Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Thanksgiving has changed a lot in my lifetime. For one thing, it has been significantly diminished as a holiday. We seem to go directly from Halloween to Christmas. This is mostly the fault of retailers, of course. Go into a store the day after Halloween and suddenly it’s Christmas — decorations, Christmas trees, Bing Crosby singing about snow. I did that this year. Halfway through November 1, I had “We Three Kings” stuck in my head. As cranky comedian Lewis Black says, “When I was a kid, Halloween was Halloween, and Santa wasn’t pokin’ his ass into it! And Thanksgiving — this’ll come as a shock — was it’s own holiday!”

He’s right. I remember going to my sister’s house on Thanksgiving as a boy, riding in the car with my parents through streets that were absolutely barren. Not a soul was out and about. Everyone was at home with all their relatives being miserable. Now they extend that misery by going shopping and battling stressed crowds so they can buy things that were marked up earlier so they could be marked down a little for “sales.” The first time I realized that the holiday had changed drastically was when Dawn and I were at her sister’s house one Thanksgiving and suddenly her sister said, “I’m going shopping! Anyone want to come?” I did one of those head-shaking cartoon double-takes and thought, Shopping? On Thanksgiving? There are stores open? Yes, they were open. And they’re open right now, on Thanksgiving Day, as I write this!

Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has changed. As a kid, I used to get up early on Thanksgiving (that was a long time ago — I don’t get up early for anything anymore) just to watch the parade from beginning to end. Back then, it was a parade — floats, marching bands, big cartoon balloons floating over it all like benevolent monsters. Now the parade stops every few minutes so somebody can lip sync a song or a sequined group of pretty people can do a dance number. Many of these musical interruptions — er, um, pardon me, interludes — are performed by the cast members of shows currently playing on Broadway, essentially transforming the parade into a New York advertising campaign aimed at tourists. I have nothing against music, but dance numbers do not a parade make.

I’m starting to sound like some crotchety old fart complaining about how the kids these days have ruined everything. I’m not, really. I still watch the parade. In fact, I caught some of it today. But to avoid sounding like everyone’s grandpa, I’ll move on.

Along with being a day when everyone eats to the point of falling over in a stupor, it’s a day to give some thought to the things for which we are thankful. I’ve been doing that a lot in my life the last few years, but this is the day to talk about it, so I will.

I am thankful for so many things. If I’ve learned nothing else by this point in my life, I’ve learned that no matter how bad things get, there’s always something for which to be grateful. I think as long as we’re on this side of the ground — rather than in the ground — we’ve all got things to be thankful for in our lives.

I’m thankful for some of the best friends anyone could hope to have, both old and new. My friend Steven Spruill is more like a brother. We frequently refer to each other as our “brother from another mother.” He’s a writer whose work I admired years before I ever sold a word, a writer of enormous talents who has been a big influence on me, and he is a fellow survivor of the Seventh-day Adventist cult. We are separated in age by about 15 years, but I keep forgetting that. He’s family. Not real family, of course, but chosen family — which, in my opinion, is even better. No one has shown me more unconditional love and support over the years. Unfortunately, he lives in Maryland and I live in California. We have met in person only once at a convention back in the 1980s, something I would remedy in an instant if I could. I’m looking forward to getting together some day. If you’ve never read him, I hope you will check out his work as soon as possible. He’s written science fiction, horror and the best medical thrillers I’ve ever read, and his latest is Ice Men, a grueling novel about the Korean war. Visit his Amazon page and acquaint yourself with his talent. You can thank me later.

I met Karen Leonard in 2008 by phone. While researching a novel about the funeral industry (which I've never finished), I read Jessica Mitford's hilarious and informative The American Way of Death. It was the revised 1996 version of the 1963 bestseller, and I noticed that it was dedicated to Mitford's researcher, Karen Leonard. Mitford died in 1996, but I thought perhaps I could track down Karen and pick her brain about the funeral business. I found her online, emailed her and introduced myself. We spoke on the phone and it was one of those times when I immediately connected with someone. She was a horror fan, was familiar with my work and, like me, had an oppressive religious background. In the next week, we got to know each other extremely well by email and I soon felt as if I'd known her for decades. She is an activist who's worked with some fascinating people and has the most amazing stories to tell! Her husband Stephen Rubin is a professor who teaches critical thinking, and both of them are fascinating and funny and now feel closer to me than my own family. They came to one of my book signings in San Francisco, and this year, they visited Dawn and me here at home. Even though I've only known them for a few years, they are among my dearest friends.

And speaking of book signings
— two of the people I'm thankful I know are Alan Beatts and Jude Feldman of Borderlands Books in San Francisco. I've been doing a signing there once a year for a few years now and I always look forward to it. Alan and Jude are great people, good friends and the store is one of my favorite places in the world. It specializes in science fiction, fantasy and horror and has a small cafe attached. If you're ever in San Francisco, don't leave until you've visited Borderlands. They're great people and I'm grateful that I know them.

Dawn and I have some wonderful friends here at home. We’ve known Jane Naccarato for too many years to count. I think Jane owns more books than anyone I know — her apartment is bursting with them! — and she comes over every few weekends with an armload of paperbacks she thinks we’ll enjoy. More recently, we’ve gotten to know Latrice and Ken Innes, and we’re better people for it. And my computer is better for it because Ken is a computer genius! We love them all.

Jenny Orosel and Bill Lindblad live in Texas and I’ve been shamefully negligent in my communications with them lately, but they’ve become valued friends. We knew Jenny first. She was at the World Horror Convention in San Francisco in 2006, where we were on hand to see the sparks fly between her and Bill. They soon became an item, then a married couple, and in the past week, Jenny gave birth to their first child, a gorgeous girl named Coraline. Every now and then, Jenny and Bill send us a box of goodies — books, toys, movies. They’re funny, brilliant, dear people and we’re fortunate to know them. Jenny has a wonderful column at Cinema Knife Fight called Meals for Monsters, where she reviews a horror movie and then recommends food to eat while you watch, including the recipes! If you’re a fan of horror movies and/or good food, I recommend checking it out.

We’ve made some new friends recently. At KillerCon in Las Vegas in September, we met Jason and Sunni Brock and hit it off immediately. Jason and Sunni seem to know everyone in the horror genre, and it’s a genre they obviously love. They’re both writers, and Jason is also an editor, director and producer, and their company JaSunni is responsible for some great documentaries about it, like Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man, about the amazingly prolific writer who left behind so much brilliant work in print and on film.

Through them, Dawn and I have gotten to know the great William F. Nolan, a writer whose enormous body of work has made him nothing short of royalty to anyone who loves the genres of science fiction and horror. I’d met Bill back in the 1980s when I attended a convention in Tucson, and that was a big event to me because I have been a fan of his work all my life. Last month, the three of them paid us a visit and the whole time, I kept thinking to myself, William Nolan is sitting on my couch! WILLIAM NOLAN IS SITTING ON MY COUCH! Together, Jason and Bill have edited a new anthology called The Devil’s Coattails: More Dispatches from the Dark Frontier, which includes stories by Bill, Jason and Sunni and a host of great horror writers.

Also at KillerCon, we met some other friends I’d known only online. Carrie Clevenger’s rock musician vampire Crooked Fang is growing in popularity, and a novel is on the way! Her friend Dorothy F. Shaw writes sizzling erotica, among other things. I met both of them online and they’re wonderful human beings and tremendously supportive and generous friends.

Dana Fredsti and David Fitzgerald have become valued friends. I met Dana, a former actress (she’s in Army of Darkness!) and a talented writer, the author of novels like Plague Town: An Ashley Parker Novel, on Twitter. They put me up during a visit to San Francisco earlier this year and we had a wonderful evening of pizza and zombies and cats (like Dawn and me, they’re cat people). Along with being a great and funny guy, David is a writer, public speaker, the founder and director of Evolutionpalooza! and the Atheist Film Festival, and the author of the wonderful book Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Prove Jesus Never Existed at All.

Believe it or not, I’m thankful for Facebook. I didn’t think I would ever say that. I resisted starting an account there for some time, even though people kept telling me I should be using it to promote my books. I finally gave in — reluctantly — and I’m so glad I did. Yes, I’ve been able to promote my books and it has helped sales a good deal. But the real reason I’m so thankful for it is that it has allowed me to connect with my readers, something I’d never done before to this extent. It’s enormously gratifying to know that the books I’ve written have been enjoyed by so many people — and so many wonderful people! Some of them have become close friends. If I try to name them, it’s inevitable that I will inadvertently leave someone out, and I don’t want to do that. But they know who they are, and I want them to know how grateful I am for their friendship. If you’d like to meet them — or any of the other people I've mentioned here please join me on Facebook!

