Meghan: Hi, Ronald! Welcome back! And welcome to our new home, Meghan’s House of Books. It’s been awhile since we sat down together. What’s been going on since we last spoke?
Ronald Kelly: I’ve been busy with one writing project or another. I finally finished my Southern-fried zombie novel, The Buzzard Zone, after a long bout of writer’s block. I’ve been working with various publishers, mostly Thunderstorm Books, Sinister Grin Press, and Crossroad Press. Thunderstorm put out a hardcover edition of More Sick Stuff a few months ago, the follow-up to my extreme horror collection, The Sick Stuff. More Sick Stuff is sort of like the bigger, nastier sibling of the original Sick Stuff.
Meghan: Who are you outside of writing?
Ronald Kelly: I reckon you could say that I wear a lot of hats outside of the horror genre. I’m a faithful husband (going on 29 years now) and papa to three wonderful young’uns. I work in the quality department for PPG; one of the biggest paint companies on the globe. And I’m a devout Christian – the proverbial Southern Baptist – which seems downright odd, considering the sort of stuff I write.
Meghan: How do you feel about friends and close relatives reading your work?
Ronald Kelly: Well, to tell the truth, they don’t. The folks I grew up with, those I live around now and work with, they know that I’m a writer and know the kind of genre I write in, but they don’t make a big deal about it… and neither do I. My wife has read a few of my less intense books in the past, but she’s more of an Amish Romance fan than the blood and gore type. My youngest, Bubba, desperately wants to read my books, but I won’t let him until he gets on into his teens (he’s eleven now). So, basically, my writing life and personal life are two separate sides of the same coin.
Meghan: Is being a writer a gift or a curse?
Ronald Kelly: I consider it a gift. If you have a natural ability to take words and create memorable characters and build entire words from nothing more than your imagination, I believe you should embrace it and share it with others. I come from a long line of Southern storytellers, so it sort of came to me naturally. I never had any formal training – heck, I never even went to college – but listening to my mother and grandmother tell ghost stories and pass on family history during my childhood instilled in me a desire to carry on the tradition, albeit in the written form. So, yes, I’d definitely say the ability to write is a blessing. The only time it seems like a curse is when you’re facing a deadline and you feel forced to write. That’s when it feels like walking a rocky road in your bare feet.
Meghan: How has your environment and upbringing colored your writing?
Ronald Kelly: I was born and raised in the South – in central Tennessee – so my love of that region has always carried over into my novels and short stories. The South has a particular aura to it; partly welcoming, partly threatening. It can be the friendliest and most inviting place on the face of the earth, but there has also been a lot of darkness and depravity committed in its hills and hollows. Racism in the region is not nearly as prevalent as it was thirty or forty years ago, but when it was, that was the stuff of horror tales. Folks have this idea of the South being backwards and ignorant, with an underlying meanness to it. For the most part, that’s not the way it is at all. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know at least a few folks down here that make the raping hillbillies in Deliverance look like Sunday School teachers.
Meghan: What’s the strangest thing you have ever had to research for your books?
Ronald Kelly: Just the nature of this genre gives you the opportunity to Google stuff that everyday folks simply don’t consider on a day-to-day basis. When I wrote Father’s Little Helper (Twelve Gauge) I did a lot of research on mass murderers and serial killers, which is why the book probably went in a dark and violent direction I didn’t originally intend for it to. It was interesting to research Tasmanian Devils for my second novel, Pitfall. They are vicious little critters, but I sort of expounded on their temperament for the sake of the storyline and turned them into a ravenous pack of land piranhas. And I’m always delving into Southern folklore for one story or another. I grew up with a lot of backwoods superstition, but there is always some that I come across that I never heard of before.
Meghan: Which do you find the hardest to write: the beginning, the middle, or the end?
