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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Top Seven Modern Christmas Songs

Let’s face it: By Dec. 1, many of us are already sick of Christmas carols. The shops start playing them right after Halloween, and year after year of the same songs over and over, it’s hard not to feel weary of them by the time Christmas Eve actually rolls around.
But amid the clutter of the usual Yuletide carols are some songs that stand out. I present my top seven non-traditional Christmas tunes. Why seven? Because 10 was too many and five was just too few.

7. Blue Christmas
This 1948 song is the oldest on this list, made popular decades ago by Elvis Presley. It’s been sung countless times since then by nearly every country and rock star in the book. I lean toward Sheryl Crow’s version (though I like John Denver’s as well).  But no matter who sings it, the reasons to like it are the same: Amid the happy Christmas songs, this one is almost gleefully the opposite.
It’s a downbeat lament for a lover long gone, a recognition that not every Christmas season is hugs and kisses, and a smooth response to the sometimes annoying “White Christmas”—all rolled into one.  “You’ll be doing all right, with your Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.” Amen.

Watch it on Youtube here.  Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Blue Christmas

6. Christmas at Ground Zero
Weird Al Yankovic is a genius. Mostly known for his parodies, he released his own Christmas carol two decades ago and I haven’t stopped laughing since. Set to aggressively cheery Christmas music, Al imagines the Yuletide season amid the start of a nuclear war—and he remains darn happy about it. His lyrics, sung with unremitting glee, include: “Everywhere the atom bombs are dropping, it’s the end of all humanity. No more time for last-minute shopping, it’s time to face your final destiny.” It’s easily the funniest Christmas song ever.
It’s hard not to love a Christmas song that ends with the line “What a crazy fluke, we’re gonna get nuked, on this jolly holiday.”

Watch it on Youtube hereBuy it on Amazon MP3 here: Christmas At Ground Zero  

5. Christmas Lights

These days, Coldplay is known for uplifting rock anthems that exude optimism. So it’s a bit strange that their Christmas single, released last year, starts on a downer: “Christmas night, another fight; tears, we cried a flood. Got all kinds of poison in; of poison in my blood.”
Yet like any good Christmas special, the song is all about finding hope—sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. For the Coldplay crew, it’s a sea of bright, blinking Christmas lights. “Those Christmas lights, light up the street; Maybe they’ll bring her back to me. Then all my troubles will soon be gone; Oh Christmas lights, keep shining on.”
Schmaltzy? A little. But the melodic chorus and uplifting tone make it hard to resist.

Watch it on Youtube hereBuy it on Amazon MP3 here: Christmas Lights


4. Song For A Winter’s Night

While technically not a Christmas tune, Sarah McLaughlin’s beautiful cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s song fits perfectly with the season. With only minimal music, the song is driven by her voice, which is displayed to lovely effect. The lyrics are pretty enough, but the way McLaughlin sings them turns it into real poetry: “The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim, the shades of night are lifting. The morning light steals across my windowpane where webs of snow are drifting.”
The song is sad without feeling morose, a simple hymn wishing for someone who isn’t there: “If I could only have you near to breathe a sigh or two, I would be happy just to hold the hands I love and to be once again with you.”

Watch it on Youtube hereBuy it on Amazon MP3 here: Song For A Winter's Night  

3. Boots
The Killers are known for releasing a new Christmas song every year and they’ve had several good ones. From the ridiculous “Don’t Shoot Me, Santa” to the Mexican-themed, “Happy Birthday, Guadalupe,” it’s clear they know how to rock for the season. Last year’s “Boots,” however, is something different. It starts with an audio clip of Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where he prays to God to show him the way.
From there it tells its own story of a loner who is not exactly looking forward to the New Year. “Brand new year, coming up ahead. You know it’s been so long, since I rang one in.” But he finds hope—and potential salvation—in the reminiscences of the Christmases of his youth. “I can see my mother in the kitchen; my father on the floor. Watching television, It’s a Wonderful Life. Cinnamon candles burning, snowball fights outside, Smile below each nose and above each chin. Stomp my boots before I come back in.” What starts as just nostalgia, however, ends on a note of redemption. “So happy they found me. Love was all around me. Stomp my boots before I go back in.”
Watch it on Youtube here.  Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Boots

