Interview with Horror Author Gavin Gardiner

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Tell me a bit about yourself and what got you started in horror writing.

The truth is, I took to the writing game quite late. Although a life-long lover of horror, the idea to try my hand at writing my own novel didn’t come until I hit 30, and was the result of endless evenings dissecting the genre with my friend and horror analyst Ewan Rayner. Our conversations eventually led me to wondering whether the expanded understanding I’d developed from these challenging chats could translate into my own story. 

In the three years it took to complete For Rye and find a publisher, I also wrote a novella, several short stories, and a bunch of non-fiction pieces, all of which have also been published in print and online. It’s funny how such an impulsive undertaking, born mostly of curiosity, can end up taking your life in a whole new direction. Guess I’ve got Ewan to thank (or blame) for that. 

Horror Author Gavin Gardiner

The story is set in a town called Millbury Peak. Can you tell me a bit about the town you created?  

Millbury Peak is indeed my own invention. The most interesting kind of horror to me is that which festers behind closed doors, kept unseen behind a façade of normality. My mum summed up this kind of horror perfectly with two words: seems normal. I believe this brand of suspense resonates with us because there is an unspoken demand that we all go about our daily lives as functioning members of society, and to varying degrees bury our own writhing horrors within us. We must all seem normal

Anyway, I had the feeling that a small country town would be the perfect setting for this high-standing, respected family whose lives are, in actuality, a living hell behind closed doors. The husband and father of the family, Thomas Wakefield, is the adored town vicar. He also happens to be the cause of the hell his family must endure. 

Geographically, Millbury Peak effectively ‘replaces’ the town of Newark-on-Trent in the East Midlands, with the River Trent being overwritten by my fictional River Crove. The story opens in the city of Stonemount (again, made up) which replaces Nottingham, and I also created an island in the Outer Hebrides called Neo-Thorrach which features in the story. As you can see, I’m somewhat carving out my own fictional world within our own world. I’m afraid the reason for this is, at this time, strictly confidential. 

The book sounds like a crossover between murder, psychological horror, and maybe the supernatural. Can you expand on that and give us some background on where that came from? 

A crossover between murder and psychological horror is a great description! There are two mission statements about my work that I plan on sticking to for all my fiction. One of those is that my work will never be supernatural, and the other…well, that will be revealed in my next book. 

Regarding my avoiding the supernatural: I want to make it clear that I have a deep love for supernatural horror. The Blair Witch Project is my all-time favourite horror (and perhaps film) and so it’s not that I lack an appreciation for it. 

The decision to base everything I write in our own reality – on stuff that could happen – originates from my fascination with the human mind. Although the supernatural opens up exciting possibilities for a writer, where there are no limits to the things you can conjure up, I believe that no monster can be as terrifying as a monstrous human mind. This is probably why true crime has had such a resurgence and is so overwhelmingly popular at the moment: people are most disturbed by that which could be living next door, or the thought that even their own loved ones could become something truly horrifying. 

Taking my work in this direction also compliments another interest of mine, which is moral complexity. This is something I feel had been lacking in horror for some years, and is somewhat becoming more prevalent, but not to the degree I want to explore it. When you read one of my books, there’s every chance the ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’, in the traditional sense, will flip by the end of the story. I’ve thought a lot about our designations of good and evil – our insistence on drawing a line between us and them; our denial that the most despicable humans are not a different species, but in fact just a series of arbitrary conditions away from being you, me, or any of the cherished faces smiling warmly over the Christmas dinner table – and I have great interest in my work exploring not only what it takes to make a human monster, but also how slippery the spectrum of good and evil really is. Dealing solely with people, not ghosts or goblins, will allow me dig perversely deep into this theme. 

We talk to a fair amount of new writers. What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?

Full disclosure: I’m a new writer! I only started my novel three years ago, but have worked my butt off in that time. I’ve remained mindful every step of the way as to what lessons I’ve had to learn, and have plans to start a YouTube series detailing these very lessons. 

The list is endless, but if I could go back and give myself any advice, it would be that self-doubt is not only normal, but necessary. I really had a hard time with this, constantly doubting whether all my work was worth it, or whether the story was a waste of time. I still harbour massive doubts about every new writing project I take on, big or small, but I’ve come to the realisation that it’s that very same doubt that drives me to push my work as far as I can take it.  