I’m incalculably thankful for my wife Dawn, who took care of me through years of illness and who has never uttered a word of complaint during those financial dry spells that all writers experience (we’re going through one right now!). She has enriched my life, saved my life, made my life worth living. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

In spite of those dry spells, I’m terribly thankful that I’m still writing. I don’t think I’d be capable of doing anything else, and even if I could, I’d go insane if I weren’t writing. Believe me, it hasn’t always been easy. There have been times when I’ve wanted to give it up, and the fact that I couldn’t do anything else has been the only reason I haven’t. Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is showing up.” I would amend that. I think 50% is showing up and the other half is just sticking around. Somehow, I’ve managed to stick around. I’ve been able to do that because of my readers. No one will ever know just how thankful I am for them.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

KillerCon 3: Horror in Las Vegas

When I started writing professionally back in the 1980s, I attended a lot of conventions. Unfortunately, I spent most of the 1980s drunk and, in retrospect, that did not enhance my convention experience. I drank in part because I was so insecure and filled with self-loathing and being drunk helped to numb that. But it didn’t keep me from being, for the most part, an introverted wallflower. I mean, I didn’t put a lampshade on my head and dance the Charleston on a table, or anything. Add to that the fact that I had been trained by my family and most of the people in my life from early childhood onward to be ashamed of my writing, to avoid talking about it. Suddenly, I found myself at conventions where the purpose was to promote my work, and I was surrounded by people whose writing I’d admired my whole life, big names who had been towering influences for me, like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon and others. But even though I was published when I attended those conventions, I didn’t feel like I belonged there.

This had nothing to do with the behavior of anyone at these conventions. Horror, fantasy and science fiction conventions are attended by friendly people who want to be there and who enjoy being with others who share their interests. The problem was me. I always had a nagging feeling of guilt, like I was pulling something over on everyone, engaging in some kind of fraud, and the fear that I would be caught at it never went away. By 1990, I’d stopped attending conventions and just stayed home and wrote. Isolation is great for productivity if you’re a writer ... but it’s not great for much else if you’re a human being.

I’m a much different person these days, but old insecurities don’t always go away; sometimes they just hide down in the basement, waiting till the time is right. I was thrilled by the invitation to be one of the guests of honor at KillerCon 3 in Las Vegas, but just a couple of days before the convention, that basement door flew open and those old insecurities came rushing out like a bunch of evil, recently dampened gremlins. This would be my first convention without liquid courage or any kind of pharmaceutical enhancement, and once the basement emptied out, all I could hear were the hissing voices of those insecurities telling me just how colossally I was going to fuck it all up. That changed once I arrived at the Stratosphere hotel.

Some conventions are big — some are downright huge — and have a prepackaged feel to them. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t have the kind of feeling of community you find at smaller conventions. KillerCon is small and everyone seems to know everyone. In some ways, it was like attending a reunion. But attending a reunion can be deadly dull if you’re not part of the group that’s reuniting. The great thing about KillerCon — the thing that struck me repeatedly throughout the weekend — was that even though Dawn and I had never attended before, we were made to feel a part of the reunion. I had met some of the other attendees at previous conventions, and there were a lot of my Facebook friends in attendance, but for the most part, these were people I was meeting for the first time. It just didn’t feel like the first time.

After arriving at the hotel and stashing our bags in the generous suite provided by the convention, we went in search of the party. We came in late and it was midnight by the time we set out to find the gathering, but I’d been to enough conventions to know that somewhere in the hotel, there were horror fans having a good time over drinks. As we stepped out of the elevator on the 24th floor, we almost ran smack into Sam W. Anderson, an online friend of mine and a talented new writer. Sam is part of Snutch Labs, a whole group of talented new writers made up of Erik Williams, John Mantooth, Kim Despins, Petra Miller and Kurt Dinan (who unfortunately was unable to make it to the convention). They’re a fun and hilarious group, and I wish I could’ve spent more time with them in Vegas, but as fun as they are, they’re dead serious about they’re writing — and they’re damned good at it. They were at KillerCon promoting their new collection, Tales from the Yellow Rose Diner and Fill Station, which I’ve read, blurbed and can’t recommend enough. Sam had just come from the hospitality suite and was on his way back to his room, but he led us to the party.

Once I started meeting people, those wet gremlins were shoved back into the basement and the door was solidly shut and locked. The convention ran incredibly smoothly and everyone was so pleasant and gracious. I’m just not accustomed to being called things like “sir” or “Mr. Garton.” In fact, the first time someone in the hotel called me Mr. Garton, my bowels loosened a little because I thought my dad had come back from the dead and she was talking to him. Some of the highlights:

We found Leah Anderson and Vincent Daemon at the party. I met Leah online and am happy to take credit for talking her into coming to the convention. She and Vincent are writers who have started a new magazine called Grave Demand, which publishes fiction too extreme or transgressive for mainstream publishers (they’re taking submissions now, so send them something you wouldn’t want your parents to read). We spent a good deal of time with Leah and Vince, and some of that time was also spent with Shaun Lawton and his wife Shasta. Shaun is the enthusiastic founder and editor of The Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Shasta is a skilled artist. The six of us spent some time talking about our favorite writers and movies in the wee hours of the night when the rest of the KillerCon folks were shuffling back to their rooms and beds.

A big highlight of the convention for me was meeting my friends Carrie Clevenger and Dorothy Shaw. I met Carrie online earlier this year, and through her, I met Dorothy. Carrie is the creator of Crooked Fang. If you enjoy vampire fiction, you should be following his exploits. Carrie has recently made her first book deal, so Crooked Fang will soon be enjoying a much-deserved wider audience. Dorothy is a new writer whose work is difficult to shoehorn into a particular genre, which I find interesting because I’ve had that problem with some of my own work and I enjoy writing that defies categorization. Carrie and Dorothy have given me a firm kick in the ass when it comes to self-promotion — something I needed — and have been training me to look for any opportunity to plug my work. Thanks to them, and to the fine work of Dorothy’s multi-talented artist husband, Terrance “Wookie” Hoffman, I had a stack of beautiful promotional cards and bookmarks to pass out at the convention.

As small as KillerCon is, it’s still hard to spend as much time as you’d like with the people you want to get to know better. Ed Kurtz and I have been Facebook friends for a while, now, but KillerCon was our first meeting, and he was accompanied by his delightful wife Megan. Ed is a writer whose first novel, Bleed, was published this year, and he and Megan are, like Dawn and myself, cat lovers. Unfortunately, we only spoke briefly. I wish I could have spent more time with Jeff Burk, the maestro of Deadite Press, where amazing work is being done. Burk publishes boundary-smashing horror and bizarro fiction and his books sport some of the most eye-catching covers in the business. Deadite is publishing great writers like Bryan Smith, Nate Southard, the incomparable Robert Devereaux, and Ed Lee and Wrath James White, both of whom I’ll come back to in a moment.

While waiting for the elevator, I spoke only briefly with the charming Rose O’Keefe, the whip-cracker at Eraserhead Press. And I'm sorry I was unable to spend more time talking with writer PS Gifford, writer and artist John Palisano, writer Gord Rollo, writer, editor, director, producer and genre jester John Skipp, writer Lisa Morton, and so many others. There were some I didn’t get to talk to at all, like writer Gabrielle Faust. I’ve been familiar with Gabrielle’s work for some time and I’ve seen her picture online — she’s one of my Facebook friends — but I didn’t know the petite, stylish blonde woman I kept glimpsing was she. Finally, I asked Hal Bodner, who knows everyone (more on him in a moment), who she was, and when he told me, I had one of those forehead-slapping I-coulda-had-a-V8 moments, but by then, it was very late in the weekend and we never connected. I was very disappointed that I was unable to spend time with Rhonda Wilson, a genre regular who's become a great friend online. She was only at the convention for one day and our meetings were unfortunately brief. So many people and so little time. And so many elevators!

I met Gene O’Neill briefly — too briefly — and learned that he's from my old stomping grounds in the Napa area. He said he and a friend had once hooked up with a couple of Seventh-day Adventist girls from my old Napa Valley Sadventist alma mater, Pacific Union College in Angwin — very sheltered, inexperienced girls. Oh, yeah, I know what those sheltered, inexperienced Sadventist girls are like! The only problem is that they’re not like that with Sadventist boys because they’re afraid word will get around. They’re only like that with non-Sadventist boys — like Gene O’Neill! I didn’t get a chance to hear the story, but I’m going to hold him to it and corner him someday, because I want all the juicy details.

Like I said, it’s a small convention, but even so, the weekend just isn’t enough time to see everyone, even given the fact that I slept little and left the hotel only once for a couple of hours on Saturday night. Those couple of hours, by the way, were also a lot of fun. Our niece, Amy Trunoske, lives nearby and she came to the hotel, hung out with us for a while, then drove us down to Fremont street. It was standing room only as we watched one of the animated shows on the canopy that covers the entire street, then we checked out the shark tank in the swimming pool of the Golden Nugget hotel. It made for some great people watching; I would have been perfectly happy to sit there for a long time and just observe because the place was crawling with material ripe for fiction. But after having a meal, we went back to the convention and rejoined the festivities there.

Talking to everyone I want to talk to wasn’t helped by the fact that I’m still annoyingly hesitant to impose on people, to inflict myself on them. No matter how many books I write, despite the fact that I’m a guest of honor, I’ve been able to overcome my inherent shyness only to a certain extent. The important thing, though, is that these are people I wanted to spend time with and get to know better. How often do you find yourself in a situation where you want to be able to spend time with everybody? That isn’t very common. At least, it’s not for me. Usually in a large group, I find myself wanting to hang out only with a handful of people. That wasn’t the case here, and that’s what made it such a wonderful experience.

