What Scares You, Alma Katsu?

Let’s welcome Alma Katsu to the What Scares You blog! Her latest book, The Deep, is about the Titanic and hauntings, and it was released right smack in the middle of the current pandemic, so you should buy it to support her and read it to scare yourself silly.

Alma writes really terrifying books that freak out a lot of people, but she’s an absolute delight of a person. I had the pleasure of chatting with her at an event in D.C. late last year and immediately fell in love with her. So of course I wanted to find out what really scares her. You will not be disappointed!

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

I grew up in a very spooky little town in Massachusetts. It seemed there was some horrific legend associated with many of the buildings and such. There were a ton of old cemeteries, and two funeral parlors each a block in different directions from my house. We lived in an old, rundown Victorian that was also creepy as hell, and growing up Roman Catholic gives you this weird, superstitious outlook on life. The total of all these experiences is that I grew up believing in the supernatural.

I don’t believe in any of that stuff now. It’s a little sad that all that kind of mystery has been taken out of my life. But I’d had a strange career in defense and the intelligence business and been exposed to really horrible things that people do (genocides! Mass atrocities!) and so stories like that kind of pale in comparison. For a long time, I didn’t scare, really, and now that I’m retired it’s only coming back to me slowly.

And I write horror stories! Oh, the irony.

Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?

I don’t not believe in ghosts but it’s getting harder to sustain this possibility every day. My husband likes those ghost hunting reality shows and so we watch a fair amount of them (I keep him company), and I haven’t seen anything that seems conclusive, not to me. And yet we keep watching them.

What was your worst nightmare ever?

When I was very young, I dreamed once that the earth ran out of water and some people were committing suicide by setting fire to themselves, because no one would waste the water needed to put them out. And my father decided this was what we’d do, so he had us sit in the living room and set the house on fire. I could see the flames devouring the house, but my family were all sitting on the couch, not budging, and finally I ran away from them because I didn’t want to burn, but I felt awful about not dying with them. Then I woke up, but the dream has stayed with me for decades.

Yeah, my home life wasn’t fucked up at all.

“I dreamed once that the earth ran out of water and some people were committing suicide by setting fire to themselves, because no one would waste the water needed to put them out.”

 Is there anything you are terrified of eating? Why?

By saying “terrified of eating” you imply that I’d actually consider eating it. I stopped eating things I don’t want to eat a long time ago. You have to understand, I’m half Japanese and grew up watching my mother eat things that any normal person would not consider edible, like dried fish heads. Saturday mornings usually began with my mother pickling tiny octopuses in a jar. So, no, I cannot be shamed or cajoled into eating weird things.

The question of eating weird things came up, naturally, with my book The Hunger, which is about the Donner Party. You cannot write about the Donner Party without studying up on cannibalism or asking yourself if you would consider resorting to cannibalism if the circumstances were right. (The answer to that is no.) I found out, on book tour, that most people don’t want you to bring up cannibalism at all but some people, a very small minority, really really want to talk about it. And oddly know a lot about it.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

Probably the normal writer fear that I won’t be able to get the current novel to work. Just because you wrote one book, or a dozen, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to write the next one.

As for being able to write things that scare people, my hang-up is not writing something that completely freaks people out. Because of my time being around genocidaires and torturers (see above) kind of burned out my front-end filter, and things that didn’t seem like a big deal to me kind of freaked normal people out (read my first book, The Taker, if you want to see what I mean). 

One of the things I learned from that experience and from writing horror novels is that everybody thinks that what they like is “normal”. I get bad reviews from people who think my books shouldn’t be considered horror at all, and from people who think they’re terrifying. And each one of them thinks their level is set perfectly. It’s a challenge for all writers, how far to take “it”, whatever the “it” is in your story. As artists, we’re supposed to challenge people. The problem is too many people these days don’t want to be challenged.

 What’s worse: being haunted by a demon or having a stalker?

I don’t mean to take the stalker thing lightly, but people underestimate how hard it is to be prosecuted for murder. I mean, if there was no known association between you and this stalker you could probably kill him, and they’d never connect you to the body or his disappearance. Problem eliminated.

Alma Katsu is the award-winning author of five novels that combine history with the supernatural. THE HUNGER (2018) was named one of NPR’s Favorite 100 Horror Stories and was nominated for a Stoker and Locus Magazine award for best horror novel. Her debut novel, THE TAKER, was one of Booklist’s Top Ten Debut Novels of 2011. THE DEEP (2020), her most recent novel, is a reimagining of the sinking of the Titanic with a horror twist. Her first spy novel, RED WIDOW, will be published spring of 2021.

What Scares You, Michael Landweber?

Michael Landweber

Hi, friends! Today we’re celebrating the stuff that scares the pants off Michael Landweber. We’re also celebrating the release of his new Audible original The In-Between, which has a fascinating premise involving teleporting. And if you sign up for my author newsletter right here [link], I’ll be giving away two free downloads of Michael’s book next week. So get on it!

What is your greatest fear?

These are strange times. It almost feels irresponsible to answer this question with anything other than global pandemic. We all have our own specific fears, but it is very unusual to be living in a moment where everyone has the same fear. Not to mention that we are all learning to fear things that very few people were scared of before, such as: 

  • Going to the grocery store
  • People not wearing masks
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Joggers

Seriously, I have never been more terrified than the other day when I started down an empty aisle in a grocery store and suddenly someone entered from the other side NOT wearing a mask. If that person had started jogging or throwing cardboard boxes at me, it would have been game over.

Also, climate change.

