Review: ‘Ugly As Sin’ by James Newman

uglysinUgly As Sin has a hard-hitting premise and a scrappy attitude, and even though the punches don’t always connect I give author James Newman full credit for swinging for the fence on every page.

Described as the first in a “white-trash noir” series, Ugly introduces us to Nick Bullman, a former pro wrestler known to his fans as “The Widowmaker.” Caught after a show by a couple of fans who take their sports entertainment a little too seriously, Bullman is left horribly disfigured. A subsequent altercation with his boss, a promoter who seems to be channeling the worst traits of Vincent K. McMahon*, turns physical and slams the door shut on Bullman’s career.

Broke and rudderless, Bullman is drifting through life when he receives a call from his estranged daughter Melissa. The granddaughter he never knew he had has been kidnapped, and while the cops are doing their best to find her, they’re getting nowhere fast. Fearing the worst, Melissa begs her father to return to the small town of Midnight, North Carolina, to see if he can help.

Newman does small-town seedy well, bringing a certain authentic ickiness to Midnight and many of its inhabitants. He populates the town with a good and varied cast of characters, including a well-meaning cop and an overzealous meth head. It’s a colorful crew, but Newman mostly keeps them from lapsing into stereotypes.

The book’s only real stumbles come towards the end, when Newman falls back on a couple of cliches to propel the story to its conclusion. We have the villains who drug our hero and then proceed to discuss their overall plan in great detail, answering questions and filling in plot holes while their victim drifts in and out of consciousness at conveniently-timed intervals. We also have the villain who makes the crucial, rookie-level mistake of not patting down the incapacitated hero when he’s down and out. These issues hurt a little more because so much of the story’s resolution relies on them.

That being said, these issues weren’t enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book. Ugly As Sin is brutal, fast-paced, grimy fun, a compulsive page-turner with characters you’ll be deeply invested in by story’s end. Here’s hoping this “white-trash noir” series continues with Nick Bullman front and center. I’ve got a feeling there’s a lot of life left in that mangled old fighter, and a lot of dark corners to explore in Midnight. I know I’ll be the first in line for a ticket when the show comes back to town.

Ugly As Sin is now available in an oversized hardcover edition, limited to 75 copies. The book includes three bonus (unrelated) short stories: “Dirty Black Summer,” “Tonight I Sing My Blues for You,” and “The Good, The Bad, The Severely Maladjusted.”

*Vincent K. McMahon is the owner of the global sports entertainment brand World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). He is, depending on who (and when) you ask, either a brilliant businessman or a soulless bully – or, most likely, a little of both.

Interview: Kealan Patrick Burke on THE TURTLE BOY

The Necessary Evil Press edition of THE TURTLE BOY, with cover artwork by Caniglia.

In October 2012, Kealan Patrick Burke and Thunderstorm Books will release Nemesis: The Death of Timmy Quinn, the fifth and concluding chapter in the Timmy Quinn series. As a fan of these stories from the beginning I wanted to commemorate this endgame in some way, so I invited Kealan to take part in a series of interviews, one based on each of the Timmy Quinn books, leading up to the final book’s release. We begin that series today with a look back at the one that started it all, the winner of the 2004 Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction, The Turtle Boy.

OC: What was the inspiration for The Turtle Boy?

KPB: When I wrote The Turtle Boy, I was living in an old rambling farmhouse in Delaware, Ohio. Eager to write, but short on inspiration, I found myself looking out my office window at my stepson and his best friend standing at the threshold to the neighboring field. They were discussing the potential for adventure now that summer vacation had started. They eventually decided to explore the pond, which was some distance away and all but hidden from view by a cluster of pines. Suitably inspired, I started with this scene and the rest came easy, particularly as my neighbor at the time had told me the pond contained turtles the size of Buicks and that one of them had ripped off a hunk of his finger.

Are there stories or characters from other authors that influenced this book (or the series as a whole)? Being from Ireland, did you work any Irish folklore into the story?

