My first guest this month is author Ralph Hartman. Ralph’s latest book, The Loosening, is published by Etopia Press.
Steve: Tell us a bit about Ralph Hartman.
Ralph: Well… it’s 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon and I’m still in pajamas. Just came in from walking our three Golden Retrievers in the snow. My wife and I live on a little piece of land in Central Alberta, Canada; our closest neighbors are a half-mile away, which is good ‘cause I don’t think they’d get the whole walking your dogs in pajamas thing. I’ve built trails through the trees; sometimes I walk and think – sometimes I just walk and let the dogs do all the thinking.
S: Most of my followers are horror fans; tell us what you write and why.
R: Horror happens on so many different levels. What I truly enjoy is exploring the making of those things we fear most, material or spectral, of the world or of the mind, where and how our worst terrors originate and the way we grow and nurture then into palpable reality. Fun huh?
S: Well, I think so! Now, have you always wanted to write?
S: And how was the road from starter to first publishing contract for you?
R: I started many years ago, then pushed it aside as things like building a career and a home shouldered to the forefront. Pushed aside but never pushed away. A few years ago I got to looking through all the bits and scraps and manuscripts and thought…maybe? Write, polish, query,submit…manage the rejection…learn…repeat. Eventually my third novel was accepted by a small Canadian publisher. Oh joy! Now, I’m hooked – I have a plausible reason to do something I love.
S: So tell us about your latest books. Tempt my horror fans to go and buy them.
R: THE LOOSENING is my latest, a horror with Etopia Press. I got to wondering one day…about the physical manifestation of evil. If a benevolent entity needs faithful believers to exist then it carries an evil entity would gain strength and substance from the same. A twisted sort of devotion, if you will; a coven of witches work to bind a curse in a tiny Oregon community and indoing so empower and embolden a potent evil. Take a couple of interesting themes from history; the weave and the snake and a hunter druid and mix it alltogether. What if, despite their well-meaning efforts, it’s the witches that enable the evil to achieve physical form? Thus the tag line: “Witches! Above all else –do ye no harm…”
EVER SINCE is also a recent work. It’s a YA dark literary (didn’t know that until an editor told me) about a kid with an inexplicable sensitivity to the macro. He experiences a challenging childhood, is diagnosed as a dissociative, becomes involved in a subculture faith, and grows up misunderstanding and being misunderstood. There’s a sinister undertone to this story, an honest questioning about social morality and accepted normalcies. It’s a tragedy. “It’s not about getting fixed – it’s knowing you aren’t broken.”
S: I think my TBR pile may just have grown! And listening to you talk about The Loosening, you might like my novel, Diavolino. So, where did you find the inspiration, the one flashing idea, for your stories?
R: I daydream. A lot.
S: What plans do you have for the future? What can we expect?
R: I’ve got a YA paranormal, RAT ROD, coming out this fall with Musa Publishing. It’s a ghost story. About a young man, just starting to get it all put together, the ghosts he brings with him and the ones he finds on his way, and the hell that happens because of them.
I’ve been shopping two manuscripts, been experimenting with shorts, and working on a couple of fresh novels. And loving it…
S: What’s your position on e-books? Do you like them? Do you believe they are the future, or do you think print books will prove to be unassailable in the long term?
R: Ouch. This is tough… If it wasn’t for e-books my stuff would still be sitting in towering New York slush piles or be rubber-banded and forgotten in a cardboard box. I am thrilled to see my stories out there, and hope e-publishing will tighten up and continue as a desirable consumer option,but I doubt if print will ever fade away. A good book is something substantial,a prized item you can put on a shelf and flip through as a physical connection to thoughts and ideas and words that touch and affect. When I go to my bookshelf I get a feeling different than when I boot up my e-reader.
S: How would you like to be remembered?
R: I’d like to be remembered by not being forgotten. Huh?
S: Ralph, thanks for dropping by and the best of luck with the books. Maybe you’ll come back one day in the not too distant future and let us know how you’re getting on? Before you go, where can people find you?