But this is about my personal fears, not global ones. So, in that context, I really have to go with blueberries.

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

So, let’s talk about blueberries.

When I was a very small child in the 1970s, my parents took me to see Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This was a mistake. First of all, let’s be honest, that is one of the creepiest movies of all time. It is seriously terrifying. A middle-aged loner, who sometimes looks like Gene Wilder and sometimes like Johnny Depp, lures children into his “factory” by giving them golden tickets and promises of all their favorite candy, then seriously messes them up when they take his “tour.” Really, it isn’t that different from the plot of Stephen King’s It.

This horror show was the matinee of choice for my parents and four-year-old me. I made it through the kid getting sucked up into a tube out of a chocolate river. But when the girl started blowing up into a giant blueberry after chewing a piece of gum, I ran screaming from the theater. That was the end of the movie for me. I had no idea for years that the kids didn’t die. This fear has also provided me with my longest-lived neurosis. I do not eat blueberries to this day.  

Blueberries….striking fear in the hearts of men (well, Michael) for all of eternity.

Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?

I’m not sure that I can say I’ve overcome my fear of flying, but I have definitely managed it. I still hate to fly. Every bump makes me grab the armrest and stop breathing for a moment. I know all the arguments about how its safer to fly than drive and so on. But every bit of turbulence makes me check out the window to see if the engine has fallen off. And I need to sit near the window so I can see the ground. This may seem counterintuitive, but when it is night or the plane is in a cloud, my anxiety goes way up.

In my latest book, The In Between, I imagine a world where climate change has made the atmosphere so turbulent that passengers take a powerful sedative before take-off and the flight attendants wear magnetic boots. In the story, challenges with flying led to teleportation becoming a commercial means of travel. But sometimes when you teleport, you disappear.

But I digress … look, I get it, it does not sound like I’ve overcome my fear at all. But my management of it definitely changed when I had kids. I’ve always flown a fair amount. Every interesting place I want to go seems to require a plane trip, and I like to travel. Before kids, I did very little to hide my anxiety. I just let it all hang out there. Not like screaming in the aisles, but definitely making travel less pleasant for my wife. After kids, I realized that I needed to let my kids develop their own fears, rather than imposing mine. So I learned to hide my fear of flying when I was with them. That’s progress, right?

What is your weirdest fear?

Let’s go with the blueberries.

What are your phobias?

If you believe the internet, I’ve already discussed my aviophobia and bebuphobia. I’ll wait while you Google them. So how about arachnophobia. I really don’t like spiders.

We have a division of labor in our house for dealing with any non-human invaders based on number of legs. I handle all critters with two (birds), four (squirrels) and six (so many things). My wife disposes of the eight-legged abominations. There is an ongoing debate about anything with more legs than that, such as centipedes and millipedes. The one time we were completely flummoxed was when a slug got into the house. We had no contingency plan at all for no legs.

What scares you most about the writing process?

I tend to write without an outline. I have a vague idea where I’m going when I start writing a novel, but I have no plan on how to get there. I take it on faith that the road will reveal itself along the way. That can lead to a lot of wrong turns and dead ends. So there is always a moment about halfway into a first draft where I get scared that I’m not going to figure out the rest of it. I calm down by reminding myself that it has come together before and will work out this time too. Probably.

What’s the scariest movie or TV show you’ve ever seen?

I don’t watch a lot of straight-up horror movies. But I do like a good slow burn with a creepy twist. Get Out. The Sixth Sense. The Cabin in the Woods. Scream. The Others. All great twisty flicks that I can’t watch alone at night. But one that really scared me was Identity. It’s an indirect riff on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None with an amazing cast. Definitely an underrated gem. 

What’s worse: clowns or spiders?

Yeah. Spiders. No contest.

Michael Landweber lives and writes in Washington, DC. He is the author of three novels: The In Between, We, and Thursday 1:17 p.m. His short stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, Fugue, Barrelhouse, and American Literary Review. He is an associate editor at Potomac Review and a contributor for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

“The Long-Term Tenant” is a finalist for a Thriller Award!

I was super excited to get the email that my story “The Long-Term Tenant,” published last year in the July/August 2019 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, is a finalist for International Thriller Writers’ 2020 Thriller Award for Best Short Story.

Kudos to EQMM, which has four stories on the list of finalists! Here’s the list:

Hector Acosta — “Turistas” (Down & Out Books)
Michael Cowgill — “Call Me Chuckles” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
Tara Laskowski — “The Long-Term Tenant” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
Lia Matera — “Snow Job” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
Twist Phelan — “Fathers-in-Law” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)

I don’t often like my short stories after they’ve been published–I mean, I like them ok, but I mostly just see errors or things I could’ve fixed. But I’m particularly proud of “The Long-Term Tenant,” and I’m so pleased that it’s been recognized in this way. It was a really fun story to write–I’ve always found the desert a spooky place where anything can happen.

If you’d like to read the story, you can buy a back issue of EQMM (while you’re at it, subscribe!) or you can hear me reading it on the EQMM podcast right here!

Thank you to ITW and to the judges for this honor, and congratulations to all the finalists in all categories! I look forward to tuning in for the winners in all the categories in July.

What Scares You, Anjili Babbar?

I love reading these interviews when they come in. I love the mix of stuff I’ve never heard of and things I totally relate to. I love hearing what my friends, writers I admire, get freaked out about.

I also always feel like I learn something each time–and this time is no exception. The answers that Anjili gives here are so super smart. I kept reading this and saying to myself, “Yes! Exactly! I could never have articulated it like that, but YES.”