I was recently asked in another interview which part of the writing process I find the hardest. I answered (rather awkwardly) that they should all be as hard as each other. If any part of writing a book feels ‘easy’, or is a bit of a ‘break’ from the rest of the process, then you’re not working hard enough. It goes without saying that everyone is allowed to create something just for the fun of it and put that creation out there, but I always advise new writers to remain mindful of their objective. If that objective is to create something that’s going to truly grab a reader by the lapels and shake them, stay with them, and not let go, then they have to take a long, honest look at the effort they’re putting in and evaluate whether it’s enough to meet that objective. 

So embrace the self-doubt, make it work for you, and never forget to push yourself and your work to the limits of your creativity and endurance. Greatness isn’t born out of nothing. Bleed for your work. 

What/who are some of your major influences? 

In terms of literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shattered my perceptions of what a novel could achieve. Also, I doubt I’d ever have written a book had Jeff Long’s criminally underrated and not-spoken-about-enough The Descent (nothing to do with the brilliant film) didn’t exist. 

I was deep into movies before literature, and my list of cinematic influences is wildly expansive. I think it’s important for a writer to seek inspiration from as many mediums as possible, and I’ve found films to be a useful way of expanding my storytelling palette. Absorb enough films, and you need only close your eyes during the writing of a difficult scene to see how a cinematographer or director or lighting technician might handle its execution. 

We live in a fortunate time when we have a positively bloating wealth of cinema and literature to look back on, and I’d urge writers of every genre to gorge on it all, and find ways to channel it into their own work. 

Where can we get this book after release?  

My debut horror novel, For Rye, will be available from April 9th through most major outlets such as Amazon, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, and Foyles, and you can also pre-order it now. Visit my website to whet your palate and see if you’re up to the horrors to come: 

What are you working on next?  

I’m currently knee-deep in the planning of my next novel, Witchcraft on Rücken Ridge, a folk horror set up a mountain full of caves, cults, and cannibals. As for how the ‘witchcraft’ element ties into my previously-detailed mission statement of ‘no supernatural stuff’, you’ll just have to wait and see… 

For Rye Horror Book cover

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Interview with Horror Author John McFarland

Featured Horror Books Indie Horror Creation Indie horror writers
Horror Author John McFarland

PB – Tell me a bit about yourself and what got you started in horror writing.
JM: I have always been a fan of horror. As a young kid, I loved the old Universal classic movies, Frankenstein and Dracula and the whole crew, as well as the giant monsters of the 1950s, the postwar dread of the new atomic age. I also loved the Roger Corman Poe films of the 1960s. I mention movies because like a lot of young people, the movies moved me toward reading the stories, and discovering that the original literary versions of many of my favorite tales were much more complex than the film versions. In my teens, I discovered a volume called The Modern Library Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. This book was pivotal for me. In addition to Poe, with whom I was well acquainted by then,  it gave me an introduction to and love for the great horror stories of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was my first introduction to M. R, James, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Hitchens, Arthur Machen, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, and many others.

PB – What kind of research and background did you use to create the town of Ste. Odile or is it based on your own experience?
JM: Ste. Odile is based on the real old French colonial Mississippi River town of Ste. Genevieve, founded in 1732, which is about 60 miles south of St. Louis. My fifth great-grandfather, orphaned in an Indian raid as a toddler in 1750’s Pennsylvania, was bought from the raiding party by the parish priest of nearby Fort De Chartres for 5 barrels of whiskey, and as an adult became one of the patriarchs of Ste. Genevieve. Having discovered the regionalism of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, I wanted to do the same for horror and make my fictional town sort of the Yoknapatawpha County of Hell. Coming up with a name for my town was a challenge. I liked names that started with an ‘O’ and the name Odile appeared on many a gravestone in the town’s ancient cemetery, so that’s the name I chose. The first expression of my horrific regionalism came in my 2010 novel The Black Garden, in which the region as well as many characters I still reference, first appeared. Two years ago, traveling in France and Alsace, my wife and I were stunned to find there is a REAL Ste. Odile: a mountaintop retreat dating from the 8th century.

