Monday, January 7, 2019

My Top Ten Favorite Books of 2018

I started this review of my favorite reads last year and thought I'd keep up the tradition. Much like the year before, 2018 was a banner year for the to-be-read pile with far more four and five star books than misses, so it was a challenge to keep this list to ten titles. I hope this will help you plan your reads for the coming year. And just like last time, the numbering is based on the order read, not ranking.

1. Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys (2017)

You've probably heard me talk about Winter Tide before. The novel absolutely delighted me. It's a modern take on the Lovecraft Mythos pulling the Elder Gods out of the realm of horror and into a modern fantasy world. Emrys who is a Lovecraft scholar builds on the Mythos to create a fully formed world filled with what would have seemed terrifying to an audience a century ago, but that is awe-inspiring today. What really made this book for me was the main character, Aphra. Her compassion and intelligence was heart-warming and showed how a book doesn't need to rely on violence to build tension and defeat villains.

2. So I Might Be a Vampire by Rodney V. Smith (2018)

The funniest book about vampires you're likely to read. Bob is your average guy... or perhaps your below-average guy. When he wakes up one morning to find he's become a vampire, he soon learns it doesn't come with an instruction manual nor is it as glamorous as the movies make it out to be. His journey is weird, fumbling, relatable, and you'll be happy to be along for the ride.

3 The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett (2016)

The Secret of Ventriloquism was the most disturbing read of the year for me. This is a collection of short stories linked by common themes and occupying a similar nightmarish space. The dream-like quality of the tales got inside my head and made me worried that they's take hold in my subconscious, something I really didn't want to deal with. This is a book for the true horror lovers out there. There is nothing gory or excessively violent about it, it is simply an experience in pure unease.

4. Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman (2018)

It's no secret I'm a Malermaniac (now that Bird Box is such a phenomenon, there's a whole lot more of us out there) and with his prolific nature, its no surprise his name is on the list for the second year in a row. Unbury Carol is a strange supernatural-fairytale-western and goes to prove that Malerman is his own genre. He's also a master, which the first chapter demonstrates, laying out the key points of the entire novel in a few pages. With its memorable characters and gripping plot, it will make you a Malermaniac too.

5. The Changeling by Victor LaValle (2017)

This is a real powerhouse of a novel. It strikes hard at the fears of parenthood and draws from horror's roots in fairytales, with the added punch of social media anxiety. Apollo and Emma are new parents but when Emma becomes convinced their son is not their own things go bad fast. Terrifying but ultimately redemptive, this novel will take you to the extremes.

6. The Elementals by Michael McDowell (1981)

The Elementals is the first classic horror novel on this list. I read McDowell's Toplin way back in the day but unfortunately never explored more of his works. Thanks to Valencourt Books for reprinting a whole line of 1980's greats including this one, so I can remedy that error. The novel wonderfully captures the long, languid days of idleness during a hot summer. One part Southern gothic, one part ghost story, it would be the perfect beach read, except it will make you afraid of sand.

7. The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (2018)

This is my essential book for 2018. The Cabin at the End of the World perfectly captures the anxieties of the day with an unflinching gaze. A home invasion story like you've never seen before. At its core, it asks the question how do go on when the world is ending, or when it seems like it is ending. Every character is remarkably human making even the villains impossible not to relate to. A total gut punch that everyone needs to feel.

8. The Cipher by Kathe Koja (1991)

The list's second classic. In Koja's novel, two slacker artists discover a mysterious black hole in a storage closet. Things do not go well. The Cipher is an intense meditation on the nature of faith, obsession, and love. Instead of clear answers, it invites readers to find their own. It's the antecedent to many works including House of Leaves, and is a solid piece of the horror canon.

9. The Bone Mother by David Demchuk (2017)

This book blindsided me. I'd read the good reviews and heard the superlatives used to describe it, but it still caught me off guard and completely awed me. Much like The Secret of Ventriloquism, it is a series of stories of similar themes and taking place within a unified world. These stories mostly take the form of eastern European fairytales and each is accompanied by real photos of people from the area. At turns, uneasy and wonderous, an absolute masterpiece.


