(Originally published March 10, 2018 on peterndudar.wordpress.com)
Today I will be talking with fellow Grinning Skull Press author Stuart R. West about his novel Dread and Breakfast. I recently finished reading the book and loved it. DABis a first-rate mystery thriller (and not the book-of-the-month tea cozy kind, but the kind with high-octane tension and a nightmare ending that leaves your jaw hanging), set in the Dandy Drop Inn during the “storm of the century”. Welcome, Stuart, and congrats on what I consider a master-class exercise in pacing and tension building. Let’s take a trip together to Hilston, Missouri and uncover some horror.
SRW: Hey, thanks for the kind words and having me on your blog, Peter. I had a lotta fun writing Dread and Breakfast, even if it was a chore keeping track of my characters at any given moment.
PND: Let’s talk about characters. Because in order to sell this kind of violent, shocking thrill ride, you really have to establish realistic characters with honest motivations. Let’s begin with our protagonists, Rebecca Stanchfield and her daughter Kyra, who are running away from a toxic marriage to husband and father, Brad. What set off their unplanned exodus from their home in Kansas?
SRW: Rebecca’s in an abusive marriage. She’s put up with her husband’s physical and emotional abuse, pretty much overlooking it, trapped, justifying it as part of her wifely duties. Sadly, this is true for many abusive relationships. But when Brad hits their daughter, Kyra, Rebecca wakes up and flees.
PND: One of the things that I found remarkable about this book is that you were able to bring nine strangers together in this one place, with seven of them actually being antagonists with their own agendas. And based on those agendas, you built this nifty spider web of conflicts and plot points as the story unfolds and it’s damn near impossible to predict how things are going to turn out. How much of the story did you have to outline? Did you ever feel as if the story took a life of its own?
SRW: I’ve never been an outliner. Usually, once I have a good feel for the characters, they pretty much write themselves. I’m just moving them around in Dread and Breakfast’s cat-and-mouse chess game. As I noted above, though, it was real work, making sure I had the characters in the right place at the right time. Post-it notes were used! A first for me. Oddly enough, I drew inspiration for the book from French drawing room farces where characters bounce in and out of the plot (and rooms). Just very macabre.
PND: We know that Brad is a rage-a-holic police officer, but the depth of his delusional anger and jealousy are staggeringly frightening. It’s almost as if he’s devoid of any kind of emotion or sense of compassion. If there is a character arc for him, it only gets worse as the story goes on. I certainly don’t want to drop any spoilers, but it almost feels like you were doing this for the sake of misdirecting the reader’s attention off of the otherantagonists. Because not everyone in this book is who they appear to be. Is that fair to say?
SRW: Extremely fair. So fair that I feel like a cheater. I’m playing head games with the reader in this book. Everyone’s wearing a mask (except for Kyra), which I kinda find fascinating. Misdirection is key and I hope that I’m successful in fooling the reader at least once.
PND: After Rebecca’s car loses control, she and Kyra are rescued by Deputy Randy Gurley. I kind of got the impression early on that Randy (and Hilston, itself) is caught up in a kind of 20thCentury Americana; an archetypical cross between Norman Rockwell and Andy Griffith. It becomes even more evident later when Rebecca and Kyra meet Jim and Dolores Dandy. Were you going for that kind of isolated/insolated vibe when establishing setting and with the characters, themselves?
SRW: You nailed it, Peter. I live in Godforsaken Kansas and it’s where I set most of my books. Frankly, the Midwest is damn creepy, perfect fodder for horror. Like the characters in the book, the rural, homey setting is pleasantly Americana on the surface with rot and evil lurking beneath, ready to explode. After all, Kansas is where students are allowed to carry guns on college campuses, the Ku Klux Klan and the mafia are still active, devil worshipping is a hobby, meth is a way of life, and “kissing cousins” is taken to extremes. Yet, when the Midwest is represented in popular entertainment, it’s always the “aw, shucks” Mayberry family values picture. Making America great again! Ram tough! Yeah!
Sorry. Got carried away. Anyway, this is the Midwest as I see it. And, yes, there’s nothing more isolating than the rural areas, particularly during “snowmageddon.”
PND: I have to confess, Jim and Dolores reminded me a lot of Farmer Vincent and Ida from MOTEL HELL. They have that sugary, homespun vibe about them where good manners and generosity are the key to their exterior image. Their notion of “date night” (at least to me) really hinges on being darkly comedic. Were they fun characters for you to write? How much time did you spend in their heads as you were moving the story forward?
SRW: Well, yeah, I like MOTEL HELL, too. As a writer, dark humor’s my favorite thing to dabble in. Now, there’s a fine line when bringing humor to horror. Many readers (and a LOT of horror writers) are usually skeptical. When they see there’s humor in a horror book, their eyes glaze over and they immediately envision a stupid, silly Leslie Nielsen spoof. But I position horror first, always taking the plot and characters seriously, with real consequences at play. To me, horror skips hand-in-hand with dark humor. There’s not a huge difference. You mentioned MOTEL HELL, but most great horror films (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, etc.) have a dark stream of humor coursing through their unhealthy veins.
Regarding Jim and Dolores Dandy, it would’ve been very easy for them to lapse into caricature, and that was kinda the point. I wanted them to appear “down home” and “good folk.” But, as with everyone in the book, there’s more to them than their presentation. And, yep, they were a blast to write.