Ronald Kelly: Definitely the middle. I always have a very clear image of how a novel or story will begin and end, but the middle is usually unknown territory. Sometimes I go in with a certain chain of events firmly in mind, but I find out that absolutely nothing is written in stone. Sometimes directions change when it comes to plot and characters. If you force your will on a storyline, it usually shows. It’s best to go with the flow when a story evolves into something that you didn’t originally intend it to be.
Meghan: Do you outline? Do you start with characters or plot? Do you just sit down and start writing? What works best for you?
Ronald Kelly: In my earlier years, when I wrote for Zebra Books, I did adhere to a strict outline, mainly because the publisher required it, for approval and marketing purposes. But now I simply sit down and start writing and let my imagination take the reins. Oh, I have an idea of where I want to go and I generally map out my characters and their personalities beforehand, but that doesn’t mean the story is going to turn out, word for word, like I imagined from the starting gate.
Meghan: What do you do when characters don’t follow the outline/plan?
Ronald Kelly: Characters can turn out to be downright stubborn folks; contrary with minds of their own. I think that’s a good thing. If a character is not multi-dimensional it’s apparent; they’re like puppets and they come across as unconvincing and lacking of humanity and natural motivation. If a character really has heart and soul, they act accordingly and react to literary situations in their own personal ways. The same goes for the antagonists. Their utter lack of heart and soul is what puts the horror into a storyline and gives the protagonist his or her fire and determination to do what is necessary to bring the conflict or evil to its just end.
Meghan: What do you do to motivate yourself to sit down and write?
Ronald Kelly: When I was a younger man and fighting tooth and nail to get published and stay published, the motivation was a natural thing. I knew to become a legitimate author I had to write. Now that I’m older, the motivation and discipline to sit down on a regular basis isn’t quite as strong and I’m okay with that. When I started out thirty years ago, I was a single man and there was only eating and sleeping and writing. Getting published was my sole objective. Now that I have my family and my faith, writing has sort of taken a backseat to a lot of other things. I still like to write and enjoy it, but on the list of things that I consider myself to be, being a writer is four or five notches down from where it once was.
Meghan: Are you an avid reader?
Ronald Kelly: I used to be a voracious reader. I read obsessively during my teenage and young adult years, even into middle age. I don’t read nearly as much as I once did. Some of that had to do with my eyes; I just recently had cataract surgery in both eyes, but before then it was simply uncomfortable to sit down and try to read the printed page, and it sort of extinguished my desire to read for a while. Now that my vision has been corrected, I’m hoping to sit back down and learn to enjoy reading again.
Meghan: What kind of books do you absolutely love to read?
Ronald Kelly: Horror, of course, and I like science fiction if it’s down-to-earth (is that an oxymoron?). You know, like Ray Bradbury and some of Asimov’s work. I’m a big western fan and have done three novels in that genre, although two were ghost-written for the Jake Logan series in the early 90s. I’ve always been a big history buff, so I read a lot of non-fiction about American history, mostly the Civil War and the Old West.
Meghan: How do you feel about movies based on books?
Ronald Kelly: I believe more movies should be made from literary works and that studios shouldn’t just remake or reinvent films that have already been done. That’s just pure laziness on their part. I’m seeing a lot of encouraging book-to-movie works come from Netflix lately, with Malerman’s Bird Box and Lebbon’s The Silence, and they’re making some faithful King adaptations, too.
Several months ago, I received interest from a director about doing a movie of one of my novels, so hopefully there could be a movie adaptation of one my works sometime in the future. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!
Meghan: Have you ever killed a main character?
Ronald Kelly: Lordy Mercy, yes! I’d say, by the last chapter of an Ronald Kelly novel, at least one or two of my main characters meet an emotional and tragic end… sometimes more. I believe four or five bit the dust in The Buzzard Zone. When you watch a show like The Walking Dead and a main character dies or gets turned into a zombie, I think it really grabs the viewer and affects them in a very emotional way. The same goes for characters in books and short stories. The reader becomes invested in a character they like – or even love – and when they die, it’s like a death in the family. That doesn’t particularly make it feel-good fiction, but then horror never promises to offer a happy ending.
