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What Scares You, Layne Fargo?

Today I welcome Layne Fargo, writer of bad-ass scary novels, to talk all about her fears. Layne’s latest novel, They Never Learn–AVAILABLE TODAY–features a female serial killer and English professor. I mean, really, you’re clicking through and buying this right now, right?

And after you’ve bought it, come on over here and read more about Layne’s most favorite scary things.

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

My fear of snakes—though I’m not sure I’ve overcome it so much as learned to manage it. I used to be so afraid of snakes, I’d have a full-on panic attack if I even saw a picture of one. When I was in college, I sought therapy for this, which helped some—but after that I sort of did my own therapy, which involved forcing myself to read books about snakes and watch movies with snakes in them, then working my way up to going to the reptile house at the zoo and even touching a snake (held by a zookeeper with its creepy little head turned away from me!).

Over the years I’ve adopted the snake as a symbol in my life: of my ambition (yes, I am a Slytherin) and my willingness to face my fears head-on. I own lots of snake-shaped jewelry, and I even have a tattoo of a snake wrapped around my right ankle. I’d still run away screaming if I saw a snake, like, crawling across the ground in front of me, but the fear no longer controls me.

How do you deal with fear?

I tend to get curious, because your fears can tell you so much about yourself. Sometimes fear is your intuition warning you away from something that’s not right for you or even actively dangerous. But other times it can be like a glaring neon sign pointing you to what you really want in life. Especially in my writing career, I’ve found that if something—a project or an event or an opportunity—scares the crap out of me, it’s a sign that I care a lot about it, and I have to find a way to push through the fear and go after it.

What scares you most about the writing process?

The actual writing! I hate drafting; the blank page makes me freeze in terror. I love revising, but unfortunately you have to write first in order to have something to revise. I’ve developed all these tricks to make the first draft process feel more like revising so I can get through it, like brain-dumping a stream-of-consciousness version of each scene first or writing in script format (just dialogue and action). Anything to avoid the dreaded blank page!

What is your favorite monster or villain?

I’m not sure I have a #1 favorite, but Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body is up there. I can’t get enough of female villains who thoroughly enjoy doing bad things and don’t feel guilty at all. Jennifer’s Body was a huge source of inspiration for my new book They Never Learn, which features a similarly remorseless female villain who enjoys killing boys (and men).

“I used to be so afraid of snakes, I’d have a full-on panic attack if I even saw a picture of one.”

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

I know I was just talking about how I’ve moved past my snake fear, but the baby snake scene in Riley Sager’s Home Before Dark will haunt me for the rest of my days. It starts with a character finding a baby snake in his coffee cup, and I had the misfortune to be drinking coffee when I read it. I may never recover.

In which post-apocalyptic scenario are you most likely to survive and thrive: 28 Days Later (zombies), The Stand (sickness kills all but a few), or The Last Policeman (asteroid hits Earth)?

I would be screwed in just about any post-apocalyptic scenario. I have no survival skills whatsoever, unless making kickass spreadsheets counts. But of these, I think I’d have the best shot in The Stand. I’m good at finding efficient ways to do things with limited resources, and I don’t mind being alone for long periods of time, so a world with only a few people in it doesn’t sound so bad.

Layne Fargo is the author of the thrillers Temper and They Never Learn. She’s a Pitch Wars mentor, vice president of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the co-creator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.

What Scares You, Rachel Howzell Hall?

I loved Rachel Howzell Hall’s novel They All Fall Down. It was a wicked novel, vicious and funny and super fun, and twisty in all the right places. None of the characters were noble people, and yet they were delightful to read about.

Rachel’s newest, out just this month, has already gotten such great buzz, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it. (Not literally.)

Here’s more about And Now She’s Gone: Isabel Lincoln is gone. But is she missing? It’s up to Grayson Sykes to find her. Although she is reluctant to track down a woman who may not want to be found, Gray’s search for Isabel Lincoln becomes more complicated and dangerous with every new revelation about the woman’s secrets and the truth she’s hidden from her friends and family. Featuring two complicated women in a dangerous cat and mouse game, Rachel Howzell Hall’s And Now She’s Gone explores the nature of secrets — and how violence and fear can lead you to abandon everything in order to survive.

Lucky for us, Rachel has agreed to talk more about fear right here. Let’s see what keeps her up at night.

How do you deal with fear?

I write to deal with fear. Before I knew that I could write, when I was a kid, I would sleep. Just close my eyes, say a prayer, and hope that It would be over in the morning. I would seek out books to disappear and not deal with my fears, but then I wanted to write my own stories. As an adult, I deal better with some fears than others. As I was going through cancer treatment while also being pregnant, I faced my fears head-on. I was scared that I would die because the papers that I signed before each surgery told me that it was possible. Again, my faith and writing kept me sane. I cried, though, and I turned to my family for support. In those moments, I listen to gospel music—there are some songs today that bring a visceral reaction because I remember playing them over and over again from 2003 to 2008.

