A new dark-gothic collection from acclaimed horror writer John McFarland is out just in time for the holidays! McFarland is a long-time member of the Literary Underworld, with work ranging from dark fantasy like The Black Garden to offbeat children’s books like Annette: A Big Hairy Mom.
Now his new collection has been praised by Publisher’s Weekly! “McFarland tempers his frights with the mercy of familial love and sympathy for outsiders and victims. Horror readers will be riveted.”
Q: What was your first paid published work?
A: Actually my first paid published work were drawings, not writing so much. In the 1970’s surrealistic drawings by an artist called B. Kliban were all the rage. He published several books, which were the precursors of Gary Larsen’s Far Side, including several about cats. I did a parody of Kliban’s cat books called Kill A Cat and sent it to The National Lampoon. P. J. O’Rourke, the editor at that time, loved it and paid me the princely sum of $750. Scheduling mishaps at the magazine kept pushing the publication date back until the subject was no longer timely, and it never appeared. They never asked for their money back, though.
Q: Who are your favorite writers?
A: Like most boys who turn out like me, my favorite writers as a kid were Poe, Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but also the likes of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Hitchens. In college I discovered James Joyce (of Dubliners), William Faulkner and especially Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor’s work was a revelation to me, small town country boy that I was. She seemed to know every one of my relatives and she has had a lifelong effect on my work. I visited her childhood home in Savannah, Ga. and Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, where she did her mature work. I am fortunate enough to own a signed first edition of The Violent Bear It Away, and a series of watercolor concept are studies for covers for her books.
Q: What are you doing next?
A: Two novels are in the works. My current publisher, Dark Owl, has shown interest in re-issuing my 2010 book The Black Garden, and then its sequel, tentatively titled Azmiel’s Daughter. I am also working on a ghost story novel, called Phrygia House. Also, DOP has shown interest in publishing my Young Reader series Bigfoot stories, Annette: A Big, Hairy Mom.
Q: Was there anyone who inspired you as a beginning writer?
A: I actually touch on this in my acknowledgements section in The Dark Walk Forward. As a teen, I corresponded with both Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. I asked the usual young admirer dumb-ass questions, but they were both, especially Bradbury, very kind and generous with their responses.
A: Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants?
A: Both, but mostly seat of my pants. I always have a general idea of where I want a narrative to go, but as the cliche goes, the story seems to take on a life of its own as you go along. I was amazed at this process when writing The Black Garden. Connections, plot points, twists and turns just popped into my head as I wrote. No one was more surprised at how it turned out than I.
JOHN MCFARLAND’S first novel, The Black Garden, was published in 2010. His work has appeared in The Twilight Zone Magazine, Eldritch Tales, National Lampoon, River Styx, Tornado Alley and the anthology A Treasury of American Horror Stories, which also included stories by Stephen King, Richard Matheson and H.P. Lovecraft. He is a lifelong Bigfoot enthusiast, and Annette: A Big Hairy Mom was his first novel for young readers and is in print in three languages. He has written extensively on historical and arts-related subjects and has been a guest lecturer in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.
The small town of Ste. Odile in America has experienced the Great War in ways that no one should ever have to endure.
Doctors must tend to births and deaths that make their most difficult cases seem benign.
An 1880s schoolteacher is faced with the worst blizzard of her time and must save the children under her charge.
A young man searches for his father the abandoned orphanage the older man owns… and both know they will despair at what they find.
A primitive woman experiences colonization and the stereotypes of men, yet finds her own method of retribution.
John S. McFarland has slogged through his characters’ woes and woven them into sweetly emotional yet acutely distressful tales. We as readers are forced to understand the pain, the despair, and sometimes the hope of his creations.
We realize we are lucky to live in the era we do. We also realize anything can change to tear us apart. Is it fate? Destiny? Or do we bring about these changes on our own? McFarland will let us know.
