Currently over at Stitched Smile Publications Magazine’s website, there is a contest going on. There are 5 stories so far, and yes, I wrote one. So, go check them out. Make sure and like and comment on your favorite stories (those count as votes, and no, you do not have to vote for mine) Seriously, like and comment on them. We apprecaite it.
Writing horror is not easy. Sure, it sounds like it should be, but good horror is difficult. It’s not about shock and gore and gimmicks. It’s not about grossing people out with a million different ways to kill someone. True horror, at its core, is not even about monsters that go bump in the night. It’s about making people feel something. Something like dread, fear or uneasiness about what they are reading. Its the squirming sensation you get when you think of getting a shot at the doctor’s office or when a bug crawls onto your foot.It’s the heebee jeebies, baby.
I guess you could say life, in and of itself, is horror. After all, some of the things people do to each other is far worse than anything a writer can conjure up. One such story is Broken Birds, by Pete Molnar. In his debut novel, Molnar delivers punch after punch in a story that feels all too real.
I had a chance to meet Pete at Scares That Cares 6 over the first weekend in August. He is too humble and often doesn’t give himself the credit he deserves. I also got to listen to him do a reading from Broken Birds. That reading was powerful, engaging and cringe-worthy in all the right ways.
I sat down to talk with Pete recently. Here is what he had to say.
A.J.: First things first: why horror?
Pete: I read Pet Sematary when I was twelve while on vacation in Disneyworld with my family. The book scared me so much I don’t remember much of the trip because I was so preoccupied with holding myself together. Mickey Mouse didn’t phase me, but reading that book changed the trajectory of my life. I knew I wanted to evoke the same kind of fear and terror in another person with something I’d write and I’ve been striving towards that ever since. Then, there is the fact I have been battling depression and social anxiety for much of my adult life. I greatly fear death and dread losing the ones I love, almost on an irrational level. Confronting my own fears and phobias (and they are Legion) through writing horror stories is therapeutic and when its is going well, quite cathartic.
A.J.: Pete, when you set out to write Broken Birds, did you know exactly where the story was going or did you say a prayer and wing it?
Pete: I started out writing as a “pantser” because I had read Stephen King writes that way. It was a mistake to have stuck to that approach for so long and for such a simplistic reason. Then I signed up for James Patterson’s Masterclass. Drafting a “flexible outline” had confounded me for the longest time, until Patterson laid it out in plain language and broke it down into something less intimidating for me. I am now a sworn “plotter” after having written three previous novels the other way, and Broken Birds was the first novel I wrote using an outline. I used to think using an outline would rob the writer of the magical experience of telling the story to themselves. Now, I swear by this approach, because even with an outline, characters are still going to do whatever they want and they’re going to surprise you no matter what.
A.J.: Some people love animals more than they love people (understandably so). Are you one of these people? If so, did that make writing certain scenes in Broken Birds difficult?
Pete: At first, I was really concerned that the treatment of animals in Broken Birds would turn readers off. Not to mention, the scenes that feature animal abuse were very difficult to write and I almost abandoned the project as a result. Then I realized I was not merely writing a novel about hurting animals, as much as I was writing a testament to the bond between humans and their pets. Will Bentley sacrifices everything to save his dog, Alberta. This is a guy who demonstrates how much his pet means to him, so much so he is willing to put his own life in danger and turn his seemingly idyllic existence upside down to save his dog from the clutches of two twisted, sociopathic people.
A.J.: Are any of the characters based (loosely or solely) on people you have met?
Pete: I can tell you Will’s girlfriend, Mina, as she is described, is my wife. Dark hair. Light eyes. A book-lover and a deep-thinker. Karl Tarlick is a composite of Charles Manson and Gary Heidnik, a serial killer who created a “real-life” House of Horrors in his Philadelphia rowhome. Will Bentley is modeled after Tim O’Brien, who wrote the critically-acclaimed war memoir The Things They Carried. I’m thankful I’ve never met a woman like Stella or Jack Post, but they are both sides of the Battered Woman-Battering Man coin. I conducted hours of research on this disconcerting and baffling relationship, as well as the phenomenons of agoraphobia and borderline-disorder to flesh out Stella especially.
A.J.: After writing Broken Birds, did you intend to get it published or did you have help deciding it was worth the shot?
Pete: This was the book I shared with Lisa Vasquez during my mentorship with her. She offered a great deal of encouragement and guidance during the novel’s early chapters. I really put my heart and soul into this book, because I didn’t want to see another full-length novel doomed to imprisonment on my hard drive. I wanted this one to see the light of day and I wanted it to be worthy of publication. Lisa must have seen something of merit in the early stages of the book because she invited me to become a VIP author at Stitched Smile Publications. Prayers answered!
A.J.: How did you find your publisher, Stitched Smile Publications?
Pete: I signed up for the Horror Writers Association Mentorship Program and Lisa Vasquez reached out to me shortly thereafter. She took me under her wing, teaching me the in’s and out’s of marketing and the business of writing. She also offered me invaluable advice and regular critiques of Broken Birds, chapter by chapter. Stitched Smile scooped me up at a time in my life when I had nearly come to terms with the prospect I would never land a publisher or an agent. I had queried roughly eighty agents to no avail for my previous novel The Clockwork Lazarus. It was a tough time, and SSP delivered me from what might have been a lifetime of regret.
A.J.: What was the publishing process like for you, the writer? On the same token, what was it like for you, the person?
Pete: As a writer, the publishing process was as exciting as it was an education. The editorial staff at Stitched Smile made numerous passes through the book and eliminated the weaknesses I had missed during my own three passes. Inconsistencies and grammar mistakes that I believe would have slipped through at many other presses. Their attention to detail was laser-focused. As a person, the journey from draft to finished, packaged novel was pretty magical, and to this day when I see my book lying on a dresser or see my wife reading it, I have to take a second look. It’s so surreal.
A.J.: Did I hear correctly, that Broken Birds was not the original title?
Pete: That’s true. Originally, the book was titled Moonshadow after the Cat Stevens song. When I imagined how Karl Tarlick, the main antagonist in the book, would look, for some reason Cat Stevens just popped into my head. Long, black hair in thick ringlets that frame and nearly close over his face like curtains. Then, I researched the lyrics to some of Cat Stevens’ songs and stumbled across the lyrics to Moonshadow. When I read them, they seemed to fit the context of who Karl Tarlick is way too perfectly. The lyrics bore a sinister tone, like the song was written by a stalker.
A.J.: Why did you change the title?
Pete: As I kept writing, I realized the title should be changed to Broken Birds. This was for two reasons. The first being the psychological phenomenon of “broken bird syndrome” is front and center in the novel’s plot line. But also, I noticed a symbolic thread running through the story itself. That all the main characters are broken in some way. Psychologically damaged and dealing with it as only they know how. In a productive way, or, well, not so productive. I’ll say that.
A.J.: You went to Scares That Cares 6 this year. What was that experience like for you?
Pete: My first night there, my head was on a swivel. One minute, I’m walking past Sid Haig, and the next I see Josh Malerman a few feet away signing books. Paul Tremblay. Jonathan Maberry. Then there was the fact I was finally able to meet my Stitched family in person. Up until that event, I’d only ever communicated with Lisa, Donelle, Larissa, Deanna, Tara, and yourself through group chat, DM, or Hangouts. I was so thrilled to meet everyone in person and the click was immediate.
A.J.: If I’m correct, you sold out of your books. How did that make you feel?
Pete: Pleasantly surprised doesn’t even cover it. I had expected to be bringing many of them home with me to sell around my neck of the woods. But Sunday rolled around and they just went and I couldn’t believe it. So cool!
A.J.: What was it like to sign that first book?
