Aaron Dries – House of Sighs

Aaron Dries may well be Australia’s most dapper man of horror. An artist and writer, his oh-so Australian novels, A Place For Sinners, The Fallen Boys, and House of Sighs, made his name in the US indie horror scene. Now he’s bringing the love back home. We caught up with Aaron to get the skinny on his latest release and why it’s his most personal yet…

Your novel HOUSE OF SIGHS has just been re-released by Crystal Lake Publishing. Can you tell us a bit about the story (without spoilers, of course)?

House of Sighs kicks off when a local Hunter Valley bus driver named Liz Frost, pulls a gun from her mouth and decides to live with her loneliness for one more day. She dresses, combs her hair, and goes to work on mind-numb autopilot. Nine souls board her route, nine souls that Liz then drags back to her home against their will. She wants to build a new family for herself from these passengers, men and women who are willing to kill to avoid becoming her kin. The bus leaves a trail of carnage in its wake as it rockets towards a house that has held its secrets for far too long, a place where crows now gather, ready to feed on whatever’s left behind.

The book was originally published in 2012, and returns in a brand new edition that also includes a never before published sequel, a novella titled The Sound of His Bones Breaking.

The sequel tells the story of Aiden and Danny. They’re downing beers in an open bar overlooking a busy Lismore road, their legs brushing together, which is about as far as they let their public displays of affection go in that part of Australia. The warm breeze and pounding music—they don’t know it then, but it’s their last truly happy memory. Everything changes when a taxi pulls up and its drunken driver stumbles out, starting a street brawl that leaves Danny broken and bleeding on the ground. In an attempt to give his lover the space he needs to heal, Aiden accepts an employment opportunity in Thailand, and the two men set off overseas, their fates sealed air-tight within the confines of the airplane. But in the claustrophobic hush of their tiny Bangkok apartment, and while Aiden goes off to work, instead of mending, Danny’s old scars begin to sing. The lonely walks… The woman cooking bones in a vat of broth, whispering at him to eat the parts that hurt… The flies nobody but Danny can hear… And his maddening desire to trace his heritage of hurt back to ground zero, and there find someone to blame.

Is there some interesting backstory to the idea for Sighs?

While going to university in Newcastle, I worked as a pizza boy in the Hunter Valley, which is where House of Sighs is set. I had this one family on my route that I used to deliver to on a weekly basis – a mother and her two, cute-as-a-button kids. They always ordered the same thing: vegetarian pizzas. Like, this was a treat, but mum was keeping things health conscious(ish), you know? Or at least, that’s what I always thought. I used to see them all the time. They knew me by name. But the orders stopped coming out of the blue, and I saw on the news that they all were dead. Mum murdered the kids and then suicided. This shocked me deeply. My interactions with them were purely superficial, but it illustrated to me how little we know about what goes on behind closed doors. The questions in my head (what made her do it? etc) led to a short film called Placebo that I wrote and directed as my major work in my final year of uni. That film won a number of awards and opened a lot of doors for me. But still, the insidious questions wouldn’t let me be. That search evolved into the novel, House of Sighs, which I entered into the International Fresh Blood Contest run by Leisure Books/ChiZine Publications/and Rue Morgue Magazine – a Survivor-type elimination competition in which the winner was awarded a publishing contract. Of the many, many people who subbed manuscripts, Don D’Auria at Leisure picked me out of the slush and dropped me in the top ten. Seven months later, after public voting and some pretty damn amazing critique from my peers, I actually won. The book was published in limited hardcover by ChiZine and the paperback rights eventually landed in Don’s new line at Samhain Horror. The book was out of print for a while, but it’s back now thanks to the great folks at Crystal Lake Publishing.

Incidentally, I went home recently in the Hunter to visit my family and to swing by the graves of my grandparents. Remember the woman who murdered her kids and then killed herself? Well, it turns out she’s buried right next to my grandfather. I didn’t know what to make of this. I still don’t. But it weirdly chills me to the bone.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve always got something on the cooker. I’ve been working on a big supernatural book for a few years now called Lady Guillotine. I’ve got some short stories in various stages of completion, some of which already have homes and others I’ll shop around. Mark Allan Gunnells and I have long-term ambitions to collaborate again (our first work was called Where the Dead Go to Die, and the reception was pretty damn amazing, so we’re keen to give things another go), and who knows, that might happen later this year. And finally, I’ve started work on a story set right here in Canberra, the city I now call home; it’s a thriller that’s exponentially growing into a novella. So, we’ll see. It ain’t done ’til it’s done.

