Good evening… ok, well it’s not evening right now. But then again, it might be by the time you read this. Actually, I think it would be better if you did read this at night… with the lights out. So I’ll stick with my original opening and I’ll start again. Pretend this bit never happened. It’ll be our secret, ok?
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to a Halloween edition of The Author’s Voice. (cue lightning, thunder and maniacal laughter). Cough, cough. Ok, note to self, a little less enthusiasm with the laughter.
Tonight we have Tobin Elliott, author of the chilling chapbook Vanishing Hope and Soft Kiss, Hard Death the third installment in the Sam Truman Mysteries. Tobin has a penchant for turning things inside out and making monsters out of children.
Ghoul evening, Tobin. Get it? Ghoul instead of good? Guess the canned laughter doesn’t work on a blog. I’ll have to work on that.
Thanks for haunting the Author’s Voice. When I asked for a headshot, you certainly didn’t disappoint. I’m going to cut straight to the quick, were you always this twisted or are you a previous owner of The Book?
Oh, sorry, did you want a longer answer than that? I’m assuming so from the blank, expectant look on your face and the small line of drool leaking from your mouth. Wipe that up, willya? You’re getting it on my shirt. See what happens when you laugh maniacally?
So, was I always this twisted? Definitely. In fact, I can remember in Grade 4, proudly telling my teacher that I’d made some really cool models from glue and Popsicle sticks. She (stupidly) asked me to bring them in the next day.
So I did.
She didn’t seem as impressed when she realized those “models” I’d made were actually a gallows with a working trapdoor and tiny noose, and a guillotine with a razor blade that slid down the track. Now, to be fair, the razor blade kept getting caught and didn’t work that well, but still, for a nine-year-old kid, I did pretty damn good.
Then, about a year later, the superintendent of our apartment building had to come up and ask that my mother remove the perfectly tied noose from the balcony railing. She didn’t seem pleased by that. No more than my teacher had been with the models…
Hahaha! That’s awesome! My dad was a Federal Meat Inspector, guess what I brought for show-and-tell in grade 2 and 3? Baby cow fetuses in formaldehyde. Yup, they cancelled show -and-tell after that.
What were your favourite reads growing up? What inspired you to want to tell stories, gruesome, disturbing tales of the macabre?
I stumbled on Stephen King when I was about twelve or thirteen, devoured Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot very quickly, then had to wait for the man to produce more books. In the meantime, I moved on to Graham Masterton (The Manitou was a particular favourite), Dean Koontz, who did nothing for me, John Farris, whom I was hit and miss with.
Not too many can scratch that itch with me in written form. But King was the guy that made me think I could write this stuff too. He captured the everyman and put them in insanely inventive situations. He also captured, especially in those first two books, what it’s like to be the nerd kid, but he let them mostly win. I liked that, being one of those nerd kids.
Speaking of being a nerd kid, I was (and still am) a voracious reader of damn near anything. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov caught me early on, then I found Ray Bradbury, and from him started branching out. Martin Caidin (the man who created the term “cyborg” when he wrote the book that would become the Six Million Dollar Man), Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Tolkien, the Doc Savage novels…and anything to do with the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs…Chariots of the Gods… oh yeah, the whole gamut.
Finally, rounding it out were comics. I’m a Marvel guy. The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, The Avengers, The X-Men, Daredevil… the list goes on and on.
Did they inspire my gruesome, disturbing tales of the macabre? Not directly. But from all of it, I got a broad introduction to the written word, what worked, what I liked, what I didn’t.
It all gave me the tools, but life gave me the direction. More on that later.
Stephen King does make it look so easy, doesn’t he? To this day his book, It, still scares the pants off me. As for novels, Bradbury and Heinlein did nothing for me, but Koontz has a way with psychopaths.
I dabble a little in the dark corners of the psyche myself and I always love the reaction I get when reading aloud during a writers group or at A Novel Approach (shameless plug. James made me do it). What’s you favourite part about writing horror?
I gain a lot of pleasure from it.
First of all, and again, I’ll get into this in a bit more detail soon, I get to control the demons.
Second, I get to come up with crazy ideas that I would like to read myself, then put my own characters through them. That’s a ton of fun.