Most conventions cover genre fiction, movies, TV shows, comic books — the entire spectrum. One of the things that sets KillerCon apart is its focus on writing. Most of the people who attend are writers or aspiring writers and the topics of discussion tend to reflect that. I enjoyed a panel on writing groups that was moderated by editor R.J. Cavender of Cutting Block Press. It was a fun panel that included members of Snutch Labs, but I was especially impressed with R.J.’s remarks about editing. Sometimes it seems to me that the importance of editing is lost in a writer’s efforts to get published. It is impossible to overstate the importance of a good editor to every writer putting words on the page, I don’t care how big that writer might be. But truly good editors are hard to find. As I listened to R.J.’s insightful remarks, I kept thinking to myself, I want this guy editing my work! Fortunately for all of us, R.J.’s services are available through The Editorial Department.

Of course, the writing that is the focus of KillerCon is horror writing. I don’t think there’s a genre more maligned, misunderstood and even despised as ours. Horror writers always surprise their readers when they meet because they’re nothing like their fiction. Ever. It’s been my experience that writers of horror fiction are pleasant, gentle people. Many subscribe to the theory that we are as pleasant as we are because we get all our demons out in our writing, and if we couldn’t write, we’d all be engaged in widespread killing sprees or torturing our parents in the basement, or something. I don’t happen to subscribe to that theory because I’ve known too many writers in the genre, and I think they’d be good people no matter what. I could be wrong about this, but it seems the more extreme the horror fiction, the kinder and gentler the writer. Which brings me to three of KillerCon’s most illustrious figures — and most extreme writers.

We have Wrath James White to thank for KillerCon. It’s his baby. Wrath has a fascinating background. According to the bio on his Amazon page, he is “a former World Class Heavyweight Kickboxer, a professional Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts trainer, distance runner, performance artist, and former street brawler.” When you combine his background and impressive size with the fact that he writes some of the most upsetting extreme horror in print, this could be a very scary guy. But he’s not. He's the kindest, gentlest man I've ever known who could probably break my neck with his thumb. He’s soft-spoken, brilliant and sensitive, and there is no better example in the genre of what a mistake it is to judge a writer solely by his work.

If you’re already a fan of the horror genre, then you already know who these next two guys are, and you’re probably a fan. And they are two more excellent examples of what I’m talking about.

I was so happy to learn that Ed Lee and Jack Ketchum were among the guests of honor at this year’s KillerCon. Both are genre legends. I first met Ed five years ago at the World Horror Convention in San Francisco, the only other convention I’ve attended since my early days in the genre back in the 1980s. While that was a great convention, I’d just had the third in a series of major operations on my hip, and I was in pain and completely wonky on prescription painkillers. I hobbled around WHC on a cane trying to ignore the fact that it felt like ground glass and thumbtacks were crunching between the bones of my hip. Although I was there, I wasn’t entirely present. I was able to chat with Ed there, but I remember not being very responsive, and possibly not terribly coherent. KillerCon gave me a chance to make up for that.

He may not be a huge bestseller with millions of books in print, but whenever I talk to readers about their favorite horror writers, the name Ed Lee always comes up, almost without exception. And it is always spoken with a big, affectionate smile He writes some of the most extreme horror ever. I mean, like, in the history of the human race. If the Marquis de Sade were alive today and could read Ed’s work, I can imagine him wincing at Ed and saying, “Dude, that is twisted.” But no matter how gut-churning Ed’s writing is, it never loses touch with the most important element of all in horror, the element that the best horror always builds upon: Humanity. Sure, you’ll find plenty of monsters and psychopaths and demons in the horror genre, but the horror that works always remains focused on people, not menacing creatures or spattering bodily fluids. Those other things surround the characters, but a horror story that doesn’t focus on people in one way or another is like a soup without a base.

No one meeting Ed for the first time without knowing what he does would ever guess that he writes what he writes. The same can be said for Jack Ketchum (aka Dallas Mayr). I’ve been reading Dallas for thirty years and have always been drawn to his work because he not only maintains humanity in his horror, he writes about human horrors. His novel The Girl Next Door is a classic of the genre and a great example of his work. And I’ve never been able to finish it. I can handle all the horror you can throw at me, but this sort of thing messes me up. Based on an actual incident, the horrifying story of a family that holds a young girl captive and tortures her to death, this is perhaps the most upsetting book I’ve ever read — or tried to read. I promised Dallas I would finish it some day, but damn ... it’s a nightmare. And that’s a testament to his talent. I’d never met Dallas before, and he did a nice thing for me that might appear small to others but was big to me. He introduced me to Monica O’Rourke.

Monica and I first encountered one another online years ago. It didn’t go well. The internet is a treacherous place, and I’m not just talking about the computer viruses and donkey/midget porn. The screen and keyboard make it easy to forget that there’s a human being on the other end who has to deal with all the same daily crap life throws in all of our paths. Sitting alone at a computer makes it easy to forget — or not bother — to be sympathetic, compassionate, patient or tolerant. I think everyone has done that at one time or another; I know I have, a lot more than once (maybe you've heard some of the stories). Monica and I got started on the wrong foot. In fact, both feet were involved — we sort of jumped in the wrong direction. Bitter words were exchanged, harsh feelings were stirred. It seemed unlikely that a meeting in person would go any better than our meeting online.

One night at KillerCon while a group of us were standing in front of the elevator using the ashtrays — that was quite a party spot on the 24th floor, those elevators, and at one point, even the police were called in to quiet it down! — Dallas approached me and said, “I know you and Monica have had your problems in the past. She’d like to meet you, but she’s kind of afraid to.” I was, too! “Could I introduce the two of you?” he said. I thought that was a wonderful thing to do. Dallas introduced the us and it was a great meeting. Later that night, we ended up sitting in Dallas’s room and having the kind of relaxed, friendly conversation I didn’t think I would ever have with Monica, as if none of that earlier stuff had ever taken place. How often does something like that happen? With a few words and an introduction, Dallas smoothed over some old wrinkles and I made a new friend. There were a few individual incidents at KillerCon that, had each been the only thing that happened there, would have made the whole trip worthwhile. That was one of them.

Like a ghost rising from my convention-going days of the 1980s, William F. Nolan attended KillerCon, and I couldn’t wait to see him again. We met in 1984 or thereabouts when we shared a long car ride to a convention in Tucson, Arizona. That was a big deal to me because I’d been a fan of Nolan’s work my whole life. For those unfamiliar with the genre, Nolan is a veteran writer of science fiction and dark fantasy, the co-author (with George Clayton Johnson) of the novel Logan’s Run, which became a hit 1976 movie and is currently being remade. While that may be his most famous work, it’s far, far from his only work. He has to his credit 83 books and more than 750 magazine and newspaper pieces as well as several TV and movie scripts, including a favorite of mine, the 1976 horror film Burnt Offerings. He is a master of short fiction and his work should be required reading for any writer who wants to tackle the difficult task of writing quality short stories. Bill had been a big influence on me and meeting him was an event. I was only 21 or so at the time and my first novel had just been published. All of those insecurities I mentioned earlier completely ruled my life at that time, and I was wreck going into the Tucson convention, which was also being attended by Stephen King and Peter Straub. What was I doing there? Who the hell did I think I was? Bill saw this and took me under his wing. He was a calming influence and a great friend at that convention.

I didn’t really expect him to remember me at KillerCon, but he did. I also met his good friends Jason and Sunni Brock, with whom Dawn and I hit it off immediately. Jason and Sunni own JaSunni Productions and have produced a wonderful documentary called Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man. They also have a couple of other documentaries in the works. In addition to directing documentaries, Jason is a writer, editor and musician, and probably some other things I’m not aware of yet. You know that click! that happens when you meet certain people and you know immediately that you’re simpatico and there's a friendship in the works? That’s what happened for us with Jason and Sunni and we look forward to getting to know them better.

Bill and I shared a table at the mass signing and at one point, he leaned over, put his arm around me and said, “I remember you very well from that trip to Tucson and how uncertain and nervous you were. You were so young! But now, look at you. You're a major figure in the genre and you've created an enormous body of work. I couldn't be more proud of you if you were my own son.”

It probably doesn’t seem like much to anyone else, but hearing those words from William F. Nolan suddenly made it necessary for me to fight back tears. I nearly blubbered like a baby. I simply don’t think of myself that way and never have. Coming from someone I admire so much was overwhelming. My own father never said anything like that to me. Hell, he never read a word I wrote and dismissed anything I ever did. When I told my parents in 2006 that I was being given the Grand Master Award and explained to them what it was, he said, “That’s nice,” and changed the subject. For that moment, Bill Nolan was a father figure and I was hearing something I needed to hear. It felt good. Again, if that had been the only thing that happened all weekend, it would have been worth the trip.

