The Darkness

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It sounds corny, cliché, but the truth is that when I saw my mother’s body in the coffin at the wake, she looked…good. Like she was taking a well-deserved nap. There was no trace of the pancreatic tumor that had swollen her belly so she looked 8 months pregnant, her skin was luminous and there was even a slight blush to her cheek. When I reached out a hand to touch her forehead, it was a true shock to find it cold. Cold because, after all, this body had just been pulled from a chiller, all to maintain the illusion that death was simply another form of sleep. A sideshow for the living.

Burial rites say a lot about culture. We like ours neatly packaged, a bloodless affair that approximates death about as closely as hamburger resembles butchering. The root of horror is tapping into that squeamish reality—the fear of our own death, the decay of our own bodies, that experience which, like every snowflake, is unique, unknowable. Although two hundred years from now, the likelihood that everyone reading this now will be dead is a pretty safe bet.

If this disturbs you, here’s a video of a baby goat playing with puppies.

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For the remaining 10%, I want to tell you about a Tibetan lama who was stuck in Miami just as a massive hurricane was about to hit. All of his students were asking—no begging—for him to leave, but he had things to do in Miami, important things. My husband called him. He said, “Khenpo, it’s not safe. All the people are leaving.”

Khenpo laughed. “All the people who are afraid of dying are leaving.”

But his was a culture that practiced ‘sky burial’, a tradition at the polar opposite of our funeral productions. In Tibet, a body would be taken out to a field, hacked to pieces (to make it easier for the vultures to consume), and left as an offering. Even the blood would be collected and mixed with tsampa (kinda like oatmeal), so the vultures could eat that too. The skeletal remains ChopainCharnelwould then be collected. Skulls were turned into kapalas, or skull cups, sometimes they were used for damaru (double-sided drums), and the marrow of thighbones was cleaned out to make kanglings (trumpets). I knew a lama who had a kangling made from the thighbone of a woman he’d befriended. It was one of her dying wishes, for her body to be used this way. In the Dzogchen tradition, bodies are just husks, the material thing that contains the spiritual thing, and only temporarily at that.

Which doesn’t mean they’re not scared of death too. But gripping it so closely is their confrontation of that fear. Lamas would spend nights meditating in the charnal grounds where the sky burials took place, working that fear out.

And in a way, that’s why I write horror. Horror is where I look at my own death, where I confront all the worst possible scenarios that can/could happen to someone in life, or even just in the wildest corners of my imagination. It’s where the memories of my mother’s wake lives, where I look down at the plot of ground she bought for my own body (New Englanders plan ahead), where I sit and lean against a tombstone that has space for my name. Try to deal. Horror is climbing into a casket, trying it out for size, and then climbing out again. The world always seems sharper afterwards. Clear.

Because death is the ultimate compass for how to live your life. Think about it long enough and you realize what’s important. It’s only by looking hard into the darkness that we see, and appreciate, the light. 

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This is what a haunted house looks like in most places:

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Author Profile: Steve McHugh

Yep, I’ve been slacking on the whole blog thing, but this month I’m making it up to you with a glimpse into mind of bestselling Urban Fantasy author Steve McHugh (his Hellequin Chronicles tend to hang around the #1,#2,#3 spot on Amazon). And he gets to use words like ‘mum’ because he’s on the side of the pond where they know how to make a decent cup of tea. Enjoy.

imagesI always wanted to be a writer. When I was young, about 7 or 8, I would write little stories that I can’t even remember anymore. I was about 10 when I wrote the opening chapter to a book that sounded so much like Terry Pratchett that the word plagiarism would have been too soft.

I knew I wanted to write, although I had no idea about doing it for a living, I just wanted to tell stories. I was probably about 13 or 14 when my English teacher gave the class a creative writing assignment. Mine was something to do with a C.I.A operative trying to escape from assassins while he hid out in diner in the middle of the desert. It was, quite frankly, trash. But fun trash. Unfortunately, my teacher and head of department disagreed with my use of violence and swearing and I was told that I’d need to write something else before he’d submit it as work. Apparently, teachers don’t like their students using swearing and violence in work. Who knew?

So, I wrote a story about a boy who finds a frog and took it home. He then had to keep it hidden from his mum, who eventually found it and he had to give it up. It was heart-wrenching and got me an A. It was probably also trash, but I was 13 years old, so to my mind it was a work of genius.

Anyway, that was point when I realised that actually I really, really liked writing. I wrote a few more things in English class over the years, although I can remember very few and then I went to college and stopped. I didn’t write again, except the occasional opening chapter of something that never went further, for about 3 or 4 years. I always told myself, I had loads of time and that I’d get round to it, but I never did.

