Confessions of my Past, Present and Future
I was one of those fortunate kids whose parents read bedtime stories to as a child. You know, the kids philosopher Adam Swift said “unfairly disadvantage” children are ones whose parents didn’t read to them. Yeah, I’m one of those fortunate jerks. And while I feel maybe those other children got a raw deal, I certainly wouldn’t go back in time to tell my parents they shouldn’t read to me because little Timmy’s father is semi-literate and can’t read him bedtime stories, thereby depriving Timmy of a lifelong love of reading and perhaps stunting his educational growth.
I don’t think that’s the sort of “level playing field” (as Swift called for in his interview with ABC Radio) that any of us should be considering. I think maybe involving kids in reading more is the answer. Maybe promoting literacy and reading programs the way we used to before all everyone cared about was their new cell phone or the Real Housewives of Whothefuckcares is the key.
Then again, maybe I’m old fashioned.
In the past (before I learned about cynicism), I was a young boy with a love of stories and illustrations. I still remember clearly my mother, who was a teacher, reading aloud from a book I loved called Favourite Tales of Monsters and Trolls by George Jonsen--really getting into it, doing all the voices. The Troll Voice is one I remember most fondly, though it was pretty much just her regular voice at a higher pitch and volume, crying out, "Farmer Neil! Farmer Neil! Let us in!" The book was three stories, each based on classic folk tales: “The Farmer and The Cheese” (based on “The Brave Little Tailor”), “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and “The Trolls and the Pussycat.”
Each story was illustrated. These intricate paintings by artist John O’Brien that remind me of some of Brueghel the Elder’s stuff (probably also why Brueghel is my favorite painter), with hundreds of little creatures hidden in the woodwork, in trees and crevasses.
Back then I was more into drawing than writing, being a little young to think too deeply about things like structure and character, so I often copied the style of these paintings. Once or twice I actually tried to trace them, only to ruin the pages. Still, the stories themselves must have gotten to me on a subconscious level, because it's a book I think back to often as a trigger for my love of horror.
The Garden of Bad Things by Doug McLeod was another favorite. A collection of dark poetry set to creepy images by Peter Thomson: covering such abominations as “The Human Fly from Bendigo” the “Badfairy,” and “Zookeeper Zack.” And Shel Silverstein. And Roald Dahl.
I remember distinctly reading Dahl’s The Twits sprawled out on my parents’ bed (I can’t remember at what age), and thinking about what a great movie it would make without all those annoying muggle-wumps. Of course most kids were probably in love with those meddling monkeys; I just thought they cluttered up the real story, the fun stuff: Mr. and Mrs. Twit’s increasingly insane rivalry and pranks.
Much later, probably about twelve or thirteen, I got into Stephen King. We had two of his books among a larger collection which included a huge section of Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock crime collections, the novels of Alien and Jaws and Dead & Buried, Richard Laymon’s bizarrely twisted The Cellar and assorted plays, along with some authentic "literature."
The cover of Night Shift, with its bandaged human hand sprouting multiple alien eyeballs, caught my eye and I devoured it quickly. The second book was Danse Macabre, which didn't quite appeal to me until a few years later, after reading Clive Barker's Books of Blood. I was about fifteen, and had begun writing for fun, as opposed to just school assignments.
King’s book became an invaluable tool. King’s books became an inspiration; I read every single one of his books, until the incredibly boring Insomnia made me stop reading him for ten years. But Night Shift and Books of Blood specifically, and Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls, sparked my love of reading and writing more than any others, which is why I'd decided to launch my writing "career" with a short story collection of my own.
Flash-forward to the present, and my unassuming (if you could say this about a book that once had a bloodied chainsaw on the cover) self-published horror collection, Gristle & Bone, has been re-released by Forsaken, who have also just published my first novel, Salvage. I'm currently working on a second novel that I’m hoping to complete at least a first draft of by the New Year, along with several short stories for anthologies, and a novella based on a TV pitch. (I like to have a few things on the go at once, in case I get bored.)