McFarland’s writing is lush and sensual, filled with textures, sounds, smells, and primal terrors that have lurked beyond the firelight since prehistory. –Kenneth Anderson, editor of Charon II
“John McFarland has a talent for drawing horror from raw human emotion. The Dark Walk Forward is heartbreaking and sad as well as frightening, with characters that linger in the mind long after the pages have turned.” — Elizabeth Donald, author of Moonlight Sonata, Setting Suns, and Nocturne Infernum.
“McFarland tempers his frights with the mercy of familial love and sympathy for outsiders and victims. Horror readers will be riveted.” ~ Publishers Weekly
Literary Underworld co-founder Elizabeth Donald has a new novella out from Crone Girls Press, the next adventure in her Blackfire horror series!
Elizabeth discussed this new release in a recent interview with Crone Girls Press managing editor Rachel Brune.
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your writing?
I’ve been writing since I could pick up a crayon, but my first published fiction appeared in 2001 or thereabouts. I wrote short stories that usually ended up in the last issue of each magazine, so I was the Typhoid Mary of the small press for a while. My first novel was published in 2004, and I’ve been writing fiction ever since – usually horror, science fiction, a spot of romance and a touch of fantasy, but often where several of these coincide. By day, I was a newspaper reporter for 20-odd years and continue to commit journalism on a freelance basis; by night I write about ghouls and monsters, and I try not to mix them up with Congress.
Q: This is a prequel to your Blackfire series. Can you give readers an introduction to that series and tell us a little bit about it?
Blackfire started with a novella intended for a collection like this one: traditional monsters written in nontraditional ways. I was assigned zombies, which was a relief since I’d spent the last several years writing about vampires and I wanted the switch. Zombies are traditionally a gross-out horror: fear of disease and putrefaction coupled with the survivalist subgenre. So I went another way entirely, and strove to find a way to make zombies scary without eyeballs and entrails. That was The Cold Ones, but the anthology was canceled before publication. A year later I found a publisher willing to take it on even at that very short length, and the print run sold out in 48 hours. Since then I’ve written a full-length novel, Blackfire, and a handful of short stories published in genre magazines and traditional literary magazines, as well as in my own short story collection, Moonlight Sonata.
Yanaguana is part of that story – a prequel by its setting, but it doesn’t require knowledge of all the other stories to enjoy it. It’s a good introduction to Sara Harvey, Paul Vaughn and the rest of the Blackfire crew, and it’s my hope to keep writing tales of their adventures for a long time to come. Unfortunately, the original publisher went out of business, so those two early books are out of print for now.
Q: This story was partly inspired by a trip to San Antonio. Can you talk a little about that, and how the story came out of it?
San Antonio is a nifty city! I travel a lot for my work as a journalist and as an author, averaging about 30 nights a year in hotel rooms when there isn’t a global life-threatening pandemic. Last year I was in San Antonio on business for journalism, and I fell in love with it. The history (ghost-related and otherwise), the food, the fascinating layout of a city on two levels. And did I mention the food? Yum.
But mostly it was that fascinating layout, of the Riverwalk and the thread of the San Antonio River meandering through downtown, and the city itself bustling about a level above it. I wandered along the river and realized what a wonderful setting it would be for monsters and demons and ghosts, because that’s the way my mind operates. Ask poor Memphis how many times I’ve infested it with monsters!
Before my trip, I had arranged to be allowed a photo shoot on the grounds of the Alamo (though not inside the chapel, they don’t allow God himself the rights to shoot inside there). I visited three times for photography and research, developing a travelogue for my nonfiction work.
But as I was planning the story of Yanaguana, I knew something had to happen at the Alamo. The city itself is practically a character in the novella, and the Alamo is the center and heart of the city and its history. Yes, it’s a huge tourist draw and I have no doubt economics is a big part of its importance, but it has special meaning for the people of Texas and San Antonio in particular. I knew I wanted it to be a big part of my story, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to do my research properly. I hope I’ve treated the city and its history with the respect they deserve.
Q: What were some of the challenges of revisiting a series after some time away, especially writing something that happens before the other books? How did you meet that challenge?
