Stoker Spotlight: 13 Questions with Benjamin Kane Ethridge, author of Black and Orange
Benjamin Kane Ethridge won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in First Novel for Black & Orange (Bad Moon Books 2010). Beyond that he’s written several collaborations with Michael Louis Calvillo, one of which is a novella called Ugly Spirit, available in 2011. He also wrote a master’s thesis entitled, “Causes of Unease: The Rhetoric of Horror Fiction and Film.” Available in an ivory tower near you. Benjamin lives in Southern California with his wife and daughter, both lovely and both worthy of better. When he isn’t writing, reading, videogaming, he’s defending California’s waterways and sewers from pollution.
How would you describe Black & Orange?
It’s a dark fantasy novel that redefines the origin, meaning and ultimate purpose of Halloween. Oh, and there’s also sex, drugs, violence and killer pumpkins.
Tell us about what inspired you to write Black & Orange.
I wanted to add to the canon of Halloween tales, but I didn’t want to take the route other horror authors had already taken. I figured people were ready for something different in terms of Halloween. Different, but familiar.
What was your writing process like for the book? Do you have a regular writing routine or schedule?
Yes, I write 1500 words a day until I finish the rough draft. I make notes along the way and do brief outlines for upcoming chapters. I keep my outlines bare, because I think it’s important for a draft to evolve organically rather than mechanically–I find writing tedious when I know EVERYTHING that will happen next.
What most attracts you to writing horror?
Horror can embrace fantasy quite easily, and I really dig fantasy– so it’s got that going for it. Moreover, Horror is probably the most honest genre out there besides Comedy. You pick up a book with “horror” on the spine and it’s a brash declaration: “I am a story that is going to attempt to shake your foundations. Can you handle me?” Other than comedy, that promises something similiar, all other genres make no attempt to evoke emotions tied directly to content.
Romance doesn’t aim to make you fall in love–you’re getting a story about other people in love. Fantasy–you’re witnessing an act of magic, not feeling its effects. Science Fiction– you’re studying the science but not building a rocket ship when you’re through (sadly enough). So, I love these other genres, but I’m not becoming a cowboy when I read a Western. With great, effective horror, I am sharing the disquet with the characters in the story.
What are some of the themes you explore in your writing? Are there any topics you consider “out of bounds” even for horror fiction?
I try new themes with every book I write. Black & Orange dealt with different forms of love and what damage it can do to partnerships. I think just about any theme can be explored in Horror, and should be. I think back to some of the Splatterpunk writers immediately when this discussion begins. Their themes are bleak, content cruel, and stories immoral in the eyes of many. However, there are some wonderful writers in this group, and they’re not out to expose the diseased minds of readers, but rather to offer a reader the chance to hold a taboo in his hands for as long as he possibly can. So no, nothing is out of bounds.
What are you writing now?
I’m working on a novella called Stitches about a scarecrow that comes to life to save the man who created him. It’s darker than it sounds. Ha!
What do you see as horror literature’s role in contemporary culture?
It allows us to embrace the shadows. Living in the light everyday can get tiresome.
Tell us about an experience or experiences with the HWA that influenced your writing or helped you as a writer.
Where do I begin? I’ve had many wonderful times at HWA functions and at conventions with HWA members. A specific event would be winning the Bram Stoker Award, of course. Being nominated and then winning the award took some of the beginning writer’s burden off my back. It hasn’t gone away completely because I have more novels to sell and more rejections to certainly endure, but receiving such recognition did teach me that if I try hard enough at something, I can succeed. Without the HWA that would have never happened and I’d probably be sucking my thumb in a corner somewhere, feeling sorry for myself.
What advice would you share with new horror writers? What do you think are the biggest challenges most writers face?
Make sure you know what type of writer you want to be. I still struggle with this, because I like many genres. I think the biggest challenge most writers face is do something original and marketable at the same time. If you figure that out, I’m all ears.
What are three of your favorite horror stories?
Yikes, three? Wow, let me see… I Am Legend, The Stand, and Johnny Got His Gun.
What’s your favorite Halloween memory or tradition?
