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DraculaDracula by Bram Stoker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A re-read. I first read DRACULA in my mid-20s and didn’t care for it. Now, nearly 30 years later, I thought it was time to revisit this classic novel and see if my feelings had changed. I’m so glad I did!

I liked it much better. The stiff, formal prose and epistolary style didn’t put me off as much now as it did then. It’s definitely not paced the same as a modern thriller, and there were times when Harker’s statement at the beginning that “all needless matters have been eliminated” struck me as less than accurate. Still, it was a compelling read, and I can see why the book has never been out of print, and why Dracula is the second most revisited character in popular culture after Sherlock Holmes.

My favorite part of the story remains the beginning, with Jonathan in Transylvania. I love the atmosphere and the sense of danger. For this reason, my second favorite part is when they return to Transylvania at the end for their final confrontation with the Count. In particular, I really like the scene where Van Helsing enters the castle alone to dispatch Dracula’s brides. I think my least favorite part is the hundred or so pages in which Lucy sickens and then gets better, sickens and then gets better, and on and on. Were this a modern novel, I think that section would have been shortened significantly. I wonder if that’s something they did in the 1901 abridged version.

It’s interesting to me as a horror fan to see how influential this novel was on pop culture’s ideas of vampires, and how our current vampire lore has extrapolated upon and evolved from this novel. In particular, I was fascinated to see that sunlight does not kill Dracula. He is far less powerful in the daylight and easier to kill, but the sun doesn’t burn him and crumble him to dust as it would in later vampire stories. (Sunlight is how Dracula, or Count Orlok if you prefer, is dispatched in Murnau’s 1922 film NOSFERATU, so it didn’t take long for that trope to become set in stone.) It’s also interesting to see how Dracula’s boxes of earth later became coffins.

I’m so glad I gave DRACULA a second chance! It is a truly remarkable novel, and one it only took me roughly 30 years to appreciate.

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The Scariest Part: Michael Schutz Talks About PLANK CHILDREN

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Michael Schutz, whose latest novel is Plank ChildrenHere is the publisher’s description:

Miles Baumgartner lost his boyfriend. His house. His job. Worst of all, he lost his nephew when Ian — his almost-son — died, mangled in a car crash nine months ago.

So how is there a recent photo of Ian on Facebook?

Miles follows a trail of rumors and half-truths to a long-abandoned orphanage in the Wisconsin Northwoods. But St. Hamelin’s is not as empty as he expected. Secrets haunt the shadowed halls. Horrors slink within darkened rooms. Snowbound, Miles hunts for the truth of what really happened to Ian and the children of that unholy place.

They say that time heals all wounds, but time is running out for Miles. His personal demons have awakened. The terrors tighten their grip. To have any chance of starting his life over, he must escape before malignant forces curse him to walk eternally with the evils inhabiting St. Hamelin’s.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Michael Schutz:

The scariest part of writing Plank Children was carving out painful truths in my own life. In a weird way, this horror story of a rage-addicted English teacher snowbound in a haunted boys’ reformatory is my most autobiographical. The narrative centers on horrors committed by the young inhabitants of St. Hamelin’s, and these scenes are tense and vivid, but as a horror writer, it’s gruesome fun to explore these dark depths of imagination and really make the pages bleed. No, the real fear for me in this novel was examining my personal demons.

My husband had encouraged me to write Plank Children as my second novel, but the idea for Edging demanded it be written first. By the time I sat down to create Plank Children, my marriage had fallen apart. He and I separated, leaving an unimaginable vacuum in my life. The signs had been there, and Edging reflects my attempt to untangle — or at least record — the struggles of marriage, but now it was over. Instead of wallowing and staring into the void, I jumped into it and created from that heartache the dramatic skeleton over which Miles’s character development is laid. My protagonist Miles has recently broken up with his long-term boyfriend Jeremy, and I fueled their breakup with the very real and present pain I had gone through months before.

The end of love was a dying star. That’s what he’d told Jeremy three months ago, on the day all the truths came out. Miles hadn’t been happy that last year-and-a-half either and sure, he’d swiped through some profiles on dating apps. But it turned out that even though the passion had fizzled, the love lived on. The love between him and Jeremy had collapsed in on itself, shrinking in size, but though smaller, it had the same mass. Same scorching heat. Just compressed.

“A tight hot ball, right here.” Miles had struck his sternum with his fist. Jeremy watched from the archway to the dining room, that bored look on his face. The ceiling fan whump- whump- whumped, an intrusive third heartbeat in the room. “If you leave me, all that compressed love is… is going to explode. A supernova of misery and pain and loneliness.”