2. Happy Xmas (War is Over)
More than 25 years after its debut, John Lennon’s ode to Christmas still carries significance. His version is marred a bit by Yoko Ono’s backing vocals, and the song can feel somewhat cheesy, especially when the children’s choir appears. But the lyrics and tune more than make up for it. Appropriate to Lennon, the song is hopeful, wishing everyone not just a Merry Christmas, but a world without war. It also offers a slight challenge to justify what good one has achieved during the past year: “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”
Watch it on Youtube here.
Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

1. Christmas
There is no song that better captures both the ambivalence and the joy of Christmas than this Blues Traveler’s 1997 original song. It embraces the mixed feelings the holidays can bring when everyone seems happy, but you don’t feel it: “Comes the time for Christmas, and I really have to ask: If this is feeling merry, how much longer must it last?” The lyrics are superb, the harmonies are beautiful: the song is one of the best Christmas carols written in years.
It builds as the singer focuses first on his doubts about the meaning of Christmas, but he comes to terms with them by embracing the joys of the season as well. “As you raise your yuletide flask, There’s like this feeling that you carry, As if from every Christmas past. It’s as if each year it grows, It’s like you feel it in your toes, And on and on your carol goes, Harvesting love among your woes.”
The song climaxes with the verses sung in rounds—each verse beginning over again, only to be interrupted by the start of another, culminating in a chorus of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” over top. It’s a rousing crescendo and the only Christmas song worth listening to all year.

Watch it on Youtube hereBuy it on Amazon MP3 here: Christmas

That's my list. What about you? What are your favorite modern Christmas songs?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Creating a New Halloween Myth

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead!!!


Probably the question I’ve received most often about A Soul to Steal is whether its central mythology, a legend called “The Prince of Sanheim,” is based on something real. I’ve had friends admit that they Googled the term after finishing the book, and others who suggested they had heard of it before.
There is very little as gratifying for a writer, since the truth is that I made up the entire story. What makes me happy is that it doesn’t feel fake. A good mythology should seem real or vaguely familiar, the kind of thing you heard once but have since forgotten.
I’m not sure exactly when the idea came to me. I know a lot about Halloween, and much of what we think we know is not actually true. Occult fanatics and religious zealots in the 19th century invented a past for All Hallow’s Eve which has very little to do with actual history.
Instead of rejecting that, however, I wanted to embrace it. I wanted a legend that drew from those old myths—real and fictional—and created something new. And I needed something that would go to my central theme: the nature of fear.
What I wanted to know was this: do your fears define you as a person? What would it be like if your worst fear—whatever that is—suddenly took shape? Would you have the strength and courage to face it?
I also wanted something that drew from a dark place. Fear is a powerful thing. We tend to view it negatively, but it’s also a great motivator, among other advantages. Still, it cuts both ways. It can either save you or paralyze you, depending on the person and circumstances.
So I needed a legend that drew on old Halloween myths, explored the nature of fear, but also was something unique.
Here’s what I came up with. Do you want to hear a new Halloween legend -- even if it is right around Christmas? Pull up your chair and I’ll tell you a story: Centuries ago, a Celtic tribe was on the verge of annihilation, facing the increasing incursions of a rival. In desperation, they made a deal with Sanheim, the Celtic god of the dead. Despite the fact that most of their young people were killed as a result of the neighboring tribe’s attacks, they agreed to sacrifice one man and one woman to Sanheim. They tied them to a post, bound their wrists together and left them there to die.
But they didn’t die. A few days later, they returned to the village and the young man—who had seemed like just a boy before—was now a powerful warrior. The woman was his priestess. The town elders were frightened, but pleased. The two left the next day to wreak vengeance on the rival tribe. Except when they returned, instead of taking orders from the town elders, they took control.
The two had immense powers—and were intimately bound together. When there was a battle to be fought, the man led the charge. But it was the woman guiding the tribe, making most of the decisions. Apart they were nothing. Together they were what became known as the “Prince of Sanheim.”
But there was a weakness. Their powers waxed and waned with the changing of the seasons. They were strongest at Samhain, the harvest festival we now call Halloween. They were weakest the next day, what Christians call All Soul’s Day. And the power they wielded tended to corrupt them.
Every generation, a man and a woman had the chance to become the Prince of Sanheim, but there was a catch. The man must first face his Cennad—a Celtic word for ambassador—that embodied his worst nightmare. If the man could defeat his Cennad, he and the woman would have access to great powers. The woman, too, would have to face her own test, but of a different nature.
That was the basic legend, but I couldn’t really stop there. I didn’t want to just have an old myth with no echoes through history. So I invented stories for several Princes of Sanheim through the ages. In the original version of the novel, there were flashbacks to many of them so that the reader got a greater sense of their powers and vulnerabilities.
In the end, however, I cut most of that, simply because my novel already has a lot going on. The entire backdrop of the Prince of Sanheim unfolds while on the hunt for a serial killer with his own twisted history and I was wary of throwing too much at the reader.
The story I did tell was that of the most famous Prince of Sanheim: a Romantic-era poet named Robert Crowley. On Halloween night in 1873, he hosted a party at his estate in Scotland. Over 50 men showed up and history does not record the number of women who also attended. What is important, however, is that all but one disappeared. Only a man named Horace Camden survived and he shouted to anyone who would listen that Crowley had found his bride and become the Prince of Sanheim.
I've been to this castle. It's awesome.
The event was so mysterious it gave birth to a creepy rhyme: “Fifty men went up a hill, none of them came down. Fifty men went to see him, but none of them were found.” Camden went on to become a priest of the movement, talking about the coming of the next Prince of Sanheim.
The final step was to set up an environment where this new legend was born again. Quinn O’Brion and Kate Tassel, the main characters of the novel, don’t know anything about the “Prince of Sanheim” when the book starts. Instead, they are more worried about catching the killer named Lord Halloween before he strikes again. But as the novel goes on, they eventually realize that the key to finding the killer may lie in uncovering the mystery of the ancient Celtic myth.
They also have to learn something else: you are what you fear.