10. The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor (2018)

The final book I completed last year, The Chalk Man ended things with a bang. It's a mystery drawing strongly on memory and nostalgia. Back in 1986, a group of friends had a strange and terrifying summer. Now in the present day, those events begin to resurface. This is an engrossing mystery filled with as many twists and turns as a carnival ride. The last shock at the end blew me away and revealed the true face of horror. An amazing debut novel.

For more suggestions take a look at my recommendation lists on Goodreads.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Thirteenth of August - Newletter

The hottest days of summer were often spent in a darkened room while an ancient air-conditioner rattled in the window and trickled out a weak freon smelling breeze. The blinds were drawn to keep the heat of the sun out and I grew pale reading a novel or typing away on my computer, maybe working on a story or programming a game.

These were my early teenage years and the summers stretched long with one empty, dull day after the next. Boredom existed as a physical creature stalking my every moment. Even the TV provided no relief. These were pre-Netflix days, pre-cable even, way back when network television gave up in May and didn’t put anything new back on until September. One year I remember watching the movie Mazes and Monsters (an old Tom Hanks flick with all the charm of an after-school special) no less than five times on late night TV because nothing else was on. In those summers, there was a glut of time.

Not anymore. That demon of boredom has been fully exorcized. The older I get and the further those summers recede into the dim past, the more obligations and curveballs life throws. This summer is one of the hottest in memory and it’s speeding past like a station wagon on a shimmering highway. Yet in this heat, I find myself working and growing pale in darkened air-conditioned rooms. Mostly on a computer. Occasionally writing.

Somethings don’t change.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Top Ten Favorite books from 2017

The days of late December is a time often spent looking back at the year coming to a close. As I reflect on the books I read, it becomes clear 2017 was a remarkable year with some absolute stellar finds. 2017 also marks my second year delving into the horror genre after a long break. I’ve been trying to catch up on classics I missed and new releases of the moment, so you’ll see a lot of them on this top ten list I’ve scrabbled together. These represent the books I enjoyed the most this past year and it wasn’t easy keeping it to ten picks (don't believe me, check out my Goodreads list and all the 5 star reviews). Ranking them proved too challenging a task, so the numbering only reflects the order in which I read them.

Without further prologue, here are my favorite reads of 2017. Perhaps they will help inspire your reads for the new year.

1. The Romeo Catchers by Alys Arden (2017)

This is a bit of a cheat, since I actually read an ARC for this book in 2016, but since it was released this year I’m including it. The second part of Arden’s YA series about the battle of witches and vampires in New Orleans is a fierce follow up with an ending so tense and tormenting, I’ve been screaming for book 3 ever since I finished.

2. The Gilded Cage by Vic James (2017)

The first of a trilogy, The Gilded Cage takes readers into an alternate reality where the British aristocracy are evil sorcerers. Told mainly from the point of view of a family who become indentured servants to the regime, the novel delivers plenty of adventure, intrigue, and social commentary. The second book came out in the UK last September, and I’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for the North American release this coming February (why does it take six months to remove a bunch of “u”s? Why?).

3 The Fisherman by John Langan (2016)

This incredible novel may be my favorite of the year. It is certainly the first book in ages that on completion made me want to turn back to page one and start it over again without pause. Langan weaves a Russian doll of stories in stories all focusing with laser precision on the theme of grief. The result demonstrates what horror is capable of when it’s at its best.

4. Little Heaven by Nick Cutter (2017)

When the heroes of a story are a trio of neo-western killers, you know the book is going to go into some dark territory and Cutter doesn’t disappoint. He serves up some unforgettable villains in the form of a wacked out religious cult and an ancient god-like monstrosity. The novel is abound with violence and gore, but what elevated it up to my top ten was Cutter’s mind blowing gift for description.

