AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Sarah McKnight

Meghan: Hey, Sarah! Welcome to Meghan’s HAUNTED House of Books. Thanks for joining us today. What is your favorite part of Halloween?

Sarah: I think the shorter answer is what isn’t my favorite part of Halloween! I love seeing all the fun and unique costumes (and occasionally dressing up myself), the crisp fall air, and of course the endless supply of horror movies.

Meghan: Do you get scared easily?

Sarah: It really depends. Paranormal things don’t scare me so much because I’ve always had a huge interest in them. It’s the things that could cause direct harm to me, like real people, that really scare me.

Meghan: What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen and why?

Sarah: This is a really hard one! Off the top of my head, I think I would have to say Stephen King’s Apt Pupil. There is a particular scene in both the movie and the book involving a cat that disturbed me so much I will never, ever look at either of them again.

Meghan: Which horror movie murder did you find the most disturbing?

Sarah: Probably the murders that take place in Funny Games, which is incidentally probably my favorite movie of all time.

Meghan: Is there a horror movie you refused to watch because the commercials scared you too much?

Sarah: That’s never happened to me!

Meghan: If you got trapped in one scary movie, which would you choose?

Sarah: I would have to say The Haunting, that terrible 90’s movie based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It was the first horror movie I ever saw, and I always wanted to explore that gigantic house.

Meghan: If you were stuck as the protagonist in any horror movie, which would you choose?

Sarah: Anything paranormal! Probably Stephen King’s IT. I want to be in the Losers Club.

Meghan: What is your all-time favorite scary monster or creature of the night?

Sarah: Pennywise the Dancing Clown, of course. Chucky is a very close second.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

Sarah: Scary movies in the dark. I will never get tired of it.

Meghan: What is your favorite horror or Halloween-themed song?

Sarah: Oogie Boogie’s Song from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Not to brag, but I can really belt that one out!

Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?

Sarah: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I think the reason it’s so scary is because it’s an extremely realistic situation that could happen to anyone.

Meghan: What is the creepiest thing that’s ever happened while you were alone?

Sarah: My friends and I had been messing around with a Ouija board (I know, I know…) I went back to my apartment and none of my roommates were home. While I was in my room, I heard something fall and break in the kitchen. I went to investigate, but nothing was out of place, and I was still there alone.

Meghan: Which unsolved mystery fascinates you the most?

Sarah: So many! I think if I had to pick just one, I’d want to know what happened aboard the Mary Celeste.

Meghan: What is the spookiest ghost story that you have ever heard?

Sarah: The classic Lady in White. Can you imagine picking someone up off the side of the road, driving her all the way home, only for her to disappear and discover she was dead the whole time?

Meghan: In a zombie apocalypse, what is your weapon of choice?

Sarah: Probably a hammer. Easy to carry and good for bashing brains!

Meghan: Let’s have some fun… Would you rather get bitten by a vampire or a werewolf?

Sarah: Vampire, please! Can you imagine having to manage all that fur? Yikes!

Meghan: Would you rather fight a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion?

Sarah: Aliens. Maybe they’re friendly after all?

Meghan: Would you rather drink zombie juice or eat dead bodies from the graveyard?

Sarah: What exactly is “zombie juice”? Is it like Bug Juice? I’m probably going with that just to be safe.

Meghan: Would you rather stay at the Poltergeist house or the Amityville house for a week?

Sarah: The Poltergeist house. Show me all the paranormal activity!

Meghan: Would you rather chew on a bitter melon with chilies or maggot-infested cheese?

Sarah: Bitter melon with chilies please. I don’t even want the mental image of the other thing.

Meghan: Would you rather drink from a witch’s cauldron or lick cotton candy made of spider webs?

Sarah: Depends, what is the witch cooking up? A potion? A delicious soup? I’ll take the mystery cauldron!

Boo-graphy:
Sarah McKnight has been writing stories since she could pick up a pencil, and it often got her in trouble during math class. After a brief stint teaching English to unruly middle schoolers in Japan, she decided she wasn’t going to put off her dream of becoming a writer any longer and set to work. With several novels in the making, she hopes to tackle issues such as anxiety, depression, and letting go of the past – with a little humor sprinkled in, too. A St Louis native, she currently lives in Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband and three cats. You can find her on Twitter and on her website.

The Reaper Chronicles 1:
The Reaper’s Quota
Meet Grim Reaper #2497. Behind on his work, he must complete his quota of thirty Random Deaths or face termination in the worst way. Faced with an insurmountable task and very little time to complete it, Reaper #2497 struggles to hang on to the one thing he’s not supposed to have – his humanity.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Matthew R. Davis

Meghan: Hey, Matthew! Welcome to Meghan’s (Haunted) House of Books… or (Holiday) House of Books because, technically, it’s December… but I’m just not ready to finish with Halloween, as you can tell. Thanks for joining in our annual frivolities. What is your favorite part of Halloween?

Matthew: The fact that we celebrate all that is spooky and dark! While the day has come a long way from its roots, it’s broadened to include all kinds of horrors, and so naturally I love the aesthetics and the focus on peering into the shadows.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

Matthew: Ah, I don’t really have one. In Australia, we don’t get out on the streets as much as other countries – I’ve never been trick or treating, though at one of my previous homes (Ghastly Manor) we did put out some props and hand lollies over to groups of roving children. I do like to get out and celebrate the Spooky Season – there are usually a few goth events on, my partner and I attended a double bill of Shaun of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead a few years back, and last year a dearly departed friend had his final, posthumous exhibition opening on Halloween night.

Meghan: If Halloween is your favorite holiday (or even second favorite holiday), why?

Matthew: Again, it’s all about the celebrations of horror and the macabre. The trappings of Christmas are an annoyance to me – carols and tinsel, chintzy decorations indulged in just because It’s What We Do, the religious angle – so Halloween provides a much-needed balance.

Meghan: What are you superstitious about?

