A Nostalgic Return and the Renewal of a Writer’s Journey

I was gripped the other day by a sudden jolt of nostalgia. You know the feeling. It’s when some sensory stimuli triggers an entrancing, meaningful memory. Maybe the smell of smoke in early winter reminds you of Christmas time and family fun from your childhood. Perhaps an old movie you loved to watch as a kid causes a glimmer of the same excitement you felt back when you couldn’t help but frolic throughout the living room pretending to be the hero of said movie. Well, I recently stumbled across something that reminded me of my undergraduate college days, a time when you’d often find me guzzling caffeinated beverages (writing fuel, I called them) while cramming to complete midterm papers a day before they were due. Ah, the good old days.

What is nostalgia? How does it really influence us? Is the nostalgic return a refusal to take responsibility for problems in the present by hiding in pleasures of the past, thus delaying progress? Or is it an effort to reacquire tools, solutions, or a renewed faith from successes in the past for the purpose of overcoming present problems? I guess, depending on the circumstance, it could be both. However, in my case, I would argue the latter applies. The object which triggered my nostalgic return was an old book I used for a college Creative Writing class. The book was titled, “Behind The Short Story: From First To Final Draft,” edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave and Todd James Pierce.

The Final Draft. That sounds like a wonderful place to be. Lately, I seem to have forgotten how to get there. I’m lost at sea, adrift. A faint flicker of hope warmed my heart while I brushed the dust off this book, remembering moments attending the class the book was assigned for. Back then I had confidence. Not just confidence. I was a little arrogant, and ignorant of my limitations. Nowadays I’ve become well acquainted with my weaknesses, especially the more I see time slipping away like the sand seeping from the hands of the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “A Dream Within A Dream.” Writing is a lonely job. Stephen King once described it as like floating across the Atlantic ocean in a bathtub, and he’s right. You’re floating along a vast ocean of words hoping for meaning and much of the time all you’ve got for company are your weaknesses, glaring down at you mockingly as you stumble from word to word.

The book reminded me in the smallest way of what it felt like to be confident again. I remembered that first day of class when we so easily imagined we’d become the next Ernest Hemingway or Virginia Woolf, even if it was a bit arrogant. The book also made me realize I could try again, a little of that renewed faith. This time I could dig a little deeper into the book’s insights and utilize the suggestions with more sincerety. This time perhaps I could cross the treacherous Mariana Trench that stretches between the first and final draft. What if this time I even became a better writer on the other side? By the way, you’re welcome to join me on my journey if you like.

The nostalgic return isn’t just sappy escapism. Sometimes it can revitalize your life.

DeathGroundWriter Spotlight: Firestarter by Stephen King

This is one of Stephen King’s lesser known books, lost behind the massive shadows cast by books like The Stand, It, and his magnus opus The Dark Tower.

The plot is simple and engaging: a man and woman participate in a top-secret government experiment that produces psychic abilities within them. They get married, have a child, and their daughter, Charlie, inherits her own psychic ability: she can start fires with her mind, and she struggles to control this force. Matters get worse when Charlie and her father are on the run from a government agency called The Shop, who want Charlie back for their own destructive means.

Lean and mean at 426 pages, the narrative moves along at a breakneck, paranoid pace. I enjoyed the dynamic between the adult and the child. You really feel the suspense of Andy’s paranoia as he must not only be responsible for himself, but he must keep Charlie calm while impending danger is constantly breathing down their necks.

The novel plays a lot on the theme of cost; Andy must weigh the cost of every choice he makes along the way. This especially plays to importance when he uses his own psychic ability, something he calls the “push,” which allows him to manipulate minds. For instance, he convinces a cab driver early on in the novel that a one dollar bill is a five hundred dollar bill for a fare to Albany. What’s the cost for using this ability? Headaches, nosebleeds, and potentially a brain hemorrhage. Oh, and he can accidentally cause severe psychological side effects to those he pushes, haunting hallucinations, something he calls a ricochet. Later in the novel you get some creepy demonstrations of this, one of them involving a sink disposal unit and someone’s arm. Another man is disturbed by the hallucination of snakes lurking in every corner of his life. King has fun knocking around in these peoples’ heads, and I had fun going along for the ride.