5. Spider’s Gamble by Jesse Sprague (2017)

The conclusion to Sprague’s Spider series marks the first Wattpad book on the list. The author combines epic sci-fi with horror elements to great effect in this saga about a human-spider hybrid species which threatens to wipe out humanity. This concluding volume brought back much loved characters and much hated villains and resolved all the various plot threads in an immensely satisfying way.

6. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (2016)

An ingenious retelling of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook. LaValle takes one of the most notoriously racist stories in horror canon and confronts it head on. This is no simple flipping of roles or perspective. The author dives into a murky, gray world and gives readers a complex meditation on society and how oppression and pain can create evil. Set in the Jazz age, it’s wonderfully atmospheric and the world it builds is I could have occupied for much longer than the novella allowed.

7. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

There is no hyperbole in calling this novel an absolute classic. I have long been an admirer of the film version but had no idea what I was missing with book. The writing has a precision to it that is worth of study. Levin masterfully draws readers into intimately relating to Rosemary and pulls them through the mundane into a seething world of paranoia. Even knowing what was going to happen, I was on the edge of my seat.

8. Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman (2017)

It’s hard for me to describe how I fell head-over-heels in love with this book. It managed to hit all the right points and to be the perfect novel for me when I picked it up. It tells the story of Philip a Korean War vet and musician in the 1950s, who gets recruited by the army to investigate a possible weaponized sound in the desert. It’s filled with mystery, terrors, and a love story. Malerman impressed my with Bird Box but Black Mad Wheel secured him as one of my favorite authors.

9. The Ritual by Adam Nevill (2011)

Perhaps the most immersive and creepy book on the list. It’s about four old college friends who reunite for a hiking trip in Sweden. Each of them are struggling with the stresses of adulthood and the arduous hike cracks open divisions and awakens jealousies. But things go from bad to worse when a shortcut takes them into an ancient forest where dark things lie in wait. A real white knuckle page turner.


10. Hedoschism by Lindsey Clark (?)

The second Wattpad book and the second cheat, since this book is still in the process of serialization. But even though I’ve read a small part of this book, it is one of the most enjoyable of 2017. A dark story of a party girl, who gets in way overhead, Hedoschism feels a little like what would happen if Neil Gaiman had written Trainspotting, except the epic war between supernatural creatures (which has only been hinted at, so far) is pure Lindsay Clarke. A worthy follow up to her Whitechapel Chronicles, I’m anxious to read more in the coming year.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The making of: The Garrison Project

I still remember: I was standing in line at the Toronto International Film Festival, when I received the email from Wattpad. The crowd and the street noise fell away as it sunk in that they were asking me to write a story for a Paranormal Activity promotional campaign. Standing there hastily reading through the details on my phone, I knew there’d have to be something horrifically unfair in the contract to refuse. It hardly mattered that it was an incredible offer or that it would be my first paid writing gig, the idea forming in my head was a story I wanted to write.

The offer came in on Friday evening, which gave me the weekend to flesh out the concept and submit a proposal and outline on Monday. What followed was a frantic three weeks of writing and editing the colossal fifteen thousand word tale. Colossal, if only for the short amount of time I had to complete it. I was used to posting something new to Wattpad every week, but this meant  tripling my normal output. All while working against a strict deadline.

Looking back, it seems like a fever dream. Personal time vanished. It was a continuous chain of write, edit, and repeat. There was a trip to visit family back home, planned long before this job came up, and I brought my laptop everywhere, writing in the hotel room, coffee shops, my mom’s dining room table. As hard as it was, it was also exhilarating. When the dust settled and it was done, there was an immense sense of accomplishment and a great deal of pride for the story I had in front of me.

I’m sure most of you have seen at least one of the Paranormal Activity movies if not all. This story was to be a tie-in for the sixth installment in the series, The Ghost Dimension. My contract specified an original story containing certain details such as found footage, a family, and demon possession. But the “original story” part made me take a big step back from the films. It would be far too easy to slip into imitation if I wasn’t careful. So I needed to take those elements and take them in a different direction. Make them my own.

