Interview: In the ‘Madhouse’ with Benjamin Kane Ethridge

One of Aeron Alfrey's insanely detailed 'Madhouse' illustrations.

One of Aeron Alfrey’s insanely detailed ‘Madhouse’ illustrations.

In the middle ages, it was thought that insanity was contagious. Centuries on, we label such ideas as superstitious ignorance. But when John Doe begins to speak after decades of silence, the staff and patients at the Golden Canyon Behavioral Health center begin to realize that behind every superstition lies a horrid truth.

On the night that a vicious sandstorm closes the roads and seals the doors, a plague of madness spreads through the hospital. Two staff members try desperately to hold onto their sanity while searching for the cause – and, hopefully, the cure – of the outbreak.

That’s the premise of Madhouse, the new shared-world horror anthology in the works from Dark Regions Press. The publisher is in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, and at roughly 80% funded with about three weeks to go, it seems a good bet that the book will see the light of day in Spring 2015. That’s good news, because with authors like John Skipp, Jeff Strand, Lisa Morton and Scott Nicholson set to participate, it’s likely to be a tasty treat for fans of good horror fiction.

Bejamin Kane Ethridge co-edits the book with Brad C. Hodson, and the two also wrote the framing story that ties all the short stories together. Ethridge was kind enough to take one eye off the funding campaign long enough to answer a few questions for October Country.

October Country: Which came first: the idea to do a shared-world horror anthology, or the plot of Madhouse, which naturally lends itself to existing as a shared-world anthology?

Benjamin Kane Ethridge: Actually the idea to do a shared world insane asylum anthology came first. Brad C. Hodson, my co-editor on the project, took submissions and invited authors to come aboard. We had a scenario for them to use but no plot. After all the stories were completed, Brad and I wrote the meta-plot that would flow throughout.

Who came up with the concept, and what about it stood out as something that would make an exciting book?

Brad and I rendered the concept about the Golden Canyon Behavioral Health Center and the ongoing supernatural sandstorm that has everybody trapped inside. It’s hard to say where one idea started and another began, but we worked well as a team and it came together quite organically.

What was behind the decision to go the crowdfunding route, and why Indiegogo specifically?

Dark Regions has had success going this route. It wasn’t anything Brad and I had even considered when we first started putting the book together. Since Dark Regions uses the campaign also as a pre-order mechanism, Indiegogo makes sense because it delivers the funds at the end of the campaign, whether the funding goal was reached or not. When people contribute to the Madhouse campaign, they are at very least going to end up with a copy of the book. Depending on how funding goes, that copy could have some amazing extra illustrations and other fun things added.

As you began to solicit stories and put the book together, what were some of the challenges you faced? Was it difficult to convince authors to write stories for a book that isn’t guaranteed to be published?

Many of the writers we approached we’d already had solid experiences with before. There were some who were skittish about the project in the first stages, and I cannot say that I blame them. When you devote the time to writing something, it had better be time well spent. Most of our contributors seemed to love the idea so much however that many agreed and turned over stories with little trepidation as to the publishing outcome.

Creatively, what kind of challenges – and advantages – does the “shared-world” format provide you as editors?

Characters are a big factor. Golden Canyon, as a facility, is enormous, and so we were able to afford a large cast. That said though, for the work to feel more cohesive, we had to take some characters and combine them- -especially those characters who seemed to be a certain type, a recurring sort. It was difficult also to weave our meta-plot into other stories without being too intrusive into what the author’s original intentions were. So we had to handle it carefully.

Did you have to turn down stories that were good, but just didn’t quite fit the concept?

There was one story I received that possessed great potential, but didn’t quite hit its mark. The author wasn’t in a good place to revise or restart the story, unfortunately, and so I had to let that one go. Generally we worked with all of our authors to change their stories to fit better into our vision. It was surprising, almost scary surprising, how most of our contributors really had our vibe down however.

How varied in tone are the stories? Is it a mix of quiet horror and more extreme horror, or does the book lean more toward one or the other?

Brad and I purposely tried to arrange our stories in a progression. We took works of quiet horror, such as that of Christopher Conlon, in the start of the book all the way to the frenetic violent wildness of John Skipp near the book’s conclusion. So there’s definitely a variety and it all fits together to create this steep slide into ultimate madness.

I won’t ask you to pick favorites among the stories, but which ones provide a good tease of what we can expect from the book overall – and why?

Erik William’s “Yellow Bug” comes to mind for me. This is most likely because it’s one of the first submissions we received. It really does capture the tone of the larger story at play in a succinct fashion, where personal demons are at war and insanity exploits that war in the worst possible ways.

