Latest Blog Posts — Page 2

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.

What Scares You, Carol Goodman?

I’m very excited to chat with Carol Goodman for this installment of What Scares You. Carol’s books are among my favorites of all time. They are filled with spooky houses, buried secrets, myth, Gothic imagery, writers and artists, and ghosts. With all that swirling around in her mind, how could this interview not be interesting? Read on to find out what scares Carol.

What is your greatest fear?

That something will happen to my daughter. 

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

I remember when I realized that people died, specifically that my parents would die someday and that I would die someday. I would like awake at night obsessing over that, and finally the only way I could overcome my fear was to make up a story where my family and I were transported to a planet where we would all be immortal—at least, I think I included my family in this fantasy at first. Eventually it was just me who got to go live on the planet and be immortal. This fantasy was really comforting until I became a parent, and then I couldn’t resort to it because I somehow knew I wouldn’t be able to bring my child with me. What self-respecting child wants to go live on a planet with their mom?

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

See above: Mortality conquered by fantasy. Also, I used to be frightened of being alone in a house, but mostly I’m not anymore.

What is your weirdest fear?

None of my fears seem weird. 

Do you believe in ghosts?

My daughter recently answered this question with: “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I am afraid of them.” I love ghost stories, but if I actually saw a ghost, I’d completely lose it.

What is your favorite urban legend?

I remember hearing “The Claw” when I was a teenager and being terrified that I’d be out parking with my date and hear that scritch-scritch-scritch on the roof.  There was a version of it, too, where the woman is driving and people are pointing at her car with horrified faces and when she gets home she realizes there’s a madman on her roof—or maybe a corpse? That terrified me because of the idea that other people could see the danger you were in but you couldn’t.

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

For years I had the classic school anxiety nightmare in which you are sitting down for an exam and realize you’ve forgotten to come to the class all semester, only in my version the exam would be in my Greek class (I took Greek for two years in college) and my Greek teacher Mr. Day would be towering over me like Zeus, brandishing a lightning bolt, and the exam would be in Sanskrit.

How do you deal with fear?

I make up a story that’s even worse than the thing I’m afraid of, and then I write that story. For example, when I was in my early thirties I’d separated from my husband and gone to live at my parents’ house with my two-year-old daughter. I was afraid that my life was over, that I’d have to live with my parents forever, and that my soon-to-be-ex-husband would kidnap my daughter. So I thought: this could be worse; what if I hadn’t had my parents to come home to? So I made up a story about a woman in similar circumstances who takes a job at her former boarding school so that she’ll have housing and childcare. The only thing she has to worry about is the vengeful figure from her past wielding an ice-pike. Somehow I found this comforting, and it was the origin of my first novel, The Lake of Dead Languages. 

What scares you most about the writing process?

Every morning when I sit down to write I feel a little frisson of dread. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with exposure—the sense that I’ll have to peel away the protective layer between my inner self and the world—and, worse, that there won’t be anything there when I do.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

That I won’t have anything left to write.

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

I recently wrote a scene in which a man saws his own hand off. That was scary.

Do you have any horror movie deal-breakers?

I hate whenever anything happens to a character’s hands.  And yes, I know that contradicts the answer above.

“I recently wrote a scene in which a man saws his own hand off.”

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

The Shining was for a long time the scariest book. The Kubrick film absolutely terrified me the first time I saw it (in the movie theaters when it first came out) and haunted me for years. Probably when the twins appear and say “Come play with us.”  When I read the book years later I was amazed that the book was AS scary. I also remember being really creeped out by Superstition by David Ambrose. Billy O’Callaghan’s The Dead House scared me, so then I read it a second time.

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)?

Well, given our present situation, let’s hope it’s The Stand. I really wouldn’t do well with zombies, and I haven’t read The Last Policeman.

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

I’ll take the human stalker.  Demons are definitely scarier.

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.)

Since I am the Mom in my house, I am ALWAYS the one who goes down to the basement to fiddle with the circuit switches even though I LOATHE the basement. So yeah, I’m the one who goes down. I’m calling for you now. Taaarrraaa …. Come play with me … foreverrrrr ….

Carol Goodman is the author of twenty-one novels, including The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water, which won the 2003 Hammett Prize, The Widow’s House, which won the 2018 Mary Higgins Clark Award, and The Night Visitors, which won the 2020 Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her books have been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family, and teaches literature and writing at The New School and SUNY New Paltz.

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