How long have you been writing?
Writing? Since I was in grade school, back in the days of the Pony Express. Publishing? My first novel was accepted in 1993 by Warner Books and published two years later. So I’m obviously a quick study. Took me only a couple decades to get it right.
Are there any authors who have influenced your work?
Oh my, yes. My first writing hero was Ray Bradbury. I mostly read his short story collections, but also his novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. From there, I went toward short story writers J. Ramsey Campbell (yes, there was a ‘J’ back then) and Richard Matheson and Dennis Etchison. Lovecraft and Poe and Shirley Jackson and early Stephen King and Peter Straub. I think The Shining and Ghost Story are two of the greatest novels ever published—horror or otherwise. I also love Robert McCammon and Dan Simmons.
You’ll notice that most (not all) of these horror writers are known for their even pacing, nuance and literate style. That’s what those guys taught me. Tease the reader. Don’t hit them over the head with an axe. At least not every time.
Outside of the horror genre, I’ve tried to learn how to write and the importance of character development from the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Price (a stunningly good writer), Craig Holden, Lawrence Block, James Cain, Michael Connelly and one of the best stylists of all—James Lee Burke. Most of these are crime writers, so I guess I gravitate toward that tradition.
I think it’s important for horror writers to read extensively out of the genre. It creates an intriguing pollination so you’re not simply subconsciously attempting to become the next Jack Ketchum or Stephen King. In music, think of Queen and the band’s blend of hard rock and grand opera. Only by listening extensively to both disparate genres could those guys come up with something utterly unique, two musical styles which should in no way go together, but somehow it works. That’s what I try to do with the writing style I’ve developed.
What inspires you, outside of reading / writing fiction?
When I was around six years old, I visited my grandparents, in Ames, Iowa. My uncle was very young, only about five or six years older than me. Being so much older and wiser, he pretty much ignored us “kids,” but I was terribly impressed with him—especially when I saw that he had a trading card collection of the old black-and-white Universal Studios monsters. I remember sneaking into his bedroom after dark and staring at Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman, utterly terrifying myself. But I literally couldn’t stay away. I was too scared to sleep that night, kept seeing the Wolfman’s awful face, but I kept coming back to images and words that had that effect on me. That was probably the first moment I realized I had a thing for horror.
Bloodthirst In Babylon is a vampire novel with a different twist. Was that your goal? Did you set out to breathe new “life” into vampires with this book?
I began that novel so long ago—probably 1992 or so—that it’s hard to remember what my starting point was. But I always loved playing with the concept of good and evil. Of trying to understand and even to some extent justify the evil of a creature such as Miles Drake. As much as you want to recoil from him (it?), Drake has a point of view that must be acknowledged. Perhaps he’s a sociopath, maybe he just has a strong survival instinct—but what would you do differently if placed in his position? That’s what I want my readers to have to uncomfortably contemplate.
Then you have Todd Dunbar, a bitter man trying to scratch out a living for the family he loves in his own surly way. Then there’s unconsciously arrogant Paul Highsmith, a wealthy man escaping from the shady financial dealings in which he’s gotten himself involved. Are these men heroes or villains? Or a little bit of both, in varying degrees like most of us? I’m not sure even they’d know. The reader should be similarly off-balance.
What I was really writing about here was economic horror. It’s joblessness and financial despair that really frightens the folks who stay at the Sundown Motel, much more than a roving pack of out-of-control vampires that terrifies these people. The horror is their desperate lives rather than the supernatural forces they’re up against that provide the biggest, darkest threats.
I remember commenting to a friend after reading Dan Simmons’ excellent The Terror that Simmons could have removed all supernatural elements of the story and it would still be horrifying. I think the best horror fiction should be about something else, a plot that works even when you delete the ghosts, demons or shambling swamp creatures. It still has people you care about and they’re still doing interesting things written up in a language that occasionally makes the reader pause and reread a sentence for pure joy at the way it’s written. That’s what I hope I accomplished on some level with Bloodthirst.
Have you always had an interest in horror?
Remember those Universal Studios trading cards? In short, yes.