As it happened, sitting on my bedside table was the Penguin Horror re-release of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, containing the incredibly insightful essay, Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors by Guillermo del Toro. This is one of the best essays on the subject of classic horror out there ,and along with the six books it accompanies, it has the makings if a great college literature course (or two). On that first weekend, as the story of Molly Haywood was forming in my head, I went back and reread del Toro’s words. In the process, The Garrison Project become an homage to all the ghost stories I love so much.

The opening scene with Molly in the Italian restaurant reciting urban legends with her friends is my take on the "club story,” the classic setup of so many ghost stories, including Henry James’s The Turn of a Screw. And any Hill House fan will notice Molly channeling Jackson’s Eleanor on more than one occasion. There’s also a nod to The Shining as Molly’s obsession gets her watching the tapes frame by frame and diagramming every movement, much as people do in Room 237, the documentary about fanatic viewers of Kubrick’s film version.

In the milieu of the ghost story, I found a perfect outlet to examine some of my favorite bugaboos: perception (and its child interpretation), obsession, and the horrors we are all capable of with the wrong motivation.

From TIFF's Kubrick exhibit 2015

It’s a year and half since the October when The Garrison Project was first made available on Wattpad, and here it is again — the same but different. Although I was happy with the finished product, there were some things that could have been improved. For one, the ending was too abrupt. This was the result of coming up against the contract’s word cap in the eleventh hour and not having enough time to re-work the earlier sections to create a better pace. Another issue was the Garrisons weren’t in it enough. They only appeared in four scenes and although those scenes were critical, they failed to give the sense of a continuous presence that was needed for the story. And then there was the editing. As much as I tried to make the submission to Wattpad perfect, there was only so much that could be done in that tight time-frame and with only one set of eyes. This new version goes back and fixes those problems. New scenes with Molly and the Garrisons have been added and the whole thing has been extensively edited. I went through it so many times, I began to feel like Molly in her re-watching of the videos, loosing track of what was the beginning and what was the end, as it looped over and over again during my revisions.

I also brought in professional help and was very lucky to get Monica Kuebler to edit the manuscript.

Monica is not only a friend but someone with extensive experience behind her as the onetime owner and editor for an independent horror press and as a current contributing editor for Rue Morgue magazine. She also runs the not to be missed blog, Library of the Damned. Monica not only cleaned up all the little messes I missed, but she pointed me to the things that weren’t working, the passages needing more love, and sloppy crutches all us writers go blind to in our own writing.

The new novella version of The Garrison Project will be released in both print and ebook on June 23, 2017 at pretty much any online book retailer you can name. If you’re interested in receiving a free advance reader copy (ARC) of the ebook, in exchange for a fair review, please contact me at

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Here We Go Again... (Tales of a De-Published Author Part 3)

For those of you following the saga of my de-publishing, it is finally over (I hope).

To recap: in April my publisher, Booktrope, announced it was going out of business and on June 1, 2016 my book Mr. 8 was pulled from all retail outlets. I was faced with many choices. It became clear to me that the best thing for me to do was accept the fact that it would no longer be available and take some (considerable) time rewriting to produce a better (my writing has improved since it was first put out) and unique version of the story. Since sales had stagnated prior to Booktrope's decision, a new version along with a well planned re-launch might create increased interest. But there was one major problem with that option: time. There are other projects I was hoping to move forward with before the end of the year, projects that would have been postponed if I went forward with a full on rewrite. Setting these projects aside to go back and work on a "finished" book was all a bit heartbreaking.

So I compromised. I've re-launched the same book that Booktrope had published. I did give it another proof read to tidy up a few typos my proofreader missed, but otherwise it is the exact same book. The pros of doing this was that it only ate up a month of my spare time, it keeps a presence in the retail world, it allows the few readers who want a copy the ability to get one, and it leaves open the possibility of doing a major rewrite and re-launch at a later date.

