Sunday, July 30, 2017

Real Ghosts from the Past: The Story Behind THE JOURNAL OF JEREMY TODD

Every story starts somewhere. For CONSEQUENCES, it was a local legend from my high school days. For THE JOURNAL OF JEREMY TODD, it starts more recently, but it does dig into things that happened as far back as middle school for me, and also digs into things that keep themselves hidden in the dark recesses of my mind, only coming out on occasion when I’m feeling especially vulnerable. Writing the story helped me to deal with those to some degree, and hopefully writing this “story behind the story” post will help me finish exorcising them. Will it get rid of them? No, they’ve been there too long, and have become a part of who I am. But hopefully they’ll lose what little remains of their sting, and that’s more important, anyway.

Since JEREMY TODD has only been out for a couple of weeks now, I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible for those who haven’t managed to get very far into it.

One of the themes in JEREMY TODD is bullying, and how victims of bullying deal with it as they get older. This is the first and only time I’ve ever gone into a story with even that much of a theme in mind. Usually, I just have the story idea and then I write it. I might find something during edits, some subconscious thing that crept into the story somewhere along the way, but it’s never a conscious decision. This time, it was. Everyone has their hot-button topic, the thing that sets their blood to boiling until the rage is nearly strong enough to consume them. For me, that topic is bullying.

The main catalyst for THE JOURNAL OF JEREMY TODD was the suicide of a fourteen year old girl who went to my youngest kid’s school. She was bullied incessantly, and ended up stabbing herself to death in one of the local parks near where I live. I already posted a rant about how this made me feel (which you can read here if you’re interested), so I won’t rehash it. At the time, I thought that rant would get the anger out of my system, but it didn’t. I also didn’t realize it at the time, but it was only going to get worse.

See, I was bullied in school. Nowhere near as badly as Jeremy Todd is in the story, and by high school the majority of it had faded as I found my own “crowd” to hang out with, but it happened. I wasn’t into sports, I loved computers and science fiction and horror and comics and the like. I wore glasses and had an orthodontic device (can’t remember what it was called, but it was to fix an overbite) and generally had zero self-confidence. I never got into fights from it—I was always the one who ran away—so the abuse wasn’t ever physical, but the mental and emotional abuse was more than enough. Somehow, I managed to push all that to the back of my mind as I grew older. I realized it wasn’t that important anymore, and tried to move on. The problem was that all of those feelings were still there, hiding, waiting for the chance to spring out and surprise me.

When I started writing Jeremy Todd, they got their chance.

I realized almost immediately that this story would only work if it was told in the first person, and on the heels of that came the knowledge that it needed to be this guy’s personal journal.  Therefore, to write this, I had to become Jeremy Todd to some degree, had to allow his thoughts to supplant my own for the couple of hours a night I was sitting in front of that open MS Word document. Then, as he worked up the nerve to write about his past, I discovered that those memories I held and tried to keep hidden started peeking out to mess with me once again.

Let me go ahead and clarify a couple of things, one of which I’ve mentioned but feel bears repeating. NONE of the things that happened to Jeremy Todd happened to me. The abuse I dealt with was much more subtle than what he had to contend with. Also, with one exception, the bullies in the story are NOT based on any one person, be it in name or personality. I did blend some people together, and made a couple up whole-cloth, but I didn’t single anyone out from those days. The one exception is a name, and no, I won’t be revealing which character holds the same name as one of my bullies. I have no idea what they did with their life, and have no intention of dragging their name through the mud if they’ve become a better person than they once were. My catharsis came by using them in the story, and that was good enough for me.

As I was saying, those memories came back as I transcribed Jeremy Todd’s tale. It’s normal for me to drink a beer or two while I’m writing—three if it goes especially long. For Jeremy Todd, though, that jumped to a six-pack or more as well as most of a pack of cigarettes in two to three hours. The character is dark, and since I was writing in the first person, that by necessity caused me to go to a dark place. Those memories that kept creeping back made it even darker. I couldn’t sleep without getting so hammered I passed out. I was miserable even during the day, and often couldn’t figure out why. I grew to HATE Jeremy Todd, and considered scrapping the whole idea more than once.