Jeremy had grimaced. “Is that the kind of crap you teach in fifth period poetry?” Then he called Miles a drama queen and left for the gym. Jeremy had made up his mind; he had made it up that first day with the ducks.

When I gave that scene to my husband to read, he started crying. “This is us.” Yeah, I had used that metaphor with him one terrible day — in a more rambling version — choking on my own tears. Even while feeling gutted, the writer part of me — like some prehistoric lizard brain reflex — recorded it to use in some future story. Made me feel a bit of a monster that I couldn’t even be sad without taking mental notes. The thing is, for me creating fiction from dreadful moments is not merely cathartic, but dragging out emotion agony becomes an exorcism. Once on the page, I can usually tame it. Or at least deal with it from a remove.

Jeremy was not just a stand-in for my husband, though. Sometimes Jeremy is me: I drank too much; I said and did terrible things. Writing this book brought to the surface. I had to confront those awful truths about myself, and I infused my own faults into Plank Children’s dramatic arc. Miles is a flawed man, burdened by the weight of his own sins, many of which I carry myself. I am not blameless, so neither is my protagonist.

Jeremy is also constructed from bits and pieces of many ex-boyfriends. My first live-in boyfriend is the one who had affairs, including a side-piece from whom I conjured the ducks references. Jeremy is also my abusive ex from whom I finally escaped before finding my husband.

The scariest scene I have ever written is the drunken fight between Miles and Jeremy.

[Miles] said the first thing that popped into his brain.

“I hate you.”

Not because he did, but because spite tasted sweet on his tongue.

“What did you say?” Jeremy got all up in his face.

Miles swung a drunken punch.

Not much force behind it. Bad aim. Or good, depending how one thought about it. His fist slapped against Jeremy’s neck with an ineffectual but meaty smack.

Jeremy stumbled backward from shock. Or theatrics. Remorse pummeled Miles, and excuses flooded to mind: he hadn’t meant it; he’d pulled his punch; he’d thought Jeremy was attacking him. But instead of crying out an apology, his rage dragon took advantage of his bourbon-soaked brain and roared, “I hate you!” once again.

Jeremy regained balance but kept walking backward until the backs of his legs hit that ugly sectional. He plopped down, perplexed and resentful. Playing the aggrieved party, as if Jeremy didn’t have dozens of twinks as his clan members on all those iPhone games he endlessly played. Supposedly played. Because why did collecting wood and gold and merits and other stupid shit require excited bursts of typing?

“I hate you. I hate you!” Miles spun helplessly back in time, stuck on the Ferris wheel, reliving the ignominy over and over. A sober sliver of himself stood apart, repelled by his outburst. Horrified by his screams. “Why don’t you leave? Just leave! Get out! I hate you.”

There is plenty of fictional mortar holding together the chunks of truth throughout this novel, but yes, I have been in relationships reeking of domestic violence. In real life — twenty years ago — my partner threw the punch that sent Jeremy reeling. But back in the darkest depths of my alcoholism, there were times that I fought back and gave as much as I got. It’s a shameful truth. A part of my life I no longer recognize and wish I could forget.

Writing this guest blog is scary, too. In my books I can hide behind the comfortable curtain of fiction. I can put my fears and desires and terrors on the page and claim it’s all part of the story! Using truth in stories it is scary enough, but owning it is absolutely terrifying.

Plank Children: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / Bookshop / Three Furies Press

Michael Schutz: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Michael Schutz was born and raised in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, where the macabre tales of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King kept him warm at night. He’s seen way too many horror movies to be healthy. He is the author of the novels Plank Children, Edging, and Blood Vengeance. His short fiction has been featured in Crossroads in the Dark II, III, and IV, Ravenwood Quarterly, Dark Moon Digest, and Sanitarium. He lives with his naughty cat-children in northern California.

Harrow County, Vol. 8: Done Come Back

Harrow County, Vol. 8: Done Come BackHarrow County, Vol. 8: Done Come Back by Cullen Bunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A bittersweet and satisfying conclusion to Emmy’s adventures. I’ve been hearing how great HARROW COUNTY is for years now, and I’m so glad I finally read it. It has taken its place as one of my favorite comics series. Bravo to Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook!

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Harrow County, Vol. 7: Dark Times A’Coming

Harrow County, Vol. 7: Dark Times A'ComingHarrow County, Vol. 7: Dark Times A’Coming by Cullen Bunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An exciting start to the climax of the series, this volume is dark, harrowing, and violent. I can’t wait to see what happens next, but I can already tell I’m going to miss these characters when it’s over. That’s a real testament to Cullen Bunn’s writing, and to Tyler Crook’s talent in bringing them so vividly to life on the page.

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