Pete: Another unreal experience. I felt like I’d finally come full circle. My 8th grade yearbook had a section in it where all the students were asked where they saw themselves in ten years. I wrote “Autographing my novel or touring the nation.” I wanted to be a writer or a rockstar. But really, writing was always my first love. Took longer than ten years to get there. It took thirty years, but there it was. Dream fulfilled!
A.J.: You did a reading at Scares That Cares 6. Being there to witness it, I think you knocked it out of the park. Were you nervous at all before reading?
Pete: Not at all. Being an English teacher, I read entire novels to my classes. And if I really want to hold the attention of a bunch of fifteen-year-old kids in 2019, a dramatic reading is required. Voices. Acting out Shakespeare. Playing Macbeth. Otherwise, the words are dead on the page for them. I have no problem making a fool out of myself or stepping out of a comfort zone in order to evoke emotion through live reading. Also, having been a singer in bands for fifteen years, I’m quite at home in front of an audience. It’s a lot of fun!
A.J.: How did you feel after you finished the reading?
Pete: It was exhilarating. But I was a little worried about alienating the audience with the particular scene I had chosen to read. That’s why I did a little disclaimer beforehand. It turned out to be okay after all. I think people enjoyed it.
A.J.: Writing is such a solitary endeavor and authors often spend hundreds of hours alone with the characters in the worlds they create. But who would you like to thank—someone outside of your head—for helping you along the way?
Pete: My wife, Dana, and my daughter, Ani, gave me the time and the space I needed to do the work. Writing takes you away from your family for periods of time each day, but they both were extremely supportive and understanding. They continue to be, and I’m grateful for their love and for believing in this guy.
A.J.: Before I let you go, Broken Birds is a great debut novel, but is there more from Pete Molnar? What can we expect from you in the future?
Pete: I’ve got a few irons in the fire as far as short stories go. A short story called Swipe-right about a twenty-something girl who stumbles across a different kind of dating site where if she swipes left on a guy’s picture she doesn’t like, the poor guy just winks out of existence. The guys she swipes right on become obsessed with her to the point of becoming dangerous, sociopathic stalkers. Having a good time writing that one! Then there’s my novel-in-progress titled Undiscovered Countries, which centers around a phenomenon known as “coffin-birth” where a dead woman’s body can be scientifically manipulated into birthing a viable child. This one I’m really excited about. It’s already mapped out and outlined. And it’s going to take on a lot more than just the horrific scenario of a “coffin-birth.” It’s going to tackle the twenty-four hour news cycle, religious fundamentalist groups, as well as the persistent scourges of hate, intolerance, and bias in this country. I really think it’s going to be something special for my readers.
A.J.: Any final words, Pete?
Pete: A.J., this has been a lot of fun! Thank you so much! For my readers, present and future, I extend the deepest gratitude to all of you. Thanks for taking a chance on a new writer!
For those of you who have not heard of Pete Molnar, get ready to. Broken Birds is just the beginning for this talented writer. Beyond the writing, Pete is also a good guy with a big heart and great pipes for singing. Check Pete out at the following links.
Good evening my faithful Readers. I have great news for you. My novella, Interrogations, is slated to be released in ebook format this Friday, August 2nd, coinciding with Scares That Cares’ opening day. However, you can pre-order that ebook now. Just follow this LINK and check it out.
For those of you who may not know, Interrogations is the continuation of Dredging Up Memories and will lead to another story, tentatively titled, Eradication. Hank Walker’s story is clearly not through and he has plenty of life left.
If you haven’t read Dredging Up Memories, you can do so by following this LINK.
Here is the synopsis for Dredging Up Memories:
In the best of times, loneliness is difficult. At the end of time it can be deadly.
Hank Walker is alone and struggling, not just with the undead, but with depression that threatens to swallow him. Searching for the family he sent away at the beginning of the rise of the dead, Hank is left to deal with loneliness, desperation, and his own memories that haunt him.
The dead are everywhere. The few people still alive are scattered, and the ones Hank comes across may be more dangerous than the biters.
With an unlikely traveling companion, Hank’s search takes him across the state of South Carolina and to the depths of darkness like nothing he has ever experienced before. Can Hank find his family and survive the biters? Or does he completely unravel in the world of the dead?
Curious? Keep reading.
Interrogations picks up where Dredging Up Memories left off. Here is the synopsis for the new novella:
Hank Walker woke up in a bed in a survivor camp. He should have been dead, and a short time after that, he should have risen and joined the ranks of the shambling biters—those who have died and come back seeking the flesh of the living. Instead, he woke up alive and in a safe place.
Or is it truly safe?
Ruled by Harrison Avis, a militaristic leader, Hank realizes quickly Fort Survivor S.C. #3 might not be so safe after all, especially for those who do not find favor with Avis.
When a member of the camp is exiled to the outside world, Hank launches a plan to expose Avis as corrupt. It’s a plan with possible grave consequences for all involved. Though he knows the dangers of failing, Hank is willing to take the risk to protect what remains of his family, if not from Harrison Avis, then from himself.
Excited? I hope so. I am.
If you would like to preorder the ebook of Interrogations, follow this LINK. I thank you, as does my publisher.
Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.
A few years ago, I started a story about a guy named Hank. He was alone in the dead world and searching for his friends and family in hopes of finding some of them alive. That story turned into a novel titled, Dredging Up Memories, and it follows Hank’s story into a downward spiral of … well, I can’t really give you all that information, now can I? Doing that would spoil the book for you.
One thing I can do is tell you about one of the main characters from Dredging Up Memories. Her name is Humphrey and she is a teddy bear. I know, right? Who names a female teddy bear a boy’s name? Anyway, she became like Wilson to Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. She also became one of the most beloved characters of the Hank Walker universe.
After completing the novel, getting it published by Stitched Smile Publications, and then writing a handful of shorter pieces involving Walker, I approached a friend of mine about interviewing the characters of Dredging Up Memories. This young man—his name is Frank—went home and wrote out twenty-seven pages worth of questions he came up with for those characters.
What you are about to read are the first twenty-five hundred or so words of Humphrey’s interview. I know, it’s kind of mean not giving you all thirty-nine pages of it, but as I said above, I can’t give you all the information, now can I?
I hope you enjoy the following excerpt from The Hank Walker Interviews.
There is a room in an old school in the lower state of South Carolina. The school used to be known as Century Falls High School. It is now Fort Survivor #3. Half a block away is what is left of the middle school of the same name (minus the High, adding the Middle). Directly out the front gates are the remnants of the town that used to be Century Falls. Remnants that consist of burned out cars, and buildings that are little more than husks. If one were to pay close attention he or she would see the occasional dead corpse shambling around the debris and other corpses that are truly dead. If one was listening, then he or she would hear the occasional gun shot, putting that walking corpse down, joining its brethren on the ground among that debris.
This room is on the second floor on a long hall with double doors at each end. One set of doors leads down the steps and to the outside world. For the most part, these doors stay locked from the inside. The other set of doors leads down another hall that t-bones before reaching a set of stairs on either side of that t-bone. There’s no real need to get into where those halls lead.
The room number is 209, and it used to be Mrs. Willoughby’s math class. Most kids hated having Mrs. Willoughby, due to her always angry demeanor and her penchant for giving out zeroes and detention notes. That’s not a problem here now. Mrs. Willoughby is among the permanently deceased. The room, however, has been turned into a bedroom for children who have survived the End Times. Currently there is no one staying in the room and it is as dark in here as night is these days.
A creak rings through the room and down the hall as the door opens. A switch to the left of the doorway is flipped up and the glow of lights spill across the room, forcing the dark into the corners and beneath furniture. Speaking of the furniture, the room is nice. It is painted pink and white on opposite walls. There are a row of four beds directly ahead, foot lockers at the foot of each one. End tables are to the right of the beds, each one with a lamp sitting atop it. On the opposite wall is the exact same set up: four beds, four foot lockers and four end tables with lamps on them. It is clear to anyone who enters that this is a room set up as a basic dorm for little girls who … well, who may have lost everyone except for themselves. On the wall to the right, the same wall the door is on, is a long bookcase filled with books.