But I didn’t. There was some little voice telling me that I needed to see it through to the end, needed to write the pain out, in a way. So, I forced myself to keep going.

The words came easy enough, but that doesn’t mean the story was easy to write. The exact opposite was true. I didn’t even realize why at the time. I finished the manuscript and filed it away like all the others, and got started on something else, something more light-hearted and fun, and tried to forget about that nasty little thing I’d done. I sent it off to my beta readers and figured I’d get to the next draft eventually, but for the moment, I didn’t want to think about it anymore.

Then Sinister Grin did their month-long open call for submissions, and I realized it was the next logical thing for me to work on and send out.

I got my beta feedback and knocked out the second draft in a week. I wasn’t paying great attention to the story itself, but rather the technical aspects of cleaning up the first draft and making sure everything was coherent. Then, incredibly, they took it. A week after I signed the contract, I decided to sit down and actually read what I’d written, to try and force myself to dig into what I’d done.

What I discovered first was how much of myself I’d put on the page. Jeremy’s stories about delivering pizza near the start of the story? Those actually happened to me, almost exactly as written (with one exception: he wanted to save someone after the second one, I just drove away thinking “what the fuck was that?”). He wants to write comic books, I think it’s obvious the career path I’ve chosen. Even down to some of the strange thoughts he occasionally has matching my own at times (I’ll elect to keep those to myself, thank you very much. If you know me well enough, you might can guess at them, though). Other things were exaggerations on me or feelings I’ve had. A prime example? I’ve never reacted to anything the way he does, nor have I ever WANTED to do to anyone the things he does to some of the folks in this story. I never had to deal with the extreme tragedy in my life he did. All of that is pure fiction. Still, what is fiction except the lie that covers the truth?

The other thing I learned as I read through the story was that while I’d convinced myself that all those things from so long ago no longer mattered, the truth was that they did. Without my even being aware of it, they’d shaped me and how I reacted to things even as I led what I felt was a pretty well-adjusted life. When I looked back I could see the struggles I’d endured, and to some degree still endured. I could see how difficult it had been to get my self-confidence to a level where it needed to be, how hard it was to feel like I belonged in the places and with the people I ended up with. I’d been fighting a war for years in my subconscious, and I’d never even realized it. It’s possible other people might have seen, but I kind of doubt that. One of the first things I’d done was to become adept at wearing the mask, no matter what. Anyone who saw me would have seen someone who appeared to be doing just find. Hell, it was even what I saw when I looked in the mirror. The difference was, I could feel the twinges of reality beneath the surface, even though I was keeping them buried as deep as I could.

This is one of the wonderful things about writing horror, though. I have a dark lens through which I can filter those negative feelings and emotions, something that acts like a strange sort of self-psychotherapy in a way. As a result, a funny thing happened once I finished that read-through of JEREMY TODD: I actually felt better. I’d lanced the wound and allowed the infection to escape. I’d faced down and fought some of my demons, and came out on the other side as the victor. Did it totally get rid of those feelings? Of course not. I’m over forty years old; they’re a part of me now. But I did learn to deal with them instead of trying and ultimately failing to ignore them.

Even better, as I’ve gotten to know other people in this field, other horror writers specifically, I’ve heard stories about growing up that very closely mirror my own. I’ve learned that I’m not alone, and to me, that’s the biggest struggle when dealing with the after-effects of being bullied as a kid. When it’s happening, YOU’RE the one it’s happening to. It doesn’t matter if you were the hundredth person those bullies had dumped on that day. That’s their methodology, see. They isolate you, make you feel apart from everyone else. Yet to hear so many others talk about the same things, I realized that while I felt alone at the time, I never truly was.

