Top Ten Books of 2010

This was a great year for reading.  I don’t know how many books I blazed through this year, but I know it was a lot.  Of those I found the time to read, these are my favorites… 

1. The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman. Once in a great while, you find a book that makes you read it, that just forces you to keep turning pages until you’re finished. This is one of them.  Jack Durkin is the caretaker of Lorne Field. The town thinks he’s a crazy man who spends every day weeding the same field, but he insists the things he pulls out of the ground and burns are monsters that will destroy the world within weeks if he doesn’t take care of them first. Zeltserman keeps you guessing right up to the last page, wondering if Durkin is telling the truth or is stark raving mad. This is the one, folks. An amazing novel that will leave you breathless.

2. In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay. Not many stories give me nightmares.  The last time it happened was almost ten years ago.  “The Teacher,” the first story in Tremblay’s latest collection, kept me awake two night straight, however.  That story is without a doubt the single most horrifying thing I’ve read.  The rest of the collection is full of Tremblay’s amazing prose and characterization.  Pick it up.  There’s no reason the name Tremblay shouldn’t be on everybody’s lips.

3. Occultation by Laird Barron. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… Laird Barron is the best writer working in horror today.  This book, his second collection, continues his string of amazing, at times Lovecraftian, stories.  This time, however, Laird relishes the chance to get in there and get nasty, churning your guts as he darkens your mind.  Stories like “The Broadsword” and “Catch Hell” are among the most harrowing you’ll ever find, rewarding your patience with a mounting sense of dread and a final dive headlong into horror.

4. Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge.  Norm is one of my favorites, and he never fails to deliver the goods.  The stories in his latest collection run the gamut from action-packed pulp to mind-scrambling Lovecraftian tales.  The main thing, though?  They’re fun.  Partridge writes fun stories like nobody’s business.  In this collection you’ll find giants, doppelgangers, demons, a man with a metal hand, and a house right out of a nightmare… and you’ll love every last bit of it.

5. A Dark Matter by Peter Straub.  As much about the power of stories as it is about the terrible events that transpired when a group of college kids followed a new age cult leader into a field for a mysterious ritual, Straub’s latest novel is a testament to his power with words.  Told a piece at a time by the people who survived who horrible event, A Dark Matter unfolds slowly, but the rewards are great for those who put in the hours.  More evidence that Straub is a master of his craft and the genre.

6. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.  Libby Day is cynical, hard, a kleptomaniac, and the only survivor of her brother’s rampage 24 years prior, a rampage that left her mother and sisters dead.  When she tries to sell family memoribilia in an attempt to make a fast buck, she gets drawn into a pseudo-investigation that points toward her brother being innocent.  Flynn writes another tighty-wrapped thriller that keeps you guessing right up until the end.  Much like her previous novel Sharp Objects, this book is simply wonderful.

7. Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand. This one’s a few years old, but I didn’t get around to it until recently.  When has-been photographer Cass Neary gets sent to a small, New England island to interview one of her idols, she stumbles into a mystery full of death, violence, and the kind of atmosphere that can only be called horror.  I love books that aren’t advertised as horror but end up being terifying, and this is one of the best.  Hand has an amazing grasp of character, and she can build tension like nobody’s business.

8. Shadow Season by Tom Piccirilli.  Piccirilli writes suspense with a skill few can even dream of having.  In this one, he tells the story of a blind teacher (and former cop) at an all-girls boarding school.  As mysterious violence erupts around him, endangering his students, the protagonist needs to figure out how the surrounding events tie into his past.  This one’s a thrill a minute, another book that just builds and builds until it feels like it’s going to explode.  And then it does.

9. The Deputy by Victor Gischler. Call it slacker noir.  A part time deputy is tasked with looking after a dead body, but soon the body disappears.  By the time the sun rises, a small town is soaked in blood, and our part time hero is in so far over his head he may never see the light of day.  Gischler blends crime and comedy to great effect, and he paints a portrait of a small town that’s twisted yet all too real.

10. Sparrow Rock by Nate Kenyon. The early eighties were a fun time, as horror writers with some literary training were churning out crowd-pleasers that were fun but not dumb. If there’s any writer working today who hits that sweet spot, it’s Nate Kenyon.  His latest, Sparrow Rock, tells the story of a group of high school friends who lock themselves in a bomb shelter when the world goes nuclear. Soon, things come looking for them, and the mixture of monsters and raging paranoia will set your nerves tingling.  The affordable paperback version was, sadly, a victim of Leisure’s collapse, but there are still copies of the signed limited available. 

