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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.

The Scariest Part: David Mack Talks About THE SHADOW COMMISSION

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my good friend David Mack, whose latest novel is The Shadow Commission, the third volume in the Dark Arts seriesHere is the publisher’s description:


November 1963. Cade Martin and Anja Kernova have lived in hiding for a decade, training new mages. In the United States, Briet Segfrunsdóttir runs America’s top-secret Occult Defense Program from the Silo beneath the Pentagon.

Then the assassination of President Kennedy plunges all their lives into chaos. Briet, whose job was to defend Kennedy, is blamed for his death. Meanwhile, mages all over the world are brutally murdered—with Cade, Anja, and their closest allies being the prime targets.

Outgunned, on the run, and not knowing who to trust, Cade and Anja have just one hope to save themselves and their last few apprentices: they must find a way to fight the sinister cabal known only as The Shadow Commission.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for David Mack:

The Shadow Commission is a dark story, a tale of conspiracy and murder, of greed and lust for power. As its many horrors unfold, my characters find themselves and the people they love in the crosshairs of a sinister cabal that will stop at nothing to achieve a monopoly on magickal power.

All of my heroes suffer terrible losses in this story, but one of the cruelest befalls Briet Segfrunsdóttir, who after World War II was recruited through Operation: Paperclip to head up the U.S. Occult Defense Program.

When shadowy powers turn against Briet in The Shadow Commission, she realizes too late that her lovers, Alton Bloch and Hyun Park, with whom she shares a townhouse in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown, might be targeted because of her. She returns home in a desperate effort to ferry them to safety, only to unwittingly lead a monstrous assassin into their home, setting in motion the very tragedy she had hoped to avert:

The fire on the curtains spread to the furniture and raced across the living room.

Lying on her back, Briet gasped for air and prayed her lovers had fled.

Please tell me you ran. Let this be the one time you listened—

She heard the ker-clack of the shotgun’s pump action being primed. Alton had done the noble thing. The courageous thing. The stupid thing.

The monster pivoted to face Alton—who fired point-blank into its face.

The blast scattered the intruder’s fedora like ashen confetti, revealing its huge, hairless head.

Then it backhanded Alton with terrifying speed and power. A single blow caved in Alton’s skull and knocked his limp body out of the living room, back to the foyer.

No! Hot tears stung Briet’s eyes, but she had no breath for a scream. She stared at Alton’s lifeless form and prayed for the impossible. Please get up! Goddammit, Alton, please. Get up!

His body remained motionless. The monster turned back toward Briet. She fought to draw one good breath but failed. Her head swam as she struggled to get up to face the creature—

And then Hyun’s wails of terror became growls of fury.

Oh, no. No, my love—please run. . . .

Hyun grabbed the coatrack with both hands. With a fierce twist she broke its pole free of its base. Gripping it like a spear, she spun toward the goliath.

The monster reached toward the desperately gasping Briet, who saw its inhuman face for the first time: a viselike closed slit for a mouth, barely a hint of a nasal cavity, deep sockets filled with fire instead of eyes—and, across its broad blocky forehead, Hebrew characters scribed in Kabbalistic pact ink:



A golem!

Hyun let out a battle cry, charged, and tried to skewer the golem.

Her improvised spear deflected off the golem’s stony hide.

The creature turned and seized the weapon. Tore it from Hyun’s hands.

Hyun froze just as Alton had, staring up at the soulless killing machine.

With one thrust the golem impaled Hyun and staked her to the floor.

Even though the novel (and the series) is packed with demon-driven magic, the reason this scene terrified me to write is because Briet having to witness the murders of the only two people she loves in the world, and to realize that they’ve died because of her mistake, speaks to what feels to me like the most primal of human fears: having to face the loss of those who make our lives worth living, and having to go on alone bearing that pain for the rest of our lives.

The Shadow Commission: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / Bookshop

David Mack: Website / Facebook / Twitter

David Mack is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of three dozen novels of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure. His new novel The Shadow Commission is available now from Tor Books, and his new Star Trek novel More Beautiful Than Death is out now from Gallery Books. Mack currently works as a creative consultant for two animated Star Trek television series.

The Scariest Part: Mark Allan Gunnells Talks About 324 ABERCORN

It’s a Scariest Part hat trick! This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Mark Allan Gunnells in his third appearance on this blog! His latest novel is 324 AbercornHere is the publisher’s description:

Brad Storm doesn’t believe in ghosts, but moving into the house at 324 Abercorn just may change his mind.