People are sometimes surprised that horror writers are some of the nicest, kindest, most accepting people they’ve ever met. I think this is one of the reasons why. We see those demons in each other, recognize them as familiar, and almost instinctively band together to fight them. We see people who feel like we did, who feel like they don’t belong, and we actively welcome them. We stand as one and scream that no matter what you’ve gone through, you are not alone. As writers, we deal with our demons through our work, and as readers we do it through someone else’s experiences that touch that part in us that we have in common with them. And the beauty of it is that it works across no barrier from time or distance. How freaking awesome is that?

Times have changed. What got us picked on as kids is now considered “cool”. Unfortunately, the bullying continues. They just found something else to use to beat us down and lift themselves up. Maybe one day we’ll finally stop it, but for now, all we can do is be there when we’re needed.

I didn’t do it in the text, but THE JOURNAL OF JEREMY TODD is officially dedicated to the memory of Sherokee Harriman and all the others who were bullied beyond their ability to withstand it, and who decided the only way out was a permanent way out. It is also dedicated to all those silent masses who are still being bullied, and are struggling to deal with the immediate results of it, not to mention the results they won’t know about until many years from now. I get it: It feels like no one else could possibly understand. But that’s not true. We are out there. We understand.


And you are NOT alone.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Scares That Care 2017

This year, I decided to check out the Scares that Care Weekend in Williamsburg VA. When I first announced I was going to attend (as a fan this time around, not as a working author), I had several people ask for me to give a run-down on how it was and what I thought of it, so that’s what this is. If you’re curious about a first-timer’s experience as a member of that strange mid-ground world of both a fan and a writer, read on. If not, well, feel free to skip to the pictures and then move along.

A quick note on said pictures: most were taken as I met folks, and being a writer, authors are where most of my attention fell this weekend. There are some groups on Facebook where you can see the awesome cosplay pictures from the con, as well as the other actors and movie guys, so feel free to check those out as well.

Thursday
GPS declared this to be a ten-hour trip, so my friend and I decided to leave the Nashvillle area at around four in the morning (Central time) in order to arrive at the hotel just as it became check-in time. The trip actually took eleven hours, and neither of us got much sleep the night before, so Thursday already had all the earmarks of a strange and interesting day before it even got started.
Partners in crime! With Somer Canon.
The only event for Thursday night was Scaryoke at the hotel bar, so after kicking back and trying to relax, and grabbing a bite to eat, we headed from our hotel down the street to the Doubletree where the convention was being held. Almost immediately I ran into Somer Canon, whom I’d become Facebook friends with, and got the chance to finally meet in person. As I stood there having a beer and chatting with Somer and her husband, Kane Hodder decided to start messing with me over the length of my hair, and proved he is one of the funniest and nicest assholes in the business. Kane managed to pull C.J. Graham and Steve Dash into the joke, too, meaning I had not one, but THREE Jasons giving me shit. Kane promised this would be going on all weekend, and I had no doubt he was sincere. Want to insult me? Go for it. I took shit from Jason Freakin’ Voorhees, okay? You got nothin’.

Somer told me that there was a room aside for writers to hang out in and talk instead of the crowded hotel bar, so we headed there and got to watch as Brian Keene, Mary SanGiovanni, and a table full of other friends and authors held an impromptu remembrance for J.F. Gonzales while they signed the signature sheets for the Clickers Forever anthology done in his honor. This was recorded for Brian's Horror Show podcast, so you’ll all get to hear it for yourselves some time soon.

He might have given me shit, but he's
genuinely one of the nicest guys I've
had the chance to meet.
After this wrapped up, it was social hour for everyone. Somer pointed out the people I didn’t recognize, and I finally got to put names to faces for all the folks I’ve interacted with on Facebook since being graciously welcomed into this strange and wonderful horror community. Adam Cesare stopped by to introduce himself, having recognized me and remembered that I’d done a review for his novel The Con Season, and also succeeded in making me feel more welcomed than I could’ve expected.

