The Path To Redemption For Abusers

Warning: Some of the content in this essay may be a trigger, especially for survivors of abuse.

So. This past week has seen several accounts of abuse or predatory behavior come to light in social media. In some of the cases, the accused agreed they had done wrong and made an attempt to apologize. Some left the public arena. Others tried to say that it was in the past and they had apologized and moved on.

In most of the cases, friends of the accused tried to stick up for the abuser. A variety of statements were made, such as “hey, he apologized, let it go,” “he’s actually a nice guy, this is not like him,” “he was drunk when it happened, he wouldn’t have done it if he were sober,” and “that doesn’t sound like abuse. are you sure it really happened?” In some of the cases, the victim was attacked, slandered, or dismissed by others.

I’ve been thinking all week as I read about the different cases of abuse and predatory behavior. Specifically, my thoughts have focused on what an offender can do to redeem himself. What does it take? How should he apologize? What can he do to atone for the things he did to violate another person?

First, a little about myself. Some of you may have seen a couple of articles I’ve written in the last year concerning abuse and intolerance. Others may not know anything about me at all.

I am a survivor of childhood abuse at the hands of my father. I’m not going to go into detail here, that is not the point of this essay. I just want to get that out there so you know where I am coming from. The abuse I received was physical, but there was a strong verbal component as well. That situation continued until I grew up and moved out on my own and cut all ties with my father.

Time, distance, support and therapy have gone a long way towards healing. But the pain, the shame, the anger and rage, the occasional bout of depression, and other factors, they’re still there. They’ve never gone away. Their power has been muted in my life, and thanks to therapy, I have tools to deal with them, but they’re still there and I suspect they will be till the day I die. Abuse affects a victim in a myriad of ways, and it can cause permanent changes in the victim’s personality.

For instance, victims of abuse often deal with lack of confidence and a horrible self-image. Abusers have a tendency to make their victims feel as if the abuse is their fault, that they’re to blame for what they’re receiving. And, contrary to public opinion, abusers are not sullen social rejects who abuse others to overcome their own pain. My father, for example, was the “life of the party.” Everyone loved him. When he walked into a room, people’s attention gravitated to him. They made a point of going to him, shaking his hand and greeting him. The few times in my life that I tried to reach out for help or tell someone about what I was going through resulted in the other person looking at me in disbelief and trying to tell me that I was mistaken, that my father meant well, that I just didn’t understand. That added to the self-doubt and belief that I was the one who was wrong.

Today, I still deal with the fallout of that. When it happens that there’s a disagreement or a confrontation with someone else, my first impulse is to go quiet. I have to fight hard against the feeling that I am wrong. That I am at fault, regardless of whether or not that’s true. I don’t feel justified standing up for myself. Many times in my life I have quietly just acquiesced and let things go the way the other person desired while quietly seething inside. I have a problem dealing with people who are naturally aggressive. Sometimes, depending on the circumstance, I have to struggle with thoughts of grabbing the other person and slamming them against the wall and just screaming in his face until he cowers.

I also have a hard time saying no to anyone. There have been times in the past I’ve hurt others because I couldn’t say no to a request when I knew I didn’t have the time or ability to do what was requested. It was a real struggle for me. Even today, it’s hard. I often feel like I’m not justified in saying I can’t do something. Like I owe the other person. Like I have no right to refuse. I’ve learned how to deal with that shortcoming in myself, but it’s never gone away. It lingers, even after all these years. That weakness is one reason why I avoid salespeople and telemarketers like the plague.

I’ve learned, over the years, how to deal with those feelings. I’ve developed ways to overcome the feelings of helplessness and inadequacy so that I can function and succeed in social interaction. I’ve learned how to deal positively with people who are aggressive. I’ve learned how to channel the feelings of helplessness and the rage that bubbles up when someone acts aggressively toward me into a positive response. But it’s still a struggle. I’ve yet to reach a point where the tools are no longer necessary. My skill at using those tools has improved, and continues to improve, but I suspect I will always need them.

Now, I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I don’t pity myself. I’ve learned to accept myself and my shortcomings. I’m not writing these things about myself in order to garner sympathy from anyone. I just want others to have some knowledge of where I’ve been so they can better understand what I’m about to say.

Here it is. This is for all the abusers out there. This is also for those who enable those abusers. First and foremost, fuck your apology. And for those out there who see an abuser make an apology, and who then attack the victim for not immediately accepting it, fuck you too. Even more than the abuser himself, you need to shut your fucking mouth and either sit the fuck down, or just fucking leave. I have nothing gentler to say to you.

Harsh words? Yes. I mean them. An apology from an abuser is worthless. Seriously. Even if the abuser has somehow, against all odds, changed. And yeah, that sounds mean, but counting my father and people I’ve met who had abused other people, not one of them has ever changed. So, forgive me if I won’t hold my breath on that. Maybe there is an abuser out there somewhere who has managed to turn himself around and stop the patterns of abuse. He could be out there, but I’ve never met him. And even if the abuser has changed, it really doesn’t make a difference. The apology is still worthless.

Some of you will be shaking your heads as you read this. Some of you will be thinking “Geez, if the guy apologizes and tries to change, you should give him a chance.” If that’s what you’re thinking, I have one thing to say to you: Fuck you. Abusing another person is not like accidentally spilling your drink on someone. Or turning and accidentally bumping into somebody. Or even getting angry during an argument and calling someone a jerk out of anger. Those things you can apologize for. They were accidents. They were not intentional. You apologize, the other person accepts your apology, and you move on. If you think not being able to accept the apology of an abuser makes me a cold-hearted bastard, let me pose a scenario for you.