Winter is just the best time to read a horror story, especially one that will warm you up!
Sima’s room was on the ground floor of the hospital, tucked away from the chaos of the main public areas. French windows gave onto a paved quadrangle with a modern sculpture at its center. The room had been refurbished recently; the smell of paint still clung to the otherwise sterile air. She lay on the bed, propped up at a slight angle, attached to various monitors. A faint hum of passing traffic and the occasional whine of a siren drifted in through the open window. Tom hoped that they would turn on the air conditioning soon.
“Mr. Lupton.” A man of about sixty years with thick black hair, average height and build, sporting a classic Roman nose, and wearing an expensively tailored brown suit was offering his hand. Tom leapt from his chair.
“How’s she doing, Professor?”
“Please, sit down,” said Lombardo, dragging himself a chair. “How’s she doing? That’s a good question, Mr. Lupton. I have carried out a preliminary investigation of the patient and of the records that came down with her. I have to say, I’m puzzled. She demonstrates no injury. All her functions are normal. We ran another test for Bartonella, and there’s not a trace. On that matter, I’m satisfied that Poggio made a simple error.”
Tom sagged. He’d been waiting for hours. Lombardo had received top billing, and now all he could say was that he was puzzled.
“It’s still early, Mr. Lupton. The average time needed to come out of a coma is two to five weeks.”
“But do you know this is actually a coma?”
“No, not actually. As I said, I’m puzzled. Could you shed any light on what might have caused this? The doctor in Poggio del Lago gave me some story about a fall? I’m afraid I don’t buy it.” Lombardo leant toward Tom and looked him in the eye. “Why don’t you tell me what really happened, eh?”
Tom cleared his throat and ran his fingers through his hair. “You won’t believe a word of this, Professor.”
Lombardo remained expressionless throughout Tom’s monologue, occasionally making notes with his Cartier pen on a pad of paper. When Tom finished his story the professor put his pen in his pocket and raised himself out of the chair. He put his hands on Tom’s shoulders.
“Do you believe in God, Mr. Lupton?”
Tom snapped. “No, as a matter of fact I don’t.”
“Well, maybe it’s time you started.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? I thought you were a man of science.” Tom pointed to Sima. “Are you telling me that the best hope you can give her is fucking prayer?”
“No, no, Mr. Lupton, not at all. Please, calm down.”
“I am calm!” His whole body was trembling. He paused and shook his head. “Fuck it. Look…er…I’m sorry.”
“Your reaction is perfectly understandable, Tom. May I call you Tom?”
“Yes, of course. Call me anything you want. I just want you to find out what’s wrong with Sima.”
Lombardo smiled. “Thank you, Tom. And I’m Giovanni. Now, let’s take a walk shall we?” He pushed the French window wide open and, slipping his arm loosely through Tom’s, led out into the quadrangle. The heat was suffocating, and they sauntered along the concrete path that ran around the perimeter.
“Have you ever been religious?”
“No. My mother was, in her own strange way, but I could never buy into it. I was very young when I saw it for what it really is,” said Tom.
“But you had some form of religious education? You are an educated man.”
“Well, school stuff. I know about God and the Holy Trinity and Satan if that’s what you mean. But don’t ask me to name all the saints and quote the Bible.” Tom hesitated and looked directly at Lombardo. “Look, Giovanni, what are you driving at?”
“You told me what happened to Sima, and you said I wouldn’t believe it. You were brave to do so. I could have you committed if I wanted.” The professor smiled. “Don’t worry, I have no intention. I know you are not mad. But now I am going to tell you some things that you won’t believe.”
As they strolled arm in arm, Giovanni spoke softly and steadily, interrupted only by the hum of traffic in the distance and the eerie wail of sirens.
Today sees the publication of Etopia Press author Jasen Quick’s novel, The Significant Deaths of Cage and Constance. I asked Jasen over and shone my floodlight in his face:
Steve: What is your earliest memory?
