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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.

The Pallbearers Club

The Pallbearers ClubThe Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Tremblay’s THE PALLBEARERS CLUB is a sublime achievement, a novel in the form of a memoir (drawing partially from the author’s own life) by the pseudonymous Art Barbara, but which also offers us the viewpoint of a second narrator, his friend since high school Mercy Brown, in the form of notes in the margins as well as what those of us in the business would call “editorial letters.” Mercy has a few things to say about the way Art is representing (or misrepresenting) his life to the reader.

Like much of Tremblay’s recent work, this is a character-driven literary novel that dips its toe into the horror genre. You won’t find fast-paced thrills between these pages, but you will find expertly drawn characters and, yes, moments of absolute horror. Tremblay’s authorial voice — sometimes humorous, always earnest — rings authentic throughout, whether it’s Art talking about all the terrible bands he’s been in or Art relaying a night of grueling terror that will stay with him for the rest of his life. Mercy’s frequent use of sarcasm endears the reader to her, even though it’s clear she’s hiding secret wounds.

THE PALLBEARERS CLUB is a vampire story of sorts, although not of the cape and fangs variety. Art becomes more and more convinced that Mercy is secretly feeding off his vitality, and in a way she is, but so is he, because these two are not good for each other (despite Mercy introducing Art to better music than he was listening to previously). It’s refreshing that Art and Mercy’s relationship isn’t romantic but rather one of lifelong friendship. They’re best friends, but they’re also the worst friends. It’s very relatable. We’ve all had people like that in our lives at some point.

Beautifully written and exquisitely, gracefully told, THE PALLBEARERS CLUB is a novel like no other I’ve read. I’ve always been a fan of Tremblay’s work, but this is a next-level achievement. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

(Note: Longtime Tremblay fans will enjoy spotting a few clues that THE PALLBEARERS CLUB takes place in the same world as one of his previous horror novels.)

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The Scariest Part: Faith Pierce Talks About THE FACE YOU WEAR

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Faith Pierce, whose debut novel is The Face You WearHere is the publisher’s description:

An unknown threat is creeping its way into Jana’s residence.

Jana overcame a bleak, poverty-stricken childhood to achieve her version of the American dream. She has her own home, a successful career, and a new husband who offers everything she hoped for in a normal life.

Her tight grasp on stability however begins to slip with disturbing dreams about her husband Michael. A figure in the bedroom doorway watching her sleep, night-time conversations Michael claims never happened, someone lying beside her at night when Michael later says he wasn’t there.

Old anxieties and paranoia begin to surface as Jana becomes increasingly desperate to discover if the true threat is her mind, her husband…or something darker.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Faith Pierce:

“God, that scene in the office.”

So far, that’s been a recurring comment from readers of The Face You Wear. In the scene, the main character wakes up from a nap and goes to her husband’s office. She finds him at his usual place, sitting at his desk, working on the computer. She leans against him and he wraps his arm around her. Then when he looks up at her and their eyes meet, she realizes she absolutely does not believe it’s him.

It’s a climactic scene in the book, a confrontation, a reveal of the monster’s face — though the question of what or who the monster is remains unanswered. But what makes the scene frightening are the same things that make the rest of the book so unsettling.

Throughout the book, the main character Jana has interactions with her husband Michael that may or may not be real. They primarily happen at night after she’s been sleeping, so when he tells her they didn’t happen, she’s forced to conclude that she never actually woke up. That means nearly every night, she’s having vivid dreams about her husband that include everything from cuddling and idle chatter about their days to serious conversations about the future and eventually, more threatening behavior.

As the encounters get more intense, Jana isn’t convinced they’re dreams, but she cannot fully trust that they’re real either. That slip, that loosening of our grasp on reality, that stumble on what we thought was solid ground — that’s a sensation most of us can relate to on a smaller scale. We’ve all had dreams we thought were real until told otherwise, we’ve seen things that turned out not to be there, we’ve encountered spaces that seemed to shift before our eyes as we struggled to get our bearings. That’s become Jana’s life on a daily basis, and it’s a nightmare. For a lot of people, the constant sensation Jana faces of not being able to trust her own mind is the scariest part.

The scariest part for me is different. It’s the intrusion of something frightening into Jana’s safest spaces and her safest person that made the premise so disturbing to me. Her home is the symbol of everything that is stable and secure in her life, and Michael is her closest loved one. Now, neither are safe. If the encounters are real, then either Michael is lying to her, actively tormenting her — or there is someone or something that looks and feels like her husband talking to her, touching her, holding her at night. Either possibility is terrifying.

The scene in the office blends the scariest parts of the entire book, and I think that’s what makes it resonate with people. Jana thinks she’s woken up from her nap. She enters a room in her home that’s always held comfort for her. It’s small, warm, and familiar. She finds her husband there exactly as expected. He greets her with affection. For a moment, everything is solid and safe and right.

And then it’s absolutely not.

The Face You Wear: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Bookshop

Faith Pierce: Website / Facebook

Faith Pierce writes horror, dark fantasy, and other forms of speculative fiction. Her short stories have been published with The NoSleep Podcast, Cemetery Gates, Kandisha Press, and Scare Street. Her debut novel The Face You Wear is out with Crystal Lake Publishing. Faith Pierce grew up in a small town in Texas, but now lives in Missouri with her teenage son and their dogs. Outside of writing, Faith works in marketing. Her other interests include Brazilian jiu jitsu, yoga, cooking, gardening, exploring nature, and taking road trips with her son.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw

My Heart Is a Chainsaw (The Lake Witch Trilogy, #1)My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A love letter to slasher movies in novel form, MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW follows Jade, a small-town Idaho teenager as obsessed with slasher movies as author Stephen Graham Jones surely is. She’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of the slasher subgenre (she’s seen movies even I, a longtime horror movie aficionado, am not familiar with!), so when she starts to notice signs that a “slasher cycle” is about to begin in her hometown, she’d more excited than scared. She hates it here and would happily see everyone dead. That attitude changes when things become a little too real and blood starts to flow. With the help of her slasher obsession, she sets out to determine who the killer is, and to her credit she gets much of it right — but there’s a twist. (Of course there is. It wouldn’t be a slasher movie without a twist!)

Jones’s effortless ability to create lasting, indelible characters is the motor that makes MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW run. Jade is not someone you’ll soon forget, and to Jones’s credit, the same can be said about many of the side characters as well, from Letha Mondragon, the perfect new girl at school, to Sheriff Hardy, who keeps trying to do the right thing even when his own personal tragedies try to sink him. My only complaint about the novel is that we are so deep in Jade’s head throughout that there were times when I was itching for something to happen outside of her. There are long stretches where we’re only in her thoughts, and as fascinating a character as she is, the novel only felt unputdownable to me when Jade was doing, not just thinking.

One thing Jones gets right in all his fiction, and that so many other horror authors don’t, is that he knows how to nail an ending. The final image in MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW is so breathtakingly beautiful I had to read it several times over because I didn’t want to let go of it. A beautifully written novel about ugly deeds, MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW is challenging, especially for readers hoping for something more action-driven than contemplative, but it’s well worthy of the praise it’s received.

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