What is your greatest fear?

Dying – I’ve faced that possibility, and while that scares me, that isn’t my biggest fear. I fear leaving my daughter before I can teach her how to deal with love and heartache, college and parties, marriage and babies, jobs and racism and sexism. I want to be there for her in every life challenge and life celebration. I don’t ever want her to feel lost and alone. We started our journey together in such a treacherous moment, and I fought for her to be here with me. The thought of not being here for her wrecks me more than anything.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I don’t, but you won’t get me to say “Bloody Mary” three times in a dark bathroom while standing in front of a mirror. Also, I don’t believe for religious reasons as well. I do appreciate the creative metaphors for ghosts, and I do believe our ancestors are with us in everything we do—but I don’t believe that in a literal sense. I believe there are demons and angels, most definitely, but humans who have left us and are moving among us? No.

“There are creatures in the sea, big creatures, creatures with big teeth or long stinging tentacles.”

What scares you most about the writing process?

Every time I start a new story, I worry that my idea isn’t big enough, twisty enough. I know it will be interesting, but for me only or for a larger audience? I’m scared that the words won’t come or that the words will be wrong. That I won’t have the energy because I’m only getting older. That I won’t be able to deliver. I worry that I will listen to critics of my work as I write and that I’ll do more of those things they’ve dinged me on, no matter how ridiculous. It’s weird—before I start a new story, I go on a shopping trip to Office Depot or Staples and buy new pens, pads, stickies, all of that cool stuff, and I’m excited about it. But after the high of office supplies wears off, dread settles in, and it stays with me until the second draft. Once I know that my story is sound, that my story is actually a story, I relax into the process. That doesn’t mean that I’m confident. Just that I have something to make better.

In which post-apocalyptic scenario are you most likely to survive and thrive: 28 Days Later (zombies), The Stand (sickness kills all but a few), or The Last Policeman (asteroid hits Earth)?

Ha. So right now, we’re… not in a post-apocalyptic scenario? You’re shitting me. Umm… one thing my oncologists always said to me was that sure, my body kept creating these cancerous tumors, but I heal really quickly. So, I’m gonna go with The Stand. I think I’m pretty resilient. But Randall Flagg….

Maybe The Last Policeman. Can I change my mind? Ha.

What’s worse: being stranded at sea or lost in a desert?

Being stranded at sea. For one, I can’t swim. Two, there are creatures in the sea, big creatures, creatures with big teeth or long stinging tentacles. And it’s deep—there are parts of the sea we haven’t reached.  At least in the desert, I have my legs. And there are clumps of unexpected civilization. Maybe a rainstorm will dump water to drink. Maybe I can munch on the insides of a cactus. There are “maybes” with the desert.

Rachel Howzell Hall, author of the bestseller and Anthony Award-, Lefty Award- and ITW-award nominated They All Fall Down (Forge), writes the acclaimed Lou Norton series, including Land of ShadowsSkies of AshTrail of Echoes, and City of Saviors. She is also the co-author of The Good Sister with James Patterson, which was included in the New York Times bestseller The Family Lawyer. She is currently on the board of directors for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is a Pitch Wars mentor for 2020. She lives in Los Angeles. Her newest novel And Now She’s Gone waspublished in September 2020. You can find her at and on Twitter @RachelHowzell.

What Scares You, August Norman?

I met August through my Debut Authors 2019 group when his novel Come and Get Me came out. I knew nothing about him personally, however, so when we became Facebook friends, I was happy to see a nice smiling photo of him and his wife in a baby store, holding up an ultrasound image.

“Oh, how sweet,” I thought.

And then I noticed this terrifying thing in the background–a woman, with the most evil expression in the world, stomping on a sideways stroller and looking like she was about to attack them.

Someone isn’t so happy about the new baby…

I was so freaked out by this photo that I actually took a screenshot of it and sent it to a few friends. A discussion ensued. And then I went on August’s page and started scrolling–and I realized that the woman was a friend of theirs. That she did this sort of thing in a bunch of their photos. That August and his wife and their friends had THE BEST SENSE OF HUMOR EVER.

This especially resonates with me because my friends and I have a running joke where we take photos of ourselves looking bored and/or angry at really nice events (like weddings.) Anyway, all this to say that if August is this cool, then I figured his answers to my fear questions would be pretty great, too.

