Last winter was our first gray season, a time I spent working like a dervish in what was then my new home office. I'm not a writer who needs to cast his net far for ideas -- my problem is that I have too many, and until I find a way to clone myself, there are always multiple projects howling at me to complete them. So when a friend presented me with a newspaper article about a man who'd survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 only to drown years later, I balked. "This will make a good basis for a story," she urged. Still, I resisted. Until I read the article and realized how correct she was. And when the submission call for Death's Realm was announced by the fine folks at Grey Matter Press (who'd previously published two of my short stories in the anthologies Splatterlands and Ominous Realities), my pen flew across the page, recording the terrifying experiences of a Swedish immigrant named Edgard Palmveist, haunted by the events of that longest night. Out of the scores of submissions made to the anthology, "Drowning" was one of a handful selected, and it appears alongside an impressive roster of authors, who shared the back-stories behind their Death's Realm stories with me.
Jay Caselberg on "Penumbra": "I guess, starting off, that for me, 'ghost' is a good label, something that we can use to quantify and give a meaningful presence in our minds to something that is not so easy. Do I believe?—oh yes. First hand, I can recount several experiences that, to me, have no other rational explanation. I have lived in ‘haunted’ houses, I have experienced things going bump in the night and there are two choices: either let them scare the crap out of you or allow them as a part of your reality. They have been such a part of folklore and storytelling for so long, that even if you don’t believe, they are so embedded in our collective race memory that it’s easy to understand why people do believe. So, let me leave you with one question to get you thinking: what was the earliest age that you saw or heard something that you believed should not be there?"
Jay O'Shea on "Pirate's Ransom": "Somalia has been torn apart by decades of war, its waters have been plundered by foreign fishing vessels, and other nations have treated its coastline as a dumping ground. Piracy is one of the few ways of earning a living in this impoverished land. But piracy, always dangerous, becomes more risky for those who have little to start with: Somali pirates embark on missions without enough fuel or water to get back to land; once they’re out on the ocean, they take a ship or they die. Somali pirates are also addicted to khat, a plant containing a short-lasting stimulant that decays as the leaves dry. A Somali pirate is desperate, hungry, fully committed to his mission, and in the throws of amphetamine psychosis. What if these desperate men boarded a ship only to be met by people -- and things -- more desperate and more ruthless than they?"
Jane Brooks on "The Weight": "In the prelude to Song of Kali, Dan Simmons writes, ‘Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.’ He could have been referring to my hometown in south Alabama. So small that it was served by only one caution light, two gas stations, and a single K-12 school, it was nevertheless home to two hunchbacks, a vicious pack of wild dogs, a dozen child molesters, tribes of banal and ruthless bullies, gutless authority figures who punished the weak and rewarded the mean, sharpened rulers disguised as typing teachers, and every other monster a child could ever have to face -- including mothers twisted and corrupted by generations of abuse. ‘The Weight’ draws from the private world one mother created for her and her daughter in that terrible town, an awful, headachey place to which the protagonist must return one last time."
John C. Foster on "Burial Suit": "This was an odd one. The title and first line of the story came to me years ago, and I remember sitting down to write the first page and then…nothing. I had no idea what the story was supposed to be, but as often happens, I knew something was there. I’ve walked this road before, however. The same thing happened with my first novel, a few pages and then a great expanse of nada, so I hung onto the page I’d written and would periodically pull it out to read, putting my ear to the ground to see if a story was galloping towards me. It wasn’t until our cat Lucy passed away -- a.k.a. The Loose -- that the character came into focus: dangerous, clumsy and somehow helpless, but with a horrifying means to address the death of a loved one. The key for me was not that he was a murderer and possibly a few eggs short of a dozen in the sanity department, the key was that as horrible as he was, he cared deeply and was prepared to do anything he could for his father."
Simon Dewar and Karen Runge on "High Art":
Simon -- "The germ of 'High Art' leapt into my mind pretty quickly after the submission call went out. I knew I wanted a story about a bodily possession and revenge. I also wanted the character Ray to be an embodiment of the worst traits some men possess, amplified and put to paper. I threw the idea to Karen Runge, and she liked it and jumped on board. Her talents helped make it truly creepy and extra confronting. We worked well together because I write in a very flat, in-your-face style and she writes in an emotive, alluring and descriptive style, so we balanced each other well. Karen also helped breathe some life into the female characters in a way I’m not sure I could have. I’m particularly proud of this piece, especially because it’s a collaborative work. It’s repugnant, confronting, sometimes sexy, and ends in a sick crescendo of violence. Horror fans out there will love it."