Outside of that, I’ve been working on a couple of screenplays with a few great writers – but I can’t say any more than that right now. And as a commissioned artist, I’m forever busy washing paint from my hair. That keeps me out of mischief when I’m not writing in my lunchbreak at the day-job.

What sparked the idea for a continuation of House of Sighs?

As for how Bones and Sighs are tied – aha! I cannot say, for fear of spoilers. Let’s see what people make of the connection (also, keep an eye out keen reader, as Bones ties together all of my Australian set novels and novellas thus far in subtle little ways). I’ve been sitting on an idea for a sequel for years, really since Sighs was published, but I just couldn’t connect the dots. That was until about two Christmases ago. I was having catch-up beers with a mate in Ballina up the coast. We watched this drunk taxi driver pull up at the curb and almost start a street-brawl. As soon as it happened, these disparate notions that had been floating around in my head came together. It was an almost audible click – it felt bloody great.

This story means a lot to me because I guess I’m laying down my armour a bit. Sure, there’s a lot of me in everything I write, but there’s a bit more in this one – my first fully LGBTIQ themed piece. And I’m not talking a subsidiary theme this time, as was the case in Sighs, or an exploration of that theme via metaphor, which Mark and I did in Where the Dead Go to Die. This is a love story about two gay men. There’s been a big push of late to bring the diversity that enriches our lives into our fiction, and thus elevate the genre in the process. I guess I’ve been inspired to be brave enough to do so by others. The people in the book aren’t me – I want to make that clear. But it cuts close to the bone, even if those bones are slowly breaking.

You’ve spent much of your career writing Australian stories for American markets. Can you tell us a bit about that?

That’s true. Nearly all of my stuff has been published abroad, yet I’ve written almost exclusively about Australian places and characters. Initially, I thought this would hold me back, that the regionality would hold me back from getting published. Wrong. From my very first review for Sighs way back when, people commented on how fascinating and sometimes frightening a place Australia is for international readers. A ‘sense of place’ is vital to successful horror fiction – so why not keep it ‘exotic’, even if that exoticism, to us, looks a bit like our own backyards – with or without the kangaroos, snakes, and spiders.

The horror genre has always embraced location and regional settings, when it’s done well. For me, setting and sense of time is just as important as the world-building you’ll find in fantasy or sci-fi. Us horror fans have always lapped that stuff up. It’s the TEXAS Chain Saw Massacre, after all. And What We Do in the Shadows works so well because of how candidly it opens its Kiwi veins for us to drink. Under the Shadow, one of the finest horror films of the last ten years, works so damn well because of its utterly genuine setting in 1980s Tehran. Picnic at Hanging Rock, both the film and the novel, linger in your mind because of the eerie, hungry worlds in which they exist. Hell, Stephen King made a name for himself (among other reasons) for keeping the majority of his work in Maine, a place he both knows and loves. They say ‘write what you know’. I ascribe to that philosophy, too. If you write real, all worlds—no matter how small or big they may be—will feel real.

Whenever I meet readers, many of whom are from overseas, the first thing they say to me is how much they want to go to Australia after reading my books. Even though they’re scared to. I guess this is me doing my part for the tourism industry, right? Only, I’m doing it my way.

Apologies to Baz Luhrmann.

And finally, tell us something about you that no one else knows…

Hmm. I’m terribly prone to what my mother calls ‘The Boy Look’. Something could be right in front of me, be it a stapler, my phone charger, the block of butter in the refrigerator … and still, damn it, I just won’t see it. It’s as though for me to actually find something, it’s got to lurk in the corner of my peripheral vision. Like I’ve got invisible gremlins doing a number on me, or something.

But in all seriousness, how about I tell you a real secret? Something juicy. The worst thing..

(Inner monologue: Are you sure you want to do that, Aaron?).

Okay. Maybe I won’t. Because if you knew about that, I’d probably have to kill you.

If you want to learn more about Aaron and his shady past, check out www.aarondries.com. And while you’re at it, grab yourself a copy of House of Sighs/The Sound of His Bones Breaking and The Fallen Boys.