Sitting in the center of this room is a table with two chairs. This is not normal. The table is round and the chairs are simple wooden dinner table seats. There is a vase sitting on it with a single daffodil in it, its yellow star-like petals and tea cup bud brighter than the overheads that light up the room. Next to the vase are two bottles of water. They are already open, though the tops are still screwed on.
There is one other thing that is out of place in this room: a video camera. It stands between two of the beds on a tripod, its lens pointing directly at the table.
Two men walk into the room, one of them in his early forties, stubble chinned and a book bag over his shoulder. He reaches into the bag and unzips the front pocket. Jutting from it is a teddy bear in bunny pajamas. The man, known to many readers as Hank, sets the bear on one of the chairs. He doesn’t like the way the bear’s head barely comes to the bottom of the table. Hank goes to the bookcase and snags several of the hardbacks. At the table he sets the books in the seat, sits the teddy bear in it, and then scoots the chair up to the table.
The second man is younger, but not by much. His hair is sandy brown. Wire rimmed glasses are perched on his nose; his hair is long and is pulled into a ponytail that runs down his back. He walks over to the camera and presses a button on its side. The camera comes on. Accompanying it is a faint hum that is barely noticeable if you aren’t standing right next to it. He fiddles with it a few seconds more, pressing the red record button. He looks in the digital view finder and sees the red REC blinking, nods and walks away.
“Good morning, Mr. Walker.”
To the teddy bear Hank says “Humphrey, this is Frank. He is going to do your interview, okay.”
Humphrey says nothing.
“Come on, Humphrey. Don’t be shy.”
Still, the teddy bear says nothing. Really, why would it? How would it? It is just a teddy bear, right?
“Humphrey, Frank is a good guy. You have to trust me. Can you do that?”
The teddy bear’s head seems to move slightly.
The bear’s voice is soft, not much more than a whisper. But it is enough to startle Frank. His eyes are wide behind the lenses of his glasses. A lump has formed in his throat. If there is one thing Frank did not expect it is that the teddy bear would actually speak. He really did believe he would sit there at the table with the teddy bear, who had been Hank Walker’s traveling companion for several months at the beginning of the End Times, and field answers from Walker, himself. Not some inanimate object.
“Did … did Humphrey just speak?”
Hank laughs, rubs Humphrey on the head. “Yes, she did.”
“She? Yes, that is right. Humphrey is a she.”
“That’s right. A lot of folks wonder about that, why anyone would name a female teddy bear Humphrey?”
“It is a fair thought. Why would someone give a stuffed toy that is clearly a female a boy’s name?”
“Why do guys give their cars girl names?” Hank responds. “Who knows?”
“Okay, I’m going to leave you guys alone for a while. I’ll come back later and see how you are doing. Humphrey, Frank is not going to hurt you. I promise. He and I have already done this. You’re in good hands. Okay?”
Humphrey doesn’t look up, but she gives a small nod and whispers, “Okay.”
With that said, Walker turns and leaves, closing the door behind him.
The room is quiet for several long seconds. Frank has been in similar situations, with the silence being so loud you can hear it. He doesn’t like that feeling. It is awkward and thick. He is determined to fill the silence quickly. He picks up his notepad and flips it open. He turns the pages until he finds the first page marked in his scratchy handwriting as, Humphrey’s Interview. He looks at the first question and starts to ask it, then stops. He looks at the glassy eyes of the stuffed toy in front of him. This is a moment right out of a little girl’s childhood, where the stuffed toy is her best friend and they are having tea and crumpets with their pinkies out and slurping away at the nothing in the cups. He could almost see a girl with her favorite white and pink dress on and her hair pulled back into pig tails, her voice very much like the teddy bear’s in front of him. There is a moment of pure joy as he sees the little girl is blonde and her eyes are blue and she has dimples and freckles across her nose.
‘Is your tea good?’ the little girl asks.
‘Delicious,’ the teddy bear responds.
The little girl smiles wide, showing off her teeth, including the gap where one is missing.
Briefly Frank wonders if the Tooth Fairy visited her the night she lost that tooth. If so, how much money did he (or she) leave the little girl? A dollar? Two? Five? Maybe the Tooth Fairy was very well off and left her a ten spot or even twenty.
Frank shakes his head, smiles and then chuckles softly.
“What’s so funny?”
He is startled by this question. He’s the one who is supposed to asks the questions. The grin leaves his face and the chuckle dies off. “I … ummm … I just didn’t think you would talk to me.”
“Why is that?”
She is well-spoken for a young teddy bear who Frank imagines is around five or six.
“I just didn’t think you would, especially when Mr. Walker left.”
She seems to nod, but says nothing else.
“So, ummm … would you like to get started?”
Frank glances down at his notes. The first question is short, but he imagines it is an okay question to ask. At least, he hopes
“Let’s start from the beginning. What was life like before Hank?”
The silence he so hates fills the room, but it’s not that same awkward thickness. It is more of an anticipatory silence, as if Frank is watching a game show on a television of the past, one where the show has gone on for weeks and weeks and now there were only two contestants left and the host is about to announce the winner. There should be some sort of dramatic music playing, and maybe there is in Frank’s mind. The host opens his mouth and says, ‘And the winner of who doesn’t get eaten by a biter today is …’ and the commercial break interrupts the tension, sending the audience into a series of groans and ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me’s’.
But the silence doesn’t last all that long. In fact, it doesn’t even last as long as a short commercial break.
“It was fun,” Humphrey says. Frank thinks he can see her pink string mouth turned up into a smile. And is that a shimmer in her eyes?
“It was fun?”
Humphrey doesn’t say anything right away. When she does, several seconds have passed and it is not an answer, but a question: “How so?”
Though her face doesn’t change, Frank thinks it does all the same. Maybe it was a twinkle in the eye. Or maybe it was just a slight shift of the head, or the angle at which she is sitting, but something has changed and it is a physical thing he can’t figure out. What he does know is she looks confused, as any living, breathing person would be. Then the light bulb comes on and he realizes she doesn’t understand his question.
“Oh, umm … ’how so’ is another way of asking, how was it fun?”
“So that’s what I am asking: how was life fun before Hank?”
The creative mind is a place where thoughts conspire for either good or bad. It is also the center of imagination, and as Humphrey sits, stoically, in her seat, Frank’s mind begins imagining she iss moving, like a child would, maybe one of five or six years of age; maybe a little older. He can see her tapping her chin as if she is thinking. Her lips are twisted slightly, almost in a pucker. Then she smiles, her small pink thread lips turning up and her fuzzy fingerless hand pointing at him.
“Before Mr. Walker came I was alone in my girl’s room. They had left me when everything went bad.”
She is quiet, this time with her head dipped and her glassy black eyes staring down at the floor. One shoulder goes up in a shrug. Then she lets out a deep sigh.
“My girl’s dad died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” And Frank truly is sorry.
“Me too. They thought he was dead and they were sad and scared and my girl—her name was Casey—she held me so close as she sat on her bed. She had taken a shower and I could smell her shampoo. She always smelled so clean after her showers. Her momma made her take one every night, and sometimes I got one too, but not in the tub. They put me in the wash machine with some clothes and I spun and swam and spun and swam, and then they put me in the dry machine and I tumble up and down until I am dry.”
Frank smiles at this. The Humphrey in his imagination is opening up without realizing she is doing so. He remains quiet as she continues her story.
“Then they put my pajamas on and I was fresh like my girl.”
She pauses, as if thinking again. When she speaks, her voice is almost a whisper and Frank has to lean in to hear her. Though he misses the first part of what she says, he clearly gets the second part.