I’m a big fan of coming-of-age stories like Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon, “The Body” by Stephen King, Summer of Night by Dan Simmons, and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Even To Kill a Mockingbird was an influence. If I hadn’t read all of these books, I wouldn’t have been able to write The Turtle Boy.

I wouldn’t say there’s much Irish folklore in The Turtle Boy, but there’s definitely an Irish flavor to the later books, most significantly in The Hides and Vessels, and not just because they use the country as the setting. Our attachment to and the influence of history comes into play in The Hides, and Vessels incorporates as a subtext the erosion of faith in the Catholic Church and religion as a whole. While these are not inherently Irish subjects, they’re definitely prevalent ones.

How much of you exists in the character of Timmy Quinn?

In the first book, there’s more of my stepson in Timmy than anyone else, but as the books go on and the conflict with his father comes into play, I think there’s a lot of me in there. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the theme of paternal estrangement seems to be a running one throughout the books. Although I wasn’t conscious of this when I wrote them, I am now, and given my own relationship with my father, it makes a lot of sense. And that’s what Timmy tries to do throughout the series: try to make sense of all that’s gone wrong in his life.

When did you begin writing the book, and how long/how many drafts did it take?

I started it in the summer of 2003, and it took about two weeks to write the first draft. Then I sent it around to some people for advice, among them Norman Partridge and F. Paul Wilson. Both of them gave me extensive notes and suggestions, almost all of which I incorporated. By the time it went to press, I’d rewritten it more times than I’ve ever rewritten anything since. It went through about twenty drafts before I was happy with it.

Were you thinking of this as a series at the time? It doesn’t read like a deliberate segue into a series, although you could easily see the potential for the story to continue.

No, contrary to popular belief (and a substantial amount of reviews that imply I ended it on a cliffhanger to get people to buy the rest of the series), The Turtle Boy was not written with a sequel in mind. It wasn’t until a year after the book had been released that Rich Chizmar at Cemetery Dance expressed interest in something in a similar vein. After I gave it some thought, I found myself curious about where Tim and Kim et al might be if we revisited them a few years down the road. I also hadn’t set very much of my writing in Ireland at the time, and it presented me with a great opportunity to do that very thing. The notion of populating my hometown with ghosts was irresistible.

How has the overall story evolved as you’ve continued writing about Timmy?

As soon as I realized it was going to be a series (right about the time the idea for Vessels sprung full formed into my brain), I assumed it was always going to be a ghost story. And while it is, for the most part, Vessels sets up some curve balls and Nemesis turns the tables in a most unexpected fashion. I also didn’t realize it was going to have an apocalyptic flavor by the end. So yes, the journey has been filled with unexpected twists and turns, but Nemesis is the mother of them all.

What else had you published when The Turtle Boy was released?

My first collection, Ravenous Ghosts, had just been released, and I’d had a number of short stories published in various venues, but The Turtle Boy was the most significant release to that point.

How big of an impact did its success have on your career?

Oddly enough, it didn’t do much for me at the time, not that I really expected it to, but it has done a lot in the past few years, more than I’d ever have imagined, in fact. Thanks to a new lease on life as a digital release, the success of it and the other books in the series has allowed me to return to writing full-time after a few years spent floundering in the doldrums.

Caniglia’s art was such an amazing addition to that first Necessary Evil Press edition of the book – especially that cover, which pops into my head whenever I think of this series. How much did his art add to the package in your eyes?

I absolutely adore that cover. With that image, and the interiors he did for the book, I think Jason completely nailed the spirit of the book. I remember the first time I saw them, my breath literally caught in my throat. With only minimal input from me, it looked as if he’d actually visited the real-life pond that inspired the story. It was uncanny. And I think his work elevated the book from just another small press title to a work of art, more due to his illustrations than my story.

Among your books, where does The Turtle Boy rank in your eyes? How about within the Timmy Quinn series itself?

Because of all it’s done for me over the years, The Turtle Boy is my favorite book. I’m not overstating things when I say it has given me my career. But overall, I think my best book to date is Kin for its maturity and cohesiveness. In terms of its rank within the series, I would rank The Turtle Boy lowest because I wrote it in my early twenties and had not yet found my proper voice. So I think every book in the series benefited from the age I was when I wrote it. To that end, I would rank Vessels and Nemesis as the strongest entries. I’m fond of them all for different reasons though.