It was harder than I thought it would be! Not so much revisiting these characters, because they’re still very much alive for me. In fact, a short story featuring Parish Roberts was published earlier this year in River Bluff Review, so I never go too long without playing with the Blackfire crew. But the prequel aspect was a struggle, because I am a Star Trek-level nerd about continuity. I was continually checking the previous works to make sure the events of Yanaguana fit into the timeline of the Blackfire story and don’t contradict events prior to or after its occurrence. I remember searching for quite some time to figure out in which leg Sara was stabbed way back in the first book! I never want my creative impulse to create questions in the mind of the reader that throw them out of the story or compromise the realism of the characters’ stories – as much realism as one can have when you’re talking ghosts and monsters.
Q: Can you explain why every time I read one of your stories, there is always a scene or sentence that makes your editor cry (in a good way)?
A horror writer isn’t necessarily an emotional sadist, but it helps! If I make a reader cry, or afraid, or laugh, or any strong emotional response, I win. The enemy of good fiction is boredom. If I hear someone lost interest in my story partway through, or even fell asleep at midnight reading it, I want to know where I lost them so I can fix it next time. The most beautifully written descriptive passage isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if the reader is skimming past it, muttering, “So when is something going to happen?” And if I hear they cared enough about my characters to cry for them, or that their snark made the readers laugh, I know I’ve created something that reaches them and will stick with them after they finish the book. And that’s really the point of the job, isn’t it?
Q: I recognize a lot of what I think of as “subtle accuracy” in your writing, especially around local law enforcement, mortuary affairs, etc. You’ve spent many years working as a reporter–does this inform your writing? For those writers without this experience, what would you recommend they do to achieve familiarity with these characters and situations?
As of this writing I’ve been in journalism for 23 years, and while I don’t tend to run out to crime scenes or courtrooms as a freelancer now, I did it for a very long time and have the scars to prove it. It goes back to that wish not to throw the reader out of the story. If you ask real cops and prosecutors what they think of forensic procedural TV shows like CSI, you will get a lot of laughter and some four-letter words. For the sake of dramaticism, they’ve got lab rats that kick down doors and interrogate suspects, and don’t get them started on the “not-a-cop who helps the cops” a la Castle or even Mr. Holmes. It’s important to me to get as much realism into my dark fantasies as possible, because it lends credence to the more fantastic elements. I have cop friends who read my interrogations and police procedures; I have military friends who review military aspects; I have gun experts to tell me the difference between a clip and a magazine because those are the tiny details that throw a reader out of the story. (Don’t get me started on my own reaction to the Evil Soul-Sucking Lying Journalist trope.)
It’s also important to have first readers check you when you’re writing about populations beyond yourself, whether we’re talking about race or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation and gender identity. I edited a piece once for a straight male client who was writing a love story between two men, and with his permission requested a sensitivity read from a fellow writer who was gay. Because both the client and I were working from outside our life experience, it helps to have the perspective of someone whose experience aligns more closely to your characters. The goal is to accurately and realistically portray people we made up from our imaginations, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of stereotypes and clichés that are offensive, inaccurate, or simply boring and overdone.
The easy answer is to do your research and never fall into the laziness of, “Nobody will notice.” (Someone always notices. Always.) There are groups like Writing the Other that offer seminars and strive regularly to help writers seek and destroy stereotypes and microaggressions that can creep into our writing, and professional sensitivity readers can also help you along those lines.
The more complex answer is that a writer is an observer of human nature, and you should seek out life experiences and acquaintances with a wide variety of ideas and expertise and backgrounds. The writer alone in her garret might not have much in the way of distractions from her art, but eventually it will become solely self-reflective art. Stephen King wrote that the most brilliantly rendered fictional character is “but a bag of bones” next to the dullest living human being, and so we can do worse than to become students of human nature and reflect that in our characters.
Q: What’s next in your fiction travels?
I am currently in year three of five years of grad school, working on two (2) masters degrees so I can be truly over-educated. I’ve begun the coursework this semester toward an MFA in creative writing, and so my focus has been on developing short stories and evolving my craft through the program. Next summer will be free, however, so I imagine a novel will be forthcoming. But I haven’t decided which novel it will be yet! I listen to requests from my readers, and the last few conventions before the pandemic had a cacophony of requests for more Blackfire. There’s a final confrontation coming, and I know how it ends…
Q: Anything to add?