Let’s say you come stay at my house for three months. During that time, this is how I will treat you:

  1. You will not be allowed any quiet time. If I feel you’ve been silent for too long, I’m going to walk over to you and scream “TALK.” If you don’t immediately start up a conversation, and it better be one that I like, I’m going to backhand you hard across the face. If I’m really in a mood, I’m going to punch you. This may occur many times over the course of the day.
  2. I’m going to insist that you play games with me, regardless of whether or not you like them. My three choices will be Checkers, Chess, and Backgammon. You better focus. You better not make any bad moves. If you make a play, and I think it could have been done better, I’m going to punch you to get your attention and make you focus. I might throw you against the wall. If I think it’s a really bad move, or if you’ve made several less than stellar moves during the game, I just might backhand you across your face, and then grab you by the hair, pull you close and spit in your face and tell you that being with you is a waste of my time.
  3. I’m going to allot you some spending money for the times when I just want to be by myself so you can go out and do something. When you do go out and spend the money, I’m going to get in your face, scream at you about how you’re a pathetic waste of life and then I’m going to give you a hard beating.
  4. If I walk into your room and you’re reading a book, I’m going to tell you in no uncertain terms how pathetic you are. I’m going to talk at length about how sad and pitiful you are because you’re reading a book instead of doing something else that I approve of. If you don’t immediately put the book down and suggest something for the two of us to do together, you’re going to get a beating.
  5. If at any time you decide you don’t like any of the treatment I’ve already mentioned, and you declare that you’d like to leave, rest assured the beating you get is going to be swift and harsh. It will involve kicks, punches, and hard backhand slaps. I will probably throw you against the wall and then get in your face and tell you that if you think you’re tough, I’m going to grab you by the throat and see just how tough you really are.
  6. Be careful about telling jokes. If you tell one, and either it rubs me the wrong way or I just don’t think it’s funny, at the least I will backhand you. Make sure you don’t repeat the same joke, or tell one that’s similar to another one, or I will get angry and you will be beaten.
  7. Lastly, when I speak to you, don’t make the mistake of looking me in the eyes. I will interpret that as a challenge and I will beat you down in response.

At the end of the three months, you will be released to return to your home. Before you leave, I’m going to come to you and tell you I’m sorry for the way I treated you. Will you accept my apology? I’m guessing the answer is no.

You might be shaking your head in disbelief, perhaps thinking that no one treats others like that. On that, you’re wrong. Everything I described in those 7 points were things I experienced at the hands of my father. He went to his grave without apologizing once for any of his behavior, but if he had, I would not have accepted it. An apology isn’t even a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to atone for abusing another human being.

So, let’s get to the point of this essay: the path to redemption for an abuser.

If you’ve abused another person, and you honestly regret what you’ve done, here is what I think you should do.

  1. Confess what you’ve done. Confess it in public. Let the whole world know what you’ve done. Don’t offer excuses or reasons why you did what you did, don’t try to explain, just state the cold hard facts of the fucked-up way you treated another human being. Make sure you go to the police and tell them what you’ve done as well. And don’t wait for your victim or someone else to out you. Do it now, of your own volition.
  2. Don’t apologize for your actions. Your apology is worthless. I suffered for many years at the hands of my father. No apology can make that go away. Further, the apology will be seen as an attempt to avoid repercussions, to escape the consequences of your actions. Fuck you. Your victim suffered for a long time because of you; it’s only fair you suffer as well.
  3. Be prepared to accept the shaming and public humiliation you’re going to receive. Be prepared to suffer the legal consequences of your actions. Don’t hide, don’t offer excuses, don’t try to evade the consequences in any way. You were tough enough to put someone else through hell, be tough enough now to face hell yourself.
  4. Tell your friends, your family, and anyone else who might try to come to your defense to shut their mouths. There is no defense for you.
  5. Stay away from your victims. Don’t call them. Don’t email them. Don’t try to contact them in any way. There’s nothing for you to say to them. You’ve treated them abominably. Respect their right not to have you in their lives ever again. If they decide to speak to you, that’s their choice. Until they make that conscious decision on their own, stay the hell away.

That’s it. That’s the road you need to go down if you wish to atone for your actions.

Sound harsh? Think I’m too tough on you? Think I’m being unfair? Well, fuck you. The hell you put your victim through is what’s unfair. Frankly, I think it’s unfair that your victim ever had to have you in his/her life at all.

You also need to be aware that you may never achieve redemption. Your path to atonement may end up being a long hard road with no end. Personally, I think it’s what you deserve. Your victim will never fully recover from your abuse. Your victim will bear the pain and the scars for the duration of his/her life. The struggle may get easier in time, perhaps, but it will never go away. Why the hell should you get off easier than that?

Last thing I’ll say to an abuser is this: the only one who can offer you forgiveness and redemption in this life for the abuse you dished out is your victim. Any sympathetic words offered to you by anyone else are worthless.

Finally, if you’re the friend, relative, or associate of an abuser, don’t try to defend him. There is no defense. Don’t get indignant if his apology is not accepted by his victim. Don’t make statements about how nice of a guy the abuser is, or about how he regrets what he’s done and wants to move forward. There are really only two things you should do. The first is to be supportive of the victim. Offer your hand. Be a friend to the one who suffered. Don’t be pushy or forceful, just let the victim know you’re there and ready to help in whatever way the victim needs. If you can’t do that, or don’t feel you know enough about the situation to do anything, then keep your fucking mouth shut.

That’s all I have to say. Go in peace.

Trailer Parks and English Moors

It’s Women in Horror Month 2020 and now, more than ever, so many talented women writers are contributing to the genre that it’s hard to choose books to read for the event.  I’m going to add to that list two new offerings that will be hitting bookstores later this month:  The Garden of Bewitchment by Catherine Cavendish and The Prisoners of Stewartville by Shannon Felton.

