News & Blog

The Scariest Part: Lisa Black Talks About UNPUNISHED

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Lisa Black, whose new novel is Unpunished. Here is the publisher’s description:

Maggie Gardiner, a forensic expert who studies the dead, and Jack Renner, a homicide cop who stalks the living, form an uneasy partnership to solve a series of murders in this powerful new thriller by the bestselling author of That Darkness.

It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines — literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today — and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….

Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer — even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Lisa Black:

The ostensibly scariest part of Unpunished occurs when Maggie finds herself in a darkened, isolated area of a large factory-like setting with a man she now realizes could be a multiple murderer. But the physical situation is the simple part; the truly unsettling aspect lies in the internal debate. What to do? Scream for help (unlikely to be helpful anyway) and then be unable to explain why if it arrives? She’d look like an idiot. Attack first — but if she’s wrong then this perfectly innocent, nice man will want to know why an apparently sensible grown woman suddenly threw a hissy fit to rival that of a freaked-out housecat. She’d look like an idiot. Do nothing to avoid guessing wrong, and wind up horribly murdered because she didn’t want to make a fuss. She’d feel like an idiot, though it wouldn’t matter much at that point because she’d be freakin’ dead. Stand there and debate it some more while he sharpens up his knives and locks the door?

It’s a dilemma.

It takes us decades to learn to trust our instincts, years of repeated warnings to listen to our inner voices — if you see something say something, etc. — and still the natural inclination is to hesitate. We’d feel terrible if we made a mistake. We’d feel terrible if we hurt someone’s feelings. Almost as bad as we’d feel if they plunged a knife into our torso and spilled our intestines onto the floor.

Anyway that’s one part of the book. But what I find much more scary than this particular scene is the overall arc of the series and its effect on Maggie’s life. In the first book — spoiler alert — she kills someone. Not with much aforethought but with definite malice. She could blame it on shock, trauma, fear (though not self-defense), but she knows that those are unworthy excuses. She knows what she did and isn’t exactly sorry…but every day more comes to realize that her life has irretrievably changed. She can’t tell anyone, obviously — that would not only risk incarceration but the loss of her career as a forensic scientist, which pretty much is her life. She can’t tell her friends, she can’t tell her only sibling, a brother to whom she’s been very close since the death of their parents. She’s not remotely tempted to tell her ex-husband, just as well since he’s a homicide detective. It must be like losing a limb — you forget, momentarily, and then at some point in the day you move to pick up a glass with a hand that’s no longer there and run smack into a wall of oh yeah, I can’t do that any more. There will forever be a wall between her and other people. She can’t have a drunken night out with the girls, or whispered conversations with a lover. She will have to think before she speaks for the rest of her life, always parsing her words, monitoring herself for a slip. She escaped justice only to give herself a life sentence.

And that’s what I find scary. That one decision could affect every minute of every day for the rest of our lives. One wrong (or right) impulse, a momentary distraction, an unanswered phone call, and our happy little lives could dissipate before our eyes like the wisp of smoke after a trigger pull.

Lisa Black: Website / Twitter

Unpunished: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police department. Her books have been translated into six languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

Reading With Michael Cisco on 2/15

Mark your calendars!

On February 15th, come hear me and award-winning author Michael Cisco (Animal Money, The Tyrant, The Divinity Student) read as part of the monthly Fantastic Fiction at KGB series!

Where: The KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street (between 2nd Avenue and Bowery) in New York City

When: Wednesday, February 15th, at 7:00 PM

Here is the Facebook event page if you feel like RSVPing, although that’s not required.

Join us in the second floor bar for tales of terror and weirdness (and that’s just the conversation before the reading starts!). Be sure to get there early for good seats. Books by both authors will be available for purchase and signing.

Terrible Werner Herzog impressions included at no extra price.

The Scariest Part: Lori M. Myers Talks About CRAWLSPACE

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Lori M. Myers, whose new story collection is Crawlspace and Other Stories of Dark Fiction and Horror. Here is the publisher’s description:

A windowed storefront, a foreboding brothel, a wine cellar, a burial plot. Small spaces surrounded by thick walls, bolted with padlocks, weighed down with wet earth. This story collection of dark fiction/horror by award-winning writer Lori M. Myers is about the mystery and danger of closed-in rooms and wombs; of the mistaken belief that being inside equals safety. It doesn’t; not in these crawl spaces…

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Lori M. Myers:

The inspiration for my story collection titled Crawlspace originated by simply reading and listening and then answering the question, “What if…?” Sometimes an idea sprang from reading an innocent new story or overhearing a conversation or by simply allowing my mind to wander during long walks. As these stories were completed and compiled, I began to notice the thread that linked them — a thread that both surprised me and yet didn’t.