Would you ever consider taking a second stab at The Turtle Boy, like Stephen King did with the first Dark Tower book? If so, what would you do differently?

That’s a superb question, and man, have I been tempted. The advent of digital publishing means I can revise at any time if I wish. And I do wish, if only to smooth out some of the clunkier parts, and reduce the block of exposition toward the end. Maybe even nix that cliffhanger ending so many readers find so troublesome. But I can’t. Don’t ask me why. Something stays my hand every time I get close. Maybe I’m just too proud of it, flaws and all, to want to fiddle with it. It’d be like if I took one of my childhood pictures and photoshopped out my buck teeth. Sure, I might look less goofy, but it wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of who I was at the time.

Catch up on the series with Stage Whispers: The Collected Timmy Quinn Stories

Nemesis will be available as a signed, limited edition hardcover from Thunderstorm Books. Thunderstorm is also prepping a deluxe edition of Stage Whispers: The Collected Timmy Quinn Stories that will include Nemesis, which is not included in the current digital edition. Visit Thunderstorm Books for more information.

Interview: Nate Southard

Nate Southard has been publishing comics, short stories and novels for nearly a decade. His latest book, Lights Out, brings the vampire genre a much-needed shot of nastiness by setting the story inside a maximum security prison filled with a colorful – and violent – cast of characters. Nate was kind enough to answer a few questions about the new book, and much more, for October Country.

OC: First of all, introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you ended up writing books and stories for a living.

NS: Ah, the awkward, “getting to know you” phase.  Well, I’m a guy from Indiana who moved to Texas, and I’m a sucker for a scary story.  I’ve written a few novels, including Red Sky and Scavengers, and a few novellas, including Just Like Hell and This Little Light of Mine.  It looks like folks are digging them, so I guess I’m doing something right.  I just write the kind of stories I like to read.

 Lights Out, your latest novel, sounds like a premise primed for lots of action – vampires invading a prison, forcing the various characters inside to work together to survive. What’s the root of the idea, and how much fun did you have writing it?

Lights Out started as an idea called Stay Down, which was inspired by the best knuckle tattoos I’ve ever seen.  I wanted to tell a monster story where the heroes weren’t just rough, but were downright nasty.  After kicking around a few possible settings, I settled into the idea of placing it in a maximum security prison.  By setting it there, I could explore the different levels of human nastiness while creating a good thriller.  And I got to play with the idea that the worst person out there is still “human” to some degree.  I guess it’s either a very optimistic novel or a very naive novel because of that.  There are more than a few spots of fun violence, either way.

On your website, you refer to Lights Out as your “favorite work to date” – what sets it apart for you?

At the heart of it, Lights Out was the most fun I’ve ever had writing.  It’s a combination of how I wrote the novel and the characters that came out of it.  With Lights Out, I settled into a groove where I was knocking out about 3000 words a day.  I’d come home, put Faith No More’s Angel Dust on the stereo, and just get lost in the writing.  There are a few spots where I let myself play a little, like a couple chapters that are only dialogue. And the characters are some of the most fun I’ve ever created.  There’s a fun mixture of cold-hearted bastards, well-meaning failures, bullies, cowards, and at least one complete psychopath.  Putting all these guys under one roof was just a fun swirl of chaos.

You also mention another book you’re working on, The Slab City Event. Understanding that it’s still a work-in-progress, what can you tell us about it?

Slab City is a new zombie novel that Creeping Hemlock is publishing through their Print Is Dead imprint.  It’s still so far off that I can’t say anything, but I will say I’m having an absolute blast writing it.  I guess I can also say the entire story takes place over the span of maybe ten-to-fifteen minutes.

You were heavily involved in putting on last year’s World Horror Con. What was that experience like, and what did you take away from it personally and professionally?

It was one of the most rewarding and exhausting experiences of my life.  I’m not kidding when I say World Horror made a year of my life just disappear.  Even now, we’re putting the last few pieces of the convention to bed.  There are days when I feel like I’m still recovering.