Matthew: Pretty much nothing. I’m an entirely irreligious person, and while I keep an open mind, I don’t believe in the paranormal – which is perhaps an odd attitude from a horror writer whose work is so often supernatural! I guess I’d like some of the stories to be true, for these hints of further worlds to be genuine, because then there’s so much more to explore and it might also mean there’s something else to come after we shuffle off this mortal coil – and while I don’t think there is, I have to admit that the idea of an afterlife beyond the codified legends of religion, freely entered without having to follow some deity’s laws of conduct and devotion, is an appealing one. I believe we get one life and we need to make the most of it, but I won’t feel too bad if I’m ultimately proved wrong… so long as I don’t end up consigned to excruciating and unjust torture for all eternity!

Meghan: What/who is your favorite horror monster or villain?

Matthew: I tend to wince when I see yet another meme or image that wheels out the pop culture horror big guns like Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead, Ghostface, Regan McNeil, Pennywise, Leatherface, etc. There’s so much more beyond these figureheads! That said, I am a fan of most of those characters, or at least some of the movies in which they feature. (My hot take: The Exorcist is overrated Catholic propaganda.) But I prefer standalone films with one-off monsters or villains, and having said that, now I have to think of some in order to actually answer this question! Here are some notables: the witches and their associates from Suspiria (original and remake), the titular woman from The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the ghosts of The Haunting of Hill House series, the creepy doubles from The Broken, the grotesqueries that appear throughout In the Mouth of Madness, the demons from, well, Demons, the haunting at the heart of Mungo Lake… and so, so many more!

Meghan: Which unsolved murder fascinates you the most?

Matthew: I don’t know if I could pick just one! Some cases are so intriguing that a solution is craved if only to satisfy the onlooker’s curiosity, but then, so much of their interest is predicated on them remaining unsolved. I hope they are unraveled so those close to the victims can gain closure, but the mystery is always more satisfying than the solution. It may be a little ghoulish to find titillation in the unsolved disappearances and deaths of strangers, but why shouldn’t we be curious? Nothing is ever learned without someone applying thought to the situation.

Meghan: Which urban legend scares you the most?

Matthew: I’m not credulous and I don’t scare easy, and most legends are fairly humdrum and ridiculous anyway, so I guess… none. I do find them interesting, though, and I occasionally include one in my work. A pair of 1960s teenage spree killers inspire a schoolyard ditty in my novel Midnight in the Chapel of Love, and rumours of their visit to the titular Chapel lead others to try and find the place.

Meghan: Who is your favorite serial killer and why?

Matthew: None. Fuck those people. I don’t have a favourite rapist or a favourite thug, so why should I have a favourite murderer? While I am intensely curious about serial killers and love to read about them, I don’t ever glorify what they do – my interest lies largely in my inability to understand how people could do such atrocious things to others, and in the processes by which they can be profiled, identified, and captured. I want to know what causes some people to kill and I want to know how we can stop them. Accordingly, I find great interest in books by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, who set out their stall with Mindhunter.

Meghan: I guess I should have worded that question differently. I did not mean “favorite” as in one you idolize, but “favorite” as in the one that intrigues you the most. But I digress… How old were you when you saw your first horror movie? How old were you when you read your first horror book?

Matthew: Okay… I don’t know for sure, but I remember seeing bits of a movie I now know is Cruise into Terror (1978), including an Egyptian sarcophagus that started breathing, and that was quite creepy when I was so young. The only movie I ever turned off was The Masterson Curse (aka Scared Stiff, 1987) when I was ten, because I couldn’t stand the tension building up to a well-telegraphed jump scare – something tells me I’d find that movie very mild going these days!

As for books… I read one of Guy N. Smith’s Crabs books before I should have, and that was pretty heavy going. The Choose Your Own Adventure books got quite grim sometimes, and then there were darker variants like the Plot Your Own Horror Story series. The only one I own is Grand Hotel of Horror (Hilary Milton, 1984), which snaked under my skin with its anything-goes terrors and eerie illustrations, and other entries saw you trapped overnight in a mall, a haunted house, and even a space museum. In fact, Space Age Terrors has one of the best back cover taglines I have ever seen.

It is programmed to destroy.
It can walk through locked doors.
It is looking for you.

Brrr!

Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?

Matthew: At the risk of sounding repetitive and dull, it’s rare for a book to actually scare me. Sometimes it’s individual pieces that get to me: some of the seabase scenes in Nick Cutter’s The Deep, the exploration of an abandoned flat and subsequent entry of Black Maggie in Adam Nevill’s No One Gets Out Alive, the increasing religious mania of the father in Ramsey Campbell’s The House on Nazareth Hill and the concomitant persecution of his daughter that leads to a truly shocking climax. Sometimes it’s the creeping mood and atmosphere that lingers after the covers have been closed, like in Laird Barron’s The Croning, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, or Stephen King‘s Pet Sematary.

Meghan: Which horror movie scarred you for life?

Matthew: See above, but to avoid repeating myself: Jaws (1975), which I saw far too young and instilled in me an instinctive fear of water deeper than I am tall, not to mention a lifelong phobia of great white sharks! My brother, who watched those films with me (and was two years younger to boot!), recently went cage-diving amongst the great whites of Port Lincoln, and man, let me tell you – it is exceedingly unlikely I would ever even contemplate doing the same!

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween costume?

Matthew: Nothing I’ve ever worn, as I’ve never dressed up in full costume for Halloween. I’ve seen some great ones, though! (Not Great Ones, thankfully.) Let me give a shout out to my partner, who did this great little goth vampire thing a few years back complete with fangs and creepy contacts. As for me, I was wearing a skirt and steel-capped boots – perhaps scary, but not in the same way.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween-themed song?

Matthew: John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, naturally; “Halloween” and “Halloween II” by Misfits; “Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare All)” and “All Hallows Eve” by Type O Negative. I can’t think of much else that is explicitly about the season, but I’m a big fan of dark, creepy music in general – I could put together a playlist for Halloween that would kill.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween candy or treat? What is your most disappointing?

Matthew: Chocolate. Not chocolate.