I had a fantastic time playing with the Blackfire gang again, and infesting San Antonio with critters, as they call them. This has been a fun experience, and I hope the readers enjoy Yanaguana as much as I did. I remain grateful and humbled that publishers continue to gamble on me and readers continue to plunk down hard-earned cash for my work, as it’s a privilege and an honor.
Elizabeth Donald is a dark fiction writer fond of things that go chomp in the night. She is a three-time winner of the Darrell Award for speculative fiction and the author of the Nocturne vampire mystery series and Blackfire dark fantasy series, as well as other novels and short stories in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres. She is the founder of the Literary Underworld author cooperative; an award-winning journalist and guest lecturer on journalism ethics; a nature and art photographer; freelance editor and writing coach. She is currently pursuing two masters degrees at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and is a teaching assistant at the college. She serves as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists and Eville Writers, and is a member of the national SPJ Ethics Commission, AEJMC, ELLA, Freelancers Union, Editorial Freelancers Association and others. She lives with her husband and son in a haunted house in Edwardsville, Illinois. In her spare time, she has no spare time.
John F. Allen is an American writer born in Indianapolis. He is a founding member of the Speculative Fiction Guild and a member of the Indiana Writers Center. He began writing stories as early as the second grade and has pursued various forms of writing throughout his career. John studied liberal arts at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis with a focus in creative writing and literature, received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force and is a current member of the American Legion. John’s debut novel The God Killers was published in 2013 by Seventh Star Press, and he has had several novellas, short stories and articles published since. He is also an avid reader, accomplished visual artist and jazz music aficionado.
I knew early on in my writing career that I wanted to explore stories written in a wide range of genres. This also reflects my diverse reading tastes. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into writing the same type of stories, because my readers only expected them. I’ve seen other writers who are known for one particular genre for years, who later write in another and aren’t as well received, mostly because they aren’t known for those genres. I’m not saying that is the case for all authors who cross genres later in their careers, but it happens and when it does it’s very unfortunate.
It has been my philosophy that I’d write stories and novels in various genres from the beginning of my career and publish a short story collection which contained multi-genre stories, so that my readers can get a sampling of my versatility as a writer. This is why my first short story collection, The Best is Yet to Come, contains ten multi-genre stories which range from literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror and beyond.
During my time as a writing student, my assignments were largely literary fiction stories and the mechanics of story-writing in general. This was actually of significant importance to my genre fiction writing, as it helped me to ground my writing in the commonality of the human condition, which is the most important through line for all fiction writing, in my opinion.
However, there are many specific and unique elements which
each individual genre offers for both the reader and the storyteller.
For example, science fiction offers the writer and their readers to explore the scientific and technological marvels of our world, as well as those expanded possibilities from the storyteller’s imagination. As a writer, I personally find science and technology to be fascinating subjects and often read news articles, magazines and academic journals for my own interest.
So when an idea for a science fiction story presents itself, I’m able to utilize the knowledge from my reading to add validity to the fiction and ground it in our reality. This accomplishes two things. Firstly, it acknowledges the scientific and technological progress mankind has made and is continuing to make. Secondly, it offers hope that the progress made will create a brighter future for generations to come or serves as a warning for the consequences of misusing that progress and potentially darker times ahead.
Another example is the fantasy genre. This particular genre allows the reader to experience things from the perspective of a foreign world, usually steeped in magic and mysticism, with an ancient-like setting that is devoid of scientific and technological progress. This genre challenges the storyteller to utilize human history and folklore as elements in their tales, while maintaining the human condition through line. As an armchair historian, this fascinates me in that it allows me to reach into the rich tapestry of human history and pull from the real-life stories, people and settings to create.
When the idea for a fantasy story begins to percolate in my mind, I draw upon ancient histories, people and their cultures as the base for my world building. This serves as the bridge and connective tissue with which the reader can relate and accomplishes similar objectives to science fiction. Firstly, it acknowledges the historical and cultural progress mankind has made and is continuing to make. Secondly, it offers hope that the progress made will continue to move forward in positive and progressive ways, while we learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid repeating them.