For more on A Soul to Steal, please “like” the Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/asoultosteal


Saturday, December 17, 2011

How to Anger Friends and Alienate People


Let’s face it: it’s hard to promote your own book. When I decided to publish “A Soul to Steal,” I knew I’d have to do some marketing, but I really believed that given the right set of circumstances, my book would be discovered on it’s own.
But that isn’t how it works. With the flood of indie books out there, it’s hard to get attention for your novel. So what’s a budding author to do?
Well, you can query book bloggers and start a blog, and maybe buy some advertisements. But that sounds like a lot of work. So I thought about it long and hard—at least two minutes—and came up with a few options that I decided to test out. I’m sure one of these will put me on the road to bestseller any minute.

1)                  Fake my own death
A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook book blogger decided that the best way to get attention for her new page was to pretend she had been in a life-threatening car accident. The details were gruesome: her brother, 5-year old Duncan, was dead, and the blogger herself supposedly slipped into a coma.
The stunt resulted in a wave of attention as good, normal people—who had no reason to think the blogger was making this up—offered their heartfelt best wishes, prayers and assistance. Eventually, however, the truth was uncovered. Apparently she had made up the story to a) earn “likes” for her page on Facebook, and b) receive free books from authors looking to promote themselves on her page.
Which was totally bizarre. For one, what happened when the truth was uncovered? Virtually everyone who had liked her page immediately “unliked” it and she ended up deleting the page. For another, who sends books to a blogger in a coma?
Lesson: Faking my own death would undoubtedly win the book more attention, but it’s hard to see much upside beyond that. Since I’m dead, I can’t write sequels, promote my novel or, oh yeah, ever see my friends again. Also, it violates one of my basic codes of conduct: Don’t be an asshole.

