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The Scariest Part: Keith R.A. DeCandido Talks About ANIMAL

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my good friend Keith R.A. DeCandido, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for some years now. His latest novel, co-written with Dr. Munish K. Batra, is Animal. A portion of the novel’s proceeds will go to the San Diego Humane Society, as well as a number of other animal funds and sanctuaries. Here is the publisher’s description:

Renowned surgeon and humanitarian Dr. Munish K. Batra and international best-selling author Keith R.A. DeCandido have worked together to bring you Animal, a pulse-pounding, thought-provoking thriller that will leave you questioning whether noble intentions justify horrific acts.

Interpol Agent An Chang has been chasing a masked serial killer for more than twenty years, a killer who targets those who harm innocent animals. When the serial killer strikes again — two people dead near a meatpacking plant by a culprit wearing a cow mask and soon after the CEO of a water park is brutally killed by someone wearing an orca mask — Chang heads to California to finally catch his vigilante killer.

What Chang shockingly discovers in California sends him on a wild-goose chase from the streets of Shanghai to around the globe. What Chang is beginning to understand is that the killer’s motives and history are far deeper than anyone realizes. So, who is the real animal?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Keith R.A. DeCandido:

I don’t know if Chapter 15 of Animal is the scariest part of the thriller that I cowrote with Dr. Munish K. Batra, but it was certainly the hardest part for me to write. And that was against some pretty stiff competition…

Animal is about a serial killer who specifically targets people who harm animals. Dr. Batra has spent a great deal of time travelling the world providing humanitarian aid to Third World countries as well as nations that have suffered natural disasters, and in those travels, he’s observed a lot of instances of cruelty to animals.

An incident that particularly stuck with him was seeing dog and cat carcasses being hung in shops in China, intended for food. As someone with a dog as part of his household, Dr. Batra found this appalling — as did I when he and I discussed it. The backstory of our killer is that he was living in Shanghai when his dog was taken and killed to be made into food, along with many other dogs.

When it came time to write that part of our killer’s backstory, I was dreading it. I wrote it from the POV of the child, who was five years old at the time. I had to draw on my experiences dealing with five-year-olds (I teach karate to children, including a lot of four, five, and six-year-olds), as well as my memories of having a Golden Retriever, Scooter (who unfortunately died at the ripe old age of fourteen in 2015).

One of the scariest aspects of growing up is losing your innocence. A child is often lucky enough to see the world as uncomplicated, rarely having the need to make hard choices about life—or even easy ones, truth be told. Particularly children who are fortunate enough to live in stable households, they’re able to live their lives without worry or cares.

So when tragedy strikes, it can be devastating. In this case, we have a kid whose father (a diplomat) is away from home a lot, and his mother is emotionally distant. He loves his older sister, but she can’t spend every moment with him.

Their dog Nandita, though, is another story. She loves the boy unreservedly, and is always there to play with him and snuggle him and run with him and lick him and love him. There is no love on this Earth more devoted and all-encompassing than that of a dog — especially a Golden Retriever.

Which means that losing Nandita is the worst thing that can possibly happen to him. A five-year-old can barely process the notion of loss as it is. To make the loss be of the thing in the five-year-old’s life that brings him the most joy, the most delightful, wonderful, unconditional love is simply devastating.

And holy crap, was it devastating to write.

I’ve never been hugely affected by gory horror or psychological horror. I mean, I appreciate it and enjoy it and love it when it’s done well, but it rarely affects me on a visceral level. But the horror of loss for a small child is something that always gets me, because that level of betrayal, of fear, of devastation is so much greater in someone who hasn’t experienced enough of the world to be mature and/or cynical about it. Which makes it that much nastier.

The worst nightmare I ever had as a kid was when I was around ten or eleven. At that age, I had a tiger puppet that I wore on my hand constantly. Daniel Striped Tiger (named after a character on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) only came off my hand when I was eating or bathing. And then one night I had a nightmare that I was walking alongside a set of train tracks near our house that was about thirty feet below the sidewalk. Somehow, even though there was a fence to prevent it, Daniel had come off my hand and fallen down onto the tracks where I would never ever see him again. I could see him down on the tracks, but there was no way to get him back.

I woke up screaming, and then I stopped wearing Daniel on my hand all the time. (Mind you, I still have that puppet, sitting on one of my bookshelves…)

When I wrote Chapter 15 of Animal, I tried to re-create that feeling I had when I woke up from that nightmare.

Whether or not it worked I leave to y’all to decide if and when you read Animal.