As for reading aloud, I’ve never minded it, however, when I attended a book-launch/reading in Toronto last year and read a bit from Vanishing Hope, I agonized over what to read. Don’t go for the worst part and give it away, I thought. But give them a solid taste of what they’re in for. So I chose a section near the end of the book where my protagonist, Talia, does some bad things to a dog (no, not that way, get your damn mind out of the gutter). By the way, the animals really don’t get a fair shake in that book. Anyway, I read it.
It wasn’t until after I finished and one of my friends attending the reading came up with a crooked, admiring smile on her face and said, “Did you see those two women take off while you were reading?”
“No,” I said. “Do you know why they left?”
“One had her hand over her mouth like she was going to puke,” my friend said, “and the other just looked disgusted.”
Then, weird as this is going to sound, I was quite proud of myself. Not for making someone sick or disgusted, but that I was able to write something that provoked a strong reaction. That’s what I want. Strong reactions. Love my writing, hate my writing, but please don’t just think meh.
That’s my favourite part about writing horror.
Do you think horror is best suited as short stories or vignettes a la Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King’s early work, or even the master of macabre himself, Edgar Allen Poe, or in novel length? Do you feel the impact as a short story is better or rather more effective or just different?
I’m tempted to just say yes again and leave it at that, but I don’t need you drooling on my cool Beatles Sgt. Pepper t-shirt again.
I think of short stories as virtually a separate medium from novel-length works. Short stories, to me, are about the concept, the single, all-consumingly fascinating idea. Novels, on the other hand are a chance to work the reader through more in-depth characterization, the slow build of suspense, the push and pull of different emotions. For me, the novel allows the writer to stretch out and take his time to work to a series of points, not just that one idea. I think they’re equally effective, just in different ways.
Stephen King’s The Mangler, about a killer laundry press, or W. W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw or even Jerome Bixby’s It’s a Good Life are all classic (at least to me) short stories that have stuck in my head long after they should have fallen away.
At the same time, few novels have affected me more than David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, or Stephen King’s The Shining, or Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. All brilliant works that needed those several hundred pages to build to their climaxes.
Sometimes you want the seven-course meal, sometimes a burger and fries will hit that spot.
The Mangler and The Monkey’s Paw are two of my favourites as well. Those and The Tell-Tale Heart.
Being established, or labelled as a genre writer, specifically horror, do you feel like you want to branch out and try other styles? I know from experience that you can write humour with a deft hand, is that an option for you?
I love horror, and I’ll likely always stick to it. That being said, I’m also a Creative Writing teacher (at both Durham College and Trent University Oshawa Campus), and I tweet writing tips (you can check them out through my Twitter feed at @TobinElliott or on my website at tobinelliott.com/books) and I’ve amassed a hundred of them, then I’ve expanded each one into a more complete learning—because, let’s face it, 140 characters is just not enough—and it’s something I’d like to e-publish early next year. I even have a title for it already. Tweet You Write.
I can hear the groans already, but I don’t care.
Yes, I also like the humour, and you can always get some evidence of that as I chronicle my crazy family experiences at my blog (tobinelliott.wordpress.com).
I also tend to work a lot of stuff into my horror writing too. The best horror isn’t about gore and killing and monsters and sparkly vampires…okay, wait, that last one isn’t even horror. Forget I even mentioned that.
No, the best horror is creating relatable characters that the reader cares deeply about, then throw the big bad at them and see how they deal with it. See the soul-searching they need to do to dig in and win…or not. So, to do that, I get to flex a lot of other writerly muscles. You’ll find humour, you’ll find love stories, and you’ll find teenage angst in my horror stories. You’ll also find tough, real-life situations like drugs and divorce and alcoholism and affairs and bullying and anything else that happens in real life…it all goes in there. I need to ground my characters in the real world and the real world is funny and mean, violent and empathetic, evil and divine, all at the same time.
So, I challenge myself with that within my chosen genre, and I believe my writing is stronger for it.
What is it about horror that draws you to write it?
Ah yes, the ultimate question. Why do you write those ugly stories about bad people doing horrible things? Did your mama not breastfeed you long enough?
So, here’s the naked, unvarnished truth (and I warn you, this isn’t pretty, but it is real): Growing up, I saw a lot of ugly, ugly things. My father was an alcoholic from a family of alcoholics. He screwed around on my mother all the time. He was violent. He was an angry man that made a lot of people unhappy. He was not a nice man. I would visit him on the odd weekends and we’d stay at his sister’s place, where she bootlegged booze out the back door.