So let’s rip this apart, shall we? I don’t consider myself claustrophobic by any means, but as I wrote these stories in my writing life, I noticed some revelations going on in my real life. It was in those moments (for instance, being stuck in crowded narrow hallways) that my breathing felt more constrained. I’d find myself shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and yearned for the sea of humanity to part, to rush toward an exit door and find freedom, fresh air. I didn’t know its origins. I’d always equated indoors with safety, but the more I researched and examined the human condition, the more I realized that cramped places shut out a sometimes scary unknown if our imaginations take over.

I remember watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and not understanding why Vera Miles, all alone in that wretched house, got curious about a closed door leading to the basement. She was a few steps from the entrance door, a few blessed steps. Needless to say, I questioned her judgment. It appears that many other horror film characters took Vera’s lead and chose to turn the knobs of doors with ominous noises coming from the other side rather than leaving the place and phoning 911.

So I looked at my stories, asked myself what scared me, and the response was proof that having four solid walls around my fictional characters didn’t equal safety. I made bad things happen each and every time. In “Heartland Flyer,” a house serves as refuge (or is it?) from a train that kills; in “Dante’s Window,” close quarters become the “monster”; in the title story, “Crawlspace,” both the womb and the grave signify evil; in “Scar Girl,” even a Ferris wheel’s gondola becomes something other than an amusement.

Experts say that claustrophobia is an irrational fear of enclosed spaces, especially if there seems no way to escape. It could stem from our childhoods, like being left in a closet for long stretches of time or perhaps being in a crowded elevator that gets stuck between floors, neither of which happened to me. But I definitely felt it in those crowded hallways. Why?

Perhaps, when it came right down to it, it was my parents’ story that became my book’s focus and ultimately my own. Growing up, I knew little of my European parents’ experience during World War II. I knew they were Holocaust survivors, but discovered that they lived in a bunker in the Polish forest for more than three years. “Holes in the ground,” my father later told me. They would change their location often, finding another bunker to “live” in, never revealing to others in hiding exactly where their crawlspace was located for fear of being found out. That bunker became both sanctuary and a threat. A small enclosed space, yet a wrong move, a sneeze, could mean discovery, torture, death. Deep within my childlike wonder, I’d ponder what it was like for them. I’d put myself in that bunker with the monsters hovering, scouring the woods. There was no safe place in my imagination and that bunker didn’t provide one either.

We may breathe that sigh of relief as we settle in those crawlspaces, but once the door is locked and we’re inside those solid walls of wood, plaster or dirt, who knows who might be already right there, gnashing its teeth.

Lori M. Myers: Website / Facebook Group / Facebook Author Page / Twitter

Crawlspace: Amazon

Lori M. Myers is an award-winning writer of creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and plays, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a Broadway World Award nominee. Her works have been published in more than forty-five national and regional magazines, journals, and anthologies. Her plays and musicals have been performed internationally and across the United States and Canada. Lori is an adjunct professor of writing and literature, and senior interviews editor for Hippocampus Magazine. She holds an MA in creative writing from Wilkes University and resides in New York.

The Scariest Part: Merry Jones Talks About CHILD’S PLAY

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Merry Jones, whose latest novel in the Elle Harrison Thriller series is Child’s Play. Here is the publisher’s description:

Since her husband’s murder two years earlier, life hasn’t been easy for Elle Harrison. Now, at the start of a new school year, the second grade teacher is determined to move on. She’s selling her house and delving into new experiences — like learning trapeze.

Just before the first day of school, Elle learns that a former student, Ty Evans, has been released from juvenile detention where he served time for killing his abusive father. Within days of his release, Elle’s school principal, who’d tormented Ty as a child, is brutally murdered. So is a teacher at the school. And Ty’s former girlfriend. All the victims have links to Ty.

Ty’s younger brother, Seth, is in Elle’s class. When Seth shows up at school beaten and bruised, Elle reports the abuse, and authorities remove Seth and his older sister, Katie, from their home. Is Ty the abuser?

Ty seeks Elle out, confiding that she’s the only adult he’s ever trusted. She tries to be open-minded, even wonders if he’s been wrongly condemned. But when she’s assaulted in the night, she suspects that Ty is her attacker. Is he a serial killer? Is she his next intended victim?

