Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Rob Smales.
Smales is the author of the newly released horror collection, “Echoes of Darkness” (Books & Boos Press). A previous trio of stories, “Dead of Winter,” won the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014; Smales’s other short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. “Photo Finish” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Preditors & Editors’ Readers Choice Award for Best Horror Short Story of 2012 and, most recently, “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eFestival of Words in 2015. Smales is a native of Salem, Massachusetts, and graduated from Salem State College with a degree in English. He is a member of both the Horror Writers Association and New England Horror Writers.
“Echoes of Darkness” was published last month and has earned kudos from the author’s contemporaries. Max Booth III, author of “How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers,” praised: “The writing of Rob Smales hits you like a whip cracking against a spine. Your flesh tears with each whack, yet you keep asking for more, and no matter how bloody and painful the night becomes, you pray it never ends.” Further, Bram Stoker Award nominee Hal Bodner enthused: “Reading Rob Smales’ collection ECHOES OF DARKNESS is a lot like munching on barbeque potato chips—once you’ve dived into the first story, it’s almost impossible not to keep reading until the end. Smales has a refreshing, clean prose style that is accessible and engaging. In particular, I recommend this book to readers who are new to the genre as Smales comes up with some nifty and clever riffs on some traditional horror tropes.”
From the publisher:
From the dark corners of award-winning horror writer Rob Smales’s twisted mind come thirteen tales of murder, terror, ghosts, and ghouls.
A boy learns how to be a man in a post-apocalyptic world . . .
An old man teaches his grandson to do the right thing, with terrifying results . . .
A plane crash leaves a damaged man doing whatever he must to survive . . .
This collection of the scary and sublime will burrow into the most disturbed part of your soul, leaving you wondering: what was that noise in the other room?
Perhaps it was nothing.
Or perhaps it was an echo of darkness.
Now, Rob Smales sheds light on “Echoes of Darkness” …
John Valeri: What was the origin of “Echoes of Darkness”—and how do you see the title as representative of the tales contained within?
Rob Smales: I’ve published a few short stories over the past five years, and it’s gotten to the point where some people have been asking me Hey, where can I find more of your stuff? I’d decided that putting some of them together so I could direct these people to just one place (rather than a couple dozen) made sense, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. Stacey Longo over at Books & Boos Press heard me whining about it (my word, not hers—at least, as far as I know), was familiar with my work, and thought I’d make a nice addition to the Books & Boos stable. I was familiar with her editing style (exacting, perfectionist, anal-retentive—my words, not hers) and seen the quality products Books & Boos puts out, and thought Well, this could be a good thing. And it was. Is. Has been? Crap, I need an editor . . .
As far as the title is concerned, all my ideas start out as just that: pure idea. As I shape it, however, refine it, the idea changes a little. It’s still clearly what I started with, but slightly distorted. The more I work on it, the more it alters, but that base idea is still there. This original thought is translated through multiple drafts, then through the editor’s eyes, and finally filtered through the reader’s own mind and experiences. Every time it’s translated, or filtered, it’s like a sound bouncing off a surface and shooting off in a new direction: recognizable for what it is, but changed, ever so slightly. By the time it’s hitting the reader’s mind, it really is an echo of the original idea—but if I’ve done my job as a writer, it’s the most clear, perfect echo it can be.
JV: Tell us: what’s the appeal of the short story—and how does a collection such as this allow you to explore your creative ambitions?
RS: The appeal of the short story lies in its impact. Even the longer ones are usually short enough that the reader can consume them in a single sitting, and the writer tends to have that in mind during the process. There isn’t room in a short for the writer to really stretch out, like there is in a novel or even a novella. There are no (or, at least there should be no) wasted words in a short story; each paragraph, sentence, and word has to carry its weight or pack up and go home, all of them working toward the same goal: the effect the writer is trying to instill in the reader. With that kind of unified thrust, all in the one direction, there isn’t the same catharsis for the reader that a good novel can create, with its ups and downs and variations in pacing; rather there is one strong shot to create a single response. It’s a completely different experience—for both the reader and the writer.
When putting together a collection like “Echoes,” there is constant bar-setting going on. There are thirteen stories in there, of varying lengths, but all told in the tightest language I could manage, without the bells and whistles or extra trappings of a longer work. Could I, in this stripped-down format, give the reader thirteen different stories? Or would they simply be, at their cores, the same story again and again, just wearing different clothes? And what about those clothes—and by clothes, here, I mean the language. Aside from the stories being different enough to keep a reader’s attention, could I make this low-cal form of language different* enough each time?
Yes. Yes I could.
And everything you do in short stories does have some value when translated into a longer work. Can I make you identify with a character in five hundred words rather than five thousand? Excellent! Can I create foreboding/suspense/curiosity/whatever in a reader using a paragraph instead of a chapter? Bonus!