I liked the idea of writing a book, of being a writer, but I didn’t know how to go about actually doing it. So, I just let the dream glow inside me while I did nothing about it.

My eldest daughter, Mim (that’s not her real name, I just call her that. Mim’s from the Sword in the Stone) was born 9 years ago, when I was 25. I decided to actually stop messing about with the idea of writing and actually write. I joined a writing group and over the following three years wrote my first book that will never be read by anyone.

After that, I had the bug and immediately set about starting my second book, which as it turned out would be my first published work, Hellequin Chronicles, Book 1. Crimes Against Magic.

McHugh_Crimes_Against_Magic_cvr_FINALIt took me a lot less to get the book done, although I took nearly 2 years to try and get an agent and try to make it better and better, until I decided to just self-publish it. Then last year I self-published book 2, Born of Hatred. They both did pretty well, certainly well enough to interest 47North, Amazon’s own SF, Fantasy and Horror imprint. Both books are now re-published and followed by a third that came out in Feb this year. I’ve also got an agent now, and am looking forward to a future in a career I love.

It’s an overwhelming feeling to have had success in something you love to do. There’s really nothing quite like it. But I do regret having wasted so many years not working on my writing or not taking it seriously. So, if you have a dream that you’ll ‘get round to’, don’t wait, don’t put it off, just do it. It could well be the best decision you ever make.

Hook up with Steve in the Platonic Sense Here:

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Women in Horror Month: A Discussion with Maruyama & Fenn

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Harrowgate author Kate Maruyama

KM: So, Fenn, aside from both of us having horror books that came out this fall and the fact that we’re both women, we both grew up in New England. What sort of alchemy is at work here? Did the New England thing have anything to do with your writing horror? Was it the long winters or old houses? Graveyards? Local lore?

JLF: Absolutely. It’s a spooky place in general, but you feel it even more in small towns, like the one I grew up in. In winter the days are short, the shadows long, and you’re surrounded by history, much of it bloody although no one talks about it. You just start to notice things. Like why are the local schools named after Native Americans when you’ve never met one? Why are the songs you sing on the playground about plagues that happened in England hundreds of years ago? New England is all about the unspoken horror.

KM: And those graveyards! I was obsessed with them, particularly small ones that occurred in totally random places. I grew up on a college campus and there’s a small graveyard with only twenty graves or so next to a dorm. My dad told me stories about them—of three of them bearing Chinese characters and he said, “Traveled all the way from China here for school. Died of immediately smallpox.” The joke is, he was probably making it up, but every grave had a story! Some of the graves dated back to the early 18th century.

The long winters (and hot humid summers) made for a LOT of reading time. As this is Women in Horror month, I’ll ask, who were your biggest influences among women writers?

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Author J. Lincoln Fenn

JLF: Edith Wharton. She’s generally not included in the canon of women horror writers, but she knew how to write a helluva good ghost story. Afterward is one of my favorites. I also worked at her house in Lenox (The Mount) which A: is haunted, and B: became the source of recurring dreams. I’m always searching the panels for the secret door to take me to the cupola, which is where she keeps her illegitimate daughter hidden away. I’m sure a Freudian analyst could have a field day with that one.

KM: I adore Wharton. And she knew what to do with the northeast. Even in her non-ghost stories, her Hudson River Valley is haunted – the trees, the cold, the houses, the regret. My horror influences were horrifying but, like Wharton, not technically considered horror. Margaret Atwood- A Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most terrifying, tense books I’ve ever read. And Shirley Jackson. I saw a film version of “The Lottery” in passing on television when I was about eight or nine and thought it was a documentary. I lived in terror that our New England town had just such rituals, but no one had told me about them yet. I totally imagined my Dad would pull that black spot and I tried to think of ways to get us out of it. We could move to the city! When I read the story in high school it was a huge eye-opener to the deep, unsettling power a scary story can wield. That’s a certain brand of fear I can’t easily shake.

JLF: I have an altar to Margaret Atwood which I bow to daily. Oryx and Crake is both horrific (ChickieNobs!) and prescient (we now have glow in the dark bunnies). Maybe that’s the connecting thread – they all expose the larger horrific truths within the context of the genre. (And scare us to death in the process).

KM: Yes! And I think good horror exposes those truths, unearths those fears and points them out so that we can all essentially admit that part of being human is to be terrified. Death is, after all coming for us all.

Or as this epitaph from a Connecticut graveyeard dated 1783 says: To the living: Begin betimes your Christian race, for every moment flys apace, and none can escape a dying hour By art or riches, strength or power.   