Advertisements

Kaaron Warren, Best Novel 2016

It’s hard to keep count of all the awards and Year’s Best spots Kaaron Warren has raked in for her unique and haunting brand of dark fiction. Writer, mentor, collector of unusual objects, if Kaaron’s not putting words on the page she’s sifting through the gewgaws in a second-hand bric-a-brac shop, inspired by the ghosts that lurk in old things. Last year, in gratitude for her years of support for Australasian horror and horror writers, she was awarded lifetime membership to the AHWA. This year, she’s off to Baltimore, as Guest of Honour at World Fantasy Con 2018! 

We checked in with Kaaron to learn a bit about her 2016 Shadows win…

Your book, The Grief Hole, won Best Novel in last year’s Shadows Awards (along with a whole bunch of other national awards). Congratulations!

Can you tell us a bit about the story (without spoilers, of course)?

Thanks!

The Grief Hole is about Theresa, who sees ghosts. She knows how you’re going to die by the ghosts who haunt you. So if you’ll die by drowning, you’ll have drowned ghosts surrounding you. The closer you are to death, the closer the ghosts are. She works as a social worker, helping to place women in safe homes. Sometimes this isn’t enough, though. When the ghosts fly so thick she can barely see, she has to intervene, take a further step.

After being beaten close to death by a client’s husband, she takes a break, goes to work in her uncle’s stamp business. There, though, she discovers that her young cousin Amber committed suicide, and Theresa realises she is the only one who can figure out why, and stop others from doing the same.

Is there some interesting backstory to the idea?

I gathered a lot of the imagery while on a trip to Montreal some years ago. The idea itself, that you are haunted by ghosts who died in the same way you’ll die, came to me as I started writing and thinking about what a grief hole might be.

An element of it all was the so-called ‘My Way Killings’, where people are shot while singing My Way. I was fascinated by the idea that a song can inspire this level of violence. And of course there’s ‘Gloomy Sunday’, which apparently has caused many suicides.

At the time I started writing, I had in my notes ‘suicide forest’, but by the time I got around to putting words onto paper, everyone was writing stories set there. In a way this was good; it meant I had to dig harder for my bad place. I thought I invented the idea of a luxury apartment block nobody wants to move in to but realised there are many, many of these places. Grand ideas in the wrong place that just don’t work

You’ve already collected enough Shadows Awards to fill a shallow grave. Can you tell us about the first you won?

The first one was for Slights, my novel about a woman who becomes addicted to knowing what’s in the afterlife. She sees everyone she’s ever slighted there, waiting to take a piece of her. She also starts figuring out what other people see, which requires a certain amount of ….death, to quote Blackadder.

I LOVE my nekkid lady statue. She is utterly fabulous and I’m so proud of her.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m finishing a novel with the working title The Understorey. This is the one inspired by my research at Old Parliament House about art, government and serial killers. A group of violent men break out of jail together (based on a true story) and invade the home of a remarkable old woman. A lot of it is about building her as a character, so that the reader knows her strength but the men don’t.

She lives in a massive house in the country with so many rooms she loses track, each of them with amusing names like The Mint, The Strangers Room, The Understorey. She runs ghost tours there but doesn’t believe in ghosts herself. Until….

You’ve run some unusual writing workshops in the last year or so, getting people out of their habitual mindset using found objects, old photographs, even other people’s clothes. Can you tell us a bit about this? How does this align with your own process?

That’s a really good description. I like to do workshops where I help people to tap into the subconscious, because one of things that’s really important is an individual voice. There’s something really satisfying about figuring out what your story is at a deeper level, and some of these props can help with that. This works really well with the clothing one on particular. You make it sound very disturbing. “Other people’s clothes”! We’re not taking the clothes off people’s backs or stealing them off the clothesline. We go to a huge second hand clothing shop where I get people to find clothing that their character might wear and dress up in them. It’s amazing what comes out of this. Wearing shoes you can’t walk in, or a top that’s too tight, or a dress you can’t zip up without help; all of those gives us an insight into the character we’re writing about.

This aligns with my process well. I try to look between the lines in the creation of story and character, to create a more solid, believable world.

What do you see as the value of the AHWA?

Community is number one. Gathering together online or in person, at times, to talk writing, horror, stories, plans, the future, is one of the most important things that keep you at it. We share opportunities and support each other, we make friendships, we make connections. We get ideas off each other.

Do yourself a favour and check out kaaronwarren.wordpress.com or get involved with a copy of The Grief Hole, or Kaaron’s latest, Tide of Stone.