Want to help push the Madhouse campaign over the top? Visit Indiegogo to contribute.

Review: ‘Fangoria: Cover to Cover’ edited by Anthony Timpone

This is the cover of the advance reading copy - not sure if it's the final design.

The first issue of Fangoria I ever bought was issue number six. It was dated June of 1980, and it was the one year anniversary issue of the magazine. I bought it because it had C-3PO and R2-D2 on the cover, posing in one of Hoth’s ice caves from The Empire Strikes Back. Back then, I was all about Star Wars and anything related to it.

I don’t remember when I noticed the other picture, the last one in the little filmstrip that ran down the left side of the cover. It was a shocking juxtaposition with the bright gold, blue and white of the Empire photo. It was of a man with an arrow sticking out of his eye, his face nearly obscured by bright red blood. The photo was from the original Friday the 13th; the man was an early victim in a franchise I would soon come to revere and enjoy as much as George Lucas’s space opera.

When I look back at the table of contents of that issue, I see so much of what would eventually come to shape my reading and viewing habits in the years ahead: Stephen King, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, George Romero, Hammer Studios, and so much more. I was fascinated by the articles and the photos, the little peeks into the wonders that were out there, waiting to be discovered. I don’t know how many times I read that issue; I do know that the cover didn’t survive, but I still have the rest of it. I have all my issues of Fangoria – not every issue they have published, but the majority of them, and one day I hope to track down the rest.

Fangoria is important to me, and flipping through the pages of Cemetery Dance’s new, oversized treasury of its covers, Fangoria: Cover to Cover, was a complete joy. Looking through the book took me back to the times when the unholy trinity of Freddy, Jason and Michael dominated the horror world (and the Fango cover slot), with their ol’ pal Leatherface not far behind. I marveled at some of the bold choices they made – like the skinless corpse (from Hellraiser, if I’m not mistaken) on the cover of #53, or the entrails oozing from the television set (Videodrome) on #25. Severed heads, people with hacksaws digging into their throats, melting vampires – all of this, and more, tucked away on magazine stands in grocery stores and drug stores, right up there with Time and Southern Living. There are 330 covers represented in the book, going from the first issue to the one released in February of 2014, and it’s an amazing thing to see them all grouped together.

The one that started it all for me.

The one that started it all for me.

However, Fangoria: Cover to Cover isn’t just pretty pictures. There’s a foreward by Bruce Campbell, talking about how Fangoria‘s early coverage helped the original Evil Dead succeed; an introduction by current Fango editor Chris Alexander, sharing his excitement over living out a life-long dream by helming the magazine; and an introduction by W.R. Mohalley, the man responsible for designing each and every Fango cover since #27. It’s Mohalley’s work we’re really celebrating here, and I’m so happy that Cemetery Dance gave the man some space to talk about his work. It’s brief, but gives a really nice overview of how far things have come for Mohalley and for the craft he practices.

Anthony Timpone, who served as Fangoria‘s editor for a huge chunk of its run, also chimes in with an issue-by-issue look at the magazine, providing brief overviews of what’s in each, and little peeks at some of the decisions that were made in putting those issues together. This is my only disappointment in the book. Don’t get me wrong, this section is great, but it’s more like a tease – I would love to see Timpone write a book about the behind-the-scenes workings of Fangoria. It’s clear from what he writes here that is enthusiasm for the magazine is unwavering, and I can only imagine the kind of stories he has to tell. Maybe one day….

Fangoria: Cover to Cover is an amazing chronicle of a magazine that not only covers the horror genre, but became (and remains) an integral part of it. It wasn’t long after devouring the book that I had to dig out my boxes of back issues and explore them at length. Long-time Fango readers and horror fans who pick this up will find themselves on a nostalgia high. As for new horror fans looking for a peek at the genre’s rich history – well, this is a damn fine place to start.

Review: ‘The Halloween Children’ by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss

TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumThe first weekend of October has arrived. A cold front is sweeping through Alabama tonight, scrubbing away the awful humidity and bringing us, at least for a few days, actual fall temperatures. I’ve got the makings for a huge pot of chili, there’s wood in the fire pit, and various autumn-flavored ales are stocked in the fridge. And, best of all, I’ve got a great October read to tell you about, the perfect way to start what I hope will be a month full of literary greatness.

The Halloween Children is a twisty funhouse ride through the minds of Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss, two enormously talented writers who have created an instant Halloween classic in this, their first collaboration. Much like Norm Partridge’s Dark Harvest, The Halloween Children is an expert distillation of the Halloween season, capturing that peculiar mix of excitement, dread and outright fear in its pages.