Just not enough time…

Here we are, just over two weeks until the end of the year.  Right now, I’m getting ready to talk about my top ten books of the year.  If you don’t see the list by the end of the week, you’ll see it on Monday.

Sadly, there are only so many hours in a given year.  Between writing four drafts of two novels, half a dozen short stories, a novella, and working on the World Horror Convention, I didn’t get nearly as much reading done as I wanted.  For the first time, I think I might have even read ten books that came out this year, but there were some books in my to be read pile that I just didn’t get around to cracking their spines.

With that in mind, here are some of the books I’ll be reading as soon as I possibly can…

Sarah Court by Craig Davidson
People Still Live in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Drood and Black Hills by Dan Simmons
Slammer by Allan Guthrie
Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca
Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith

Yeah, that should keep me busy through march or so.

Guidelines and Challenges

There’s something to be said for guidelines.  They’re your blueprint for finding work, really.  For beginning writers, following guidelines is as important as researching your markets, which is in no way to say they’re the same thing.  You can read guidelines until the cows come home, but at some point you’ll want to grab a copy of the magazine in question to get a better idea of what they’re publishing,

Today, however, I want to take a minute to talk about anthology guidelines.  Specifically, I want to talk about theme anthologies.  In the past year, I’ve been invited to send in stories to five different theme anthologies: Dead Set (a zombie antho), Supernatural Noir (you can probably figure that one out), and three more I’m not allowed to discuss yet.  Being approached for these sorts of things is pretty new to me, and it’s exciting.  On one hand, it feels like a great expression of faith in my abilities as a writer.  Ooh, these folks really want a story by me!

But then there’s the other hand, and that’s the one that I really enjoy.  On the other hand, these theme anthologies really make you flex your brain matter.  Supernatural Noir?  I don’t know if I ever would have tried to write a story like that if I hadn’t been invited.  A story I’m working on this week is the same sort of thing.  I was invited to submit to something pretty far outside my comfort zone.  Without that invite, it never would have occured to me to write something like this story.

And at the end of the day, that’s an important part of writing.  So much of a writer’s life–especially at these opening stages when things are just starting to get going and words like “writing career” first start popping into your brain–is about writing what you want and just hoping you’ll be able to find a home for it later.  It’s important to take these chances and step outside your comfort zone.  They’ll help you grow.  More importantly, if you want to make a living at this (man, I hope and pray I’ll be able to make a living at this), you want to be able to show editors that you’re flexible, that you’re somebody they can go to when they need something.  That makes you valuable.  And at the end of the day, valuable is something you want to be.

So take a look, and see what’s outside your comfort zone.  Experiment.  See if you can make something work.  Maybe you’ll be surprised.  At the very least, you’ll grow.

Sprinting through exciting days

A lot on my plate, lately.  I’m about 50,000 words into a new novel, and I’m about seven weeks away from my first novel being available for pre-order (at least that’s what I’m told).  In less than three weeks, I’ll be hanging out at Fantastic Fest, enjoying weird flicks and promoting World Horror.  Add the actual planning of World Horror on top of that, and that’s one heaping plate.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Right now, everything is moving in a series of sprints and scrambles.  it keeps my head occupied, and it keeps me on my toes.  As I try to conjure ways to promote a collectors’ edition of a book with a low print run and impressive price point, I’m already looking down the road at what might be coming next.

Exciting days, folks.  Let’s see how they fly.

Ruins

I like old things.  Wait, scratch that.  I like broken, run-down, discarded, ancient things.  I find a lot of beauty in collapsing barns, abandoned gas stations, and rusted cars.  I’m not sure why, but it’s something that’s always been there.

Well, on July 4th weekend I hit the motherload.  That weekend, the girlfriend and I packed up the dogs and headed to Port Arthur.  Our goal was to go down there and spend time at the beach.  Well, that was Shawna’s plan.  Mine involved eating pizza in bed at the hotel.  A man needs his vacation.

The problem (which we didn’t encounter until we hit Port Arthur), is that there’s no beach there. In fact, Port Arthur is probably the Detroit of Texas. The place has been hit by three hurricanes in the past ten years or so, and it’s a broken ruin of a city.  With a population of over 55,000, there are no groceries, banks, or drugstores.  The population needs to go inland for that sort of thing.  There are streets full of boarded-up homes, and the city’s tallest structure (an old hotel) is a tower of shattered windows and blasted paint.  A Valero refinery sits just outside of the town like a monster made of pipes and fire.