Alan Baxter, Best Collected Work 2016

Alan Baxter is a multi award-winning author of supernatural thrillers and urban horror, and an international master of kung fu. He runs the Illawarra Kung Fu Academy and writes stories full of magic, monsters and, quite often, martial arts. He rides a motorcycle and loves his dogs. We caught up with Alan to get the lowdown on his 2016 Australian Shadows Awards win and to learn what makes a great short story collection

Your collection, Crow Shine, won Best Collected Work in last year’s Shadows Awards. Congratulations!

Can you tell us a bit about how the collection came together?

It’s a long and convoluted process to get a collection, but it all starts with writing enough quality work. Eventually I made it known I was keen to have a collection, and thought I was ready, so started courting publishers. Then Ticonderoga, through my agent, made an offer and Crow Shine was born!

You’ve been publishing short stories for thirteen years now and have an enviably vast back catalogue to choose from. What made you hold off until now to pull a collection together? And what was it about these particular stories?

I think a lot of people go for a collection too early in their career. It takes a long time to develop a voice and have enough quality and variety in your work to make a collection that’s both cohesive and interesting all the way through. Too many people jump too soon, I think, instead of being patient. Writing is a long game, not a short con, as the saying goes. When I had more than 60 published stories, I felt I was ready.

Why those stories? It was a process decided with the publisher. First of all, the majority of my stuff is contemporary horror and dark fantasy, so that was the theme to stick with. That meant any science-fiction and ‘high’ fantasy yarns were immediately out. Then I looked at what I thought was the best of the horror and dark fantasy – the stuff that had won or been nominated for awards, that had been reprinted in a Year’s Best, or that I had a particular soft spot for. Then I needed some original stories, as I think a collection should always offer something new to readers. Then the publisher and I whittled it away to the strongest collection we could make, with 16 previously published stories, and three new ones.

This isn’t your first Australian Shadows Award. Can you tell us about your 2015 win of the Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction?

This is actually my third, which is hard to believe! In 2014 I won the award for Best Short Story for Shadows of the Lonely Dead, then in 2015 I won The Paul Haines Award for In Vaulted Halls Entombed. It was a particular thrill to win the Long Fiction Award, as Paul was a good friend of mine and I miss him so much. An incredible guy and a fantastic talent, dead well before his time. To win an award named after him for my own fiction is bittersweet, but so precious to me. I’m glad he’s being honoured this way by the Shadows Awards.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve got a few irons in the fire at the moment. There are three short stories on the boil, as I’ve been commissioned by a few places to write something for them, which is always an honour. So those are in various stages of completion. I’ve got a novella called Manifest Recall and a novel called Devouring Dark coming out this year from Grey Matter Press, so I’m working on edits for those, seeing the publisher’s cover designs and so on, which is very exciting! And in the meantime, I’m working with David Wood on our second Sam Aston book, the sequel to last year’s Primordial. So I’m keeping pretty busy! Oh, and another standalone horror novel is out with beta readers right now, so that’ll come back soon and need polishing up before it goes to my agent.

Many writers fantasise about the day they can pack in their day job and write full time, but very few have the alternate job title, ‘international master of kung fu’. How do you balance your writing life with running a successful kung fu academy? And how much do your work and your art influence each other?

The two are inextricably intertwined. The academy has classes at fixed times, so those hours can’t be changed. The rest of the time my wife and I take care of our son and work on our art – she’s a painter, I’m a writer, and those things fit around the other commitments. My wife is my assistant instructor and a master in her own right, so it’s a family affair! We’re very lucky to be in the position we are, doing these things we love, but we’ve worked our arses off to be here. And of course, we’d both like to see a little more success – sell more books and paintings – to take the pressure off a bit, but we wouldn’t change a thing.

What do you see as the value of the AHWA?

The AHWA is a hub for dark fiction in ANZ. It reminds you that you’re not alone at your desk, making up dark weird shit. It’s a place to learn, to be part of a community, to seek feedback and to offer help. Wherever you are in your career, there’s value in it.

You can find out more about Alan at www.alanbaxteronline.com, or pick up a copy of Crow Shine and other recent publications, Hidden City and The Book Club.