Jasen: Waving at the dustmen as they drove down our street – then one of them put a scary mask on and scared me so much I ran home.
Steve: When did you first have the urge to write?
Jasen: In 1979 (aged 8) I had a poster book of the film ‘The Black Hole’. I re-wrote the story on paper and cellotaped it together to make a paperback. After that I started to write short stories.
Steve: You once wrote a feature for The Times. What was that about and how did you land that catch?
Jasen: From being in the wrong place, at the right time, with the right story. My second son died as a baby and I wrote personal article about the three days he was alive. The paediatrician at the hospital said that she had been trying to get the hospital to change their policy on ultrasound scanning so I asked whether publishing my account of my son’s short life would help. She thought it would, so I rewrote it for the public to read and submitted it to The Times. They didn’t hesitate in publishing it as a full feature. Apparently, the paediatrician showed the newspaper to the hospital’s board and they immediately changed their policy on ultrasound scanning.
Steve: I’ve only read the blurb for The Significant Deaths of Cage and Constance and I am dying to read the book. The cover is amazing, by the way. Without giving too much away, can you tell us something about the story?
Jasen: Cage Reynolds suffers from depression, lives alone and finds life somewhat boring. Then he meets someone who changes his life in a way that he could never have imagined. It’s hard to say more without giving away too much. He has a history like no one else alive and it catches up with him.
Steve: Your book’s trailer is captivating. Did you do that yourself or did you hire someone?
Jasen: I did it myself using paintshop pro and windows movie maker. I took most of the photos (and video) myself and downloaded some royalty-free music.
Steve: If you had to write a story in a different genre, what would it be?
Jasen: I’m not really sure what my genre is! The Significant Deaths of Cage and Constance is a historical, sci-fi, thriller, paranormal-ish romance. I’ve never written straight horror. I might try that under a psuedonym.
Steve: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Jasen: Yes. Can’t think what else to say about that.
Steve: What do you read for your own pleasure?
Jasen: Mostly thrillers. Dean Koontz, Jeff Lindsay, Thomas Harris, Michael Robotham. I really like Jack Finney because time-travel is a favourite subject of mine. I am currently reading “In the Shadow of Gotham” by Stephanie Pintoff. I’m half way through and recommend it.
Steve: We are hearing more and more about e-publishing. What’s your view on it and how do you see the future for the industry?
Jasen: I tend to be open-minded about things. I think there will be eighteen months of the media telling us how books are going through the same problems that music went through (and still is) and then things will settle and find their own balance. I still buy CDs and I will always buy printed books. I’m hoping my lovely wife will buy me a Kindle so I can fill it with e-books. Those which become favourite reads will find themselves on my bookshelf in hardback form as well. I think bookshops will find it difficult to stay relevant and they will need to offer a service beyond simply selling printed books. Maybe they should start selling e-readers and offer a facility for customers to buy e-books and download them to their e-readers. They could also do what cinemas did – start selling popcorn at £7 a tub. They have to make a profit on something.
Steve: Which single person has most influenced you?
Jasen: With writing, I would say Dean Koontz. Whatever people think about his books, I have always found them fun and enjoyable to read. He is clearly doing something right because he is consistently in the best sellers lists. People are quick to criticise writers like DK but I think there is a place for fun books and serious literary books alike. For general influence, I would say my grandad. He had a real presence about him and I grew up thinking he was the wisest member of our family. I hope people think that of me when I’m a grandparent.
Steve: In the film of your life, who would you want to play you?
Jasen: When I was in my early twenties people used to say that I looked like Kiefer Sutherland. Obviously if you look at my photo now there’s no similarity at all but I would be happy for Kiefer to play me in the film of my life.
Steve: How would you like to be remembered?
Jasen: As that weird guy who wrote stories which made people think about the world around them and showed people that you don’t have to copy everyone else and fill your life with what you’ve been told you should fill it with.
