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The Scariest Part: John James Minster Talks About THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author John James Minster, whose debut adult novel is The Undertaker’s DaughterHere is the publisher’s description:

Don’t play with dead things.

Anna Dingel is an introverted, socially inept 18-year-old raised in the family funeral home. And for some reason, her classmate Timmy — the one in the band — likes her too.

After a makeover from her best friend Naomi, Anna breaks away to see him perform live, but the leader of a bad school clique attempts to assault Anna in the parking lot. Once the leader is released from jail, so begins an ever-widening maelstrom of cruel retribution, turning Anna and Timmy’s summer of love into a nightmare.

In an attempt to frighten the bullies into peace, Anna and Naomi experiment with recently revealed old Jewish magic. But this ancient Abrahamic ritual doesn’t go as planned. The eldritch power Anna has unleashed takes dark and unexpected turns, endangering those she loves and forcing her to decide who she is and who she wants to be.

This spine-tingling supernatural horror story is about love, forgiveness, and consequences. Expect surprise twists throughout, as children learn not to play with dead things.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for John James Minster:

The story reaches a climax when the protagonist, teenager Anna Dingel, faces a decision point. She and her research-obsessed bestie have connected dots and invoked ancient Hebrew magic, intended to tap the creative force reserved for God. Ethereal wires get crossed in the process. The spiritual force brought to bear couldn’t be further from the Judeo-Christian God. Pure hate; mindless evil taking on a dangerous physical form. To resolve her moral dilemma, Anna must come in physical contact with powerful evil; evil, which most people understand, may appear to be our friend to win us over, but it wants us to suffer and die, as is the observable nature of evil (it makes no friends; everyone who embraces it falls victim to evil in the end.)

In the scene, all of this collides in her mind and heart. What is the right thing to do? That moment when Anna approaches the evil she unleashed, knowing it could easily turn on her — for nothing it has done aligns with her original fair, morally acceptable intentions. In order to ‘do the righteous thing’ she must touch the evil, at great risk to her own life, to make it stop.

This story started as a unique new and campy Eighties horror movie that reeled in my mind over about sixty seconds (like when, some say, your entire life plays in fast-forward just before we know we’re going to die.) Nearly every detail, characters, names, everything was revealed to me in that hot minute. My job as author was to convert that mental movie into a story. It reads like a movie script with mostly dialogue, because it hit me all in a rush, like a livestream signal transmitted from some unseen plane of existence. There are scary moments throughout, and also some pretty gross scenes, but when I go back now and read it, transferring myself into the mind of the new reader, I believe readers will ask themselves: ‘What would I do in Anna’s situation?’ I’d love to hear those answers! I really haven’t a clue. Her bestie, Naomi; no WAY would she have done what Anna did. Would some readers? None? Many? I can’t even answer with certainty if I would’ve taken that action.

The Undertaker’s Daughter: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Bookshop / Sunbury Press

John James Minster: Website / Facebook / Instagram

John James Minster was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He commenced a successful international business career since the 1980s in the technology sector, all the while publishing horror short stories in major magazines and horror anthologies since 1990. In July, 2018, his first middle-grade full-length horror novel, Dreamjacker, which met with five-star reader reviews, was born of nightmares.

As a child he walked in his sleep; his parents found him at the top of the stairs about to leap down, dreaming that he could fly. Every night since childhood he still talks and punches walls in his sleep during nightmares, which he describes as “Nightly mini horror movies. Terror is feeling dread at the possibility of something frightening; horror is the shock and repulsion of seeing the thing: Hello! This is my head every single night of my life — so no writer’s block on the horizon or chance that I’ll run out of stories.”

The Scariest Part: Mark Allan Gunnells Talks About LUCID

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m very happy to welcome back author Mark Allan Gunnells, whose latest novel is LucidHere is the publisher’s description:

Jimmy Mullinax has the perfect life… as long as he is asleep.

Jimmy discovered at a young age that he was a lucid dreamer, able to control his dreams and create an ideal world for himself. No matter how rough things got in his waking life, he always had the dream world into which he could escape. Until the accident.

After getting hit by a car, Jimmy finds himself in a coma, which traps him in his dream world. At first this seems wonderful, but then he realizes that the people in his dream have more autonomy than he thought. And some of them want him dead.

Can Jimmy wrestle control of his dream back from those that want to turn it into a nightmare?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Mark Allan Gunnells:

I’ve been lucky enough to do a few of these articles, and usually the scariest part for me has to do with promotion or pitching an idea to a publisher or getting started or honoring a city I loved. Never before has the scariest part been the writing itself.

Until now.