Since we’d been up since before the ass crack of dawn, my friend and I called it a night early and headed back to our own hotel, which put an end to the pre-con festivities. A few hours’ sleep, and it was time for the first official day of the convention!

Friday
Things kicked off later in the afternoon today, so I actually got to go in well-rested this time around. Met Armand Rosamilia and Jay Wilburn when we went to trade our tickets for wristbands, and then headed to lunch based on an awesome recommendation from Armand. Grabbed a quick nap, and then we were off to the races.

Friday is typically the slower of the days (aside from Sunday, which is the slowest) and the place was still full of people. I had an hour and a half to kill before the first panel, so I hit the celebrity room and decided to meet some of my heroes and now co-wanderers on this crazy road of writing.

The Warlock himself, Julian Sands.
In addition to great guys like Armand, Ronald Malfi, and Wrath James White, I also managed to get a picture and an autograph from the Warlock himself, Julian Sands. Considering that movie was my first favorite horror film, it was a definite dream come true.

In between panels and readings, I managed to wander through the vendor rooms, where I met even more awesome folks, and like as not, picked up signed books from them as well. I spent an especially fun time talking with Chuck Buda, comparing notes about being a new author in horror (we’re both just now in our second years of it), and then it was off to a reading. A final trip to the celebrity room where I got to meet and chat with one of the fathers of splatterpunk, John Skipp, and the most recent addition to my influence list, Jonathan Janz, and then it was time for things to wind down in one sense and kick up in another.
The man with more energy than you
could believe - John Skipp.

I wound up having dinner with a herd of authors as well as Mike Lombardo—who is exactly like he sounds on Brian Keene’s aforementioned Horror Show podcast—and then it was back to the Doubletree for some libations. After some discussion on what was happening where, and a bit more wandering, I found myself in a room with a different herd of authors and some readers playing a round of Werewolves (think the party game Mafia, only horror-styled). After much conversation and fun, it was time to head back to my hotel for a few hours’ sleep before the insanity that was Saturday at Scares That Care began.

(And for the record, Kane kept his promise and gave me shit again today, too….)

Saturday
The longest day of the con, and one of the most fun and interesting. Somehow I even escaped Kane Hodder giving me shit, which is a minor miracle, too.

The insane hosts of The Mando Method,
Chuck Buda and Armand Rosamilia.
Most of the day was spent in various panels and such, from an exploration of splatterpunk, extreme horror, and bizzaro from several key figures in those genres to a couple of live podcast recordings. The first was Armand and Chuck’s Mando Method, where they pulled me in from audience and made sure to say my name roughly a thousand times. Thanks to both of them for that, by the way. They put me on the spot, but that’s a ton of unexpected exposure, so I will definitely take it.

Horror folks running for
the woods...
Not too long after this, the fire alarms in the hotel went off, prompting an evacuation. No one seemed overly alarmed at this, so it seemed like a good chance to grab some food. While eating, I found out some idiot had been smoking in his room and set off the alarms, so while that guy was apt to have a horrible day once they figured out who they were, everything else would continue as normal.

At a guess, it was over a hundred degrees
in this room....
Next up was a live taping for two episodes of The Horror Show with Brian Keene, one of which included an interview with the legendary authors Joe Lansdale and Chet Williamson, and a Q&A from the audience for the regular hosts of The Horror Show (except for Coop and Dungeonmaster, who were unable to attend). It was an awesome experience, except that the air conditioner was broken so it quickly became the hottest room in the world with the number of people who attended.

Once that was over, it was time to hang out and have some fun again, and I once again joined the “after-hours” group from the night before for pizza, bourbon, and Werewolves (where Melissa Hayward and Rachel Autumn Deering officially christened me "Best John", which makes me smile just to type). I had to be back for an appointment at nine Sunday morning, so I called it a night after one round, and headed back to the hotel.

