Wednesday, August 17, 2011

From the Bookshelf: Review of SCARECROW AND THE MADNESS by Craig Saunders and Robert Essig

Ask any number of my creative friends, most recently those fine folk in my Wednesday Night Writers Group, and they'll tell you that I've been known to emote over how much I love discovering exciting new voices in literature.  Toward the end of a ten-year run working for a trio of magazines put out by a now-defunct publishing behemoth that gasped its final breath in 2010, in and amongst writing original short fiction, feature interviews, Web and DVD reports, I was also assigned the occasional book to review.  The best of those books still hold places of honor on the limited shelf space in my beloved Writing Room.

So when out of the blue I was asked to review Scarecrow and the Madness by Craig Saunders and Robert Essig, a forthcoming release from Blood Bound Books, I was more than intrigued.  I'd already become a fan of Essig, a cryptic and ominous presence out there in the realm of such fantastic presses as The Twisted Library and Pill Hill Press, and whose work mine had shared space with between the covers of numerous anthologies, and I seriously liked Saunders from the jaunty everyman vibe he projected from posts in various publisher forums I subscribe to.  Also, Saunders and I are set to appear in the Library's forthcoming Fearology 2: Beware All Creatures Great and Small, me with "The Tora Bora Horror", he with the most intriguing title in the entire ToC, "The Monkey's Sandwich".  So I agreed.  Cross-eyed late one Sunday afternoon after a long day of writing, I opened the .pdf ARC.  An hour later, it struck me that I hadn't been able to put the thing down.  Exciting new voices in literature?  Be careful what you wish for!

Scarecrow and the Madness is a wonderful hybrid approach to publishing, the print version of one of those Creature Double-Features I recall so fondly from my youth: two authors with completely different novellas, the only common threads being an absence of supernatural evil in both story lines (lending an even greater dose of the sinister because the malevolence is human), tales told in brisk day-to-day format, and complimentary muscular writing styles.

In Scarecrow, Saunders' opening salvo, we meet Margaret and Bernard Rochette, your typical older couple living on a remote farm in the marshy lowlands of eastern England known as The Fenlands.  Madge and Bernie have reached the banal stage of their relationship that comes from a long marriage and the understanding couples share after decades of being together.  She keeps their world in orbit and nags Bernie about his health and not drinking in excess when he joins his mates in town at the pub.  Bernie fibs about his drinking, even while sensing it's probably impossible to pull one over on his hawk-eyed wife.  While much of the passion appears to have evaporated from their marriage, it's clear how close the Rochettes still are, linked by structure and a genuine love for one another, even if it's rarely professed.  That structure and love will be sorely tested on the morning a bearded policeman shows up at their front door while Madge fries bacon and Bernie lollygags in the can, warning the couple to keep their doors locked and their eyes open, for a band of itinerant gypsies has just made camp in a neighbor's field.

Saunders' pace -- as both Madge and Bernie run afoul of the malevolent Mulrone Family -- never slows.  Nor does the author's sly ability to do that which is all-important in fiction: making us care about his characters.  What happens to Madge and Bernie is equally shocking in terms of the presentation and how deeply it affects the reader.  I was forty pages in before remembering I had dinner in the oven, or that I was sitting in the big, comfortable blue chair of my home office, not racing in a breathless panic around the Fens or the Rochette's ancient Georgian farmhouse as part of Saunders' engaging nightmare trip.  I rushed back first thing the following morning, desperate to know the ending, which is a bitter though brilliant surprise.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Saunders and discuss his novella and greater body of work.

What's the behind-the-scenes story of SCARECROW?
Scarecrow was based purely on a conversation I had with a friend about gypsies...the police came to her house and warned her to lock up, because thefts increased dramatically when the gypsies were in town.  I thought about how racism is viewed in our little corner of the world...but then I thought, what if there was a reason for this? What if, like any other ethnic group, there were bad elements...downright evil elements...the Mulrone family came from that simple idea.  I will write more Mulrone family stories.  In fact, I'm writing one next!  I find people to be the most frightening of all.  Pirates, in particular.  And clowns, too.  Anyone that dresses funny.

Take us into your writing space.  What's it like?  What's your process?
I write in a tiny shed with slugs in it.  I have my posters on the walls -- one a reprint of the poster for Frankenstein (the original, in German, featuring Boris Karloff), one with a blowup of Heath Ledger's Joker, and a promo poster for Stephen King's mini-series, The Stand.  I write on an old computer on a dressing table that was once my nan's, with a broken office chair that's really uncomfortable.  The tumble dryer is behind me, usually providing white noise.  I listen to loud music on headphones, never write with money in my pocket, and always wear shoes.  Because once you've trodden on a slug barefoot, you never want to do it again.