One thing I noticed while reading your novel Malevolent was how much you built the suspense, always leaving the reader curious for more. Personally, I think building suspense and mystery is a skill often neglected in the modern horror genre. What I’m wondering is: With a plot so rich in foreshadowing, did you find yourself planning ahead? Did you outline Malevolent before writing it?
Until very recently, I’ve always outlined. My books take quite a few twists and turns and the only way to stay on top of them is to outline. That doesn’t mean that I can’t change my mind or go off into a completely different direction, but at least I know that I’ve built some kind of a framework from beginning to end, no matter how flimsy, so the whole façade doesn’t crumble under my feet midway through.
But like I said, for my last novel and the novella I’m working on, I’ve only built a very general outline in my head. I’m actually having a great deal of fun on a very thin wire with no safety net under me.
As for the sense of suspense, you can only do that by creating characters that seem real and relatable. Think of some movie where a purely background character is set up for a nasty death. The audience titters and chuckles in anticipation. They only gasp out loud when a character that’s been brought to life is in peril. That doesn’t mean he has to be “the good guy.” I’ll bet there are points in Bloodthirst in Babylon’s Miles Drake’s long recitation of his life that readers seriously regret what’s about to happen. So: it’s only suspenseful if the reader cares.
Your novel, Yellow Moon, brings horror to the small town of Cleary, Ohio when six boys disappear during a baseball game at the park. I haven’t read it yet, but I must admit, that description has me hooked already. What sort of creatures are we up against in Yellow Moon?
Unlike you, Lindsey, I’ve never had much success selling my short fiction. But I came closest with the novelette-length short story of the same name upon which Yellow Moon is based. I still got multiple rejections, but they started coming with personal notes rather than form letters. An editor at the old Weird Tales, for instance, said that they almost bought the story, but it was a three-person decision. Two of the editors wanted the story, but the third son of a bitch didn’t. He didn’t call this third guy an SOB, come to think of it, but the point is that I knew I was finally on to something. I extended it to book length through a lot of episodic chapters (and liberal adjective use) and quickly caught the eye of an agent who then fairly quickly sold it Warner Books.
Remember how I’ve preached nuance and character development? How I like my plots to develop in a deliberative and meditative manner, giving the reader room to ruminate? Well now forget about all of that. I wrote Yellow Moon based on what I thought the market wanted rather than what I would want to read. I still think it’s a very good book, but there’s absolutely no nuance or deliberation to it. The action starts on page one and never lets up.
It concerns six boys who find themselves lost in a surreal alien landscape while, at the same time, their parents and other townspeople are experiencing an attack of sorts from strangers who are part of this otherworldliness. You can read Yellow Moon in practically a single sitting, and I think you’ll like it—but there’s nothing to think about later, as there is with the other two books, particularly Bloodthirst. It’s literary candy, not a meal. Movie popcorn, but I think Yellow Moon is kind of yummy.
Do you often set your stories in Ohio?
Bloodthirst in Babylon takes place in Michigan, but that’s another state I’ve called home in the past. In fact, my entire immediate family except for me lives in Michigan. On the other hand, most of a young adult novel I’m still semi-trying to sell takes place in New Mexico and Arizona, a region of the country in which I’ve never been. But I just saw it in my head as taking place in the southwest. The region’s stark, empty beauty matched what was going on in my main characters’ heads, so the action just had to take place there.
I guess the point is that if the plot or tone of the story doesn’t call for a more distinct locale, I feel most comfortable sticking with the known. Why should I have to research Brunswick, New Jersey if the action can just as easily take place in actual or stand-in Lakewood, Ohio or Battle Creek, Michigan.
Do events from your past play a role in your fiction?
Great question. I’ve recounted this story on my blog, but it’s worth repeating. One day my late first wife and I were helping my good friend, Jim, and his first wife, Dory, move into an apartment when we were in our twenties. It was one of those big, bland cookie-cutter apartment buildings, and it sat nearly on top of I-480, if anyone’s interested. We got done unloading things at twilight, so the four of us decided to explore the grounds.