Weston Ochse was hilarious, Jonathan Maberry spoke eloquently about writing and the writing business, Boyd E. Harris was enigmatic, Shane McKenzie of Sinister Grin Press was cool. And then there was Hal Bodner. When he’s not trying to kill the ants that are eating the maggots that are coming up out of his floor, as he was recently, Hal is a writer, the author of the hilarious bestselling novel Bite Club, among other works. I met him briefly at WHC in 2006, but it was too brief for me to discover what a force of nature this guy is. It’s such a cliche that I hate to use it, but it’s unavoidably accurate to say that he lights up a room when he enters it. No one at KillerCon made me laugh as hard as Hal and he did it several times. He knows everyone. And everything. He’s a walking encyclopedia of genre and convention knowledge and a natural mood-elevator. I enjoyed every moment we spent with him.

In fact, I enjoyed every moment of the entire weekend. It was an amazing high. There are a lot of people I haven’t mentioned here, and if you’re one of them, I apologize, but I’ve already yammered on long enough. Big thanks to Wrath White and his wife Christie Parsley White, Bailey Hunter of Dark Recesses, R.J. Cavender, Rena Mason and all the other people responsible for making it such a wonderful weekend.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll go through this article and click on the links to check out the work of all the people I’ve mentioned here. A lot of people have come to my blog and Facebook page for reasons other than my horror fiction, but I hope you won’t let the “horror” label turn you off. It’s a big genre and there’s something for everyone. There’s a good chance you’ll find someone here you’re not familiar with, but whose work you will enjoy.

I had forgotten what an invigorating experience a convention can be. I don’t often get to hang out with other writers, particularly writers in the horror genre, and it’s something I need to make an effort to do more often because it’s like a big vitamin B-12 shot to the creativity glands.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My New Website: Entering the 21st Century

I’ve never been any good at selling myself. When I started writing, publishing was a lot different. Publishers promoted their writers, even lowly midlist guys like me. I didn’t get a lot of promotion, but there was some. In addition to that, I attended a lot of conventions back in the 1980s. But most of my time since 1983 has been spent writing. (That was true before 1983, too, but I wasn’t doing it for a living then.) I was laid up for eight years with a bad hip that required all kinds of medical procedures and three operations, and I was lost for a long time in a haze of prescription painkillers. When I recovered from that, I discovered that things had changed. The publishing business had become a different world and suddenly, when it came to promotion, I discovered I was on my own. This has required an adjustment that has taken me a while to make.

I received a lot of advice on how to promote myself, but the hard part was actually doing it. The internet provides a vast array of outlets for promotion, and I started looking into all of them. The social networks were an obvious choice, but I didn’t want to put myself out there and become some kind of endless one-note promotion machine, like that Jay Sherman automaton in The Critic that kept saying, “Buy my book! Buy my book!” over and over again, because after a while, that can get on people’s nerves. And I’ve never been the type to talk about my work process much because I’m of the opinion that knowingly boring the hell out of people is rude and I just can’t imagine why on earth anyone would give the slightest damn how many words I’d written on any given day. But I had to do something.

I started on MySpace. It was difficult at first, to say the least. I winced every time I posted something to promote a book and an angry voice in my head kept chewing me out. What the hell do you think you’re doing? Everybody and his plumber has a book to plug! What makes you think anybody’s going to pay attention to YOU? The response was ... weak. I blamed myself. I was taking the wrong approach, I was turning people off, I had fucked up!

But friends told me I wasn’t the problem. MySpace, they said, was the trailer park of social networks and I belonged on Facebook. I couldn’t understand what possible difference that could make, but I reluctantly decided to give it a try. I got a Facebook account, but I thought I’d try to get a feel for the place before I turned on my red light and started dancing in the window like an Amsterdam whore. I decided to be myself. This was a risky prospect because, as many people have pointed out to me over the years, I’m opinionated and some of my opinions tend to send the villagers after their torches and pitchforks. But I’ve never had a problem voicing my opinions — my problem is saying, “Buy my book! Buy my book!” So I decided to try being entertaining. Funny, even. This is a tactic I had used in school to avoid being ostracized like a leper and/or picked on by bullies. I began to work in some promotion now and then — links to my books online, to reviews and interviews I’d done.

This worked surprisingly well. In fact, Facebook has turned out to be a great experience. I’ve reconnected with old friends and made a lot of new ones, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I’ve gotten to know some wonderful people with whom I share interests, opinions and backgrounds. I have some of the funniest and brightest friends on Facebook. A day does not pass without at least one big out-loud laugh from something posted by someone on my friend list. But most importantly, it has allowed me to connect with my readers. Writing is a solitary business. You sit in a room creating characters, populating worlds with them and, if you write horror, making terrible things happen to them, and if you write for a living, you do that a lot. I mean, a whole lot, because writing doesn’t provide huge paychecks unless you’re one of the relatively few who write blockbusters, so you have to keep producing steadily. That’s why I stopped attending so many conventions — I needed to work.

On Facebook, I’ve met a lot of my readers, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised and deeply moved by those who’ve expressed their appreciation and have told me what my work has meant to them. I honestly never expected anything like that. My religious upbringing programmed me to be ashamed of my likes and interests, and that was later extended to my work. My family and many friends, the people closest to me, preferred that we all just pretend my work didn’t exist. It was treated like Sloth in The Goonies. That’s a significant part of the reason I’ve found self-promotion so difficult. But communicating with my readers has helped to change that. And it has made promoting my work much easier.

But I digress. The question is, has Facebook worked as a promotional tool? In the words of a well-known American stand-up comic and mythology expert, you betcha!

As my self-promotion skills improved, I could no longer ignore one very significant fact: I was the last writer in the known universe without a website. Along came my web designer friend Vince Fahey to save the day. Good thing, too, because I don’t know the first goddamned thing about making a website. And now ... I have one. is now live with a message board where I’ll be hanging out, information about and links to my books online as well as links to interviews, a full bibliography, and starting in the last week of September, we will be having contests and book giveaways. I’ll be keeping my villager-stirring opinions on my Facebook page. The website will focus only on the work and on starting an online community, which I hope you'll join. Come over and log onto the message board, say hello, start a discussion and maybe win a book! See you there.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

THE LOVELIEST DEAD: The Story Behind the Book

Most people I know love a good ghost story, and I think that extends to people I don’t know, as well. The ghost story seems to be universal. Whether or not you believe in spirits of the dead, a good ghost story told in the right setting can make you jumpy, give you gooseflesh and make the darkness a menacing thing even if it’s in a familiar room. I know people who don’t like other kinds of horror fiction or movies who enjoy a good ghost story. I’m not sure precisely what it is about them that is so effective for so many, but ghost stories seem to chill us in ways that no other horror subgenre can.

The first horror movie I ever saw was a ghost story. William Castle’s 13 Ghosts showed me that being scared could be fun. I couldn’t have been older than five when my cousin, who was a couple of years older than I and lived next door, rushed over to get me. “You gotta see this thing on TV!” he said, barely able to contain himself. “It’s got ghosts and a haunted house and a hidden treasure and — just c’mon!” He practically dragged me to his house. I sat down in front of his TV, watched for a while, and my little skull nearly exploded all over my aunt’s furniture. There was a guy on TV wearing special glasses that allowed him to see ghosts — What a great idea! Where can I get some? — and he was in his basement watching ghostly, floating skeletons burst into flame! And later, his son puts on the glasses and watches a headless man try to tame a lion — a ghost lion! I mean, how cool is that?

Some of the most terrifying horror fiction and movies have been ghost stories. Among my favorites are Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, which became Robert Wise’s brilliant less-is-more 1963 film The Haunting (I like to pretend that the 1999 movie never happened), Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House and the 1973 film adaptation, John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House, Stephen King’s novel The Shining, and the 1982 hit Poltergeist. These books and movies are only a few examples, but they are capable of making me actually feel physically cold, the kind of cold that requires a blanket. They're all haunted house tales, the most common and popular kind of ghost story, although ghosts can pop up anywhere in fiction and film.

For years, I’d been wanting to use in my writing an experience I had in the early 1990s, but I hadn’t figured out how. Sometime in 2005, it occurred to me that in more than 20 years of writing horror novels, I’d never written a ghost story, and I decided to remedy that by drawing on that experience. The result was The Loveliest Dead.

I was hired to write a book called In A Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting. A version of that later became a re-enacted docudrama on the Discovery Channel called A Haunting in Connecticut, and still later, a 2009 movie called The Haunting in Connecticut. It was the story of a family, Al and Carmen Snedeker and their children, who moved into a former funeral home allegedly infested with demons with a fondness for anal rape. How did they know the house was infested with demons? They asked the experts — “demonologist” Ed Warren and his “clairvoyant” wife Lorraine. I took the job because I was familiar with the Warrens. As a boy, I used to read of their adventures in the National Enquirer and found them spooky and entertaining, and they were involved with The Amityville Horror. I thought it would be fun to meet them and work on their book.

