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The frighteners
The Horror Writers Association of New England comes to town
BY JOSH ROGERS


"The perpetrator had interlocked bones to make skeletons stand up, embracing tall head stones; others heíd hung from stone crosses."

Disgusting!

"Heíd reconstructed bodies, some now having legs instead of arms and others having arms instead of legs. And the heads, some of them had been turned around backwards."

Gross!

"Hal Sanders from Oakdale Pharmacy lay before the kneeling corpse of Shirley Glass, the librarian. A brown rope of stagnant intestines ran from Sanderís belly to her mouth."

Sick!

A scene from the mind of a serial killer? a satanic cult leader? a deranged psychopath?

Nope.

The woman who came up with this stomach-churning spectacle is T.M. Gray. And sheís a totally normal, well adjusted mother of two.

Since age 17, Gray has been spending just about every spare minute of her life writing horror stories. Sure, she writes about ghosts, ghouls, cannibals, devils, killers, vampires, voodoo queens, and other sexier beasts (check out her gothic erotic fiction online). And she also paints and sells decorative lobster buoys, business signs, and fantasy scenes. But sheís not that strange ó I mean, she listens to Godsmack, Now is Now, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But, like the axe murderers and vampires that populate her novels, she exists on the fringe of her chosen profession.

Admittedly, a select few horror writers have made it big ó thereís Stephen King, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz ó but for the most part, ambitious horror writers have to work extra hard to keep doing what it is they love to do. According to Rick Hautala, fellow horror writer, the bottom of the horror market fell out after a boom in the mid í80s, and itís only slightly recovering now.

Not to fear. Helping Gray pursue her professional artistic career is the Horror Writers Association of New England, a network of indie horror writers and filmmakers. The HWA connects like-minded writers in a peer networking group. To raise their genreís profile, they also sponsor the Bram Stoker Awards, put on conventions, and hold book-signings. On August 23, a huge cadre of these writers, including Gray and Hautala, will be signing copies of their books at Borders, in South Portland, in an attempt to shed some much-needed light on what is usually shrouded in crypt-like darkness.

Of the HWA members appearing at the reading, many are from Maine: Gray lives in the Downeast area; Mark Edward Hall is from Richmond; Rick Hautala and his wife, Holly Newstein, are in Westbrook. Like the vampires, living dead, and zombies that, in most horror novels, walk among us without us knowing it, thereís a whole subculture out there in our little New England towns, penning truly gruesome tales. They use events like the reading at Borders to, hopefully, introduce themselves to a few new readers, an essential part of their job as indie horror writers, because their work, if you donít know what youíre looking for, can be hard to find.

The books can be well written and professionally published, like Hautalaís collection of short stories Bedbugs, but, more often than not, they are printed by vanity presses, exhibit kooky low-res digital cover art, and can be shot through with typos and grammar problems. Regardless, many have amassed a dedicated legion of fans, people who love being spooked and can see the passion with which these books were written.

Computers have played a huge role in the ability of these writers to get their work out to the public. Inexpensive home-recording studio setups (basically, a laptop and Pro Tools) and CD burners have allowed thousands of bedroom rock stars to get their work heard, and, likewise, technology has revolutionized the cult horror-fiction genre.

Hallís recent novel, The Lost Village, for instance, bears the mark of PageFree Publishing, a print-on-demand publisher. "Gifted writers inherit a responsibility to share their talent," says PageFreeís Web site. "Traditional publishing has only allowed two percent of those writers the avenue they deserved. But that is changing."

Well, that may be so. But thereís an upside and a downside to the self-publishing industry. On the one hand, big publishing houses put out just as much crap as the major record labels do, and ignore great, original manuscripts they may not think they can market or classify, too. However, they do a pretty good job of spell-checking, editing, and shaping a writerís work. And publishers like Knopf and Random House at least offer some sort of jury system, as flawed as it may sometimes be; with print-on-demand services and vanity presses, anyone can put out a book, regardless of its merit. The reader is left $20 lighter if the book is a piece of trash.

The Horror Writers Association provides some much needed middle ground here: Just about anybody with an interest in the field can join at the Affiliate level, but to be considered an Active member, a writer must meet strict requirements relating to stories over a specific length sold to professional publications for designated prices per word.

And many of the authors in the HWA have some of their fiction posted on the Internet, so checking out an authorís work is risk-free. So if you donít like an authorís work, the only thing youíve wasted is your time.

Wasted time may not be worth it, though, says Hautala: "My qualm about [Internet fiction] is: Where are the standards? You might end up with work that should pass a few editorial musters before itís out in the world." Still, he thinks overall itís a good thing, "in the sense that it does give people exposure and practice. Just writing something and knowing that someone other than your closest friends and relatives is going to read it. Itís a hurdle for any writer to realize that whatís published, there are people who donít know you whoíll make their entire judgment of you based on what they read of yours."

On sites like chizine.com (sister site to Leisure, publishers of Hautalaís Bedbugs) and horrorfind.com, writers just starting out are getting their works read by thousands. Clearly, the Internet can be a good place to hone your chops, and you might even get paid writing stories for the íNet "if," says Hautalaís writer-wife Holly Newstein, "youíre willing to invest a great deal of time and shameless self-promotion."

"Online is a great place for beginning writers who want to build some cred," she says. But she sees it as a means to an end, a medium that is useful mainly for getting the foot in the door. "It was a stepping stone for the networking and getting to know people and finding out about the markets and whoís buying what, and I was able to leave that behind."

Although she had built a nice portfolio of Web work when she was just starting her career, what she heard from most professional book publishers is that Web stuff just wasnít good enough. "I was told that unless I had something with ink and paper that I could hand people and say Ďread this,í instead of giving them a list of all my Web sites, that it wasnít going to happen," she says.

So she went the route of the vanity press, where any author can get their tome brought out in paperback or hardback as long as they have the cash. Three years ago, Newstein commissioned Xlibris to print her hardcopy debut, Out of the Light, which she coauthored with Ralph Bieber.

"We didnít sell too many copies," she chuckles ruefully, "but we certainly learned about the publicity business, and I think thatís the only way: If you go out and sell, which doesnít always come easily to artists and authors."

Referring to Web fiction she notes, "I guess the bottom line with alt-lit is that itís nice and itís fine, but thereís just something about holding a book that alt-lit hasnít replaced yet."

Hautala is quick to point out that thereís another failing with Web- and alt-lit: Itís hard to get paid. "I think that thereís a myth that people still believe that you start out small, and you start with no-paying markets and work your way up," he says, "and Iíve always believed, ĎNO! you submit your story to the New Yorker and Playboy and all the people that pay a dollar a word first.í You can always lower your sights, but once youíve achieved at a lower level, people have expectations of what you do and what youíre willing to sell it for."

The lesson: If you write for nothing, thatís what people will think itís worth. Thatís scary.

Josh Rogers can be reached at jrogers@phx.com

The Horror Writers of New England Group Book-Signing, featuring authors Rick Hautala, T.M. Gray, Thomas Monteleone, Holly Newstein, Mark Edward Hall, John D. Harvey, Morven Westfield, and Michael Arruda, is at Borders Books and Music, 430 Gorham Rd., So. Portland, at 2 p.m. on August 23. Call (207) 775-6110.


Issue Date: August 15 - 21, 2003
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