My brother’s not a lot better, having gone through more women, booze and drugs than I could ever imagine. I haven’t really talked with him in fifteen years. My sister married a schizophrenic madman and cut herself off from the family more than 35 years ago. I don’t honestly even know if she’s dead or alive.
When my mother remarried, the man who’s last name I now bear eventually turned his back on her. I would come home from high school to find my mother passed out on the floor after having had another screaming match with my step-father, causing her blood pressure to rise and make her faint. He would be calmly sitting at the dining room table, eating a dinner he made over her prone body, never once checking to see if she was okay.
Then she married a man who tried to kill her in multiple ways. Then she married a man who essentially pretended she wasn’t there.
I’ve lost contact with almost all my nieces and nephews on my side of the family. There’s so many people out there that I once loved who probably don’t even remember my name anymore.
Yeah, life was ugly. It’s something that, since I’ve gotten away from it, I’ve vowed to never let that happen to me. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I never have. I love my wife. I love my kids. I love my job. I love my friends. And I cherish all of it. I’m truly a lucky, lucky man.
But in the back of my mind…
In the back of my mind, there’s many, many demons. A life full of them, you might say.
This is how I let them out. I bring each one out into the light, one at a time. I examine it with a calm, critical, emotionless eye, and I write a story about it…a story in which that demon is under my—the author’s—control.
Now, that may sound a bit sick, but I gotta tell you, it allows me to laugh at them, maintain my sanity, and write some nasty stuff that entertains others. And it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than therapy. And in the meantime, I’m a happy guy with a great life, very aware of all the blessings I have.
Besides all that, honestly, I just like horror.
Zombie horror scares the poop out of me, what fiction horror scares you and do you sometimes scare yourself with your own writing?
Zombies, schmombies… though I do love The Walking Dead. Both the comic and the series. But if it’s popular, I’m likely sick of it. Zombies? Meh. Vampires? Meh.
To be honest, there’s not much that scares me now when it comes to horror fiction. I mean, I enjoy a lot of it, but it doesn’t scare me.
I guess it’s much like why I like rollercoasters. They don’t scare me, I ride them for the thrill. Occasionally, I’ll read a scene that’ll creep me out. There’s been three times that I can remember. The first was when Danny Torrance went into Room 217 in The Shining. The second was most of Jack Ketchum’s absolutely brilliant novel, The Girl Next Door. The last time was with Ian Roger’s novella, The Black Eyed Kids.
Do I scare myself with my own writing? Not really. But there’s a couple of scenes in Soft Kiss, Hard Death that had me squirming as I wrote them. Does that count?
You know what scares me? Non-fiction. Read Nic Sheff’s terrifying memoir Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, or his father’s companion book, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff. Read Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door. Hell, read Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. These are real people that have gone through some horrifying things. Stout’s book tells us there’s one sociopath in every 25 people. Think about that. How many people do you know? How many do you work with? In an average WCDR meeting, there’s what? 150 people? That’s six sociopaths on average.
I’m related to two sociopaths. The aforementioned father and brother. No, I’m not guessing, they both pass the tests with flying colours. And I’ve dealt with at least four more that I know of in my life.
That I know of. How many didn’t I know of?
That’s the stuff that scares me.
Does your family read your writing? Do they ever give you the wonky eyeball as if to say, “What’s wrong with you, weirdo?”?
They didn’t until I published Vanishing Hope. My mother and my mother and father-in-law won’t read anything I write, which is likely for the best. Keeps me in the will.
My long-suffering wife read Vanishing Hope and said it wasn’t as bad as she expected, which obviously I took as a challenge for the next one. My daughter told me I was creepy. My son? Well, he just gives me this weird grin… Now, in my family, it’s not referred to as the wonky eyeball. It’s either the hairy eyeball, or the stink-eye. And I get it often. But not for what I’ve written.
I think one of the better reactions happened just recently. My neighbour across the road read Vanishing Hope and came over and knocked on my door. I answered, and then it kind of went something like this:
Neighbour: (Staring out across the street, not meeting my eyes) “I just finished your book…”
Me: “Great! And…?”
Neighbour: (Continues to stare across the street. He looks…troubled. He slowly pulls a cigarette from the pack, takes his time lighting it. At no point does he meet my eyes. I worry.)
Me: (I give him some time. I don’t know what to say. I worry some more.)