Charlie McGee’s struggle controlling the force within her was fascinating not only for its effects on the other characters and the course of the plot but also for its thematic significance: Charlie’s ability to start fires can be interpreted as a young adolescent’s stirring sexual awakening, the realization of her powers of feminity, and her difficulty learning to control them. Throughout the novel Charlie’s father tries to help her control it, especially when she is emotionally charged, for emotions such as fear and anger can escalate the forces within her. Andy even refers to Charlie’s ability as the Bad Thing, a similar connotation to a parent referring to sex as the bad thing. Perhaps the novel is suggesting that we should learn to embrace the powers born of our masculine or feminine traits, but we must strive to do so with a bridled, temperate approach. Otherwise, we just end up stirring chaos, destroying the good order of things. I think I’ll end this segment here before I start writing an English midterm paper on the nature of feminity in Stephen King’s Firestarter, but I hope you get the point of my brief hobbyhorse.

I want to share a paragraph from the novel, because I found the writing fascinating. It almost feels like beat poetry. The scene it paints is tragic and really escalates the feeling of paranoia throughout the novel. The paragraph is found on page eight of my signet paperback edition:

“Andy McGee and his wife, pretty Vicky. They had pulled her fingernails out, one by one. They had pulled out four of them and then she had talked. That, at least, was his deduction. Thumb, index, second, ring. Then: Stop. I’ll talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Just stop the hurting. Please. So she had told. And then… perhaps it had been an accident…then his wife had died. Well, some things are bigger than both of us, and other things are bigger than all of us.

“Things like the Shop, for instance.

Thud, thud, thud, riderless black horse coming on, coming on, coming on: behold, a black horse.

“Andy slept.

“And remembered.”

Stephen King’s novel Firestarter is a hidden gem. I suggest you read it.

Twenty-One Horror Classics I Must Read

“Read a lot, write a lot.” That’s the number one rule for the aspiring writer. You just got to do it. Practice. Try different approaches. Try new things that challenge you.

Reading is invaluable to the writer. It’s sort of the stream of life for the writer’s imagination, the place he or she goes to fill their head with more words when their well has run dry. We read to be inspired by the work of others, to learn from their narrative strategies. Then we turn to our own work in progress and find new ways to utilize those strategies, to give them a unique spin with our own voice.

Horror is my mainstay, and when I came across this list in the revised addition of the On Writing Horror Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, I nearly shrieked in excitement like a giddy child. Some of these I’ve read before and certainly deserve a revisit. Some will be a new experience for me. Here we go:

1. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker

3. The Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson

4. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

5. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt

6. To Walk the Night by William Sloane

7. The Dunwich Horror and Others by H.P. Lovecraft

8. Fear by L. Ron Hubbard

9. Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson

10. Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

11. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

12. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

13. Richard Matheson: Collected Stories, Vol. I, II, III

14. Hell House by Richard Matheson

15. The October Country by Ray Bradbury

16. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

17. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

18. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

19. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

20. The Stand by Stephen King

21. Watchers by Dean Koontz

Happy reading!

Nightmare Shard: Alone On The Island

Image by Daniel Jensen

The hands twitched in the grass like wriggling worms. My heart leapt with hope. Was he still alive, or was it spasmodic nerves? All the others were dead. I crawled to the edge of the slope and called his name as I looked down toward him. His face was pressed in the dirt. A gash stretched across the side of his neck like a bloodied rictus. “Can you hear me?” I said. A guttural moan oozed from my friend as his head turned up and I saw eyes that were not his. Something hungry and evil had replaced them. It reached for me with one pale hand. I stumbled to my feet and blindly ran. Behind me, I heard it’s galloping trot as it chased me. A ferocious howl ripped across the silent island…

5 Things That Scare Me

It’s time to walk into the shadows and confront this topic, especially with Halloween around the corner when all things spooky shall be unleashed upon us. Besides, Iseult Murphy dared confront her five worst fears, why can’t I? What are the five things that scare me?