Best-selling author Bradley Storm finally has enough money to buy and restore his dream home. Despite 324 Abercorn’s reputation as one of the most haunted houses in America, Bradley isn’t worried. He doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Then strange things begin to happen. Objects no longer where he left them. Phantom noises heard from empty rooms. Shadows glimpsed from the corner of his eye.

Is his house truly haunted, or is there something more sinister happening on the property?

With the help of Bradley’s new boyfriend and a few friends who are just as intrigued with the seemingly inexplicable occurrences surrounding the infamous house, they set out to find the truth of what stalks the halls at 324 Abercorn.

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

The scariest part of writing my new novel, 324 Abercorn, was trying to do justice to a city I love dearly.

Savannah, Georgia, is a place I almost consider a home away from home. My husband and I vacation there at least once a year, sometimes more than once. It is a city where I feel comfortable and at ease, and also a city that gives off a certain unique magic.

For starters, Savannah is beautiful. The grand historic homes, the lush squares throughout downtown, the Spanish moss hanging from the trees. It is a banquet for the eyes, and yet there is another quality to the city that is harder to define. An atmosphere, a charm, a vibe. These things almost defy description, and therefore they are hard to convey in words.

Which makes the prospect of trying to capture this atmosphere in a novel rather daunting, but I definitely wanted to try.

I have read a few books set in Savannah where I felt the writers didn’t try all that hard. You know these stories take place in Savannah because the narration tells you so and occasionally a street name is mentioned, but there is nothing of the city’s unique flavor in the book. The location feels more generic, as if it could be taking place anywhere.

I wanted to avoid that. I wanted people from Savannah to read 324 Abercorn and say, “Yes, that is my home, I recognize it!” And I wanted people who have never been to Savannah to read the novel and feel that they knew the place anyway and if they ever traveled there it would feel like a return. I wanted to create a story that detailed the special blend of genteel southern allure and bustling sophistication that pervades the city’s people and history.

And that was scary, I won’t lie.

One of the first things I wanted to do was highlight the city’s rich history, not in such a way that felt like a school lesson, but weaving the history into the narrative so that the two felt intrinsically linked in an organic way. For a city that revels in its history, that seemed the natural approach.

Next, I wanted to feature the geography of the location. Nothing generic for me, but I wanted to be specific about streets and buildings, to the point that I wrote the entire novel with a map of Savannah next to me. If a character walked out of a certain store, headed for a certain park, I wanted to make sure I knew the most natural route he would take.

I also wanted to feature a cast of diverse characters that would speak to the wonderful energy and delightful magnetism of the city’s citizens. This was perhaps the most enjoyable part of the process for me.

That fear of possibly not doing justice to Savannah motivated me to work harder, and I like to think it paid off. Readers will be the ultimate judge of this, of course, but my dearest hope is that when people read 324 Abercorn, they fall in love with the city as much as I have.

324 Abercorn: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / Bookshop

Mark Allan Gunnells: Blog / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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 Scariest Part: Timothy Jay Smith Talks About FIRE ON THE ISLAND

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Timothy Jay Smith, whose latest novel is Fire on the IslandHere is the publisher’s description:

Fire on the Island is a playful, romantic thriller set in contemporary Greece, with a gay Greek-American FBI agent, who is undercover on the island to investigate a series of mysterious fires. Set against the very real refugee crisis on the beautiful, sun-drenched Greek islands, this novel paints a loving portrait of a community in crisis. As the island residents grapple with declining tourism, poverty, refugees, family feuds, and a perilously damaged church, an arsonist invades their midst.

Nick Damigos, the FBI agent, arrives on the island just in time to witness the latest fire and save a beloved truffle-sniffing dog. Hailed as a hero and embraced by the community, Nick finds himself drawn to Takis, a young bartender who becomes his primary suspect, which is a problem because they’re having an affair. Theirs is not the only complicated romance in the community and Takis isn’t the only suspicious character on the island. The priest is an art forger, a young Albanian waiter harbors a secret, the captain of the coast guard station seems to have his own agenda, and the village itself hides a violent history. Nick has to unravel the truth in time to prevent catastrophe, as he comes to terms with his own past trauma. In saving the village, he will go a long way toward saving himself.

A long time devotee of the Greek islands, Smith paints the setting with gorgeous color and empathy, ushering in a new romantic thriller with the charm of Zorba the Greek while shedding bright light on the very real challenges of life in contemporary Greece.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Timothy Jay Smith:

My ancestors arrived in America in the tailwinds of the Mayflower. Like most early settlers, they spent their first few decades in the original thirteen colonies before joining the slow migration to the West. Where they eventually landed was Iowa — the Buckle of the Corn Belt — and for the next two hundred years, they placidly farmed that state’s low rolling hills, largely free of threats by wild animals or venomous bugs. A rare puma might be seen, the timber rattlesnakes stayed in woodlands away from people, and while spiders were plentiful, the black widow spiders were the only venomous ones, and even they were more likely to make you sick than kill you. It was a tranquil, rural, and safe environment.

