Bracken MacLeod is one of the submission editors behind BLIGHT Digest, our new quarterly dark fiction and horror magazine. He is a past contributor to Shotgun Honey, The Big Adios and Reloaded, so who better to know what it’s like to submit to One Eye Press and face the gauntlet? Read his stories (hint: the links in the previous sentence) and the wisdom of his answers.
What was your first introduction to Dark Fiction and Horror?
My earliest memory of reading dark fiction and horror was when I read Steven Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in fifth grade. I devoured that book, keeping it out way past when it was due back at the library. I asked our librarian for more like it, but this was long before Goosebumps or anything like that and she told me they didn’t have anything appropriate I could read. So instead, I asked my mother for something. She gave me a copy of Cujo. I loved the book because Tad was close to my age and we’d once had a St. Bernard. That neither one fares well in the end (am I allowed to spoil a thirty year old book?) didn’t bother me. After that I was hooked on horror (and age-inappropriate reading). I also suspect that it’s Cujo’s fault that I am not a big fan of tidy endings where everyone is A-okay.
What is the scariest real life moment you experienced?
I’ve seen and lived through a lot of scary things and more than a couple are too personal to share. I’ve been a legal observer at crime scenes, been threatened by really bad people, and have almost died more than once (from causes both external and internal). Instead of picking one, I’ll tell you instead about the scariest place I’ve ever been: Pocatello, Idaho. The last six months I lived there they arrested James Edward Wood, a serial rapist and killer who’d done unspeakable things to a local papergirl, there were official warnings of a homeless man stabbing people who refused to give him money, and an armed, day-long stand-off in the bank across the parking lot from my apartment. That doesn’t count living above the guy who’d strangled, bludgeoned, ran over, and then burned his girlfriend one afternoon, or the various people I knew who were “randomly” attacked in years prior. It was the scariest place I’ve ever been and I’ve lived in both Imperial Beach, California back when it was still known as “Whiskey Flats” and New Haven, Connecticut. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of really great people in Pocatello, but the ones who aren’t nice don’t play around. You want to know why I set my first novel in Idaho? Look at the crime blotter.
Stephen King or Robert McCammon?
McCammon. Although I’ve read more King solely by virtue of him being more prolific, and despite my formative experience detailed above, I prefer McCammon’s style. The Wolf’s Hour remains my favorite of his.
What are five books that have most influenced you as a writer, any genre?
- Strega by Andrew Vachss — This is the book that got me interested in crime, noir and hardboiled when I was a teenager. As a writer, it’s my go-to for remembering how to write a protagonist who isn’t above his or her antagonist. As Vachss would say, an angel is a lousy tour guide through Hell.
- The Damnation Game by Clive Barker — TDG was a game changer for me in terms of dark sensuality in fiction. Reading Barker’s work was the first time I connected with real body horror in literature. When I want to write something that is close and imbued with bodily terror, this is where I go for inspiration.
- Closing Time and Other Stories by Jack Ketchum — Specifically the titular novella in this collection is what moves me. Ketchum does profound feeling like few other writers I know. Whatever it is you should be feeling in a story–horror, revulsion, longing, regret–he can make you feel it in spades. If you don’t believe me, just try to read Closing Time and not be left feeling like you’ve lost something you can’t live without. I dare you.
- The Plague by Albert Camus — If you’ve ever wanted to understand how symbolism works in fiction, read The Plague. The citizens of Oran exemplify isolation, solidarity, and resistance in the face of cosmic indifference and the absurdity of existence. This is scarier than any tentacled monster Lovecraft could imagine. When I’m trying to work out theme in my writing, Camus is my teacher, The Plague is the preacher!
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy — this is the book that taught me how to really write horror. Take good people, do horrible things to them. But not just that. You can’t be content saying that these are good people. You have to really show it, in this case by making them the last two people in the world dedicated to preserving goodness and love by keeping the other alive and on the right path. Now put them in constant peril of losing each other and their way. That’s how you write horror. The reader shouldn’t just want them to persevere–they should need those characters to prevail, need it right down to the core of their being because the alternative means the literal end of everything.
What are you looking for in a good horror story?
More important than coming up with the clever idea, the monster, apocalypse, or possession, make me feel something. It can be scared, it can be sad, it can be despairing, but it better be something that’s twisting my guts up. Honestly, if your story doesn’t scare you, you have no chance of doing that to me. See what I say above about Closing Time and The Road.