Karen -- "My Suspended in Dusk editor and fellow writer pal, Simon Dewar, sent me an email that ran something like: Grey Matter Press is awesome, they’re doing this anthology, how about we collaborate? I said yes, and he sent me a smutty sex scene. Well, what are friends for? And so begins ‘High Art.’ Usually when I write -- which I’d only ever done alone up until then -- I focus on a sensation or an image set to a basic concept and run with it. I almost never plot. I very rarely know how a story will end. ‘High Art’ had a direction from ‘go’: the premise (Simon’s), the gore method (mine), and the rest couldn’t have been easier -- we just took turns writing until we got it there. It was a blast! Given the subject matter, the fact that we’re a male-female duo I think helped balance it as a piece. Looking at it now, to me, our gory little story reads part noir thriller, part torture porn, part cautionary tale. Weaving breadth, I guess, is the happy accident of collaborations. As far as making art goes, we certainly had an easier time than our characters!"
Matthew Pegg on "March Hays": "Stories come from random ideas colliding in the mind, like stray comets. Sometimes it’s hard to track their trajectories. So what was I thinking when I wrote ‘March Hays’? Manderley, Wildfell Hall, Aswarby, Motley Hall: disquieting things happen in big houses. They offer an enclosed environment with potential for a murky history and something nasty lurking in the east wing. The house in ‘March Hays’ owes its appearance to Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire, which has the lawns, the stable block, the chapel and the previous owner executed for murdering a servant. Its interior shares features with Wightwick Manor, in Wolverhampton, where a secret door in the drawing room leads to a hidden stair, and a panelled alcove with a built-in seat offers a handy spot for an unseen observer. So March Hays also has its mysterious door and cosy alcove, though not at the same time, of course… But the story’s a romance: what if the girl you played with as a child is your soul mate? What do you do when she’s unattainable? And it’s a war story. And there’s something unspeakable in the east wing. And there’s a garden party. And gruesome mutilation. And a horse-ride in the snow. And alcohol abuse by a minor… What was I thinking when I wrote ‘March Hays’?"
Aaron Polson on "Nine": "My stories usually come to life as fragments, and ‘Nine’ was no different. A random bit will pop into my brain and, after some time, I've massaged the seed into something like a story. ‘Nine’ started like this: I nearly severed my left little finger in a car door. There’s more, of course. The boys in the story are mirrors of my own, little imagination machines who turn everything into something else. One summer, a few years ago, they conjured muddy water into magic potions to turn both of them into gorillas in order to hide from passing cars. No one would notice the gorillas in our driveway, of course, because they are so common in northeast Kansas. Boys can be weird. So we have the boys, their vivid imaginations, the missing fingers…and loss. My first wife took her own life three years ago -- not the same circumstance as Charlie, but a loss. Death, especially that of a parent, can strain relationships between parents and children. It raises big questions and stirs identity crisis for the surviving spouse. All this went into the pot. I let it simmer, worked a few drafts, and ‘Nine’ bubbled from the other side."
Hank Schwaeble on "Haunted": "Years ago, a Houston woman committed a horrible crime in a fit of psychosis. The case made national headlines and was the subject of frenzied cable news talk until the next sensational story popped up. Aside from the general shocking nature of what happened, two things in the aftermath stuck out in my mind. First was a comment by a male anchor regarding how sorry one had to feel for the husband, a remark that seemed rather uncontroversial. The second thing was an opinion piece I read a few days or so later where a woman excoriated the husband and placed most, if not all, the blame at his feet for putting his wife in a position where she was under more pressure than she could bear and not getting her the help she needed. Both of those points lingered in my mind for some time, germinating. I remember thinking, he's either partly to blame, or he isn't, but either way, the guy is going to be haunted for the rest of his life. That's when the idea for this story started to take shape."
Paul Michael Anderson on "To Touch the Dead": "Stories -- even the most deathly serious ones -- are goofy, roundabout things. For me, one thing connects with another thing, which decides to party down with a third thing, until I'm lying in my bed one night and I realize I won't be sleeping any time soon. As far as I can tell, Richard Matheson is largely responsible for ‘To Touch the Dead’. When he died in mid-2013, I thought of his legacy, what he left behind -- which was his work, of course. If he was remembered at all, it would be for the artifacts. And then that merged with the Allegheny County Cemetery in Pittsburgh, where I grew up -- a large necropolis that you could wander for a full day and never see every grave, every memorial, and you quickly realized that no one saw them, not really. Who's visiting the grave of an early-19th century family? At the same time, I was doing the edit on a book where a terrorist attack figured prominently, and thinking that I'd never written about the victims, just the aftermath. That merged with the idea of how we think about death and the aftermath itself and, suddenly, I had an emotional gradient to a story I didn't know was forming in the first place. I wanted to talk about death and how each of us approached it, not as people who will eventually die, but as people left behind when others die. The two main characters, across nearly a millennia in time, each approach death from two different extremes, and I wanted to talk about how each reconciles that within their environments."