He also has a new book out this month! It’s the second in the Caitlin Bergman Series, called Sins of the Mother, and you can check it out on his web site right here.

What is your greatest fear?

While I’d love to claim to be terrified of clowns, spiders, or heights, my greatest fear is the loss of my memory. I can think of nothing worse than the inability to recognize my family, to recall my achievements, or even my tragedies (okay, that’s not entirely true…being buried alive, locked in a rapidly sinking chest in the ocean, shark orgy appetizer…that might be bad, too). Having witnessed the pain that the degradation of the human mind can cause with its slow, unforgiving march toward death, and having recently become a first-time father, my heart breaks for those that are robbed of their older generations, and especially, those suffering from early onset cases of Alzheimer’s disease. Paul Cleave’s 2016 thriller TRUST NO ONE, where a crime writer just approaching 50 can’t differentiate between his memories and the thrillers he’s been writing, really made me throw the book across the room.

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

Again, while I’d love to blame clowns (I did have to keep my copy of Stephen King’s IT—in particular, the version with Tim Curry as Pennywise from the miniseries—face-down on my book shelf for a month), the scariest nights of my childhood were spent in my grandmother’s house. No, there was nothing wrong with my grandmother or her house—it was a lovely place full of love, happiness, and turkey dinners. The scary nights came when everyone in the house but me slept peacefully while I stayed up, eyes wide open, listening to my grandmother’s ragged breaths, irregular due to her worsening emphysema, wondering with each dramatic gasp if I’d heard her die. Happy Spoiler Alert – I did not. She lived another decade and a half, but still, that helpless feeling of those anxiety-ridden nights still gets me.

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

I was pretty anti-spider as a child, and as a tall man living in Southern California who constantly walks through webs during spider season (totally a thing), they still make me a little squiggly. But, as an actor and writer in my 20s, I wrote a role that required someone to have a black widow walk down their chest and into their boxer shorts. When no one cared to play the part, I had to step up. Luckily, our production was blessed with a world-class spider wrangler who worked pro bono because no one else had been willing (meaning stupid enough) to try it. Between his professionalism and someone else’s donation of a valium, we got the shot. Since then, I’ve been known to gather unexpected indoor spiders gingerly and transport them back to the wild unharmed.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I grew up religious and have stayed that way to a lesser extent over time. To be Catholic is to literally include the “Holy Ghost” in the model of all things. Therefore, how could I not believe in lesser than holy ghosts? While I’ve never experienced a haunting, I have enjoyed glorious moments of relief and calm when I believe deceased friends and family have returned to share a goodbye. If happy ghosts can make appearances, so can the others. 

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

That freaking Golden State Killer. Ever since I finished Michelle McNamara’s I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK, I’ve had some half-asleep, can see someone over the bed, but can’t move nightmares. Beyond that, there’s also a house from my childhood, a lovely Victorian with lattice around the raised front porch…the basement leads to hell. Every time. It used to scare me, but the Nightmare on Elm Street movies prepared me to become a dream warrior, just in case. I’m fairly good at shaping my dreams these days. . .unless I’m dreaming right now? Oh crap.

Sins of the Mother

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

While I’m a big fan of the cult I’ve created for SINS OF THE MOTHER, I was more scared and/or scarred by the serial abductor I invented for COME AND GET ME. To make it believable, I had to really ask myself what it would take to do those things—which means part of me had to know in the first place.

What is your favorite monster or villain?

Cult leaders. While vampires are a close second, the real world terror of knowing that sociopathic narcissists have and do manipulate people for their own benefits, often despite making end of the world predictions that don’t come true, is enough to make me yell at a screen, throw a book, or write my own.

You are renting a remote house with a few close friends when all the electricity cuts out. Are you the friend who goes down to the basement to check on the situation? If not, what do you do when someone else does, and you hear them calling your name from that dark basement? (Assume your cell phones don’t work out there in the remote wilderness.)

Finally, someone asks the perfect question. I have several answers, all of them are dependent on the number of friends in the house.

5+ Friend Scenario:

I do have decent electrical knowledge, so:

Me plus 1 in the basement.

1 at the top of the basement stairs, door open.

1 by the front door, still in visible range of the person at the basement door, able to see outdoors as well.

1 by the back door, still in visible range of the person at the basement door, able to see outdoors as well.

4 Friend Scenario:

Me in the basement.

1 at the top of the basement stairs, door open.

1 by the front door.

1 by the back door.

3 Friend Scenario:

Me in the basement.

1 at the top of the basement stairs, door open.

Couch in front of the front door.

1 by the back door.

2 Friend Scenario:

Me in the basement.

Friend at the top of the stairs, door open.

Couch in front of the front door.

Refrigerator in front of the back door.

Also, work out a series of code words before anyone goes out of sight, so you know if that voice calling your name in the dark is the real deal.

All of that said, if someone’s cutting your power, they’re probably doing it from outside of the house, so monitor the perimeter, particularly any power lines leading to/from the transformer…

Originally from central Indiana, August Norman has called Los Angeles home for two decades, writing for and/or appearing in movies, tv, stage productions, web series, and even commercial advertising. August’s debut thriller, COME AND GET ME, was one of Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2019 debuts, and SINS OF THE MOTHER, the second in the Caitlin Bergman series, will be released September 8, 2020 by Crooked Lane Books. 

What Scares You, Shannon Scott?

I was reading the horror anthology Nightscript recently because my good friend Adam Meyer has a great story in it, and I came across the story “American House Spider” by Shannon Scott. The story was so good, and so compelling and creepy, that I did my weird writer stalker thing and found Shannon’s email address and sent her a note about how much I enjoyed it.

Lucky for me, Shannon and I struck up a great email conversation, and I discovered she’s a super cool person in addition to being a great writer. She researches werewolves, for god’s sake! So of course, I had to ask her to do the scare Q&A. Her answers? Delightful! Read on to see for yourself.

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

I have several recurring nightmares. I have a classic zombie nightmare where I’m trapped in a building, usually a school or auditorium, and have to fight zombies to escape. Those are gory and violent dreams, especially if I don’t succumb to the zombie hoard early on. Even though I’ve seen plenty on zombie films, I didn’t dream about the undead until reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.I also have recurring nightmares about college starting and finding out last minute that I’m supposed to be teaching a class I never knew about, usually in French, which I barely speak anymore.

What’s something that most people are afraid of that you are not?

I’ve heard that some of the major fears out there are flying and public speaking, neither of which bother me. I don’t know why. I get scared that I’ll die in a car crash with some song by Vanilla Ice on the radio and that song will be stuck in my head for eternity and when people salvage my wrecked car—after my body’s been extracted—they’ll see the song I was listening to on the radio and think I loved that song and judge my musical tastes accordingly. The other biggie, death, is not on my top five either. As an adjunct instructor, early death is actually my retirement plan.

How do you deal with fear?

Drugs. Prescription and other. Drugs are awesome and totally necessary for life on this planet.

I also think if you’re only mildly afraid of something, you should try to do it once, without drugs. I wasn’t sure about getting a tattoo, but then I did, and sober, and now I have a massive scorpion covering over a fourth of my back. It’s actually a beautiful tattoo by Sarah Jane Epperson, who is probably the coolest woman I’ll ever meet, and that alone helped with any fear I experienced during my six plus hours with the needles, because I really wanted her to think I was cool, too. 

“I wasn’t sure about getting a tattoo, but then I did, and sober…”

Have you ever had any paranormal experiences or premonitions?

Shannon’s ghost alley picture!

When I was in Pittsburgh to present a paper at the Northeast Modern Language Association convention, I stayed at this beautiful old hotel, the Omni William Penn. Chandeliers, live jazz band, shiny wood bar, red carpets—haunted, too, I think—but not by anything evil. When I was in my room, prepping for the day, I had on an audiobook—Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. When I was ready to leave, I turned off the audiobook and felt a distinct irritation in the room. You see, I had paused the novel just as Lily Bart was performing in the tableau vivant. I apologized and played the rest of the scene. Later that day, when I was walking through downtown Pittsburgh, I saw this alley that looked straight out of a film noir and took a picture with my phone. Then it was like someone slapped the phone right out of my hand. I actually felt the blow, and the phone went flying, but no one was there. Ironically, the only thing that worked on that phone after the ghost alley incident was the audiobook app. 

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

Yum! Gregor Samsa as cake!

My students would know the answer to this one. I still get former students sending me pictures when they see anything related to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. A student from my spring pandemic disaster semester, Ben, sent me this creepy snapshot last week, with Gregor Samsa as a cake. I’ve read Kafka’s novella more times than my age, and I still get the chills every time Grete slams her fist down and says “it” must go. I think the humor and absurdity in the story only make that scene more terrifying. Human monsters are always scarier than bugs or individuals who see themselves as bugs or “monstrous vermin.”

What is your favorite monster/villain?

It should be a werewolf after all the research I’ve done, but really, it’s the shark from Jaws.

Shannon Scott is an adjunct professor of English at several universities in the Twin Cities. She has contributed scholarly essays on wolves and werewolves to She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves (Manchester UP, 2015) and The Company of Wolves Collection (Manchester UP, 2020). She was also co-editor of Terrifying Transformations: An Anthology of Victorian Werewolf Fiction, 1838-1896 (Valancourt, 2012). Most recently, her short story, “American House Spider,” came out in in Nightscript in 2019. Her novelette, “Swing a Dead Cat,” was published in Coppice and Brake: A Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Rachel Brune,in March 2020. Her short story, “The Bump,” will be coming out in Vastarien: A Literary Journal and her story “Dead Bread Head” will be published in December in Oculus Sinister, edited by C.M. Muller. She is currently at work on a novella called Joyride for Rachel Brune, editor at Crone Girls Press. 

What Scares You, Erica Wright?

Erica Wright has chosen to write a book about snakes. When I found that out, I decided I needed to know what scares her. Little did I know she grew up in a haunted house! Gold mine! Read on to discover more gems from Erica, and pre-order her essay collection Snakes right here.

What is your greatest fear?

If you had asked me this a few years ago, I would have said snakes. I’ve seen three of the four Indiana Jones movies, and you can probably guess which one I turned off after the hero descended into a pit. Seriously, why did it have to be snakes? But in 2013, I attended the Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival in Claxton, Georgia, and started to gain an appreciation for this animal. The beauty pageant contestants posing with vipers gave me the heebie-jeebies, but most of the presentations involved nonvenomous species. I was particularly taken by The Orianne Society, which focuses on conserving ecosystems in order to protect reptiles and amphibians. They had this little booth where they told small groups about Eastern Indigos, a snake that’s almost iridescent up close, like an oil spill. The one they showed us really was beautiful, and my fear was pricked with admiration. Fast-forward seven years, and I’m about to publish a collection of essays about snakes (a.k.a. danger noodles, a.k.a. nope ropes) for Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series.

What is the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

This is a sweet rather than a scary memory, but it involves fear. When my brother and I would sleep over at my grandmother’s house, we would sit on her porch swing at night making up stories for each other. She lived in the country, so it was often dark and spooky out, but we were tucked safely under a blanket. The stories I made up were always about monsters and witches and dangerous men waiting to gobble up wayward children. But I would end every one with “and then they lived happily ever after”—no matter how many people had died—which would make my brother and grandmother laugh. I don’t think my storytelling aesthetics have changed very much, to be honest.  

“I would end every [story] with ‘and then they lived happily ever after’—no matter how many people had died.”

What is your weirdest fear?

I don’t know if “fear” is the right word, but sometimes I get paranoid that I’m going to get stuck in my clothes. This is especially true if something’s a little bit tight. I can be out having a grand old time, then start to worry about what I’ll do if I get home and the dress or shirt or pants won’t come off. This is less of a concern now that I’m married. I figure Adam can cut me out of anything that decides to squeeze me to death.

Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?

My childhood home was haunted. Footsteps in the attic, children’s laughter in the foyer, that sort of thing. My grandfather was helping us with plumbing one summer afternoon when he felt an icy hand on his shoulder and turned around to empty space. A very religious—not at all superstitious—great aunt recalled a glass shattering in the middle of the night. The supernatural occurrences were common enough that I never thought to be afraid of them, though. I was afraid of the Bell Witch, which was a Tennessee urban legend. If you say her name in the mirror three times, supposedly she appears, but I don’t have a death wish so I’ve never tried.

Erica’s haunted childhood home!!!

Have you ever had any paranormal experiences or premonitions?

Almost all of the paranormal experiences I remember as a child were auditory, but one night my mom, brother, and myself saw these floating orbs outside the living room window. We turned off all the lights to better see, and they were out there hovering. Maybe four or five? They looked like those splotches on photographs that are the result of a camera flash hitting a dust mote at just the right angle. But this was real life. No cameras involved. We didn’t do anything. I remember feeling unnerved, but also a little in awe. It’s kind of wonderful that there is still so much we don’t understand about the world.  

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

Last summer, I was lucky enough to visit Ireland and went to a W. B. Yeats exhibit at the National Library. It was a surprisingly emotional hour for me, reading original drafts of some of my favorite poems. Yeats is a writer who defied my greatest writing fear, which is that poetry is a young person’s game. He wrote “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (and other exceptional works) late in life when he could have rested on his laurels. But I do believe that there’s something pure about writing poems while still learning how to write poems, without a focus on publishing. I understand the yearning for validation—for audience—but there’s a lightning that can strike while noodling, especially when your mind is nimble and open.

What is your favorite monster or villain?

For my book about snakes, I spent some time researching regional animal legends like the Lake Hopatcong anaconda (which turned out to be someone’s pet boa constrictor). I’m partial to the Honey Island Swamp Monster because it sounds like a summer cocktail. It’s a Louisiana Bigfoot of sorts. Then there’s the Eel-Pig of Herrington Lake in Kentucky. I find that combination more funny than terrifying. I want to be friends with whoever dreamed up an eel-pig.

Erica Wright’s essay collection Snake will be released this fall as part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. Her latest crime novel Famous in Cedarville received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. She is the author of three previous novels and two poetry collections, Instructions for Killing the Jackal and All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned. She is the poetry editor and a senior editor at Guernica Magazine as well as a former editorial board member for Alice James Books. She grew up in Wartrace, TN, and now lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their dog Penny.

What Scares You, Cheryl Head?

Friends! Pleased to introduce you on this last day of July to the fears of Cheryl Head. Cheryl lives in the Washington, D.C. area, but she’s originally from Detroit, where she sets her awesome Charlie Mack Motown Mystery Series. If you’ve never read these books, you’re in for a treat. I love Charlie for all her complexity as a character. She’s strong and sassy, but also very vulnerable, and gets into plenty of trouble while fighting for justice. Check out the latest, Find Me When I’m Lost, right here. And now, read on to discover all the things that keep Cheryl up at night…..

What is the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

It’s an incident from when I was probably ten or eleven. My younger sister and I had a summer camp trip to an amusement park in or around Detroit. My mother’s last words to me had been, “Take care of your little sister.” My sister, Linda, who was always a dare devil, wanted to ride the rollercoaster. I’d never ridden one, but somehow I knew it wasn’t something I’d like. Linda insisted on the rollercoaster ride. I said no, but she darted from the line into one of the cars. I followed to protect her. Thus began the most harrowing and frightening event of my childhood. Going up in the air, and then down at fast speeds, when I’m not in control, is not my idea of fun. I still do not ride rollercoasters. You will find me on the ground, holding the purses, backpacks and jackets, and waving to my pals on the ride.

“Going up in the air, and then down at fast speeds, when I’m not in control, is not my idea of fun.”

Do you believe in ghosts?

Yes. I do, although I’ve never seen or interacted with a ghost. But I do believe we are spiritual beings and spirit has no temporal, or physical boundaries. So ghosts must move amongst us all the time. I am a religious person, and the idea of a Trinity where one of the expressions of God is a “holy ghost” resonates with me. I wouldn’t mind having a ghostly visitor, one who is friendly, who helps me imagine things I could not imagine. That would make me a better writer.

What’s something most people are afraid of that you are not?

Snakes. As long as I can outrun it, I’m not afraid of it.

Have you ever had a paranormal experience?

Yes. Ten years or so ago, the Washington, D.C., area had an earthquake. I was working at a desk on the lower level of my house, and I felt the movement very clearly. On the second roil, I stood and walked to the front of my house to the staircase leading to the upper level. I very clearly (in my head) heard a voice say: “Get out!”  I did. I was the first on my block to head to the sidewalk and knocked on a couple of my neighbor’s doors to tell them maybe they should also come outside. Turns out it was a 5.8 earthquake. It freaked me out. Decided that day that my reaction to danger is more flight than fight.

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

In my first Charlie Mack Motown Mystery, I write about Charlie being knocked unconscious, hogtied, and left for dead under furniture in an overgrown city lot. It took me several days to write that scene, trying to get into Charlie’s head, and imagining the sensory reactions she would have to such an experience. Readers have told me the scene is dynamic, but it was scary for me to envision and get down on paper.

Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?

Yes. No slashing of women with knives. That theme used to be so ubiquitous in horror movies—and now in a lot of the crime/mystery content on various cable/streaming networks. I’ve watched it in the past, but I can’t watch it anymore. I recently tried to watch Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill, but I just couldn’t get past the elevator scene. If you know that movie, you know what I mean. Really the whole “slasher” genre is crossed off my list.

What is your favorite monster/villain?

The monster in Alien. It is such an adaptive monster. It has the ability of camouflage, an unyielding desire to survive, acid secretions, with sentient intelligence, self-awareness, and it likes to kill.

You are renting a remote house with a few close friends when all the electricity cuts out. Are you the friend who does down to the basement to check on the situation?  If not what do you do when someone else does, and you hear them calling your name from that dark basement?

I’m a crime writer. I don’t go to remote houses without thinking a bit about the potential dangers and pitfalls, and having made some preparations. I will not be the one going into a dark basement for any reason, mostly because of mice, not bad guys. But, I’ll be able to give my more courageous friends my flashlight, or candles that I’ve brought. I will also have warned my friends to wait until morning to figure out the electricity, so unless it is my child (I will move into any dangerous situation to protect my child) my friend will have to fend for him or herself.