Personally, it was a devastating and amazing weekend.  A lot of terrible stuff happened, and a lot of great people did some really wonderful things to help me get through it.  I know there are a ton of adjectives in that sentence, but I mean every last one of them.  The committee was a joy to work with, and our guests of honor were incredible.  And then there’s my co-chair, Lee Thomas.  Without him, the convention would have failed on every level.  He really took my idea of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to fly to a con?” and made it a working reality.

Professionally, I’m very proud of what we did.  Rhodi Hawk roped in a ton of quality editors and agents to take pitches, easily triple the most I’d ever seen at a genre convention.  Nick Mamatas put together a programming slate that was fun and informational.  Everybody else on the committee did a fabulous job, and I’m so thrilled that we could host a convention that might have helped some writers with their careers and provided a fun weekend for fans.

Your bibliography is a mix of short stories and novels – do you have a preference between the two? When you get ideas, do you know “this is a short story” or “this is a novel,” or does it only reveal itself as you work?

I love ‘em both.  For the last couple of years, I’ve been concentrating on novels and novellas, but it’s not like I don’t get short story ideas.  I’m not sure why, but most of the recent good ideas have been for longer pieces.  It’s a little weird, because I do know when the ideas come if they’ll be short or long pieces, but I can’t really pinpoint how I know.  They just feel different on some base level.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you have certain times or places that you like to write, or is it just grabbing time when you can?

I’m a little crazy.  I wake up around 4:30 in the morning and write for ninety minutes before I go to work.  On good days, I can knock out between 1000 and 1500 words.  On the days when I don’t reach that mark, I’ll try to finish up during my lunch break or after work.  The best writing is always in the morning, though.  My mind’s good and blank, then.  I don’t have any stress in there.  I used to write as soon as I got home from work.  With the exception of Lights Out, that almost always turned into a slog.

You’ve reached a certain level of success – what’s the next step, and what do you think it will take to get there?

I want to say the next step is to finally land that agent and sell a book to one of the big New York publishers, but it’s not like I have any control of that past putting together the best pitch I can.  That’s always the way I’ve pictured the career going though, and that’s what I’m working toward now.  That said, I know other authors, like Robert Swartwood, who have been very successful publishing their own work for print and ebook.  The entire industry looks to be in flux now, and I’m not so sure what the right next step might be.  I do know I want to get more of my backlist onto ebook and available in affordable print editions.  Thunderstorm’s doing a great job of trying to bridge that collector/reader gap with Lights Out, which is a signed and limited hardback for only $35.  It’s a little more expensive than you’d see on a bookstore shelf, but not outrageously more.

What else does 2012 have in store that readers should be watching for?

Right now, Thunderstorm Books is selling the limited edition of Lights Out.  My next novel is Down, a weird monster story involving rock stars, plane crashes, drug addiction, cannibalism, and some really nasty sinkholes.  I just turned in that one, and it should be out this spring from Sinister Grin Press.  Thanks to the folks at Deadite Press, I now have a message board at, and they’ll be releasing a paperback edition of Red Sky later this year.  There’s no firm date for The Slab City Event, but it should be out within a year or so.  Maybe.  I think.

After that, who knows?  I’ve got a crime novel I’m kicking around and the early stages of a new horror novel.  We’ll just have to see how everything unfolds.

Thunderstorm rolls out first two ‘Ronald Kelly Essentials’

Way back in May we had a little chat with Ronald Kelly about Undertaker’s Moon, one of his early horror novels (released by Zebra in 1991 as Moon of the Werewolf), which was due to come out this fall as part of the “Ronald Kelly Essentials” line from Thunderstorm Books.  Well, fall has arrived and Thunderstorm has delivered – both Undertaker’s Moon and a second Kelly title, Fear, are now in stock and ready to ship.