“… they were gone.”
Not for the first time he wonders what it would be like to have gone through the End Times, as Hank Walker calls it. Would he have lost everyone he cares about? Would he have even survived the initial outbreak, and if so, would he have lasted as long as some of the survivors in Fort Survivor #3?
In his imagination—a place he thinks he will spend a lot of time during this interview—he sees tears in Humphrey’s eyes. They are no longer glassy and black, but soft and blue, almost real eyes. His heart sinks into his stomach as he realizes Humphrey is remembering the events that took her girl, her Casey, from her and left her alone when everything went bad. She takes a deep breath, holds it for a second and then releases it. She looks up at Frank. Her smile is still there, but it is not a happy one. What he sees on her face right then is resignation.
“Her dad tried to kill them. Her mommy escaped and took my girl with her. They screamed a lot as they tried to get away from him, and then my girl screamed even more when her mommy grabbed her up and left me behind.”
“She tried to grab me, but knocked me on the floor instead. I landed on my back. She cried and screamed and then the door slammed shut. I heard the car doors and … they were gone.”
“I’m sorry,” Frank says.
If you have not read the first part of this interview with a book character, then please follow this LINK to catch up. Please, keep in mind, this interview contains spoilers, so if you have not read Voices, a collection of short stories, please consider doing so before continuing. You can find Voices HERE.
Lisa had known as well, but …
“Did you plan what you were going to do or …”
“I planned the entire thing. I planned it right down to me dying. If it went wrong, at least I would be dead … and free. If it went right, we both would be dead. It went partially right. He died. I …” Stephanie holds up her arms, shows Lisa the long scars that run from wrists to elbow. “… didn’t.”
She had guts to do something about her situation, Lisa.
The voice of Mr. Worrywort is back, but this time the dripping malice it had before is gone. In this voice is the childish taunt of a scared school yard bully, one that knows when he gets home, his dad is going to do so much worse to him than he could ever do to a third grader with a lisp or who wore glasses or, Heaven forbid, who came from a poor family who couldn’t afford to by him decent clothing and he had to wear the same jeans multiple times a week.
Lisa pulls her legs up the best she can, but the pain in them and in her hip and her back are too much. One of her knees feels loose, as if it will pop out of place. She lets her legs slide down, but this time not crossing them, afraid her ankles might dislocate if she did so. Her shoulders shake and her chest heaves as a sob tears from her.
“I couldn’t do it,” Lisa says. “I couldn’t do what you did. I wanted to, but I …”
And the realization comes to her, furious in its intent. “I still want … I still want to kill him, but …”
But he is already dead and has been for nearly two decades. In the darkest part of her heart, she hopes he suffered and he died a miserable, lonely and hurting man. She hopes he is suffering now in whatever afterlife there is, be it Hell or something else. If it is Hell, she hopes there is a special place for men who rape helpless little children. In her mind she sees him, bent over a smoldering rock as a line of demons takes their turns with him, doing to him what he did to her. This makes her smile, but it doesn’t take away the truth that she wished she had killed him. That would have been more satisfying for her.
“I admire your conviction,” she says as she thinks about the light fading, fading, fading from her step father’s eyes, until, finally, it winked out all together. She never got to see that, never got to experience the unadulterated joy of watching the very man who ruined everything about her life die. It angers her. It makes her clench her hands into tight fists. Heat runs up her chest, into her neck, then high on her cheeks.
“How did it feel, Stephanie?” she says suddenly. “How did it feel to end his life? To end his miserable, worthless existence? How did it feel!?” Her teeth are clenched now and she is not asking a question, but demanding an answer. This is no longer about Stephanie. She thinks it is no longer about any of the characters of a freaking book. It’s been about her the entire time. It’s always been about her. But … but … but …
Stephanie smiles. It is something so haunting and full of despair, Lisa believes the answer will not be what she hopes it will be. “It felt like rebirth,” Stephanie says. “It felt like I was cleansed of … of him.”
Lisa feels her own smile forming. It is something she believes looks similar to Stephanie’s, but now she can feel it, now she understands why Stephanie did it. And she longs to have been able to do to her stepfather what Stephanie did to Carson.
Maybe I can, she thinks. Maybe …
Go ahead, Mr. Worrywort says in that smooth used car salesman voice. Go ahead and invite him into your head.
“I think I will,” she responds. “I think I will!”
Even if it’s dangerous?
“Especially because it’s dangerous.”
You won’t do it. You can’t do it. The taunt brings with it laughter.
“Shut up!” she screams and turns on her bottom. A sharp pain races up her hip and into her spine but she pays it no attention at all. She looks at the shadow along the wall, at the thing taunting her this entire time. “Shut your stinking mouth!”
Then she looks back at Stephanie, her eyes burning with anger and full of a lust she has never felt before. “Did it help? Did it help at all?” There is desperation in her voice.
Stephanie hasn’t moved from her spot on the floor. She looks at Lisa with what can be considered pity. “Yes and …”
Lisa doesn’t hear the ‘no.’ She only hears the ‘yes,’ and then she grits her teeth tightly together. Some of the characters she interviewed had gone through such terrible things. They all had something in common, something Lisa didn’t have: Revenge. Spencer made a deal with the shadow people and they took Sarah and her boyfriend instead of him. They had picked on him and taunted him, and even tricked him, but in the end, he had gotten the last laugh. Nothing carved his father up with a broken beer bottle, using the very thing his father had thrown at him when he was little. It had shattered and given Nothing his first scar. Sweet Claire shot her dad to death at the biggest awards show of the year. She had acted out the very things she had gone through at his hands, and somehow, she won an award for it. Dane took it a little further than that when she killed her uncle who abused her and then killed every head doctor who came her way, every person who tried to reach her. And poor Brian, who was big for his age and whose father neglected him and his siblings. No, Brian was nothing like his father. Lewis got revenge as well, though not against someone who directly caused him pain. No, he only murdered the man his Michelle had married after she divorced him while he was in prison. It wasn’t jealousy that made him do it, but Michelle’s busted face. Then there was Cody, whose brother Jake, knew the truth about their mother, though with his scrambled brain, he could never really say what that truth was. But it wasn’t their mother Cody got revenge for. It was little Jenny Harris, who died outside of her apartment door, thanks to the brutal rape their father had committed on her.
And, of course, there was Stephanie, who had been raped by her best friend, a guy she loved, but hadn’t been able to tell at that point. She killed him. She had been courageous and killed him, and she felt good about it. Lisa believes if she asks the young lady if she regrets murdering Carson, the answer will be ‘no.’
What if someone would have stopped each of these people when they first started? What if Nothing’s mom would have left her husband after the beer bottle incident? She wouldn’t have died and Nothing wouldn’t have suffered the way he did. What if Jenny Harris’s mother hadn’t rented the poor child out to one of the drug dealers that first time? Maybe Jenny wouldn’t have died so horribly and alone. What if Michelle didn’t give into her father’s demands to divorce Lewis after he went to prison? Would things have been different? Of course they would have. What if Brian’s father … What if? What if?
What if you would have killed John when you were old enough to do so? Mr. Worrywort asked, his voice holding the condescending tone of a prosecuting attorney with the defendant on the stand. He wouldn’t have met the other woman. You know, the one with the young daughter? You know you weren’t the only one. Oh no, that man had the lust in him and only little girls could quell it.
Lisa’s heart sinks as she thinks of that little girl. She never stood a chance. She looks to the door, the one she entered through what feels like ten years ago. She wills it to open. She wills it to do so with a burning hatred in her heart. She wills it, not only to open, but for the very man who started the vicious cycle of rapes and sexual assaults to come strolling through, even though he has been dead nearly two decades.
Come on, Lisa. Do it. Go kill old dead John.