1. Torture: If a character is being chained up to something and mercilessly whipped, burned, crushed, whatever it may be, I very well may shudder and cover my eyes. One who is being tortured is in ultimate despair. Long moments of agony followed by death; how can it get worse than that? My deep-seated horror for torture started when I was an eleven year old kid. The history channel depicted the torture rack during a show focused on torture devices of the Medieval period. Seeing that poor guy gasp and moan as his bones cracked and blood oozed from his wrists stunned me. Worst of all, I couldn’t find the remote; it had fallen behind the couch, so I had to watch the full thing. Nothing horrifies me more…

2. … except for maybe demonic possession. Just hearing the word makes me feel sullied. I experienced the demonically possessed monster for the first time as a teenager, watching the classic horror film The Exorcist. For a week after seeing that movie, I continually imagined Regan in her possessed form hobbling over to my bedside to stare down at me with that craggy, glowering face, growling obscenities and well…pea soup anyone? (Sidenote: wouldn’t that be a great Halloween Party gimmick? A Lifesize Possessed Regan headpiece set up before a delicious bowl of pea soup for party goers to dish up from. Get it? It looks like she vomited into the bowl. I guess you’re not as monstrous as me).

3. Dark Mysterious Caves: Lovecraft once said our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown, and nothing represents that better than a dark, mysterious cave. Anything could be in there. How about an enormous snake that will crush your bones and swallow you whole? Flesh eating bacterias, swarms of rats, and the list could go on. Your greatest fears are represented by the dark, mysterious cave. I shiver at all the terrible possibilities.

4. Spiders. Eek! Yes, you did just hear me shriek. Just this moment at mentioning their name it feels they’re clambering all over me. All those beady eyes, eight long legs. Some of them grow to the size of frigging hairy dinner plates. And some of them…if they bite you…I think I’ll avoid talking about it.

5. Witches. This is a topic that used to not scare me at all. Maybe it’s because every gal I went to school or worked with dressed up all cute with the pointed hat and dark eyeliner during Halloween, and it all just seemed so commonplace. Then I saw the 2015 movie The Witch. So much of the creepy factor was the atmospherics of the movie, all that unknown forest surrounding them, and gradually, the evil influence slips into that family like a dangerous snake sneaking in on a small nest of eggs. The eeriest part for me was the ending of the movie. All of those women chanting some alien language as they float in the air above the fire. Is Thomasin truly liberated in this initiation with the other witches, or is she just trapping herself into worse captivity? It was the strange mixture of pleasure and rueful pain wincing on Thomasin’s face at the end of the movie that made me ask this question, and this was also what gave me the deepest chill. She was in possession, not liberated. Witches are just another captive of the evil one. Disturbing indeed.

Now, do you wish to walk into the stirring shadows with me. Take my hand. What scares you?

Rough Draft Completed!

Good news! I was able to make some decent use of the early morning hours. I woke up at five and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I decided to make use of that quiet time to work on a story I’ve been grinding away at for the past couple weeks. The rough draft looks to be more novella length than novel, but maybe the story will expand when I progress to revisions later.

In the meantime, I got a really good idea for a story yesterday on my walk. I will carry on with the rough draft before I go back to revisions of this recently finished project. The working title for my next project: Nightmare Shards. I’m going to have some fun playing with the werewolf myth.

Nightmare Shard: An Exploration Of Minds

Image by Ivan Aleksic

Some minds are like a beautiful meadow, a field of grass dotted with colorful flowers. Thoughts flow like a crystal clear stream. A mind of pristine concinnity.

Others resemble a grotesque dungeon, a constricting space of stirring shadows and rattling chains. Thoughts wander blindly like prisoners, wailing at walls of misgiving and despair. A mind of haunted asymmetry.

DeathGroundWriter Spotlight: Interview with Author Kateri Stanley

Kateri Stanley graduated from The Open University with a degree in Arts and Humanities and worked for the National Health Service for 8 years. When she’s not writing stories, you can find her binge-watching films, creating playlists for her projects and dabbling in the occasional video game. She currently resides in the West Midlands, United Kingdom with her partner and their two cats, George and Maxine.