Here, my friends, is a scholar and a wordsmith. (Who’s afraid of helicopter blades.) And Anjili, once this weird plague virus is over, let’s get beers.

What is your greatest fear?

I feel like I need to address the elephantine fear in the room right off the bat. Obviously, I am writing this during a global pandemic. I am confined to my apartment, isolated from friends and family, doing my best to flatten the curve, and worrying about the health and safety of the entire world—just like essentially everyone I know. In other words, my greatest fears, which seemed as unique as everyone else’s a few weeks ago, will probably sound pretty familiar to anyone likely to read this now. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that, for a lot of us, what seem like idiosyncrasies of terror are actually just different manifestations of the same concerns. I haven’t decided whether this possibility is comforting or not.  On one hand, it is reflective of shared humanity. On the other, if we are all afraid of the same things at heart, then those fears are remarkably powerful…and remarkably warranted. How’s that for an optimistic start?

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

The first strong reaction of terror I remember was to W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” That story haunted me in childhood, largely because of its cruel moral. We are taught from an early age that hopes and wishes are positive things: they help us to get through difficult times and to focus on goals for the future. I haven’t read the story since I was a child, but I remember that it was framed as a warning to be careful what we wish for, because we might be punished by the forms our granted wishes take. One of the wishes in that story is for the return of a loved one, and that is the part that upset me most. The suggestion that human attachment should result in punishment is horrible indeed. The implication seems to be that we need to fear the best of our nature as much as the worst of it. Of course, the story leaves an especially bitter taste in my mouth lately: I can’t count how often I have wished for more time at home, alone, to focus on my writing…and here we are. You suck, monkey’s paw.

What’s the scariest movie or TV show you’ve ever seen?

I just named a story that scared me as a child, but it stands out in my memory because I often feel like I am lacking some sort of “normal reaction” gene for horror fiction. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate horror; on the contrary, I seek it out and enjoy it. It’s also not to say that I dissociate while reading or watching it, but it tends to evoke empathy or anger in me, rather than fear. Monster stories, in particular, don’t scare me at all, and on the contrary, I sometimes find them comforting. I think this is because we create monsters as a way of defining, explaining, and creating artificial limitations for the evil that humans are sometimes capable of. People can be a lot more terrifying than monsters, because some of them are able to justify their actions to themselves, however horrible, and when they behave without compassion, it makes us doubt the humanity and potential of all of us. Also…you can’t just throw holy water or garlic at them and call it a day. [Embarrassing side note about my missing supernatural fear gene: when everyone was talking about how terrifying The Witch was, I had to text a bunch of friends to find out why it was supposed to be scary, like I was Mork from Ork or something.]

Do you have a recurring nightmare?  

I did a lot of theatre as a child, and I am convinced that it has affected the structure of my dreams. Generally, this is a good thing: if a dream starts out frightening, my subconscious can often will it into something else, like a change of scene. Sometimes, though, the opposite is true: I’ll have a dream that begins as something seemingly innocuous, I’ll suddenly realize that I completely misunderstood the context, and then it’s as if I can’t change the scene, because I failed to adequately interpret it. For example, I’m in a park, watching children frolic in Halloween costumes. Suddenly, I realize that I have completely misread what is going on: one of the “children” is, in fact, a bear, and he is mauling people…not frolicking. Yes, my subconscious is about as pessimistic, transparent, and boring as possible in its warnings to always be vigilant and not let my guard down. For the record, I think it should lighten up a bit.

I’m in a park, watching children frolic in Halloween costumes. Suddenly, I realize that I have completely misread what is going on…

What is your weirdest fear?

In that other life—the one in which we can leave the house—I am afraid of any kind of spinning blade-type object: round saws, helicopter rotor blades…and windmills. But, no, I don’t believe they cause cancer, which makes me less weird than some people, I guess.

Who is the best villain, fictional or in real life?

The best fictional villains are the kind that have just enough of something good—charm, wit, intellect—to periodically lure us into forgetting they are villains and liking them a little bit. Banal villains are all around us in real life (to the misfortune of the windmills); it’s nice to imagine a world in which even the bad guys have some compelling qualities. Andrew Scott’s interpretation of Moriarty on Sherlock is a great example; so is Boyd Crowder from Justified, though Boyd is a distinctly more complex character than Moriarty. He has a number of decent impulses, too, which make him as relatable as he is dangerous. “I’ve been accused of being a lot of things. Inarticulate ain’t one of them” is, I think, a profoundly satisfying line for a writer. It’s a line that layers self-consciousness about personal shortcomings with hope—put forth as conviction—that mastery of words might serve to counterbalance these shortcomings.

What scares you most about the writing process?

The thing that scares me most is pressing “print” or “send.” I love words, but I sometimes love them too much, and I have a tendency to spend excessive time rephrasing and restructuring my work. It’s difficult to let go, but once I do, that stress completely dissipates, as if my role as creator is done—for better or for worse—and the work’s destiny is its own.  [Side note: yes, I know that Mary Shelley warned about this type of thinking, but who’s afraid of the Frankenstein monster? Not me.]

Anjili Babbar is a writer, scholar, and professor of crime fiction, British and Irish literature, and folklore, and president of the Dashiell Hammett Society. Upcoming publications include Finders: Justice, Faith, and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction (Syracuse University Press) and “‘This Isn’t F*cking Miss Marple, Mate’: Intertextuality in Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy Series” (in Guilt Rules All: Mysteries, Detectives, and Crime in Irish Fiction, edited by Elizabeth Mannion and Brian Cliff, Syracuse University Press).