Animal: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powells / Bookshop / Animal website

Keith R.A. DeCandido: Website / Twitter

Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of more than fifty novels, more than seventy-five short stories, a mess of comic books, and more nonfiction than he’s willing to try to count. Recent and upcoming titles (besides Animal) include the Alien novel Isolation, the fantasy/police procedurals Mermaid Precinct and Phoenix Precinct, the urban fantasies A Furnace Sealed and Feat of Clay, the military science fiction novel To Hell and Regroup (written with David Sherman), the graphic novel Icarus (with Gregory A. Wilson), pop-culture commentary for the award-winning web site, and short stories in the anthologies Bad Ass Moms, Pangaea Book 3: Redemption, and Horns and Halos. He’s also working on more projects in collaboration with Dr. Munish K. Batra. In addition, Keith is a third-degree black belt in karate (which he also teaches), a freelance editor for clients both personal and corporate, a musician (currently percussionist for the parody band Boogie Knights), and possibly some other stuff he can’t recall due to the lack of sleep.

The Scariest Part: Jeff Strand Talks About THE WRITING LIFE

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my good friend Jeff Strand. I’ve known Jeff for many years now, and together we co-host the infamous annual Necon Roast at the Northeastern Writers Conference, or Necon for short. His latest book, The Writing Life, is a special one, not just because it’s his fiftieth book, but also because it’s his first work of non-fiction. Here is the official description:

Jeff Strand, whose work Publishers Weekly has called “wickedly funny” and Kirkus has called “ridiculously stupid,” has had one of the least meteoric rises to success in the publishing industry. But he eventually got there, even if he should probably put “success” in quotes.

He’s been at it a long time, and has learned a lot of lessons along the way. And he shares them with brutal honesty in this very book, along with plenty of hilarious (and sometimes painful) anecdotes about his career.

This is not a book that will tell you how to format a manuscript or write a compelling query letter. It’s a book about how to cope with rejection and bad reviews. Book signings where nobody shows up. Helplessly watching your peers go on to greater success than you. He’s been through all of that and so much more, and in these pages you’ll have a bunch of laughs as you commiserate and figure out how to get through it all.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Jeff Strand:

The idea of writing my first non-fiction book wasn’t scary. It would be about my own experience, not a meticulously researched book about 14th century gardening techniques and how they related to the class struggle. Excluding the infant and toddler years, I’ve been doing this my entire life, and with my fiftieth birthday looming, I knew I had plenty to say.

I also wasn’t scared to be sharing a lot of embarrassing, sometimes painful anecdotes. This book is not a celebration of my career. When choosing which tales of my writing life to share, I went with the ones that were useful and funny. Nobody needs my advice on how to cope with good reviews. An anecdote about having a well-attended, successful book signing is not nearly as funny as the one where I got kicked out of the store.

The premise of The Writing Life is not “Learn from my success!” but rather “Oh, yeah, I’ve been there, and here’s how I kept going.” I’m not the hero in all of the anecdotes, and that’s the whole point.

But my other books were all completely made up. People might’ve been offended by the gore or the potty-mouth, but I wasn’t going to hurt anybody’s feelings. The Writing Life is not a blistering takedown of the publishing industry by any stretch of the imagination, and nobody gets hit harder than me within its pages, yet there’s still some collateral damage. My fear would be somebody saying, “Hey, it’s really not cool that you shared that.”

The obvious solution was to get permission. Author Stacie Ramey got kicked out of the bookstore along with me, and it was mostly her fault, so I sent her the appropriate section for her blessing. Jim Moore, my co-author on The Haunted Forest Tour, signed off on my delightfully amusing tale of what it’s like to write a book with Jim. My best friend as a kid said it was okay to write about this one time that we did something really, really stupid.

In other cases, I knew I would never get their blessing and didn’t care. I went with the “Don’t name names, and stick to the truth” approach. If an unnamed editor shakes his fist in rage because I wrote about him being a total douchebag…well, I can live with that. The target of one scathing anecdote about unprofessional behavior at a book signing probably isn’t going to read it, and if he does and says “Hey! That’s me!” maybe he’ll recognize that you need to behave better at these kinds of events if you don’t want to make an anonymous appearance in a non-fiction book.

Then there was the middle ground. I wasn’t going to try to track down every single person who is referenced in this book, and in most cases their actual identity is irrelevant to the story. I ultimately wasn’t happy with my last agent, but in the extremely unlikely event that she reads this book when she couldn’t be bothered to read the last novel manuscript I sent her, I think she’d agree that it’s a fair account. I write about my frustration with some editing experiences, but it’s also balanced out by sharing examples where editors saved my ass.

That said, the whole concept of sticking with “funny and useful” anecdotes means that I’m not focusing on the positive. I was one of the pioneers in the field of e-books, long before the Kindle came around, and it sucked. I worked with a lot of great people and have a lot of fond memories, but I do not write about the early years of being an e-book author with much in the way of nostalgia.

My hope is that if my fellow authors from that era read the book, they’ll laugh and nod and say “Oh my God! He totally nailed it!” My fear would be that they read it and think, “WTF? We had fun and we were way ahead of the curve! What’s with all the trash talking? Screw you, Strand!”

Yesterday, after Nick invited me to write this guest blog but before I’d decided what I specifically wanted to write about, I got a Facebook message from Susan Bodendorfer. She published my very first novel in May 2000. She wished me a happy birthday, said how proud she was of my accomplishments, and said that she couldn’t wait to read The Writing Life.