Tell us a bit about your fiction. What does it mean to you, and why do you think readers will love it?

Kateri: I’m a big lover of dark fiction, no matter what the genre, whether its sci-fi, horror, thriller, mystery, drama, fantasy, romance, you name it.

My debut novel, Forgive Me (published by indie press house, darkstroke books) is about an investigative journalist called Stripe McLachlan who is hired by Isaac Payne to write an article for his online business. Stripe has had a troubled upbringing as her father was killed by the axe murderer the media labelled “The Night Scrawler”, a monster who was never found. Usually, her projects delve into more uncomfortable, questionable topics, but there’s a deep, almost hauntingly familiar pull about her new client that intrigues her. As she learns more about Isaac, Stripe digs up fresh secrets about the murders, arousing her suspicions. After an awkward confrontation, she wakes up in Isaac’s bed — with a chain around her ankle.
My fiction is like another lifeline, it’s tied to my mental health. As my Mom has said before, “she needs to write or she’ll end up in a mental hospital.” Ha, very true Mom. 🙂
I hope my work gives readers an experience something they haven’t seen before but most importantly, I hope they can get lost in my characters and the story and forget about the troubles and stresses of their day. I know it’s cheesy to say, but it’s true.

Do you remember the first moment the horror/sci-fi genre attracted you?

Kateri: The power of film introduced me to the worlds of horror and sci-fi. I’ve been going to the cinema ever since I was a kid. I remember watching The Fifth Element when I was five years old, utterly besotted with the interior of the cinema as the ceiling looked like it there were tyre tracks painted across it. I also remember being fascinated with Milla Jovovich’s orange hair in the movie. 🙂

What is your creative process?

Kateri: It comes in different stages and not always in the same order. Normally an idea (it could be a situation, a scene, a character etc) springs up on me and I let it stew in my mind for a while. Characters and the story build up and if I think it has potential, I plot it out. Before I start to write a project, I normally have a general idea of what is going to happen in the story and how it will end. I plot several chapters and then I write them out and I repeat this process. Sometimes things will happen, a character will do or say something I didn’t see coming. I love it when that happens, it keeps me on my toes and it means the characters are coming out of their shells. I always write to music and I keep a list of the songs for each project. I find having something playing my ears really helps me get into the zone especially when it comes to a handling a delicate scenario like an emotionally charged scene.

What are some of your favorite books and movies?

Kateri: I have an ever-growing list of books and movies I love so I can’t pick favourites.  But if I had to choose I adore Hannibal by Thomas Harris and the movie, The Crow starring the late and beautiful, Brandon Lee.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Kateri: The power of levitation would be great. I’d make a mug of tea sitting in the office and have it floating up the stairs to my desk.

Any new projects we can see from you in the future? 

Kateri: The audiobook of my debut novel, Forgive Me is being recorded right this second. My wonderful producer/narrator, Zack Kirchner is working really hard and we’re aiming for a Halloween release. 
I recently completed my second novel, a supernatural mystery/thriller called From the Deep. I’m currently putting the feelers out for it, hoping it will be out sometime in 2022.I’ve also made a start on Book no.3 which will be a dark supernatural drama with historical and religious elements.

Learn more about Kateri Stanley:

Website: https://www.kateristanley.com/

Facebook: Kateri Stanley

Instagram: sal_writes

Twitter: @sal_writes

Find her books on Amazon!

DeathGroundWriter Spotlight: Interview With Brian Huntsman, Lead Singer Of El Camino Burnout

El Camino Burnout started at a rock festival where Dio and Brian met. A year later Brian moved from Western Utah to Western Colorado and he and Dio decided to write and record new music. With the help of Jon James they wrote an album where genre didn’t matter. It’s a mix of styles that plays like a movie soundtrack perfect for road trips. During the recording they brought in Paul, Ryan, Rob and were ready for live performances. The idea from the beginning was to not have boundaries musically, and to write and record what feels good, using classic rock as a foundation while blending influences from everyone’s musical past.

What would you say is the mission statement of the band? What does the music mean to you and why do you love it?