In their role as paranormal experts, the Warrens relied heavily on their Catholic faith and the teachings of Christianity to back up all of their conclusions and claims and were rather pious about it. But off the job, they were quite different. He was loud and foul-mouthed and became enraged if any of his claims were questioned, no matter how delicately, and she was gossipy, catty and took any disbelief in their work as a personal attack and responded accordingly. When I had trouble getting the stories of the individual family members to mesh, I asked Ed for advice. He said, “They’re crazy. All the people who come to us are crazy. Just use what you can and make the rest up. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. Just make it up and make it scary.” They claimed to have video tape of some of the supernatural incidents that happened in the former funeral home in Connecticut and told me about it at length, repeatedly promising to provide me with a copy. But I never saw the tape because they claimed they couldn’t find it. They’d been doing this for more than 30 years, they allegedly had video evidence of actual supernatural activity — and they misplaced it. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Ed and Lorraine gave me a tour of the "occult museum” attached to their house, but they wouldn’t do it until after dark because ... well, it’s scarier after dark. The museum is at the end of a long, dark, narrow passageway, a room filled with alleged artifacts from cases they’d worked on, things like possessed dolls and objects supposedly used in Satanic rituals. Ed was my tour guide and his spiel was as accomplished as that of any veteran carny. The whole thing was designed to frighten, just like a good ghost story told around a campfire. Ed and Lorraine and I were in the same business — scaring people. The difference was that I happily admitted that my stories were fictional while they did everything they could to convince people theirs were accurate accounts of things that had actually happened when they knew perfectly well they were not. In short, they were rank frauds and they exploited troubled families in the course of their work.

In the case of In A Dark Place, Ed and Lorraine Warren exploited the Snedekers, a family dealing with some serious problems like drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, domestic abuse — but they were a family who wanted to be exploited. They welcomed it! Everyone involved was eager to make a book deal, and then, with luck, a movie deal. While I was with them in Connecticut, Carmen Snedeker — who was running an illegal interstate lottery operation that she was afraid I would reveal in the book — repeatedly asked me how much I thought they could make from a movie deal. The Snedekers needed help, but not the kind the Warrens were offering. After the experience, I talked with another horror writer who’d been hired to write a book for the Warrens and his experience mirrored mine. So did his conclusions.

If you’d like to know more about my experience with the Warrens, you can read this interview at Damned Connecticut and listen to this MP3 of my interview on the Monster Talk podcast for the whole story. In A Dark Place has been out of print for a long time, but for the last two years, it has appeared on the list of the most requested out-of-print books. Used copies of the hardcover and paperback editions sell for anywhere from one to three hundred dollars. If you find a copy for less than that, grab it!

When I began writing The Loveliest Dead, I didn’t know much about how the story would turn out, but I knew it would include a married pair of aging paranormal “experts.”

After the sudden death of one of their two sons, the Kellars move into the big old house Jenna inherited from her father. There’s a rusty, vine-covered swing set in the back yard. Who are the mysterious children who play on it at night? Their son Miles claims that when he’s in bed in the dark, a man rises up out of his bedroom floor and threatens him. And what’s down in the basement? At first, Jenna is convinced they are being visited by the spirit of their dead son, but it begins to look like something else occupies the house with them. Out of desperation, they call on Arthur and Mavis Bingham, professional paranormal investigators whose work in the field is chronicled in tabloid newspapers and popular books. But Lily Rourke, a woman living in another town with a psychic talent she does not especially enjoy having, is experiencing premonitions about the Kellars, and she tries her best to get to them and help them. The truth behind what’s going on in the Kellar house is not only horrifying, but it puts the Kellars in grave danger — especially their children.

Here are some excerpts from a few reviews of The Loveliest Dead:

"Ray Garton's The Loveliest Dead eases the reader into what is easily the most mature, heartfelt, and unflinchingly disturbing novel of his career. The unspeakable horror that lies at the center of Dead's mosaic-like mystery is the darkest nightmare of every parent, only in Garton's hands, the revelation of this nightmare is only the beginning. A powerful, terrifying, unforgettable achievement. Ray Garton is back, and he will shake your soul's foundation with this one."--Bram Stoker Award-winning Author Gary A. Braunbeck

"There's a lot of The Shining in the opening chapters, yet where King's novel reached for high operatic horror, Garton keeps his terror up close and personal. You never feel like you're in one of those grand Addam's family-style haunted houses. This is the kind of house you probably live in, and that makes the terror all that more real. There's a lot of The Amityville Horror, with ghost-busters, psychics, and mediums crawling out of the woodwork to investigate these goings on. There's even a bit of Shirley Jackson thrown in, and yet with all this mixing and matching of style, the work is unmistakably individual. The Loveliest Dead has the feel of something you'd read in the newspapers, maybe a tabloid, but definitely a plausible sounding tabloid. So take a walk with Ray Garton through one of the creepiest haunted houses you're ever going to visit. He treats his readers with respect; he treats his characters with respect; in short, Ray Garton is a writer to respect." -- Steve Vernon, Horror World

"Garton shows a sure hand in stringing readers along, delivering scenes to elicit goosebumps at just the right moments. ... I’m a sucker for haunted house stories, and Garton’s — mixing The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door — is a good one. It hooks from the start." — Bookgasm

"Garton proves his masterful writing skills yet again with an exquisitely put together story that squeezes the heebie jeebies out of you!" — Mystery Galore

The Loveliest Dead is now available for Kindle, Nook, in paperback, and as an audiobook.  If you enjoy the book, I hope you'll post a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your blog or website.  To learn about my other work and keep up with new releases, visit my website at RayGartonOnline.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Movies have always been a passion of mine. I think the movie that hooked me as a little boy was The Wizard of Oz. I never missed it when it aired on TV once a year. On weekends, I watched allLink the movies that aired on cable — from the horror movies on =Creature Features every Saturday night to the old movies that ran all day Sunday. But I was not allowed to go to a theater to see movies. We were Seventh-day Adventists, a denomination that prohibited going to movie theaters. We were told that if we went entered the local multiplex, our guardian angels would not accompany us, and if we should die while in there, we would be doomed. This stemmed from something written by the cult’s prophet and founder, Ellen G. White, who condemned theaters in her voluminous, mostly plagiarized writings. But she did that back in the 1800s, well before movie theaters existed. So the Adventists extrapolated.

Movies became a kind of forbidden fruit. Mark Twain wrote, “There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.” As usual, he was right. Not being able to see them on the big screen like other people made me crave them. I became a sponge, soaking up movie lore and trivia.

In 1977, my freshman year in high school, I worked up the courage to risk eternal life and enter one of those dens of wickedness — a movie theater. I had the help of a friend named Bob, who was not an Adventist, but whose mother had sent him to the Adventist school I attended, anyway. I told my parents I was going over to Bob’s house after school and would eat there. Instead, Bob’s mother dropped us off at the mall, which had a theater. Three movies were playing there: Star Wars, The Gauntlet and The Goodbye Girl. I was the only remaining human being in the free world who had not yet seen Star Wars at least once — even my Adventist friends had thrown caution to the wind to see the biggest movie in the galaxy. Of course, they didn’t have to deal with my parents. But Neil Simon was one of my writing heroes, so I chose to see The Goodbye Girl.

As we were standing in line at the box office, Bob pointed to one of the benches along the mall’s promenade and jokingly said, “Look, it’s our guardian angels! They’re sitting down to have a smoke!” Icewater suddenly flowed through my veins, my mouth became bone dry and my palms started to sweat. I actually began to tremble with fear because I was about to enter ... a movie theater.

You have to understand that I had always been taught that a movie theater was no place for a good and decent person. The church didn’t seem to mind if we Adventists watched movies at home on TV, but entering that building was a sin — as if the building itself were somehow wicked. By the time I made it to that box office line in 1977, I had come to believe that the inside of a movie theater was a cross between an opium den and a low-end whorehouse. I expected people to be having sex in there, shooting up heroin in the back rows.

Then there was the fact very real to me at the time — that my guardian angel would stay outside. Not for a smoke, of course, because that was even more sinful than going to a movie! But I would be alone in there. Even accompanied by Bob, even surrounded by the other moviegoers — I would be spiritually, cosmically alone. What if I died in there? What if I choked on some popcorn? What if the place burned down? What if I had a cerebral hemorrhage? What if I tripped and fell on someone's heroin needle? What if god just decided to stop my heart out of annoyance at my rebellion? My soul would be lost — all for a Neil Simon comedy. I nearly soiled myself with panic.

It took him a while, but Bob managed to calm me down and we bought our tickets. Inside the theater, I was shocked to find that alcohol was not being sold at the snack bar. Not even beer! No smoking was allowed in the auditorium, there were no visible signs of drug use and people weren't humping like rabbits, either! Oh, sure, the floor was sticky, but not from anything biological. The movie was wonderful and remains my favorite Neil Simon film, but I left the theater with a much bigger impression than the one left by The Goodbye Girl: movie theaters were not only not dens of iniquity, they were wholesome places! The theater was a hell of a lot more wholesome than my own home, where I learned that my parents had found out I’d gone to a movie. My mother shrieked, “You’re lucky Christ didn’t come while you were in that theater!”

I had tasted the forbidden fruit, and it had not disappointed. After that, my love for movies only grew more passionate and I saw two or three a week. I read books and watched documentaries about movies and the people who made them. I wrote stories in my spare time throughout my childhood and my writing was as influenced by the movies I saw as by the books I read.