The two novels are quite different and written in distinct voices with little in common.  Cavendish writes in an elegant, refined voice that is very distinctly English.  Felton’s style is American, gritty and down to earth, the voice of the streets if you will.  At first glance, it may seem odd to mention the two novels in the same article.  Yet they share one powerful trait.  Each novel is imbued with a powerful sense of place and atmosphere, and both authors do an incredible job of immersing the reader in the locale, mood and atmosphere of their stories.  Cavendish and Felton are exquisitely talented in the way they wield words to tell their stories.  Take a look at the following two passages:

We dragged our feet down sidewalks cracked and choked with weeds, past abandoned storefronts and a market that smelled like old stale blood, and into      neighborhoods with nothing but dirt front yards and rusted chain-link fences.  But the misery itself?  That was like helium, lighter than air, and it quivered above us in the wide open sky so you couldn’t even lift your head in prayer without having to face it.  ⸺The Prisoners of Stewartville

Claire took the left-hand path, walking along past the cottage and deeper into the moor itself, grateful that the rain had stopped at last.  As she strode out, the land became softer, greener.  Behind her, bleak rocks and heather-strewn marsh.  In front of her, the bright yellow gorse gave way to lush grass, cowslips and tall daisies.  A small copse of trees looked as if they might provide welcome cool shade from the sun, which had begun to burn down on Claire’s neck.  ⸺The Garden of Bewitchment

The Prisoners of Stewartville takes the reader to the world of trailer parks and rundown neighborhoods of Stewartville, a city that largely exists because of the nearby prisons.  The first line of the novel reveals the truth that people are in Stewartville for one of three reasons: “they worked for the prisons, they had family in the prisons, or they were in prison.”  The story quickly establishes a mood of poverty and despair, crushing hopelessness, and temporary moments of relief provided by drugs and alcohol.

Cavendish’s story transports us to 19th Century England, a land of quaint villages, rolling hillsides and quiet moors.  It’s a refined, elegant atmosphere of walks through the lovely countryside and afternoon tea.  A definite contrast to the world presented us in Felton’s tale, yet no less powerful and striking.

I enjoyed reading both novels.  With many novels and short stories, what stands out is the plot itself.  The mystery, the intrigue, and the search for love are what drive the story and what remain with the reader after finishing the book.  With authors like Felton and Cavendish, one remembers the mood and atmosphere and the wonderful way the writer wields words as strongly as the plot itself.  They are different, yes.  Felton’s tale at times is violent and bloody, and downright terrifying.  Cavendish’s story is more haunting, eerie, and tinged with a vein of melancholy and sadness.  Yet they are both equally successful at pulling the reader into the worlds they’ve created, and that will doubtless be missed once the reader has turned the last page and read the final paragraph.  I highly recommend both books.

The Garden of Bewitchment will be released on February 20 by Flame Tree Press, and The Prisoners of Stewartville by Silver Shamrock Press on February 25.  Watch for both of these wonderful novels.

 

Disclaimer:  Electronic advance reading copies of both novels were provided to me by their publishers in return for honest reviews.  I received no monies or any form of compensation other than copies of the books themselves.  The opinions stated herein are my own.

The Best Horror Fiction of the Year

So today, I came across an article by Bill Sheehan, in which he selects what he considers to be the best horror fiction of 2019.  I can’t quibble about the books he did put on his list, as the buzz I’ve heard about them is nothing short of positive. I do, however, have a bone to pick about the many, many books released this year that didn’t even garner a mention.

To start with, how about “The Haunting of Henderson Close” by Catherine Cavendish? “The Bone Weaver’s Orchard” by Sarah Read? “The Migration” by Helen Marshall? “Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones” by Micah Dean Hicks? “Collision: Stories” by J.S. Breukelaar? “Isolation” and “Tapetum Lucidum” by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason? “The Worst is Yet To Come” by S.P. Miskowski? “Wilder Girls” by Rory Power?

Sheehan did mention Rachel Eve Moulton and Lois Murphy, and that’s commendable, but his exclusion of so many other wonderfully talented women writers leads me to wonder if perhaps he’s largely unaware of the bulk of contemporary women authors in the horror genre. I’ve mentioned a few above, but by no means have I exhausted the list of horror novels and anthologies/collections written and edited by women this year. Mr. Sheehan, surely you can do better than this.

This list is one of the least diverse ones I’ve seen this year. Mr. Sheehan, you really need to dig deeper. There are so many writers and books out there that seem to have escaped your radar.

Aside from the diversity issue, there is also a glaring omission of works put out by smaller presses. The elitist notion that only bestsellers and books published by the larger publishing houses are worthy of mention needs to come to an end. That idea does a grave disservice both to the community of writers and to the much larger group of all the readers out there. So many wonderful, engaging, gripping, and well-written books are published every year by small press publishers, and their contributions largely get ignored by the big-time reviewers. By overlooking the small presses, those reviewers are also doing a disservice to themselves.

Mr. Sheehan, I urge you to look past the New York Times Bestseller lists. Get out there, do some digging, and you’ll uncover many treasures, most of which I bet will be completely new to you. I’ll give you a few names to kickstart your search. In addition to the authors mentioned above, you need to google the following: Christopher Golden, Victoria Schwab, Jennifer McMahon, Matt Hayward, Gemma Amor, Cherie Priest, Rio Youers, Mary SanGiovanni, Jac Jemc, Chad Lutzke, Jonathan Janz, Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, John F.D. Taff, John Horner Jacobs, J.H. Moncrieff, Ann Dávila Cardinal, Donna Lynch, Caitlin Kiernan, and James Chambers.

There are so many more, but that list will get you started.

I wish you luck on your journey!

Midnight in the Graveyard, ed. by Kenneth W. Cain

midnight in the graveyard

Around three months ago, I saw a notice of the upcoming anthology, Midnight in the Graveyard, from Silver Shamrock Press.  The book featured a highly talented group of contemporary horror authors, including Kealan Patrick Burke, Elizabeth Massie, Chad Lutzke, Catherine Cavendish, and many others.  I marked it on my calendar and began counting the days till its release.  Suffice it to say I was honored and excited when Silver Shamrock offered me an electronic ARC of the book.  I received it and immediately plunged into the tales within.

I was not disappointed.  There’s not a single clunker in the book, often a rare feat for an anthology.  After finishing the book, I can honestly say I read every single story and enjoyed them all.  Hands down, this is one of the best anthologies of short horror fiction I’ve ever read.

The largest chunk of stories here are what spring to mind when one thinks of the horror genre: tales delving into the realm of fear and terror.  One of my favorites of these was Russian Dollhouse by Jason Parent.  Remind me never to go into a haunted house attraction that by all rights, shouldn’t be there.  Give it a read and see if it gives you the chills as it did me.  Last Call at the Sudden Death Saloon by Allan Leverone was another freaky tale that reminded me of why I generally don’t go poking around small towns where I’m a complete stranger.

