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Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

My new novel, Black January, is now up for preorder from JournalStone. The second book in the SPECTRA Files trilogy, this one should also be pretty accessible for newcomers to my Lovecraftian apocalypse in progress. But if you haven’t picked up Red Equinox, why not take it to the beach this summer and catch up?

Speaking of the apocalypse, next Friday I’ll be hosting the Apocalyptic SF, Horror and Fantasy discussion at NECON in Rhode Island with guests of honor Joe Hill, Mark Morris, and other smart folks who like to ponder the end of all things. The con is sold out for full registration but single day walk-in passes will be available.

You can add Black January to your Goodreads list here, and I’ll post links to Amazon, Indiebound, and B&N as soon as we have them.

I started sketching ideas for this book about a year ago in my hotel room at NecronomiCon.  It feels like longer. It came fast in first draft and has been long in revisions, and it feels good to see it all dressed up and ready for readers in Chuck Killorin’s drop-dead gorgeous art.

 

Black January Cover Medium

WELCOME TO THE WADE HOUSE

WHERE THE DOORS OPEN YOU

Two years after the Starry Wisdom Church unleashed their dark gods in Boston, Becca Philips is trying to put the events of the Red Equinox behind her when Agent Brooks tracks her down in Brazil. Becca has been summoned back to Massachusetts by SPECTRA, the covert agency entrusted with keeping cosmic horrors at bay. Her special perception and skills are requested at the Wade House—a transfiguring mansion of portals to malevolent dimensions.

Becca would like to refuse, but Brooks believes her estranged father may be lost between worlds at the abandoned estate. As Becca struggles with grief and forgiveness, she joins a team of explorers uniquely suited to decode the secrets of the strange house in the black snow. But what secrets do her companions harbor? And who among them will take theirs to the grave?

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A few years ago I was out grocery shopping when I noticed a helicopter circling the parking lot and sweeping out over the surrounding streets and fields. I would later learn from the news that it was a police chopper scanning the bushes for heat signatures in an effort to find a masked man who had pointed a gun at the attendant of the local tree dump before running off in the direction of the middle school.

 

On this outing, I needed to hit two different supermarkets and a drug store, all in the same plaza. At the checkout of the first supermarket, I heard the cashiers talking about a guy with a gun on the run somewhere between the middle school and the stores.

 

Needless to say, this added a bit of an edge to my second stop. I gathered my groceries in a heightened state, worrying about my toddler, who was spending the afternoon at his grandparents house in the same neighborhood, and wondering exactly what I would do if a maniac appeared around the bend and started popping people in the produce section.

 

By the time I entered the pharmacy to the sound of rotors from a not-so-distant stretch of gray sky, my heart rate was up and my breath was shallow.

 

But then…walking over the electric doormat, I was enveloped in the incongruous sounds of Steely Dan playing loud and clear through the overhead speakers. The song was “Hey Nineteen,” with its laid back, feel good groove, and my tension melted away.

 

It’s just not a song people get shot to.

 

It wouldn’t even be ironic or blackly comic to get shot with that relaxing grove playing in the background. And I realized in that moment that it is physically impossible to feel fear while listening to Steely Dan.

 

I don’t know what you can do with that information; if the Department of Homeland Security can utilize the fact as part of some kind of mass panic prevention strategy, I just know it’s true.

 

The guy with the gun was never found and no one was hurt.

 

Now, I’ve been playing guitar since age ten, I’ve been to music school, and worked in a studio for a while, but I learned something that afternoon about the power of music to hijack the autonomic nervous system and change your emotional channels instantly. Something I already knew intellectually (same as anyone who takes note of the tension in a horror movie soundtrack), but in that moment I learned it anew on a more visceral level.

 

So I could never write horror to Steely Dan, but I do sometimes use the emotional energy of music as fuel for writing. Especially when starting a book, I’ll loop a playlist of songs that capture the feelings and themes I’m going for, and invite them to get under my skin for the duration of the project.

 

My current book is an urban Lovecraftian thriller titled Red Equinox, and it has been fueled almost entirely by Tool. In particular, the song 46&2 is the leitmotif of my main character, Becca Philips.

 

Now that I’m digging into the final drafts and deepening her character, I’m finding this cover version with female lead vocals especially inspiring. Check it out. These kids will take your breath away.

 

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photos by Jen Salt

photos by Jen Salt

I read NOS4A2 on summer vacation last year and had meant to review it sooner, but then I lost track of my notes on the book. I’ve learned to keep pen and paper handy when reading Joe Hill because invariably there are brilliant lines and passages that I want to go back to later, and I don’t want to underline or highlight in a hardcover. In this case I was lucky enough to attend the launch event at Water Street Books, so I definitely wasn’t going to mark up a signed copy.