Boo-graphy:
Matthew R. Davis is an author and musician based in Adelaide, South Australia, whose novelette “Heritage Hill” (found in Outback Horrors Down Under: An Anthology of Antipodean Terrors, edited by Steve Dillon, published by Things in the Well Publications) was shortlisted for a 2020 Shirley Jackson Award and the WSFA Small Press Award. His books are the horror collection If Only Tonight We Could Sleep (Things in the Well, 2020) and the novel Midnight in the Chapel of Love (JournalStone, 2021). Find out more at his website.

Midnight in the Chapel of Love
THE MAN: Jonny Trotter has spent the last fifteen years running from tragic memories of the country town where he grew up—but the black envelopes pushed under his door won’t let him forget, and now that his father has died, he can run no more.

THE TOWN: Returning to Waterwich for the funeral and wake with his partner Sloane, Jonny must confront old resentments, his estranged best friends Brendan and Coralie, a strange, veiled woman the locals call the White Widow…and the mystery surrounding the fate of his first lover, Jessica Grzelak.

THE GIRL: A morbid and reckless city girl banished to the country to live with her aunt, Jessica loved to push the limits and explore the shadows—and no one has seen her since the night of her high school formal, the night she and Jonny went looking for the Chapel.

THE CHAPEL: Rumored to be found in the woods outside Waterwich, mentioned in playground rhymes about local lovebirds Billy and Poppy and their killing spree in 1964, the Chapel is said to be an ancient, sacred place that can only be entered by lovers—a test that can only be passed if their bond is pure and true.

THE TRUTH: Before he can move on to a future with Sloane, Jonny must first face the terrible truth of his past—and if he can’t bring it out into the light at last, it might just pull him and everything he loves down into the dark forever.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Joseph Sale

Meghan: Hey, Joseph. Welcome to this year’s Halloween Extravaganza. What is your favorite part of Halloween?

Joseph: I love Halloween. For me, it’s all about the change in energy. There is a wildness that comes with Halloween season. It’s okay to dance around like lunatic in the street. It’s okay to jump out of a doorway and scare people. It’s okay to flirt with the totally un-politically correct (a friend of mine once attended a Halloween party as the ghost of an S.S. officer; reprehensible though it was to see him in the uniform, swastika and all, you have to admit: that’s pretty God-damn scary!).

In Elizabethan times, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” was a Festival of Misrule in which the strict, hierarchical mores of British society were overturned temporarily. Jesters became kings. Idiots became teachers. And the wealthy aristocrats were led like dogs on collars through the shit-caked streets. This yearly “blow out” was essential to the cultural psyche of the nation. In many ways, it was their version of a Purge, though of course it stopped short of allowing murder or serious criminal activity.

In my view, Halloween is the closest thing we have to this age-old and vital tradition. It’s a great equaliser. We live most of the year repressing our Shadow selves, but on Halloween, we step into the world of Shadows, and we see them in their natural habitat. There is something wondrous and liberating about the change in energy where, for just one night, all bets are off.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

Joseph: I don’t really do fancy dress, except on Halloween! I have become many dark figures in my time. I used to do a lot of acting, and there is something empowering about quite literally stepping into the shoes, or putting on the face, of someone else. We can learn a lot if we engage with this healthily, I think.

I also do love the more laid-back and classic Halloween tradition of putting on a scary movie. I don’t need Halloween as an excuse, of course, as I love horror, but Halloween is a time of year when even people not usually inclined to horror might overcome their doubts for one night. I will watch horror movies alone, and that can be its own unique experience, but there is something about the genre I believe is best suited to communal viewings. Perhaps it connects back to the old “tales around the campfire”? Regardless of where it comes from, enjoying a horror movie with good friends is hard to beat. There is a special bonding that takes place when you “survive” a terrifying experience together!

Meghan: If Halloween is your favorite holiday (or even second favorite holiday), why?

Joseph: Halloween is my favourite holiday. Don’t get me wrong, Christmas can still get me excited like a child. The cynicism hasn’t gotten to me yet. But Christmas is in many ways the reverse of Halloween. Christmas is about family, about expectations, generosity, and more conventional togetherness. Many people I know feel very stressed at Christmas and I have felt it myself from time to time. I’m not in any way denigrating the value of family, but the fact remains there are certain obligations that come with the notion of Christmas and where and how we spend it. Halloween creates no obligations. In fact, it actively asks you to discard them in the spirit of Misrule! Halloween isn’t spent with family, or rarely is, it’s generally spent with unruly friends.

This isn’t to say that when I was younger my parents didn’t throw some humdinger Halloween parties, and this is perhaps another reason Halloween has to be my favourite season. My mother is an artist, my father a writer, the combination was perfect for creating memorable Halloween experiences, one of which will stick with me and my friends for all time: they converted our spider-filled old garage into a ghost-train haunted experience. It didn’t take much, to be honest, the place was so dank and dark, but it was truly mythical and memorable. That kind of joy (and terror), the exhilaration of stepping out of mundanity and entering the story, stays with you forever. So, I’m eternally grateful to my parents for that, and you can blame my Halloween obsession on them!!

Meghan: What are you superstitious about?

Joseph: As an occultist, I consider myself very open to weird or supernatural phenomenon. I’ve had many spiritual experiences. Some transcendental. Some hellish and indelible. So, the truthful answer to this is: I’m superstitious about virtually everything! Or at least, open to it. However, one also has to recognise our own agency in these matters. Rarely do spirits or demons, or whatever the preferred terminology is, seize us out of the blue without warning, just as the past only holds power over us if we invest it with authority. We invite demons in. We play a role in their habitation, and their enlivening. We feed them with psychological abherrance and desire. What we repress returns in sevenfold horrifying form.

One might look to Clive Barker’s immortal film Hellraiser to see exactly what I mean by this. The cenobites only come when they are called. The horror that was once Frank Cotton is invited into the house by Julia Cotton’s desire, and then subsequently fed by her with human blood in an act that is far from subtly psycho-sexual. Whilst fiction, there is a lot of truth in this. Whether you view the demons literally or figuratively as expressions of psychological malady is up to you.

