When family man Joe Crawford confronts a young mother abusing her toddler, he has no idea of the chain reaction he’s setting in motion. How could he suspect the young mother is part of an ancient fire cult, a sinister group of killers that will destroy anyone who threatens one of its members? When the little boy is placed in a foster home, the fanatics begin their mission of terror.
Soon the cult leaders will summon their deadliest hunters—and a ferocious supernatural evil—to make Joe pay for what he’s done. They want Joe’s blood and the blood of his family. And they want their child back.
I had a chance to ask one of the best horror writers around some questions in the lead-up to the release of his new novel. Enjoy!
Gef: What was the impetus behind The Nightmare Girl?
Jonathan: As strange as this might sound, the origin was a Facebook post by one of my friends. She shared an anecdote about witnessing a woman abusing her child at a gas station, but before anyone could physically intervene, the woman got her child inside the car and drove away. At least, I think that was the gist of the story. My friend and others reported the license plate number, but I never heard what happened after that, nor do I know if my friend ever heard.
As horrific as this FB post was, it got me thinking. I wondered what I’d do in that situation. Joe Crawford, the protagonist of THE NIGHTMARE GIRL, is probably more like me than any other character I’ve written, so he reacts how I think I’d react. At least I hope so.
Gef: Is there any kind of a gear shift when writing a story with a strong supernatural component as opposed to one that doesn't?
Jonathan: Whatever I write needs to come organically, so there really isn’t much of a shifting of gears at all. Mostly, it flows intuitively and naturally as a result of my reading and my narrative sensibility. I’ve written tales with no supernatural elements (OLD ORDER and THE CLEARING OF TRAVIS COBLE are two that come to mind), but the majority of my stories do involve the supernatural. Regardless of whether there are these elements or not, I approach the story the same way. I have an idea of what the tale is about, and I put the characters in charge.
Gef: Child abuse seems to be in the news a fair bit more than usual these days, whether that reflects statistics or just a trend in cable news I don't know, with stories of pro athletes beating their kids or parents murdering their own. But do you think there's a raised awareness in society about the safety and welfare of children compared to years past?
Jonathan: Children are perhaps the most marginalized group of all. They’re constantly placed in positions of peril, and they’re constantly at the mercy of the adults in their vicinity. Parenting is the most important job in the world, yet there’s no vetting process for who can become a parent. Some people have children despite being utterly selfish, totally unprepared, and patently unequal to the task of nurturing a child.
So while people, like always, employ social masks, the prevalence of social media has made the unmasking of child abusers more commonplace. I don’t think the ratio of child abusers to responsible adults has changed; I think we simply hear more about it since there are more people in the world and more opportunities for their cruelty to be exposed.
Which brings me back to your question. Yes, I do feel like there is a raised awareness of child abuse, and yes, I do feel like more people are thinking about the welfare of children. This is a positive change, but it’s only a beginning. I’m not advocating for a Salem witch approach in which every parental glare or raised voice is conflated with child abuse, but I do believe people need to embrace the obligation to report obviously abusive behaviors and situations.
Gef: What do you consider to be the strength or saving grace of the horror genre?
Jonathan: The two biggest strengths of horror are its diversity and its universality. Regarding the latter, everyone feels fear. We all worry about our presents, our pasts, and especially, our futures. Horror appeals to us because it dramatizes the working out and working through of our darkest fears. At the very least, we can take solace in the fact that the people suffering in horror fiction aren’t us and our loved ones; at the very best, we realize that people can stare into the depths of their worst nightmares and survive—or even grow and be redeemed.
I also love how diverse horror is. Many people have sought and seek to compartmentalize horror, to diminish its scope and reduce its possibilities. I think because horror is such an emotionally dangerous genre that people feel better dismissing it as “just vampires” or “just spilled blood and glistening entrails.”
But horror is so much more. All great drama utilizes horror. I love the show DOWNTON ABBEY, which no one but me would associate with the horror genre. But consider the scenes (for those of you who watch the show) of Bates being persecuted because of his disability, of Elizabeth McGovern slipping on a bar of soap, of Thomas being treated viciously because of his perceived otherness. These scenes resonate with viewers because they demonstrate how brutal and unforgiving the human animal can be. And though horror shows us, unflinchingly, how monstrous humankind can be, horror also dramatizes the noble behavior of which we’re capable.
