It’s not easy to be scary.
No really, take a shot.
And when you get done with that, try your hand at being funny. Or endearing. Or poignant.
How about trying to be all of the above?
A handful of actors can pull it off, maybe a few writers too. But how many can do it on their first attempt?
Author D.W. Gillespie will be the first to admit his new debut novel, Still Dark, was not, in fact, his first rodeo in the wild world of the written word. But bow howdy, it sure is one heck of a ride.
It’s a page-turning, action-packed roller coaster of fright and feeling that can make you gasp, laugh and cry—sometimes all within the same chapter. It’s a fresh new take on an oft-mined genre that delivers solid prose and imaginative twists.
Set in Gillespie’s beloved Tennessee, Still Dark opens with a bang (literally) when a mysterious shockwave stuns travelers at a mountain retreat. It isn’t long before deadly predators from the animal kingdom—species completely foreign to the Deep South—inexplicably start showing up. But as secrets begin to unravel, the bloodthirsty critters could be the least of our heroes’ worries. And it isn’t long before they realize that sometimes, the most dangerous animals are humans.
Gillespie was kind enough to share some insight into Still Dark, his writing process and just how a well-adjusted family man can spill so much macabre onto the page.
How did your writing career begin? What was the evolution to get Still Dark published?
While there could be plenty of official start dates for me, I usually consider around 2002 to be where it really got moving. I took a creative writing class in college, and my teacher, a published novelist herself, was very encouraging. I, like most young writers, had absolutely no clue how much of a grind it would be, and I sort of drifted in and out of writing for years.
Things really ramped up about six or so years ago when I started landing short stories in anthologies here and there. I took the Stephen King On Writing route of building up a little cred with shorts before jumping into novels. I had already written a few “practice” novels over the years, but Still Dark was the first swing for the fences.
Since then, I’ve written several more novels, landed a literary agent, and just tried my best to stay busy. I’m hoping that this is just the beginning for me.
Where did the idea for Still Dark come from?
It was all from a dream I had about a crocodile swimming under a frozen pond. It was such a weird, eerie image that I stumbled around the bedroom at 3 in the morning looking for something to write on, which my wife really appreciated. It was the perfect example of one of those little seeds that gets in your head and refuses to leave until it’s fully grown.
The characters are very relatable. Were they based on your personal experiences or relationships or were they characters who wrote themselves?
I’ve started getting the question about the characters a lot, particularly from people I work with.
“Hey, you’re like Jim, huh?”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s quite that simple…”
“Yeah, you’re Jim!”
The easiest way to answer that question is to say that there’s some of me in everybody. I just think that’s the way it works for writers. Nothing is ever a 1 to 1 comparison, but it’s impossible to ever truly divorce myself from my characters.
There is a lot about facing personal fears in this story. Do you consider that the central theme or is there a larger message above and beyond just a good horror story?
I wish I could say that this story had some overarching theme, but at the point I was at when I wrote Still Dark, I was just trying to make the best story possible. In a lot of my work that has come after, I’ve definitely injected more social commentary into it, but Still Dark was just a fun, gruesome little ride.
Now, that’s not to say there’s no meat on the bones. There’s some environmental messages that are right out front for any and all to see. I mean, any book where animals start killing everything in sight isn’t being too subtle. And the family dynamics are interesting, particularly with Laura and her dad.
There is some seriously gruesome stuff in here, a lot of which takes place amongst the human characters independent of the wild animals or the big shockers that we won’t spoil for readers. How do you get to the place to write that type of subject matter? You seem like such a nice young man…
You know, the deeper I get into writing, the more I think that people who read, write, and enjoy dark fiction might be the most sane people in the room. It’s just a natural thing for me, even if I’m not entirely sure why. I had a pretty good childhood. I’m happily married. My wife and kids are awesome. Why this stuff comes out of me is anyone’s guess.
Regardless of the reasons, I do think there’s a form of therapy here for me. Lots of people seem to struggle with an outlet for whatever they’re going through. Getting it out and onto a page helps keep me more or less normal, boring even.
Tell me about the importance of setting the story so close to your own hometown.
I love the setting. I knew I wanted to have the snow in place, which fits really well with the area. Gatlinburg is just one of those perfect little spots for people that grew up around Tennessee. It’s equal parts beautiful and kitschy, and it just makes for an awesome setting for a mayhem filled horror story.
If anyone ever makes a movie out of Still Dark, they better not change the city!
I feel it’s a bit cliche to ask about your writing influences, but if you could sit down and have a beer with anyone, who would it be and why?
Like every other horror writer in existence, I’d have to say Stephen King. He’s obviously a huge influence, and he seems like a really great choice to drink a beer with. I’d throw Joe Hill in too, just to make it a family affair.
Other good choices might be Cormac McCarthy, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, and John Steinbeck. That would make for an interesting meal.
Do you consider yourself a man of faith, and, if so, did any of that show up in Still Dark?
That’s a big can of worms that we probably don’t have time to cover in a satisfactory way, but I will say this. I consider faith to be personal thing that affects everything you do whether you intend it to or not. Obviously, this isn’t a “Christian” book, but the themes of sacrifice and selflessness are definitely in there, just wrapped in a pretty gory package.
What scares you?
Every year of my life, the answer to “what scares you” changes pretty dramatically. I’d say Still Dark is a pretty good reflection of that, from the childish fear of spiders and bugs to the deeper, existential fears of death and loss. I’m reaching the age where my fears have less to do with myself and more with those around me, which is very prevalent in a handful of scenes in the book.
Still Dark is published by Sirens Call Publications and is available on Amazon and Smashwords. Follow D.W. Gillespie on Twitter at @dw_gillespie.