So, I’m not afraid of being randomly attacked by ghosts or demonic entities, terrifying though that would be. I’m more like the vertigo sufferer. People with vertigo aren’t afraid of heights, but rather what they might do if they stand on a ledge. I don’t really fear demons, spirits, ghosts, but I do fear what I might do should I glimpse the infernal plane, or should one such entity make me an offer I cannot refuse. The greatest blindness is to think we are beyond temptation. After all, those beings really do have “such sights to show you”.

Meghan: What/who is your favorite horror monster or villain?

Joseph: This is such a tough question to answer, as there are so many great villains in Horror. One of my favourites is a rather obscure character known as Melmoth The Wanderer, who is featured in the novel of the same name by the oft-overlooked Anglican curate Charles Maturin. Maturin wrote a number of novels, and Melmoth The Wanderer is his Gothic masterpiece. It is equal parts Faustian legend and Miltonic evocation. Melmoth is a deviously complex character, both a tempter of souls and one who was tempted. He is, like Milton’s Lucifer, strangely heroic at times. He tries to fight against his darker nature but knows he can never win. The novel is almost ludicrously convoluted, with no less than six layers of framed narrative (perhaps more if you include certain interludes) but this convolution is intentional, because it begins to draw you into Melmoth’s own warped psyche. The labyrinth of his mind is not a place I will forget in a hurry and the sheer intensity of his hatred is awe-inspiring to behold. He is a true compelling villain, and one who deserves far more recognition among the greats.

Meghan: Which unsolved murder fascinates you the most?

Joseph: I do find unsolved murders fascinating, but I find unsolved disappearances far more so. I am not sure why, perhaps because there is even more mystery when no body is found?

In the UK, there are few cases more unusual than that of Madeleine McCann. Some might find this a predictable choice, but it is one of those cases that, whilst it may not seem particularly weird at first, becomes stranger and stranger the longer you look at it. She disappeared in Portugal and was one of the most widely televised and reported on disappearances of all time. How, then, were investigators completely unable to make any headway at all? It seems impossible that in 2007, with so much surveillance and technology, with her face plastered on every TV over the world for years, that we could not find her.

I have oscillated from believing wholeheartedly the parents did it, to swinging wildly the other way. Then my writer’s brain goes into overdrive with more bizarre possibilities. For example, could she be still alive? If she were, she would be seventeen or eighteen in 2021. What horrors would she have experienced and overcome to have survived until now? How would that shape someone’s understanding of the world?

The disappearance of a three year old is a truly terrible, ugly thing, and one cannot help but think there is some dark secret buried somewhere, unlikely to come to light save on Judgement Day.

Meghan: Which urban legend scares you the most?

Joseph: My God, this is a great question. It would have to be the Slenderman. What’s funny about this is I know full well that the Slenderman is fake. I researched him extensively for a novel I wrote back in 2013. It is not a brilliant book, as I was very young then and still learning my craft, but some of the stuff I dug into for research stills scares me, even knowing it was created by photoshop experts and Creepy Pasta lore enthusiasts. I think it was partly how meta the book became. I was writing a book about a man writing a book about becoming obsessed by the Slenderman, and in the end, I became obsessed by the Slenderman. The old Nietzschian adage is certainly true: stare too long into the abyss, and it really does stare back into you.

Meghan: Who is your favorite serial killer and why?

Joseph: Fictional or real, now that is the question! If I was saying fictional, it would have to be Ghostface from Scream. This is a bit of a cheat answer, of course, because Ghostface can be, and has been, many people, but that is precisely the genius of him. Ghostface is a character in his own right, but anyone can don the mask and become him. That is, in some ways, infinitely more scary than an iconic killer whom we all recognise. Ghostface could be anyone. He could be you or me (and of course can be “she” for that matter). Similar to my comment on superstition, Ghostface asks us to look inward and confront the question of what we are truly capable of, in the darkest sense.

If I had to pick a real-life serial killer, I would not use the term “favourite” to describe them, because we then run the risk of glorifying degraded and immoral killers; they are scum, at the end of the day. However, I do find Ted Bundy particularly fascinating. That may be a cliché to some, but there are a number of unique things about him. The sheer depravity of his crimes sets him apart: not just murder, but torture, necrophilia, and worse. His charm is another weird factor. The transcripts of his trial show him actively flirting with the female judge and succeeding. If you wrote this scene in a novel, no one would believe it, especially not in today’s age of female empowerment. I’m personally not interested in Bundy’s pseudo-philosophy and God-complex. But I am interested in the fact he escaped – twice, no less – and was only really “caught” when he turned himself in. It reminds me of the quote from the original 1986 Hitcher movie in which Rutger Hauer’s nameless killer answers the question “What do you want?” with perhaps the most chilling answer possible: “I want you to stop me.” This is the epitome of evil, I think. The hitcher knows what he is doing is wrong. He knows he is a mad dog that’s slipped the leash. But he can’t stop himself, so he wants someone else to rise to the challenge. Bundy’s story is similar. I think he wanted the electric chair, in the end: to return to the nothingness he believed in.

Meghan: How old were you when you saw your first horror movie? How old were you when you read your first horror book?

Joseph: Far, far too young! Weirdly, I saw horror movies before I ever got to horror books. I am not sure I could even name the age I was when I saw my first horror film, but I was definitely not yet eleven years old. Probably the first horror movie I remember was the Terminator movie. It isn’t really that gnarly by comparison with other ‘80s Horror, or even by modern standards, but it is unrelenting in its tension. The thing that made Terminator so great to me was the idea of the truly unstoppable evil, and the film still conveys that idea far better than many modern attempts. The terminator isn’t invulnerable: the flesh-suit rips, the metal skeleton is damaged, it is even cut in half. But despite all of these things, the terminator keeps going. That is truly scary. Though the terminator is a robot, we sense something beyond that: an evil willpower and determination that is frightening.