Neighbour: (Finally…) “I mean… I just…” (he shifts his gaze slightly toward me, then away again.) “That’s some f—ked up stuff, man.” (He takes a drag on his cigarette as his brows furrow.)
Me: (Trying to keep it light, I laugh.)
Neighbour: “Just needed to tell you that.” (He drags on his cigarette, then, without another word, steps off my porch and heads back across the road.)
The genre of horror now has several different sanctions; Gorror, torture porn, slasher, japanese creature flicks and what I consider traditional horror. Where do you fall in these and is there anything you wouldn’t write?
I consider myself just plain old, run of the mill horror. It’s no more gory than your average CSI episode. I despise torture porn, I think slasher horror is mostly stupid, and most of J-horror I just don’t get. It all seems to be scary ten-year-old Japanese girls crawling out of TVs or closets or something.
Which is likely why I loved the Cabin in the Woods movie so much.
So, honestly, no, I don’t think I’d write any of them. Honestly, I tend to simply write what I would want to read myself.
Is there any advice you’d give to burgeoning horror writers?
Does it say something about me that I initially read this as “Is there any advice you’d give to bludgeoning horror writers?” Hrrrm.
Okay, moving on.
Read a lot, and not just horror.
Go out and experience life as much as you can.
Learn the basic rules of grammar.
Don’t follow trends.
Get your bum in a chair and write.
And when you’ve got something written, write some more. Don’t give up. Someone somewhere is going to like it.
And…you know…if you need a good Creative Writing teacher…or a good editor…I know this guy… <ahem>
What’s next on the horizon for the bloody pen of Tobin Elliott?
Well, I just found out the follow-up to Vanishing Hope, the novel-length No Hope is set to be published on June 13, 2013 and make it’s debut at the World Horror Con in New Orleans, so that’s going to be ridiculously cool.
Other than that, I’ve got a solid first draft of the follow-up to No Hope, called Blood Loss. Werewolves, baby. Yeah.
I’ve also got what I humbly think is a killer novella-length work that has nothing to do with the universe of The Book, called The Wrong that I’ll be looking to publish next year as well. And of course, the Tweet You Write thing. And this is just the stuff that I’ve got written. I’ve got more in the hopper.
Aside from that, I’m continuing to teach Creative Writing (I’ve been at it since 2000 and have had more than 400 writers pass through the course, many of which are now WCDR members). I recently started teaching the course on Wednesday evenings at Trent University, Oshawa Campus, and <plug, plug=”"> I give a discount to WCDR members. The next one will start January 2013 (and no, you don’t have to write horror to take the course. I cover all genres). You can get more information on the course, as well as my editing and mentoring services on my website, tobinelliott.com. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff on there too. Go check it out.
I’ll continue to put the fun in dysfunctional at my blog about my family, My Dysfunctional Life.
I’ll keep tweeting away on Twitter at @TobinElliott.
You can also find me on Facebook.
And if you’re interested in picking up either of my current books, you can find them at the links below
I’ll leave you with an excerpt form Vanishing Hope. THE excerpt that caused some of Tobin’s audience to leave.
She wrapped her fingers around the top fang, braced her thumb securely against it and pulled. Then she pulled harder. The dog’s head angled with each tug, but the tooth wouldn’t budge. Benji was riding into full-blown panic now.
She reached inside his head and tried to soothe him but it didn’t seem to help. His eyes rolled back, his tongue dangled, foamy with saliva as he huffed out desperate pants. His ears and tail twitched frantically.
And through it all – bite bite BITE!
She let go of the tooth, but didn’t relax her concentration. Not even a little. She knew what happened when she did that. No way was she getting bitten again.
Instead, she opened her hand and placed it palm up under the tooth. Then, keeping everything else under control while also ensuring the dog didn’t move, she focused on the tooth. She saw it with her mind, saw the way the gum sheathed it and then, reaching out mentally instead of with her fingers, she pulled.
The tooth dropped into her hand along with a hot gout of blood.
She held the entire tooth, root and all. She was ecstatic with the results, but not so crazy about the blood. She reached out one more time and pinched off all the open blood vessels in the dog’s mouth. It whimpered, eyes rolling back completely and went limp.
As always, feel free to ask a question, throw in your two cents, even show some love (not too much, this is a family show afterall).
For a list of previous guests and my favourite quote from each, go HERE.
Have a pleasant evening, Banshees and Ghouls, don’t let the bed bugs… bite.