My new novel Lucid, out October 30 from Valhalla Books, is perhaps the most unstructured thing I have ever written. That isn’t to suggest it will feel unstructured to the reader (I very much hope it doesn’t), but I only mean that the writing process itself was incredibly unstructured.

I should say that as a storyteller I rarely ever outline. I’ve done it a few times, but overall I start with a premise and a vague idea of where I’m going even if I don’t know how I’m going to get there exactly. It’s a process that isn’t for every writer, but it seems to work for me.

However, the writing of Lucid went beyond writing without an outline. In some ways it felt more like being on the trapeze four hundred feet above the ground with no net or safety harness. I got the idea for the novel by musing on the old guideline that you should never start a story with a dream sequence, and I got to thinking what it would be like to write a book that was almost entirely a dream sequence.

From there I developed the basic premise of a man who could lucid dream and had built a perfect dream world to escape from his imperfect life, and an accident leaves him in a coma and trapped in that dream world which starts to turn against him. Exactly how would the dream turn against him, and why? Well, I didn’t know, but I figured I’d jump off the cliff and build my wings during the fall, hoping I didn’t crash onto the rocks below.

I truly started with no clear structure for the story. I always start with some unanswered questions that I will discover the answers for along the way, but here I really was wandering into a deep dark wood without a map or flashlight. I realized early on that the story would cut back and forth in time, not remotely a linear progression at all, but I didn’t even pause to consider planning out when I’d do the time cuts and flashbacks.

My reasoning for this was that the book was about dreams. It should feel surreal and almost disjointed, the way dreams are. A dream can change locations, people can morph into other people, all with whiplash suddenness. Dreams are not structured, full of unexpected imagery and bizarre turns. I wanted to capture that in the writing.

Which was exhilarating in a way, but also frightening. It felt like an experiment, and I had no idea whether or not it would work. In the past, when I would finish a day’s writing session, I would at least have some idea of the scene I would be writing the next day. Not the case with Lucid. I would come into my office every morning, sit down, and have no real idea what I was about to create. I would honestly and literally come up with it in the moment. Think, “Hmm, I guess today we’ll have a flashback to this character’s college years,” and then simply start typing, not even knowing exactly what would happen in the scene until it happened. Entire plotlines and characters were born in the moment, and these influenced the direction of the story and the ultimate ending.

It was a scary way to go about it, and there were times I asked myself, “Why in the hell are you doing this?” This book also required a much heavier edit, where I reconfigured some scenes and cut others out entirely, but I have to say I am very happy with the end result. My hope is that the reader won’t feel any of my fear but will still get to experience the surreal nature of dreams while reading my book, heightening the experience.

So yes, the actual writing of Lucid was the scariest part for me, but as often happens when you face your fears, you end up with something you can be proud of.

Lucid: Amazon

Mark Allan Gunnells: Blog / Facebook / Twitter / Amazon Author Page

Mark Allan Gunnells loves to tell stories. He has since he was a kid, penning one-page tales that were Twilight Zone knockoffs. He likes to think he has gotten a little better since then. He loves reader feedback, and above all he loves telling stories. He lives in Greer, SC, with his husband Craig A. Metcalf.
The Final Girl Support Group

The Final Girl Support GroupThe Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Final girls are having something of a literary resurgence these days, from Daryl Gregory’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY FINE (which admittedly also features final boys) and Stephen Graham Jones’ THE LAST FINAL GIRL to Riley Sager’s FINAL GIRLS and now Grady Hendrix’s THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP. Hendrix’s novel takes the concept a step further by making his final girls the bases for alternate takes on the horror movies we all know and love, as well as giving them names that horror fans will enjoy taking the time to decode. That’s half the fun of this fast-moving and involving thriller.

It can be frustrating to follow a protagonist who makes a lot of bad choices, and Lynette Tarkington (whose analog to a real-world horror movie character is an inspired choice) makes a lot of decisions that had me doing the reading version of yelling at the movie screen. Still, she’s a compelling character, damaged physically and emotionally by her experiences, and despite the frustration, I never stopped rooting for her.

When Lynette and her fellow final girls are are all together, this novel sings. Unfortunately, there’s a long stretch in the middle where Lynette is on her own, and though it’s narratively necessary, the story just didn’t feel as alive to me as when they share the page. Still, if my only complaint is that I wanted more time with each of Hendrix’s vibrant, well-drawn characters, I’d say that’s not really much of a complaint.

As with all of Hendrix’s novels, THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP is compulsively readable. Written with his signature blend of horror, humor, and heart, fans of classic slasher movies and fans of well-crafted literary thrillers alike will enjoy pulling up a chair and listening to the group.