 

But some of Hill’s best lines are like classic song lyrics; they stick in your head so well that you don’t even need to jot them down to remember them later. Like this one from his second novel, Horns: “Talking to her now was like flailing his hands at a storm of hornets. It did nothing, and it stung, and yet he couldn’t stop himself.” Pretty fuckin’ awesome, huh?

 

Anyway, I finally found my notes right after NOS4A2 was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, which it totally deserves. It was the best horror novel I read in 2013.

 

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A friend asked me recently, “What’s the premise? Is it about a vampire?”

 

That’s not exactly an easy question to answer. Yeah, it’s sort of about a vampire, but not like any vampire you’ve seen before. It’s a big, deep, rich book about a lot of things. That’s why it’s so good.

 

The monster at the heart of the story is Charles Manx, a creepy old bastard who abducts kids and takes them to a dark fantasy realm called Christmasland. He’s your nosferatu, but he and his demonic Rolls Royce Wraith don’t consume blood, they consume souls. Children who end up in the back seat of Charlie’s car are drained mile by mile until there’s “nothing left in them but hate and teeth.”

 

So it’s also a demonic car story, but again, not quite like any you’ve ever read, although it does consciously riff on that and other themes frequented by Hill’s father, Stephen King, along with a treasure chest of other geek culture references and Easter eggs. It’s a fun ride.

 

It’s also about motherhood, and madness, regret and redemption, and the nature of art.

 

It’s about Vic McQueen, a tough chick who was the only one of Manx’s victims to escape, and who has since spent her life thinking she might be insane because of the things she’s seen. You see, Vic has a magical vehicle too, a bike that enables her to travel through the Shorter Way Bridge and traverse the distance from Lost to Found. She starts out using this portal to locate lost objects, and later uses it to track down Manx after he has abducted her son.

 

It’s a high concept, big metaphor story that never gets bogged down in all that meaning, because it moves like a high-octane muscle car.

 

NOS4A2 has a rock n roll heart, but I found myself hearing “Amazing Grace” while riding with Vic, because she’s fighting to keep her shit together while moving from lost to found on many levels.

 

One of the big themes of NOS4A2 is that we all have an inner world, and with the right tool some people can turn their inscape into an external, tangible thing that others can experience. It’s what Manx does with his car to manifest the realm of Christmasland, what Vic does with her bike to find the bridge, and what Hill does with his pen to immerse you in this crazy, dark, utterly believable fantasia.

 

Like David Mitchell, Joe Hill is a master of writing about two things at once with subtle economy. Check out these lines from a scene in which Vic and Lou (the father of her child) finally talk about her past at a Fourth of July picnic:

 

Lou was waiting for something to detonate—it was coming, any moment now—when Vic wandered over with her hands shoved down in that army jacket of hers and said, “This chair for me?”

 

The emotional potential of the scene is front-loaded in the setting, a fireworks display, which presents an opportunity to do a whole lot of story work with just a few razor sharp lines of dialog because of the association to her father, a demolitions expert.

 

“ANFO. It’s an explosive. What my dad uses to take out stumps and boulders and bridges and so on. It’s basically a big, slippery bag of horseshit, engineered to destroy things.”

 

“What is? ANFO? Or your dad?”

 

Just one example of a scene that does more than you realize at the time because of how entertaining it is. It’s also the scene that Hill featured in a great blog post he wrote about his drafting process. That post actually got me to start re-typing my late drafts in full because I’m a masochist and Joe is my Sensei.

 

Joe Hill demonstrating the "teaching mudra" at Water Street Books.

Joe Hill demonstrating the “teaching mudra” at Water Street Books.

 

The man has some serious chops and NOS4A2 gives him the room to use them. It’s a tour de force that finds him at the top of his game, simultaneously scaring the shit out of you and making you laugh. You can tell he’s having fun when the language can shift from the road poetry of this passage…

 

How she loved the smell of the road: asphalt baking and soft in high July, dirt roads with their dust-and-pollen perfume in June, country lanes spicy with the odor of crushed leaves in sober October, and the sand-and-salt smell of the highway, so like an estuary, in February.

 

…to this image of Vic in a leather jacket and no pants scaring away a pack of yuppie bikers just a few paragraphs later:

 

She raised her bottle of whiskey to them and wolf-whistled with her free hand, and they grabbed their throttles and took off, tailpipes between their legs.

 

We get pretty deep into Vic’s character: her backstory, her creativity, and her rough-around-the-edges persona. The supporting cast is also well developed. I adored the geeky, overweight Lou, and found Bing (aka the Gas Mask Man) at times more terrifying than his boss, Charlie Manx. But it never feels like all of that character exploration slows the story down.