Cheryl Head spent twenty years in public television and radio before turning to fiction writing. Her award-winning first novel, Long Way Home, is a story of the experiences of black soldiers in America’s segregated war-time army.  Head writes the Lammy, Goldie, and Next Generation Indie Books-nominated Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries, whose female PI protagonist is queer and black. Head is director of inclusion at the Golden Crown Literary Society, whose mission is to increase the visibility of lesbian-themed literature. She is also a Bouchercon board member. In 2019, Head was named to the Hall of Fame of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival.   

What Scares You, Dashiell Taylor?

We have a special guest on What Scares You today–my eight-year-old son, Dash. Dash and I just finished a stop-motion LEGO horror movie, and I thought it might be fun to ask him some questions about his fears. Read on for his thoughts about monsters, surgery, voodoo, and more…

What are you most scared of?

I really hate heights. It’s just too high and I can’t really lean over stuff and it’s scary. The highest place I’ve ever been is our hotel in New York. It was like 30 floors.

Do you believe in ghosts?

Yes. Sometimes I hear footsteps down in the basement. I heard a creak. Also, every time I go to bed, the attic sounds like that.

What is the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?

When I fell down the stairs in our old townhouse. But then John [our neighbor] came over and gave me cookies.

What food are you afraid to eat?

Eggplant. And slugs. And crickets.

What’s the scariest dream you’ve had?

When two ambulances hit daddy flying off an eight-story bridge.

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

Either that CHiPS episode where they did surgery, or the kid’s horror movie we started to watch and shut off.

What’s your favorite monster?

Yarn monster, terrorizing LEGO City.

My yarn monster that I made.

Would you rather be stranded at sea or lost in the desert?

I would not like to be any of those. I guess stranded at sea because it’s not hot and freezing. You can still swim away to an island maybe. The desert is worse because of the heat and no water.

What’s your weirdest fear?

I’m scared of voodoo stuff because gross stuff happens like pulling out hearts [Editor’s note: Thanks, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom] and having a little doll and poking a needle through it.

Do you enjoy scaring other people?

No, because I think it’s a little mean and I’ve learned that lesson. I tried to scare Izzy once [our cat] and learned that wasn’t nice. It’s not nice to scare a human being or a cat.

Dashiell Taylor is a rising 3rd grader who likes building LEGOS and drawing pictures. He lives in Virginia.

“The Long-Term Tenant” Wins Thriller Award for Best Short Story

I was so pleased to hear that my short story “The Long-Term Tenant,” originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, won the 2020 Thriller Award for Best Short Story. Thanks so much to the judges, to International Thriller Writers, and to my fellow nominees.

Congratulations to all the winners! Check out the full list of winners here.

You can also hear me read the story on the Ellery Queen podcast!

What Scares You, Alex Segura?

On this last day of June, I’m joined by the wonderful Alex Segura. Alex makes all kinds of cool things–comics, podcasts, crime novels–and is a super nice human to boot. My son was so pleased to see that Alex shares his hatred of eggplant with him. You can check out the fifth and final book in his acclaimed Pete Fernandez series, Miami Midnight, which is a finalist for this year’s Anthony Award for Best Novel.

What is your greatest fear?
If you’d asked me this 10 years ago, I’d probably have said death. But now it’s anything happening to my kids.

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

I was a “scared of the dark” kid—and I remember that got exacerbated when I saw the horror movie Silver Bullet as a young child. It is cheesy now, but terrifying then. So I often kept a nightlight on. I just remember that sense of having no control, and of uncertainty—it’s chilling.

Do you have a recurring nightmare? OR What was your worst nightmare ever?

I have a recurring nightmare where I’m back at high school because I’d forgotten to do some kind of basic thing to graduate, so I’m back and I’m my current age, surrounded by teenagers and with all the same teachers there but much older. It’s a potent mix of nostalgia and terror.

How do you deal with fear?

I deal okay. I try, of course, to rationalize it first, but that doesn’t always work, because, well, fear isn’t always rational. But I meditate and talk to people and try to get out of my own head and that tends to help with fear and anxiety, especially during times like these.

Is there anything you are terrified of eating? Why?

I’m terrified of eating eggplant because it’s disgusting.

What scares you most about the writing process?

The blank page. The first plank page. Because it’s a sign of unlimited possibility but also potential failure. At least with a first draft or even a chunk of work, you have an idea of what it is, qualitatively. But a blank page is literally nothing, and it just means you have to start at absolute zero. Which can be fun and exciting, but again, also scary!

Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?

I don’t watch anything that involves hurting children or intense, gratuitous gore.

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

Stephen King’s IT lingers with me, years after rereading it. Especially the more grounded stuff, like Beverly’s abusive husband making his way toward her, driving through the night, or Pennywise speaking to Bill Denbrough’s brother through the storm drain.

