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The Scariest Part: Alethea Kontis Talks About BESPHINXED

My guest this week on The Scariest Part is author Alethea Kontis, whose new novel is Besphinxed. Here is the publisher’s description:

Heather Hayden has everything a young witch could desire: beauty, money, popularity, and exceptionally strong magical powers. Too bad she’s also got a dysfunctional family that couldn’t care less about her and a Head Witch who’s watching her every move. Heather has no idea what she wants. But she’s pretty sure it’s not some low-rent cat shifter boy from goddess-knows-where, despite the fact that their paths keep crossing again and again…and again.

Owen Liddell is in big trouble. A hundred years ago, a descendant of Arachne tricked him into staring into the eyes of the Great Sphinx, leaving him bespelled into the form a cat. Now Arachne’s sisters have found him again and placed one of their own as a substitute teacher at Harmswood. And if that weren’t bad enough, destiny got involved, tangling his heart up with the most popular witch in school: his best friend Kai’s sworn enemy.

Can Owen escape the evil spider sisters, thwart the spell, rescue the girl, save his friendship and pass his finals all before Zombie Prom? It seems unlikely. But unlikely things are known to happen in Nocturne Falls…

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Alethea Kontis:

Besphinxed is the third book in my Harmswood Academy trilogy, written in the Nocturne Falls Universe. Kristen Painter’s original Nocturne Falls books are paranormal romantic comedies set in a town that celebrates Halloween all year round (to mask the fact that things like witches and werewolves really exist). My books were the first in the Universe geared toward young adults. So I had my work cut out for me from the get-go: Find a way to mix YA, romance, comedy, fantasy, adventure, and horror into tightly-paced short novels based in someone else’s world.

But I am a princess known for juggling the genres in a myriad of formats — these elements just happen to be the gingerbread from which my magical wheelhouse is built! (How’s that for mixing metaphors?) I took to this universe like a fairy to a wishing well. But things still popped up to surprise me during the process of writing this trilogy, and Besphinxed was no exception.

Because there were times when Heather Hayden’s character scared the hell out of me.

Heather spends the first two books as the quintessential Mean Girl of Harmswood Academy. She’s the richest, most powerful, and most popular girl in school. (She’s totally Head Cheerleader, OF COURSE.) She’s a bully to the local girls, who refer to Heather and her two besties as the “Godawful Gothwitches,” because they never wear anything but black. Heather has done some terrible things — mostly because she doesn’t care about anyone but herself — and she’s careless with her magic.

But in Besphinxed, Heather takes the spotlight and becomes the heroine of the piece. This meant I had to figure out the machinations behind WHY she did all the shocking things she did. As someone who was often ostracized and bullied by these sorts of girls in school, it wasn’t exactly a headspace I was looking to get into.

But if George R. R. Martin could create sympathy for Jamie Lannister, then by gods I could do the same for Heather Hayden.

First step: Create a terrifically dysfunctional home life.

Well, who had more troubles than Jan Brady?

So I made Heather a middle sister (because witches should always come in threes). Her older sister Taylor (*cough* Swift) would be the picture of perfection and her younger sister Katy (*cough* Perry) would be the rebellious attention-seeker. Add an absent father and a self-absorbed mother and voila! Heather is now a flawed-but-decent-enough girl raised by people who care more about their own drama than they care about her — a situation that results in Heather believing some pretty horrible things about herself.

Second step: Show how that dysfunction bleeds into Heather’s school life.

This is where the bullying reared its ugly head, as well as the acceptance of toxic masculinity for the sake of reputation…and other similarly bad choices. My goal was ultimately for Heather to recognize the difference between healthy relationships and bad ones, and to begin learning how to tell the difference.

My goal was NOT to look in the mirror and suddenly see Heather looking back.

Authors write what we know. It’s difficult to write a hero or heroine that doesn’t resemble ourselves in some small way. But I did not expect to see so much of myself in Heather. I ended up in some bad relationships before I learned to recognize what was good for me. (I totally made some bad choices based on those, too.) I am the middle of three sisters in my family, right between the perfect eldest and the rebel youngest. I grew up with an absent father and a challenging mother.

I found myself crying when I wrote the chapter where Heather visits her family in Vermont — her happy place. MY happy place. It was like a razor blade that cut right to the bone, so sharp and quick that I didn’t notice until it had already happened.

I came from a background just like Heather’s. I invented the petri dish that had grown Heather, but after doing so, I realized that same sort of petri dish had grown me as well.

Maybe those Mean Girls of my childhood weren’t the monsters I had imagined, so far removed from my own precious world. If fate had dotted her Is and crossed her Ts a little differently, I might have been that Mean Girl.

And maybe, in the story of someone else’s life, I was.

Dear gods.

What a horrifying thought.