Brian: The mission story is kind of funny. We all have been playing in so many different bands all of our lives. There are bigger stories behind that; half of the time we don’t know what we are doing, but the musicianship involved is so incredible. Writing songs is fun. So is playing live. That’s our mission.

What do you think is the unifying element despite all your musical differences

Brian: The diversity of styles of music we have all performed. We breathe a little easier when it’s something we wrote, and now that’s what we play. Great feeling.

What is your creative process? Do you guys have a songwriting pattern, or is it a free for all?

Brian: It is a free for all. Whoever brings a riff or melody is on the block. Jon James (producer/engineering) also adds lyrics as well as producer duties. We have songs we all agree on.

Brian with Dio

How would you describe your personal evolution as a musician over the years?

Brian: Wow. This is hard for me to understand let alone explain. My heart changed in everything I was involved with. I loved everything that I experienced musically, loved country music, loved metal, grunge, and I loved all the 70s and 80s. I love the people that play music. It’s hard and easy. It’s human.

What musicians influenced you the most over the years?

Brian: This is harder for me now, because I’m influenced everyday by people. My tops are still Dime Bag [Darrel], Drive By Truckers, and Death Angel. Still keep up with them. I have been influenced by so many I can’t name them all.

What do you enjoy most about playing live, and what do you love most about studio work?

Brian: Playing live explains itself. It is the true experience between people. I can’t talk for anyone else in the band, but I think that’s the end result. The goal. Studio is fun! Like a bunch of people getting together to create something from thin air.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome as a musician?

Brian: Switching from singing lead, and playing bass, to singing lead, and playing rhythm guitar. It was, and still is a challenge. Rhythm git fiddle is nothing to downplay.

Do you have any awkward or funny stories about playing live?

Brian: Yes! But I may have to get permission from some peeps to tell them.! They funny! No bad stuff. Just embarrassing.

What can we expect from El Camino Burnout in the future?

Brian: More songs. Good, bad, or ugly. We just love the art form. The construction of it. For some strange reason we get together and agree. It’s pretty awesome.

Learn more about El Camino Burnout:

Twitter: @burnout_el

YouTube: El Camino Burnout Band Official

Facebook: El Camino Burnout

My Favorite Song: Rain

Graffitied Soul

Image by Nate Bell

One day I was rummaging through some old folders filled with long forgotten free verse poems I wrote back in high school. Much of the experience was nostalgic. I could remember the very place I wrote some of them all those years ago: the doorway to the faculty lounge and the round table by the trophy case. I could vaguely remember the emotions motivating each piece, most of it teenage angst of feeling like a misunderstood mutant. Nothing was salvageable from the folders, nothing except a title: Graffitied Soul.

I was on the phone with my brother at the time, a man who is a singer/songwriter. I was reminiscing with him about the old days of my youth, reading him a passage or two from these old stack of poems, and usually we got a good laugh from it. Sometimes we cringed. Then I picked up one with that title: Graffitied Soul, and my brother said, “I think you might have something there.”

The original words to this poem were absolutely dejecting. Not that I’m totally against darker themes; I am a horror writer after all, but this one just seemed destined to be something else. The story is always the boss; I merely give it a place to grow. One morose passage declared, “I’m a disease. Burn me alive.” My brother and I bounced around ideas, hoping to update it, to find new meaning out of the intriguing title. Below I will share with you what I came up with. The plan is to utilize the words for a song one day.

Here goes nothing:

“There you stand on the evening horizon, looking back on how far you’ve come. Windin’ trails that lead to abandon. Memories forever sewn in the dark.

And that’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.

Raindrops obscure the view outside the window, a view of a world moved on. Hearts broken. Stale grudges. Lay it to the dust. I’ve forgotten you cuz I was staring in the sun.

And that’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.

Like a train moving on to the fading horizon, time once again is on your side. No longer shall you molder in the dust of dried out umbrage. Time is but a mote on an eternal sea.

And that’s your soul. That’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.”

There you have it. It’s still probably doggerel, but it beats the original lyrics that declared “I’m a disease. Burn me alive.” So I’ll take it!