PB – It seems your writing spans time periods. What inspires you to pick a certain time period to write in?
JM: My love of the aforementioned 19th-century classics is my biggest inspiration. Emulating the classics has been one of my goals. Also, many of my stories are set just before or after World War l. That period has left an indelible mark on me, in considering what a shock to civilization that war was. Victorian mindset and tactics met horrific, destructive 20th-century technology and the human wreckage that it left behind was a shock to the sensibilities of culture and civilization. There’s also this: one thing I learned from studying Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and others of that era, is that there is something incantatory about words and language. They can convey moods and vistas of imagination beyond mere meanings, just through sound. the sounds of the words have import as well as their definitions. I find more opportunity and justification for that when writing about some past time. Its removal from a time and place I am not entirely at home in.

PB – What has been the greatest challenge to writing in a fictitious town? How do you keep track of the details with so many stories?
JM: Keeping track IS the biggest challenge. When I started to write The Black Garden, I drew a detailed map of the fictitious town with all street and place names in evidence so I could keep the geography straight. I also write short biographical sketches of the characters I am introducing so I can keep them consistent. The stories are very interrelated and it does take a lot of double-checking to make sure dates and relationships make sense and are consistent.

PB – Do the stories in Ste. Odile overlap or have shared themes?
JM: Yes, very much so. I wanted to create a mythology. Characters first mentioned in The Black Garden, often figure in new stories and will in future ones, too. I want that connectedness. Thematically, starting with one of my first Ste. Odile short stories, The Little Dead Thing, I wanted to create a horror of isolation, otherness and self-contempt into which an added horrific element is introduced.  My characters often live very ordinarily, if pariah-like lives, which are intruded upon by some new unsettling fear.


PB – We talk a lot of new authors. If you could go back in time and give your young author self advice, what would it be?
JM: Find kindred spirits, other writers with similar passions and play ideas and works in progress off each other. Read even more than you did. Write every day.

PB – Of the 19 stories which is your favorite?
JM: That’s a tough one. My very first published fiction was One Happy Family which was taken by T. E. D. Klein for The Twilight Zone Magazine. That tale was also taken by Martin Greenberg for his anthology A Treasury of American Horror Stories, so that, since 1985 I have been able to say I have been anthologized with the likes of Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson and Isaac Asimov. So I have a great affection for that one, but I think my work evolved somewhat after that. I guess I would say the book’s namesake, The Dark Walk Forward, has the impact, the emotion and the tragic conflict of human needs I most value in expressing.

PB – Whats on your reading list right now?
JM: Well, I love a good ghost story. I am preparing one I am calling Phrygia House, and have done lots of research on what works best in these. I have recently read all of Susan Hill’s classic tales, which I purchased directly from Susan herself, a very gracious lady, and Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. I can’t recommend that one enough. Have also read Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, Nicole Cushing’s The Half-Freaks, some Thomas Ligotti, whom I had never read before, Philip Fracassi’s Behold the Void. Also re-reading some classic’s like Crawford’s The Upper Berth and Oliver Onions‘ The Beckoning Fair One and LeFanu’s Squire Toby’s Will.

PB – Anything else you’d care to share with our paranormal horror fans here at Puzzle Box Horror?
JM: There’s a possibility that my new publisher Dark Owl Publishing, who has been a dream to work with, may be interested in re-issuing The Black Garden, as well as its sequel which is in the works, Azmiel’s Daughter. They may also venture into young reader territory in the future, and my series about Bigfoot, Annette: A Big, Hairy Mom and Annette: A Big, Hairy Grandma. Both of these are out of print in English, but popular in Croatian and Slovenian. We’ll see what happens!10) Where and when can we get the new book? The Dark Walk Forward will be released on December 1 from Dark Owl Publishing.

About the Author

John S. McFarland’s short stories have appeared in numerous journals, in both the mainstream and horror genres. His tales have been collected with stories by Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson. His work has been praised by such writers as T.E.D. Klein and Philip Fracassi, and he has been called “A great, undiscovered voice in horror fiction.” McFarland’s horror novel, The Black Garden, was published in 2010 to universal praise, and his young reader series about Bigfoot, Annette: A Big Hairy Mom, is in print in three languages. This story collection is his first.

You can follow the release of “The Dark Walk Forward” here at Dark Owl Publishing.

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