2)                  Steal From Other Books
Quentin Rowan caused quite a stir when it was revealed that his much praised debut novel, "Assassin of Secrets," was mostly plagiarized. And when I say mostly, I mean all of it except the words “the,” “but” and “bootylicious.”
Seriously, Rowan—whose own nom de plume, Q.R. Markham, was also stolen—is like the Olympic gold medal winner for lifting from other books. He stole virtually every line from somewhere: old James Bond novels, assorted spy thrillers, Ladies Home Journal, etc.
When the truth came out, Rowan didn’t even have the good sense to slink away in shame. No, this guy actually published an article in The Fix, a magazine about addiction, claiming that plagiarism was like an addiction. He was young, under pressure and when he scored a valuable book contract, felt strangely compelled to steal from other, better writers rather than making up his own book. His “confession” is hilarious in its absolute narcissism. He admits he was a liar and a thief, but wants us to give him credit that he fessed up so readily after he was caught. Also, his parents cried when they found out and his “beautiful” girlfriend left him—and now don’t we feel bad for saying all this mean stuff about him? No, I don’t feel bad, Quentin—if that is even your real name. The only thing I want to know is where you stole your “confession” from.
 Lesson: Stealing from other books a) will be discovered and b) is not a form of flattery. Sure, Rowan’s book sold really well in the aftermath of the accusations—even as his publisher tried to yank it from shelves—but it’s hard to build much success off that.

3) Marry a Kardashian
Seriously, I don't know who this is
Seriously, I think this is my best bet. Apparently, marrying a celebrity instantly makes you a celebrity too. So all I need to do is find a Kardashian and marry one—I don’t even need to stay married to her for very long—and boom: I’m famous and the book is a hit.
There’s just one problem: I have no idea who the Kardashians are. I’m being totally serious. The funny thing about pop culture is that I usually absorb it unconsciously even when I don’t care about it. I can tell you about the recent plot twists on “Two and a Half Men,” and I’ve never once watched the show. I don’t know how I know this: it’s the most useless psychic power there is.
But with the Kardashians, I’m totally lost. I don’t know who they are, where they came from or why they’re famous.
Lesson: It turns out I’m already married and my wife was not pleased with this suggestion.

4. Write a good book
Here’s another idea. Rather than looking for a short-cut, I could just take a long time to write and polish a book, release it into the wild, and ask people to buy it. If it’s good, maybe, just maybe, it will sell some on its own via word of mouth. If not, I can write another book, and hope that eventually, I'll gain a following. It's hard work, but it doesn't involve lying to friends and family, stealing from authors I love, or figuring out who the Kardashians are. 
 Lesson: We may be onto something here. I will have to give this more thought.

So, what do you think I should do? Marry a Kardashian? Steal from Stephen King? Leave a comment below! Please note that I am giving away a $10 Amazon gift card to a random follower! Contest ends Wed, Dec. 21, 2011.

Friday, December 16, 2011

An Interview With Paranormal Book Club


Following is an interview with the Paranormal Book Club Facebook page, where I'm the spotlight author this week.

Did this book’s inspiration come from part of your life?

The book came from a lot of different places. For starters, I love the Headless Horseman and have been trying to write a story about him since the 7th Grade. Secondly, I love Halloween and wanted to write a story about its origins. Lastly, I live near Washington, D.C. At the time I wrote the first draft of this book (October 2001), we were being terrorized by a sniper, who struck without warning and killed innocents randomly. We were afraid to go outside, go to the grocery store, etc. In fact, a woman was killed at my local Home Depot. That sense of feeling stalked was the inspiration for the serial killer in my novel. The majority of the book also takes place at a small community newspaper in Loudoun County, Va. For three years, I worked for the Loudoun Times-Mirror in Leesburg, and a lot of that experience drifted into the novel.
Ultimately, I put all those elements together: the Headless Horseman, Celtic myths, a serial killer, and a small-town newspaper and made “A Soul to Steal.”

How are your characters built?

The main characters I just envision in my head as the story plays out. The side characters sometimes start out as people I know and then morph as the story goes along. In both cases, the plot usually gives me a sense of the character, instead of vice versa. I watch how they respond to what’s going on and go with what feels right. That might sound odd, since I created them, but you have moments where you realize, “Kate would never say this.” And you realize something about the character you didn’t know before. I guess I would say it’s an organic process. I create a plot and give the characters an outline and they flesh out as the story proceeds (and in subsequent rewrites).

How has your life changed since writing the series?

It’s been a unique experience. On the one hand, it’s fantastic to have a book out there that people you don’t know can read. When someone you don’t know reviews the book on Amazon – as happened today – it’s an amazing experience. I lived with this story in my head for so long, it’s wonderful to know other people are now enjoying it. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of stress that comes with this. Since the book’s publication, I’ve spent what’s left of my free time soliciting reviews from book bloggers, planning ad campaigns and generally trying to promote the novel. It’s a little exhausting.