Stillbrook Apartments is a quiet apartment complex with a history shrouded in rumor and secrecy. Some bad things may have happened there at one time – or maybe not. “Truth” is something of an abstract concept in this novel, and the authors work very deliberatly and efficiently at keeping any sort of real answers tantalizingly out of reach.

What we do know is this: Harris, his wife Lynn, and their children Mattie and Amber live in Stillbrook. Harris is the complex’s handyman, met each day with a list of resident complaints both normal (burned-out lights and broken locks) and unusual (whining in the walls and untraceable odors). From the get-go we can see that there’s a humming wire of tension running through the family, an obvious dividing line that pits father and son against mother and daughter. For the most part they keep things civil, even loving at times, but as Halloween approaches outside forces go to work on the wedge that’s already there. First come small things, like uncharacteristic bursts of rage from Lynn, and possible hallucinations experienced by Harris. There seem to be easy explanations for these things at first, but as the story moves forward everyone – characters and readers
alike – begins to question, well, everything.

The final mad descent begins when the family finds a living creature being baked alive in their oven. From there the tone shifts from unsettling to downright horrifying. It’s a change that could have easily derailed the book, but Freeman and Prentiss keep a tight reign on the proceedings all the way through to the tragic end.

From the great, early slow build of the book to the terrifying, satisfying payoff, The Halloween Children is a complete success. Freeman and Prentiss do a great job in blending their unique styles into one pure voice – like Stephen King and Peter Straub with The Talisman and Black House, you’ll try to guess who wrote what, and you’ll most likely get it wrong. Reading this was the perfect kickoff to the Halloween season for me, and I have a feeling it will be part of my permanent October rotation for a long time to come.

Review: ‘Black Hat Jack’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Black_Hat_Jack_by_Joe_R_Lansdale_Limited_Edition_CoverAmerica’s frontier days were a ripe time for the art and tradition of storytelling. As people began to push the boundaries further west they discovered a great many new things to see and people to meet. In the absence of things like iPhones, digital cameras and the Internet, word-of-mouth ruled the day as a means of communicating what was happening in the west to the rest of the nation. There were also newspapers and dime novels, but nothing traveled quite as far and as fast as the spoken word.

More often than not, these accounts were shaped to varying degrees by the teller of the tale. Said storyteller might have been at the event in question, for example, but perhaps sought to beef up his role in what transpired. Or maybe he wasn’t there, but liked the idea of having people think he was. Out of such distortions many of our Western myths and legends were born, and many of those exaggerations live good lives as “the truth” to this day.

The idea of tall tales living on as accepted truth is something Joe Lansdale is well aware of, and he touches on it often in his new novella from Subterranean Press, Black Hat Jack. It’s the story of the famous “Second Battle of Adobe Walls,” in which a group of buffalo hunters were beset by hundreds of angry Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. Lansdale tells us in his “Author’s Note” that the battle really did take place, as did many of the individual acts that he relates in the book. But he also admits that he has embellished the story in much the same way many of the battle’s participants likely did themselves in the years that followed the actual event.

The book is named after a man known as Black Hat Jack, and he plays a prominent role in what transpires, but it’s narrated by Nat Love, a character based on a real African-American cowboy. Lansdale’s Nat has earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” a name that was first used as a character name in a series of actual dime novels published in the late 1800s and later adopted by several men, including the real Nat Love. Lansdale’s Nat asserts that he’s writing down his “real version” of events as a means of correcting misinformation perpetuated in the dime novels of his day, but freely admits that stretching the truth is a tradition among frontiersmen like himself.

That’s just one example of the way Lansdale gleefully twists truth and legend together, simultaneously commenting on, and participating in, the practice of myth making. While it’s fun to try and see where those lines blur in hindsight, you’ll be too busy reveling in Lansdale’s gifts as a storyteller to think on it too much while you’re reading the book. The battle itself is a breathless mix of action, tension and Lansdale’s trademark brand of humor. That section is followed by a bittersweet coda that illustrates the author’s remarkable range, a sadly matter-of-fact reminder that not all heroes get a hero’s reward.

In addition to the fact that Black Hat Jack will be shipping any day now from Subterranean Press, there’s more good news: this is not the first time Lansdale has written about Nat Love. You can find two stories featuring “Deadwood Dick” (“Soldierin'” and “Hide and Horns”) in his massive short story collection Bleeding Shadows. Even better news: he’s reportedly working on, or recently completed, a novel featuring the character. So, if you like Black Hat Jack, there’s more to look forward to.