In terms of my first horror book, I was actually quite late to that game, although I had read classics such as Frankenstein and Dracula. I primarily read Fantasy until the age of about seventeen, when I discovered Stephen King. I read The Stand (genuinely my first King!), and it totally blew my mind. It opened doorways in my consciousness that I didn’t know had been locked. Apart from being so inspiring, reading The Stand really liberated me and was the first step on my road to becoming a half-decent writer. Previously, everything I’d been writing was very much generic fantasy pap, and I steered away from dark themes, sex, and violence. But when I read The Stand, King blew the doors wide open.

The two scenes that stick with me in terms of being exposed to horror for the first time – or at least, modern horror for the first time – were number one: the scene with The Kid and the Trashcan Man in which the latter is sodomised with a shotgun. The second was the scene in which Randall Flagg pulls an unborn child out of the womb with a coat-hanger hook (although it turns out to be a dream sequence). Reading these was like having a nuclear bomb detonate inside my skull. I couldn’t believe they had been committed to paper.

The Stand gave me permission to explore my own darkness. Many moments in that book are still indelibly printed on my brain, not just the horrifying ones. Perhaps the greatest of them all from my point of view is the final scene with The Trashcan Man. That is a moment of divinely inspired genius, I think. True epic.

Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?

Joseph: It takes a lot to scare me, especially in fiction. For some reason I find films infinitely scarier. Perhaps because films are more intense, whereas horror novels tend to be a slow burn that accumulates over time? Each of us is more or less vulnerable to different types of horror, I suppose, and for some perhaps the slow burn effect is creepier!

However, there are certainly books that have genuinely scared me. I’ve already mentioned Melmoth The Wanderer. It was written in 1820, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it lacks punch: I was genuinely unsettled, and the further in you go, the worse it gets. It isn’t just the events or what’s transpiring, but the weird and brain-jarring structure, the elliptical storytelling that starts to disconcert and unbalance you, rather like a discordant soundtrack.

I also found The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson to be uniquely terrifying. The scene with the hand in the bed (anyone who’s read it knows exactly the one I mean) actually shat me up for days afterwards, and I became frightened every time I had to go to sleep. I get that Jackson is a mainstay, but she is so lauded for a reason.

If you want to read something more modern and genuinely scary, Steve Stred’s The Window In The Ground is a living nightmare. No one does dread like Stred. It should be a catchphrase! He is one of the few modern writers who can genuinely unsettle me. It’s something about the way he writes, so directly, so straightforwardly, it lulls you into a false sense of security. Everything feels believable in his hands, even the most insane and awful things you can imagine. The Window In The Ground is probably still my favourite thing by him. I think about it way too often.

Meghan: Which horror movie scarred you for life?

Joseph: Surprisingly, no conventional horror movie has the claim of scarring me for life, though certainly some films rocked me or challenged what I thought I knew. The artifact that really scarred me for life was the 1993 Japanese anime Sailor Moon. Now, this may seem odd, as all the screenshots you’ll see online of Sailor Moon show happy, colourful scenes with an enthusiastic group of young girls fighting evil with superpowers. But anyone who watched the entirety of season 1 to its conclusion will know there is another side to the show.

The final two episodes of Sailor Moon take the lovable thirteen-year-old girls you’ve followed for 44 episodes, with all their cute love-interests and side-plots, and then tortures and murders them one by one. And the torture isn’t just physical, it’s emotional and spiritual too. Characters you fell in love with betray the Sailor Guardians and then gleefully tear them apart while Sailor Moon helplessly watches. You don’t just watch them being beaten in a fight, you watch them being tormented on every level in a fashion that can only be described as totally psychotic.

One after another, each Sailor Guardian is destroyed in ignoble, hopeless ways, until only Moon remains. At this point, where you think it can go no lower, Moon is forced to kill the person she loves most in the world in an agonising fashion. It’s harrowing, undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking and terrifying things I’ve ever seen. The fact it is an animation only makes it worse, lending a dreamlike surreal power to each mortifying frame that a live action version would lack. I was just a kid when I saw it, probably eleven or twelve, and it shook me to the foundations to such a degree I’ve never quite recovered from it. I believe it was banned in some countries, or at least shown in edited form, but the UK was not one of them. This series and the scarring it caused has heavily influenced a novel I’m working on that will come out next year (2022) called The Tower Outside of Time. It is the third and final book in my Illuminad sequence. Each book is stand-alone, but read in order they add up to something that is—hopefully—pretty cosmic.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween costume?

Joseph: Oh, this is a good question, and a hard one. I used to love dressing up as V from V For Vendetta, but sadly now the Guy Fawkes mask has become synonymous with the online group Anonymous (hey, it rhymes!), so I am no longer as keen on it. I love a good wraith or vampire. Probably the latter is my favourite, though. I guess because people used to joke I was a vampire: pale skin, weird eyes, Gothic obsession, dark arts. On a side note, I have a Magic: The Gathering Commander Deck that is vampire themed. I have a soft spot for the old long-fangs!

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween-themed song?

Joseph: Much of the music I like is arguably Halloween-themed, because it focuses on black magic, the rising dead, or some other Gothic trope! Haha.

To name a few specific songs / bands, I have recently got quite into the band Draconian. They are a kind of screamo doom-metal band, but unlike many doom-metal efforts, it isn’t all misery; there is a kind of ghostly beauty to the guitar and female vocals, offset by a triumphant growl and great melodies. They really play with the juxtaposition of fury and sensitivity well, and their lyrics have some very interesting meanings if you begin to look deeper.

Some credit has to be given to the Rolling Stones classic Sympathy For the Devil. There is something truly mesmeric about that song. I saw it live, and it was like being hypnotised when that riff rolled over the crowd!

Lastly, I adore Avenged Sevenfold’s entire album City of Evil. I think it is possibly my favourite of all time, and the greatest ever written, which I know is crazy hyperbole, but I cannot think of anything that rivals it for ambition, scope, or execution save in the classical canon. It is dazzlingly technical but also heartfelt. It soars but also screams. There is a rawness that perhaps not everyone will like, especially as we have become increasingly accustomed to touched-up voices produced in flawless studios; but if you don’t mind a bit of gravel and soul in the voice and guitars, then it’s truly startling.