My parents always put on a party in October. Those were always a lot of silly fun. As I got older, they sort of stopped as an annual necessity, but I still love decorating the house and looking up recipes for spooky treats.
Given a choice, trick? Or treat?
Treat. Cleaning shaving cream and toilet paper stuck in the eaves of a two-story house is not as mindblowing as it looks.
13. Have you ever seen a ghost?
Sure. Just now. Oh wait, no… that was a dude in a toga running like hell for the john. Oh well, I’ll keep my eyes peeled and get back to you on that one.
Benjamin Kane Ethridge is giving away one signed, limited, hardcover edition of Black & Orange . To enter post a message in the comments section below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Winners will be chosen at random. Contestants may enter once to be considered for all giveaways, but multiple entries are permitted.
Excerpt from Black & Orange
October 31st of Last Year Where was Tony Nguyen? Where was the Heart of the Harvest? Martin couldn’t answer that. He’d lost his gun, his mind could not conjure another mantle– he was powerless. The answers he desperately needed escaped him. He just ran. Teresa wove through a field of tall grass and he followed. The brittle blades swept across his face, snapping and hissing as they went. The children flooded into the field, their dark orange jaws snapping in concert with the disruption in the grass. Martin could hear Teresa wheezing. Her pace slowed. He had to match it; she wouldn’t be left behind, not like–
Where was Tony?
Thousand of little fiends chomped hollowly, hungry to fill that hollowness– instinctively Martin attempted to throw a mantle and dissect the crowd, but his brain had gone completely dry; he’d overdone it. There was no mental power left. He’d failed Tony. They both had. Now the Church of Midnight would have their sacrifice. The same realization flooded into Teresa’s cold face as she sprinted through the darkness ahead. He’d wasted his power, she was ill and the Church was too damned powerful now.
Chaplain Cloth was too damned powerful. And he took Tony. Somewhere along the line Martin and Teresa had lost the Heart of the Harvest, Tony Nguyen, that single soul that was theirs to protect from sacrifice.
The nightscape sloped. One of the children clamped onto Teresa’s leg with its serrated teeth and twisted its head to rip at the tendons there. Martin brought down a boot on its pumpkin shaped skull. The head trauma forced the jaws open. Martin jumped forward to crush it. The thing growled and jumped to meet him. Teresa swung around and stopped the creature mid-flight with the butt of her handgun. Her frayed jeans grew dark with blood but she ran on. The other children gained. Colorless trees flooded past, the open field turning into dense forest.
Maybe Tony had gotten away somehow. They couldn’t lose another Heart of the Harvest. The gateway grew too wide already– another sacrifice would bring the other world too close to theirs. Goddamnit, where was Tony Nguyen? Did he trip and fall somewhere? Martin’s foot hit a root. He tumbled sideways, landed on his elbow in a wet bed of leaves. Teresa took his hand and ripped him to his feet. But it wasn’t Teresa. This person wore a new face and new eyes.
Martin twisted away from the old monster. The shark-belly skin, the night black suit and orange tie. Trees exploded behind Martin in a rush of splintery debris. He found his strength, forced on a path of adrenaline, and brought up a mantle that moment. The invisible shield wrapped around his body and deflected the attack. Martin’s heel caught mud and he slid fast into a black ravine. He lost hold of the mantle when he splashed down. His protection vanished. Where was Teresa?
Where was Tony? Martin was alone.
His legs slopped through a waist-high stream. Chaplain Cloth hadn’t come down after him and as much as that might have been a relief, it meant his direction had turned elsewhere. Martin couldn’t let that happen, not to Tony, not to Teresa. He charged hard through the cold stream and broke out of the arresting water onto a steep embankment. The memory of Cloth’s face burned in his mind: needles of pitchy hair swinging over one black eye, and the orange eye engulfed in hate. His teeth were raw pink like flayed muscle, colored from past harvests, colored with those Hearts that never saw another November.
Screams echoed from a bubble of light somewhere north. Martin’s legs burned red-hot. Can’t stop. He focused to build another mantle. The cold spot in his brain, where mantles were drawn, bloomed with power. The light in the forest intensified. Shadows became more distinct. A voice yelled for him.