In the meantime we have Black Hat Jack, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the Western genre or not – this is a story made for lovers of good storytelling. With each and every new release, Lansdale cements his legacy as a master craftsman…and that, my friends, is no exaggeration.

Review: ‘Brainquake’ by Samuel Fuller

BQBeing a bagman for an organized crime outfit would require, one would assume, nerves of steel. When you’re delivering money for the mob, you don’t want to be late, you don’t want to be light, and you damn sure don’t want to drop a package off at the wrong address. So, you may not have to be the smartest guy to be the bagman, but you want to be reliable, quick on your feet, and steady under pressure.

Paul is all of those things, except when he isn’t. Sometimes Paul has attacks – he calls them brainquakes – during which everything in his field of vision turns pink. During these attacks hallucinations mix with reality, but Paul can’t tell which is which. His reactions are swift and sometimes violent. It would be a tough situation for anyone to deal with, but it’s especially brutal for Paul, who is surrounded by the kind of people looking for any kind of weakness they can exploit.

In Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake (out this month from Hard Case Crime and Titan Books), Paul finds himself at the center of a converging group of intriguing characters, each with his or her own agenda. All of the ingredients for an engaging piece of crime fiction are present: a recently widowed mob wife; ten million dollars of missing mob money; a sadistic hitman who poses as a priest and crucifies his victims; a driven, determined police detective; and a mentally distressed bagman with strong moral center. Fuller expertly winds these threads around and around one another until the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

The novel moves at a fast clip. The emphasis is more on plot than on character, but Fuller manages to flesh out each of the main players to varying degrees. There are several standout scenes in the book – one involving a bomb in a baby carriage comes to mind, as well as another dealing with some urgent battlefield-type surgery while trying to extract some important information from a witness. Fuller’s storytelling style is lean and uncluttered, and his pacing is rapid without feeling rushed.

The author is best known as a film director, with titles like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One to his credit. He also wrote a number of novels, with Brainquake being the last one. It’s been something of a “lost novel” for Fuller fans – he published it during a self-imposed exile in France, where he retreated after a dispute over one of his films, and before now it wasn’t available in English. Kudos to Hard Case Crime‘s Charles Ardai for once again going to great lengths to uncover a valuable piece of crime fiction and sharing it with the world.

 

Re-Reading King: ‘Carrie’

'Carrie' (First Edition)

‘Carrie’ (Doubleday Hardcover, 1974) (First Edition)

Carrie by Stephen King

Doubleday | April 1974

I’m not sure when I’d last read Carrie before taking it up again for this project. My memories of it weren’t the fondest. Carrie wasn’t the first King book I read – that was Pet Sematary. I read Carrie somewhere in the white-hot period that immediately followed my initial discovery of King, when I spent months devouring everything I could find with his name on it.

Carrie made the least favorable impression on me then, but I forgave it because I knew it was his first novel and because the movie kicked my ass. Everybody talks about the last scene – Carrie’s hand coming up from the rubble of her house to grab Sue Snell – and that’s a good one, but the one
that makes me hide my eyes is the scene where Carrie has just come home from the prom, and she’s going into her bathroom. She turns on the light, and in a sliver of brightness behind her bathroom door we see her mom, in hiding, butcher knife in hand and all reason drained out of her eyes.

So yeah, it was the rare instance where the adaptation of a King novel made a better impression on me than the novel itself. Now that I think of it, that first reading my have been my only reading of Carrie. At any rate, I’ve now read it again, and I can honestly say I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

The things that bothered me then still bother me now. The newspaper clippings, for example. I enjoy most of the “excerpts” King plants throughout the book – the transcripts from hearings, pages from academic papers, etc. But there are a couple of supposed newspaper articles in there that take me right out of the story because of how badly King botches the “voice” of such articles. While he’s got the air of self-importance down pat when mimicking academic papers and book-length studies of the Carrie White phenomenon, those articles miss the mark completely.

There’s some clunky dialogue in there, too; places where I see quotation marks but what I’m reading feels like narrative rather than someone talking. While King has never, in my opinion, quite got the hang of writing faux newspaper articles, he’s gotten much, much better at making his characters talk the way people actually talk.

Carrie is full of touches that would become earmarks of his early run of novels; little habits and traits that he doesn’t indulge in quite so much these days, many of which I miss. Those little parenthetical asides he used to like so much, for example – like when Miss Desjardin is trying to calm a hysterical Carrie at the beginning of the novel, and softball bats are falling to the ground and a light explodes, and we get:

(the whole damn place is falling apart)

I miss those.