Main photo credit: Jaytee Van Stean

Anthology news, devilish book bundles, and other stuff

Hello!

Strange times. Strange times, indeed. A few months ago, I posted a blog here discussing all the spring events I was looking forward to. A few weeks later, I had to delete it because every single one of those events was canceled.

We are all sad, I know. All mourning the loss of something and struggling to adjust to this new (hopefully temporary) way of living. For me, I’m very sad that my son won’t go back to 2nd grade to finish out the year with his friends and teacher, all of whom he loves. I’m sad that the writing conventions, readings, and festivals I was going to attend are all vanished—poof!—some of which, like the Edgar Awards, I was so very much looking forward to. I miss my colleagues at work, I miss my favorite restaurants. I miss having lunch dates with friends. I miss the luxury of wandering around a store for an hour or so and just browsing for random things that I don’t need.

But in this moment of profound anxiety and loss, I know I need to find things to be grateful for and things to look forward to. So I thought I’d share with you a few cool things that I’m part of, since I can’t go to events and shout about them.

First, on March 16, an anthology launched that I’m very excited about. It’s called The Swamp Killers, and it is a novel-in-stories by a great group of crime fiction writers and edited by Sarah M. Chen and E.A. Aymar. I’ve got the first story in the novel, called “Birthday,” about a depressed hit man who has to attend a child’s birthday party at, basically, a Chuck E Cheese kind of place.

Contributors include: E.A. Aymar, Sarah M. Chen, Hilary Davidson, Alex Dolan, Rebecca Drake, Gwen Florio, Elizabeth Heiter, J.J. Hensley, Susi Holliday, Shannon Kirk, Tara Laskowski, Jenny Milchman, Alan Orloff, Tom Sweterlitsch, Art Taylor, and Wendy Tyson.

You can find more out about the book and order yourself a copy here.

Another anthology I’m a contributor for hit the (virtual, I guess) shelves on April 7. The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, edited by Josh Pachter, features 26 stories inspired by Joni Mitchell songs. My husband Art Taylor and I wrote a story together for this book, based on Joni’s song “Both Sides Now.” The story we wrote is a series of letters back and forth by a husband and wife while he’s in prison. We included secret codes in the story, so we make you do a little work while you read.

If you purchase a copy of the book, one-thirds of the author royalties will be donated to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni Mitchell’s name, so snatch it up now!

Speaking of Art and me, we also did a podcast together recently at the popular Dark and Stormy Podcast, where we each talked about our Agatha-nominated works (Art’s up for Best Short Story for “Better Days” and I’m up for Best Debut Novel for One Night Gone.) You can hear us chat about our work right here, and check out the other podcast interviews they’ve done for other Agatha nominees.

I also am excited to have published my first creative nonfiction flash piece over at The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. It’s called “Stochastic,” and it’s about my mom and grief and the randomness of life. It takes about 45 seconds to read, so I hope you’ll give it a go.

Finally, I want to give a shout-out to my favorite small press publisher, Santa Fe Writers Project. Publisher Andrew Gifford is tireless in shouting about his authors and getting their works out to as wide an audience as possible. SFWP has been around for more than 20 years now, and you can find a title in most any genre you love. You can find my two short story collections there, Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons and Bystanders.

Browse the shelves at SFWP! And for a limited time, you can buy “The Devil Made Me Do It” bundle, which includes both of my story collections and A.A. Balaskovits’ Magic for Unlucky Girls.

What Scares You, Adam Meyer?

Whenever I hear Adam Meyer talk about his stories, I am immediately interested. Maybe it’s the screenwriter in him, but he’s got a great talent for reducing down a plot line into a great pitch that hooks you in. I’ve bought several anthologies just because I heard what Adam’s story was about and wanted to read it.

Therefore, of course, I wanted to find out what creeps him out, since he does a pretty great job of creeping his readers out. Read on to find out…

Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?

For a long time, one of my greatest fears was public speaking. I can still remember standing up for the 4th grade spelling bee and being barely able to speak, let alone spell! This fear stayed with me into adulthood, and in my early thirties I decided to conquer it by trying the scariest thing I could think of: standup comedy.

I took a class with a professional standup, and we worked on our routines over several weeks. At the end we were supposed to do ten minutes in front of an audience, and I almost bailed. But my classmates and teacher were so supportive, and I practiced like crazy, and when the time came, I did my ten minutes and had a blast.

I’ve done standup a few times since, and it’s always terrifying and usually great fun. But when I get up in front of a group of people to talk about writing? It doesn’t really scare me, not anymore.

What are your phobias?

Claustrophobia is my big one! It doesn’t often come up, but sometimes I’ll be in the backseat of a car or on a long bus ride and before I know it, whoa! I feel like the walls are closing in, and my heart races, and I’m white-knuckling it the whole way.

My other phobia is dogs. The neighborhood where I grew up in New York City sat against this huge stretch of wild marsh. My parents had forbid us from going in there, so naturally my little brother and I went in there all the time! These wild dogs would roam around, and I can remember one barking fiercely and chasing after us. In retrospect, this scraggly mutt was probably more scared of us than we were of him, but the fear I felt that day has stayed with me.

These wild dogs would roam around, and I can remember one barking fiercely and chasing after us.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

Like almost every writer I know, I fear the blank page. Starting a project always scares me, even if I have a good sense of where it’s going. What if it’s no good? What if I run out of ideas midway? What if people read it and think it sucks?