It was only a matter of time before I wrote something that was immersed in the movies. It finally happened in 1999 with Sex and Violence in Hollywood. At that time, I had been thinking a lot about how violent movies had become within my lifetime. I’m not one of those people who thinks violence in movies or books or video games makes people violent — given the kind of books I write, that would make me an insufferable hypocrite. I don’t have a problem with violence in entertainment myself, but I’ve noticed that as it has become more explicit over the years, things that we once found shocking seemed increasingly tame, even naive.

In 1960, the shower scene in Psycho was horrifying, but 20 years later, it seemed rather innocent compared to all the throat-slashing and head-severing in Friday the 13th. And it wasn’t just movies; violence had become more pervasive throughout our culture. And it wasn’t just fake violence! A look at the news on any given day revealed that violence was very much a part of our daily lives.

With each new level of violence presented to us, we’ve become a little more desensitized to it. I was ruminating on this when I sat down to write Sex and Violence in Hollywood. It didn’t have a title yet, though, and I really had no idea what it was going to be about. All I knew was that I wanted to write something that involved the movies and our growing numbness to violent images.

I began with a sex scene. Adam Julian, a young man in his early twenties was having sex with a woman in her forties. I didn’t even know their relationship to each other at first. By the end of that scene I did, though — the woman was the wife of Adam’s father, whom he hated. After that, I was off and running. After all, I had to find out why Adam hated his father! The book flowed faster and more smoothly than anything I had ever written. At times, it felt as if I were merely taking dictation. It was, in fact, the most enjoyable writing experience of my life.

It’s kind of a thriller and kind of a comedy set against the backdrop of Hollywood, with enough touches of horror to keep it from getting too bright and sunny. Adam and his best friend Carter Brandis are hardcore horror movie fans and their love of the genre permeates the book. It deals only peripherally with our desensitization to violence. It’s much more concerned with sex, violence and Hollywood, and features a big, high-profile, celebrity trial. There are even some cameos by real-life celebrities.

My agent showed more enthusiasm for Sex and Violence in Hollywood than anything I’d ever written. He was ebullient. I was concerned that perhaps the ending was a little too extreme, but he convinced me to leave it alone. He shopped it around to all the New York publishers, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They loved it! But ... they didn’t know what to do with it. I had written almost nothing but horror in the previous 16 years and this was not horror ... although it had elements of horror. It couldn’t accurately be called a thriller ... although it had elements of a thriller. It wasn’t a legal thriller ... although the last third of the book covers a big celebrity trial. It was funny ... but it wasn’t really a comedy. It was sexy ... but it wasn’t really erotic fiction. When it came to categorizing Sex and Violence in Hollywood, the book was an orphan child. Despite the fact that they all loved the book, the New York publishers turned it down with regret.

In 2001, it was finally published by Subterranean Press as a limited edition hardcover. Unfortunately, my regular readers didn’t know what quite to make of it, either, and showed little interest. That was a depressing turn of events because I thought then, and still think today, that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Over the years, though, the book pulled in some new readers, one of whom called it a blend of Quentin Tarantino and Jackie Collins — which I took as a big compliment! It has received some great reviews. One of the most enthusiastic was from Bram Stoker Award-winning writer Weston Ochse. You can read his review here. And here are some excerpts from others:

"Nasty, raucous, at times hilarious, Garton’s latest delivers what the title promises, in spades. But the core of the book is a sensational murder trial clearly inspired by the O. J. Simpson case. The cast features an abrasive female judge who swoons over the film stars who flit in and out of the courtroom, tongue-tied prosecuting attorneys, a nerdy defendant who reserves his right to silence, and Rona Horowitz, a pint-sized, high-octane defense lawyer. Even Johnny Cochran, among a host of real-life celebrities, makes a brief appearance. The defendant may be guilty as hell, but part of the fun is watching dynamo Rona cook up one outrageous legal trick after another to try to extricate her client. Meanwhile, the story’s hero, young buck Adam Julian, is sleeping with his hated schlock-film producer father’s new wife, as well as her underage but wildly sexed, drugged and dangerous daughter. [Julian’s sweetheart] Alyssa is the unlikely chip the author will eventually cash in to supply enough gore for two or three more trips to the courtroom. ... This over-the-top excursion into the underside of Tinseltown provides more thrills than a high-speed car chase on an L. A. freeway."
Publishers Weekly

“Trust Ray Garton. This talented author of many of the more distinctively strange horror novels of the past decade and a half could — probably — write the sort of break-out commercial novel that would make his name a household word right up there somewhere in the alphabet just before the King, Koontz K-section in the book stores. … Check out his substantial new novel, Sex and Violence in Hollywood. It’s a fascinating work with all the commercial elements: greed, Hollywood, murder, Hollywood, lust and graphic sex, Hollywood, psychopathia. Oh, and Hollywood. Garton’s novel is muscular, paced something like a car with a brick duct-taped to the throttle, and edgy with a sharp and nasty little tongue lodged firmly in cheek. ... The deliberately broad and superficially bland title manages to reel in vivid portraits of a generation more lost than usual, an accurately jaundiced view of how thin the dividing line seems to be between fantasy and reality. ... As a bonus, the reader gets a sardonically entertaining legal thriller slipped between the ribs of what might be termed a dark associational suspense work. ... The author cranks his epic to a balls-to-the-wall ending that could trigger late-night reader debates for quite a while.”
— Edward Bryant, Locus magazine

"Worth every penny of its price. You are in for one mean, hard, vicious ride; it’s about as searing a satire as you’re likely to encounter. I defy anyone to survive the last 50 pages unshaken."
— Gary Braunbeck, Bram Stoker Award-winning novelist

"Visceral, provocative, and graphic, Sex And Violence In Hollywood would make a perfect vehicle for the next Quentin Tarantino film. Equal parts crime novel, Hollywood expose and legal thriller — Garton alternately channels Jim Thompson, Joe Esztherhas, Dominick Dunne and John Grisham — it’s a genuine pleasure to read, a trashy thrill ride with unexpected depth. Gleefully milking the dramatic potential of Adam’s dysfunctional family, various Hollywood lowlifes and America’s legal system for all they’re worth, Garton also slips in some sly commentary on modern culture, the media, and the judicial system, celebrating and condemning their excesses. Purists might ask, 'Is it horror?' Well, not in the supernatural sense, but certainly in the utter emptiness of the main characters’ lives. Rest assured, however — there are some genuinely horrific moments, not the least of which is the shocking denouement."
— Henry Wagner, Hellnotes

Sex and Violence in Hollywood is not only Ray Garton’s best novel, but it may be one of the best novels published, in this or any other year.”
— Weston Ochse, author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning novel Scarecrow Gods

"Sex and Violence in Hollywood is a realistic, non-supernatural melodrama of greed, murder, and twisted family relations that offers exactly what the plainspoken title promises. ... It’s a kinetic, plot-driven novel filled with cliffhangers, betrayals, unexpected developments, and moments of stark, disturbing violence. It’s also, at times, a very funny book, filled with cogent observations of an insular, narcissistic society. Sex and Violence in Hollywood possesses wit, energy, and a relentless momentum that carries the narrative steadily forward. At its best, Garton’s latest has the raw, in-your-face power of a Quentin Tarrantino film. It comes highly recommended to anyone looking for a nasty, colorful, high-adrenalin good time."
-- Bill Sheehan, Locus magazine

Sex and Violence in Hollywood is available for Kindle at Amazon and for Nook at Barnes and Noble. If you've read and enjoyed Sex and Violence in Hollywood, I hope you'll post a review at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or on your blog or website.  To keep up with new releases, please visit my website at RayGartonOnline.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SHACKLED: The Story Behind the Book

In the 1980s, a bizarre phenomenon began in the United States that captured my attention and held it for more than a decade. The information you’re about to read is the result of research and hindsight. When it was actually happening, the truth about all of this got little or no attention, and although I followed the news stories, I did not yet have all the information. Even when I wrote Shackled, I wasn’t aware of the whole story. While it was going on, cameras and microphones were focused on the shocking details and the accusations and claims that sounded like something from a horror movie.

Like everyone else, I first became aware of it in 1983 when it was reported that Judy Johnson, mother of a student at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, claimed that her child had been sodomized by her estranged husband and one of the McMartin teachers, Ray Buckey. An investigation began. But Johnson repeatedly contacted the District Attorney’s office with accusations that were increasingly macabre. She claimed that people at the preschool were having sex with animals, that preschool administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey had “drilled a child under the arms,” and that “Ray flew in the air.” Here is an excerpt from a summary of an interview with Johnson, reported by the Deputy District Attorney:

“Billy describes having communion in a church. A prayer similar in sound to the Lord's prayer was recited. A goat climbed up higher, higher, higher. Then a bad man threw it down the stairs. It woke up later. ... Ray picked his rt. pointer finger. It bled. Ray put it in the goat's anus. Nobody had clothes on under the robes. Billy had a robe on too. They put a Band Aid on his finger. ... Lots of threats were made against Billy and his family. It is unclear whether it was a doll or real baby (Billy says real baby) but the head was chopped off and the brains were burned. Billy said Peggy [McMartin] killed the baby. Peggy had scissors in the church and she cut Billy's hair. Billy had to drink the babies [sic] blood. Ray wanted Billy's spit. He put it on the altar. The baby was big like Billy. It screamed. When Billy's bottom was bleeding Ray put a tampax in his bottom to stop the bleeding, then he took it out. The red circled people in this ad [referring to a newspaper ad for a local health club] are all familiar to Billy. The 3 women are witches."