Meghan: Do you enjoy making your characters suffer?
Ronald Kelly: No, not necessarily. Maybe on an emotional level… to motivate a character to move past the paralysis of horror and fear and fight the evil that has brought them to that point. I don’t like to depict my characters being tortured, raped, or humiliated (although I can’t say that I’ve never done that before in a story). I think emotional suffering is much more potent.
Meghan: What’s the weirdest character concept that you’ve ever come up with?
Ronald Kelly: I would have to say The Dark’Un. The concept of a changeling creature that could physically morph into any person or animal it observes, be it face-to-face, or through literature or television, was extremely intriguing to me. During the course of the novel (which was initially titled The Dark’Un, but retitled Something Out There during my stint at Zebra) the creature turns into everything from the Frankenstein Monster to a ninja to a gun-blazing sheriff to several different types of dinosaurs. The book melds horror, science-fiction, and a healthy dose of fantasy, which gave Zebra fits, because they didn’t quite know how to classify it, genre-wise.
Meghan: What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
Ronald Kelly: I was fortunate enough to receive some very sound advice from Joe Lansdale when I was first starting out in the business. A couple of wise suggestions from Joe: 1) During dialogue, make a habit of using plain old “said” when a character speaks. Don’t try to embellish too much with words like “exclaimed” or “ruminated”. Also 2) don’t drive yourself crazy worrying about becoming a full-time writer. If you’re writing full time and you have overdue bills and no health insurance, your anxiety will get in the way and it will show in your prose. So, if you must depend on steady employment while you write and publish, that’s an okay thing.
The worst bit of advice I ever received was from a former agent. When Kensington shut down the Zebra horror line and put me out of a job, my agent told me to write anything except horror fiction. I tried several other genres and, when I didn’t have any luck, I quit writing completely for ten years. If I’d just stuck with it, there would be a decade worth of RK horror books for the fans to read.
Meghan: What do your fans mean to you?
Ronald Kelly: My fans have always meant a great deal to me. Of course, back in my mass market paperback days, you wondered whether you actual had any fans or not. Zebra was always very slow about forwarding fan mail to their writers and I think maybe I got five letter the entire six years I wrote for them. That’s mainly what drives a writer and gives him or her the incentive to continue; knowing that folks are reading your work and enjoying it. Now days, social media puts you in direct contact with your fanbase and that’s wonderful. So many of my fans have become genuine friends through social meeting places like Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
Meghan: If you could steal one character from another author and make them yours, who would it be and why?
RK: That’s an interesting question. For a protagonist, I’d say Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. That was the novel that first made me want to become a writer, when I read it at age fourteen. As for a truly evil antagonist, it would have to be Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT. He – or it – is a truly classic villain. Just mention the name and everyone knows who you’re talking about, including those who have never read the book or watched any of the movies.
Meghan: If you could write the next book in a series, which one would it be, and what would you make the book about?
Ronald Kelly: If you’re talking about a series created by someone other than myself, I’d say it would be a continuation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Maybe do a truly dark and disturbing version with the original characters; a truly nightmarish journey through the blacker heart of Oz. As for a series of my own making, I’ve always wanted to do a weird horror western series in which the protagonist battles a different monster in each segment. I actual pitched such a series to Berkley in the mid-90s, but it never materialized. I’m seriously thinking about tackling a series like that in a year or two.
Meghan: If you could write a collaboration with another author, who would it be and what would you write about?
Ronald Kelly: I’ve never been very big on collaborating. I tried it once and lost a spot in a very prestigious anthology because my writing style and that of the other author simply didn’t gel. I prefer to be a one-man show. That might sound a little selfish, but I work better working with my own ideas and characters. If I could collaborate with someone successfully, it would probably be folks like Brian Keene, Joe Lansdale, or Robert McCammon. I think it would be a blast to work with any one of them.
Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?
