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.

Benjamin Kane Ethridge talks ‘Dungeon Brain’

As an author, Benjamin Kane Ethridge came out of the gate strong, winning a Bram Stoker Award for his first novel, the Halloween tale Black & Orange. He quickly followed that up with another critically acclaimed book, Bottled Abyss, along with a steady stream of short stories and essays.

He is currently on an extensive blog tour to promote his latest novel, Dungeon Brain, and I’m pleased to welcome him today to October Country.

OC: Multiple personalities are an integral part of your new novel, Dungeon Brain. What kind of research did you do on multiple personality disorder? Were you looking for a realistic take on it, or creating something more fanciful?

BKE: Hi there and thanks for having me in this interview. I approached the material in a fanciful manner. I love what-if questions while tuning up my concepts for stories. For this novel I had a what-if moment regarding multiple personalities, in that they could be more than just figments of a mentally sick imagination. What if the “others” were actual people who had been consumed and trapped in this person’s mind, by some kind of extrasensory power?

How did you approach making the personalities distinct, yet still a part of one character? Or was that a consideration?

For much of the book, my main character is struggling with chemically induced amnesia. She doesn’t have a point of reference to these people in her head. In a sense, she’s blindly groping around the halls of morality, trying to figure out if these people are just or unjust. Most of the residents of her head came from a prison colony — so they are criminals, but as we all know, crimes don’t always define a person’s nature, good or bad. So the main character, June, is addressing these personalities like a blank slate; she has nothing to judge them by, and in a sense, is forging a new personality since her previous one is clouded from the amnesia. This makes the other personalities quite distinct since she has nothing but objectivity to go on.

One of the things that frightens me the most about the idea of multiple personalities is the loss of control. That’s a real-life concern that has often been used in fiction. What are the “real” things (outside of genre tropes like monsters and ghosts) that scare you the most?

This is an extension of fear of losing control, but I’m afraid of the randomness of life. I begin each new day and hope it’s similar in structure to the others before it. Mother Nature. Human Nature. Social Nature. It can all introduce frightening scenarios that nobody can anticipate and I fret over unexpected outcomes.

You once described Dungeon Brain as “dark sci-fi” – is it difficult to straddle the horror and sci-fi genres, to bring in enough of both to stay balanced and to satisfy fans who maybe lean more toward one genre than the other?

I’m not really in a place to say either way yet. This is my first novel venturing (modestly) into science fiction, and I haven’t had a boatload of feedback yet. On the writing level, I just wanted to make an entertaining and, at best, enlightening story and science fiction showed up, unannounced. I hope people who have enjoyed my dark fantasies will also enjoy the dark sci-fi as well.

What’s something we should know about the new novel that maybe we haven’t learned from the publicity, excerpts, etc. available up to this point?

I’ve always been a fan of labeling a book in exactly the specific genre and subgenre it falls into, but publishers normally like cut and dry Science Fiction or Fantasy or Horror. This novel, Dungeon Brain, would technically be Dark Military Science Fantasy. That’s a mouthful and I don’t think bookstores will ever have a section for it, but despite never seeing it termed that way, to me, it’s a great label.

You won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel for Black & Orange – in terms of the pressure that was on you to follow that up with Bottled Abyss and now Dungeon Brain, was that win a blessing or a curse?

To be truthful, I feel the need to say it is both a blessing and a curse, but then I also suspect that’s a cop out and I have to take a bold stance. I’m going to go with “blessing.” The award has made me work harder to put out better work at a faster rate. It’s more difficult than when I was an unpublished novelist, constantly questioning whether I was wasting my time or not. In those days I could write at my leisure, whenever the muse cracked its whip. Now the whip has been turned around and the muse has to fall in line. It’s more of a job now in this fashion but if it wasn’t challenging than it wouldn’t be worthwhile.

You’re doing a lot of interview as part of your blog tour to support the new book – what’s a question that you wish you would get asked, but never do?

Good question! I never get asked what I’m never asked. Now I’m lost in a logic loop and have no way to answer this.