There’s lots of King’s special brand of foreshadowing, too, such as when King refers to Ruth Gogan as one of Carrie’s “surviving classmates” not even 10 pages into the book. Less-than-subtle hints about bad things coming are a King specialty. Also, his habit of having characters who love kitsch

(plastic fantastic)

like the four-foot-tall plaster crucifix Margaret White special ordered from St. Louis. It’s the kind of thing only the deranged would put in their home, and instead of an object of awe, it comes across as something to fear. On Carrie’s dresser there sits a plastic Jesus that glows in the dark, and that’s equally awful (and equally terrifying).

'Carrie' (Doubleday Hardover, 1990) (Reading Copy)

‘Carrie’
(Doubleday Hardover, 1990)
(Reading Copy)

Finally, there’s King’s habit of drawing connective tissue between his works, such as when an Amoco station owned by one Teddy Duchamp blows up as Carrie is making her way back home. Is it the same Teddy from “The Body,” or at least a relative? It seems I remember Teddy coming to a bad end (I’ll see when I get to Different Seasons), so it’s probably not the same guy. But as we know now, crossover is a big part King’s body of work.

Carrie is a lean book – King was still largely a short story writer at that point, and originally thought of Carrie as a short story before padding it out to novel length. He was still a few books away from the epic-length novels that would become (one of) his signatures.

It’s not yet STEPHEN KING, but in retrospect there’s no denying that distinct voice, even in its earliest form. Yes, King has honed and refined over the years, but he’s done so without burying the raw materials and gifts he was blessed with from the start. That you can look back after four decades and nearly 60 books and still find plenty of the voice that wrote Carrie in Mr. Mercedes is amazing.

Carrie crawled into my head and stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading it. There are a few other authors whose work does that, but no one with the consistency and urgency of King. It’s why I’m still a fan all these years later, and why I’m so excited to undertake this personal little project.

Next stop: ‘Salem’s Lot.

Re-reading King: The Index
Re-reading King: ‘Salem’s Lot

Review: ‘Buster Voodoo’ by Mason James Cole

large_BusterVoodoo_EbookCoverDixon Green comes from a spiritual family, but not in the traditional sense. A resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, Dixon spent his childhood watching people visit his mother for things like love potions and charms of protection. To Dixon, things like that are part of everyday life, the way Mass or Communion might be for others.

That side of Dixon’s childhood may have been fairly innocuous, but there were some dark swirls thrown into the mix. Take Empty House, for instance, which was pretty much like every haunted house you can find in almost any old neighborhood, except this one was actually haunted. Dixon found that out for himself one day when he went into the house and saw terrible things, visions of a violent past playing out before him. Empty House, they said, was where all the children who’d lately gone missing in Dixon’s part of New Orleans wound up. Empty House, they said, was where Buster Voodoo took them.

Dixon knew some of those missing kids, but only in passing – until the day his sister Marie became one of them.

Buster Voodoo is the monster of Dixon Green’s childhood. Another monster, this one we all know as Hurricane Katrina, comes along in Dixon’s waning years, offering more suffering heaped upon years of fear and anger and regret. Author Mason James Cole brings both of these forces to chilling life in this, his second novel (his first, Pray to Stay Dead, has been re-released by Buster Voodoo publisher Permuted Press). It’s a book that manages to be both vivid and pitch black at the same time; alive with colorful characters and places, and crawling with impending dread.

The book jumps nimbly back-and-forth between Dixon’s past present. Dixon and his sister did manage to temporarily escape Buster Voodoo, but they didn’t exactly live happily ever after. Dixon is wiling away his days as a janitor in a run-down New Orleans amusement park, and Marie is a guest of a facility for the mentally challenged. Even now, in these places, their childhood demon is never far from them.

Hurricane Katrina arrives midway through the book, and for a while it feels like you’ve wandered into a different story, one in which supernatural concerns are swept away by the real-life horror that storm wrought on New Orleans. It’s a horror that Cole, himself a New Orleans resident, knows firsthand, and you can rest assured he’s not using it here for cheap scares or easy atmosphere. It’s tricky business to present real-life horror side-by-side with made-up horror, but Cole pulls it off. Buster Voodoo is a terrifying creation, but what he is and the things he does pale in the face of Katrina’s fury.

There’s a very human heart at the center of Buster Voodoo, and despite all the praise I could heap on Cole’s ability to write tense, nail-biting scenes of horror, it’s that self-same heart that I feel is his best achievement. Cheap shocks thrown at cardboard cutouts don’t stick with you; bad things happening to characters you’ve grown to care about are harder to shake. Buster Voodoo is rich with atmosphere and emotion, and will leave you with plenty to ponder once the last page has been turned.