Robert Kelly: I’ve got a couple of new short story collections in the works, and I’d like to do a sequel to my epic novel, Fear, sometime in the future. I owe a book to Cemetery Dance that got lost in a hard drive crash several years, so I’ll finally be rewriting that soon. And I’d like to do that weird western series I mentioned before.
Meghan: Where can we find you?
Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview or the last?
Ronald Kelly: I’d just like to let my loyal fans know that I appreciate and cherish them very much. Thanks for sticking with me through thick and thin; both during the Zebra years and when I came back to the horror genre in 2006. It really meant a lot. And I’d like to thank my future readers, as well. I hope you give Ol Ron’s brand of Southern-fried fiction a chance and that you enjoy the down-home storytelling it offers. And, of course, to all, I wish Very Happy Nightmares!
Born and bred in Tennessee, Ronald Kelly is an author of Southern-fried horror fiction with fifteen novels, eight short story collections, and a Grammy-nominated audio collection to his credit. Influenced by such writers as Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Joe R. Lansdale, and Manly Wade Wellman, Kelly sets his tales of rural darkness in the hills and hollows of his native state. His published works include Undertaker’s Moon, Fear, Blood Kin, Hell Hollow, The Dark’Un, Hindsight, Restless Shadows, After the Burn, Timber Gray, Mr. Glow-Bones & Other Halloween Tales, Dark Dixie, Midnight Grinding & Other Twilight Terrors, The Sick Stuff, More Sick Stuff, and The Buzzard Zone. He lives in a backwoods hollow in Brush Creek, Tennessee with his wife and young’uns.
It was a legend in Fear County… a hideous, flesh-eating creature – part snake, part earthbound demon – that feasted on the blood of innocent children in the cold black heart of the Tennessee backwoods.
But ten-year-old Jeb Sweeny knows the horrible stories are true. His best friend Mandy just up and disappeared. He also knows that no one has ever had the courage to go after the monster and put an end to its raging, bestial hunger. Until now.
But Evil is well guarded. And for young Jeb Sweeny, who is about to cross over into the forbidden land of Fear County and the lair of the unknown, passage through the gates of Hell comes with a terrible price. Everlasting… FEAR!
Halloween is more than a holiday; more than a fun time of candy and costumes for the young. It is inoculated into our very being at an early age and there it remains. As we grow old, it grows dormant… but it is still there. For the lucky ones, such as us, it emerges every year, like a reanimated corpse digging its way out of graveyard earth to shamble across our souls. And we rejoice… oh, if we are the fortunate ones, we most certainly rejoice.
So turn these pages and celebrate our heritage. Blow the dust off the rubber mask in the attic and hang the glow-in-the-dark skeleton upon the door. Light the hollowed head of the butchered pumpkin and string the faux cobweb from every corner and eave.
It’s Halloween once again. Shed your adult skin with serpentine glee and walk the blustery, October streets of long years past. And, most of all, watch out for misplaced steps in the darkness and the things that lurk, unseen, in the shadows in-between.
Stories included in this collection:
Pins & Needles
Mister Mack & the Monster Mobile
The Halloween Train
The Candy in the Ditch Gang
Halloweens: Past & Present
Monsters in a Box
When the buzzards took flight, Levi Hobbs knew his family’s only hope of survival was to escape. They were coming, the Biters, the dead, risen as zombies, infested by parasites and transformed into shambling, ravenous monsters. As the family flees their home in the Smoky Mountains, they head eastward to the Carolinas in search of refuge. As the buzzards on their trail grow thicker, the Zone widens, and the Biters become hungrier and more hostile. The Hobbs family realizes there is only one place left to go, one place to make a final stand… and time is running out.
As the residents of Old Hickory, as well as the local police, begin to fall victim to an unknown evil, four individuals—the town nerd, a high school jock, a widowed gunsith, and a mysterious transient from a distant shore—find themselves facing what could possibly be a hellish lycanthrope from ancient Ireland… the legendary Arget Bethir… the Silver Beast.