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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Creating a New Halloween Myth


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? 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.
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

The novel can be bought for Kindle here

This post was originally published in October 2011. This year's guest post can be found here: http://bit.ly/NBRGuest.



Monday, October 29, 2012

Infamous Serial Killer: Why I Love Halloween



Between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31 of 1994, a serial killer calling himself “Lord Halloween” terrorized Loudoun County, Virginia. While he communicated with police only through brief post-it notes left at crime scenes, he wrote long, detailed letters to Tim Anderson, a local reporter at the Loudoun Chronicle.

Those letters only recently came to light after Lord Halloween’s second killing spree in 2006. Most have remained sealed by the courts—until now. Following is a previously unreleased letter from Lord Halloween to Tim Anderson near the beginning of his first rampage.

LH File: Letter #4
Date: Oct. 12, 1994
Investigation Status: Closed
Contents: Unclassified

Mr. Anderson,

Sometimes I wish we could meet face to face. I’ve watched you, of course. I’ve seen you go to the grocery store and the gym. I’ve even watched you on assignment—talking to the police about me. So I feel like I know you already.

But I wish you could ask me questions. One-sided conversations are always unsatisfying and it’s so hard for me to know what you’re thinking. Do you hate me? Do you think I’m a monster? Or am I the best thing that’s ever happened to you?

Come on: what’s a crime reporter without a story? I’m the biggest story this place has ever seen and you’re at the center of it.

Still, I keep wondering what you would ask me if you could. I bet I know one question: why Halloween? I could have picked any name. I could call myself Son of Satan or something equally ridiculous. Why be Lord Halloween? Why kill just in October? Why focus on a stupid holiday that’s just for kids?

The truth is it’s not for kids. It never was. It was a pagan holiday celebrated with human sacrifice. It was a tribute to death and decay and the end of the world. I’m just bringing it back into style, the way it was meant to be.

It makes me sick to see how twisted and lifeless (excuse the pun) Halloween has become. The little painted ghosts in the shop windows and the cute witches with their frisky kittens. All the kids bobbing for apples and dressing up like super heroes and fairy princesses.  That’s not what Halloween is about, Mr. Anderson. It’s not meant to be something the kids look forward to. It’s meant to be the thing they dread.

Halloween is about fear. Fear of the thing that goes bump in the night. Panic at what lies beneath you while you sleep. There’s a whole world out there we don’t know or understand and it’s filled with terrors we can’t begin to comprehend. Halloween is a reminder of everything we don’t want to face, including our own mortality.

But like everything else, we’ve corrupted it. We’ve made it insipid and bland, tried to tame it and pretend it’s all in good fun. But it’s not fun, Mr. Anderson.

Jack O’ Lanterns were lit as a way to ward off demons roaming the night. They weren’t meant to be craft projects for school kids. Costumes were a way to hide from the things haunting you, not play make believe. Even the candy we hand out was originally a tribute to the Old Gods to let us live for one more year. Now the only person who finds Halloween threatening is the dentist.

The world needs to be reminded what Halloween is about. It needs a teacher. I am that person.

I promise you that when I am done, this entire area—hell, even the country—won’t even want to think about Halloween again. If anyone shows their face on All Hallow's Eve, I will consider them fair game.

I am staking my claim to Halloween, making me part of the legend. For now and forever, we will be intertwined. In future years, Leesburg residents will shudder when the very mention of Halloween passes someone’s lips. They’ll look behind them and wonder if I’m lurking in the shadows.

And I will be, Mr. Anderson. I always will be. I’ve told you before, but soon you will know first-hand: I am night. I am fear. I am Halloween.

Sincerely,

Lord Halloween


For more on Lord Halloween, check out “A Soul to Steal,” now available on Amazon.




Thursday, October 25, 2012

Great Halloween Reads by Indie Reader, including Band of Demons


Indie Reader has released a list of "Spooktacular Seasonal Selections" for Halloween this year, and I'm pleased to say "Band of Demons: The Sanheim Chronicles Book Two" has topped the list!