John! That’s right. All this time she had tried to visualize him, to make him as real as the other characters currently in her head. His name was John and he wasn’t a big guy, but still a giant to a little girl who hadn’t reached first grade yet.
You can’t do it, Mr. Worrywort laughs. You can’t do it, just like before. You can’t kill him. You’re too scared of him. You’re nothing but a coward.
Something inside of Lisa snaps. “I can and I will,” she growls. Though it hurts her to do so, she rolls onto her knees. The left one wobbles, but she doesn’t wait for it to dislocate or hyperextend. She grabs hold of her seat and pushes up, praying her elbows or wrists don’t buckle with the added pressure. Her arms shake as she does this. Her legs tremble with the effort of standing after being seated on a hard floor for the last few minutes. She gets to her feet and stares hard at the door, even as her body trembles with pain.
“Walk through the door,” she growls.
The doorknob clicks and the door opens. In steps a man who hasn’t aged a day, much less one who has died and whose body has probably rotted down to bones with skin like parchment wrapped around them. He is somehow shorter than she recalled. His glasses are thick black plastic with thick lenses that make his blue eyes appear almost as black as his hair.
She will never be able to recall where the broken bottle came from, but it is there, in her hand. Lisa lets out a hateful scream and runs toward John, the man who has tormented her her entire life. He tries to back away, to turn and run back out the door, but it slams shut. Though her legs and hips and arms feel like they are going to come apart at any moment, she doesn’t let it stop her. The growl tearing from her throat matches the anger in her heart, mind and soul.
Lisa reaches him as he lets go of the knob. He turns and his eyes are wide and there is no blue to be seen in them behind the thick lenses. She drives the broken bottle downward. John raises an arm to protect himself and the jagged glass rips through his blue uniform shirt, gashing his arm and drawing a crimson spray that splatters against the light yellow wall behind him.
John backs away, his face no longer that of a predatory monster, but of a scared man, one who knows his bad deeds have caught up with him. Lisa slashes at him again, this time connecting with an outstretched hand. Three of his fingers open up and tip backward. Lisa sees none of this and drives the bottle at him again, this time catching him in the shoulder. John stumbles backward, strikes the wall and falls, leaving a swath of his blood behind.
Lisa, feeling young and spry and moving like a woman in her late teens with no pains in her joints, drops onto John. She slams the bottle down, striking him over and over in his chest, shoulder, stomach, anywhere his arms aren’t trying to block. She doesn’t hear his screams or his pleading. Her brain blocks out all noises. She doesn’t need that nightmare playing over and over in her head. The bottle strikes John’s face. A piece of green glass breaks off in his cheek.
John tries to shove her away, but manages only to doom himself. Lisa lifts the bottle high above her head and brings it down into the side of his neck. The bottle rips through the vulnerable skin and tissue there, spraying blood on her body and face. He coughs several times. A fine mist of blood and saliva fills the air around them, then falls to the floor like red rain. His shredded hands fall away and his body relaxes against the floor.
Her breaths are hard and painful. A million pins poke at her legs, hips, back, shoulders, elbows and even her fingers. She stands, slips in the blood, but catches herself on the wall. Any other time and that slip would have sent her to the floor, with one or more dislocations in her hips and legs. Her chest heaves up and down and the look on her face is nothing shy of insanity. It is a look she feels and she likes it.
“Walk through the door,” she says again. The world that was is now gone. She feels heat boiling up from the depths of the Hell parts of her her life has been.
The door clicks and opens again and a tall man. clean shaven and wearing the bewildered expression of someone who has been in a coma and has just woken. His hair is brown and she knows him right away as Claire Edgecomb’s father. The front of his dress shirt is a blossom of red and his face holds the pale, pale skin of someone who has lost a lot of blood.
She lifts her hands and in them are guns. She points them at him.
Lisa turns. Standing at her chair is Claire and she is shaking her head.
“He is mine,” Claire says and lifts her own gun. It is something she has held before and it belongs in her hand. She pulls the trigger. The blast is loud and the center of her father’s chest opens up again. He spins in a macabre pirouette and strikes the wall near where John lays dead. He bounces off the wall and falls to the floor.
Claire lower the gun, and from somewhere else in the room comes the words, “Walk through the door.”
Like before, the door opens and in walks Cody and Jake’s Dad, but there is no Cody or Jake. Instead, there is Jenny Harris and her torn and broken body. She clutches a huge knife in her little hands. She appears behind him and brings the knife across the backs of his knees. Face first, he falls and clutches at his legs, his screams are loud at first, but end quickly when Jenny brings the knife down on his back.
Again, the words, “Walk through the door,” comes and Nothing’s Dad enters the room. Then comes Dane’s tormentor, her uncle who thought little girls were his playground. Followed by him are the duo of Sarah and Bobby, there bodies mangled masses of flesh, their faces ripped and torn. Brian’s dad appears next, limping, his face sagging on his busted skull.
Brian walks toward him, a bloodied hammer in hand. He cocks his head but doesn’t raise the hammer. He only stares at the man who had been his father once upon a time on the pages of a book, one where violence seemed to rule each story.
“No, son,” Lewis says. He steps up beside Brian and takes his hand. “You’ve done your deed. No need to repeat it.”
Brian gives a simple nod, then drops the hammer. It clatters on the floor, one that had vanished while Lisa exacted a measure of revenge on the man who first touched her in a way he should have never done.
Lisa is breathing much too hard for her liking and there are no longer guns in her hand, but the broken bottle she used on John. The adrenaline that had coursed through her blood earlier is now gone and the pain, true and raw, inches its way along the nerves of her body. She stumbles, weak and exhausted, hoping to get to her seat before she collapses to the floor and suffers the very real possibility of broken bones.
I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it.
Her hands go out in front of her. Not that they will do much good. A fall on this hard floor would surely break bones in her hands and wrists, at the very least. She tilts forward and braces herself for the pain she is about to be in.
It is Stephanie who catches her and keeps her from the devastation of the fall. She holds her up, balances her the best she can, then helps Lisa to her seat. Her muscles ache and she lets out weak breath after weak breath. She closes her eyes. She wants to be done with this. The interviews have opened so many memories and let out so many … voices. She shakes her head and wishes herself back to the room where the writer waits for her return. When she opens her eyes, the room is still there. Lisa lets out a laughing sob.
“I can’t leave until it is finished,” she says. Her voice sounds so far away, as if it belongs to someone else and she is not in this broken body, but outside of it, watching, watching, watching.
“Until what’s finished?” Stephanie asks.
Lisa turns to the young woman who looks at her with a frown that holds more sorrow in it than before they began talking. “This,” she says and lifts her aching arms as if to say, ‘look around you.’
She realizes then that she has one more question for Stephanie. She sits up in her seat the best she can.
“Stephanie, did you learn to trust men again?”
Stephanie doesn’t answer the question. Instead, she poses one of her own. “Did you?”
Lisa laughs. “Did I?”
“Yes. Did you learn to trust men again?”
Lisa gives a slow shake of her head. It’s an easy question to answer, but one burdened by the truth and sadness of it all. “Not completely, no.”
“Then maybe I can help.”
Lisa and Stephanie both look to the young man—well, younger than Lisa, but older than Stephanie. He has a sheepish smile on his face, one that says ‘you can trust me,’ though Lisa doubts that very much.
“How can you help me?”
“I know a place and I know a person.”
Good morning Faithful Readers,
I’m happy to announce my novella, Interrogations, is almost ready to see the world. Stitched Smile Publications and I have worked hard on this new Hank Walker novella and we believe you’re going to love the direction we have taken the storyline.
Interrogations bridges the two full length novels, Dredging Up Memories and Eradication (working title). If you haven’t read Dredging Up Memories, I encourage you to do so before you read Interrogations, though it is not necessary.