Waiting for food before the bourbon; half of the "village" for
Saturday night's round of Werewolves. Photo by Hannah
Carroll.
Sunday was coming, and with it the end of this year’s Scares That Care. While there was a part of me that was ready to get home to my wife, kids, and herd of doggage, there was another part that was hoping it wouldn’t come, inevitable as it was….

Sunday
As I mentioned, I had to be up for an appointment at nine this morning. Well, I woke up, looked at the clock, and thought “oh, it’s 8:30, I can grab something from the free hotel breakfast before I….” and then I actually looked at the clock. It wasn’t 8:30. It was 8:50. Thankfully, the hotel I’m staying at isn’t that far from the Doubletree where the con was being held, so I made it by 9:02. No coffee, but I was able to get some before we got started, so it was all good.

(And yes, that’s vaguebooking, but I’ll announce what it is when I have more details, so just bear with me. Trust me, it'll be good.)

Quite possibly the nicest guy working
in the field of horror fiction, Jonathan
Janz. Not pictured: the flowered pants
he was wearing....
Back to the hotel, pack up, check out, and then off to the bittersweet final day of Scares That Care.
Today was definitely slower than the other days, and everything was much more relaxed as well. I did manage to catch the reading from Jonathan Janz and Mary SanGiovanni, both of whom blew the audience away. After that, it was time to make those dreaded rounds to say goodbye to all the awesome folks I’d spend the last weekend getting to know and hanging out with.

After that, I headed up to the live recording of Armand’s ArmCast Dead Sexy Podcast, where I was included as a participant alongside the wonderful Wile E. Young, who is working on his first novel for Deadite Press. We both had a blast talking to Armand, and then I hung out in the audience for a few more guests. When that was over, the time had come. As much as I hated it, I had to go back home.

I said goodbye to the last few folks I’d promised to meet up with before heading out, and then we hit the road for the long trip back to Tennessee. We got stuck in an accident cleanup within the first hour, fought through rain so hard you couldn’t see the road and almost constant cloud-to-ground lightning as we made our way out of Virginia and into Tennessee, but finally, we made it.

In Summary…
This wasn’t my first convention, but it was my first in over a decade, and definitely my first where I had a “vested interest” in going. It was also my first purely horror-themed one, so I really didn’t know what to expect.

This is just the swag from Day One...
Uncertain expectations aside, I was blown away. Everyone I encountered was open, and welcoming. I walked away from that convention feeling like I’d not just met some contemporaries in the horror fiction field, but that I’d actually made some friends. It’s one thing to be “friends” on Facebook, but after meeting and hanging out with these guys, it feels like so much more than that. I can honestly say that while I’ve only been home for a few hours now as I write this, I genuinely miss them, and am going to be heartbroken that I won’t be able to wake up and go see them all again tomorrow.

I’m not even going to try and name everyone who I enjoyed meeting this weekend, because the list is so long and I’m sure I’d forget someone or something. What I will say is that this weekend made me feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Everyone I talked to made me feel like I belonged, and there are no words to express how that feels. It also reinvigorated me to the whole process of writing and got me fired up for whatever project is next for me.

One of this year's convention hosts,
the multi-talented Brian Keene.
Some people have a preconception of horror writers, actors, and fans as being strange and scary people. While that may be true in some cases, I’ve seen the exact opposite is more true than not. Here we all were, at a charity convention that supports those who really need the help. Not once did I see anyone made to feel anything but welcomed and appreciated for who they were—whoever they were. Will I go back again? Unquestioningly. I was asked more than once why I didn’t have a table there this year, and will be looking at rectifying that for next year as soon as the opportunity arises.

That was how I spent my summer vacation. And as I sit here preparing this post for publication, looking at those pictures, I realize how much I already miss all those guys and how much I can't wait to see them all again next year. Now to relax and recover, and to savor some memories that will definitely last a lifetime.