PND: They have a surrogate child in Christian, the Inn’s host. And with his introduction, I started paying attention to the names of your characters. Christian, obviously, means Christ-like, but he’s characterized as tall and lanky, and almost effeminate. One of the other characters, an extreme evangelical named Heather, calls him gay and very desperately wants to bring him to God. That conflict alone is intense. But we learn that Heather Goodenow (again with the attention to naming) and her newlywed husband Tommy are just as broken and irredeemable as Brad. Once the Goodenows check into the Inn, and we know Brad is on his way, we’re already facing a volatile cocktail to come. And you’re only getting started…
SRW: Christian was based on the host of a bed and breakfast my wife and I stayed at (and never will again! Talk about creepy…). He resembled Phillip Seymour Hoffman, very giggly, flamboyant and big. But I didn’t want to make Christian a stereotype, so I flipped him. Everyone thinks he’s gay, but he’s not. Again, the theme of people being different than their appearance. Same goes for the Goodenows. Definitely not what they appear to be. As you noted, there’s a lot going on at this particular bread and breakfast.
PND: You also have Harold Carsten, an accountant who just stole nearly a million dollars from mob boss Vincent Dominick. Harold, like Rebecca, is also on the run, but he walks the line of unreliable character. You don’t know which direction his character arc will lead, and if there’s any kind of escape or redemption waiting for him. Likewise, he’s pursued by Winston Ashford, a very hesitant assassin who was sent by Dominick to retrieve his money. Each of these characters builds some kind of personal relationship with Rebecca and Kyra. The author in me was fascinated by how you were pulling the strings with each of these characters. I almost felt sorry for Harold and wanted to see him find that redemption. Was that ever a possibility in your mind?
SRW: Yeah. Harold was my favorite character and I found myself rooting for him. It kinda surprised me as I thought Winston would be The Guy. I mean, Harold’s not very likable, but as the book progressed, I found myself emphasizing with him and understanding him. He became my underdog everyman. I love when that happens while writing. I did consider a different ending for Harold, but the dictates of horror chose otherwise. As for finding redemption? I don’t want to give anything away, but I think he does.
PND: The moment where the book really went into overdrive was when Kyra sneaks off through the house and finds an upstairs bedroom filled with creepy old dolls. That was the moment when my blood ran cold and I could tell you were foreshadowing toward something really dark and foreboding. It’s the moment when the Inn’s secret passages are exposed and that Jim and Dolores Dandy are hiding their own secret. I think the tone and atmosphere you created in this scene really set the stage for act 2.
SRW: Peter, there’s nothing creepier than dolls, I think. And a whole room of them? But, yeah, the scene foreshadows things to come. Dolls on a larger scale.
PND: The rest of the novel is what mystery writers refer to as “the game of cat and mouse”, only with so many antagonists moving against each other, it’s a grueling race to find out who will survive by the end of the story. Again, I don’t want to give away any major spoilers, but I’ll say that I was on the edge of my seat as I tore through the pages. The climax of the book was an unexpected nightmare that blindsided me. It harkened to an almost cosmic noir flip that greatly reminded me of an old 80s movie called AMERICAN GOTHIC. I’m wondering what books or films inspired you to move DABin that direction?
SRW: I remember AMERICAN GOTHIC. Wasn’t that the one with creepy Michael J. Pollard as a dimwitted farmhand and a swing? (I’ve seen every horror film I can get my hands on from the ‘60’s to the ‘80’s, the golden age). Anyway, all of those Midwest, regional cheap horror films played an influence, from Texas Chainsaw to Motel Hell and even Psycho. But my night at a b&b probably played the biggest influence.
PND: I wanted to briefly mention the cover art by Jeffrey Kosh. It’s a classic Victorian manse in the middle of a blizzard, but the house is crowning this gorgeous skull so that it looks like a deformity as much as it does a shelter from the storm. It’s just beautiful. Do you remember the moment when you first saw it, and what was your reaction?
SRW: I was stunned. Truly. I’ve written 19 novels, and it’s by far my favorite cover. Jeffrey did a bang-up job and I asked him if those great TOR paperback covers from the ‘80’s inspired him. They did.
PND: What are you working on at the moment?
SRW: I’m polishing my first short story collection to be published by Grinning Skull Press. Again, there’s black humor and horror intermingling uncomfortably within the pages. The final novella is one of my favorite pieces, a nightmarish excursion into the deep, deep underground of Kansas City. Literally. I’m also tossing around the notion of a werewolf book.
PND: Are you following any contemporary authors at the moment?
SRW: Can’t say that I’m specifically following any single author at the moment. But I keep going back to Elmore Leonard. He was able to do so much with so little and made it appear easy. There’s a lot to be learned from his books. Oh, and I’m very much enjoying your book, The Goat Parade! It’s creepily sublime.
PND: Thank you for saying so! My final question: In terms of quality of the work being produced lately in the genre, it really feels like we’re entering a new Golden Age of Horror. To me, it feels like there’s a shift toward moving horror away from the pulp end of the spectrum and back to the respectable, literary side. What is your take on the genre and where do you hope to see it go in the future?
SRW: I agree with you. There’s still a lot of pulp work being churned out by small and large publishers, but what I’ve seen from Grinning Skull Press encourages me. I’m impressed by the quality and literary nature. It’d be great to bring respectability back to the horror table. Sure, blood and guts have their place, but I like the more interesting and different books.
PND: Thank you so much for joining me tonight. Congrats on a terrific book and best of luck with your career.
SRW: Thank you, Peter. Keep your chainsaws spinning (or something).