Published By: Etopia Press Published: Oct 28, 2011
ISBN # 9781936751778
Word Count: 29,198
For no apparent reason, Nadine, Maggie, Gary, and Nick are invited to dinner at the lavish home of top fashion writer, Erin Dartford. But why has she invited them? Why doesn’t she want her guests to mingle? And just what is it about the mysterious Erin that makes them want to run for their lives? Little do they know that as they prepare to eat their first course, an evil as old as mankind is about to be unleashed. And revenge really is a dish best served cold…
If you look back at my review of Cavendish’s first offering, In My Lady’s Chamber, you will see that I said “Cavendish captures the atmosphere perfectly and demonstrates an ability to chill in the great British tradition”. She proves herself yet again with her novella, Cold Revenge, which is a much more complex and clever tale, brilliantly executed in a manner that will delight lovers of Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and the old Twilight Zone shows. I loved the fact that there is a message in here, and one frighteningly relevant in present times. It should be compulsory reading in the City of London and Wall Street.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Nadine said in the car as she checked her lip gloss for the third time, “but she’s only been around five minutes and we all dance to her tune. She just appeared from nowhere with a column in Vogue and suddenly she’s the critic you have to impress.”
“She must have paid her dues somewhere,” Paul said. “Maybe she was big on the Internet, although I can’t say I had ever heard of her until a couple of years ago.”
She was thoughtful for a moment, and then snapped her compact shut before replacing it in her purse. “Well, wherever she came from, or whoever she was before, she is certainly someone now. Gilly said if I upset Erin in any way, I could kiss good-bye to the rest of my career. Crazy the power some of these critics have.”
“Your manager knows what she’s talking about. You’d better listen to her.”
“I’m in the car, aren’t I? I’m going to her wretched dinner party, aren’t I?”
“OK, OK, I’m not the bad guy here.” Paul laughed.
“Sorry.” Nadine meant it. She sighed. “Gilly says I should be honored. After all, she’s never met me. Apparently that’s quite unusual. She’ll normally have done a feature on you before you get an invitation to the Hallowed Hall.”
“Hallowed Hall. It’s what people call the mansion where she lives and where we’re going tonight. It’s set in around six acres of one of the most exclusive parts of Surrey and it’s a former abbey. Its real name is St. Saviour’s but everyone just calls it the Hallowed Hall. It’s supposed to be haunted.”
“Isn’t everywhere in Surrey? Everywhere that’s more than fifty years old at any rate.”
“They had that TV program there. You know, the one fronted by the woman with the piercing scream and the parapsychologist with the weird gadgets. They heard a lot of knocking and the furniture moved around quite a bit.”
“Amazing what you can do with a bit of nylon thread and a hammer, isn’t it?”
Nadine smacked his arm. “Oh Paul, you’re such a cynic!”
“You have reached your destination.”
“Thank you, GPS,” Paul said.
Nadine giggled. It always made her laugh when he talked to his SatNav. She peered out of the window. At dusk on this summer evening, the shadows were lengthening, but the dwindling sun still shed enough light to make out the detail of the mythical beasts carved on top of the stone pillars on either side of a tall pair of wrought iron gates. These now slowly opened.
“Must have seen us on CCTV or something,” Paul mused and looked upward, apparently searching for the camera without success.
Nadine also looked up and shivered. Strange how fierce that stone beast looked and how realistic, as if, at any moment, it might leap down and strike. Must be the light. Still, she couldn’t wait to put some distance between them.
Ahead of them was a long drive and, at the end, a large illuminated house that, even from this distance, looked ecclesiastical.
Paul threw the Ferrari in gear. “OK, let’s not keep the lady waiting.”
As they approached, Nadine took in the large sandstone building with its many arched windows. Two flights of stone steps curved upward to a small terrace in front of an imposing entrance flanked by two narrow turrets. Each of these was carved with figures she couldn’t quite make out, silhouetted against the darkening sky.