A smaller group of the stories reminded me of EC Comics and Tales From The Crypt.  I could almost hear the Cryptkeeper chortling in fiendish glee at the climax of The Glimmer Girls by Kenneth McKinley and Swamp Vengeance by Brian Moreland.  Those two tales, along with Cool for Cats by William Meikle and Bettor’s Edge by Tim Meyer were some of my favorite of the anthology, hands down.  I’ve always been partial to those types of stories, with their fiendishly twisted sense of justice meted out to those who’ve wronged others.

A few of the selections are hauntingly sad tales that will tug at the reader’s heartstrings.  Join My Club by Somer Canon, The Putpocket by Alan M. Clark, and Euphemia Christie by Catherine Cavendish will provoke an emotional response on the reader’s part.  Of course, none of them are as hard-hitting as Tug O’War by Chad Lutzke.  For those readers who aren’t prone to tearing up during powerful emotional moments, a box of Kleenex will need to be on hand. When I finished reading Lutzke’s story, I had to put the book down and take a break.

There’s cosmic horror for fans of that sub-genre.  Holes in the Fabric by Todd Keisling and The Graveyard by Lee Mountford deliver some dreadful eldritch monstrosities waiting to devour the souls of those unlucky enough to fall within their grasp.  Those who like horror on the grotesque side will enjoy Cemetery Man by John Everson.  That type of horror is generally not something I like to read.  Still, Everson displays some great writing chops in his tale, and fans who like their horror on the hardcore side will like Cemetery Man.

One story in particular that really stood out for me was New Blood, Old Skin by Glenn Rolfe.  Though creepy in part, it’s more about the inspiration that drives a horror writer than a foray into the realm of fear.  It was the first story I’ve read by Glenn Rolfe, and I’m glad I got introduced to his work.  It was riveting.  I’m definitely going to read more.

Midnight in the Graveyard brings in some major star power in the person of Robert R. McCammon.  I’ve been a fan of his work ever since I read The Wolf’s Hour, back in the 80s.  I looked forward to reading his new tale, Haunted World, with great anticipation.  I was not disappointed.  Haunted World leads the reader through a reality where Heaven and Hell have both run out of room, forcing a flood of spirits back down to Earth.  The reader can imagine the hijinks that ensue.

Portrait, the last tale of the anthology, is also the most powerful.  The previous entries go from fear to sadness to disgust to fiendish glee, but when the reader gets to Portrait by Kealan Patrick Burke, well…All I can say is there are stories that once you get a sense of what’s happening, you don’t really want to look any more but you just can’t help it.  You have to keep looking and then you find yourself at the end, at the dreadfully glorious finale where you’re left feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut really hard and you can’t breathe.  Portrait was that good.  It was a fitting end to one of the best anthologies I’ve come across.

Midnight in the Graveyard will be released on October 15, 2019.  If you enjoy horror, if you love reading a good spooky story, you’ll absolutely want to add this book to your collection.  This is the first anthology from Silver Shamrock Press, and they’re charging out of the gates hard.  I look forward to their next offering.  Silver Shamrock is a press to keep an eye on.

I was provided an advance reading copy of Midnight in the Graveyard, courtesy of Silver Shamrock Press.  I received no monies or any other form of compensation for writing this review, and the opinions stated herein are my own.

Prey

Dustin pulled over and hit the brakes.  His car, a rusted out but still functional ’78 Olds Cutlass Supreme, screeched to a halt.  He wasted no time getting out of his safety belt.  The girl turned her head to look at him as she darted across the lawn of an old house with faded green paint.  She ran up the steps to the front porch, grabbed the door knob, turned it and ran inside, slamming the door shut behind her.

As the door closed, Dustin was crossing the street.  He ran swiftly to the house and tried the door.  It was unlocked.  He turned the knob and pushed the door open.  He stepped to the side as it swung open.  He cautiously looked inside, wary for any nasty surprises.  The front room was empty.  The sound of running footsteps came to him from somewhere within the house.

Dustin stepped inside and closed the door.  As an afterthought, he locked it, both with the deadbolt and the chain lock near the top of the door.

“Hey, little girl,” he called out as he stepped into the small front room.  Silence greeted him.  No more sound of motion, no screaming for help, nothing.  The absence of noise bothered him a bit.  The girl was only fifteen, and he would have expected to hear something from her.  Screaming in the hopes a neighbor would hear and come to her aid, certainly.  Crying, perhaps.  Pleading with him to leave her alone, almost a dead certainty.  Silence was not on Dustin’s radar of possible responses from his victim.

He was not worried about any intervention.  Dustin had surveilled his prey for the last two weeks.  The girl’s parents would not be home till later.  Many of the neighbors were at their jobs as well.  As for the ones who weren’t, well, Dustin didn’t plan on being there long.  Grab the girl, get her out to his car, and get the hell out of Dodge.  Simple and sweet.

The quiet unnerved him a bit.  He wondered if maybe her father owned a gun.  Maybe she was lying in wait, crouched behind a door with a gun ready to blow him straight to hell when he entered the room.  Could be she was trying to hide, hoping her silence would make it hard enough to find her that he would be forced to leave, rather than wasting time and putting himself in danger of being caught.

Maybe she’s already called the police, he thought.  They could be on their way here right now.  The smart thing to do would be to go back outside, get in his car, and leave.  The thought of her drove him on, however.  He had been fantasizing about all the things he’d like to do with her.  Ever since he’s first seen her three weeks ago, his mind had been inflamed with images of her.  No, he had come for her today, and he was not going to leave empty-handed.

“It’s ok, little girl,” he said.  “If you come out now, I won’t be angry with you.  If you make me have to find you, it won’t be fun when I do.  Come out!”  There was no response.  He waited a minute, giving her a chance, but silence reigned.

“I’m getting angry,” he shouted.  “Last chance!”

“I’m upstairs,” came a voice from the second floor.  “I’m in my bedroom.”

Dustin paused.  The voice that came down to him did not sound scared.  There was an air of calm to the girl’s speech that bothered him.  She should be frightened.  The girl should have screamed at him to go away or leave her alone, or something to that effect.  Divulging her location in a calm, unhurried voice was not a response Dustin anticipated.  Again, the idea that he should turn and leave went through his mind.  He stood still, thinking about his options, then he shook his head.  He was being silly, he thought.  Quiet or not, unafraid or not, she was still a teenage girl and he was a fully-grown adult in his prime.  No way was she a match for him.

