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: ‘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.

Re-Reading King: The How and the Why

OldKingsThe How and the Why

I’ve been thinking of doing this for a while now. Been wanting to do it. Hell, I’ve been needing to do it. But other obligations have made it so that I didn’t feel like I could commit to doing it.

Those obligations are gone now. So, I’m going to do it. I’m going to re-read Stephen King.

I don’t know how long it will take. I don’t have a timetable in mind. I’m going to take my time. I’m going to meander. As King has so often tried to teach us – in The Colorado Kid, for example, and perhaps in the entire Dark Tower series – sometimes it’s better to concentrate on the journey, and quit worrying so much about the final destination.* The only thing I have resembling a plan is to start with his first book, Carrie, and read them in order of publication.**

I want to do this because Stephen King is my favorite author. Without him, there would be no October Country. There wouldn’t be the couple of hundred book reviews I’ve written and published, because I may not be as avid a reader if it wasn’t for his books. The ten short stories I’ve published so far wouldn’t exist; nor would the novels I’ve started and stopped and finished and abandoned over time.

I also want to do this because there’s a surprisingly large portion of his catalog that I’ve only read once. That seems unacceptable considering he’s my favorite author. There are plenty that I’ve read multiple times – Pet Sematary and The Shining and Bag of Bones and even the mammoth It – but there are so many more that I’ve only touched once, and I can’t wait to revisit them. Will Duma Key still be as good as I think it is? Is Rose Madder really that bad? Will Bag of Bones still be my favorite when it’s all said and done?

We’ll see.

I’ve debated on whether to write about these, whether or not they really belonged here on October Country. And the answer is: of course they do. This blog is a map – an incomplete one, perhaps, but a map nonetheless – of my reading. My writeups won’t be traditional reviews. They may not make a lot of sense outside of my own personal context. I don’t know if anyone will read them. I hope people do read them, and I’d love for each post to have tons of comments from people sharing their own thoughts and feelings on the book. But this may be too personal a project to elicit much response. This is mostly me trying to get my arms around my feelings about this one writer’s huge body of work.

Hell, it’s mostly me just reading a bunch of books I like and grooving on them. You’re more than welcome to come along for the ride if you so wish.

Now, as King himself said in his foreward to Night Shift:

There’s something I want to show you, something I want you to touch. It’s in a room not too far from here – in fact, it’s almost as close as the next page.

Shall we go?

Re-Reading King: The Index

* It’s a good lesson, too, because if King’s works have a weak point, it’s often the ending.

** I’ll break away from this when it comes to any new releases. Revival is coming out in November 2014, and seeing how I’m starting this in August 2014, I seriously doubt I’ll be caught up to it by November. I also don’t know how the Dark Tower series is going to fit into this. The next time I read those, I want to read them back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. So I don’t know if I’ll do this when I reach The Gunslinger in its place in the timeline, or just tackle those somewhere else down the road. When I know, you’ll know.

Review: ‘Down’ by Nate Southard

DownCover

For me, the hardest books to review are the ones that don’t elicit a passionate response, whether it’s “I loved it” or “I hated it.”
It’s even more difficult when the author in question has written other books that I really enjoyed. Such is the case with Nate Southard, a man whose hard-bitten prose I’ve enjoyed in the past, but whose latest short novel Down left me underwhelmed.

Down, released earlier this year by Sinister Grin Press, follows the travails of the rock band The Frequency Brothers. The band is in the midst of its latest tour and is poised on the edge of superstardom – which, if you’ve read any Rolling Stone article on any band on the edge of superstardom, you know means they are dealing with plenty of inner turmoil. There is drug use and infidelity and insecurity a-plenty, and the pressure is mostly felt by their long-suffering but capable manager, Potter. Potter also has issues at home, and he’s looking forward to this small break in their tour schedule to give him time to deal with his family.

It’s all rock-and-roll business as usual, until their plane goes down.

The crash is a harrowing experience that Southard skillfully juxtaposes with glimpses of the band as they take the stage for their last show, a sold-out gig in Austin, Texas. It’s a breathless first chapter that’s brimming with promise; unfortunately, once the plane is violently grounded, the story is grounded, too.

Southard is trying to put new twists on some old tropes in Down, and I’ll give him props for that all day long. There are some good ideas here, but what seems to be lacking is focus. There’s some kind of savage creature roaming the woods in which the band’s plane crash landed, and it’s picking off survivors one by one. That’s a story we’ve all heard a thousand times, but Southard manages to wring plenty of suspense and shock out of the premise. It’s only when some of the other elements come into play – a mysterious pit filled with human remains; weird, unearthly symbols carved into trees; the slow transformation of some of the survivors – that things get a bit muddy for me.

Southard is a strong enough writer to keep me entertained even when the I’m lukewarm on the plot. (Exhibit A: the line “…nausea kept grabbing him in a slick, wet fist….” which is such a perfect description of that feeling.) Down was not a chore to finish, as so many books are, but I don’t think it’s on par with much of what the author has already produced, and will produce in the future. I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit Down, but the next time something with Southard’s name appears I won’t hesitate to pick it up.