Dan Rabarts, Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction 2016

Dan Rabarts is a writer, editor, sometime narrator of audio fiction, and serial award-winner on both sides of the Tasman Sea. After years publishing short stories in magazines such as Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, his first novel, Hounds of the Underworld (about which, more below), was released last year by Raw Dog Screaming Press. We caught up with Dan to get the skinny on his 2016 Australian Shadows Awards win, the joys of collaboration, and more besides…

Your story Tipuna Tapu, from And Then… The Great Big Book of Adventure Stories, won the Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction in last year’s Shadows Awards. Congratulations!

Can you tell us a bit about the story (without spoilers, of course)?

It’s either a dieselpunk love adventure disguised as a horror story, or the other way round. That’s up to the reader to decide. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the world has been overrun by whatever monsters the local mythologies and geography dictate, so while the UK is plagued by giants, New Zealand has become the hunting ground of taniwha. Tipuna Tapu, which is Māori for Sacred Ancestors, is the story of a couple of hunters who seek out ancient burial grounds and steal the bones, because bones make wherever they lie tapu, sacred ground, and the taniwha cannot enter sacred ground. Then they sell the bones to the highest bidder, so the power of the bones will keep whoever possesses them safe from the taniwha. Naturally, this can only go on for so long before either the taniwha, rival hunters, or the restless dead decide things need to change.

Is there some interesting backstory to the idea?

My whanau (family) trace our Māori roots back to the Coromandel Peninsula, and we still occupy some of the same land our ancestors did hundreds of years ago, in a time when our dead were prepared for burial in the Pre-European method of having the bones stripped and dried and then laid to rest in a secret, sacred place, in woven flax kete. The knowledge of the whereabouts of this place is governed by a rule of three: only three living members of the whanau at any time know the location, which is considered tapu.

So I got to thinking about a world where that power could be the difference between life and death, between freedom and terror, where it might become a currency of sorts. A world where the bones of the dead which have lain so long in dark, secret places take on a value akin to glittering hoards of buried pirate treasure. How far would we be willing to go to violate those sacred places, and what would it really cost us?

Is this your first Shadows Award?

It’s my first for my own writing, yes, but not my first Shadows Award. In 2014, Lee Murray and I shared the honour of the Shadows Award for Best Edited Work for our anthology Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror, as editors.

It was a real honour to take this award for Tipuna Tapu, not only because the story itself came from a very personal place for me, but because I love Paul Haines’ writing, and so many people who knew him speak very highly of him, both as a writer and as a person. I have a huge respect for him, and I’m honoured to have my name mentioned alongside his.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just wrapped up a round of edits on Teeth of the Wolf, the second book in the Path of Ra series, co-authored with Lee Murray, which is a crime-noir supernatural thriller series published by Raw Dog Screaming Press (USA). I’ve also been putting the final touches on a dark fantasy novel, in the hopes of finding it a home, and I’ve got a couple more novellas in progress which I need to sit my butt down and finish. Not to mention a folder full of short stories variously abandoned or forgotten about which I plan to dust off this year. But right now, I’m gearing up for StokerCon in Providence, Rhode Island, in March. Big adventure on the horizon.

Speaking of the Path of Ra series, which you’re co-writing with AHWA Vice-President, Lee Murray, you’ve also co-edited two award-winning anthologies together. What is it about collaboration that keeps you coming back for more? Can you tell us a bit about your process?

Sometimes you fall into a synergy that’s unexpected, unplanned and highly productive. I was lucky enough to find myself in just such a partnership in 2013 with Lee when I kicked off the Baby Teeth project, and she brought a level of insight, experience and expertise regarding the indie publishing arena to the table, which turned BT from an excitable concept into a real thing. The stage was set. After At The Edge, our NZ/Aussie anthology of dark fiction, we decided it was time to make words happen together.

As it turns out, writing fiction as a team was something we could also do with some degree of competency, despite the bickering. I’d love to say that Hounds of the Underworld just poured out of us, each only having to do half the writing; a burden shared is a burden halved and all that. But the fact is it was still work, possibly more work, than writing alone, yet work of a completely different dynamic. I’ll write a section in my character’s voice, Lee will write the next section from her character’s POV, and so it goes back and forth. The creative process is both co-operative and conflicted, the challenges of trying to keep the narrative together as a collective force balanced out by the anticipation of reading whatever new surprises will emerge in the next scene the other is about to deliver. To date, we’ve kept the planning of the books fairly loose and, with some key plot points and character arcs in mind, pretty much let the story play out however the heroes and villains felt it needed to. I have, anyway, which might be where the ‘conflicted’ part I mentioned above comes in, as Lee would much rather we just stuck to the plan, please Dan. What, too many explosions, Lee?