Like a couple of new Blu-ray releases, both books come loaded with extras, including new cover art from Alex McVey (Zebra’s original covers, which you can see at Kelly’s website, were the epitome of early-’90s paperback horror art, hence unusable), a “The Writing Of” feature giving behind-the-scenes info on each novel, and a brand-new novella. Thunderstorm is giving this same “Director’s Cut” treatment to a total of eight of Kelly’s early novels, each of which will be limited to 125 copies at $65 apiece.

Thunderstorm has also announced that direct customers who buy all eight titles will receive a bonus hardcover chapbook with new stories by Scott Nicholson, Bryan Smith, James Newman and Nate Southard.

I’m a big fan of Kelly’s. He’s got a natural storytelling voice a lot like Joe R. Lansdale – when you read their stuff, it feels so effortless. Even though you know a ton of work goes into what they do, it’s obviously second nature to them, and it makes the reading experience thoroughly enjoyable. If you’re looking for a good small press investment, look no further.

Review: ‘Waiting Out Winter’ by Kelli Owen

Kelli Owen’s Waiting Out Winter is a post-apocalyptic novella with a fresh twist, in that it doesn’t involve zombies, nuclear war, terrorism, cannibalism, or any of the other staples of the end-of-the-world genre. Instead of a grand act, the world ends on an innocuous black cloud of human error, borne on tiny, buzzing wings.

Three men – Nick, his brother-in-law Jerry and their mutual friend Scott – are returning to civilization after a two-week hunting trip that’s kept them in the woods and completely out of touch. As they make their way home to Hayward, Wisconsin, they notice that at least one thing hasn’t changed while they were away – there are still hundreds of thousands of tent worms on the ground, an infestation that began before they left for their getaway. Other things are different, though – the streets are deserted, businesses are closed, and they can’t raise any stations on the radio. By the time the guys drop Nick off at his house, they’ve all begun to suspect that something terrible has happened. They are right.

I’ll let Kelli Owen tell you what happened, and how it happened. She does such a good job of passing the news along in her book, there’s no need for me to muck it up here. In just a few short pages of exposition, Owen allows Nick’s wife, Jamie, to convey to him – and to us – the nightmarish breakdown of society that’s taken place while he was up in the woods drinking with his buddies. All I’ll say is that it involves a misguided attempt to take care of the tent worms, a massive domino run of mistakes that are all too possible if you really think about it.

From here the story becomes a claustrophobic survival tale as the world shrinks in on itself and the characters. Owen uses the situation to produce a smart commentary on the way our society’s increasingly reclusive tendencies cost us more in the way of companionship and caring than they can ever benefit us. She also uses the situation to produce a taut, tense, and often sad tale of loss and desperation. There’s a scene revolving around a makeshift funeral pyre that will both haunt and break your heart.

Waiting Out Winter was released earlier this year by Thunderstorm Books in both a limited hardcover edition and a trade paperback edition. While those editions appear to be sold out, it’s now available in eBook format, and a bargain at that price. This is a lean little tale, but – like the deadly little creature that stands at its center – it comes in packing quite a punch despite its size. I can’t recommend it enough.

Interview: Ronald Kelly, under the ‘Undertaker’s Moon’

Ronald Kelly is a natural-born Southern storyteller. Lucky for us in October Country, he leans a little to the dark side. He’s been a busy man as of late and has a slew of work coming out, including new novels and a couple of short story collections. He’s also joining forces with Thunderstorm Books to release The Essential Ronald Kelly, a series reprinting his ’90s-era horror novels originally published by Zebra. Leading the collection off is Undertaker’s Moon, a werewolf novel with a long and difficult path to limited edition status. Kelly takes us through that path in the following interview, and shares a little about writing the tale along the way.

OC: Let’s start at the place writers always start – the story. What can you tell us about the story of Undertaker’s Moon? 

RK: Undertaker’s Moon involves an Irish family, headed by the stern and stately Squire McManus, who takes ownership of a funeral parlor in the rural town of Old Hickory, Tennessee. Soon, several of the townfolk discover that the new proprietors are not what they appear to be; that they are a coven of werewolves who use their undertaking business as a means to discreetly acquire food during the cycle of the full moon. It is only when the arrogant young son of the family, Devon O’Shea, craves something more satisfying than cold flesh that all hell breaks loose and Old Hickory and its citizens find themselves under siege.