I don't really have a process.  I'm a little OCD, among many other foibles that I have.  I don't write a plan, which is probably the only hard and fast rule I follow.  I've written long hand, on the computer, only done one draft on some stories, ten or twenty of others.  The longest I spent on a story is two years, but usually I write novels fast.  I don't spend more than one day on the first draft of a short story, and rarely more than a month on the first draft of a novel.  I find that writing fast puts me under much needed pressure, because otherwise I'm ridiculously lazy.  If I take time off, it usually turns into months, but then at the pace I write I find I need a while to recuperate afterward, usually playing a game.  I like Fallout.  A lot.

What truly scares you?  And inspires you?
Like I said before, I find people terrifying.  They have a capacity for evil unknown in nature.  A dog might turn on its owner and bite, but it will never keep someone in captivity for years in a basement, or torture someone, or rob and murder and maim.  People are truly frightening...that's why I live in my shed!

That said, nice people inspire me.  I love nice people.  But with regard to my stories, my county, Norfolk, is often the inspiration.  That, and the places I visit.  I'm usually more inspired by houses, dark cemeteries, abandoned seaside resorts.  Places are generally central to my novels and the Fens, in particular, where Scarecrow is set, is one of my least favourite places.  It has an eerie feel to it.  Flat, unending landscape with few trees....feels like the kind of place where people get lost and go missing forever.  Maybe get eaten by a pumpkin.  That doesn't happen in Scarecrow.  May happen in real life, mind...

Share with us your ten favorite words.  Are there any least favorite?
Offensive words, though I use them all the time in my writing, are my least favourite when applied with malice, though even the harshest words can be funny if they're used in the right way.  I figure if you're going to go for an insult, though, go large.  My ten favourite words, in no particular order, are:

Dickhead.  That one really makes me laugh, for some reason.

You're not a writer but sell insurance.  Then you wake up and realize the actuarial tables were only a bad dream.  Breathe a sigh of relief -- you're a writer again, working with words and mining the vast reaches of your imagination.  What does being a writer mean to Craig Saunders?
It's a good question.  The answer is...I don't know.  The longer answer, perhaps more interesting, is as follows: I think two things saved me from oblivion after a misspent youth and early manhood -- writing, and my wife.  I don't think I could exist without either.  I love writing.  There's no greater feeling than when I write a chapter or a short and sit back at the end of it, having knocked it out of the park.  I get such a buzz when the muse is in the room, whispering in my ear what to write.  Sometimes, it's almost automatic.  I read things back and forget writing them.  If I think, hey, that's good, I keep it.  I've been writing seriously now for about four or five years, and loving every minute of it.  I couldn't do anything else anymore.  Kind of like if you've seen the light and eat smoked bacon after the plain stuff.  I love bacon.  I love writing almost as much.  Oh, and my wife -- nearly forgot!

And now, on to The Madness.

Have you ever sat down with someone and thought...that person seated way too close is stark-raving crazy?  Imagine you're driving home at a desperate clip in the middle of a wicked blizzard, likely facing certain death...until you take a wrong turn, crash your car, and land yourself at the table of a reluctant benefactor, snowed in for the long haul, sitting across from a very tall, very strong, and very dangerous man who isn't quite right in the head.  That's the unsettling premise to Robert Essig's claustrophobic page-turner, which weighs in at three times the length of its predecessor.

The Madness opens with bank manager Tony racing through the snowstorm and looming darkness, desperate to get home.  It soon becomes clear he'll never make it, so Tony opts to crash in (literally!) on the home of the Ritter Family -- wife Sue, son Phillip, and towering, brooding auto mechanic Dan.  Dan makes it clear he's none-too-pleased to have a stranger in the house, especially given that dangerous family affliction known as the 'brain-tickle', which manifests itself whenever Dan drinks.  And it certainly doesn't help that Tony's got a streak of madness in his past...and is hearing voices of his own. As the white-noise whine of insanity builds inside the snowbound house, so does the violence in ever-thickening ripples that left me switching allegiences and waving a finger at Essig for being such a naughty boy -- and skilled storyteller!

It was my delight to also speak with Robert Essig, who shared his insight into the making of The Madness.