Doing it indie style

I started out greatly ahead of most self-publishers. I had a fully edited manuscript, which had been formatted for print and ebook publication. I had a professionally designed cover. And the book had already been registered with the Library of Congress. What I didn't have was an ISBN or the rights to the photography used in the cover. These were owned by Booktrope and weren't transferable. Also, I had no means of distributing the book.

In my research, I learned that an ISBN is not very important these days if one is planning to sell exclusively online, although it does limit your sales channels. Luckily, being a Canadian resident (this will come back to haunt me, see below) meant getting an ISBN was both easy and free. Unlike in the US, where ISBN numbers are controlled by a private company, the government controls them in Canada. I filled out an online form, waited two weeks to have an account set up, and now I can generate ISBN numbers for my self-publishing whenever I want.

The photo art wasn't much of a problem either. It was obtained through ShutterStock so I just needed to setup an account with them and purchase the most basic package, which included the rights to two photos. The package normally cost $30 but as a new member I got the discounted price of $23.

The big decision and hassle was distribution. This is a complicated web. I read several articles talking about ways to maximize profit. This involves setting up accounts with multiple retailers and print on-demand companies and reading all the fine print to make sure your book is being sold at each location with the lowest fees and percentages being taken off. However, this works alright in the US, but as a non-US resident (see, it came back to haunt me) this strategy opens up a myriad of problems.

Take CreateSpace, one of the most common print-on-demand companies you're likely to use. It's owned by Amazon so it grants you the best opportunity for profit with that mega-retailer. But their payment plan for non-US residents is beyond disadvantageous. You can only set up direct deposit with them if you have a US or EU bank account, everyone else gets paid by check (or cheque, if they're sending it to Canada). But they will only cut those checks once you've reached one-hundred units of whichever currency the sales are in. Sell a book in the UK, then you'll have to wait until you've earned 100‎£ before you get paid. Sell in Japan, wait to earn 100‎¥ and so on. Then they'll send you a check in that currency, which will me paying foreign currency fees when you try and cash it. And if you never earn a full one-hundred units of a currency, guess who pockets the money.

There's probably a way around this and I'm sure more industrious and business savvy people have worked their way through it so it is not so onerous, but I'm not expecting to get rich off sales and I wanted things to be simple. So I decided to distribute solely through Ingram Spark.

Distribution Lite

Ingram Spark is the junior arm of the huge book distributor Ingram designed for very small and self-publishers. The pros of going solely with them were: it was one stop shop, they have a expansive global distribution, they offer the option of receiving payment through PayPal, and unlike Amazon and CreateSpace (and many of the others) they don't treat earning like royalties so they do not withhold US income tax at source.

But there were a few cons as well. There's a fee of $49 per book, which is minor but more than the free services like CreateSpace and Lulu. There is also a huge learning curve for getting a book's setup files in the format they accept, as well as for understanding the whole distribution price and discount system.

The bulk of the time I spent in republishing Mr. 8 was spent getting those files just so. It took a lot of trial and error partially because I had no experience using tools like inDesign and Photoshop. I was tempted at a few points to pay someone to do it for me, but I got it done in the end.

Ingram Sparks allows you to set the price for the physical book and ebook in every major market they distribute to. This took a little finagling with currency exchange to ensure I was earning a little profit in each of the areas but wasn't too bad. The choosing of discounts was another matter and something I made a misstep on. The recommended retailer discount is 55%. Most retailers will not stock books in their brick-and-mortar stores with any discount less than 55%. I selected this discount because, hey it was recommended after all. But until I actually started visiting stores and pitching my book to the manager, it was highly unlikely any store would ever choose to stock my title. So by offering such a large discount, I was essentially giving away a huge percentage of my profit to these internet retailers. Shortly after the launch I figured this out and updated it to offer them the minimum discount of 30% or 35% (depending on the region). Should in-store sales ever become an issue, I can change it back for that particular market.