“Martin! Here!” Teresa peered out between some stunted trees. Her face was streaked in dirt and dried blood. “Get over here.”
He dove into the hiding place and sidled up next to her. Her words came out between gulps of air. Her wheeze sounded dry, but he knew it’d get worse soon in this dampness. “We have to get back to the van. We’ve lost him Martin. They have Tony. Tony’s gone! Let’s go.”
“How do you know? Did–?”
She guided his face over, leaving dank mud on his chin. In his confusion he’d overlooked a nearby ledge over a washout. Pine trees wreathed the area in a nighttime vertigo. At the other side of the washout stood an old brick structure, a primary school left to ruin. A gaping mouth opened through the bricks. The gateway leading to the Old Domain stretched forth impatiently, power-starved. At the other side of the bilious corridor, human arms pushed and pulled and wrenched to open a fist-sized hole separating the worlds. The arms withdrew a moment and a woman’s face filled the hole. Smiling. It was a lovely face with corpse cold eyes.
They shrunk back as Chaplain Cloth strode from the gathering of trees adjoining the school. Tony Nguyen’s furrowed body hung limp in Cloth’s arms. He was alive, but Martin knew that wouldn’t last long.
“We have to do something,” he whispered.
“You know there’s nothing we can do now,” said Teresa. “We can only hope it gateway will shut again. This was bound to happen again.”
“We can try–”
“No,” she said, firmly, “I’m calling this one.”
Tony wasn’t scared, although the abrasions from Cloth’s children had almost bled him out. So very brave– thought Martin. How had they let this happen? They were too slow.
Without warning, the boy’s torso twisted back; the spine snapped in three places. The Chaplain rested his hand on the damp white shirt and it jumped apart at the poisonous touch. Through Tony’s abdomen, the ribcage surfaced through the skin like the hull of a sunken ship. Once each bone was exposed, they shattered in succession. Cloth blinked back at the chalky discharges. Strands of muscle and skin ignited and burst into tiny organic filaments. Cloth worked a pale finger around the dense muscle in the cavity. Pulled the heart free from Tony’s chest.
The Heart of the Harvest didn’t glow, or shimmer, or change colors. It looked like a human heart, like any mammal heart, a tough piece of bloody flesh. But then Martin saw– everything for miles around had been deprived of color. Teresa’s face looked gray beside him. Even Cloth’s black and orange eyes were two smoky discs. Yet the heart had a burgundy hue so ferocious it looked like something from a surreal dream, an apple galvanized with cinnamon steel.
Tony’s jaw clicked as his body met the forest’s carpet of twigs and leaves. He was carrion now because of them. This kid, this great kid that once explained in detail how he planned to code videogames after college, and once he mastered that, wanted a large family– he wasn’t one of those guys who hated the idea. Becoming a good father someday was his ultimate goal, because his own father left so much to be desired. Tony had wanted to have a life after this Halloween. And now he would be fertilizer for the forest. Dust.
The heart was placed outside the gateway. The arms inside thrashed frantically as the brilliant red lump boiled. A swarm of children attacked the organ, taking measured bites of the fruit. Their bulbous bodies fled inside, charged with radiant power. Hundreds detonated. Through the eclipses of darkness and light, layers of the hole collapsed into soot. The opening widened and a slender arm, the woman’s arm, came through with her head. She moved quickly through, for the gateway would repair and soon.
“They’re coming through.” Teresa swallowed the words.
“I don’t think it will stay open forever,” Martin told her. They’d lost Hearts before, but he still wasn’t sure.
Laughter scaled the peaks of the hovering pines. More Church members clamored through the forest toward the new arrivals.
Teresa tugged at him, but Martin couldn’t move. All he could do was think about the end. His body came off the ground with a surge of strength. “This is done, Martin. We have to go!”
Thousands of demented orange faces exploded around them. Teresa flung a mantle and it powered through the children like a cannon ball. Martin followed her through the maze of twisting trees, trusting her to lead them to the van.
Chaplain Cloth’s laughter followed them all the way back.