Review: ‘Beware the Dark’ #2 (Special Tom Piccirilli Issue)

Beware-the-Dark-Tom-PicarilliRegular readers of Tom Piccirilli‘s work (of which there aren’t near enough, in my humble opinion) are likely aware of the accomplished author’s ongoing battle with brain cancer (complicated recently by a stroke). Piccirilli is a writer’s writer and has the reputation around the horror community of being a helluva good guy. I haven’t met the man myself, but that reputation is backed up by the deluge of support he received from writers, publishers and fans when news of his illness first spread.

Paul Fry, founder of Short, Scary Tales Publications, was largely unaware of Piccirilli’s work, but when he saw the support the writer was receiving he decided to check it out. He was evidently impressed
with what he saw, as he’s devoted the second issue of his magazine Beware the Dark to Piccirilli – an issue highlighted by three new stories and a nonfiction piece by Piccirilli himself.

Piccirilli’s stories (“At the Mercy of Angry Angels,” “Waste of the Good Stuff” and “How Some of Us Sleep”) work together as a good overview of the themes that run through most of his work; independently, they work as damn fine stories. “Sleep” is particularly powerful, turning a story of astral projection into a touching tale about family, love and sacrifice.

It’s Piccirilli’s nonfiction piece that truly stands out, however. “Meet the Black” is an essay he wrote before – and after – his brain surgery, and it’s as open and honest and raw a look at a man confronting his own mortality and legacy as you’re ever likely to see.

Fry fills out the issue with several tributes to Piccirilli and his work from authors like Jack Ketchum and Norman Partridge. There’s plenty of non-Piccirilli work as well, including an interview with Joe Lansdale, fiction by Edward Lee, T.T. Zuma and Eric Red, and illustrations by Keith Minnion, Alex McVey and others. There’s also the first in a series of columns by Ray Garton called “Writers You Should Be Reading” – I wrote a similar column (by which I mean a column exactly like this, with the same title!) for the late, lamented FEARnet, and I look forward to seeing how my tastes and choices match up with Garton’s.

All in all, Beware the Dark #2 is a darkly beautiful package. It’s not overly-designed (a real problem with some genre publications, particularly horror publications), the copy is presented in clean, easy-to-read fashion, and the contents are well worth the twelve bucks it costs in the U.S.

Review: ‘Piercing the Darkness’ edited by Craig Cook

PTDCOverDuring his final semester at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Craig Cook took part in a service project working with some underprivileged students. While helping the kids work on their own short stories, he discovered in them a real thirst for the kind of knowledge that can only come through reading. In himself, he discovered an intense desire to help them, and others like them, have access to the knowledge they craved.

This desire led him to put together Piercing the Darkness, a fully loaded anthology benefiting the Children’s Literacy Initiative. With the weight of such a worthy cause behind him, Cook has assembled a stunning lineup of talent, with many of them contributing brand-new stories. 400 pages from the cream of the horror crop for less than twenty bucks, with all proceeds going to help create a new generation of readers? That’s what we call a”no-brainer” in these parts, my friends.

Still, it wouldn’t be a proper review if I didn’t talk about a few of the stories. The difficulty here was in picking the ones to rave about. Do I talk about “Husband of Kellie” by T.T. Zuma, a zombie story with a wicked punch of an ending? Do I mention Kealan Patrick Burke’s “Haven,” a quietly devastating tale of a man who returns to his childhood home to be reunited with the part of him that never left? I definetely can’t leave out “Searching” by Monica J. O’Rourke, a short piece about a young girl convinced that her real dad is a prince coming to rescue her, not the uninterested jerk that she lives with. (And do I tell how that one nearly brought me to tears?) How much do I say about the stories by Brian Keene and Joe Lansdale and Christopher Golden and Gary Braunbeck and Jonathan Maberry and Jack Ketchum – or do I need to say anything at all, since (for me, at least) their names alone are all that needs to be said?

I think the best way to approach this review, probably, is to keep it short and sweet. So, I’ll just say this: I believe in the cause Craig Cook is trying to help, and I believe in the gift these writers have in telling compelling, thought-provoking, and at times out-right terrifying stories. So yes, I believe Piercing the Darkness is a book that’s well worth your time and your money.

Review: ‘Deep Like the River’ by Tim Waggoner

DeepRiverAs Deep Like the River opens, a woman named Alie is marking a particularly tough anniversary. Alie’s sister, Carin, thought a day canoeing down Little Clearwater River might provide some
peace of mind – or, at the very least, a distraction from the unpleasant memories they’re both dealing with. Unfortunately, Alie has a much longer journey she needs to complete, and Carin is quickly drawn into an escalating series of horrifying events, beginning with a shocking discovery on a sandbar.

Tim Waggoner‘s new novella, out now from Dark Regions Press, details the surreal path Alie follows as she tries to come to grips with her own dangerously fractured psyche. How and why she came to be in this state is best left for the author to reveal in his own time and his own way, and he does so in typically elegant fashion. While the broad points of the story are nothing groundbreaking, Deep Like the River is more about the journey than the destination.

Along their way down the river, Alie and Carin encounter many things – serpents, great winged beasts, and a frighteningly empty-eyed mother-son duo among them – that may or may not be real. Waggoner is not interested in doling out easy answers – not for Alie, not for Carin, and certainly not for the reader. The result is an evocative, thought provoking story that, like the Little Clearwater itself, will surprise you greatly with its depth.