He parked and, as they stepped onto the gravel, a soft breeze played around Nadine’s hair. She took Paul’s hand, taking care not to trip in her five-inch heels. Then, without warning, her stomach turned over and, for an instant, she thought she was going to be sick. She felt as if her body was telling her to leave now. The nausea was over in a flash but it unnerved her. This is crazy. It’s just a stupid dinner party. But the inexplicable feeling of unease wouldn’t go away.
The door was open, and soft music wafted toward them. They stepped over the threshold, and Nadine looked around at the scene of conspicuous wealth. The abbey showed its ancient heritage in the stone facade and the worn carvings of saints, some of whose faces had long lost their detail through the actions of wind, sun, and rain.
The interior was light and airy. Nadine recognized the entrance hall in which they were now standing, from a feature in Hello magazine some months before. The room was vast, its pale lemon walls hung with old oil paintings depicting, she presumed, former abbots. A giant marble table took pride of place in the center of the black-and-white tiled floor. Three intricately carved cherubs appeared to be holding it up, and its surface was covered in orange roses, which gave off a heady scent that filled the hall. Above them, an enormous crystal chandelier glittered. Its many pendants tinkled gently in the slight breeze from outside.
Two other couples stood at opposite ends of the hall, sipping champagne. That was strange; Nadine was sure she and Paul had arrived on time. Maybe everyone else planned to be fashionably late, although that was somewhat at odds with Erin’s famed insistence on punctuality.
“You must be Nadine Cornwall. How lovely to meet you at last.” Erin looked exactly like her photographs. Tall, thin to the point of emaciation, she was one of those women whose age was impossible to guess. She could have been anywhere between thirty-five and sixty. Her hair was a helmet of black, her eyes heavy lidded, vivid blue, and chilling. Her lips were a slash of scarlet, matched by her long nails, but she was dressed from head to toe in black. Nadine had never seen Erin pictured in anything else.
Erin was waiting to shake Nadine’s hand, so she tore her eyes away from Erin’s compelling gaze. Her hands were covered in opulent rings, the most stunning of which was an enormous ruby that reminded Nadine of a Pope’s ring she had once seen in an old film. Maybe she expects me to kiss the bloody thing.
Apparently not, and Nadine allowed the older woman to take her hand, immediately wishing she hadn’t. Erin’s grasp was dry, and her hands clawlike. Nadine was relieved when it was safe to withdraw her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Dartford.”
“Oh please, call me Erin, everyone does.”
But not because they like you. They fear you. Nadine wished Erin would stop staring.
As if reading Nadine’s mind, Erin now turned her attention to Paul. “And you must be Nadine’s husband?”
“Partner.” He took her hand and kissed it lightly. Nadine flinched involuntarily and hoped that Erin hadn’t noticed, but the thought of Paul’s lips in contact with that dry, dusty hand brought on another wave of nausea. “I’m Paul Kelly.”
“Of course. You made a fortune out of those clever little websites that show us how we can all save money if only we follow your advice.”
Paul smiled and Nadine watched the exchange, fascinated. Erin’s returning smile stayed firmly planted on her lips while, in her eyes…
“You have no idea what is going to happen to you. You came from nothing and you shall return to nothing.”
“Nadine! Are you all right?”
She jumped. Paul was shaking her arm. Erin had moved on to another couple.
“I thought you were going to pass out. You went so pale.”
She stared at him. “I have no idea, Paul. Maybe it’s low blood sugar. I really don’t know. What did I do?”
Paul smiled. “Nothing really. I don’t think Erin noticed. Her attention was diverted by Maggie O’Donnell over there.” He nodded toward the famous crime writer whose latest bestseller Nadine had just enjoyed. “She was talking to me and I caught you swaying slightly. You were staring at Erin and growing paler by the second. I really thought you were going to faint. What was it?”
Nadine searched her brain for an answer but could find none. She’d heard a voice in her head but she couldn’t remember what it had said.
“I don’t know, Paul. All I know is I just want to go home. Now.”