Dustin walked to the set of stairs leading up to the kitchen and turned to the right.  A short hallway led maybe fifteen feet to another set of stairs leading up to the third floor.  He ascended the stairs and stopped on the third-floor landing.  There was a bathroom off the top of the stairs.  Past the bathroom door, there were two bedrooms on the right and left of the landing.  The door to the room on the right was closed.

He peeked into the room on the left.  It was empty.  Dustin went deeper into the room.  Along the wall to the left after entering, there was a closet.  He quickly checked it.  Nothing.  The girl could only be in the other bedroom.  He went back out to the landing.

“I’m coming in,” Dustin called out.  “You better not be planning to do something bad.  You don’t want to make me angry.”  He grasped the doorknob, turned it, and pushed the door open.  The doorway faced a short wall.  He would have to step through and turn to his left to see into the room.  Cautiously and slowly leaning into the room, he craned his neck to the left.  The girl was standing facing him, on the other side of a bed.  There was a window streaming in sunlight on the wall behind the girl.  She was standing there quietly facing in his direction.

After a moment or two observing her, Dustin was satisfied she was not holding a gun or any other weapon.  She simply stood there, hands at her sides, facing the doorway.  Dustin stepped into the room and smiled at her.

“Come on, let’s go,” he said.

“Are you sure,” she asked him in response.  She smiled, waiting for him to respond.

Dustin, for the first time that he could remember, was struck speechless.  Her words to him were so alien, so foreign to his experience, that she may as well have been speaking Chinese.  Nothing about the situation was right.  He felt an icy clutch of fear in his heart as he stood there looking at his prospective victim.  A few seconds passed as they stood staring at each other.

“Let’s play a game,” the girl said, breaking the silence.  Her smile grew larger.  “How about ‘Tag, you’re it?'”

A split second later, Dustin decided it would be best to leave.  He stepped back through the doorway and began turning toward the stairs.

“Wait,” the girl exclaimed loudly.  Against his better judgment, he turned back toward her and then froze in shock.  She was staring at him with a full, open-mouthed smile.  As he looked at her, her smile stretched wider.  Dustin realized something was wrong with her face.  It was as if her mouth was growing larger.  A second later, he realized not only was it growing larger, her jaw was extending forward.  The girl suddenly hunched over and Dustin could see the muscles in her back swelling and flexing.

She’s getting bigger, Dustin thought.  Indeed, she was.  Her flowery pink shirt was clinging tighter to her body by the second.  She suddenly jerked her head upward and fixed her gaze on the man.  A feral light shone in her eyes and she growled at him.  Her hands were opening and closing spasmodically, and as Dustin watched, her fingers grew longer and sharp claws extended forth from her fingertips.

He needed no further encouragement.  Dustin turned and ran down the stairs and through the hall to the kitchen.  Somehow, he managed to turn and make his way down the main stairs to the front room without tripping and falling down the steps.

He almost made it to the door.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

            The girl opened the door and looked out at the policeman standing on the front porch.

“We got word there was a disturbance,” the cop stated.  “Is everything ok?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine here,” the girl responded, looking at the officer with a confused look on her face.  “Why?”

“We got a call that maybe there was an intruder at your house.  Are you sure everything’s ok?”

“Yeah, it’s all good,” she said.  “There was a salesman that was here a few minutes ago, but I told him we weren’t interested and he left.  No intruder.”

“Do you know if that’s his vehicle,” the cop asked, turning and pointing to the Olds Cutlass parked on the other side of the street.

“I have no idea,” she answered.  “I’m sorry.”

After the cop left, she went back up to her bedroom.  Dustin was laying on her bed.  His eyes flared with fear and he tried to scream, but the duct tape across his mouth prevented him from making more than a muffled moan.  The fact that his knees and elbows had been brutally shattered kept him from being able to try and escape.  He could only lie helplessly in pain and terror as the girl entered the room.  She walked over to the bed and gazed down at Dustin.

“Dinnertime,” she said.

Interview With Elizabeth Massie

Elizabeth Mass61467766_10157119299852593_3692300959653822464_nie is a two-time Bram Stoker Award-winning and Scribe Award-winning author of novels, short fiction, media-tie ins, and nonfiction. Her novels and collections include Sineater, Hell Gate, Desper Hollow, Wire Mesh Mothers, Homeplace, Afraid, Naked on the Edge, Dark Shadows: Dreams of the Dark (co-authored with Mark Rainey), Versailles, The Tudors: King Takes Queen, The Tudors: Thy Will Be Done, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Power of Persuasion, and
many more. She is also the creator of the Ameri- Scares series of spooky novels for middle grade readers which is currently in development for television by Warner Horizon (Warner Brothers) with Margot Robbie’s company, LuckyChap, signed on to produce. She is a ninth generation Virginian who lives in the Shenandoah Valley with her illustrator husband, Cortney Skinner. Until her updated website launches, she can be reached through Facebook, Twitter, Crossroad Press, or through e-mail: emvirginia@yahoo.com.

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The following is an interview I had the pleasure of doing with Elizabeth Massie.  We had a great conversation about the elements of her life that influenced her to become the successful writer she is today.  I hope you enjoy reading it!

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SV       Elizabeth, thank you kindly for doing this interview.  You have an impressive record as an author, boasting not only many titles but also two Bram Stoker awards as well as a Scribe award.  What inspired you to write horror, and what were some of your strongest influences in that regard?

EM      Horror has fascinated me since I was very young. Back “in the day” my parents allowed me and my sisters to watch the first run of The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Way Out. They also let us watch Shock Theater on Saturday afternoons, a show that featured the classic Universal Monster films such as Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Dracula.