And I broke into a cold sweat.

I could say many, many great things about my experience with Wordbeams. But in The Writing Life, my point is that people in the year 2000 frickin’ despised e-books. I didn’t write about working with a wonderful editor; I wrote about beginning my career with everybody saying “That’s not a real book!” and how I coped with it.

Also, there’s a part where I talk about Enclave, a round-robin novel that Wordbeams published. It’s a very funny story about being the final author in line and having to wrap up a narrative that had become a complete disastrous mess. After getting Susan’s message, I quickly re-read that part. Maybe it wasn’t so bad…ummm, nope, I sure wasn’t very kind to the Enclave experience, was I? Damn.

It’s been twenty years. Will she laugh? Will she wipe a tear of heartbreak from her eye? Will she vow blood vengeance against me?

I don’t know. And that, kids, is the scariest part!

UPDATE: Her reaction was 1) Ha ha, oh yeah, it totally sucked to be part of the e-book world back then, and 2) Yes, Enclave was total garbage.

The Writing Life: Amazon / Powell’s / Bookshop

Jeff Strand: Website / Twitter

Jeff Strand is the author of 50+ books, including Pressure, Dweller, My Pretties, A Bad Day For Voodoo, Wolf Hunt 1-3, Clowns Vs. Spiders, and a bunch of others. His greatest glory is co-emceeing the Necon Roast with Mr. Nicholas Kaufmann.

The Scariest Part: Charles Welch Talks About WITHIN THE FOG

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Charles Welch, whose debut horror novel is Within the FogHere is the publisher’s description:

The same ancient evil that killed 115 people at Roanoke, Virginia in the late 1500s has arrived in a small eastern Colorado town. A fog covers the small town and closes in on Tom Benton and his family. The evil that lurks within the fog feeds on humanity but has special plans for those with anger deep inside. Tom Benton’s son Bobby has seen the face of evil outside his bedroom window in the darkest hours of the night. The man who appears at his window offers a veil of redemption to those holding onto anger and rage. As the fog wraps around the Benton family home there will only be a narrow chance at survival. Can Tom Benton and his family escape the issues of their past in time to save themselves from Croatoan?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Charles Welch:

The scariest part of my book, Within the Fog, is what the characters have to fear. They are in the midst of a crisis and their lives are at stake. There is an enemy that they don’t know enough about, lurking in the fog that surrounds their town and home. While this is the tangible, surface issue, the under the surface issues are the family dynamics that develop a larger and larger presence. The idea that kept gnawing at me during the writing of Within the Fog was — How well do you know the people around you? Who can you depend on in a time of crisis? When do loyalties become liabilities?

Tom Benton, his wife Sandy and their son Bobby have a happy family. But just like the rest of us, they have issues in their relationships. Especially with those they care about the most. As the pressure builds and the tension mounts, which members of the family can be counted on for strength in facing their common enemy? Tom is a loyal family man who sees his family as his number one priority in life. Sandy loves her husband and son but has lingering issues with events of the past. Bobby is a growing boy who wants to be heard, particularly by his parents. Under pressure, sometimes the relationship issues in a family rise to the surface. In my novel, the antagonist, Croatoan, feeds off fear and anger. He stokes the flames of hate and discontent. Fear creates the taste he craves. He seeks the weaknesses of those he hunts and plays on them, exacerbating grudges and anger.

So often, we see in the news stories of tragedy born in moments of extreme stress. When I listen to people relay the things they see in the media about the tragedies of others, it typically comes from a perspective of detachment. “They had troubles.” As though the people relating these stories don’t have their own troubles. To me, the difference between the people who tragically end up in the news and the rest of us is simply the incendiary element. Whatever pressure or stress amplified the issues in the relationship to the point that something terrible happened. In Within the Fog, the incendiary element is Croatoan. He hates humanity, but he needs us. To get what he desires, he prays upon our weaknesses. He seeks our anger and our issues with those we love, and he pours fuel on those fires.

Within the Fog is about the invasion of a small town by an unseen enemy hiding in a bank of fog. It is also about the strengths and weaknesses of the relationships between its characters. The scariest part of Within the Fog, might not be Croatoan. Instead, it might be the anger that the characters hold deep inside themselves, for each other.

Within the Fog: Amazon / Bookshop

Charles Welch: Website / Facebook / Twitter

Charles Welch has been a home designer and builder, a middle school and high school teacher, education administrator, corporate learning and development professional and writer, previously publishing the spiritual book Walking Softly. His formal education includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science Teaching, a Master of Education in Learning and Technology, and an Educational Doctorate in eLearning. He and his wife live in Northern Colorado and share their lives with three extraordinary kids, three equally awesome grandchildren, two pugs, a pit bull, a Chihuahua and two lizards. Charles has had a lifelong passion for horror fiction and horror films and is a huge fan of several of the genre’s great authors including Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Brian Keene, Richard Laymon and many others. In addition to Walking Softly, Charles debuted his horror writing with the Within the Fog series and the upcoming release, Hunted.

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.