Genre writing also gives the storyteller and the reader, the opportunity to explore cultural and racial diversity from the human vantage point. This is particularly important in opening new and exciting settings to the reader, as most genre fiction is it often told from a Eurocentric perspective lens.
Human diversity in genre fiction opens up new settings and points of view to the reader and allows the storyteller to express themselves in a much more personal and passionate manner. With any luck, this very same passion from the writer is translated in their work, the benefit of the reader, which affords them a new and exciting experience.
Featuring ten stories collected for the first time, The Best Is Yet to Come presents nine years of creativity spun from the mind of John F. Allen. Action and adventure are ever-present in these stories, but be prepared for some drama, horror, fantasy and science fiction as well.
This volume includes a holiday story, “An Ivory Christmas,” featuring Ivory Blaque, Allen’s bold heroine from his acclaimed urban fantasy series The God Killers.
Also included are:
“Forest of Shadows” is the debut of a fabled, ancient warrior named, Jaziri, Prince of Kimbogo Province.
You may want to think twice before venturing out into the dark woods of
rural Indiana in “The Legend of Matchemonedo.”
A young set assistant of a 1950s science fiction serial gets to embark on the journey of a lifetime in “The Adventures of Star Blazer.”
A young woman in late 1970s Indianapolis learns to be careful what you wish for in “HoodRatz.”
When a woman struggles to care for her ailing father, she discovers the
truth behind her troubled past in “The Sweetest Autumn.”
Long ago, a noble samurai finds forbidden love with a beautiful, ebony-skinned princess in “The African Princess.”
A mysterious, military operative is sent on a covert mission in Egypt,
when he encounters an alien monster bent on revenge in “Lazarus.”
Forty years ago, a young boy discovers that family means everything in
“The Chocolate Malt.”
The Best is Yet to Come also features the special bonus short story,
“Witch Way is Up.”
Tommy B. Smith is a writer of dark fiction, author of The Mourner’s Cradle, Poisonous, and the short story collection Pieces of Chaos, as well as works appearing in numerous magazines and anthologies throughout the years. His presence currently infests Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he resides with his wife and cats.
Did the experience of writing in a new genre help you grow as a writer and storyteller, and if so, in what way?
While my previous works have landed within the realms of horror and dark fiction, and even fantasy in the case of a few short stories, my newest novel is a coming of age story—or as I’ve also called it, a coming of rage tale, titled Anybody Want to Play WAR?
It’s the story of Bryce Gallo, a teenage boy attacked by a dog, who suffers terrible injuries. He recovers in the hospital, but is left with a terrible scar, a stark reminder of his narrow escape, and here the story just begins. It’s the tale of an outsider, of family dysfunction and consequences, and Bryce’s struggle to adjust and ultimately face the world.
While this one doesn’t fall into the horror genre, past readers will find whispers of the darkness they’ve come to recognize, and it’s my hope that newer readers should also find plenty to enjoy in this character-driven story.
As an author, I appreciated the freedom afforded in writing this particular book. Remaining squeezed inside a box for too long can become uncomfortable.
As with other occasions, once I found the proper “zone” for myself to begin this undertaking, I adapted my approach to suit the story and its direction.
I recognize the value in reading outside one’s oft-chosen genre and exploring other creative arenas. These experiences offer fresh alternatives and learning opportunities. For the sake of growth and development as an author or otherwise, it’s useful to remain open to areas for potential development.
This book allowed for me to exercise character development on a higher level, and also proved a deeper experience in world building. There are many layers to the setting of St. Charles, and that includes my release of 2018, The Mourner’s Cradle.
If handled properly, character development and world building are valuable tools which enable a seamless spectrum of possibilities. These are tools which transcend genre, skills which may serve to enhance our storytelling arsenal. To commit my best, I owe it to my readers to keep a multitude of tools within reach.