What's the back story behind the story?  How did THE MADNESS unfold?
Several years ago I was listening to a talk-radio host who was discussing a terrible storm in Colorado where several small communities were snowed in. The host shared his own story of a similar situation and how unprepared his neighbors were. That was an interesting topic for a guy who has lived his whole life in San Diego and has rarely seen snow. I began wondering what would happen if someone became stranded in a snowstorm and was forced to seek the kindness of strangers in a mountainous region without neighbors and the disastrous consequences of broken trust between both parties.

Your byline is everywhere -- tell us where you've been, and where we can look for you in the future.
I’ve been working my way up the small press ladder, so to speak, by getting my short fiction published in a variety of anthologies and magazines. My first sell was to Tales of the Talisman, and I would have to say that I am most proud of the story I sold to Necrotic Tissue (the magazine is now defunct unfortunately). Not necessarily because of the story itself, but due to how much I liked that particular zine (it is a particularly nasty tale, though). I am also quite proud of the two anthologies I have edited -- Through the Eyes of the Undead and Malicious Deviance.

What lies in the immediate future is the release of my debut novel People of the Ethereal Realm, forthcoming from Twisted Library Press, along with a sprinkling of short stories such as “Skeletons in the Basement” in Dead Souls (Post Mortem Press), and “Contents of a Canvas Bag” in Look What I Found (NorGus Press).

You write primarily Horror. Share with us your history with Horror, what you love about it, what you think needs to be changed, re-imagined, staked.
I’ve been a fan since I was very young. It probably had something to do with Halloween. I was always fascinated with Halloween decorations and the general feeling of October. I think the public was more into that holiday when I was a child than they are now, which is a shame. Eventually I took a liking to horror films, and when I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in junior high school, I was hooked. 

I think horror needs to step back and take a look at what’s going on. Forget classic monsters for the sake of them being “classic monsters” and focus on what truly horrifies people. I think humanity is far more terrifying than a vampire or a zombie. I get it -- I like vamps and zombies too, but I want to be truly frightened, which is very difficult to achieve. Forget trying to be original, trying to keep up with trends, trying to write the next big thing, and just write what comes naturally. I think the whole genre will be better off for it.

What was your defining moment -- that EUREKA! flash of lightning when you knew you wanted to be a writer.
It was during my freshman year in high school. I had to write about Thanksgiving, and I decided to compose a fictional tale depicting a child who begins to suspect that his family is going to introduce him to cannibalism with a “new” Thanksgiving meal rather than a traditional turkey. My teacher loved it, and I began writing during class everyday. I gave up the craft for about five years or so before becoming serious about publishing my work, and I haven’t stopped since.

You project a fairly gloomy, brooding exterior. Tell me something warm and cuddly about Robert Essig.
That’s because I really am a bit gloomy and brooding. I tend to sit back and watch everything, absorbing society like a sponge -- that’ll cause anyone to become gloomy.  On the warm and cuddly side, I have been married for five years and have a two-year-old son. We have a small dog who has managed to acquire subscriptions to several magazines (this is not a joke -- we get miscellaneous magazines in the mail with my dog’s name, Velvet, on them, and I have no idea why).  I once owned two rabbits -- that’s pretty cuddly, isn’t it?

It was my pleasure to interview both authors -- and to read their fantastic collaboration by Blood Bound Books.  I expect Saunders and Essig will become heavy-hitting names to readers in the near future, and will be on the lookout for more of their work.  If you love reading exciting tales by talented writers, you should check them out, too.

Craig Saunders Official Blog

Robert Essig Official Blog 


  1. That's an amazing review, Gregory, thank you so much for this, and for taking the time to read our stories. The interviews were great, too - loved getting into the mind of Robert Essig and hearing his thoughts on the future of horror. Coming from Robert, it's definitely sound advice. I can't thank you enough for doing I won't. Haha. No, I will really! Thank you!

  2. Great review, great interview. Makes me want to pound on Blood Bound's door, demanding they hurry it up and publish the thing!

  3. Thanks, Stony -- it was tons o'fun adding the interview portion (a blast from my past -- I haven't written nonfiction in over two years now). Go pound on the BBB front gates! The book is worth it. You bring the pitchforks, I'll have the torches!

  4. Craig, it really was a pleasure. SCARECROW made me a fan. I had a blast writing up the review and doing the interviews, and wish you and Robert total world-dominating success with this book! No further thanks required, comrade!

  5. No thanks? I'll just post a little smiley face, then! :)

  6. This is great, can't wait to read it and give it a review.

    Gregory, great interview!!!

  7. Great interview! This looks like an exciting book.

  8. Interesting stuff, now I fear stepping on a slug barefoot!