Here is the synopsis for Interrogations:
Hank Walker woke up in a bed in a survivor camp. He should have been dead, and a short time after that, he should have risen and joined the ranks of the shambling biters—those who had died and come back seeking the flesh of the living. Instead, he woke up alive and in a safe place.
Or is it truly safe?
Ruled by Harrison Avis, a militaristic leader, Hank realizes quickly Fort Survivor S.C. #3 might not be so safe after all, especially for those who do not find favor with its leader.
When a member of the camp is exiled to the outside world, Hank launches a plan to expose Avis as corrupt. It’s a plan with possible grave consequences for all involved. Though he knows the dangers of failing, Hank is willing to take the risk to protect what remains of his family, if not from Harrison Avis, then from himself.
Yes, that last line is important.
Though I don’t have an exact release date, the final touches are being put into place as I write this. I hope you are as excited as I am. Stick around for more information coming soon.
Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.
The following is an excerpt from The Scarring, one of fifteen stories in the collection, Voices. You can find Voices on Amazon here, or you can contact A.J. Brown directly at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like an autographed print version of the collection.
The Scarring (an excerpt)
On the bed lay the drunken man, his eyes wide and bloodshot. They darted from side to side. His mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water, but he only managed a few strangled croaks. His arms and legs were bound to the bedposts with ropes. He was as naked as the day he came into the world.
“Do you hate?”
The first scar came at the age of eleven, courtesy of an angry father and a bottle of whiskey. He had ducked when the old man threw the bottle. It shattered against the wall, slivers of glass spraying back at him, along with the remainder of the caramel-colored liquid.
He probably wouldn’t have been scarred if only small pieces of glass had pricked his skin. If not for the old man’s follow-up to the bottle toss, he would have been just fine. But the old man chased the broken glass like a beer at a drinking party, and the smack to the back of the head was unseen. He—Nothing was his name—went sprawling backward, hands out behind him, a heavy sting on the side of his face. A gash appeared from mid-forearm to elbow when he landed among the shattered glass.
Nothing bled. He cried, and as he did so, his father wailed on him, telling him to “clam it up, boy, or I’ll clam it up for you.”
Mom stitched him up with a sewing needle and thread as thick as fishing line. Nothing wasn’t sure which was worse, the initial slice of skin by glass or the constant poke of the needle and tug of thread.
The skin puckered over time, leaving a pink welt of flesh that grew as he grew, never shrinking, and a constant reminder …
If you missed Part 1, you can read it HERE.
If you missed Part 2, you can read it HERE.
In January, a review appeared on Amazon for my book, The Forgetful Man’s Disease. The individual who posted the review was a man named Draven Ames. I knew Draven from our mutual dealings with Stitched Smile Publications. He was new to the family that is SSP. We developed a friendship and cultivated it through social media, emails and private messages. He left this review for The Forgetful Man’s Disease:
“Just finished The Forgetful Man’s Disease, a novella by AJ Brown. This isn’t the first story by him that I have read. Each time I read his work, the voice of his characters grab me. This story is about a man who is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, reliving his past as ghosts torment him. It is a story about love and loss, about grief and sadness, but, most of all, about letting go.
There were twists and turns, sure, but the real power of the story comes in the very real characters AJ Brown brings to life, the emotional journey we go through as we watch a man struggle with confusion and the loss of his memories. At the end of the novella, AJ Brown talks about how this town is based off a SC town he lived in, and the realism is easily seen in his writing.
I’m very happy I picked up this novella and read it. Will be sharing this one with my wife.
As a side note, the love between the MC and his wife was very beautiful and touching. 5/5.”
Fast forward to the first week of April. I’m on vacation and sitting at a local restaurant and pub with Cate. My favorite local band, Prettier Than Matt, is playing. It’s a Wednesday evening. I’ve had my cell phone for maybe a month and it was still new to me. It buzzes and makes its little text message sound. Not really thinking much of it, I don’t look at the phone. I’m on a date with Cate and watching PTM. The text can wait. Then the phone buzzes and dings again. And again. And again.
“You might want to check that,” Cate said.
I picked up the phone. As I did so, it buzzed and dinged again. I clicked on the message and stopped breathing.
“What’s wrong?” Cate asked. I turned the phone toward her, too stunned to speak. The message simply said, Draven’s gone.
Most of you who read that line just now understood that didn’t mean he got up and walked out of the room and out of the house and rode off into the sunset. You understood immediately that Draven, my friend and fellow author, had died. I knew Draven struggled with PTSD and depression, but all of my interactions leading up to his death gave me no indication he was struggling. The night before I had spent three hours chatting with him about his novel and working on ways to make it better. We had planned to chat again that weekend to look at some issues within the story he was working on. We said our goodbyes and that was the last time I interacted with him.
Draven’s death reminded me (and in return, I now remind you) that life is fleeting. There are many people out there dealing with things. We may not know what they are or how serious they are, but they are there. And sometimes those things become overwhelming and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or so it is perceived. The only option for some—really, many—is to take their own life, just as my friend had. I think about his death often, and wonder if there was anything I could have done to help him.
I want to leave this section with the national crisis hotline: 1-800-273-8255. This line is answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you feel like there is no hope and no way out, please call this number. You are not alone, even if it feels like you are.
Before Draven passed away, he mentioned The Forgetful Man’s Disease to a Twitter follower of his. The day after his passing, I noticed a post on Twitter that I was tagged in. I clicked on the notification and read the tweet. It said something to the effect of: In honor of Draven Ames, I am going to read The Forgetful Man’s Disease by @ajbrown36.
I remember sitting outside a little restaurant in downtown Columbia called Michael’s, Cate sitting across from me and Prettier Than Matt was about to play again, when I read the tweet. Even in death, Draven had done something nice for someone. What does that tell you about his character? Yeah. He was a great person.
I contacted the individual and we talked quite a bit over the next few days to weeks. His name is George Ranson and we struck up a solid connection from the very start. I talk to him from time to time through Twitter and I follow his goings on in the Twitterverse. He’s a truly good guy and a voracious reader.
George let me know he was finished with The Forgetful Man’s Disease and he wrote a review for it:
“If you enjoy intelligent, well-written horror stories filled with rich, complex characters then A.J. Brown is the author for you. And The Forgetful Man’s Disease is a perfect introduction to this extremely talented writer. This novella is a short enough to be read in a couple of sittings but packs the punch of a full-length novel & will leave you thinking about what you’ve read long after you’ve finished reading it.
The story centers around Homer Grigsby, an elderly widower who’s final days are fast approaching. As Homer deals with the frustrations common with advanced age, most notably his increasingly untrustworthy memory, he is also continually confronted by things that are decidedly less common: the ghosts of long dead friends, neighbors & loved ones. The story unfolds in frequent transitions between two points in time, the nightmare-like present and a period from decades earlier during which a tragic event would have a painful and enduring effect upon Homer’s life. These shifts in time are done seamlessly and add to a sense of foreboding that builds continually from the first page to the last. The story is beautifully written with a conclusion that is as emotional as it is stunning.
The brilliance in A.J.’s writing is in the way he effortlessly blends the inhuman aspects of horror that readers of the genre crave (the spirits of the dead in this case) and the simple human emotion that readers of ANY genre crave.
In a nutshell…If you’re a fan of horror or simply a fan of beautifully told stories you will LOVE The Forgetful Man’s Disease.”
That’s a cool review, but it was what he said in a conversation that described my writing in a way I never could. George called it horror with heart. Horror. With. Heart. I thought about that a lot, discussed it with Cate and then asked George if I could use his words as my new hashtag for social media. With his blessing #horrorwithheart was born.
But what exactly is horror with heart? I will answer it like this:
In today’s world, horror is all about shock and blood and guts. No one is trying to tug on the readers’ (or viewers’) heartstrings. The goal to Horror With Heart is to touch you emotionally, to make you feel something besides disgust. I want you to hurt when my characters hurt. I want you to be in love when my characters are in love. I want to shatter you when I shatter my characters. It’s all about feelings instead of shock and gore.