City of Evil is a kind of musical interpretation of the book of Revelations, and it features such epics as Bat Country, The Beast & The Harlot, Sidewinder, Blinded in Chains, and my personal favourite: The Wicked End. The album is over 70 minutes long and most of the songs exceed 7 minutes. Rarely do you ever hear a single chorus repeated. The songs morph and change like the creature from The Thing, shifting into bridges, key-changes, and flying to previously unknown heights. If pop music bores you to tears, this is the album for you. No song is predictable. Sidewinder, for example, transitions from brutal heavy metal into a Spanish guitar that is clearly influenced by snake-charming melodies. It’s pretty unreal.

Virtually all of City of Evil is classifiable as Halloween themed, I think! But it also deals with the human quest to re-discover one’s own lost soul. If you piece together the tracks, it tells a kind of dream-logic narrative of someone setting off into the wilderness, losing everything they love, and returning from war a broken and desolate man. One of the final lines of the whole album is, “A murderer walks your streets tonight”. It’s a devastating meditation on human evil, partly inspired by the quote from Dr Johnson (which is uttered in the opening track, Bat Country) “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween candy or treat? What is your most disappointing?

Joseph: It would have to be eyeball pops. I mean, was there ever a more perfect marriage of foodstuff and concept?! It is genuinely hard to feel like you are not biting into an actual eyeball, but then the explosion of sugary flavour wipes away the fear.

In terms of most disappointing, I would have to be jelly slugs. The taste and texture seems disappointing to me. Perhaps I am a snob?

Meghan: Thanks for stopping by today, Joseph. Before you go, what are your go-to Halloween movies and books?

Joseph: Oh, this is super, super tough. I feel like we have to define what we mean by “Halloween movie”. Does that mean a movie set on Hallow’s Eve, or simply a scary movie that is appropriate to watch on the day? In either case, it feels criminal not to give the original Halloween the ultimate trophy! I mean, it’s in the title!

However, that aside, I adore the Scream movies. I feel like they brought a manic energy to the Slasher genre when it was flagging. They tread the fine line between celebrating Halloween, masks, scary movies, and the joy we get from them, but also recognising their problematic elements. They subvert tropes but don’t fall into the trap of undermining the archetypes that drive Slashers: the faceless killer—a dark lord or monster, no less—and the dauntless heroine. The male energy of death, the female energy which is pure and incorruptible (in old-school Slashers, represented symbolically by virginity, but really this is something much deeper). They have it all, as well as being funny to boot.

In terms of a favourite Halloween book, now that is tougher! There are so many works by indie authors that could be my top Halloween book that I would struggle to list them all, but I’ll try a few top picks!

Dan Soule writes awesome Halloween-appropriate books that have that “classic” feel. His Fright Nights series is very much a callback to the horror of a young Stephen King, James Herbert, and R. L. Stine. He has a wonderful prose-style, and his characters are people you not only believe in but care about. I recommend starting with The Ash to get a taste of his work: it’s a short novel about a police officer trying to get home after a strange explosion that covers miles of the UK in ash… But when things start moving beneath the ash, the horror really begins.

I’d also recommend Iseult Murphy’s 7 Days In Hell. It’s a great creepy-town tale that is so much more than it appears. It seems a cosy mystery, until things suddenly go deeper and darker than you ever expected, including into some gnarly occult shit. Definitely a perfect Halloween read.

I think those are some good recommendations and my top picks for now. We live in a world of abundant storytelling, so there are always more brilliant authors to talk about, especially on the indie scene, which is where I feel the real action, the real boundary pushing and interesting work, is happening.

Thanks so much for having me on for your extravaganza, Meghan. It means the world!


Boo-graphy:
Joseph Sale is a novelist and writing coach. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He currently writes and is published with The Writing Collective. He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy, and his fantasy epic Dark Hilarity. He grew up in he Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.

His short fiction has appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Idle Ink, Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine. His stories have also appeared in anthologies such as You Are Not Alone (Storgy), Lost Voices (The Writing Collective), Technological Horror (Dark Hall Press), Burnt Fur (Blood Bound Books) and Exit Earth (Storgy). In 2017 he was nominated for The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize.

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Dark Hilarity
Tara Dufrain and Nicola Morgan are eleven year old girls growing up in the ‘90s, obsessed by Valentine Killshot, a metal screamo band. In particular, they’re enamoured by the lead singer, the mysterious yet charismatic Jed Maine who bears the epithet “The Cretin”. In Jed’s lyrics, he describes a world beyond the Dark Stars that he hopes one day to reach. The girls think it’s all just make-believe they share together, until a freak, traumatic incident makes this world very real. As adults, Tara and Nicola try to come to terms with the devastating catastrophe that changed their lives growing up, but to do so they will have to step once more into Jed Maine’s world, and confront the man who took everything from them. Dark Hilarity is My Best Friend’s Exorcism meets The Never-Ending Story, a fantasy that explores addiction, depression, and the healing power of friendship.

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GUEST BOOK REVIEW by Romana Drew: The Haunting of Hill House

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Horror, Gothic
Publisher: The Penguin Group (Penguin Classics)
Publication Date: 11.28.2006 (1st published 10.16.1959)
Pages: 182


“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.”

I first read this book when I was twelve. Rereading it as an adult has given me a different perspective and greater appreciation for the book.

Kathy and I sat on my bed and read The Haunting of Hill House aloud. I read one chapter, and she read the next, I think. Memory can play tricks. Kathy wasn’t much interested in books. I may have read it to her? It really doesn’t matter. I read it while sitting on my bed when I was twelve.

As I started reading it this time, I realized that I didn’t remember the beginning or the ending, only that I was scared. Hill House was haunted and creepy. I was genuinely frightened about what might happen next but couldn’t stop reading.

I don’t think my twelve-year-old self realized that this book is so much more than just a scary story.

Dr. Montague invites several people to spend a summer with him in the supposedly haunted Hill House. Two women, Theodora and Elenore, accept. Luke, whose family owns the house, joins the party. Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, the daytime caretakers, complete the initial cast.