You can even do prep work (prewriting) for a longer tale in short story form. For instance, three of the stories in “Echoes” have to do with the same town, a town where I’ve mentally set a novel. Rather than sitting down and doing a bunch of world-building, I’m meeting some of the people in that town through my short work. Over the course of time, they’re telling me about the place in which they live, so by the time I sit down to pen a much longer story set in the place, I’ll be able to look at all those stories together and have a pretty good idea what it’s like and how it works.
(*There is a word I’m told I use overmuch in “Echoes of Darkness.” I won’t tell you what it is, but if any reader out there can tell me, they’ll win . . . the great satisfaction of catching me out. And my editor can will tell me she told me so.)
JV: In thinking about that old axiom “the same but different,” how do you see Echoes of Darkness as both honoring the conventions of the horror genre and transcending them/offering something fresh?
RS: In “Echoes” I have zombie stories, werewolf stories, a couple of ghosts . . . some of the staples of the genre. What makes them different is that they’re staples of the genre filtered through my mind. And not just mine, but the points of view of the characters involved—because that’s what every story is about: the characters involved.
Oh, sure, I may create a setting I think is neat and plunk some zombies down there, but the setting is my setting to create, as are the zombies involved. Are they new zombies, or old zombies? Do we know where they came from? And after all that, along come these characters who get to tell their stories in this mess I’ve created. That’s the story. What they do—and it’s going to be different every time. Is a big, tough construction-worker type going to react the same way as a small woman with a child? What about a small woman with child, trying to survive while eight months pregnant?
And that’s just the characters themselves—what about any baggage they themselves bring to the table? What if . . . what if a woman just found her husband in bed with her best friend as the zombie apocalypse breaks out, and the three of them wind up barricaded in the apartment together, having to rely on each other for survival? You’ve got feelings of anger, suspicion, sorrow, fear—and that’s just in the man. Forget the zombies, I want to know how that’s going to pan out!
What’s the old saying? “There are eight million stories in the naked city?” Well, there are. And that’s without zombies, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, alien invasions . . .
JV: In your opinion, what is the purpose of fear—and in what ways can scary stories be used as a means to illuminate the human condition?
RS: Fear, from a literary standpoint, is essentially a type of suspense—something keeping the reader involved and motivating them to find out how the story turns out. It’s a strong motivation, and emotion, and that, I think, is part of its appeal to some people.
As far as what we use to create that suspense, to instill that fear, I think looking at what each writer chooses says a lot about what was on their minds at the time. There will always be individualization—a parent who has lost a child for a half hour in an amusement park, for example, might include a missing child in their fiction where someone else might not—but I think there are trends in fiction based on what is going in in the world when things are being written. Hurricanes, tsunami, war—all of these things and more will seep into the writer’s fictional world and provide us a sort of window into what the writer’s own world was like. With what’s going on right now in America, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see work coming out over the next few years set against a backdrop of political chaos and upheaval.
JV: Why was Books & Boos Press a good fit for this project – and in what ways can small publishers serve their authors that more traditional ones do not?
RS: I’ve never been traditionally published (Hey! Random House! Hachette! I’m over here!), so I can only tell you what I think the differences would be. With Books & Boos I had an editor I enjoy working with: one that gets what I’m trying to do as a writer, and I think I get what she’s trying to do as an editor as well. That makes a huge difference, as far as being comfortable with a project, and I think that’s one of the main differences you’d see between small press and traditional that falls in the small press’s favor.
If you find a small press that’s serious about what they’re doing—and there are all levels of seriousness and professionalism represented out there, so you have to do your due diligence—I think you’re likely to get a more comfortable, personal, hands-on ride out of it. Again, I have no experience with a large press, and I know they have some great people working for them, but whomever you’re dealing with is a single cog in a larger machine. I’d be an even smaller cog, and though I assume they’d do their best for me, they’d have people to answer to, people who wouldn’t even know me. A small press may not have the resources of their larger cousins—big budgets for promotions, etc.—but they’re also not trying to put out a thousand books a year. When you deal with a smaller press—even one large enough to have a staff—you’re dealing with a much larger portion of their machine: in essence, you’re holding the hand of a member of their publishing family.
JV: Don’t leave us in suspense: what comes next?
RS: Next? Well, let’s see . . . I’m currently working with a writers’ collaborative called The Storyside, and aside from all our individual projects, we’re putting out a series of dark fiction anthologies called “Insanity Tales.” The first two books in the series are available on Amazon already (“Insanity Tales,” and “Insanity Tales II: the Sense of Fear”) and we’re all hard at work on stories for the third installment, which is due out in 2017. Aside from that, I’m working on two novellas and a novel—whenever I have the time—dealing with dementia, vampires, twins, ghosts, murder, boys being boys, a carnival, something that goes bump in the night, kidnapping, guilt, loss, buying a new house, protecting one’s family, and various other things . . . but to find out what stuff goes in which story, you’ll have to wait and find out!
With thanks to Rob Smales for his generosity of time and thought and to Stacey Longo of Books & Boos Press for helping to facilitate this interview.