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Women in Horror Month: Kate Maruyama

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Author Kate Maruyama

This week I’m privileged to have my sister in horror Kate Maruyama talk about writing, writing in the horror genre as a woman, and our new band “King & The Spookettes” (so far we’re waiting on confirmation from Stephen’s people, although I have officially called alto).

My mother, having battled the notions of her times by being a woman newspaper reporter in the nineteen fifties (even after being told she should probably quit when she got married) manage to raise me with the fool notion that I could do anything I set my mind to.

As a result, it took me a ridiculously long time to recognize that there was any inequality between the sexes. Even working in 1990s white male dominated Hollywood, I looked around and thought, “Well, hey, I have a job as an executive at a major action star’s company. My boss is a woman and I play paintball with other action executives. Women are doing just fine.” I worked hard at finding the next job, and not recognizing that those jobs were going to “executive material” (meaning white dudes,) I figured the problem was me and I quit the executive life. And whatever the answer really was, I threw myself into screenwriting. Only years later did I realize that all of the romantic comedies (the genre I was working in) that were bought or greenlit—or at least 95 percent of them—were written by dudes. And, only years later did I look back at a photo at about fifteen of us action execs in our paintball outfits posing with our guns–to realize that I was the only girl in the picture.

Awake now, I took this new perspective into my writing life. There are a lot more novels being published by women than screenplays are being produced, so it’s a more equal arena for women, right? But the inequalities soon became apparent, mostly thanks to organizations like VIDA who had the brains to count, and articles by those paying attention, like Roxane Gay and Elissa Schappel.

So why Women in Horror Month? Why not just horror month?

frankenMary Shelley entranced the human imagination with Frankenstein. Dealing with the death of a newborn, groping in the darkness for answers and in twisted fiction, she came up with the grandfather—mother? of all horror novels.

Despite its origins, horror is currently a male-dominated genre. When J. Lincoln Fenn first reached out to me, calling me a ‘sister in horror’ I didn’t quite get where she was coming from. Our titles were coming out from the same publishing company, 47North within a month of each other. To tell you the truth, I felt a little competitive with her!

But as I started watching the charts as our books climbed them, I became increasingly aware that we were pretty well surrounded by dudes. There were a handful of fabulous female names to pass, (Anne Rice, anyone?) but once each of us, on separate days, managed to dethrone the King (show screen-captures) I realized that we were sisters in something quite unique. And I was so grateful Fenn had the brains to see that.

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Coming soon to a seedy bar near you? King & The Spookettes.

Both of us have written books with male protagonists, which is another peculiarity. But the point of this month, I think, is to help a sister out. If there’s a horror book you’ve read, written by a woman, write up an annotation for my site annotationnation.com or a review, or an article, or simply give it a nice rating on Goodreads. Celebrate all of the women who have, consciously or not, swum against the male tide and persisted in writing what they were best at, regardless of the number of men surrounding them.

harrowbackI adore guys, and I’m always ready to promote the writing of my male counterparts. I can’t say that I wasn’t influenced by my teenage reading of Steven King’s fabulous prose.  But the point of this month isn’t boys vs. girls. This is a month to celebrate women in horror. The trick is to find the woman horror writer who may not be getting a boost, whose book publicity may not be up to the standards of the males standing next to her, and to give her some notice, or a mention, or a like. Because, you know what? Likelihood is she could probably use a hand.

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Women in Horror Month: Kate Danly

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Author Kate Danly chimes in for Women in Horror Month. Her debut novel, The Woodcutter (published by 47North), was honored with the Garcia Award for the Best Fiction Book of the Year, 1st Place Fantasy Book in the Reader Views Literary Awards, and the winner of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  Her book Maggie for Hire hit the USA Today Bestselling list as part of the boxed set Magic After Dark.

I am not a horror enthusiast. I do not enjoy the sensation of fear.  When I was probably three-years-old, my friend convinced me to watch Bella Lugosi’s Dracula.  She said that if I got scared, I could hide beneath a granny-square afghan my grandmother had made.  She didn’t tell me that I should close my eyes, though, so I saw the entire movie through the crochet holes.  And from that point forward, vampires lived under my bed.  The scariest movie I willingly watched was Jurassic Park, and even that I watched with my fingers over my face.  I don’t understand Halloween.  There is so much death and destruction already on this earth, I don’t understand looking upon pain as entertainment.

So it is strange that as an adult, I find myself writing horror.  What is it that causes all of my creative impulses to want to dig into this genre?

JLCAnd I think that, for me, it is about overcoming fear.  As a woman, in particular, I find society tries to tell us to fear the world, to seek shelter in others, to place our trust in some big, strong someone who will make all the monsters go away.  So, what is the most frightening trope which horror employs?  That a woman will be left to face the monsters on her own.  That everyone who should be there to save her has not just gone away, they have died horribly.