For Book 3, I may need to behave myself, as we have a whole lot of threads to bring back together to wrap up the mystery. Pantsing will only get you so far when you’re working together, and then you really have to plan things. Merged consciousnesses between writing partners may help, but I sent away that $5 mail-order coupon in the back of Weird Tales magazine for the special silver box that helps you read minds, and it never showed up. Disappointing.

What do you see as the value of the AHWA?

I’m a strong believer in writing communities, and in feeding back positive energy. As writers we’re already on the fringe, and as writers of dark fiction and horror we’re even on the outer edges of that ring. Out here, this far from the sun, where we spin so fast, it’s easy to get cast into the black, lose our momentum, and drift into oblivion. We watch small keen publishers start up, flare bright and strong, and burn out. We struggle to survive, struggle even harder to thrive. When one of us falls by the wayside, gives up writing, dies, we’re all diminished by the loss. But there’s strength in numbers. People can be difficult, yes, and we like to think of ourselves as being loners and recluses and all that, but there’s a time and place for isolation, and a time and a place for working together. This isn’t a competition, awards or not. Out here at the edges, we are each other’s gravity. We hold each other in place.

Whether it’s being involved in a community group like a local crit meet-up, or volunteering on a committee for groups like SpecFicNZ or AHWA, or being part of a Con-Com, there are all sorts of ways for writers to tap into what, in my experience, has generally been a very positive and productive resource – the collective experience and enthusiasm of other creatives doing what they love, making the magic happen. And by participating, you feed back into the vibe, keep things humming. Like some inexplicable source of renewable energy.

For me, writing has always been about achieving that balance of making words happen and getting them published, and taking part in the community, giving back for all the props I was given to help get me started. Because it’s not about my success, it’s about the success of this weird, warped thing we do. It’s about achieving the critical mass of good material and solid readership and a viable publishing paradigm, and that cannot happen in a vacuum. We really do need each other, and we need to prop each other up and help each other out, if we’re not all just going to be swallowed up by the void.

And one thing I know for a fact, having done quite a lot of work behind the scenes, is that a hell of a lot gets done in the background that even the active members of a group never see, all of it for the benefit of the whole. The best way to see how that all works, is to take part. Feed back the vibe.

You can find out more about Dan and the books he writes, edits, or bickers over with Lee, at http://dan.rabarts.com/.

Richard Harland, Australian Shadows Award for Best Short Story 2016

Richard Harland has been a poet, a musician, a university lecturer, and, for the last seventeen years, a full-time writer, known for The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, The Black Crusade, and his Worldshaker, Heaven & Earth, and Eddon & Vail novel series. He sports a dazzling array of steampunk headgear and also happens to be one of the longest-serving members of the AHWA. We talked to Richard about his 2016 Australian Shadows Awards win.

Your story His Shining Day, from Jack Dann’s now multi-award winning anthology Dreaming in the Dark, won the short story category in last year’s Shadows Awards. Congratulations!

Can you tell us a bit about the story (without spoilers, of course)?

Thanks!

The story is seen through the experience of 9-year-old Paulie, who’s travelling round Europe with his parents in their caravan. They come to a small village in the north of Greece where a festival is underway – a happy occasion of dance and celebration, in which the whole community takes part. Only one person isn’t happy: the boy Manolis, dressed up in a smart suit with bits of paper pinned all over him. And yet the festival is held in his honour!

Because it’s his special day, he’s entitled to ask for anything he wants. What he wants is for Paulie to play games with him … so Paulie produces his draughts and draughtboard (aka checkers), and they play game after game after game. On this special day, Manolis is supposed to win every time. Paulie feels as any 9-year-old boy would feel about that.

Gradually it emerges that Manolis doesn’t care so much about winning as about prolonging the games as long as possible. Something is due to happen at the end of the festival, but he keeps on pleading for one more game. In the end, though, the day is over, and the festival progresses to a kind of play-acting phase, in which Paulie and his parents aren’t included.

Very early the next morning, Paulie feels guilty about that ‘one more game’ he never played with Manolis. He knows the place where the boy was led off, and goes there with his draughts and draughtboard. What he finds is the shock of the story … not such a happy, innocent festival after all.