Besphinxed: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Kobo / iTunes

Alethea Kontis: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Patreon / YouTube

New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a voice actress, a force of nature, and a mess. She is responsible for creating the epic fairytale fantasy realm of Arilland, and dabbling in a myriad of other worlds beyond. Her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups across all genres. Host of “Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants” and Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow every year at Dragon Con, Alethea also narrates for ACX, IGMS, Escape Pod, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. Born in Vermont, Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie.
Backward Masking Unmasked

Backward Masking Unmasked: Backward Satanic Messages of Rock and Roll ExposedBackward Masking Unmasked: Backward Satanic Messages of Rock and Roll Exposed by Jacob Aranza
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Despite the title, Jacob Aranza’s inane 1983 “exposé” of Satanic messages in rock and roll doesn’t spend much time on the backward messages supposedly hidden in all the popular albums of the time. Instead, Aranza chooses to spend the majority of his word count detailing salacious, absurd, and wildly inaccurate rumors about the songs and bands themselves. “There’s a revival going on in Satan’s kingdom,” Aranza writes breathlessly, “and music is his tool.” He goes on to warn the reader, “Young man, that rock music is from the devil! Those loud guitars and that jungle beat are from the pit of hell! You stay away from that stuff!” Rock and roll may be the music of rebellion, but “CAUTION: The end of rebellion is always death.” (Interestingly, since we are all mortal, the end of obedience is always death, too.) Here are some of my other favorite excerpts:

“The [sic] Queen’s top song ‘We Are the Champions’ is the unofficial national anthem for gays (homosexuals) in America.”

“[The Rolling Stones’] song ‘Satanic Majesty’s Request’ [is] the unofficial anthem for all satanic churches.” Later, he makes the exact same claim about their song “Sympathy for the Devil.” There sure are a lot of unofficial anthems for gays and Satanists! Also, “The Stones’ album title Get Yer Ya-Yas Out is based on a phrase which recurs frequently in African voodoo.” And here you thought it was just about boobs!

“One thing is sure, ‘Hotel California’ is not a place where you or I should spend any day or night! This Southern California group’s country-rock blend may at first sound harmless. But continued listening could become harmful. Don’t forget, BIRDS OF A FEATHER FLOCK TOGETHER!”

“[Alice Cooper’s] hits include. . .‘Working Up a Sweat’ which is a song about working up a sweat during the act of sex.”

“Led Zeppelin is no stairway to heaven but rather, if you pardon the expression, on the HIGHWAY TO HELL!. . .[But] there is a real stairway to heaven — through the cross of Jesus Christ.”

“AC/DC means bisexual.”

“The symbol that [Blue Oyster Cult] use as their trademark, which is a cross with a question mark, can only be an anti-Christ symbol questioning what happened at the cross.”

“Ritchie Blackmore’s music and message are certainly not that of a rainbow but rather a ‘Lake of Fire.’”

“Rumours may be the hit album for Fleetwood Mac, but it is no rumor that this group is indulging in the occult; it is the bare facts.”

“Mind control [in Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’]? They have it over the minds of millions of young people as they encourage rebellion against authority in the school classrooms.”

“A better name couldn’t have been given to [the Grateful Dead] to describe their music. I’m sure many will be grateful when their music is dead.”

“Hall ’N Oates [sic] often impersonate women and attempt to come across to their audiences as women.” Also, “Daryl Hall is a follower of Aleister Crowley.”

“A warning about those interested in flying with Jefferson Starship: their flight pattern ends in death.”

“Unnatural sex is the theme of REO Speedwagon’s album Hi Infidelity.”

“[Elton John’s] song ‘Bitch is Back’ is about sniffing glue.”

But don’t worry, Aranza tells us, if you love good music there are now many excellent Christian acts that can take the place of these deplorable rock and roll bands. “There are no more good excuses why Christian young people cannot hear good quality music about the ‘Rock that never rolls’. . .Jesus Christ.” Never one to let a bad pun die, Aranza writes of these Christian bands, “Christ has put their feet on the Rock and their names on the roll!”

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of incidents in the book that further display a lack of fact-checking: “Jim Steinman, or as he is commonly called, ‘Meat Loaf.’” Jim Steinman is not Meat Loaf. “KISS (Kid’s In Satan’s Service).” Nope. And who can forget that famous lead singer of the Eagles “Ron Henley”? Or Kenneth Anger’s film “Lucifer’s Rising”?

In case you were wondering if Aranza’s conservative evangelicalism would take a predictable turn into racism — fear not, it does! In a chapter discussing his own life, including a childhood filled with the horrors of rock music, drugs, and divorced parents, he writes, “As if all this wasn’t bad enough, they had just started integration in schools.” Aranza attended a school where white children were in the minority, which he describes as a twisted, violent hellscape. “We began to have race riots. All the blacks were running around saying, ‘We’s [sic] want black power.’ The Mexicans were running around saying, ‘Hey dude, we want Chicano power.’ The whites were just running around saying, ‘We want OUT!’” I suppose growing up with all those political protests — sorry, I mean “race riots” — it was hard not to see Satan everywhere.

This slim volume is a quick read and good for a laugh, if nothing else. However, when I was finished I also read it backward. Imagine my shock when I discovered that when read backward the book clearly states, “Jacob Aranza is a self-righteous and easily misguided imbecile who wants to use religion to control people’s lives so he can feel powerful and important.” CAUTION: Jacob Aranza is the real Bitch who’s Back because he is clearly sniffing glue!