Where are you from?

Virginia. I grew up in Great Falls, went to college in Williamsburg and – except for two years in the United Kingdom – have lived entirely in Virginia. I love it here. We have it all: hot summers, cool winters, fantastic falls and beautiful thick old forests, which is one of the reasons I set the book there. When I was a kid, I always imagined something terrifying – like the Headless Horseman – was out there in the forest.

Is there any type of music you like to listen to while you write?

I’m a big music fan, but I often turn it off when I write now. If I don’t, the song is liable to have an undue influence on what I write. That said, when I do write with music, I will turn on film scores and classical music. Some music from movies (instrumental, I mean) is just perfect for writing fiction. It’s emotionally evocative without being distracting.

If there was one author you could meet who would it be?

Stephen King. There are plenty of others I’d also like to meet – J.K. Rowling, for one – but King has always been my literary hero. I’ve read every one of his novels (except for his latest, but I plan to start it soon. I’m saving it up!). I just love his writing style. He can write about the most unpleasant thing (a man who convinces his son to help him kill his wife, for example) and I can’t stop reading even if I want to. There’s a reason his books seldom work as movies. Without his words, you lose that spell that makes you suspend disbelief. I’d love to sit and chat with him for an afternoon. I think it would be fascinating.

Which of your characters in your book do you relate to the most?

It’s been said by my friends that Quinn, the protagonist, is a lot like me, at least in terms of personality. I find him very easy to relate to. It should be noted, though, that Kate, his love interest, has a lot of my darker qualities. She’s somewhat paranoid, very black and white in her view of the world, and quick to anger. I find her rather frighteningly easy to relate to as well.

Where does the title “A Soul to Steal” come from?

I actually had trouble with the title for a long time. With my wife’s help, I finally decided it would be called “Fear’s Rider,” but I was never really satisfied with that. Then one night I had a dream. I don’t remember what happened, but I do know that in the dream the book was called, “A Soul to Steal,” after the line from the song, “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” When I woke up, I knew that was the title I wanted.

What’s your next project?

I am working on the sequel to “A Soul to Steal.” It’s slow going at the moment, but I’m hoping I’ll have more time to work on it in the New Year and release it in mid- to late- 2012. After that, I will write the third, and presumably last, in the trilogy about Quinn and Kate. I have several other book ideas after that, including a novel I started on this past summer, but I had to put it aside to focus on publishing my novel.

What authors do you enjoy?

I read pretty much anything. I’m an English major, so I’ve read a lot of classics. I’m a huge fan of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But I also love Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Jim Butcher, Stephenie Meyer, Milan Kundera, David Mitchell, Isabel Allende, and many others.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

a) Write something that you would want to read. In other words, don’t write something because it’s the popular genre and you think it would sell well. Write what interests you. That makes things a lot easier.
b)Don’t give up. Ever. Persistence pays off.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's My Genre, Again?