After the first few pages, that fear usually drops to a low murmur. But as much as I fear beginnings, I also fear endings, especially on longer projects. What if I can’t stick the landing. And what’s the next project going to be?

All of this said, I like to be scared when I write—that’s how I know I’m challenging myself, and that’s where the fun lies.

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?

My first novel, The Last Domino. There’s nothing supernatural in it, but it’s about a school shooting and is told from the point of view of the perpetrator and his best friend. I remember writing the scene late in the novel where the shooting unfolds—I did it several times, throwing it away and starting over.

The last time, I put myself into a kind of trance, imagining myself in that school with bullets flying. It all seemed so real that I wrote down what I felt and saw and that was the version that made it into the final book.  

A colleague told me that when his teenage daughter read it, she was traumatized … which I feel badly about, and also take as a compliment. My own daughter is seven now and she’s asked when she can read The Last Domino. My wife told her not until she’s sixteen. I say when she graduates college … maybe.

What’s the scariest movie or TV show you’ve ever seen?

I can remember so many from when I was a kid, maybe only ten or twelve years old. In Search Of, hosted by Leonard Nimoy, is a favorite. The stories of ghosts and aliens were all supposedly true and that added to the delicious scariness.

I also remember my brother and I had a babysitter who’d let us stay up late on Sarturday nights to watch Tales from the Darkside. The opening titles alone were terrifying!

Later, I watched the original Halloween on VHS in our neighbor’s basement. The masked face of Michael Myers, the eerily repetitive John Carpenter score. I was terrified and hooked.

But the absolute scariest thing I remember watching as a kid was A Nightmare on Elm Street. Those images of Freddy Krueger have stayed with me for over thirty years now, and if I put on that DVD late at night, chances are I’ll have nightmares. But so worth it, because I still love that movie.

How do you deal with fear?

For years, I was terrified of the dentist. Sitting in that oversized chair, feeling the scrape of metal on my teeth, hearing the whine of the drill …

This is a somewhat common fear—Marathon Man, after all—but I took it seriously. I long avoided the dentist whenever possible, and when I finally had to deal with some problem teeth, I vowed to face my fear instead of running from it.

What I did was learn to meditate. It’s a great tool. Incredibly simple, but it’s been a lifesaver for me, and I use it in almost any situation where fear comes up—including at the dentist’s office, where I now go for regular checkups. Of course, it helps that my current dentist is a super nice guy … and looks nothing like Laurence Olivier.

Adam Meyer is a fiction writer and screenwriter. His latest short stories appear in the anthologies Crime Travel, the Joni Mitchell-inspired The Beat of Black Wings, and Seascape: Best New England Crime 2019. He’s written several true-crime TV series and TV movies, including the upcoming film Deadly Ransom. He’s also the author of the novel The Last Domino and is currently finishing his second novel, Missing Rachel.

What Scares You, Carol Gyzander?

I mean, it’s Friday the 13th and a global pandemic, so what better day to post another round of terror?

Carol and I have bonded over many things, but perhaps the most significant moment was when we discovered our mutual love of The Kraken. She’s a delightfully dark and wicked writer, and the more I get to know her, the more I love her.

Her latest dark fantasy story is “Deal with the Devil” in Across the Universe: Tales of Alternate Beatles. This “what if” anthology—edited by Michael A. Ventrella and Randee Dawn, from Fantastic Books—shows The Beatles in alternative world situations and has received positive reviews from Publishers Weekly and Analog, and a starred review from Library Journal.

But the important reason why we’re here? To discover what scares the hell out of her. Here we go:

What is your greatest fear?

Losing my identity or my mental capacity is my biggest fear. I took both my parents through Alzheimer’s, and they each turned into some other person who forgot they even had family, even though I went to care for them every day. Our own identity, mental capability, and memories are what make us unique and different from the animals. Being left without the ability to properly understand, think, and reason is a terrifying thing.

I’m slowly working on a piece of my memoirs about this period and the aftermath—of facing the fear of getting Alzheimer’s—because there are actions we can take to keep our brains in good shape.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

My greatest fear is writing something that doesn’t reach people on a deep level, whether it’s science fiction, horror, mystery, or even women’s fiction. One of my beta readers told me that my writing tends to “punch you in the feels” and, while that may be a bit of a dated analogy, it made me really proud.

What’s the scariest movie or TV show you’ve ever seen? Why?

The first science fiction show that I likely ever saw—as well as one of the first ones on television, coming a few years after Twilight Zone began—was the initial episode of The Outer Limits, “Galaxy Being.” It aired on September 16, 1963 when I was six years old.

I remember that I was in the TV room all by myself, and it came on after some show that my parents deemed safe to watch. They were in the kitchen out of earshot and had no idea what this next show would be like.

Suddenly, the screen was filled with squiggly lines and test patterns, with eerie, compelling music. An ominous voice proclaimed,

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. … For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.”

Well, okay, I was a well-behaved six-year-old who did what I was told, especially if it meant I got to watch more TV past bedtime, so I sat and watched—and believed. This first episode launched into a story about a radio station manager who was investigating electro-magnetism and somehow drew an alien life force into the station. It was the creepiest thing I had ever seen; the alien was a guy in a rubber suit who was filmed in reverse negative and super-imposed on the other footage, making it glow from inside with eerie effect.

The alien was only trying to help people and get home, but it caused radiation burns and electrocuted everything around it. Eventually, it sacrificed itself to save the people in the area.

Well, as this was going on, I was getting more and more frightened of the creature, as it was hurting people, but I also felt so bad for it because nobody would listen to what it was saying. My parents eventually found me on the couch, curled up and hiding under a towel so the alien couldn’t see me, or reach out and zap me.