And that's it

So now Mr. 8 is self-published. It no longer has a publisher behind it, but it is now available through many more retailers than it was under Booktrope, including the Canadian giant Indigo (having a foot in the local market feels good). One of my biggest concerns was the cost would far outstrip any potential revenue, but the whole business of self-publishing cost me a grand total of $72(US). I will still need to pay a percentage of future earning to my cover designer, editor, and proof reader as per the team contract we signed, but if I keep payout to once or twice a year through PayPal it shouldn't be a labor intensive endeavor.

And now that I've done it and have self-publishing experience, I have more confidence moving forward with one of those other projects I mentioned earlier. Hopefully, soon I'll be putting out a novella to join Mr. 8 on the electronic shelves.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tales of a De-Published Author (Part 2)

It has been a week since the announcement about Booktrope closing their doors was sent out to their community of authors and publishing professionals. A lot more is known now than seven days ago. Information has been flowing out in a flood after the initial, worrying trickle. Booktrope has not issued a press release concerning their decision to terminate operations at the end of the month, and they have stated that they will not release one. They have given a very precise account of the state of affairs which led to the decision to their community, but I'll respect there wishes and keep it confidential. For a public statement they are pointing people to an article on Geekwire, even though they say it was written without “any input from Booktrope.”

On Twitter, the hashtag #BooktropeSuvivor has been gaining popularity as the members of the community reach out and share their feelings and experiences in this challenging time. I’m not alone in blogging about it. I have read several articles from authors and in one case editors affected by Booktrope’s decision. Reactions very widely. Some writers feel biter disappointed. Others sadness, one blogger compared Booktrope to Camelot—too good to last. In Ally Bishop's in depth blog, they talk about how they saw this coming and that the business model was never a viable one.

There is definitely a divide in the community, which has been exasperated by the stress of the situation. Some writers always saw Booktrope as a family. Some never did. Personally, when I signed on, they were growing rapidly and the dozen or so employees weren’t enough to offer personal service to the hundreds of writers in their stable.To me it was very much an online publishing service. Read the PDFs, follow the checklist, and only contact someone when there’s a problem you can't solve on your own.

But just because Booktrope was never a home for me, doesn’t mean I have anything less than complete sympathy for its employees and owners.This must be no doubt harder on them than those of us with books in the game.This is their vision and livelihood that’s ending.This is the business they put blood, sweat and, tears into that's closing. This is hard for me as one of their writers, I can't even imagine what they are feeling.

In the mass of bulletins and FAQs, Booktrope has been sending out, they are encouraging writers to self-publish or find a new publisher for their books. Since there is little that they can do to help authors find a new publisher, most of the information has been oriented toward flipping the books back onto the market.

There is certainly a strong incentive to do so since the author reclaims Booktrope's 30% of the profit and very little work is required. The major downside to it is that the author has to shoulder all of the self-publishing expenses. And they have to front this money on books, which are not receiving a launch buzz or are in anyway are expected to perform differently in sales than they are today. For books with steady sales, this makes a lot of sense. For others where the sales are flat, like mine, it is a harder choice to make.

To get the book back up may cost anywhere between fifty up to four hundred dollars or more. I haven't had time to do the research to know exactly what I'm looking at. If it's fifty bucks, then it's pretty easy to swallow. If it's, say, three hundred, that's three-hundred dollars that would likely take years to recoup, if it ever does.

In my earlier post, I made a big deal about continuing the profit sharing with my editors and designer, but upon further reflection, I have come to realize that would only be an issue if sales were outrageously good. And if they were, I would cheerfully cut the checks. So I no longer see that as a drawback. But there is still an attraction to doing a full rewrite and re-launching a brand new addition. At least that would put a better product on the market and perhaps hit the reset button on the whole thing.

As far as finding a new publisher goes, does anyone know of a publisher willing to put out a previously published book, which had lackluster sales? And a publisher that would actually be more beneficial to sign with than self-publishing? If you do, I would love to know who they are.

There are still twenty-four days until Mr. 8 is pulled from the shelves. The only decision I have to make in that time is do I want to try and self-publish it and have it up in early June, to minimize the time it's off the marker, or do I wait.

I'll keep you posted on that decision and on anything else I learn.