My thanks goes to Draven for sharing one of my books with someone in his social media circle. It also goes to George for the encouragement and the kind words and, of course, the hashtag.
I might do something drastic in 2019. No, not might, but will. My relationship with the behemoth, Amazon, is on shaky ground. She is not a nice companion and she certainly isn’t a good business partner. She reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge before he gets visited by all the ghosts of Christmases gone wrong.
Over the last year I’ve seen nearly thirty reviews, most of which were verified purchases, removed from my books. When I realized this was happening, I went to Amazon and copied all of the reviews remaining and posted them on my website. I also contacted them and didn’t receive a satisfactory reason as to why the reviews were pulled.
I’ve also had quite a few issues since Amazon decided that print books needed to go through KDP instead of Createspace. One of those issues is how long it takes to get books from Amazon and that they take the print cost of the books out of the author’s royalties.
There are other issues with Amazon that I won’t go into here. At the end of the day, I’m tired of dealing with them and their lousy customer service. If I can work it out—and I’ve been researching this—I will sell all of my self-published books directly from my website. I wanted to pull all the books from Amazon. I didn’t want them to have any of my books, but as it was pointed out to me by another author, many readers equate Amazon with a writer’s credibility. Essentially, if your books are on Amazon, readers take you more seriously.
With that in mind, I posed this question on my Facebook page and in a Facebook group: Do you purchase books on Amazon? If so, how often?
Every person who responded purchases books off of Amazon (mostly digital). Every. Single. Person. And most of those folks purchase their books from Amazon only.
Sigh. Instead of pulling all of my books from Amazon, I am going to leave them on the site, but I am also going to put them on my website (yes, both digital and print). I honestly didn’t want to stay with Amazon. It’s like being in a bad relationship and sticking around because you have nothing better in store. But she is a necessary evil.
For the record, I’m not taking on Amazon. They are a juggernaut who can do whatever they want. I’m just tired of them changing the rules every year or so, but still making a crap load of money off of the authors. I’ve always been one to do things my way, so I guess this will be another step in that direction with my writing. If what I’m planning to do works, I will spread the news everywhere I can. Stay tuned and let’s see what happens.
I’m also making a change to Type AJ Negative. In March or early April, I will convert my blog into a full blown website. I will stick with WordPress because I enjoy the user friendly controls and I’ve never had a bad experience with their customer service.
Don’t worry. The blog will remain, but it will get a massive upgrade and I will add a lot of things to it that are not on there now, like BUY buttons, videos, pictures, schedule of events, new short stories, all of the book reviews, maybe even a facelift in its appearance as well. Like converting the book files to digital and reformatting for print files, setting up the website will take time, but I’m determined to give you all a better landing page and make it easier to find my work. I also want to get back to more of the humorous posts I used to put on here. I hope you will like it and come back on a regular basis.
I met a dinosaur at the park at the beginning of the year. I got her to take a picture with one of my books.
I leave 2018 behind with this thought.
You can be passive and watch life pass you by. Or you can be aggressive and go after life and live it.
Yesterday I was ten and learning how to play baseball for the first time with my dad throwing Nolan Ryan fastballs to me. Twenty hours ago I was seventeen and walking across the stage during graduation from high school. fifteen hours ago I was twenty-seven and getting married. twelve hours ago I was in the delivery room with Cate as she gave birth to The Girl. Ten hours ago, I was in another delivery room as Cate gave birth to The Boy. Five hours ago I turned forty. Three hours from now, I’ll be fifty …
Do you see what I am getting at. Time waits for no one. You have to live your life or you will wonder what happened to it when you get older. Then you will wish you had done more. Don’t wish. Go live.
Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.
If you missed Part 1, you can read it HERE.
Two things happened in my little acre of the writing world this past year. In March I sat in on my first panel. It was about Indie authors and the struggles of being one. I can honestly say it was interesting and informative. I made a few friends who I have stayed in contact with. There is a video somewhere out there of it.
In September, I stood in front of a crowd of people as the guest speaker for Chris Maw’s Words and Wine event. I was nervous for all of fifteen seconds. In the video you can see I flub over a couple of my words, but once I got my bearing and the train began to roll forward, I feel I entertained the group (even getting a few laughs here and there). I took questions and gave answers. I had a blast. I want to do it again. I want to speak in front of people again. That was as thrilling to me as a roller coaster ride or bungee jumping or sky diving might be for others. You can see the video below.
So, if you want a Southern Gothic, horror story telling, rebel with somewhat of a cause to speak at an event, drop me a line at email@example.com.
Did I really just plug that? I guess I did.
This year Cate and I made several long road trips—more than we have any other time in our marriage. Actually, we made more instate and out of state road trips than we ever had in our over twenty years of marriage.
We took the kids to St. Augustine, Florida at the beginning of April. I’m not entirely sure the kids had a great time, but Cate and I did. It was our first trip to Florida together and the first time in a while that we got a hotel. Cate and I even rode an outdoor carousel, though the kids didn’t get on it. I think they were embarrassed by our actions.
In August we went to Virginia for Scares That Care. We left on a Thursday and arrived back home the following Monday. It was a blast and a half, one of the single best weekends of my life. More on that later.
At the end of October, we made a trip to Bradford, Pennsylvania, to see our two friends, Tara and Larissa. Oh my goodness, the donuts at The Cider Mill were amazing, as they were at the Amish house we visited. In Pennsylvania they have this place called Tim Horton’s. I hear this is a Canadian alternative to Starbucks. And I will say they are far better than Starbucks … and cheaper. We need one down here in South Carolina. Do you hear that Tim Horton’s? Come down south. I’ll love you forever.
Florida was great fun with the kids. Pennsylvania was great fun with two terrific people. Virginia … Virginia was an entirely different ball game.
Let me tell you about Williamsburg, Virginia and Scares That Care. This trip would not have been possible without Lisa Vasquez and Stitched Smile Publications. I’m not going to go into the why of it, but Lisa is a great and generous individual. The planning for this trip began before the calendar turned to 2018. When August rolled around, Cate and I left our little home in South Carolina and drove the seven hours to Williamsburg, stopping only to eat lunch and gas up the car.
We arrived at this beautiful gated complex and were greeted in the parking lot of the place we would spend the next four days and nights by Larissa and Tara. For the next three hours we sat in the living room talking. During those three hours, the four of us became instant friends. It turned out we had a lot in common including where our relationships were concerned. The similarities were eerie.
Night would come and the rest of the group hadn’t arrived yet, and wouldn’t until the next morning. We crashed and the next morning the four of us greeted Lisa, Donelle, Chris and Veronica to the house. Later in the day one of the most upbeat and enjoyable to be around people arrived: James.
That afternoon we made our way to the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel to where the Scares That Care convention was held. The Stitched Smile Publications booth was right next to the All Things Zombie booth, ran by Jeffrey Clare, which was a treat in and of itself. Friday evening, all day Saturday and Sunday morning to early afternoon, we took turns manning the booth, selling books, meeting people and having an all around great time.
Saturday evening, after the convention ended for the day, we were treated to the wedding of Jeffrey Clare and Shannon Walters. It wasn’t just any wedding, though. It was a zombie themed wedding. It was awesome.
That Saturday night we all sat around the table and many of us bared our souls. We learned a lot about each other. We laughed. We laughed so hard some of us cried. And a bond was created that feels as strong as any from any other group I’ve been associated with. It was a magical weekend, one of the best.
Let’s talk books for a minute here. My collection, Voices, came out on Friday, April 13th. It is dark, disturbing and awesome. The book contains 15 short stories that deal with the darker and very real subjects of life, such as cutting, neglect, sexual assault, prison, murder, loneliness, love gone awry, demons, bullying and betrayal. It’s not a book for the squeamish.