When I started writing “A Soul to Steal,” I didn’t think very hard about how I was going to market it. It crossed my mind, sure, and I even went so far as to picture the cover in my mind—the Headless Horseman racing down a moonlit path.
But I didn’t really consider who the audience was, and at the time, I didn’t even know book bloggers existed, much less that they generally divided themselves into certain categories. I was just trying to finish a novel, which felt like a feat in and of itself.
As a result, I now have a novel I have trouble describing to people because it doesn’t break down into any conventional format. It is part mystery, part suspense-thriller, part paranormal romance, and a little bit of horror—with an underlying subplot about the nature of community journalism.
This has become quite a problem for me. When I published the novel, friends would ask, “What kind of novel is it?” At first I answered “horror,” because the book has the Headless Horseman on the cover and I thought that was the right answer. Some friends were happy with that, but others cringed. “Oh,” they said. “I don’t really like horror. I can’t stand gore.”
I would then rush to explain that the novel is just a tiny bit horror and contains no gore of any sort. I hate gore: I don’t find it interesting as a reader or a writer. Somehow, it feels cheap. Still, my overall point was this: my novel isn’t really horror.
Then I tried calling it a “paranormal romance,” because it has a heavy romantic and paranormal element to it. The novel is about two characters that must learn to trust each other to destroy the fears haunting both of them. But it didn’t feel quite right to call it a paranormal romance, given that a lot of books technically in that genre are fundamentally different than mine. There are no vampires, werewolves or angels, and my novel doesn’t feel like the next “Twilight.”
Adding to my difficulty is that the book has a huge mystery element to it. A notorious serial killer named Lord Halloween has returned to Leesburg, Virginia, and the police are desperately trying to find his identity. Local journalists Quinn and Kate are also investigating the trail and the answer isn’t revealed until the final few chapters.
But could I call the book a mystery? I tend to think of mysteries as Agatha Christie novels or the Nevada Barr books starring Anna Pigeon. Importantly, none of those books have elements of the supernatural in them—and mine definitely does.
When I queried book bloggers, the situation got even worse. Some wanted paranormal romances but hated mystery-thrillers. Others liked urban fantasy but not horror, something I didn’t even think was possible.
All this had me wondering: what the hell is my book? Is it a mystery-paranormal romance, a supernatural thriller, or a horror-lite with a side of suspense and a bit of bacon?
It wasn’t until the first reviews started rolling in that I finally figured it out. What kind of novel did I write? The one consistent thing I heard from my friends and others who read the novel was this: “I couldn’t put it down.” One told me she had no time to read my novel, but then proceeded to start it at 3 p.m. and read it straight through until the next day. Once she started, she was hooked.
I ran into similar reactions from many others. “A Soul to Steal” clocks in at around 450 pages—and took me years to write—but readers started blowing through the novel within a few days.
Once readers got over any preconceptions they had about whether it was a horror, suspense or paranormal romance, they found it didn’t matter. They just wanted to see how things turned out.
Now that’s the answer I give to the question, “What kind of book is it?”
“It’s a page-turner,” I say with a smile.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Scariest Figure in American Fiction


I first met the Headless Horseman when I was in the third grade. I have never fully recovered.

I think it was designed as a treat for the kids on Halloween, but the decision to show the Disney adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in class proved fateful to me. I lasted until the specter started chasing poor Ichabod Crane before I burst into tears and had to be escorted from the room. I spent the rest of the movie hanging around the door in the hallway, fearful to look inside but desperate to know what was happening.


In a way, I’m still hanging around that doorway. Since that day, the Headless Horseman has held a strange fascination for me. Every year in October, I re-read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and I’ve seen most every adaptation made of the story, even the really awful one starring former Chicago Bear Dick Butkus.

So it’s no surprise that when I wrote my first novel, "A Soul to Steal," the Headless Horseman played a starring role. My protagonist, Quinn, has been haunted since childhood by visions of the specter. Sound familiar?

While Quinn eventually has to deal with the very real appearance of the Headless Horseman, I’ve been left wondering why the ghost of Sleepy Hollow continues to enjoy such popularity today. It’s clearly not just me that loves The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The Headless Horseman has starred in a couple good movies, several bad ones, two musicals, an opera and even a ballet. That’s in addition to numerous television specials and audiobooks.

While Dracula and Frankenstein undoubtedly trump him world-wide, the Horseman is easily the most popular and recognizable gothic figure in American fiction.  It’s been 191 years since Washington Irving released his story, and yet its popularity seems unlikely to abate anytime soon. Why is that? There are a lot of ghost stories out there, but most don’t have nearly the same kind of staying power.

I have a few theories.

1) The story draws on the mythic. Irving didn’t really invent the Headless Horseman—he was based on German folklore (hence why Irving makes his version a former Hessian soldier from the Revolutionary War.) The story of a phantom roaming the land preying on the living is probably as old as civilization and speaks to something primal in all of us.

2) The story is ambiguous. Irving implies that the Headless Horseman isn’t real—Bromm Bones, Ichabod’s rival, has a “knowing look” whenever Ichabod’s story is told—but he leaves the door open to other interpretations (the Disney cartoon version, for example, strongly implies the supernatural was involved.) This is the best kind of ghost story. The reader can believe whatever he or she wants and can debate it among friends. Irving even leaves it unclear if Ichabod died or simply fled, inviting further discussion.