Johnson had been diagnosed with and hospitalized for acute paranoid schizophrenia, but that information was withheld during the trial. When it was finally revealed, the prosecution maintained that Johnson’s mental illness was brought on by the stress of the trial, although it was later revealed that she had admitted to prosecutors that she’d been mentally ill before the whole sensational case began. In 1986, she died in her home from complications of chronic alcoholism. But by then, the snowball of accusations, rumors and media frenzy had become gigantic and unstoppable. The initial accusations were made in 1983, the preliminary hearings began in 1984 and the trial lasted until 1990 and cost a total of 15 million dollars. It was the longest and most expensive trial in American history.

Accusations made by the children were every bit as bizarre as those made by Judy Johnson. Satanic rituals were described during which children were sexually abused in tunnels, secret rooms and at airports and car washes. Children claimed to have been taken away in hot air balloons and airplanes, to have seen witches fly through the air, and one child identified movie actor Chuck Norris as one of the Satanic child abusers. But investigations turned up no physical evidence of anything described by the children.

One of the initial prosecutors, Glenn Stevens, claimed that his fellow prosecutors had withheld vital evidence from the defense and he left the case. During the trial, Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder met with the children and parents involved and Stevens claimed that Smith and Pazdar influenced the testimony of the children. Who were Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazdar? I’ll come back to them in a moment.

Videotapes of the children being interviewed by people from Children’s Institute International, a child abuse clinic in Los Angeles, revealed that the method of questioning was highly suspect. The questions were extremely suggestive and coercive and led children to make false accusations. Some believe the method of questioning led to false memory syndrome. The trial ended in acquittals and dismissals, but even so, the lives of those in the McMartin family were destroyed.

The McMartin case was not the only one, it was just the most prominent. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, accusations of Satanic ritual abuse — some at preschools and daycare centers, as in the McMartin case — swept across the country like a wildfire. Nearly all of them involved the same lurid and horrifying details of Satanic rituals, necrophilia, cannibalism, human sacrifice, children being urinated and defecated on and other mind-blowing atrocities that came up in the McMartin case. Also present were the same leading, coercive questioning techniques used on the children in that case. With no substantial physical or corroborating evidence, arrests were made, trials were held and people were convicted.

Volunteer activist groups like Believe the Children were formed to educate people about the widespread problem of Satanic ritual abuse. Organizations of therapists published material to inform other therapists and law enforcement of the symptoms of what became known as SRA. Out of this came the revelation that a worldwide conspiracy of multigenerational Satanists who were extremely well-connected and powerful was kidnapping children and abusing them in horrible ways and using them as sacrifices in their rituals, which allegedly increased their supernatural power. Stories arose of Satanists who were actually summoning Satan. This worldwide conspiracy also included Satanic messages and supernatural powers involved in popular rock music and role playing games. It seemed that Satan’s agents were lurking around every corner, waiting to pounce on America’s children.

But none of this appeared spontaneously. All of it sprang from just a few sources. The first two were a couple of men who became very popular in Christian circles during the 1970s.

Mike Warnke was a Christian evangelist and comedian who claimed that, before converting to Christianity, he was a Satanist who climbed the religion’s ranks to the position of high priest. He told tales of Satanic rituals and explained how Satanists kidnapped and raped children and young people, using them in rituals that brought them, the Satanists, supernatural power. He talked about women who were used as breeders to provide babies for the Satanists to sacrifice in their rituals. His book The Satan Seller was published in 1973 and became a huge Christian bestseller. As a result, Warnke became a popular speaker who was in demand all over the country, and his Christian comedy records sold in big numbers. For two decades, Warnke was a Christian star who was respected as an “expert” in Satanism. In 1985, he was even featured on the May 16, 1985 episode of the ABC news magazine 20/20 called “The Devil Worshipers.”

Another popular speaker in Christian circles during the 1970s was a man named John Todd. Like Warnke, he was an in-demand speaker who claimed to have been a high priest in what he called the “Satanic Illuminati.” He claimed to have been John F. Kennedy’s “personal warlock” and told stories of being present for the ritualistic dedication of master recordings of popular rock albums to Satan himself, who often made an appearance at these ceremonies. He spoke of a vast Satanic conspiracy to take control of the United States and the world. He claimed that Ayn Rand was the mistress of one of the Satanic Illuminati’s highest ranking members, Philip Rothschild, who ordered her to write a novel that outlined their plan to take over the world. The result was Atlas Shrugged.

These two men helped lay the foundation for what was to come. The actual structure was built by a woman named Michelle Smith and her therapist, and later husband, Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder. In 1980, their book Michelle Remembers was published and became a bestseller.

Michelle Remembers tells the story of how Smith’s mother, part of a multigenerational Satanic cult in the city of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, forced Smith to participate in rituals beginning when she was five years old. It claims Smith was kept in a cage, sexually molested and tortured, rubbed with the blood and body parts of sacrificed babies and adults whose murders she had been forced to witness. The last of these rituals allegedly lasted 81 days and included the actual summoning of Satan himself. Smith claims that Jesus Christ, the virgin Mary and Michael the archangel intervened during that ritual and not only healed all of the physical scars she bore from years of abuse but removed all of her memories of those horrible events until the time was right for them to be revealed again. (As Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady would say, “How conveeeeeenient!”) According to Pazder, that time came when he began treating her for depression and recovered these “repressed memories” while Smith was under hypnosis. Pazder claimed that Smith had been a victim of the Church of Satan, a worldwide cult that predated Christianity.

In spite of the book’s many irrational claims — not the least of which was that the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, predated Christianity (which is a little like saying bumper stickers predated the invention of the automobile) — Michelle Remembers was published as nonfiction.

When reports of Satanic ritual abuse began to surface all over the United States in the next few years after the publication of the book, Pazder was consulted by law enforcement as a Satanic “expert.” He, too, became a popular public speaker and TV guest. In 1984, he was called in to consult with law enforcement on the McMartin Preschool case. That’s when prosecutor Glenn Stevens, who left the case because of the egregious way it was being handled by his fellow prosecutors, claimed that Pazder and Smith were given access to the children and influenced their testimony. So it’s no surprise that their testimony frequently mirrored the ugly details in Michelle Remembers.

In fact, the testimony of the accusers in all of the Satanic ritual abuse cases that followed were repetitions of the details in that book, and the idea that a global conspiracy of Satanists was not only reinforced but it started a panic. Michelle Remembers was routinely used as a guidebook by law enforcement in profiling cases of Satanic ritual abuse.

Most of the details of Smith’s story are identical to details given by Mike Warnke in his book about his experience with Satanism, and Pazder’s claim that there existed a worldwide conspiracy of ultra-powerful Satanists who were kidnapping, torturing and sacrificing people, especially babies and children, and that breeders were having babies specifically to be used in Satanic sacrifices, mirrored John Todd’s tales of the Satanic Illuminati.

That might be a significant fact in their favor if all of these people — Warnke, Todd, Smith and Pazder — were later revealed to be greedy liars and utter frauds.

The Great Satanic Panic of the Late 20th Century was greatly aided by a media eager to showcase the sensational stories that included plenty of sex, violence and jaw-dropping horror. And no one jumped on the Satanic express faster and in a bigger way than synthetic journalist and slavering media whore Geraldo Rivera — or, as I like to call him, Horrendo Revolta. He did a number of TV shows on the subject that only poured gasoline on the fire. In 1988, his 90-minute primetime Halloween special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground, borrowed it’s name from Satan’s Underground, the book by Lauren Stratford (also published as nonfiction), who claimed to be a survivor of Satanic ritual abuse and whose book launched her career as a public speaker and “expert” on the subject. The book was a Christian bestseller and she appeared on Geraldo’s special.

You can watch Geraldo’s special on YouTube in nine parts. I strongly recommend that you give it a look because you can see the number of completely unsubstantiated claims that are made — wild claims about cannibalism and infant sacrifice — and the out-of-context soundbites Geraldo runs as if they are hard news. The show accepts at the outset the existence of a vast Satanic network. When Geraldo starts talking about “breeders” who provide Satanic cults with babies to sacrifice in their rituals, what does he use to support the idea? A clip from the 1968 horror film Rosemary’s Baby — which never claimed to be nonfiction.

The most articulate guest on the show is Michael Aquino, founder of the Temple of Set, and one of the primary boogie men in the country according to Christian conspiracy theorists. He makes some extremely valid points about the real philosophy behind his religion and other Satanic beliefs, which bears no resemblance to the claims made by Christians about Satanism. He also points out that others on the show claim to have been involved in Satanic cults that routinely engaged in human sacrifice, but not one of them has ever identified a single guilty party for law enforcement or provided the names of anyone else involved in those cults. At one point, he says, “Who are they? Name them. Identify them and arrest them.” Aquino’s calm, rational responses are virtually ignored by Geraldo in favor of the feverish, outlandish claims of his other guests.

When Aquino calls for names and arrests, the response by the alleged “survivors” is that no one will believe them. One woman claims that no bodies are found because the Satanists “consume them.” Really? Bones, too? “Satanists ate my evidence!”