Driving around Port Arthur and the surrounding areas is like stepping into a post-apocalyptic movie.  The highway that leads from Port Arthur to Galveston has been closed for 20 years because of hurricane damage.  The only public beach has been washed out, with numerous piers being reduced to spare pieces of lumber jutting out of the water.  It’s really pretty amazing.

I’d recommend anybody who wants to see something interesting look up some info on Port Arthur.  You could do worse.  I maybe wouldn’t go there, though. Just sayin’.

Jonesing

I haven’t written in two days.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been productive.  It just means I haven’t worked on anything new.  In the past two days i’ve proofread the second draft of a novella and the galleys of a novel, searched for a home for a short story, scheduled a shoot for author photos, and dug a little deeper into the Great Agent Hunt.  I’m happy for these distractions, because soon I’ll be handing that novella off to my final pre-reader, and that means I have to dive back into two novels that I’ve been working on for the past year and continue to push me as a writer.

But I’m jonesing.  Jonesing hard.

A couple of days without writing–without creating–and my skin starts to crawl.  Story ideas creep into my head and demand their spot in line.  The cover of a book makes me envious (the beautiful covers on ChiZine Publication’s books are really bad about this).  I start to look for vacation days so I can spend gigantic chunks of time just typing.

But I can’t. There are things in the queue.  A novella.  Two novels.  A few years ago, maybe even last year, I might have just busted through them and decided I was done.  They’d either sell or they wouldn’t (hint: they wouldn’t).  Now, I want to spend an eternity on them, crafting and carving and making them perfect.  I don’t want to be a hack.  I want to be a writer.

Sometimes the jones helps.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

Horror: The Big Fondue Pot in the Ground

Last Sunday, I watched The Exorcist.  At the time, I didn’t know they’d be dropping its name at the Oscars.  I just wanted to watch a scary movie.  I’d been staring at my DVD collection for a while (sorry, no blueray at chez Southard), trying to decide what to watch.  Dawn of the Dead?  [REC]?  The House of the Devil?  April Fool’s Day?  I settled on The Exorcist because I wanted to take my time.  I wanted to be horrified, not frightened.

See, I feel (and most dictionaries would agree) that there’s a difference between horror and fear.  Fear is the result of your fight or flight response kicking in.  It’s a jolt of adrenaline right to your spine that tenses up your body.  Horror is deeper.  There’s a strong emotional component, a sort of dread or disgust that shakes you at your very core.  Horror is what happens once you’ve had time to think about fear.

As I was watching The Exorcist, I found myself thinking how impossible it would be to make a movie like that today.  The first ten minutes consist of Father Merrin walking around Iraq, gazing upon dogfights, archeological digs, and blind men.  It’s a series of scenes that, at first, don’t appear to have much to do with the movie.  Only later do they really resonate.

You couldn’t include those scenes today.  At least, you couldn’t include them with out half a dozen jump-scares and a rape demon that cornholes Father Merrin but good.  Maybe you could, but they wouldn’t describe the movie as a horror film.  They’d call it something else.

But so what?  Does that make slasher films less fun?  Shit, no.  There will always be room for fun in horror.  There should also be room for another kind of horror, though.  The kind that crawls in slowly and doesn’t let go.

For instance, I love both Ringu and its Hollywood remake, The Ring.  They’re completely different takes on the same concept, though.  To me, one of the most chilling scenes in Ringu involves the ex-husband character (whose psychic in this version) sitting alone in a crowd when somebody walks up to him.  We don’t see more than the girls feet and legs, but we know it’s the ghost.  It’s a wonderfully haunting scene.  At roughly the same time in the U.S. remake, we get a jump-scare of a deformed body in a closet.

But damn if I don’t love both of those flicks!

All of this got me thinking about horror fans and the differences between them.  Certain fans thrive on the gore and guts.  They want kill after kill.  Some fans only want that if it involves zombies.  Others like a nice, quiet ghost story.  Still others want something that’s more along the lines of The Exorcist, something that works its way into and maybe connects on a more cerebral level (for lack of a better term).  No one group is more right than the other (unless you ask them. then the others are all idiots or elitists, depending on who you ask).  They’re all a part of the horror.

Horror, ladies and gents. The Big Fondue Pot in the Ground.