View all my reviews

The Scariest Part: Michael Harris Cohen Talks About EFFECTS VARY

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Michael Harris Cohen, whose debut collection is Effects VaryHere is the publisher’s description:

Effects Vary features 22 stories of dark fiction and literary horror that explore the shadow side of love, loss, and family. From an aging TV star’s murderous plan to rekindle her glory days, to a father who returns from war forever changed, from human lab rats who die again and again, to a farmer who obeys the dreadful commands of the sky, these stories blur the thin line between reality and the darkest reaches of the imagination.

These stories have been previously published in places ranging from The Dark to Conjunctions to various anthologies. Four of the stories have won awards, including one for a contest judged by Mercedes M. Yardley. Two of the stories are new to this collection.

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

About a dozen years ago, I discovered I was claustrophobic.

Crammed in a tent with my wife and daughter by the Black Sea, I woke up to find our thick air mattress leaking and my face pushed into the nylon wall of the tent. I felt I was suffocating; my heart turned all drum and bass. I scrambled out of the tent and gasped in the night air. Collecting myself, I tried to crawl back in and return to sleep (I’d grown up in a family that camped and tented all the time) but it was impossible. The tent walls closed in on me and, for the rest of the trip, I had to sleep outside in the sand.

Since then, I’ve had a few other dreadful moments of claustrophobia — a low-ceilinged loft bed in NYC, or a too crowded car ride. It’s not a crippling phobia. I have no problem in elevators, for example. But those rare moments when it hits strike deep. Phobias are unlike regular fears. They spike the reptile brain, a jolt of primal terror that transcends logic and equanimity.

Even just the idea of being trapped in a tiny space can do it. Like the end of Sluizer’s The Vanishing (the original, not his terrible Hollywood remake) guts me. Just as the end of Brian Evenson’s “Grottor” does.

In Effects Vary, there are two stories that tapped into this primal fear and scared me most when writing them.

In “The Wishing Box” I imagined what it would feel like to be trapped in an abandoned ice cream freezer, one the MC barely fits into. The small space and lack of air was bad enough to envision, but to top it off I realized my MC would see the sky, the air, as he struggles for his final breaths. It was an awful scene to write which, I hope, makes it effective.

The other story, “He Dies Where I Die,” was written for a cosmic horror anthology about terrors under the earth. I’d read an article about the Zama Zamas (illegal gold miners in South Africa) and that, coupled with my claustrophobia, became the story’s tent poles (no escaping those damn tents, I guess). The MC, following a man who may or may not be human, journeys ever deeper into an abandoned mine, with the tunnel walls closing in tighter and tighter.

The anthology rejected the story, but Sean Wallace and Sylvia Moreno-Garcia at The Dark liked it, though they had reservations. Moreno-Garcia’s note was that it needed a trim because, “Claustrophobia becomes boredom at some point.” I guess I’d leaned too hard into my phobia, obsessing over those humid, narrow tunnels and the thinning air. I cut a thousand words, they accepted it, and it was my first original story with them. Later, Pseudopod accepted it for their podcast and Phil Lunt did a superb job voicing it. That story was scary to write and, even for me, is scary to listen to.

To misquote Robert Frost, no fears in the writer, no fears in the reader.

If you can scare yourself, you’ll hopefully scare your readers. I’m not talking jump scares. I’m talking those moments in a story where your grammar of being goes flimsy, leaving you unmoored and wholly vulnerable. I try and hit that when I’m writing dark fiction or horror. Tapping into my latent phobia did it for those two stories. Different fears drove the other stories in this collection.

Finally, I realized with these stories, along with most of my writing, I do not want to be a MC in one of my tales. Perhaps if there’s a hell writers are dragged to, it’s this: Having to spend eternity in a nightmare of one’s own creation.

I certainly hope not.

Effects Vary: Amazon

Michael Harris Cohen: Website / Facebook / Twitter

Michael Harris Cohen has published stories in Conjunctions, The Dark Magazine, PseudopodApparition Lit. and numerous anthologiesHe’s a recipient of the New Century Writer’s Scholarship from Zoetrope: All-Story, a Fulbright grant for literary translation, and fellowships from the OMI International Arts Center for Writers, Atlantic Center for the Arts, The Djerassi Foundation, The Jentel Artist’s Residency, the Künstlerdorf Schöppingen Foundation, and Hawthornden Castle (forthcoming). He’s won F(r)iction‘s short story contest, judged by Mercedes M. Yardley, The Modern Grimmoire Literary Prize, as well as Mixer Publishing’s Sex, Violence and Satire prize, judged by Stephen Graham Jones. He lives with his wife and daughters in Sofia, Bulgaria and teaches creative writing and literature at the American University in Bulgaria.