Bibliophilia Templum had this to say about Voices: “These stories darkly and boldly illustrate the harsh realities of life when there are no safe places, not even in your own head.”
Scream Horror Magazine reviewed Voices and said:
“Few things are as terrifying or powerful as the human mind. It’s where our darkest secrets, phobias and most troubling thoughts reside, which could spell harm to ourselves or others if they’re allowed to fester for too long, unattended. While the mind motivates us to achieve our goals and form our greatest ideas, it’s also capable of inspiring dark deeds and taking advantage of our paranoias and fears when we’re at our most vulnerable. Every horrible atrocity in human history started with a sister thought or an impulse stemming from a damaged psyche after all. As such, the complexities of the mind has always lent itself perfectly to horror tales.
A.J. Brown’s latest. Voices, is a collection of short stories rooted in psychological torment and the horrors that can unfold as a result. Each story is rooted in the darkest elements of humanity that, when broken down, don’t seem too far fetched at all. These tales are inspired by domestic, sexual and mental abuse, as well as neglect, bullying, death, sorrow and the harm the can cause. It’s not a light collection by any means, but it’s certainly effective and deserves your attention if you’re willing to confront horror rooted in reality.
The first story, “In the Shadows They Hide” taps into a socially awkward teenager’s fear of shadows, coupled with the anxieties that arise from being bullied and unable to fit in with your peer group.
“The Scarring”, meanwhile, is concerned with child abuse and the harrowing effects which follows in its wake. “A Memory Best Left Alone” is about a woman who self-harms … you get the idea of the type of subject matter Brown is fascinated with. This isn’t poolside reading.
That said, the author handles each story with sensitivity and respect to difficult topics and themes while simultaneously mining the real horror humanity experiences to craft bold and devastating scare fare. In lesser hands, this anthology could be exploitative or schlocky, but Brown’s exploration is nuanced and all the better for it. By no means will this book be for everyone, but those who dare open its pages may find it rewarding.”
But there is more to Voices than just the book. Over the last eight months, the characters of the stories have been interviewed by Lisa Lee Tone of Bibliophilia Templum. Those interviews can be seen by following the links below. Also, when the series of interviews are complete, they will be compiled into a companion book for Voices. That book will also have an interview with Lisa Lee Tone and a couple of extra things that will only appear in that book.
(To read the interviews to date, click on the name of the character.)
Part 1: Spencer from In the Shadows They Hide
Part 2: Mr. Worrywort from Chet and Kay’s Not So Marvelous Adventure
Part 3: Lena and Nothing from The Scarring
Part 4: Claire from Claire, The Movie
Part 5: Jeddy from Black Storms
Part 6: B from Anymore
Part 7: Dave from Crisp Sounds
Part 8: Dane from Numbers
Part 9: The Angel from To Bleed
Part 10: Brian from Not Like You
Part 11: Lewis from The Sad Woes of the Trash Man
A couple of other books were put out, as well. The first of these is titled, ZOMBIE, and yes, it is a collection of stories involving the rotting corpses we have all come to love or loathe. There is a touch of humor in this book, and a collaboration with my good friend, Justin Dunne, titled, Bonobo.
The second of these books is titled, Beautiful Minds, a collection of 61 short stories that encompasses the four years The Brown Bag Stories were in existence. What were The Brown Bag Stories, you ask? Good question.
The Brown Bag Stories was a monthly booklet Cate and I put out, starting in May of 2014. Each booklet had a short story in it (yes, a different story in every one), a dedication, a cover, the letter to you, my Faithful Readers, and advertisements for my other books. In the four years TBBS existed, we put out 64 total stories. As I stated, 61 of those appear in Beautiful Minds, with the only ones not in the massive book being two stories that are also in Voices and one story I hope to publish with a pro paying magazine in 2019.
I admit a simple truth here: I was saddened to bring The Brown Bag Stories to an end, but to be completely honest, it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. I wanted it to generate potential readers for my books. It might have generated a handful of readers, and I am grateful for that, but at the end of the day, all the work and costs going into putting them out just wasn’t generating sells for my books. I hate putting it that way, but that is the truth.
There is one more book that I put out, but not to the general public. It was a Christmas present for my sister-in-law and it’s titled, Closing the Wound. It is based on the true events of the death of a sixteen-year-old young man on Halloween night of 1995. Amazon and I went ten rounds in our arguments over their service with the delivery of this book, but it finally showed up in the nick of time. Seeing the expression on my sister-in-law’s face made all the effort well worth it.
To Be Continued …
SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT
Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum.
No, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.
Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here: If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers.
One more thing before the first session: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.
“That be a good child,” said the old black man sitting almost directly across from Lisa. He’s hunched forward, elbows on his knees. In his hands is an old cap, folded almost in half. His fingernails are yellow and his hands look like those of a man who had done hard labor his entire life. In truth, he had, and sometimes still does, even though he is well into his seventies.
“Hello, Lewis,” Lisa says.
“Hello, Ma’am.” He nods appropriately. His voice is deep and holds a rasp in it.
“How are you today?”
“I’m fine, Ma’am. You?”
“I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know when we’re done here. How’s that?”
Lewis nods. “That be fine, Ma’am.”
“Lewis, I would like to be candid for a moment, if that is okay?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I ain’t got nothin’ to hide, so you go on ahead and be … what’s that word you said?”
“Yes, Ma’am. You go on ahead and be candid.”
“You seem like a really good man. A hard worker. A caring person. So … Why …? What made you think it was acceptable to steal another person’s car?”
“Umm … I ain’t never said it was accep’ble. It ain’t. I just, well, I wanted my Michelle to be happy. You know, not regret marryin’ a man of my color. You know her pappy wasn’t all too keen on us gettin’ together.” Lewis takes a breath, lets it out in a long, sad sigh. “I reckon I was scared she would leave me, so I stole the car for some money. I didn’t do it out of malice or spite. I reckon I went and took it out of love.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He shakes his head. His hands twist the cap a little. “Love makes you do some bad things. Stupid things.”
Lisa nods. “Yes, I suppose it does.” She pauses, then says, “It must have been degrading to be called ‘boy’ and, um, other things by the policemen.”
“I reckon so, Ma’am, but back then that’s just the way things were. Boy was the least insultin’ thing I was called by any white man back then.”
“You endured a lot in prison, Lewis.”
He shrugs. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“How did you keep your composure when they killed Marvin Jackson?”
Lewis shakes his head and twist the cap some more. “It ain’t all that hard when you want to stay alive. I was ‘fraid they was goin’ to kill me, too, so I just did what I hads to do to stay on this side of the ground.”
“That’s a smart way of looking at things.”
“It’s the only way in prison, Ma’am.”
“And you went to prison because of your wife, right?”
“Oh no, Ma’am. I went to prison ‘cause I was stupid and wanted to impress my Michelle. If I had just been me …” he shrugs again. “things might’ve been diff’rent.”
“You obviously loved your wife very much.”
“I still do. Though she’s dead and all, I still love her.”
“Is it fair to say you loved her so much you have no remorse for killing her second husband?”
“That wasn’t no husband, Ma’am. He was a monster. I just saved her from the monster. That’s all.”
“What about when you killed the other man?”
“Well, I reckon that was self-defense, Ma’am.”
“After everything you have been through, can you tell me why you decided to turn yourself in to the police?”
Lewis sits silent for a few seconds. Then a few more. He looks up with tears in his eyes. “When you ain’t got nothin’ you need somethin’ to hold onto. Somethin’ like structure. And prison has structure. Besides, I ain’t long for this world, Ma’am. Ain’t nothin’ worse than dyin’ alone.”
TO BE CONTINUED …
(The wonderful artwork for The Sad Woes of the Trash Man was provided by the amazing Troy Rider.)