On Blank Slates

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions.  Not sure why, but it’s something I’ve never really got around to doing.  Maybe there’s a reason for it, and maybe there isn’t.  I guess it’s not important.

What is important to me is the start of a new year and everything that comes with it.  Even more importantly, there’s everything that gets left behind.  2009 wasn’t a great year for me.  It was right up there with 2008 on the “Awful Shit” scale.  It’s my sincere hope that 2010 is an improvement.

Okay, so 2009 wasn’t all bad.  It saw the release of my first short story collection, Broken Skin.   I published additional short stories in Shroud, Cemetery Dance, the first issue of Brian Keene’s newsletter Of Keene Interest, and at Horror World.  I sold He Stepped Through to Bloodletting Books, and two other books have been snatched up by another small press, though contracts haven’t been signed on those.  My writing took several strong steps forward, thanks to the help and advice of great friends.

But y’know what? 2010 feels like a blank slate.  I can do anything I want with it, and I think I will.  I’ll still be writing, and I’ll continue to improve as a writer.  I’ll still be living, and I’ll continue to improve as a person.  That’s good enough, I think.  Don’t really need any resolutions for that.

Have a great 2010, everybody.  May it be better than your 2009.

Christmas and The Family

My second Christmas with Shawna, I heard what has become my favorite Christmas song.  We were out in Abilene, spending the holiday with her family (now my family).  On Christmas Eve, while taking a break from the regular activities of drinking and bullshitting, Shawna’s uncle put in a Robert Earl Keen CD.  Seconds later, I was listening to “Merry Christmas from the Family.”

I’m not sure if I can explain how this funny song that’s almost a novelty can be so touching to me.  For myself, it sums up the small things that make families, well, family.  It’s a simple, heartfelt song about keeping those special in your heart close to you.  At least, that’s what it is to me.  While it used to make me laugh, it eventually started making me thankful.  This year, it also makes me cry.

Have a happy holiday, everybody.  Tell your family and friends how much you love them.

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM THE FAMILY
By Robert Earl Keen

Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk at our Christmas party
We were drinking champagne punch and homemade eggnog
Little sister brought her new boyfriend
He was a Mexican
We didn’t know what to think of him ’til he sang
Felis Navidad, Felis Navidad

Brother Ken brought his kids with him
The three from his first wife Lynn
And the two identical twins from his second wife Mary Nell
Of course, he brought his new wife Kay
Who talks all about AA
Chain smoking while the stereo plays Noel, Noel
The First Noel

Carve the Turkey
Turn the ball game on
Mix margaritas when the eggnog’s gone
Send somebody to the Quickpak Store
We need some ice and an extension chord
A can of bean dip and some Diet Rites
A box of tampons and some Marlboro Lights
Halellujah everybody say cheese
Merry Christmas from the family

Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen
I can’t remember how I’m kin to them
But when they tried to plug their motor home in
They blew our Christmas lights
Cousin David knew just what went wrong
So we all waited out on our front lawn
He threw the breaker and the lights came on
And we sang Silent Night, Silent Night, Oh Holy Night

Carve the turkey turn the ball game on
Mix Bloody Mary’s
Cause We All Want One!
Send somebody to the Stop ‘N Go
We need some celery and a can of fake snow
A bag of lemons and some Diet Sprites
A box of tampons and some Salem Lights
Halelluja, everybody say cheese
Merry Christmas from the Family

Felis Navidad!

An open letter to the Harley Davidson dealership

Dear Harley Davidson dealership,

Hi.  It’s me, Nate Southard.  You might remember me from when I bought an Iron 883 back in October.  Actually, that’s a stupid thing to say.  You obviously don’t remember me buying a motorcycle from your rather cavernous-yet-shiny store.  Why do I say this?

Because, if you did remember my purchase, you might have mailed my license plates instead of keeping them on a desk in some back office.

Because, if you did remember my purchase, your various salesmen might not keep calling me two months later to ask if I’m still interested in buying a Sportster.

To be fair, one salesman called to ask if I was ready to trade in my 883 for a bigger bike.  That salesman, I assume, is less an idiot and more an asshole.

Look, I know times are tough.  I know sales of new bikes are down.  I’ve read about the production shutdowns at your factories.  That said, I don’t feel the answer is to cold call every name you have on file.  Most likely, that kind of behavior will send the motorcycle-buying public running for the hills.  I know you’ve chased me away from your dealership.

Thank you.  That is all.

Sincerely,

Nate Southard