I had nightmares for years afterward, even still getting scared in fifth grade when the baseboard heat came on in our next house. The pipes expanded and made clunking noises as the hot water approached my room—I just knew it was that alien’s footsteps, coming to get me!

Watching this show was a very formative moment, as I remember feeling so bad for the creature, far from home, while at the same being terrified of it touching and zapping me. In everything I write now, I try to do the same thing, and reach into the heart of my characters so the reader gets more than just an adventure story. The show explored the human spirit confronted by dark, existential forces—isn’t that a significant concept to explore?

What is your favorite type of monster? Why?

I’m a huge fan of cephalopods—octopuses and squid are intelligent and fascinating, boneless and mutable, and aren’t always scary monsters, but when they are … yikes!

I think it’s in part because humans are already at a disadvantage when we are in the water, and thus the fear factor is amplified. And they can do so many things we can’t.

Picture yourself submerged and floating in the dark, cold, ocean. You can feel the pressure of the water on every part of your body. Breathing—something we take for granted on land—is dependent upon some external device that may not be under your control. You can’t hear or see things the way you are used to.

A flash of movement scuttles along the edge of your field of vision. Suddenly, you feel a gentle touch on your leg as something slides up and wraps around your ankle, then the other one. Suckers grip your flesh.

It’s an intelligent creature that’s decided to make a wish, and you are the wishbone.

It’s an intelligent creature that’s decided to make a wish, and you are the wishbone.

What’s worse: closed-in spaces or heights? Why?

Heights! I was actually never afraid of them until I was a new driver, heading across a bridge, and my mom confessed her own fear of heights. Suddenly, I could picture just driving off the edge—down, down, down.

I had that same reaction recently when I was hiking out in Utah in Arches National Park. I was by myself (I know, I know, that’s not good) and was walking along a tall fin of rock that was about ten feet wide and a hundred feet high. I sat down in the sun and just looked around me for a long time, down each side and into the distance, becoming one with the world around me. Eventually I pictured myself just stepping off into the void and hightailed it out of there!

I was relieved to learn that both of those are actually considered healthy reactions. It’s called High Places Phenomenom (HPP) and the basic thinking is that we have to recognize the danger of plummeting to our deaths in order to affirm our desire to not go over the edge.  The French call it L’Appel du Vide, or call of the void.

What’s worse: clowns or spiders? Why?

Oh man, clowns are WAY worse. Spiders are perfectly natural—they do what they are supposed to do. But a clown? Nothing natural about it. The face is obscured and made to look like a caricature of a certain emotion. Masks free up the person to do or be something else— something other—and can remove their sense of moral connection. Did you know that some of the major recreational parks (such as Great Adventure in NJ) hold Halloween events but don’t allow people to wear masks that obscure the face?

And granted, all that is assuming there actually is a person inside the clown costume, anyway!

You are driving alone on a road at night and your headlights illuminate a man standing alone with a lantern in the middle of the road. What do you do? Also, is it more or less scary if it’s a little kid in pajamas?

Nope, nope, nope. We’ve all seen the movie and yet, they never do the right thing. Turn around and get the heck out of there. Go hang out in the garage where all the chainsaws are! That’s gotta be safer.

Of course, the little kid already has me wrapped around their finger. What could go wrong?

Carol Gyzander creates sci-fi, dark fantasy and horror … and a little mystery! She’s the editor of the Writerpunk Press anthologies; their latest, Taught by Time: Myth Goes Punk, contains punk stories inspired by myth, folklore, and legend and releases early April 2020. Her story contributions to WP include cyberpunk Shakespeare and Lovecraft, steampunk Poe and Tom Sawyer, and a biopunk myth of Echo and Narcissus. Recent horror short stories appear in Stories We Tell After Midnight from Crone Girls Press, and Hell’s Highways, edited by April Grey. “Runt of the Litter” is in Cat Ladies of the Apocalypse from Camden Park Press, March/April 2020. Carol lives in northern New Jersey with two felines—neither of which are battle cats, except in their own minds. Her work, including Across the Universe: Tales of Alternate Beatles, is available on Amazon.

What Scares You, Shannon Kirk?

Shannon and I have never met in person, but I’m pretty sure we’d be fast friends. For one, we’re both awesome…..I mean, both writers. Writers of creepy things, interested in creepy things. And I think we both have a similar sense of humor (or, at the very least, I find her hilarious online.)

I loved her book, Gretchen, which was one of the most original and surprising and downright scary books I’ve read in a long time. And I definitely wanted to know more about what terrifies her. She graciously agreed to share.

What is your greatest fear?

Insanity, the kind in which you don’t know if you’re insane and you take harmful actions in reality that have real consequences. I have always, I think ever since I watched the Kathleen Turner film, Julia and Julia, had this unrelenting fear. I was too young to watch Julia and Julia, I think I was 14 or 15, either that or my developing brain seized and froze on the absolute darkness of the film. In adulthood, with what I think (hope) is finally a fully formed front lobe, I can contextualize and rationalize the plot of Julia and Julia. But frankly, I’ve never been able to truly shake it. If you haven’t watched it, it is by far the darkest film I’ve ever watched, and that’s saying a lot since in my adulthood, I gobble (and even write) psychological horrors. In it, Turner plays Julia, a widow, who imagines (or is it a paranormal experience?) her dead husband and son are still alive. She flits back and forth between this fantasy and reality. She becomes so twisted between fantasy and reality, she kills a man in reality and winds up in the final scene in a hospital for the mentally unwell. It is never clear if her turns in fantasy-land are real or not, but to me, the watcher, there is no doubt that Julia was suffering psychotic episodes throughout and didn’t know it. Anyway, this, this type of insanity, the type in which you act out and harm another in reality, but don’t realize how upside down you are, that is the most frightening thing in the world to me.

