The Story Behind the Story

The following article about the long and winding road I took to get to Echo Lake first appeared in the September 2012 edition of JournalStone’s Hellnotes newsletter.

“Nothing ever begins.”

So begins Clive Barker’s novel Weaveworld. It’s a great line to start a book with, and as philosophical tenets go, it’s one that I can get on board with. The opening paragraph—one of the best ever in my humble opinion—elaborates on that bold statement by illustrating that the threads of any tale can always be traced back to some earlier tale.

When JournalStone asked me to write an article introducing myself to our readers, my first thought was that I should begin at the beginning, and my second thought was, but nothing ever begins.

Do I start by telling you about my grandmother, a great lover of books and a lifelong writer, and how she gave me a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination when I was thirteen? How she encouraged me to invent my own stories, and then faithfully typed them up without ever commenting that they were horrific, in both their literary quality and in the way that I still aspire to horrify? Is that the beginning of my story as a writer?

Or does my story begin a few years later at age fifteen, when drunk on Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, I wrote my first novel? It was probably an awful thing, but it was also a thing that felt exhilarating to put on paper, and an undertaking that taught me right from the start that the experience of spinning a long story, the days spent in a creative trance discovering a way forward line by line, page by page, is a really fine way to spend your time, and an occupation that I always knew I would return to someday.

But another great love came into my life at age fifteen, one that would divert me from writing fiction for a while—a red Gibson Les Paul guitar off of the used rack of my local music shop. And it is with that guitar that the story of my forthcoming novel, The Devil of Echo Lake, truly begins. Because the years when I wrote nothing but song lyrics while playing that guitar in a prog metal band, years spent working crappy retail jobs while feeding my head with the mystical poetry of Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats until I eventually graduated from Berklee College of Music with a placement as a second engineer at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York; those years deeply informed the characters, setting, and supernatural content of the novel I would eventually get around to writing.

In Woodstock I rediscovered Stephen King when Bag of Bones was released, and it was there that I started thinking about writing seriously again. It was also around that time that I first heard a local legend about the residential recording studio where I was working. I’m not sure who mentioned it in the eternal twilight of a dimly lit control room. Whoever it was claimed that one of the farmhouses used for artist lodging on the studio grounds was haunted. Supposedly some musicians who slept there in the seventies had seen the ghost of a woman in a black dress in one of the antique mirrors.

The image stayed with me as I struggled to make my way in the music business, and it stayed with me long after the eighty to one-hundred hour work weeks had burned me out, leading me to pack my bags and return to Massachusetts.

The experience of working at a legendary studio was amazing, and I loved Woodstock, but a couple of years in, I realized that it wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle. I would often get home just before dawn, crash and sleep for a few scant hours, then get up and go back to work. I rarely saw my girlfriend, and I reached a turning point when I fell down in the shower one morning from sleep deprivation. I had taken the job largely so that I could record my own songs in the off hours, but there really weren’t any off hours. If I wanted to make room for creativity, and for having a life, it was time to move on.

In the long run, my time in the studio became the inspiration for the fictional Echo Lake Studios and a ghost story of my own. I was doing a lot of soul searching in those days, thinking about the sacrifices that people in the entertainment business often make, the price of success, and I started imagining a rock star named Billy Moon. I could see this innocent kid who loved music transforming into a nihilistic goth rock idol like Trent Reznor or Marilyn Manson, and I wondered what his regrets might be, and what might happen if he found himself at a figurative crossroads, holed up in a secluded studio in the snowy woods of upstate New York with a devil on each shoulder. As the tale grew over several years of writing and rewriting The Devil of Echo Lake became a vehicle for exploring themes of creativity vs. industry, ego vs. empathy, and paranoia vs. the truly paranormal.

But more important to me was the fact that it was just a hell of a lot of fun to write, because it was a rock n roll horror story with a delicious villain, a healthy dose of dark humor, and a bit of blood splashed on the snow.

I wrote the book I had in me, the book I wanted to write, without any thought for the marketplace. Later, I would discover that I was planting my flag at a particularly tough time for adult horror fiction. A few agents were interested, but it was a tricky story to sum up in a query letter without either sounding cliché or spoiling the plot. So when I found the JournalStone Horror Fiction contest, and saw that it was a rare opportunity to have editors judge the book by actually reading the manuscript, not just a synopsis, I knew I had to give it a shot.

The rest, as they say, is history. I feel very lucky to have tied with Patrick Freivald for first place this year, and the more I read from JournalStone authors, the more honored I am to be in their company. Christopher C. Payne is a true gentleman of the publishing business, the kind of book man that supposedly existed before the big media conglomerates rose up, and working with JournalStone to make The Devil of Echo Lake the best book it can be has been a real pleasure. Christopher describes JournalStone as a family business, and that’s how it feels.

I love my damaged rock star character, but I know he’s the kind of guy who has given up friends and family for fortune and fame. Lately I’ve been thinking about all of the experiences I’ve had since leaving the music business: traveling, getting married, having a son, and now publishing a first novel. Funny how abandoning one youthful ambition ultimately enabled me to fulfill another, and to live a more balanced life along the way.

My grandmother the writer was also a traveler and a romantic. She and my grandfather lived a truly great love story, and they understood the power of music. Their song was “I’ll Be Seeing You.” For nearly seventy years, whenever it came on the radio, no matter where they were, or what they were doing, they would stop and dance. As I write this, I have just returned home from her funeral, grateful that before she died I was able to visit her in the hospital and let her know that the book will be dedicated to her.

Anticipating the publication of Billy Moon’s story in her absence, I’ll admit I’m sort of relieved that my dear devout Catholic Nana won’t be reading my tale of sex, drugs and the devil, but the sadness is greater that she won’t get to open the cover and see her name there. I keep hearing the final line of that song in my head… I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.

But then, if nothing ever begins, maybe nothing ever ends.

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