3) The story features classic characters and vivid descriptions. The world may have changed a lot in two centuries, but human nature hasn’t. The characters in the story still seem recognizable today. It’s easy to see people today like Ichabod, the know-it-all school teacher, Katrina, the coquettish flirt and Bromm, the town jock and bully.

But all that doesn’t get down to the most obvious reason for his enduring popularity—the Headless Horseman is scary as hell. Why? For one, he has no head, which is unnerving in and of itself. It’s the most basic attribute of a living creature and usually a prime weak spot, even for monsters. Vampires and zombies can both be killed by beheading them. But how do you kill the Headless Horseman? (Side note: I actually struggled in my novel to come up with an answer to this, but I did finally do so.)

Making things even more terrifying, the Headless Horseman runs “like a midnight blast.” This isn’t some shambling creature of the undead blindly trying to find you in the woods. This is a demon with lightning speed running you to ground. You can’t kill him and you can’t escape him. I can’t think of anything scarier.

That’s what makes the Headless Horseman so unforgettable—and irresistible.


Rob Blackwell is the author of A Soul To Steal , now available as an e-book and print book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes and Smashwords. You can find him on Goodreads, Twitter (@hobbinb), and Facebook.
Links: A Soul To Steal at Amazon.com
Soul to Steal at Barnes and Noble

Note: This post originally appeared as a guest post on "Alive on the Shelves" on Halloween, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dreaming of Death—A Mysterious Building, An Elevator, and a Prophetic Nightmare


Since I published my novel three months ago, I’ve had my fair share of questions. Since it’s a book with a large paranormal element to it, I’m most often asked if I believe in ghosts or if I’ve ever had an encounter with one.
Although I’ve interviewed people who have seen ghosts, I can’t claim to have ever seen one myself. But I must have some kind of personal paranormal story, right? Something weird? Something that made me suspect that the world isn’t exactly as it seems?
Like most of us, I have a few. I can tell you about the time I performed a Tarot card reading—and was far more accurate than I wanted to be. Or the time I refused to go into a friend’s basement for reasons I couldn’t explain, only to find out much later it had been the scene of a grisly murder.
But I think I’d rather tell you about one of the times that I dreamed of my own death.
I was in the 7th Grade when we visited Blackstone, Va., with my church youth group as part of a large retreat. Though I had often been away from home as part of the Boy Scouts, the trip was exciting for two reasons: 1) there would be indoor plumbing as well as easy access to Mountain Dew, and 2) there would be girls with us.
Here’s the strange part of the story. From the moment I walked into the place where the retreat was held—and I had never stepped foot in there before—I knew exactly what the layout would be. I knew where the stairs were, the rooms were, what the d├ęcor would be like, and basically how to find my way around.
It was very odd. When I walked inside, the entire place felt familiar. Like I had not only been there before, but spent significant time exploring every nook and cranny. This wasn’t something I kept to myself. As soon as we walked inside, I told my friends I had—somehow—seen this place before. I had a friend walk ahead of me, with me telling him what he would find around every corner (before I could see it). Everything was exactly where I said it would be. 
It was only then that I remembered the dream. As is often the case with me, I don’t remember my dreams in the morning: something has to trigger the recollection for me. When I was younger, this was really easy—I’m sad to say it’s much harder now.
Walking around the building and giving my friends an advance guided tour triggered the memory of the dream. In the dream, I had been walking around the inside of a strange place. It was big, empty and spooky. I wandered all around until I came to a hallway off to the left. When I turned the corner, I saw a large trash bin on the right side and a white elevator at the end of the hall. I waited there a moment, not sure what to do, but with a growing sense of dread.
In the dream, the elevator suddenly “dinged” open and when it did, a gust of wind swept down the hallway. The trash bin immediately was pulled into the elevator, which was now a giant, gaping hole. I grabbed the corner of the wall, but everything else was being pulled into the elevator—the pictures on the walls, the carpeting on the floor, everything. Finally, after holding fast for what felt like several minutes, I couldn’t hold on any longer. I was sucked into the elevator too—my last thought before plunging into the darkness was that this would kill me.
Back in real life, I stood there on the first floor of the building and recounted the dream to my friends. Some thought I was lying, others thought that perhaps I had visited the building before (I hadn’t). But one friend agreed to go exploring with me. I had to know: was the elevator in here? And what would happen if I found it?
When we got to the second floor, we crept cautiously through the halls. I knew just where to go, just where the elevator would be. Sure enough, we came to a hallway on the left. We rounded the corner. There on the right side of the hall was the trash bin, just as it had been in my dream. At the end of the hall was the white elevator.
The thing that scared me the most wasn’t that everything in my dream existed in the real world. What was most frightening to me was that there was no one else in that hallway, but the elevator call button—the one you press to make the elevator come to you—was lit up. Just as I registered what it was, I heard the “ding” and the elevator door slid open.
I’m not ashamed to admit it: I ran. I ran like hell, with my friend close behind me. Once safely back to the group, we told them everything. Even though a few made fun of me, I noticed everyone studiously avoided the elevator from that time on, convinced it was a dangerous trap. During that retreat, I never set foot in the elevator—nor, for that matter, got anywhere near the hallway.
So what did it all mean? If I had stepped into the elevator, would something have happened? Did I somehow pick up on some terrible history of the place?
If this were a novel, I could tell you. I’d tell you the secret hidden past of the elevator and how a boy 20 years earlier had vanished near that very spot. I’d tell you how many kids who come to that place have the same terrible nightmare, and how a few even hear the voice of a young boy calling to them as they walk near the hallway.
But truthfully, I don’t know the answers. How could I dream of a place where I had never been? And why did I dream about an elevator that, as far as I know, was perfectly normal? Two years later, when my group returned to that retreat, I took a dare and rode the elevator. I’m still here.
But I will tell you this. When the door shut on me and I was alone in the elevator, I was never more afraid in my life. And I’ve honestly never felt the same about any elevator ride since.
So that’s my real-life paranormal story. What about you? Have any insights into my dream? Have you had any dreams that came true? Leave a comment below!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The "I Want to Die Horribly" Contest