What are your phobias?

I am scared of stairs (falling) and of grapes (choking).

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

How timely this question. My worst nightmare and the most recurring is one I’ve had since about 10 or 12. And it is so vivid and tangible in my mind, still, at age 46, that I just wrote an entire novel around it (this is my current WIP, The Peculiar House of Fearz).

Here’s the dream: I’m seated, somehow confined to this seat somehow, at a bare wooden table. Next to the table to the right is a window with a single potted plant. To my left, and in the interior of the room, is a rolling, grinding machine, which serves as a threat from my unseen tormentors (and who are they? The dream never reveals). The looming threat is that I will be “squished” in the rolling, grinding machine.

Who the hell knows what this dream means, or why it is recurring. No idea! I just know this. To this day, I sort of cringe when I’m in a room that is as bare and pastoral, old, antiqued like this one. Now, I grew up in a house full of antiques, but there’s a certain unique quality about this one that is hard to explain, and I have, indeed, encountered from time to time.

THE WINDOW PLANT OF TERROR!!!!

And I positively cannot tolerate single potted plants on windowsills. I don’t put one on any of mine, and I cringe if I ever see that. I know. Weird. Super weird. But that dream ruined plants on windowsills for me. So watch out for Peculiar Fearz, because this dream sunk in me so deep, I baked it all in that novel.

What scares you most about the writing process?

The knowledge that I will work myself into a sure panic with every book every time I send it off and wait for the reaction. And knowing I must endure the wait and the panic.

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?

I have an entire horror manuscript, named GOAT, in a drawer. The simple explanation is that it’s based on the mythical goat man, but it layers on that family traumas and a significant, physical assault on the main character when she’s only seven. This manuscript has been fully edited twice, gone through reads by my agent and her staff. I have notes to edit it further, but I honestly just can’t do it. It’s been in a drawer a few years now. My mom won’t read it; she says it scares her too much. And once, when I was in the thick of the last round of editing it, I wound myself up so much, nightmares and all, I feared a demon was talking to me through the NEST camera. It was really just my husband playing a joke on me, but the fact that I allowed myself to believe a demon for even a second, and the fact I didn’t just immediately go to the logical conclusion that it was obviously my husband pranking me, led me to seal GOAT away in a bottom drawer, and under several layers of file folders on my computer. Not sure if I can ever return to it.

I have an entire horror manuscript, named GOAT, in a drawer.

Who is the best villain, fictional or in real life?

The best “villain” is Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ VEEP character, Selina Meyer. My absolute favorite genre across everything is irreverent satire. And VEEP is the apex pinnacle of irreverent satire. The Meyer character is sooooooo totally a villain, the satirical representation of all the horribles in modern U.S. politics. She is malignant narcissism; the only thing that matters to her is winning the next election. Her wardrobe, like for all excellent female villains, is absolutely fantastic. Honestly, the tip-top best. She is a flat-out brilliant character, hilarious, and you hate to love her and love to hate her all at once. The very best.

What’s worse: closed-in spaces or heights?

Closed-in spaces!

You are driving alone on a road at night and your headlights illuminate a man standing alone with a lantern in the middle of the road. What do you do? Also, is it more or less scary if it’s a little kid in pajamas?

A little kid in pajamas is far more scary than Old-Man Rivers with a lantern. The latter I’d pull over for and follow into a swampy forest, allowing him to lead me to some haunted mansion. Thrilled for the experience. The kid in PJ’s is obviously a ghost-demon meant to trap me in some ninth layer of hell.

Not a ghost-demon…just Shannon and her son messing with photo filters. (Hopefully.)

Shannon Kirk is the international bestselling and award-winning author of Method 15/33The Extraordinary Journey of Vivienne MarshallIn the VinesGretchenViebury Grove, and short stories in four anthologies: The Night of the FloodSwamp Killers (TBP, 2020), Nothing Good Happens After Midnight (TBP, 2020), and Border Noir (April, 2020). Shannon is also a contributor to the International Thriller Writers’ Murderers’ Row. Growing up in New Hampshire, Shannon and her brothers were encouraged by their parents to pursue the arts, which instilled in her a love for writing at a young age. A graduate of Suffolk Law School in Massachusetts, Shannon is a practicing litigation attorney and former adjunct law professor, specializing in electronic-evidence law. When she isn’t writing or practicing law, Shannon spends time with her husband, son, and two cats.

What Scares You, Art Taylor?

My husband, Art Taylor, is one of the most stable, rational, smart people I know. So I was excited to read his responses here, since I always wondered what rattles him (besides eyeballs…I know that from watching horror movies with him).

We’re also celebrating the release this month of Art’s much-anticipated collection of stories, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74, which you can buy right here. The collection includes all his award-winning stories, including “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2019. 

Let’s see what he has to say about fear. 

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood? 

Like a lot of kids, I was always one who stared suspiciously at the closet door or at the tree outside my bedroom window (one of the reasons why the movie Poltergeist impacted me so strongly). But beyond those common fears, one memory jumped immediately to mind as soon as I read this question.  