Before Elle discovers the truth, she’s caught in a deadly trap that challenges her deepest convictions about guilt and innocence, childhood and family. Pushed to her limits, she’s forced to face her fears and apply new skills in a deadly fight to survive.

 And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Merry Jones:

Imagine that you’re talking with friends and suddenly realize that you’ve missed a chunk of conversation. That everyone is waiting for you to respond to a question you haven’t heard. Imagine the moment of panic as you try to cover up for your lapse. You tell yourself you must have been daydreaming.

No big deal, right? So let’s raise the stakes a bit.

Imagine that you’ve just accomplished something you find terrifying — maybe bungee jumping or parachuting from a plane — and you have absolutely no memory of having done it.

Bothersome? Unsettling? But never mind. You’re okay. And you must have done it; everyone around you is congratulating you. Maybe you figure you blocked out the memory because of fear.

Fine. But what if you wake up covered with blood and have no memory of how it got there or whose it is?

Or you find yourself standing over a colleague’s body, not knowing who killed her or even how you got there.

Disturbing, right? These grisly situations are the kinds that Elle Harrison, protagonist of Child’s Play, faces on an all too regular basis. The reason: Elle suffers from a dissociation disorder.

Having that disorder means that Elle involuntarily escapes from reality. She disconnects from thoughts, consciousness and memory, particularly when she’s under stress or enduring a traumatic experience — which would likely include finding herself covered with blood or standing over a colleague’s body.

This escape reaction isn’t one of convenience. Elle can’t control them. Faced with danger, fear or extreme tension, her mind might slip into an alternate state of reality. And to me, that involuntary slipping away — Elle’s condition of dissociation — is the scariest part of Child’s Play.

Oh, yes, the book has its serial killers, its mutilated bodies. But these have become fairly standard commodities in thrillers and suspense. Neither is particularly scary.

The possible pedophile? He’s revolting, but not terrifying.

Even the murderer released from juvenile detention evokes more sympathy than fear.

I admit that the sociopaths, yes, are scary. Very scary. They have no mercy, no compassion. To them, cruelty is an idle sport. I’m afraid of them.

But not nearly as much as I’m afraid of Elle’s internal, invisible, intangible, uncontrollable, unavoidable condition.

It might seem strange that she mentally checks out when things get dicey. But think about it. At a time of great stress or intensity, have you ever felt like you were “out of your body,” watching from afar, or somehow detached or numb? Have you ever forgotten details or lacked emotions about a traumatic experience?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, fully half of American adults have had or will have such experiences. They are common forms of dissociation and are called depersonalization or derealization events.

In its most extreme and uncommon form, dissociative disorders result in multiple personalities. But two per cent of the population, mostly women, develop depersonalization disorders similar to Elle’s.

Elle lives with the awareness that she will sometimes lose seconds or minutes, even hours of time. She is afraid that her condition will worsen, making her unable to teach or function independently or live a productive life. Her days are therefore tentative, her interactions uncertain. She is anxious, watchful, wary of her moods, careful of her emotions. Unsure of the difference between daydreaming and slipping away. Often, but not always, she is unable to recall the chunks of time surrounding particularly dramatic or traumatic events.

Elle surrounds herself with caring, sympathetic and supportive friends. Even so, like all of us, she’s essentially alone in her skin and her mind. As she faces an ongoing battle against a force within her own being, she is alone.

Imagine it. Minute by minute. Waiting for the next time you’ll slip away. Not sure what will set you off. Or when it will do so. Or how long it will last. Not trusting that you’ll function in your altered state, or that you’ll even survive it. Not sure that your impressions or memories of events are accurate. Not knowing what’s occurred while you were drifting. Not trusting your own perceptions, even your own mind.

To me, a condition like depersonalization disorder is far scarier than an external villain who can be captured, overcome, defeated, even killed. Serial killers? They aren’t to be trifled with, but they aren’t nearly as menacing and terrifying as an untouchable, elusive villain lurking in the protagonist’s own psyche. To me, that is the scariest part.

Merry Jones: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads

Child’s Play: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Merry Jones is the author of twenty books of non-fiction (including Birthmothers), humor (including I Love Him, But…) and suspense (including the Elle Harrison, Harper Jennings and Zoe Hayes novels). Jones was a regular contributor to Glamour, and her work has been translated into seven languages, including Sanskrit. She taught college level writing for over a dozen years, and is a member of International Thriller Writers, the Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, and The Philadelphia Liars Club.