Now to be totally honest, I was easily scared as a kid. The poster from the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane traumatized me for weeks. The trailer for The Head stole many hours of sleep away as I lay in bed and hoped there wasn’t a decapitated head on my nightstand, waiting to talk to me. Yet, like I said, I was fascinated by horror. And I think the reason was this…most of the horror I watched on TV had a strong element of compassion or sympathy for the characters. I mean, who couldn’t help but feel sorry for Larry Talbot as he cried, “Somebody help me!” Or for Frankenstein when he is chained and tormented? Or for the astronaut on Twilight Zone who was condemned to solitary confinement on a planet distant from Earth? And when, at 10, I read the novel, Psycho, I was horrified but also felt bad for Norman because he was so lonely and so messed up.

In a nutshell, then, my inspiration to write horror wasn’t just the shock, rush, and the oh-my-God of it all, but the deep, gut level human reaction to terrible situations and how characters dealt (or didn’t deal) with them. Most of the horror fiction I write attempts to balance that, as well.

SV       Yes, I’ve noticed that in your novel, Desper Hollow, especially with Jenkie Mustard.  Though she’s a villain, so to speak, she’s very well fleshed out and the way she  reacts to the situation she finds herself in is very believable, and very human.  I’ve met people like her in my life, and though she’s a monster in her own way, one can’t help but feel sorry for her.  Speaking of the Mustard clan, where did you get the inspiration for Granny Mustard, if I may be so bold?

EM      I live in the valley in rural, western Virginia, very near the mountains in which the novel of Desper Hollow is set. We have some curious names in this region. Years ago, a little diner across from my high school – The Do-nut Dinette – was owned and managed by the Mustard family. Some called the elderly matron of the family “Granny.” How could I not use that name for a future character? The personality of Granny Mustard, however, is a combination of a number of old women I’ve known over the years. One, in particular, was my great-grandmother Black, a loud, crotchety old gal who never laughed and never plucked her hairy chin. We didn’t visit her and Granddaddy Black very often, but times spent at their strange little shadow-filled house in the woods were memorable, to be sure.

SV       I bet they were.  Are there any stories from there you wouldn’t mind sharing?

EM      Here is what I remember about my great-grandparents, Samuel and Lottie Black. Their property (a wooden house with a low-ceilinged attic on 40 some acres of sloping, mostly tree-covered land) had been in the Black family since the late-1700s. The family farmed and raised some cattle. Likely they also moonshined, though no one in the family would swear to it. They were also slave owners until the early 1800s. Ned, Roger, and Fanny were a few of the people my family enslaved, with their names included as property in Black family wills. Heartbreaking.

There was a small family cemetery in the back corner of the wooded acreage, with 15 or so tombstones – some quite old. One particular member, William, died young and mysteriously in the 1840s. My mother told me that William had beaten the young child of an enslaved woman (the cook) and so she had in turn poisoned William. As punishment, the woman and her child were sold down to the turpentine forests of Georgia. I remember the cemetery and how broken and vine-covered it was. Like no one really cared anymore.  It was thrilling and scary, both, walking through all those dead family members and wondering what they looked like under the ground.

There was also an old well in the front yard of the house. It was nothing more than a hole in the ground with a wooden board as a cover. We kids were warned to stay away, so of course we took turns daring each other to peek in. It was dark as night, full of bugs, and smelled bad.

My great-grandparents, as rustic and crusty as they were, had their own sense of    decorum. We never hugged them. We only shook their hands. Most of the time they sat silently in chairs in the shadowy corners of the front room, waiting to be waited on. Needless to say, the old folks creeped me the hell out but also impressed me and gave me some wonderful fodder for future stories.

SV       Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth.  That sounds like the perfect atmosphere and inspiration for a future horror writer.  Now earlier, you mentioned the novel, Psycho, and its effect on you.  There’s a story I read when I was 9 or 10 titled The Calamander Chest.  I’ve read many stories and books since then, but that particular short story, with its image of the locked chest and a finger poking out of it, scratching at the wood, left a definite impression on me.  To this day, the tale stands in my mind as just about the scariest story I’ve read.  Is there a story, or perhaps an image from a story, that’s like that for you?

EM      Back to Psycho. I read it when I was ten. My parents didn’t know I was reading it. I’d heard about it and checked it out of the library, then hid it in my room. At that young age, I know I missed a lot of the more subtle aspects of the story, but I caught most of it. Yet even as descriptive as much of it was, there was one line in the novel that hit me in the gut. It was such a short, matter of fact sentence, with not even an adjective to spice it up. Norman was cleaning up the body of the woman that Mother had killed. The line says, simply, “The head was the worst.” This gave me nightmares. Not sure it was the scariest thing I ever read, but it ranks up there.

SV       I bet.  That’s simple yet very effective.  Less can definitely be more.  Now, you’ve mentioned some of the horror stories and movies you enjoyed when you were a child.  What books and movies do you enjoy reading and watching today?

EM      Today, I read across the board, and the same goes for movies. As to horror, I’m currently reading 100 Fathoms Below, by Steven Kent and Nicholas Kaufmann. My recent reads include Dean Koontz’s Innocence and Stephen King’s Revival. But recently I’ve also read If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss (a mainstream novel set in Appalachia) and the historical western novel House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke. Recent movies I’ve gone to see include It 2 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Years ago, I would stick pretty much to just horror but that’s changed. To me, a good story is a good story, regardless of genre. And I’m more picky about the horror I read and watch now, too. Gore for gore’s sake and gross for gross’s sake don’t make it. Jump scares and loud music don’t make it. I mean, c’mon, dude! (NOTE: I call females and males “dudes,” so relax, peeps.) Give me a solid story with characters I either care for or find truly fascinating and THEN put them through Hell.

SV       Elizabeth, thank you very much for doing this interview with me.  It’s been an honor.  I have to say, I really enjoyed reading Desper Hollow and I look forward to reading more of your stories.  As a final question, what can I and all the rest of your fans look forward to reading in the future?