Dr. Montague is a thoughtful, careful researcher with a penchant for studying supernatural manifestations. Theodora is a free spirit looking for adventure. Luke is an ordinary young man here to keep an eye on the guests. But life has not been kind to Elenore. Lost, forgotten, and cast aside, Visiting Hill House is the only adventure she ever has, the only time she makes her own decisions.

The view from inside Elenore’s mind is often chilling. Some people are resilient. They can weather great tragedies or difficult living conditions, stay sane, and recover. Elenore isn’t one of those people.

Too many unexplained things happen at Hill House to make this just the ramblings of Elenore’s misfiring brain. Cold spots, things that go bump in the night, and shared hallucinations, suggest that Hill House itself has a mind or at least the ability to control the minds of its occupants.

This book was written in 1959 when men tended to dominate women. That attitude is well represented in The Haunting of Hill House. Neither Theodora nor Elenore see it as anything out of the ordinary. I doubt that my younger self noticed.

I think my younger self saw Elenore as being driven bonkers by Hill House. My older self sees her as a tragic and complex character deserving of understanding and sympathy.

The story develops slowly, taking plenty of time to flesh out the characters and set the scene before anything unexplained happens. The first manifestations are harmless, but the tension keeps building.

Hill House is dark, claustrophobic, and alive. If you visit, don’t stay after dark.

The book deserves its status as a classic. The Haunting of Hill House will leave you thinking about the house and the other characters for a long time.


Boo-graphy:
Romana Drew is a retired park ranger. She lives in California with her husband where they raise baby squirrels for the wildlife care center she runs. When asked, she could go into detail about her background and education, but finds that to be rather boring. What she will say is that she is quiet and loves the outdoors. When she’s not drawing pictures, she writes about fictional worlds, aliens, and other fantastic things that her imagination pours into her mind.

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End of Innocence
Lenea’s brother spends every clear night pointing a telescope at the same stars. When she confronts him, he lets her look through the telescope. A small sliver speck changes course, slows, and merges with a larger silvery spot.

In that brief moment, her life changes. Her brother spies on space aliens! Soon she learns the aliens have a settlement in the Kenned Valley, and that her boyfriend monitors their communications.

What do they want, and can her world survive?

The Marauders of Sazile
Aliens, called Hocalie, come to Earth, cute, furry, and apparently harmless. They didn’t even bring weapons. They say they’re searching for one person to represent Earth at the Intergalactic Trade Center on Rosat. The right person.

Thousands of people apply. Earth’s governments vie to get their representatives picked. The Hocalie listen to all the suggestions. Then they choose Robin Mayfield, a young artist. Only after they are in space, and it is too late to turn back, do they tell Robin why they picked her. The Hocalie believe that only she can stop an intragalactic war. But they won’t tell her how she is supposed to do that.

No one knows who the Marauders are or why they are attacking different worlds. They appear out of nowhere to attack then disappear just as fast. They never make any effort to communicate and never respond to any form of communication.

The Marauders of Sazile is a fast-paced space adventure. The Hocalie are ever so gentle, but clever enough to hold their own against even the worst enemy. The Langons are technologically advanced but arrogant, self-centered, and domineering. The Marauders only want their world back.

Throughout her adventures, Robin keeps a journal. She also draws pictures of the people and places she visits. The Marauders of Sazile is Robin’s Journal. Some of her illustrations are included.

GUEST BOOK REVIEW by Karissa Laurel: The Haunting of Hill House & NOS4A2

Reviewing Horror Novels:
Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson & NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

I was working on an interview post for Meghan about Halloween, and that got me in the mood for a good horror story. Since I listen to way more audiobooks than I can afford to buy, I often rely on my library to supplement my Audible diet. When I went searching on my library’s audiobook app, I stumbled across The Hunting of Hill House. While I’m familiar with Shirley Jackson and the story on which a terrible 90s movie and a pretty good recent Netflix series is based, I’ve never actually read the source material. So, I decided it was time to remedy that.

I’m glad I did. Hill House is clearly a foundational story in the horror genre, particularly the hunted house sub-genre. You can see Jackson’s inspiration in so many stories that came after hers. Stephen King openly admits Hill House was a big influence on The Shining, for example. Eleanor and Danny Torrance have a lot in common. So does Hill House and Overlook Hotel.

If you know nothing about The Haunting of Hill House, here’s a blurb: “It is the story of four [paranormal activity] seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile [abandoned mansion] called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.”

The main protagonist is Eleanor, who has an extremely sensitive connection to the house. Jackson, however, leaves what the house actually is, and what the haunting actually is, very much up to the reader’s interpretation. Read carefully from here on… my discussion will contain spoilers. For me the fact that Jackson made a point of mentioning Eleanor’s childhood “poltergeist” experience (an avalanche of rocks rained on Eleanor’s childhood home without any clear source or reason) meant it was Jackson‘s intent to show that the “haunting” at Hill House wasn’t entirely inside Eleanor’s head. Plus the book clearly states the other members of the party were witnesses the haunting events (beating on doors, vandalism of Theodora’s clothes, writing on the walls in what seemed like blood, a frigid cold presence that sucked the warmth out of rooms). Whether Eleanor is the poltergeist herself–she might be some kind of telekinetic–or is highly psychically sensitive to those kinds of energies is what’s so wonderfully ambiguous in this story. Ambiguousness plays a big part in heightening the story’s sensations of terror and dread, and it’s often my most favorite tool in horror.

I decided that, for me, I believe Eleanor was psychically sensitive to the energies of the house, which had a history and reputation for malevolence long before Eleanor’s arrival. Those energies manipulated her specifically because of her vulnerabilities and sensitivities.