Rhoads Brazos on "Omniscopic": "With this piece, I wanted a quaint, 19th Century voice, one that would allow outdated phrases at a whim and descriptions that would feel florid, yet somehow still ring true to each character. In this, shades of Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ shouldn’t be hard to spot, not only in the voice but also in the characters themselves. We have professor-scholars contacting other planes, after all. As to plot, I found it interesting that whenever an otherworld door is opened, a human spirit steps through. If you do the math, you’ll find it’s very poor odds. Imagine that each person who ever lived -- that’s 100-billion talking monkeys -- had one spin at the contact-a-spirit wheel. Statistically, no one should have yet succeeded. We’d keep getting an ant or a sand flea or a beetle, lots of beetles actually, a revolting number. Perhaps the reason spirits are so subtle is that while we’re waiting for them to come floating down a darkened hallway, they’re already crawling over our toes. Pleasant dreams!"
Martin Rose on "Mirrorworld": "‘Mirrorworld’ was inspired by a real life mirror. I forgot about it until now. I'm broke-poor, so my furniture is usually stolen out of other people's trash or bought from thrift shops. There was this dresser with an old mirror screwed on the back. When I put it together, it still had the date stamped on it -- October 31, 1939. Halloween. This struck me on the weird side, which seems to be a knock-on effect of acquiring all your possessions second hand -- your ability to stumble onto coincidences both hair-raising and mundane increases a thousand fold. And then you do that thing writers always do, usually when they're bored doing menial jobs -- your mind starts turning sideways into the what-if phase. Voila. At least, that's the simplified version. Whether or not that mirror has been used in esoteric occult rituals, I'll leave that for your imagination, but it passed out of my hands and over to a Satanist. So yeah, the cursed thing is still out there, making the rounds. Moral of the story, check your mirrors. You might have my Halloween mirror."
Brian Fatah Steele on "Harder You Fall": "If we’re afraid of ghosts, then what are ghosts afraid of? I find there’s something about that question that makes me smile. Perhaps because all we can do is merely speculate. There’s so much we don’t know, although we claim to. I wanted to explore that, see how it could come back to bite someone. A bit of knowledge and a handful of power is nothing more than parlor tricks when you come to realize there’s far more out there. I kept thinking about characters who abused what they thought was absolute power, and what real power would look like. Mind you, this was all confined to Death’s Realm, as it would be. Everything ended up having a slight Lovecraftian vibe to it in the end, but it helped get the point across. Sure, the ghosts of humanity’s dead might be preyed upon by a questionable few, those driven by greed and influence. But what else could be dead?"
Stephen Graham Jones on "You Only Die Once": "I've had that opening in my head for a long time, about the ‘scabhead,’ but had never tried it out until Sharon Lawson said she needed something for 'post-death,' and that cued up an Etgar Keret story for me, and I realized kind of all at once that the reason I'd only ever had the first line for this was that I also needed a world, or, in this case, an afterworld, another place, one where a word like that could be completely normal. After that it was just putting flies in bottles and the like. You know, writing a story. But that's true what happens in the story, with the right kind of shadows. I've always known that without really having to think about it."
JG Faherty on "Foxhole": "My inspiration for ‘Foxhole’ came to me, as many do, from a ‘what if?’ thought that I had, sort of out of nowhere. Basically, it was, what if a voodoo houngon got drafted into the Army? I was sitting in the mall, waiting for my wife to buy something, and just kind of daydreaming, when POW, it came to me. I had my phone with me, so I sent myself a quick email: voodoo priest is a soldier. The next morning, I opened the email and started thinking about it. What would make a voodoo priest special as a soldier? That led quickly to zombies, but zombie soldier stories are a dime a dozen. Then I thought, forget the voodoo priest part, focus on the zombie. A zombie who is a soldier, among regular soldiers. From there I just kept modifying the story until I got the feel I wanted: sort of a Tales from the Crypt-type story about this son of a voodoo priestess. I gave him a friend to protect and set the scene in a future war. In the end, the story is about the relationship between two friends who are closer than brothers. A far cry from where it started."
John F.D. Taff on "Some Other Day": "‘Some Other Day’ began life long, long ago, practically at the beginning of my twenty-five-year writing career. I remember getting the idea, writing the story -- which was much shorter and a bit less ghostly -- and then promptly losing it. I switched computers a few times, first with Apple products, then to Windows. Somewhere along the way it vanished, but the idea stuck with me. A few months ago, the idea dusted itself off and reasserted itself with a vengeance. As I must, when ideas rear their ugly heads and demand a sacrifice, I stopped what I was doing to write the story, mainly to shut it up. I couldn't remember the original's title, but the new title was really the only one that would work. The new story works better than I remember the original working. It's longer, with a better foundation, and, of course, since I'm Grey Matter's resident King of Pain, more poignant. The lesson here? Sometimes it's okay to lose stories because it's possible they'll be better in the end."