Here's what reviewer Keri English says about the book: "In book one, we met The Headless Horseman and were ensconced by ancient Celtic mythology. Band of Demons delves deeper, bringing ancient Irish lore to the forefront of our already twitching minds. Sanheim, Horseman, ghosts and creatures…this is the perfect book for Halloween." (emphasis hers)

For more about Band of Demons-- plus a whole selection of other great reads -- follow the link here: http://bit.ly/IRHalloween


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What’s in a Book Title? As It Turns Out, Everything



As a reporter and editor, one of the things I struggle with the most is a headline. Even with a story I write myself, the headline is usually the last piece of the puzzle to put in place. Yet it is also the most important. A good headline can sell even a mediocre story. And a bad one will kill off any chance that readers see your work, no matter how good it is.

The same is true for books. Just like cover art, it’s an aspect that new writers, particularly indies, can overlook. It’s tempting to assume that people don’t pay much attention to a title—or will look past it if they find your premise interesting. But the title is probably the most important aspect in catching a reader’s eye. Great cover art will attract attention, but without the right title, it’s unlikely to net a sale.

By now, most anyone reading this blog knows that I worked on A Soul to Steal for 10 years. The novel had several different working titles during that period.

Originally, the book was called The Lords of Halloween. I liked it because it seemed dramatic and it evoked the serial killer in the novel named Lord Halloween. But as time wore on, it also felt wrong. For starters, I was always a little embarrassed that my book had a serial killer in it. And even though the title wasn’t exactly the same as his name, most people would assume it was referring to him. In truth, the book was never really meant to be about Lord Halloween. He was simply the catalyst for something else to happen.

I tried to work on a title that evoked the theme of the novel, but I couldn’t nail it. One of the original tag-lines for the book was: You Are What You Fear. So I tried for a while to base the title around that idea. Eventually I settled on Fear’s Rider. I was somewhat pleased with it, but it never really spoke to me. It was relevant to the novel, but would that title grab people if they saw it in a book store? Did it resonate? I was unsure.

And then I had a dream.

I have a lot of weird dreams and I pay arguably too much attention to them. I’ve recounted my strangest experience with one in this blog here, but it’s hardly the only one. For this particular dream, I only remember a couple things. I had published a book called A Soul to Steal and it was successful. When I woke up, I told my wife that morning that I was renaming the book A Soul to Steal.

It immediately spoke to me. There’s something instinctive about a title—either it works or it doesn’t, and it’s no use trying to sort out why. I look at a ton of books on Amazon and I’m surprised how many bad titles are out there. We all react to things differently, so others may like these same titles. While I don’t think Fear’s Rider was a bad title, it didn’t grab me. But A Soul to Steal definitely did.

It references the Charlie Daniels Band’s song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” (Listen to the first verse and you’ll figure out why.) It worked with the deeper themes of the book. I added some specific references in the text to make sure it was clear, but the nature of soul and identity was in there from the very beginning. It also conveys the right amount of mystery and a hint of danger. In short, it spoke to me.

As an added benefit, it also made naming the sequel much easier. Although I played around with a couple of alternatives, in the end Band of Demons was the natural choice. Like the first book, it is drawn from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but it is also intimately connected with the theme of the novel. Additionally, it conveyed a sense of menace and a darker storyline. Though I liked some of the other ideas, it was never a close call.

As for the third—and final—book in The Sanheim Chronicles, I already have the title picked out and it may be the best of the lot. Unless I find something better in my dreams.

Other Titles I Love:

What about you? Name some of your favorite titles in the comments below.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Band of Demons, the sequel to Kindle bestseller A Soul to Steal, is finally here!


After more than a year of painstaking work, Band of Demons, the No. 2 book in The Sanheim Chronicles and sequel to A Soul to Steal, is finally out! You can buy it on Amazon here: http://bit.ly/bofdemons.

I say this in the acknowledgements, but I just want to thank everyone for their support for A Soul to Steal. Over the past year, I’ve heard from many of you on my Facebook page, Goodreads, Twitter and Amazon. You’ve asked questions, expressed support and written some truly generous and thoughtful reviews. It is no exaggeration to say it has kept me going at times when I’ve despaired of this whole endeavor.
Inevitably, when I was at a low point, a review would pop up or I’d get a posting on the Facebook page that helped restore my faith that this book was reaching its intended audience. It’s been quite a ride since I published A Soul to Steal, but your enthusiasm for the story and the characters have inspired me to keep going. This book simply wouldn’t be here without you.
I’ll hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I have writing it.
So what are you waiting for? Go buy it!