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The Scariest Part: Clarissa Goenawan Talks About RAINBIRDS

My guest this week on The Scariest Part is author Clarissa Goenawan, whose debut novel is Rainbirds. Here is the publisher’s description:

Intertwining elements of suspense and magical realism, award-winning literary debut Rainbirds opens with a murder and shines a spotlight on life in fictional small-town Japan.

Ren Ishida is nearly done with graduate school when he receives news of his sister, Keiko’s, sudden death. She was viciously stabbed one rainy night on her way home, and there are no leads. Ren heads to Akakawa to conclude his sister’s affairs, failing to understand why she chose to abandon their family and leave Tokyo for this small town in the first place.

But Ren soon finds himself picking up right where Keiko left off, accepting both her teaching position at a cram school and the bizarre arrangement of free lodging at the wealthy Mr. Katou’s mansion, in exchange for reading aloud each morning to Katou’s depressed, mute wife. As Ren gets to know the figures in the town, from the mysterious Katou to fellow teachers and a rebellious, alluring student named Rio, he replays memories of his childhood with Keiko and finds his dreams haunted by a young girl with pigtails who is desperately trying to tell him something. Struggling to fill the void that Keiko has left behind, Ren realizes that perhaps people don’t change, and if they don’t, he can decipher the identity of his sister’s killer.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Clarissa Goenawan:

I started writing Rainbirds when I was twenty-five — just a year older than my narrator, Ren Ishida. We had a couple of things in common. One of them is this: both of us were facing a lot of uncertainties.

In Rainbirds, Ren was about to finish his graduate studies. He’d gone to a prestigious university but had no idea what he kind of career he wanted to pursue after graduation. In addition, his long-time girlfriend was pressuring him to settle down. (For a certain type of person, this can be very scary indeed.) But one rainy night, his older sister got murdered. Thirty-five-year-old Keiko Ishida — who, in Ren’s words, “had a sweet disposition, quite a slim frame, and the air of someone with a good upbringing,” and, “was the type of woman the average salaryman wanted as his wife” — was brutally knifed to death. The mystery surrounding her death propelled him into tracing her old life, and that became his main focus.

As for me, at that time, I’d just left a lucrative job in banking sales to take a sabbatical. Supposedly it was a year-long break, but also, it was my desperate last attempt to achieve my childhood dream. I’d always want to be a writer.

But the writing path is a long and winding road (not being dramatic, because this is so true!). You need to put in the hours. Long hours. It’s all hard work, and I faced a lot of pressures, from well-meaning friends who asked, “When are you going back to work?” to relatives who chided me for spending too much time on my ‘hobby’. All of those, coupled with rejection after rejection, were so demoralizing. Apart from hard work, publishing also requires an element of luck.

Being in our mid-twenties is a very delicate phase. It’s a crucial phase that will probably shape the rest of our lives. What kind of career would we pursue, who we settle down with… stuff like that. We’re expected to be old enough to make these important decisions. But at the same time, we probably don’t know enough.

The year is 2018, and I’m twenty-nine now. Very close to thirty.

Right now, this is what I want to say:

If you’re in your mid-twenties and feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. It’s common to feel clueless and confused. I don’t know what your situation is, but just do your best. Your very, very best. So you won’t have any regrets.

Or perhaps, you’re a writer in the beginning of your career, still struggling and questioning yourself. Even though the dark tunnel does feel endless, if you never give up, one day your dream might just come true.

And talking about luck, I heard she favours those who work really, really hard.

Rainbirds: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound / Book Depository

Clarissa Goenawan: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Goodreads

Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in Singapore, Australia, the UK, and the US. Rainbirds is her first novel.

Other Places

Other PlacesOther Places by Karen Heuler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another outstanding collection of science fiction stories by Karen Heuler, whose previous collection, THE INNER CITY, blew me away. This is sf that focuses on character, predicament, and absurdity rather than science and technology, and as such it may not be to the taste of all sf enthusiasts, but if you like the weird, fantastical, and occasionally irrational literary-speculative hybrid fiction of authors like Kelly Link, you’ll like Heuler’s work, too.

Of the nine stories and one poem collected in OTHER PLACES, my favorites include “The Apartments,” a surreal tale about a woman who discovers all the apartments in which she used to live in New York City are occupied by people from her past (this story was also nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award); “What They See on Nox,” in which colonists on a distant planet encounter creatures that might be ghosts; and “The Moons of Martle Hart,” which plays with suspicion and paranoia as an astronaut begins to wonder if her only crewmate on a spaceship is human or something else. I want to give a special shout out to the story “Which Side Is the Other Side?” as well for being the funniest story in a collection where there’s often a deep well of humor lurking just beneath the surface.

Heuler’s work continues to impress and amaze me. If there’s one writer working in speculative fiction today who isn’t getting the attention she deserves, it’s Heuler. I hope more people will discover her work soon. If they do, I have no doubt they’ll become a fan like me.

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