Woods and fields backed up against the small neighborhood where I grew up in Richlands, North Carolina, and the boys next door and my brother and I spent a lot of our days tromping around out there—exploring the wilderness, cutting down small trees with our axes and machetes, building forts. One day, some group of us were climbing over a fallen tree by a small creek, and after I jumped from the trunk back to the ground, I turned around and saw that I’d landed near a snake hole—with a snake’s head peeking out, suddenly staring me down. The other boys still up on the tree trunk urged me on in different directions. Just step away slowly! Just jump back as fast as you can! Neither extreme seemed appealing—and so I just stood there, waiting for… what? I didn’t know. Petrified is the word that stands out—not only as a synonym for fear but also because I felt completely frozen, like I shouldn’t, couldn’t, move. Finally, one of the other boys crept up behind the hole and quickly covered it with the flat part of his own machete. But that snake’s eyes…. I remember them well.  

Side note: Those fields and those boys next door were part of the inspiration for “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74”—though this specific memory wasn’t included in the story.  

Do you have a recurring nightmare?  

For many years, I dreamed pretty regularly about tidal waves—with one or two specific images recurring: either a large wave rising high toward a tall building on the coast (as if I was an onlooker to what was happening) or else water crashing against the downstairs of my family’s house at the beach, pushing through the windows, flooding everything, and me in the middle of it all this time, fighting not to drawn in the onrush.  

I’m not sure why these images have haunted me so consistently. Something about loss of control maybe, of being overwhelmed? There’s definitely a helplessness I felt whenever the nightmare hit.  

I’d landed near a snake hole—with a snake’s head peeking out, suddenly staring me down.

How do you deal with fear?  

Take a deep breath, and push through as best I can. Hope for the best. Be ready for the worst. 

When I was in elementary school, I became inordinately panicked about a doctor’s visit—crazy upset with fear about having to get a shot, crying, thrashing around, even to the point of almost fighting against my pediatrician. Rose Pully was her name—a legend really in our part of North Carolina—and Dr. Pully wrestled me to the exam table one visit when I was upset about a booster shot, held me tight, looked me straight in the eye, and told me, firmly, sternly: “When it hurts, you can cry all you want. But until then, until it actually hurts, you don’t cry, you understand?”  

Her words—the sternness behind them—startled me into silence. And those words have stayed with me these many decades later. (I’ve told this story to our son over the years as well, and now he quotes it back to me as well.)  

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written? 

When you first read my story “Parallel Play,” you told me two things: You thought it was the best story I’d ever written, and you never, ever wanted to read it again. At its core, “Parallel Play” is about being a parent, protecting a child, and how far you’d go to protect your child. Would you die for your child? Would you…?  

I have to admit that I didn’t realize myself how disturbing the story was—not until you told me. (Not sure this is the kind of “scariest” you meant with the question, Tara, but….) 

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still? 

In my teen years, I went through a period where I read everything I could by Stephen King—and Pet Sematary troubled me to no end. The idea of love and loss and grief and wanting to get your loved one back—and then getting your wish, but not how you expected. Completely engrossing, and ultimately scare-me-senseless horrific.   

Who is the best villain, fictional or in real life? 

As I’m writing this, a news alert just popped up that the Trump administration is proposing changing school menus to allow more potatoes and pizza and fewer vegetables and fruits—and it crossed my mind that his particular brand of villainy too often seems like caricature, parody, an Onion article: Dastardly Dan stroking his mustache. 

More seriously: I’m gonna skip the more villainous villains (Darth Vader, Hannibal, Voldemort) and go with Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s novels. Protagonist? Villain? Ripley’s a complex and compelling figure. As Tom says in the brilliant movie adaptation in 1999 (played there by Matt Damon), “whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head? You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.”  

What’s worse: closed-in spaces or heights? Why? 

I know you expect me to say heights because I have such tremendous anxiety about them; between atrium hotels and some hiking adventures that have taken us too close to cliff-side, I’ve had more opportunities for that fear to show itself. But it completely ruins me to read a story or see a movie where someone is buried alive in a box—that’s truly terrifying.  

“To see a movie where someone is buried alive in a box–that’s truly terrifying.”


What’s worse: clowns or spiders? Why? 

Clowns. They thrive on being unpredictable, and too often an undercurrent of madness or malice shimmers beneath all that face paint, no matter how wide the smile. (Don’t get me started on Stephen King’s It.)  

ART TAYLOR is the author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense, to be published February 28His previous book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has won an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, and several Agatha, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. He teaches at George Mason University.

E-book sale for One Night Gone!

Happy Valentine’s Day early!

One Night Gone is on sale for $2.99 in any e-book format from now until Feb. 9. That’s less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks!

Check it out on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, or Google, and buy yourself (or a friend!) a little winter treat.

About the book:

A Finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, Agatha Award, and Lefty Award

“A subtly but relentlessly unsettling novel.” —TANA FRENCH, author of The Witch Elm

It was the perfect place to disappear…

One sultry summer, Maureen Haddaway arrives in the wealthy town of Opal Beach to start her life anew—to achieve her destiny. There, she finds herself lured by the promise of friendship, love, starry skies, and wild parties. But Maureen’s new life just might be too good to be true, and before the summer is up, she vanishes.

Decades later, when Allison Simpson is offered the opportunity to house-sit in Opal Beach during the off-season, it seems like the perfect chance to begin fresh after a messy divorce. But when she becomes drawn into the mysterious disappearance of a girl thirty years before, Allison realizes the gorgeous homes of Opal Beach hide dark secrets. And the truth of that long-ago summer is not even the most shocking part of all…