What inspired the story?

The idea for the novel happened one night after a long, grueling writing session. Everyone in the house was asleep, so I stepped out onto the porch to unwind and breathe in some fresh country air. As I was sitting on the steps, I heard a long, bestial cry echo from a ridge of dark hills a mile or so away. At first I thought it was a dog, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it sounded like no dog I’d ever heard before. That frightening howl caused the old imagination wheels to start turning and, before long, I had a southern-fried werewolf story evolving in the back of my mind. The following night, I abandoned the novel I had originally been working on and began writing Undertaker’s Moon.

This book originally came out as a Zebra paperback called Moon of the Werewolf back in 1991. Now it’s being released by Thunderstorm Books as the first volume in a series of limited editions called the Essential Ronald Kelly. Did you take this re-release as an opportunity to revise the book at all? 

I did do a thorough editing on Undertaker’s Moon – my original title for the book – but actually I didn’t change anything at all… just sharpened up the prose a bit. This was my fourth published novel and I was in the process of learning my craft back then, mostly by trial and error. I’d had creative writing and journalism classes in high school, but never went to college. So I worked nine-to-five jobs in the factories, while I wrote at night. UM was one of my favorite novels from that period.

Will there be any additional material in this edition?

Yes, there will be two extra features in the limited edition; a brand-new novella and a feature on the writing of the novel. The novella is titled “The Spawn of Arget Bethir” and is actually a prequel of sorts, delving into a dark period of history when McManus the Beast, or Arget Bethir, roamed the countryside of ancient Irelandwith an army of savage lycanthropes at his command.

You joked in a recent Facebook post that a limited edition of  Moon of the Werewolf had become something of an “urban legend,” having previously been set up at publishers Nocturne, then Croatoan, and then Full Moon Press. Those editions all fell through – how does it feel to finally see this as a reality?

It’s extremely satisfying to see this special edition of Undertaker’s Moon finally coming to completion after so many failed attempts. I always thought this werewolf novel didn’t quite get the respect and attention it deserved; Zebra released it with a lack-luster title and cover – the disembodied head of a werewolf hovering over a graveyard, for heaven’s sake! – and it just sort of fizzled after its initial release. Now it’s being released in a very lush and polished edition, with first-rate production values and excellent cover and spine artwork by Alex McVey, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m hoping the fans, both old and new, will feel the same way.

I couldn’t be more pleased with this partnership (with Thunderstorm Books). Paul Goblirsch is a first-rate publisher, extremely trustworthy with a keen eye for detail and marketing, and he’s been a joy to work with, first on my mini-collection of extreme horror tales, The Sick Stuff, and now the Essentials. The release date for Volume One, Undertaker’s Moon, will be this coming August.

Can you tell us what other books readers can look forward to in the Essential Ronald Kelly series?

The Essentials will include all eight novels published by Zebra Books between 1990 and 1996: Hindsight, Pitfall, The Dark’un (Something Out There), Undertaker’s Moon, Twelve Gauge (Father’s Little Helper), Burnt Magnolia (The Possession). Fear, and Blood Kin. Incidentally, Fear, my epic novel of dark rural horror, will be the second in the Essential line-up and will be released shortly after UM. All will contain bonus novellas or extra-long short stories and “The Writing of” features.

Outside of Undertaker’s Moon, what else do you have coming up?

Actually I have three books coming out in May. The first is a collection of extreme post-apocalyptic stories called After the Burn, which will be Book Number 8 in Thunderstorm’s Black Voltage series. Close on ATB’s heels will be my second full-fledged short story collection, Cumberland Furnace & Other Fear-Forged Fables, and my first honest-to-goodness western novel, Timber Gray. Both will be released in trade paperback editions by Bad Moon Books. And I’m currently starting on a new novel; a historical conspiracy type horror novel called A Dark & Bloody Ground. Cemetery Dance will be the publisher of that one, probably sometime in 2012. And, of course, I’ll have short tales of Southern-fried horror out in several magazines, online publications, and anthologies in between it all.