Therefore, for our genre to grow, we need to be more inclusive and more vocal about what horror can be. I’m bothered by those who want to treat the genre like some sort of secret country club with strict, often unreasonable membership requirements. Open the doors, I say, and let everyone taste of the riches horror has to offer. Embrace Gillian Flynn. Embrace Chuck Palahniuk. Welcome Cormac McCarthy with open arms. They all write horror; they just don’t call it horror. We should acknowledge their work for what it is and also point out the fact that authors like Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Melville, and Flannery O’Connor often wrote horror. This will help us usher in a new era in which people view the H-word as something beautiful, something meaningful, rather than a stigma to be avoided.
Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?
Jonathan: I think the worst pieces of writing advice all fall into the realm of negative absolutism. There’s a very human need to feel validated. Many human beings achieve some semblance of validation by invalidating others. This is understandable since it’s easier than, you know, actually doing something. I’m not against criticism, nor am I above it, but what I find in the writing world is far too much DON’T. As in, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t EVER do this one horrible thing that sets my teeth on edge!”
What I don’t see enough of is DO. Do emulate this specific trait from this wonderful author. Do structure a sentence this way. Do consider this when writing dialogue. Probably the reason there is so much don’t is because criticizing others provides one with the illusion of authority, a sense of correctness. Frankly, writers are the most blatant perpetrators of DON’T criticism.
If I make my living fixing cars, I’m not going to publically criticize a mechanic’s work unless I can perform the fix more effectively. Similarly, if I’m an author, I’m not going to vivisect the work of others unless I can do what they attempted to do better than they can. It’s why I’m floored by the willingness of some writers to dismiss others’ work, often as smugly and gleefully as possible. I think—and again, this is just my opinion—a writer would be better off pointing out great work and talking about why, specifically, it’s so great rather than hacking away at the work of others with a list—vague or specific—of DON’T.
You don’t get very far with don’t; you can go a long way, however, with a long list of do.
Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?
Jonathan: Hmm…I think the phrase “guilty pleasures” usually implies that something one enjoys is not viewed as worthwhile by a large number of people. But for me, as long as something enhances, improves, or enriches me or those around me in some way, it’s not something I feel guilty about.
My wife and I watch BREAKING BAD together (which most people would sanction), but we also watch a real estate reality show (the one in L.A.). Though the real estate show isn’t high art, it’s enjoyable for my wife and me, and really, anything we can share together is something worthwhile.
Filed under a similar heading would be the baseball and basketball games I watch with my son. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter that much if the Cubs win two games of a four-game series or three games, but the time I get to spend with my boy does matter. So even if watching a pitcher throw over to first base eight times in a single at-bat seems mindless, it’s invaluable to me because I get to share it with my boy.
Gef: We're coming up to the end of the year, which means everyone and their mama is writing a year-end lists. So what book, movie, game, show, song, or dirty limerick has found its way to the tippy-top of your favorites this year?
Jonathan: These are always tough for me, partially because I’m always way behind on current literature, movies, television, and film. So I’ll just share a couple of new literary discoveries…
I discovered several new authors this year—not new to the world, but new to me. Bryan Smith is one I’d never checked out until fairly recently, but I’ve really, really begun to enjoy his stuff. He’s viewed by some as an extreme horror author, but I think that’s a little misleading. Of course, art can exist in the extreme realm just as it can in any other, but those who think his works are all shock and no substance are either not reading him or not paying attention when they do read. He has a fantastic narrative voice, and his syntax is very musical. The sound of his writing is pleasing, and of course the stories are engrossing too.
Three other writers I just discovered recently are John Sandford, William Goldman, and Imogen Howson. Sandford’s BAD BLOOD was absolutely riveting, and Goldman’s MARATHON MAN lived up to its considerable billing. I just began reading Imogen Howson’s young adult novel LINKED, and if it lives up to the promise of its opening chapters, it’s going to be a fantastic tale.
Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?
Jonathan: Well, my recently-published novella EXORCIST ROAD has been receiving raves from all sorts of readers, so that has been awesome. If any of you reading this haven’t checked it out yet, I hope you’ll give it a shot.
In January you’ll see my next novel from Samhain Horror, which is called THE NIGHTMARE GIRL. It’s one of my very favorites of my own stories. It’s an extremely personal novel, and one of which I’m very proud.
Later in 2015 you’ll hopefully see two more novels, one about werewolves (though it’s about far more than werewolves) and another one I can’t talk about yet.
Beyond that, I have several novels planned. I had a wonderful conversation with my main editor Don D’Auria the other day in which I shared ideas for three or four new novels, and he was very enthusiastic about all of them. I’m so excited to get to work on these projects; I just need more hours in the day to write them!