EM      A big focus of mine at the moment is my Ameri-Scares series of novels for middle grade readers. There are 9 books out so far, and I’m working on number 10. Each novel is set in a different state in the Union and is based on an actual folktale, legend, or historic event from that state. I’m lucky that Mark Rainey has joined me in this venture, with the goal of getting novels written for all 50 states. What’s exciting is that Warner Horizon (Warner Brothers) has teamed up with Margot Robbie’s production company, LuckyChap, to develop Ameri-Scares into a television series. I don’t know the time frame on these things, but I’ll certainly keep folks informed. As to fiction for adults, I have horror tales coming out this fall in several anthologies. They include my stories, Terror From the Briny Depths, in Dark Tides (charity anthology edited by John Questore), Those Who Would Be Terrified in Midnight in the Graveyard (Silver Shamrock Publishing, edited by Kenneth Cain), and It’s In the Cards in Porcupine Boy and Other Stories (Crossroad   Press, edited by Christopher Jones.) I’m working on a new adult historical horror novel as well – The House at Wyndham Strand – and hope to have it done by the first of next year. Thanks for the interview and for the good words, Steve. It’s been fun!

Desper Hollow, by Elizabeth Massie

Desper Hollow

Desper Hollow was my introduction to Elizabeth Massie’s stories.  Oh, I’d come across her name every now and then over the years, knew that she was a fiction author and had written several books, but that was about the limit of my knowledge.  Then I had the chance to get my hands on a copy of Desper Hollow and I knew, I just knew I had to read the book.  The cover art caught my attention right off and it wasn’t long before I cracked the novel open and started reading.

The story largely revolves around the Mustard Clan, a large tight-knit family living up in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia.  At the heart of the Mustard family is the matriarch, Granny Mustard, and it’s Granny who sets off a chain of events that rock the land and the community around her.  You see, Granny has a secret, an age-old secret that has her rolling the dice on an attempt to cheat death.  Of course, Desper Hollow is a horror tale, and like all good horror tales, you know that Granny’s hubris is not going to lead anywhere good.

I loved the book.  Massie is a gifted writer who leads the reader with consummate skill into the hearts and minds of the many characters encountered in the tale.  There’s Kathy Shaw, who has moved to the coast but returns to Desper Hollow to help her father cope with tragedy.  There’s Jenkie Mustard, who knows firsthand the horror that Granny Mustard has unleashed, and who makes a vain attempt to control it for her own purposes.  There’s Jack Carroll, who travels to Desper Hollow to begin filming a new reality show about the lives of mountain folk, and who comes face to face with terror.  Massie takes these characters and others and makes us care about them, gets us invested in their lives and thoughts and actions and has us feverishly turning the pages of the novel to see what’s going to come of all of them.  She makes us care even about Jenkie Mustard, who in many ways is a monster herself.

This is, of course, a zombie tale.  One look at the cover art makes that very plain.  Yet, this is not a story about a zombie apocalypse.  Desper Hollow is a smaller tale that touches the lives of but a few people who encounter something monstrous in a backwoods Appalachian community.

The author does a great job of introducing all of the characters, slowly unfolding their own personal stories and then weaving them all together into one hell of a tale.  A tale that, once the stage is set, begins picking up speed until it rockets along at a breakneck pace.  I read the novel over the course of a few days, but when I got to the last third or so, I finished it in two to three hours.  So, fair warning; make sure you’ve set aside a chunk of time, because there will be a point where you’re not going to want to put down the book.  The whole world could crumble into dust around you and it won’t matter, you’re going to have to get to the end of this tale.

I strongly recommend Desper Hollow.  Fans of dark fiction will doubtlessly love this story, even if not necessarily a fan of zombie tales.  Zombies are far from my first love when it comes to scary stories, but I highly enjoyed this tale, and I’ll read it again.  If the author were ever to revisit Desper Hollow and the people who live there in a new book, I would definitely get a copy and crack it open.

One last note: Desper Hollow is a sequel of sorts.  Granny Mustard’s tale actually begins in a short story titled When Granny Comes Marchin’ Home Again.  That story appears in the anthology, Appalachian Undead, put out by Apex Book Company.  It’s not necessary to read that story first, but it does give a deeper glimpse into the life of Granny Mustard, and if you enjoy Desper Hollow, you’ll no doubt want to read this short prequel to the novel.

Disclaimer:  I was provided an electronic copy of Desper Hollow by Apex Book Company in exchange for an honest review.  I received no money or any other form of compensation, and the opinions stated in this review are my own.

Second Lives, by P.D. Cacek

Second Lives.jpg

I recently stepped into the world of book reviewing for the first time, and have enjoyed many good books.  It played out that Flame Tree Press was the publisher whose books I read the most of.  The Dark Game, Black Wings, and The Haunting of Henderson Close were all great stories, and I’m thankful Flame Tree gave me the chance to read and review the ARCs of those novels.  When I started the fourth ARC I received from them, I anticipated another well-written, engaging horror story that would make it to my permanent bookshelf.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I began reading Second Lives by P.D. Cacek, wondering what kind of scares awaited me within the novel.  By the time I was halfway through, the scares had yet to show up, and I wondered if maybe this was going to be a slow burn, leading to an immensely creepy and horrific climax.  I kept reading and next thing I knew, I finished the last page and set the book down.  I glanced at its cover, and realized I had been taken in by one of the cleverest and most misleading covers I’d encountered: A pair of hands covering a face, with an eyeball gazing out from the back of one of the hands.  Creepy image.  Second Lives, however, was clearly, unequivocally, not a horror tale.  Except for one minor scene around the middle of the book, there wasn’t even a whiff of anything creepy, dark, scary or eerie.

None of that mattered.  When I set the book down on my desk, after finishing the story, my eyes were wet from the emerging tears.  I was profoundly moved by the tale, and had found myself silently tearing up several times throughout the read.  Second Lives is a powerfully emotional story of love, loss, and second chances, and it hit this middle-aged Irish-Italian’s heart like a ton of bricks.

Four people die.  Four people wake and look at the world around them through new eyes, their bodies inhabited by other spirits.  Four people begin new journeys.

That’s all I’ll say about the story itself.  I don’t want to give any spoilers, and I think everyone who reads this should begin the voyage blind.  Just pick up the book and let P.D. Cacek lead you down the path of her story.  Make sure to have a box of Kleenex handy; you’ll need it at more than one point along the trail.

Now go.  Get yourself a copy of the novel and give it a read today.  You won’t be disappointed.  It’s available through Amazon and through Flame Tree Press, in paperback, hardcover, and for the Kindle.  Flame Tree Press also offers it as an audio-book.