 

And that might be the author’s greatest accomplishment. At almost 700 pages, with a story that spans decades and the breadth the continent, NOS4A2 is an epic. But oddly, it doesn’t feel like one. It’s almost like an optical illusion. You never feel like you’ve spent 700 pages slogging toward Christmasland with the crawling pace of a trip to Mordor. I suspect it’s because we flip back and forth quite a bit in both time and space. Hill even breaks chapters in mid-sentence and titles the next chapter with the end of that dangling line just to keep moving the reader forward into new places, speeding along with barely a breath to notice the transition. In the end the book itself becomes a kind of Shorter Way Bridge from Near to Far, and from Lost to Found.

 

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NOS4A2 features some wicked illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez.

 

Joe Hill knows exactly what he’s doing, and comes closest to commenting on it in the voice of Maggie Leigh, a librarian who uses magical Scrabble tiles for divination. Here she is about to consult them near the climax of the book:

 

She had a brief window in which to use the tiles, to force sense out of gibberish: a minute or two at most. It seemed to her sometimes that this was the only fight that mattered: the struggle to take the world’s chaos and make it mean something, to put it to words.

 

Amen, brother.

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absentiaOn Sunday night, after browsing for a good horror movie on Netflix and Amazon, I took a chance on Absentia, and I’m glad I did. This indie film does a lot to combine creepy suspense with a few good jolts, using little more than an apartment, a tunnel, good acting and great writing.

The story centers on a pair of estranged sisters who reunite after the younger, Callie, gets out of rehab and moves in with Tricia, who is single and expecting a baby. Tricia’s husband has been missing for seven years. She has finally given up on finding him, and is in the process of filing for a certificate of “Death in Absentia.”

The backstory and relationships are efficiently established through dialog and visual cues, along with subtleties of the acting, and it doesn’t take long to be drawn into caring about the characters. The first scares come early too. The missing husband haunts Tricia, and there’s some great tension generated by the psychological aspect of what she’s going through. These are sophisticated characters who would be at home in an indie drama, so it becomes unnerving to watch them grasping at the straws of rational explanations when the weirdness escalates. Tricia has good reason to wonder if her mind is playing tricks on her, burdened as she is with guilt and conflicted about letting go of her lost husband, while Callie’s personal baggage comes packed with the questionable perceptions of an addict.

Much of the POV is through Callie’s eyes, and I’m eager to see what actress Katie Parker does next. Her girl-next-door good looks never undermine her emotional credibility, so that even in the one scene where she’s looking for monsters in little more than a long t-shirt, she manages to defy expectations and avoid cliché’. No small feat in this sort of film.

Another cool theme was the differing spiritual orientations of the two sisters. Callie has recently found Christianity in recovery, while Tricia is using Buddhist meditation to cope with the stress of her situation. Ultimately, neither watered-down worldview is adequate in the face of primordial evil (never mind the impotence of good old fashioned police work), and I enjoyed being ushered into a corner where terrifying superstition becomes the only sane perspective. An undercurrent of irrational dread drones below the reassurances of the therapist and detective characters, infusing the film with an effective Lovecraftian atmosphere.

At a time when CGI has come so far that directors of blockbusters can show us any monster in vivid detail, this Kickstarter funded horror flick reminded me that in horror, less is often more, and sometimes limits can be sources of power. Writer/Director Mike Flanagan leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. When Absentia does show you something visceral, it’s often fleeting and out of focus, but never lacking significance, so that a little goes a long way. Especially at the end. Which is all I’m gonna say about that, because you should see it for yourself.

Highly recommended.

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H.P. Lovecraft

The original Slim Shady dropped mad hooks.

H.P. Lovecraft knew how to write a hook. Say what you will about his adjective addiction or his lapses into florid prose; one place where he knew how to get to the point was in an opening line. He may have meandered a bit after getting your attention (and I’d argue that’s part of his charm), but in his pulp fiction heart Lovecraft understood the importance of grabbing you right away to earn your patience, and his stories consistently showcase his mastery of the intriguing opening.

I’m currently writing a novel with a strong Lovecraftian influence, so I’ve been revisiting his body of work, and recently, while discussing hooks with a young writer I’m mentoring, I realized that any horror writer, no matter how modern their style, would do well to look at Lovecraft’s openings for good examples of powerful hooks. Here are my top ten favorites from the gentleman of Providence.

10. THE DUNWICH HORROR

When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.

Subtle and atmospheric but for me the hook is that it’s a WRONG turn. You wouldn’t go there on purpose. And that makes me curious about that curious country.

9. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS

I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.

The reluctant narrator. He doesn’t want to talk about this shit but no one will heed his warnings without an explanation? I’m in. Give up the goods.

8. HYPNOS

May the merciful gods, if indeed there be such, guard those hours when no power of the will, or drug that the cunning of man devises, can keep me from the chasm of sleep.

Um, dude, are you okay? What’s so bad about falling asleep? Could it be the dreams?

7. THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK

Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake was killed by lightning, or by some profound nervous shock derived from an electrical discharge.

Dead body introduced by a rational, journalistic voice that you just know is going to suggest that something far stranger than lightning killed Mr. Blake.

6. THE DESCENDANT

In London there is a man who screams when the church bells ring.

And I want to know why.

5. HERBERT WEST – REANIMATOR

Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.

All about dissonant juxtaposition. Why would the memory of a longtime friend become a source of extreme terror?

4. THE CALL OF CTHULHU

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

This one’s a classic. A concise philosophical statement that makes you wonder why connecting the dots and reaching certain conclusions would be so bad that your ignorance is the ultimate mercy.

3. THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS

Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.

What end? And WTF did you see, exactly, if that’s your opening?

2. DAGON

I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.

Top that! Hard to do, but I believe the man himself did with…

1. THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP

It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.

Possibly one of the best opening lines in all of horror literature. Within 31 words you know that some heavy shit went down. You want to know why one bullet through the head wasn’t enough. Was emptying the gun enough? And how is he not his friend’s murderer? Put a paradox like that up front with highly specific details and visceral language and promise to resolve it in the story that follows, and you have me eating out of your hand.

What do you think, did I miss any of your favorites? Which of Lovecraft’s opening lines hooked you on his writing?
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The Devil of Echo Lake – Book Trailer from Douglas Wynne on Vimeo.

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Trick or Treat!

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Hey Neighbor, Happy Halloween! Thanks for stopping by the Wynne house. Here, have a Kindle story for your treat bag. It’s spooky, I promise. Goes well with a pumpkin ale.  And it’s free until midnight tonight, so tell your friends to drop by. OK, be safe out there, and you know what? If you tag the place with shaving cream in the comments box, I won’t even chase you away with my katana. 

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Here’s a post that first appeared in JournalStone’s Hellnotes newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

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The samurai armor exhibit at the Boston MFA was excellent.

It came to me in the shower one morning. Showers and mindless chores like mowing the lawn and washing the dishes seem to be good for inducing the sort of light trance state where stories are born. In the case of showers and dishes I have a hunch that the warm water has something to do with it—some kind of amniotic trigger that brings us closer to dreaming.

Anyway, I was standing there with the suds rolling down my shoulders when I slipped into the mind of a serial killer for a minute. I could see him spying on a widower and judging how the man was coping with the loss of his wife. Nothing too inventive there, but what sparked my imagination was the knowledge that this killer was more interested in the survivors of his handiwork than he was in the victims. He wanted to know if the loss had changed the man. Had it jarred him awake from his petty priorities and caused him to value his remaining relationships more? It was a weird lens for a killer to be peering through. I wrote a murder scene that morning from the killer’s point of view.

Time passed and I misplaced those pages, but the character stayed with me. He also changed and became part of a partnership with another villain whose motives are not quite the same. When I finally sat down to write the book, the widower became the main character, and the murder scene I’d written was only referenced as backstory.

For me, the spark required to make a story idea worth writing has to come from juxtaposition. There has to be some dissonance and resonance between two different things. When those disparate elements are overlaid, it feels a little like holding a pair of magnets about an inch apart and rotating them. You can feel the push and pull. That’s when I know I’m onto something.

In the case of Steel Breeze, I felt it in the juxtaposition of a Zen worldview with the skillset of a brutal killer (one of the great paradoxes of the martial arts). I also felt it in the gulf between my daily life as a modern American family man and my own martial arts practice.

In 2005 my wife signed up for Tae Kwon Do, and, knowing that I needed some exercise, dragged me along for the ride. I’ve never been very athletic, but I soon discovered that the muscle memory and mental focus of martial arts training can induce a trance state that’s different from the daydreaming one where stories come from, and more like where I go when I’m jamming on the guitar. It didn’t take long before I was hooked. Several years and a couple of black belt degrees later I decided to branch out and satisfy my sword fetish (all boys raised on Star Wars and Tolkien have one, don’t you know), and I moved on to studying Iaido, the Japanese sword art.

Somewhere along the line that whole “write what you know” thing kicked in and I realized that I’d spent a couple of years immersed in first hand research on samurai sword culture. I started wondering what it would be like to be hunted by a true modern day samurai. Scary as all hell was the answer of course, and combined with that fragment from the shower, it became something I knew I had to write.

Over time the book grew historical roots that I found equally fascinating, requiring research of another kind, but I’ll leave that topic alone for now to avoid spoilers and just say that I’m very happy with how it all came together. I wrote the first draft in something of a blaze for me, with one overriding intention: to put the pedal to the floor on a high-tension thriller and to keep it there straight to the end. The twists and turns that rushed out of the dark at me on that road kept me enthralled the whole time. I hope they do the same for you.

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