that losing Nandita is the worst thing that can possibly happen to him. A five-year-old can barely process the notion of loss as it is. To make the loss be of the thing in the five-year-old’s life that brings him the most joy, the most delightful, wonderful, unconditional love is simply devastating.

And holy crap, was it devastating to write.

I’ve never been hugely affected by gory horror or psychological horror. I mean, I appreciate it and enjoy it and love it when it’s done well, but it rarely affects me on a visceral level. But the horror of loss for a small child is something that always gets me, because that level of betrayal, of fear, of devastation is so much greater in someone who hasn’t experienced enough of the world to be mature and/or cynical about it. Which makes it that much nastier.

The worst nightmare I ever had as a kid was when I was around ten or eleven. At that age, I had a tiger puppet that I wore on my hand constantly. Daniel Striped Tiger (named after a character on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) only came off my hand when I was eating or bathing. And then one night I had a nightmare that I was walking alongside a set of train tracks near our house that was about thirty feet below the sidewalk. Somehow, even though there was a fence to prevent it, Daniel had come off my hand and fallen down onto the tracks where I would never ever see him again. I could see him down on the tracks, but there was no way to get him back.

I woke up screaming, and then I stopped wearing Daniel on my hand all the time. (Mind you, I still have that puppet, sitting on one of my bookshelves…)

When I wrote Chapter 15 of Animal, I tried to re-create that feeling I had when I woke up from that nightmare.

Whether or not it worked I leave to y’all to decide if and when you read Animal.

Animal: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powells / Bookshop / Animal website

Keith R.A. DeCandido: Website / Twitter

Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of more than fifty novels, more than seventy-five short stories, a mess of comic books, and more nonfiction than he’s willing to try to count. Recent and upcoming titles (besides Animal) include the Alien novel Isolation, the fantasy/police procedurals Mermaid Precinct and Phoenix Precinct, the urban fantasies A Furnace Sealed and Feat of Clay, the military science fiction novel To Hell and Regroup (written with David Sherman), the graphic novel Icarus (with Gregory A. Wilson), pop-culture commentary for the award-winning web site Tor.com, and short stories in the anthologies Bad Ass Moms, Pangaea Book 3: Redemption, and Horns and Halos. He’s also working on more projects in collaboration with Dr. Munish K. Batra. In addition, Keith is a third-degree black belt in karate (which he also teaches), a freelance editor for clients both personal and corporate, a musician (currently percussionist for the parody band Boogie Knights), and possibly some other stuff he can’t recall due to the lack of sleep.

 

 

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