The arrival of Ms. Montague (Dr. Montague’s wife and a self-proclaimed spiritualist/psychic) seemed to underscore this—she was the embodiment of dramatic irony. She was so insistent that the others in the party had no psychic ability. However, when she worked with “planchette” (as in a Ouija Board planchette), all the information Ms. Montague received from it had to do with “Nell” i.e, Eleanor, which proved how physically sensitive Eleanor was and how obtuse Ms. Montague actually was even, although she believed the opposite about herself. This irony was one of my favorite devices in the story. The results from Ms. Montague’s consultations with “planchette” were yet another clue that the things happening to Eleanor were not completely in Eleanor’s head. Yet, it also served to further muddy how much of what happened in the house was Eleanor’s doing and how much was the house itself.

In the end, it’s my belief that (BIG SPOILER) Eleanor’s spirit becomes a part of the house’s energies along with those of the others who died there before her. I think before her death, Eleanor was already starting to become a part of the house’s sentience, as if the house were absorbing her and vice versa. The house is basically an amalgam of all the people it victimized over the years.

I can’t believe it took me this many years to finally get around to reading this book, but I’m glad I did. It’s such a cultural touchpoint, I think it should be expected reading as much as Dickens or Shakespeare or Faulkner or Steinbeck, etc. It’s also interesting in its themes of female sexuality. It’s definitely ahead of it’s time and such a masterful portrayal of the “human condition”. I’ll fight anyone who says genre fiction can’t represent the human experience as well as literary fiction. Haunting of Hill House should prove all genre naysayers wrong.

After finishing Hill House, which was indeed very literary in tone and style, I was still in the horror mood, so I went back to my library app and found N0S4A2, which has showed up repeatedly over the years in lists of “best horror novels”. The book is by Joe Hill, who is Stephen King’s son. It’s written in a much more commercial and accessible style, and Hill is clearly influenced by the works of his father. So, if you’re a King fan, which I am, you might enjoy Hill’s books, too.

Again, for those who may be unfamiliar, here’s a blurb (with which I have taken great liberties):

Victoria “Vic” McQueen, a deeply flawed woman who spends most of the novel in a state of perpetual denial, has an uncanny knack for finding things using a Raleigh Tuff Burner bike and a magical covered bridge. Joe Hill is, as I mentioned, Stephen King’s son, so it’s no surprise this story is set in New England, and what is a New England story without a covered bridge?

The magic bridge eventually takes Vic to Charles Talent Manx, a soul sucking vampiric creature-person who drives a cool old Rolls Royce Wraith that’s a lot like Kit from Knight Rider if Kit were possessed by a demon. Or, you know, kind of like that evil 1958 Plymouth Fury in Christine, a book by Joe Hill’s dad. Anyway, Charlie Manx likes kids but not in that “kiddie fiddler” kind of way that everyone wrongly accuses him of, and he kidnaps and takes the kids to a perpetual childhood in “Christmasland” (Hint: Christmasland isn’t as fun as it sounds). Helping him is the “Gasmask Man”, a simple-minded, childlike man who really, really hates women, especially “Mommies,” and does everything he can to torture and abuse them throughout the book. Fun times.

Manx sees Vic as a threat and tries to do bad things to her, but Victoria manages to escape and spends decades dealing, poorly, with the emotional trauma of her magical abilities and her near-death run-in with Manx and Gasmask Man. She has some good times, even manages to fall in love with a wonderful cinnamon roll of a man (seriously, Lou is the best character in the book), and she writes some successful children’s novels (that sound so cool they should exist in real life), but literal demons from her past haunt her into near insanity, and her life starts falling apart.

Eventually Vic, Manx, and Gasmask Man have their final showdown when Manx, still pissed that Victoria got away from him all those years ago, comes to seek his revenge. She puts on her big girl panties long enough to get stabbed, burned, beaten, and broken a whole lot before she finally goes Grinch all over Manx’s Christmasland.

I’m not going to lie. I struggled with this book. There was a time when I had more patience and tolerance for horror that used misogyny as one of its elements. That the misogyny was presented as an evil thing that came from the “bad guys” who may or may not meet justice for their violent hateful ways isn’t enough justification for me anymore. I don’t have much stomach left for premises that are predicated on violence against children and women (mothers in particular). I feel like we’ve been victims in media far too long, and I’m just so tired of that trope.

That Vic, a woman and a mother, turns out to be a righteous hero (somewhat of an anti-hero at times) was perhaps a redeeming element. She’s a complex character, written well. She and Lou, a great gentle giant of a man who was a great contrast to the woman hating violence of Manx and Gasmask Man, are what made the book worth finishing. There were more than a few times when I wanted to give up on it, but Lou and Vic were worth rooting for.

I might read The Haunting of Hill House again in the future. It’s the kind of book that will, I suspect, stand up to re-reading and will reveal new secrets and themes and elements upon future study. For me, N0S4A2 has none of that. Not that a good entertaining book needs to be deep or literary to be worthwhile. The kinds of books I write don’t stand up to long term scrutiny either. But as far as horror goes, phycological terror always appeals to me more than bloody violence and gore. For that reason alone, I definitely recommend The Haunting of Hill House over N0S4A2. But, I think any well rounded reader, especially ones who are fond of horror, would get something out of reading both.


Boo-graphy:
Karissa Laurel lives in North Carolina with her kid, her husband, the occasional in-law, and a very hairy husky named Bonnie. Some of her favorite things are coffee, dark chocolate, superheroes, and Star Wars. She can quote Princess Bride verbatim. In the summer, she’s camping, kayaking, and boating at the lake, and in the winter, she’s skiing or curled up with a good book. She is the author of the Urban Fantasy trilogy, The Norse Chronicles; Touch of Smoke, a stand-alone paranormal romance; and The Stormbourne Chronicles, a YA second-world fantasy trilogy.

Serendipity at the End of the World
Serendipity Blite and her sister, Bloom, use their unique talents to survive the apocalyptic aftermath of the Dead Disease. When Bloom is kidnapped, Sera is determined to get her back. Attempting a rescue mission in an undead-infested city would be suicidal, so Sera forms a specialized team to help retrieve her sister. But unfortunate accident sets Sera teetering on the edge of death. She must fight to save her own life, because surviving could mean finding family, love, and possibly a cure.

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