Former FBI agent Ted Gunderson claims that nothing can be done by law enforcement. Since retiring from the FBI, Gunderson has worked as a private investigator and claims that the worldwide conspiracy of Satan worshipers has been responsible for a host of high-profile crimes and incidents, including the Oklahoma City bombing and the accidental skiing death of Sonny Bono. He also claims the United Nations is poisoning the population with chemtrails as part of the Satanic Illuminati's effort to decrease the population. The only evidence we have here, of course, is the evidence that Ted Gunderson is a fucking loon.

Geraldo strung together a list of unrelated crimes committed by deranged people who possessed Satanic paraphernalia or claimed to be Satanists and concluded that an enormous network of Satanists were killing people all over the country. He paraded in front of the camera people who appeared to be drug-addled or mentally ill or both — some of whom were so dysfunctional that they could hardly speak — and pointed to their inarticulate claims as hard evidence of this network. It was a low point in television, a field where low points are common — but this was lower than usual because of the disgusting claims being made without any evidence and the damage those claims did to so many over the years.

A big culprit in all of this was the unreliable and damaging “repressed therapy movement,” a form of therapy that attempted to extract repressed memories from people, sometimes under hypnosis. As many as one in five people who have memories “recovered” using this kind of therapy have memories of Satanic ritual abuse, including the elaborate details outlined above. But hypnosis is not always necessary. Sometimes all you need is ... Geraldo Rivera.

Rivera’s shows on the Satanic Panic were not just bad TV, they did real damage. Paul Ingram lived in Olympia, Washington with his two daughters who one day watched one of Rivera’s Satanic ritual abuse shows. They ended up accusing their father not only of abusing them, but of leading a Satanic cult and overseeing the sacrifice of 25 babies. Using sleep deprivation and hypnotic interview techniques, interrogators from Ingram’s church, the Church of the Living Water, convinced him that he suffered from multiple personality disorder and had repressed the memories of the abuse and his Satanic activity. With no evidence, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In 1995, Geraldo apologized for publicizing what he came to realize was a complete fraud that had damaged so many lives and he recanted on CNBC, adding that he thought the “repressed memory therapy movement is also a bunch of crap.” But after all the manipulative disinformation he had aired over the years, his brief apology on a little-watched cable channel was hardly sufficient.

In the 1990s, most of the biggest names in the Satanic ritual abuse business — and it was a business, and still is! — were soundly exposed as liars and frauds. People like Mike Warnke and John Todd and Lauren Stratford and the Satanic conspiracy team of Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder — and much of that exposing was done by the Christian magazine Cornerstones. And yet, despite being exposed as frauds, these people — with the exception of Todd, who died in 2007 in the Behavioral Disorder Treatment Unit run by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health after serving half of a 30-year prison sentence for rape and child molestation — are still at it! And there are still plenty of people who believe everything they say, people convinced that the Satanic conspiracy is growing and that countless people are still being harmed and killed by devil worshipers.

Why do the Satanic Panic stars keep going even after they’ve been debunked? Because there’s money to be made and attention to be drawn to them. One can make good money as a public speaker, and then there are books and videos and audio recordings to sell. After all, there are still plenty of people who believe them in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they're full of crap. These are people who place their religious beliefs above the reality in front of their faces, people who prefer a scary fantasy to an unpleasant, mundane reality. They need something to fear and blame. These people are all Christians, of course, because Satan is specifically a Christian deity, and a Satanic conspiracy makes more sense to them than the possibility that greedy fellow Christians might use their belief to bilk money out of them.

Christianity played a big role in the SRA scare. The accusers, therapists and activists involved were mostly fundamentalist Christians who identified as “Satanic” anything their religion condemned and anything that smacked of the “occult.” The word “occult” originally referred to something that was secret, hidden from view, concealed or beyond understanding. But it has come to mean primarily anything relating to the supernatural, and to Christians, it is synonymous with “evil,” even if the true meaning of a particular symbol — like the pentagram, for example — is actually benign. In order to take those stories seriously, one first must believe in an evil being called Satan who is actively involved in people’s lives. I’m not trying to belittle the people who believe that ... because I was one of them.

During the 1970s, I heard the recorded lectures of Mike Warnke and John Todd — and another Christian teller of Satanic tales, Bob Larson (who’s also been discredited by Cornerstone as a liar and fraud) — a lot. They were played for me and my fellow classmates in the Seventh-day Adventist school I attended. Warnke’s talks were always funny, but what he was talking about was not — he joked about Satanism and being privy to kidnappings and the ritualistic abuse and sacrifice of young people, which aren’t what you would normally call comedy gold if you’re claiming those things actually happened. For one entire week in 1977 at what was then Lawncrest Junior Academy (now Redding Adventist Academy in Redding, California), Mr. Currier’s math class was devoted solely to listening to a series of cassette recordings of John Todd outlining the whole Satanic Illuminati conspiracy.

(Incidentally, my math teacher Mr. Currier later got into trouble for molesting the young wheelchair-bound girls with muscular dystrophy he’d taken into his home as foster children. To the best of my knowledge, he was not a Satanist — he was a Christian school teacher. But Satan still got the blame because later, Mrs. Currier explained to me that the devil was responsible for the whole thing. See? Satan is very convenient because you can blame him for everything!)

You know what? Those guys — Warnke and Todd — scared the shit out of me. My parents could never understand why I enjoyed watching horror movies on TV so much. They just couldn’t get it through their heads that the vampires and werewolves and ghosts in the old movies I watched on Creature Features every Saturday night were a relief from the nightmarish horrors instilled in me at school and in church. I’ve been writing horror fiction for a living for the last 27 years in part because of the fear-mongering paranoia I was taught by guys like Warnke and Todd.

You have to understand that I was raised to believe that Satan was an active threat to me at all times. As far back as I could remember, I had always been taught that I had to pray to god for help and be good to get his approval, but Satan’s attention was always focused on me. He was constantly peering over my shoulder, breathing down my neck, tempting me, goading me, threatening me, deceiving me. Because of my interest in forbidden things like novels, comic books and horror movies, I was told he was working through me, that he was using me. I was taught that god would always win, but at the same time, I was taught to fear Satan. When I watched a horror movie like Rosemary’s Baby on TV as a kid, it was like watching a documentary! It merely confirmed everything I’d been taught.

By the time I graduated from high school in 1981, I was seriously questioning everything I’d been taught to believe. A lot of years would go by before I would finally be free of the fears and superstitions that came with those beliefs, but that was when the serious thinking began. When I started hearing the stories of Satanic ritual abuse, I nearly wet myself! This wasn’t Rosemary’s Baby or The Brotherhood of Satan on TV — this was the news! My first thought upon hearing those stories?

Holy shit, everything Mike Warnke and John Todd said was TRUE!

I had grown up believing in all kinds of conspiracy theories that are simply taken for granted among Seventh-day Adventists in particular, and many among Christians in general. They’re so common that no one thinks of them as “conspiracy theories,” but simply as the truth with which they live. Seventh-day Adventists believe that there are ongoing back-room meetings in the U.S. government in which the Catholic church is trying to get the “Sunday law” passed, which would make Adventists criminals for observing the Saturday sabbath rather than going to church on Sundays. There are plenty of Christians, besides Adventists, who believe the Catholic church is the beast of Revelation. Some Christians believe Jews are conspiring to rule the world and wipe out Christianity. Many believe that all of science has conspired to bury the truth of creation with the lie of evolution and, depending on who you talk to, that either Satan planted fossils to fool us or god planted them to test our faith. So a Satanic conspiracy to molest and sacrifice children wasn’t exactly a big leap.

When I wrote Shackled in the mid-‘90s, I still didn’t have all of this information. The Satanic Panic was just beginning to calm down. But I had some very serious doubts, because the information I had did not add up and carried the unmistakable scent of bullshit. But I did what every writer of speculative fiction does — I asked, “What if?” What if something like this were really going on?

Shackled is about tabloid reporter Bentley Noble, who works for the Global Inquisitor. While researching a story about a woman who talks to the late Liberace, Noble stumbles onto something so horrible, so unspeakable, that he’s not sure if even his own tabloid will report on it because it’s so unbelievable. Children are disappearing and what’s being done with them is almost too awful to accept. With the help of a true crime writer and Pastor Ethan Walker, whose own son Samuel has been taken, Noble goes into the dark underworld of human trafficking and discovers that there is no limit to the evil that men can do.

A lot of people have told me that Shackled is one of the scariest and most upsetting books they’ve ever read. That, of course, is music to my ears. But some mistakenly believe that the book is based on actual events, and that misconception stems from the fact that the Satanic Panic was widely reported on, but the truth behind it received very little if any coverage. The truth is seldom sensational enough for the media. Shackled is entirely a work of fiction inspired by what has turned out to be a contemporary legend, like Bigfoot and alien abductions (complete with anal probes). I did not write it, as some think, to make people aware of a real problem. I wrote it only to entertain ... and to terrify. I hope it does its job.

Shackled is available in paperback and for Kindle and Nook and as an audiobook from Audible. Please visit my website at