Paul moved closer to her. “Nadine, you can’t. You know that. She would be offended and you would be committing career suicide. Who knows? I might even be affected by the fallout. Come on and pull yourself together. It’s a bit warm in here and you haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”
“Gilly said I needed to lose a couple of pounds.”
“You do not need to lose a couple of pounds. Hell, you make Victoria Beckham look well nourished.”
A waiter appeared with a tray of champagne and Paul handed her a glass. Nadine’s hands were shaking, but she did her best to steady them and took a large swig, not surprised to find the bubbly was good quality and perfectly chilled. She recalled how, just five years ago, she wouldn’t have known good champagne from a glass of cider. But that was before she became famous. Before… No, I don’t want to remember that. Not now. Not ever.
Paul was looking at her, curiosity in his gaze.
Her stomach heaved again. “I need to find a bathroom,” she said, handing him her empty glass and hurrying away, aware that he was following her every step.
The waiter directed her out of the hall, down a long, arched passageway. Hobbled by her heels, Nadine removed her shoes and, as she sped past the tapestry-covered walls, was vaguely aware of scenes depicting heroic battles between good and evil. She located the door she needed and opened it, then shut and locked it behind her. She leaned against it, sweat beading her brow.
The room contained an old-fashioned toilet and a dressing table with a mirror over it. Ornate gilt wall lights cast a muted glow over dark red wallpaper, giving it a Gothic air. She dropped her shoes on the floor, took a tissue from a box on the table, and gently dabbed her forehead and upper lip, closing her eyes and fanning herself to cool down. Her stomach seemed to be doing somersaults.
She jumped. Her eyes shot open. The voice had been in her ear. “Who is it?” she called.
No one replied.
I’m going mad. Paul’s right. I must eat properly. I’m hallucinating because my blood sugar’s dropped too low.
“Nadine. You know who I am.”
Terror overwhelming her, she grabbed her shoes, unlocked the door, and wrenched it open. In the passageway, she leaned against the wall, panting. That voice. She recognized that voice. But it couldn’t be. She must have imagined it. The hunger. Maybe even the heat. After all, the temperature had soared today.
Maggie O’Donnell went by, a strange expression on her face, but Nadine was barely aware of her. She was slipping away. Gradually the passageway throbbed, and then started to fade as if a mist was descending.
International Crises seem topical, so here’s my #SampleSunday for today from my novel, Diavolino. With Berlusconi licking his wounds this morning the Italian setting will add to the atmosphere.
Homa Jawini flicked from news channel to news channel. She’d not heard from her husband since he’d been collected by Sir Roger’s driver in the early hours. She knew in her heart that something had happened to Mohsen; she felt it.
The ticker along the bottom of the TV screen was full of the usual sensational bites: Italy on her knees—Temperatures reach 59°celsius—Italy in darkness as big air conditioning switch-on causes massive power drain—Looting rife in major cities—Millions dead. Newsreaders told of the strange disaster that had struck so swiftly at the center of Europe, slowly—but surely—turning rumor and speculation into fact.
“The only explanation is volcanic activity,” said a wiry professor from Oxford University to the CNN audience. “This is the kind of event that our planet hasn’t experienced for millions of years. Anything could happen.”
“We have warned the Iraqis to stop this meteorological warfare,” said a White House spokesperson, “and demanded an explanation. If they don’t comply by midnight Washington time, we are ready to hit them.”
“In the light of intelligence I have received, I am convinced of Al Qaida involvement,” said the British Foreign Secretary on the BBC.
“All attempts by the European Union to get aircraft into Italian airspace have met with disaster. Have you any idea what caused these fighters to come down?” a Sky interviewer quizzed a French air force spokesperson.
“Not at all,” was the reply, “but we cannot rule out a hostile attack.”
No one had a clue. The Indians blamed Pakistan. The Israelis launched rocket attacks on the Palestinians. Russian troops massed on the borders of Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Pope said it was the result of an amoral population and urged the world to turn to God. Everyone pointed a finger as a major international crisis unfolded.