We found a vast, open field in the backyard, with a woodsy border. We could hear the traffic whizzing by on the interstate beyond, but couldn’t see it. I remarked how odd it was that the apartment building had seemed like it sat right on 480, but we’d found ourselves in this huge clearing with no sign of the highway as far as we could see.
While walking, we observed several clusters of rocks that had been grouped into manmade piles for whatever reason, and I started spooking the group about how it looked like the work of Satan worshippers. Naturally, the women drew closer and we held them tighter and proceeded to scare ourselves with evermore frightening possibilities as the sun slipped below the horizon.
Naturally we weren’t victimized by Satan’s demons, but the moment stuck with me. Years later, Yellow Moon came out and there’s a key scene where something dreadful is happening in an impossible vast open field at night under an indescribable moon. My friend Jim read and liked my book, and I asked him if he recognized the field. He didn’t, so I explained how it had been based upon the creepy scene behind their apartment in Bedford Heights. Jim frowned. “What’re you talking about?” he asked me.
He had absolutely no recollection of our late-night adventure. That rocked me until I thought about it. The experience had been totally meaningless. Nothing had actually happened, and we were probably out of there in twenty minutes or less. Only the dark imagination of a horror writer would have gained any sort of inspiration from that forgettable vignette.
And now just one more story to illustrate how real-life events play a part in my horror fiction. I work as a marketing communications writer for a large corporation in Akron, Ohio. One day on my lunch hour a couple years ago I was walking through a large parking lot that served several offices that surrounded it. A woman in a car slowed down and opened her window to ask me where the exit was.
I wasn’t real familiar with the lot, but I pointed out an obvious answer. “Nope,” she said. “I’ve already tried that.”
“Well, then it must be that way,” I said, pointing out the only other logical direction.
She sighed and shook her head. “No, I’ve already tried that way too.” Then she slowly proceeded past me in her continuing pursuit of a way out.
It struck me as amusing and a little creepy how confident she felt she’d tried everything and there was no escaping that damn parking lot. She almost sounded resigned to the fact that she was stuck there. I kept picking at my brief and inconsequential experience with her, thinking that there had to be a horror story there.
And then it hit me: at that moment I was writing what eventually became the novel I’m currently circulating. In the scene I was stuck on, the protagonist family was making its way through a busy parking lot to an amusement park. So far, there wasn’t much happening, but that night I introduced a slow-moving vehicle that intercepts the group. A tired-looking woman asks if they know where the exit is. The brother-in-law impatiently points out a larger-than-life exit sign, and the driver sighs and observes that signs aren’t the same thing as actual exits. She’s tried: there’s no way out.
The whole brief experience with the woman unnerves the mom in the story and, hopefully, my eventual readers as it foreshadows the unnatural hold the amusement park will have on the unfortunate family.
As a writer, listen to your friends’ boring anecdotes, watch the guy on the street in front of you, read the news, overhear elevator gossip and start to tell lies in your mind about some of the things that happen to yourself. When I tell people that I use my life experiences in my fiction, they look at me strangely. Probably wonder what a horrific life I’ve led. But all I’ve really done is twist the mundane people or places or experiences I come in contact with until I’ve shaped them into something new and unpleasant.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read. So many people who say they want to be horror writers will start to tell me their favorite movies instead of books. And it will always be something like Texas Chainsaw Hillbilly Massacre: the Revenge, or Slumber Party Pillow Fight of Death 5 or I Spit on Your Naked Eviscerated Corpse II.
Read. And not only horror. Read indie and mainstream and non-fiction and mysteries and world literature and—just read, damn it. Then think about what you liked and didn’t like. Combine influences and come up with something entirely original. It’s that, um, easy.
What are you working on at the moment?
My first horror novella. Again, it came from personal experience. I walked through one of those big-city lifestyle-center types of shopping districts at night around Christmas and I saw a miniature electric train. What’s scary about that? Not a thing… until you start to tell lies and twist the facts way the hell out of shape. I’m also trying to sell that amusement park novel.
Where can we find you on the web?
You can search out my woefully neglected blog at davidsearls.com. And I would so welcome your visit to my Amazon page right here