Ever wanted to be a character in a novel? This is your chance. As part of my week with the Paranormal Book Club Facebook page, I'm going to be hosting the "I Want to Die Horribly" Contest. The winner will be featured in the sequel to "A Soul to Steal," and has the option to, you know, die horribly.

Here's what you have to do to enter:

1) Like the Facebook page for "A Soul to Steal." It's here: www.facebook.com/asoultosteal

2) Tweet the following: Want to be a character in a novel? Join the "I Want To Die Horribly" contest now at http://goo.gl/1zwFk. #asoultosteal

3) Buy the book. While no purchase is required, buying the book will really help raise your odds of winning. You can buy it anywhere: on Amazon  or Barnes and Noble, on iTunes, or through Smashwords. Once you buy it, send the proof of purchase to headlesshorseman@verizon.net. That's it.

Good luck! a Rafflecopter giveaway

A New Beginning

When I first started in journalism -- now, sadly, 15 years ago-- I was a local sports reporter. It was a fun job (though not as much fun as people tend to think, but still entertaining). The best part, however, was when I started a regular column.

The column was a bit of fresh air. Generally speaking, sports is a cool beat, but it's not terribly creative. It's basically the same thing over and over again. But a column? I could take it anywhere. And I did. I wrote about all sorts of different topics, still vaguely connected to sports, but with pop culture references and at least a stab at humor. It was called, "Nobody Asked Me, But..." which I felt reflected the nature of my comments. You probably didn't ask to hear what I thought about obnoxious parents at Little League games, but I'm going to tell you anyway.

Eventually I killed the column when I started having more responsibilities at the paper, and moved on from that publication. It wasn't until I worked for the South County Chronicle on a freelance basis that I got some version of it back. There the column was called "Critics Corner," and I was allowed as much freedom as I wanted. I could, and did, write about music, movies, video games and books. It was a great outlet for me and I really enjoyed it.

But, sadly, the paper folded earlier this year--another victim to the new digital age. I focused on my full-time job and my novel-writing and pretty much forgot about it. But I missed it.

So when I published a novel and everyone told me, "Make a blog, make a blog," resurrecting the old column was the first thing that popped into my head. And here it is. I can't promise to post every day or even every week, but I will try and keep things interesting and fun.

Dec. 11, 2011