Disclaimer:  I was sent an advance reading copy of the book by Flame Tree Press in exchange for an honest review.  I received no money or any other compensation for the review, and the opinions stated therein are my own.

Martial Arts Mayhem in Old Chinatown

The Girl with Ghost Eyes

by M.H. Boroson

Review by S.D. Vassallo

the girl with ghost eyes

I really enjoyed this novel!  It’s a fun mix of martial arts action, Chinese folklore and mythology, fantasy, and a little bit of horror thrown in for good measure.  M.H. Boroson grabs the reader’s attention and keeps it throughout the book.  The action sequences were well done, the main plot is engaging, the various characters are interesting, and there is just enough mystery in the story to keep the reader wondering what’s going to happen next.

The main character is Li-Lin, the daughter of a Daoshi exorcist, living in San Francisco’s Chinatown around the end of the 19th Century.  When she and her father are attacked by a renegade sorcerer, Li-Lin embarks on a quest to find the sorcerer and put a stop to his diabolical plans.  Her path takes her through the Chinatown underworld, both criminal and mystical.  She makes several interesting and colorful allies, including a demon eye named Mr. Yanqiu, who is bound by oath to protect her.

One of the things I really appreciated about this story is the fact the villains are not one-dimensional cardboard cut-out caricatures.  They have depth, and though they definitely are villains, there’s a good bit of sadness and tragedy in their character arcs that make them compelling.  The main villain’s backstory is tragic, and though he has become twisted and evil, one can’t help but feel pity for him.

Another facet that enrichens the story is the extensive research the author has done in Chinese religion, language and folklore.  By his words, some of the traditions and history in the novel are completely fictional, invented for the background of the story, but much is based on real-life Chinese traditions and beliefs.  The book sparked my interest in wanting to read and learn more about Chinese folklore.

The Girl with Ghost Eyes features a strong positive female protagonist.  Li-Lin is smart, brave, capable, and highly skilled, both in her magical talents and in her physical fighting skills.  The story has great action scenes while avoiding a common cliché seen in both books and movies nowadays, where a 100-pound woman tosses around men two to three times her weight as if they weighed nothing at all.  The fight sequences in the story realistically reflect the challenge of fighting an opponent who’s heavier and stronger than oneself.  Li-Lin has to use smart tactics in her battles, making the story more enjoyable, in my opinion.

I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about this book.  Boroson is a gifted storyteller and I enjoyed his prose.  Here’s an example of his writing:

A man takes a wrong turn down a street he has traveled every day and finds himself somewhere unfamiliar.  Shadows lean oddly, buildings look different, and something is moving at the edge of what you can see…Maybe for a moment you see human features in the window, watching you.  And why is the dog barking at a dark corner?  Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.  At the edge of perception, weird things dance and howl.

 As with all good stories I’ve read in my life, I was sad when this one ended; I wanted more.

Bottom line: The Girl with Ghost Eyes is a rousing action/adventure tale filled with magic, monsters, mystery, and martial arts mayhem.  In some ways, I found it similar to Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International.  Both tales have colorful, interesting characters, lots of weird and often grotesque monsters, and the action sequences are exciting and well-written.  If you’re a fan of Correia’s work, you’ll love Boroson’s novel.

NOTE:  After reading the book, I learned that a sequel, titled The Girl with No Face, is set to be released later this year.  Personally, I can’t wait.  I will be in line to get a copy when it hits the bookstores.

The Dark Game by Jonathan Janz

the dark game

I’ve been looking forward to reading one of Jonathan Janz’s novels for a while now.  The buzz I’ve seen on social media about him and his work has been nothing but positive.  When Flame Tree Press offered me an advance reading copy of his upcoming novel, The Dark Game, I jumped at the chance to read and review the story.  It didn’t take me long to see that the hype was well-deserved.

The Dark Game concerns a legendary author named Roderick Wells, who is hosting a summer retreat for writers.  Wells promises that one of the writers in attendance will be chosen as the winner, and will be guaranteed to be the next greatest thing in the literary world.  Ten writers accept his invitation, but there’s a catch.  They can tell no one their whereabouts or that they have received an invitation from Wells.  They also are not allowed to communicate with the outside world while they are at the retreat.

One by one, the prospective authors arrive.  It doesn’t take them long to learn that there’s something more going on than just a writer’s retreat.  They have entered a dark game concocted by a twisted genius, a game that threatens their lives and their very sanity.

As the story progresses, the reader learns that each of the ten writers has a secret they don’t wish others to know.  Those secrets are used by Wells to manipulate them into performing the roles he has set for them in his game.  Since this is a horror novel, it also doesn’t take long before the first of them meets a gruesome end.  One by one, they realize that not only is there going to be one winner of Roderick’s game, there will likely only be one survivor.

I enjoyed this introduction to Janz’s writing.  From the beginning, I appreciated his style.  Janz wastes no time clueing in the reader as to what’s going on.  Indeed, he makes it all perfectly clear with the very first sentence of the story:

            Lucy sat in the back of the limo, blindfolded, unaware she was entering the        nightmarish plot of a madman instead of a writer’s retreat.

Janz developed the characters bit by bit, revealing their true natures.  The first impressions formed in the reader’s mind as he is introduced to the characters get stripped away, much like peeling an onion.  Some of the characters could have used more backstory, and there were changes in character motivations that I felt were a bit rushed.  Overall, though, the plot was engaging and I eagerly read as the story unfolded.

One word of warning: The Dark Game lives up to its name.  There are some truly darkly horrific scenes in the book, and while I wouldn’t consider it to be extreme, nonetheless the story is not for the faint of heart.  No real spoilers, but not since I saw the movie “It’s Alive” back in the seventies has there been the potential of a story giving me a nightmare featuring infants.  You’ll see what I mean when you read this tale.

The Dark Game will be released on April 11, 2019.  Fans of horror fiction, mark that date on your calendars.  See you at the bookstore!

NOTE:  I was provided an advance reading copy of The Dark Game by Flame Tree Press, in exchange for an honest review.  I was not given any compensation for writing the review, and the opinions stated therein are my own.