What is your favorite monster/villain? Why?

I love the regal evil of vampires, a la Dracula or the Anne Rice world. The ability to go from mannered and refined to literally ripping someone’s throat out is fascinating to me.

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

A stalker. Demons can be ignored.

Alex Segura is an acclaimed writer of novels, comic books, and podcasts. He is the author of Star Wars Poe Dameron: Free Fall, the Pete Fernandez Mystery series (including the the Anthony Award-nominated crime novels Dangerous Ends, Blackout, and Miami Midnight), and a number of comic books, most notably the superhero noir The Black Ghost, the YA music series The Archies, and the “Archie Meets” collection of crossovers, featuring real-life cameos from the Ramones, B-52s, and more. He is also the co-creator/co-writer of the Lethal Lit crime/YA podcast from iHeart Radio, which was named one of the best podcasts of 2018 by The New York Times. By day he is co-president of Archie Comics. A Miami native, he lives in New York with his wife and children.

What Scares You, LynDee Walker?

I’m excited to feature LynDee Walker today on What Scares You. She’s pretty awesome, and she’s super nice, and she’s crazy prolific. In fact, in the time it’s taken me to write this intro she probably already drafted three novels. Her novel Leave No Stone, from the Texas Ranger Faith McClellan series, is a finalist for a Thriller Award this year, and she’s constantly hanging out on the bestsellers list on Amazon.


Read on to find out!

What is your greatest fear?

Losing one of my children. It’s probably cliche to say that as a mom, but it terrifies me to my bones. That was the inspiration for the first Faith McClellan novel, actually, which was originally written partially from the victim’s mother’s point of view.

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? 

Jaws. I was probably three, and sitting in my mom’s lap eating sweet tarts, when the shark popped up out of the water. I sucked a piece of candy down my windpipe and nearly choked. I’ve been afraid of sharks ever since. I got over the fear of the candy, though.

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

The fear of public speaking—I have always been able to talk with anybody one on one, but until I was 30, I couldn’t speak in front of a group if you paid me. When I took a job as a meeting leader at Weight Watchers, I had to figure it out quickly, and conquering that fear has given me more confidence in myself and my voice, and probably by extension, the confidence to try writing fiction in the first place. 

What is your weirdest fear?

Sharks in the swimming pool. It’s really random, but when we’re swimming and the idea strikes me, my heart pounds until I’m out of the pool.

Weirdest fear: “Sharks in the swimming pool.”

Do you believe in ghosts?

I do, I’m pretty sure we had one when I was growing up. So many things would happen inexplicably in that old house—bread falling off the counter, appliances coming on when no one was even in the room…I never felt afraid, but there was something there.

 How do you deal with fear? 

I find something I can control in the situation and focus on that. And if I can’t find a focus, I hide under the covers until the scary thing has passed.

What scares you most about the writing process?

I’m a total pantser, so every time I start a new book I’m afraid this will be the one that falls apart in the middle and doesn’t get finished. So far, it’s unfounded. Yes, I just knocked on wood after I typed that.

Do you have any horror movie deal-breakers?

I’m not a fan of the jerky, sort of stop-motion-esque animations of villains (like Pennywise in the new theatrical versions of IT), and I don’t like blood just for the sake of it being bloody (I never got into Saw, for example). But well-done horror movies like the old original Halloween, The Haunting of Hill House, or Get Out are some of my favorites to watch.

In which post-apocalyptic scenario are you most likely to survive and thrive: 28 Days Later (zombies), The Stand (sickness kills all but a few), or The Last Policeman (asteroid hits Earth)?

The Stand—I usually manage to avoid germs, I get along with almost everyone, and I can fight off just about anything to protect people I love. I think I could both fit in with a survivors’ group and hold my own against Mr. Flagg.

LynDee Walker is the Amazon Charts bestselling author of two crime fiction series featuring strong heroines and “twisty, absorbing” mysteries. Her first Nichelle Clarke crime thriller, FRONT PAGE FATALITY, was nominated for the Agatha Award for best first novel, and in 2018, she introduced readers to Texas Ranger Faith McClellan in FEAR NO TRUTH. Reviews have praised her work as “well-crafted, compelling, and fast-paced,” and “an edge-of-your-seat ride” with “a spider web of twists and turns that will keep you reading until the end.”

Before she started writing fiction, LynDee was an award-winning journalist who covered everything from ribbon cuttings to high level police corruption. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the U.S. Aside from books, LynDee loves her family, her readers, travel, and coffee. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she is working on her next novel when she’s not juggling laundry and children’s sports schedules.