As well, I found a challenge in labeling a story which does not easily fit in the molds of standard genre fare, but authors have penned coming of age stories across many years, decades and even centuries. Why shouldn’t I establish my variation on the concept?
In the end, I’ve carry forward with my motivations, and this time, it was Anybody Want to Play WAR? A liberating task, and at its best moments, a learning experience. Just as our stories are works in progress until the final edit’s completion, as purveyors of words and worlds, so are we, as long as we are willing and determined to make it so.
Brutal injuries can leave scars. As the teenaged survivor of a savage dog’s rampage, it’s a lesson Bryce Gallo will never forget.
Struggling to cope with his damaged appearance, along with a newfound fear of dogs and mounting anxieties at home and school, he flees his suburban home into the moonlit streets of St. Charles.
Along the roads of suburbia and through the shadowed heart of the city, he encounters Wheels, a maintenance worker for a series of apartment buildings; Paloma, known to some by the moniker of Lady Luck; and a woman in a dark house who is, as far as Bryce can fathom, like no one else he has met before.
His new life is not without obstacles or enemies, he learns. The future is a battlefield. Fire and smoke loom on the horizon, and his dangerous course may see the lives of his family and friends forever changed.
Underlord Dennis R. Upkins recently had the opportunity to interview comics superhero Gail Simone. As Denny says in his prologue to the interview, if well-behaved women seldom make history, Gail has made history in defiance of the male-dominated comics industry.
Gail created the Women in Refrigerators concept, which called out misogyny and the sidelining of female characters in comics as perpetual victims to motivate male heroes. She went on to write several comics lines, including the longest run on Wonder Woman for any woman writer, as well as Birds of Prey and Deadpool.
A few excerpts from Gail’s discussion with Denny:
On Women in Refrigerators:
GAIL: Like most jobs, you get tested, you make errors, choices are given to you where the road isn’t clear, but I think your gut is a fair indicator of what the right thing to do is, most of the time. And I do feel lucky that the Women In Refrigerators AT LEAST named a trope that seemed to permeate adventure fiction on all levels. It was never my intent to tell people what stories are ‘off limits,’ it was just to say, ‘doesn’t this seem a little tired to you?’
It was never even intentional activism, it was a frustration I had to voice, and the wonderful thing is, people of all genders got it, they had the same uncomfortable feeling. So that was worth the constant hate mail and rage that was sent my way. None of that meant very much to me, still doesn’t.
On pushback against diversity in comics:
GAIL: I had great editors on Deadpool when I got started, and we raised sales and fan/critical reaction hugely. But they got promoted and the new editor was just awful. He said my Deadpool, which was literally FULL of shooting and action and boners, “had too much estrogen.” That’s a direct quote, someone actually gave this genius a job.
So that kind of thing happened, I remember a bit of pushback on making a character gay very early on. However, I have to say, DC was really advanced about that at the time, in particular. I don’t remember them ever pushing back about diverse characters, even things like the first Transgender character in a Batman-universe book. They were behind us, and I am very appreciative of that.
On the future of the comic book landscape:
GAIL: I want comics shops to be healthy. Comics will mutate and absolutely SHOULD be in as many venues as possible. But the front line is comics shops, and they’re being obliterated by piracy, rent hikes, and other factors, it all has to be addressed. Other than that, I want more The Walking Dead style hits, books that bring in readers who weren’t reading, say, Spider-Man.
On advice for aspiring creators:
GAIL: I say bring your principles with you. No one wants to be preached at while reading Batman. But acknowledging a wider world is saying, “I do not accept that this world that I love, this universe that I am so deeply entrenched in, has to stay mired in amber since 1940.”
Also, if your plot is dragging, have Spider-Man web some dude.
Dennis R. Upkins is an Atlanta native and member of the Literary Underworld. He is the author of Hollowstone and West of Sunset, and regularly critiques and analyzes the representation and portrayal of minorities in comics and media. When he’s not out saving the world and/or taking it over in his spare time, Upkins’s hobbies include drawing, modeling, acting, photography, cosplay, rollerblading, martial arts and of course writing. His website can be found here.