But there is a twisted lesson of hope in horror:  if she is willing to stand up for herself and fight, she will survive.

sigourneyAnd so, when I really think about the reasons I write horror, it is about this fight.  I defang the monsters that have frightened me my entire life, both real and imaginary.  It is about digging deep into their psyche, looking at them from all angles, and ultimately coming to a point of understanding… perhaps even affection… for my creatures.  In world mythology, there is a common idea that to defeat a monster, you need only find out its true name.  And so I name them “vampire” and “ghost” and I am not afraid.  I mean, we wouldn’t sit down to have dinner anytime soon.  But monsters do not live under my bed anymore.  And when one does try to sneak in?  We have ourselves a little chat and I find out his name, and I bring the story to you so that you might know his name, too.  And together, the boogeyman can’t get us.

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Kate’s latest horror project is her story Queen Joanna, a retelling of the Bloody Mary ghost story in the anthology From the Indie Side, on sale for the next few days for 99-cents.

Author Interview: Ania Ahlborn

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Ania with her new book. Just go ahead and pre-order. You know you want to.

To keep the creep spin going for February’s “Women in Horror” month, I’m delighted to have horror phenom Ania Ahlborn drop in on my blog, wherein we dish about important things like playing in cemeteries, the evils of paranormal romance, and how to attract Oprah’s attention to horror (let’s hope the SEO metrics play in our favor). No really Oprah, over here.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. Like this whole playing in cemeteries part. Where exactly were your parents?

Ha! That’s a good question. Sometimes I have to go back in my memory and remind myself that all the time I spent alone wasn’t due to negligent parents, but due to our horrendous financial situation. My parents and I moved from Poland to the US in the early 80’s, and if I take my mother’s word on it, my folks had, quite literally, a couple of twenties in their pockets. We were homeless for a time, living from “sponsor to sponsor”, which basically translates to living with and off the kindness of complete strangers. My parents didn’t speak a word of English, but they somehow managed to score menial jobs; lots and lots of jobs, which is how I found myself with so much alone time.

By the time they gathered up enough cash for us to rent a house of our own, I’d taught myself how to speak English by way of Sesame Street and Scooby Doo. Who knows, maybe that’s why I grew up “strange”. Everything I knew about life I learned from Hanna-Barbera. If there were ghosts haunting a place, you grabbed your friends and your dog and went to investigate. I had no friends and no dog, so I investigated on my own; and with a cemetery just next door, I was a ghost hunter before I my fifth birthday.

What was the first, scariest book or story you remember reading? What scared you about it?

The first one I can remember was called Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. I actually have it on my Kindle now, for old time’s sake. I’m pretty sure WTHC was the first novel I ever consumed. For a kid as young as I was, that first novel experience is pretty significant as it is. I’m sure being so involved with the characters, being able to relate to the little girl in the story, all of that really punched Hahn’s narrative into my subconscious. I can’t say that it really scared me as much as haunted me. Even as a kid, I was rarely scared as much as I was darkly fascinated. 

Why write horror? Do you not see all the women making oodles of cash writing paranormal romance?

Ugh, okay, here’s where I have to get real. I can’t handle paranormal romance, and maybe that’s because I can’t get past the fact that the romance occurring in these books are completely fake. I’ve had my share of romance. I’m a chick just as much as any woman writing paranormal romance is a chick. And yet, I’ve never experienced that gushy sparkly pre-packaged weird stuff that’s being labeled as “romance” today. I am and always have been a fiercely honest person—honest with myself, honest with others.

To me, writing is about telling the truth. It’s about connecting with other human beings on a subconscious level and saying “hey, remember that terrible moment you went through and thought you were alone? You weren’t. Remember that terrible feeling you had and thought you were crazy? Here it is. We are the same.” I think that, above all else, horror is about raw, unbridled honesty. It’s about fear and desperation and facing eye-opening obstacles. To some people, horror is just horror. To me, it’s beautiful. It’s real, even if the monsters are only metaphors.

Seriously, why do you think so many ‘Best of Horror’ lists only flag Mary Shelley, Anne Rice, and Shirley Jackson?

I wish I had a good answer for this, but I really don’t. Maybe it’s the fact that so many female authors tend to tip the scales toward romance-based stuff in general. I mean, I’m not going to lie, I’ve got some romance going on in my books too. In The Shuddering there’s quite a lot, and it would have been easy to let it get away from me. As you said, what am I doing here? I could be making fat stacks of cash on a different bookshelf. But I always manage to reel it in because I don’t only want women reading my books.