All that changed for my parents when they decided to move to California; and not just anywhere in California, but to its southern desert replete with deadly snakes, reptiles with strange names and uncertain dangerous potential, huge hairy tarantulas as well as plenty of black widow spiders, and even benignly named ‘kissing bugs’ that promised agony and death.

Simply put: we had moved to a danger zone filled with threats big and small, where we could easily be killed if we weren’t always vigilant. Before getting into bed at night, we checked to make sure that an insect or snake hadn’t crawled into it first. When I became a little older, I was taught how to shoot a rifle if attacked by a mountain lion (there were many in the nearby canyons).

It wasn’t all paranoia. The dangers were real. We’d play in the desert surrounding our neighborhood, and frequently sink ankle-deep into rattlesnake holes. My dog was bitten by a sidewinder. A friend my age (probably ten) was bitten by a rattlesnake. He was lucky to have a pocketknife with him, and had the good sense to slice open the bite to suck out the venom. It saved his life. On another occasion, I came across a flat board, probably three-feet square, that I flipped over, disturbing dozens of spider nests. Black widows by the hundreds scattered in every direction, running across my shoes and climbing up my naked calves.

It was a moment so frightening that I never forgot it.

Fast forward to the present. I’m writing Fire on the Island, and my protagonist finds himself in a cemetery where he decides to upright a fallen tombstone. I flashed on turning over that board in the desert, so of course it’s black widow spiders that flee when the tombstone is disturbed, running over my character’s feet and up his legs. I shivered, recalling all those spiders on my legs many years ago.

But I couldn’t leave it at that, not if I were true to Chekhov’s Gun — the dramatic principle that every element in a story should be necessary and not make false promises by never coming into play. So what to do with black widow spiders?

The choice was remarkably easy. In Fire on the Island, an arsonist threatens a Greek island village, which would also put the local Coast Guard station out of commission during an uptick in the refugee crisis. Nick Damigos, the FBI agent assigned to Athens, arrives to investigate. The secret arsonist obviously doesn’t like that and decides to try to stop him.

Nick pulled back the bed covers, or tried to; they were tucked in tight. Athina must have returned to remake the bed sometime during the day. He yanked a corner loose enough to get between the sheets and jabbed his legs down to make room for his feet.

He was asleep before his head hit the pillow. Dreaming of nothing, and then suddenly he was in the sea, diving down, bubbles caught in the hair on his legs tickling him as they rose to the surface, drifting up his belly and chest. Then, a sting on his thigh, another on his shoulder; inconsequential pricks that his dreamer’s mind dismissed as jellyfish larvae in the warm water. They were annoying not painful. Nevertheless, he kicked his feet to swim faster, and the stinging became more intense.

He woke up with a start. Something was stinging him! Biting him and crawling all over him! He scrambled from bed and turned on the lamp, and flicked a spider off his arm. He saw its red belly. A black widow! He felt more tramping through the hair on his chest and brushed those off, and then knocked off the ones dangling by their fangs from his ankles. He ripped back the bed covers and saw the nests that his feet had disturbed.

Nick bolted for the bathroom, accidentally sending the bedside lamp crashing to the floor. He fished a pocketknife from his dopp kit and sat on the toilet slitting open the bites, pinching out blood and venom. He sucked on the ones he could reach and spat the foul mixture into the sink. By contorting himself in the mirror, he tried to open the bites on his back; but he couldn’t, not successfully before tremors set in. A nauseating dizziness swept over him. He slumped to the floor, closing the bathroom door with his body.

There you have it: the scariest part of Fire on the Island, coming right out of the pages of my childhood.

Fire on the Island: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / Bookshop

Timothy Jay Smith: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route, he’s found the characters that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he’s hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.

Tim brings the same energy to his writing that he brought to a distinguished career, and as a result, he has won top honors for his novels, screenplays and stage plays in numerous prestigious competitions. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel (for unpublished novels), and his screenplay adaptation of it was named Best Indie Script by WriteMovies. Another novel, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland, published in 2019 by Arcade Publishing, was a finalist for Best Gay Novel in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards. Previously, he won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012.

Tim was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award, and his screenplays have won competitions sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Fresh Voices, StoryPros, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.