What gave you the idea for the story?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of ‘the scapegoat’ in primitive myth and ritual – ultimate cruelty and injustice, yet socially accepted as a religious necessity. I had a first stab at writing a scapegoat story in “On the Way to Habassan”, published 10-15 years ago, but I wasn’t satisfied with the result. The cruelty and injustice came across, but not the disturbing, numinous quality I wanted.

Another related anthropological phenomenon is the ‘god-for-a-day’ ritual, and I realised I’d have a more powerful story if I could work that in too. But I played around with those ideas for many, many years without ever feeling I’d found the right way to use them.

The lightbulb moment came from an almost forgotten memory that arrived out of nowhere. When I was a student, I’d been travelling with friends in Turkey, and we spent a day in the port of Izmir. Somehow we ended up in a suburb high above the main metropolis, and found ourselves included in this joyous local festival. Only the boy at the centre of it all was closer to tears than joy.

In fact, it was his circumcision ceremony. The bits of paper pinned to his suit were envelopes containing gifts of money, unlike the bits of paper in “His Shining Day”. But the image of his unhappiness in the midst of everyone else’s happiness—happiness for him!—that was the clue I needed. All the other elements just slotted right into place around it.

As for the setting, well, I always knew this would be a tourist-in-other-lands story, because I’ve been building up a collection of horror/supernatural short fiction around that theme. Greece was probably suggested by the fact that Izmir was Greek in earlier times … also by the fact that many recorded ‘scapegoat’ myths and rituals come from Greece. I’m not the first to point to some darker, Dionysian goings-on behind the rational sunshine-and-light picture of Classical Greece!

I located the village in the story near Ioannina on the route between Igoumenitsa and Meteora in the mountainous north of Greece. I remember Ioannina because it’s where we had to stop to have the motor of our Kombi fixed (on a different trip, different ‘we’)!

Is this your first Shadows Award?

Yes, and it looks amazing! Congratulations to the artist who created it (and to Mr Lucifer for modelling for it!)

What are you working on at the moment?

My ‘big project’, the book that’s been building up in me for most of my adult life. It’s a multi-volume fantasy, on a scale I could never have handled before. But very hush-hush! I could say more, but then I’d have to kill you, along with everyone else who reads this interview. Very messy, very time-consuming …

You’ve done a great service to the writing community with your Writing Tips website. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write it? And what made you decide to give it away for free?

I guess I wrote it because I could. For a fantasy author, I’m maybe more than usually conscious of what goes on in my writing process. Having writer’s block for 25 years forced me to think a lot about the craft – like, doing it wrong before I finally managed to do it right! Also, being a uni lecturer on English Literature (and smuggling lectures on fantasy/horror/SF smuggled into my courses).

But I ought to say, ‘more than usually conscious of what I have done in the writing process,’ i.e. after the event. Creativity first, understanding afterwards—and entirely optional! I think conceptualizing and theorizing before you write produces bad results … in literature mostly, and in fantasy even more so.

I never thought of charging for the website. I guess I just wanted to save other writers from my own mistakes.  But I also never realised what a huge thing it would turn out to be. 30 pages grew and grew to 145 pages, 5 weeks away from my own writing expanded into 5 months. It just ran away with me.

I’m always getting contacted by people wanting to pay for advertising on the site. Not interested! For me, the satisfaction is when intending writers or even published writers send me emails saying, thanks, your website really helped. That’s a buzz!

You’ve been a member of the Australasian Horror Writers Association since its very earliest days. What do you see as the value of the AHWA?

Ha! I was there to declare the AHWA ‘up and running’ at the original launch in 2005 at Continuum! Back then, horror writers were a bit like embarrassing, unwanted relatives … in many people’s minds, the hierarchy was SF top, fantasy in the middle, and horror at the bottom. We’ve come a long, long way since then!

The AHWA has surely been a big part of that rise in public profile. Supported and run by unpaid volunteers, with such a modest membership fee, it could so easily have faltered and fallen. Instead, it’s become a major presence on the scene. Ever-increasing member numbers, more and more services and benefits to members – it has to be the best value for money in Australia! Best of all is that sense of writerly community, which is a value you can’t put a price on!

I’m proud to be able to say I was in it from the start. (Hey, can I claim founder member status?)

You can find out more about Richard and his books at http://www.richardharland.net/. Or learn how to improve your craft at http://www.writingtips.com.au/.