One of my goals is to have a diverse readership, and I think that maybe Shelley and Rice and Jackson had that same goal at one point as well. That’s why they transcended “women’s fiction” and ended up on the horror lists. I actually hate the fact that there’s such a thing as “women’s fiction”. Just putting those two words together has me shooting glances over my shoulder, waiting for the feminists to call me out as being insensitive. If I’m coming off that way, my apologies. Then again, a lot of people would say that “women’s fiction” is empowering, so I really don’t know. Next question!

Strangest curse you’ve ever heard.

Hmm… I don’t know about the strangest, but the one that’s always been my favorite has to be the Poltergeist movie curse. If you read into that stuff, it’s really pretty creepy. Did you know they used real skeletons for the scene where Diane slips and falls into the half-dug pool in the backyard? Okay, I don’t know if that’s officially true, but I read it on the internet…

If Oprah called and said she’d feature one, and only one of your books, which would you give her? Why?

BirdEaterYou know that asking an author to pick a favorite book is like asking a mother to pick a favorite child, right? It’s just… wrong. But since we’re talking about Oprah, here, I’ll make an exception. I’d probably go with my soon-to-be-released fourth novel, The Bird Eater. All of my books have a different personality, but The Bird Eater has some really gritty, malicious paranormal stuff in it that makes me giddy. Not that Seed wasn’t malicious; I mean, demons. But because I really do feel that my work is getting stronger with each new book, I’ll put my best foot forward with The Bird Eater.

I hear tell that Seed is on the development slate for Amazon Studios. What’s up with that? And, more importantly, which part am I going to play?

Seed_FrontCoverYou never know “what’s up with that” when you’re talking about Hollywood. Last I heard they had hired two writers with a pretty impressive track record to work on the script. Since then, however, there’s been nothing but crickets. That’s normal, though. These types of projects take years to get rolling, as does any project that involves a million different people, all of them eccentric. Patience is key. Sometimes people ask me about the movie deal and I have to stop and remind myself that, oh yeah, there is a movie deal. In my opinion, when stuff like this comes up—when writers get books turned into movies or shows or whatever—it’s a nice bonus, but you have to stay focused on the work itself. And as far as what part you get, we’ll have to duke it out. I call dibs on Mr. Scratch.

Which writers have influenced you? Which ones make you despair of ever reaching such greatness?

I always feel so generic when I say Stephen King, but what am I supposed to do, lie? I just love King’s style. His writing is so easy to read. It’s like a warm blanket on a particularly cold afternoon. I love Joe Hill. Heart Shaped Box was fantastic, and still my favorite by him. Gillian Flynn is incredible. I’ve read all of her books and can’t wait for the next one. And John Ajvid Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In is just awesome, awesome stuff. But my earliest serious literary influence was Bret Easton Ellis. I used to be obsessed with him, and while I don’t write the same type of stuff he does, I think some of that former love seeps into my work from time to time. As far as writers I don’t like, I don’t point fingers. Yes, I have a list of authors that I roll my eyes at, but it’s a surprisingly short list. Writing is hard enough as it is. The critics are out there to sling their opinions on who’s worthy and who isn’t. I’m a writer, so my feet stay firmly in the writer’s circle. I can only hope that when it’s my turn to be toted as “overrated” and “talentless”, the authors of the world will stand by me just as I stand by them.

What are you reading?

Right now, Hell House by Richard Matheson. Not at all scary, but fun nevertheless. It’s like reading an episode of Ghost Adventures, but with all of the woah’s and dude’s taken out of the dialogue. And yes, I love Ghost Adventures. Not gonna lie.

What can we look forward to reading next by Ania Ahlborn, what’s it about, and when can we buy it?

Well, Oprah’s already doing a segment on it, so maybe you should just tune in. 😉 No, but seriously, The Bird Eater is my next release. It comes out in April, but there’s a rumor that Amazon is going to make it available in March as a promo. So, if you’re impatient, you may be in luck. The Bird Eater is about a guy who’s trying to recover from the death of his little boy and the harsh aftermath of a failing marriage. He picks up and leaves Portland, Oregon to return to his childhood home in Arkansas, where he begins to pick up the pieces of both his present and his past. Unfortunately, his soul-searching is interrupted by a darkness that’s been looming in his old home for decades. The Bird Eater is a ghost story with a particularly tender yet surprisingly malevolent twist, and I’m really excited about it getting into readers’ hands. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. When you see the creepy bird skull on the cover, you’ve arrived at your destination.

ania_ahlborn1.1_sizedFollow Ania:

Website: aniaahlborn.com
Twitter: @aniaahlborn

 

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