Meanwhile, I'm reading some really great stuff from connections I've made in the horror genre, and have been introduced to a wonderful concept called the "beta read." For those of you who don’t know what this means, I’m sometimes lucky enough to read books well before they come out, to offer (hopefully) helpful suggestions, and sometimes (when I’m really lucky) provide cover "blurbs," as I’ve recently been honored with on Kit Power’s first full-length novel, GodBomb!, and Ken Preston’s Joe Coffin Season One. (Blatant name-dropping, I know. Shameless.)
It's a huge honor when a writer whose work I enjoy and respect asks if I would read a new story fresh from their psyches, or the novel they’ve been working on for who knows how long--let alone ask for my opinion on it! It’s something I’d never even imagined I’d be a part of when I first started writing on my dad’s Tandy laptop, copying those old King short stories from memory.
Most of the stuff I'm reading these days is shorter: novellas, novelettes, short stories and flash fiction (or "drabbles"). I strongly believe horror works best in smaller doses, and am often worried about where the genre is going in the traditional publishing world. For instance, was it contractual obligations that made King's and Barker's latest books such sprawling messes? Why must every book now be part one of a series, even before interest in the initial concept has been proven? Short stories seem to be the bastard stepchildren of the novel, and short story collections must have a consistent “theme” to be considered worthy. Anthologies are still being produced in record numbers, but readers for these books seem to be in short supply.
That’s not to say I don’t love novels. Longer books offer characters with greater depth, and character is my bag. It’s just that the horror is often difficult to keep up over a longer work without coming off as cheesy. There needs to be peaks and valleys, and during those valleys, with slower character moments and long passages of dialogue, without that ever-present sense of impending doom, the dread can lessen its hold on the reader.
It’s not like TV or a movie, where something literally jumps up to scare you. In a book, the fears come from the imagination. The writer creates the creature’s bones; the reader gives it flesh. They can’t be expected to keep a clear image of the terror in their minds while reading paragraph after paragraph of Susie’s backstory.
Who knows what the future holds? After having just declared book series the death of publishing, I do have one or two books of my own in mind, as well as TV shows and feature films. But as William Meikle mentioned in his addition to the Confessions of My Past, Present and Future series (name-dropping again), I wish I hadn’t started really writing until my mid-thirties. I’ve got so much catching up to do, not so much with the output of other writers (although I am often astonished by the sheer volume of stuff some people seem to be able to churn out; I suppose a lot of it has to do with not having a day job), but with my own ideas. I’m always two or three books ahead of myself, writing one while thinking about the next ones. I constantly feel as if I’m running behind, putting pressure on myself to write more, more more!
Likely that’s a good thing. Likely that’s how most people who write feel. One thing I know for sure is I’ll never stop reading, nor advocating it.
“Level playing field” be damned.
You can read my review of Gristle and Bone: 7 Delectable Tales of Terror here.
This collection of Duncan’s short stories has very recently hit the #1 spot in the Kindle Store Horror Short Stories section on Amazon UK!!
You can buy Gristle and Bone: 7 Delectable Tales of Terror here:
Also keep your eye out for Duncan’s debut novel, Salvage which is out this week on 10th November. My review of Salvage will be published on the day.
You can buy Salvage here:
If you would like to help support Confessions of a Reviewer then please consider using the links below to buy any of the books mentioned in this feature or indeed anything at all from Amazon. This not only supports me but also lets me know how many people actually like to buy books after reading my reviews.
Duncan Ralston was born in Toronto, and spent his teens in a small town. As a "grown-up," Duncan lives with his girlfriend and their dog in Toronto, where he writes about the things that frighten and disturb him. In addition to his twisted short stories found in GRISTLE & BONE, THE ANIMAL, and the charity anthology THE BLACK ROOM MANUSCRIPTS, his debut novel SALVAGE is available now.
"Mr. Ralston writes horror fiction that is unflinching and pulls no punches." - Kit Power.
"Duncan Ralston is writing honest stories about real people, pitched headlong into extraordinary situations. And that is what makes them so horrifying." - Ken Preston, Dirge Magazine
And for more about Duncan, visit his site or find him on social media: