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Michael’s 10 Favorite Halloween-Season Reads

I’ve been kicking this project around for a while, either for my own social media sites, or for the wonderful new site, The Life Sentence, which I think is an absolute gem. With THE RIDGE, the most recent of my outright-supernatural thrillers due for a handsome new mass market edition on October 27—adorned with a Stephen King blurb that never fails to make my heart skip a beat or two—the time seemed right for publication, but really the time seems right for me today, or rather tonight.

You see, it’s just past 3 a.m. when I type this. I’ve been in bed for four hours, reading, turning the lights off, reading again, rinse and repeat. It’s just not a night for sleep. Outside on the porch, a steady northwestern breeze is blowing, taking down dry leaves, the ones that will always make me think of THE PROPHET now, of innocent girls in Chambers, Ohio shaking them free from their hair, twenty years apart, and of two brothers crushing them heedlessly beneath their boots, bound for different missions.

FullSizeRender copy

We had full color today (here’s a picture) but after a few more days of this wind the tree will be picked clean and the spooky limbs of the Halloween Tree will be left. It’s Ray Bradbury’s season with THE HALLOWEEN TREE, THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. And others. Oh, certainly others. So many. So my challenge—and attempt to give something back to readers who have recommended so many fine titles to me this year, and who have said such kind words about my own efforts—will be a countdown clock to October 27. No, not to Halloween—you should have your own scary movie and book in hand by then.

In between, because the publishing folks do like to encourage you to buy my own work, God bless them, we’ll probably also run some blurbs and quotes central to THE RIDGE. I’m grateful for all of them, but most of all for this little endeavor.

Note: The books are picked for fear factor and quality of writing, yes, they need a dose of the supernatural, yes, but also a feel for the season. They need to reach my autumnal heart in some way. So this isn’t a list of my favorite horror novels. Just the books I’m thinking of as the leaves lose their last chilled grasp on branches, and an eerie moon rises beyond.

We’ll give you a break for football, family, or pulse-restoration, and nominate books only on weekdays. Starting with:

 

The night countryDay 10 – Wednesday, Oct. 14

THE NIGHT COUNTRY, by Stewart O’Nan.

Here’s why I have to hate Stewart a little bit—gems like this, evidence that he could wander into any literary territory and dominate it. But, Lord, how I love this book. If you were to take a night drive in autumn in the right part of the country and say, “How should this feeling read?” THE NIGHT COUNTRY is your answer. Perfect in tone, slickly circular in execution, and forever haunting. I return to this one each fall. (Really.) I first read it on a bus back to New York from Boston when I was 21. I’d just come from meeting Dennis Lehane for the first time, and we sat on the rooftop deck of his apartment overlooking Fenway and talked books and I tried to maintain my cool (yeah, right) and he mentioned O’Nan. I confessed that I hadn’t read him yet. Dennis fixed me with a “well, now, that tells something about you…” look, and by the time I was on the bus back to the city, I had A PRAYER FOR THE DYING and THE NIGHT COUNTRY in my hands. I opened with the latter, simply because the fall smell was in the air. And it came through in those pages, too. That, and so much more.

 

Intensity_DKDay 9, Thursday, Oct. 15

INTENSITY, by Dean Koontz.

This was one of the first books to put a real scare into me, and for that I can thank my aunt. We would crash at her place on visits to Cleveland, and I occupied an air mattress on the floor of her office, which was the best seat in the house, because her books were stored just behind me. I don’t know if she would have recommended I delve into Koontz at that age, but knowing my Aunt Dorene, she probably wouldn’t have discouraged it, at least. I was with Chyna Shephard, a graduate student visiting the family of her wealthy friend in the California vineyard country, down under the bed with Chyna as boots entered and blood drops fell and….the lamp I’d hauled down from my aunt’s desk went out. Now THAT enhances the terror, let me tell you. But I got the rest of it done by flashlight, and for better or worse, I’ve never really been the same since.

 

Heart shaped heartDay 8, Friday, Oct. 16

HEART-SHAPED BOX, by Joe Hill.

This one arrived at a perfect time in my life, when I was struggling to write another PI novel and my creative brain was urging me ahead toward a ghost story, toward the book that would become SO COLD THE RIVER. Reading Joe Hill was like receiving an adrenaline shot loaded with pure story. He didn’t quibble, didn’t overwrite, didn’t underwrite. He was as naturally balanced on the emotional investment and the plot mechanics as any writer I’d encountered, and from the first chills to the creepiest road trip south you’ll ever take—albeit in one sweet ride—he delivers as only a master can. Highly recommended would be too faint praise. Without this book, I’m really not sure that I would have written SO COLD THE RIVER. I needed the challenge from new blood, someone out to prove that the supernatural thriller was far from dead, and Joe is, and has been, that writer.

 

CARRION COMFORT_DSDay 7, Monday, Oct. 19

CARRION COMFORT, by Dan Simmons.

This one’s a bit longer, but worth every page. It opens with concentration camps in the 1940s and proceeds from there to span decades and have you turning pages with rapid-fire intensity, a possession-tale of the highest order.

 

 

 

 

Day 6, Tuesday, Oct. 20

CHRISTINE_SK

This is a special day to me—10 points and a free copy of THE RIDGE to anyone who guesses why—and one that has appeared in a couple of my books. Or no points (sshhh, they don’t count!) and a copy of THE RIDGE to the first person to identify what books I’m talking about, too. And today’s book is…drumroll….

CHRISTINE, by Stephen King.

Don’t lecture me about which King book is best or brightest or scariest—let’s agree that when he’s at the top of his game, they’re all pretty damn great. CHRISTINE comes to mind for a couple reasons. One, it evokes the rural Maine of my wife’s childhood in a perfect way; the way she speaks of the place is the way they live it in this novel. And it’s fall again, don’t you know! Why, we even have a football star suiting up for the new season. It’s sure to be full of glory for him. Until it isn’t. And then there’s harmless Arnie, working on the car that he will no-way, no-how get rehabilitated in time to save him from his high school blues. But this is The King at work, so you might just want to give it a shot. And don’t even try to tell me “but I saw the movie.” No. Not good enough. Move to the back of the class, and take your assigned reading with you.

 

GHOST STORY_PSDay 5, Wednesday, Oct. 21

GHOST STORY, by Peter Straub.

This novel used to be spoken of as frequently as THE SHINING or THE EXORCIST it seemed, yet I have the sense—hopefully misguided—that it needs a second wind. GHOST STORY is a clinic in storytelling. Note that I said storytelling, not a mention of horror. Because while Straub can horrify with ease, he can write with the best of them when he is on, and he is absolutely locked-on with GHOST STORY, a novel that demands to be remembered, if not re-read, from the first time through. It’s a marvel of narration and structure, and all of it works….right down to the chills along your spine.

 

DAY 4, Thursday, Oct. 22

OCTOBER COUNTRY_RB

We’re getting close now, so the book should be…why, it should be OCTOBER COUNTRY, of course, by Ray Bradbury. The author of such remarkable novels as SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES and DANDELION WINE and FAHRENHEIT 451 left plenty to choose from, but the title lays it out pretty clear, as with THE HALLOWEEN TREE. The stories in OCTOBER COUNTRY prove that this writer could do it all, and he did his best macabre short stories in this collection.

 

THE EXORCIST_WPBDAY 3, Friday, Oct. 23

THE EXORCIST, by William Peter Blatty.

This classic should come as no surprise at all, but deserves inclusion on any list. Blatty is a master of terror, understanding the slow burn, the urgent, terrifying moment, the unease “settling down” before things explode again. When I run into one of those readers who smartly informs me that she doesn’t care for those “spooky stories” I offer two up fast: The Exorcist, and The Shining. I have a sneaking suspicion that those readers won’t already be corrupted by the movies, if they refuse to read the novels. These are two—along with Shirley Jackson and Poe and Henry James and many others—who deliver the literary goods while never straying for that sacred thing: story. And will it scare you? If you have a pulse, and an ounce of empathy, then hell yes, you should be scared.

 

A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS _PTDay 2, Monday, Oct. 26

It would only be fair if I told you what I’ll be reading over Halloween. Thanks to your tips on Twitter and Facebook (always appreciated!) I have a crisp hardcover of A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS by Paul Tremblay. I trusted O’Nan’s blurb, which raves: ““Paul Tremblay is an astonishingly talented writer, but even better, he’s twisted, and fun. A Head Full of Ghosts is mind-bending—scary, sad, sweet, funny, sick… terrifying, hilarious, smart, and satisfying.” If it’s good enough for Stewart, I am sure to be thrilled. And the opening pages have hooked me already.

 

Day 1, Tuesday, Oct. 27

 

Okay, for the final day of my October Reads Countdown, I’m cheating and loading you up with multiple picks. But it’s fine! Stay with the theme and picture this – it’s the last house you hit on your trick-or-treat run, and what is the best-case scenario there? Obviously, it’s that they don’t limit the treats at that point. You get a little extra for your efforts, for hanging in until the end of the game. So we’ll close in gluttonous treat fashion, with:

 

IT 1. King-sized treat: IT, by Stephen King. Is your preference for a scary read one involving monsters, the supernatural, human villains, night terrors, subterranean passages, lonely woods, or…gasp…clowns? Good news – IT has you covered, no matter what. The tour-de-force of horror, in all its hefty glory, is a must-read.

 

 

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson

 

2. Classic treat: The Hershey’s of October chillers has to be THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson. The greatest haunted house tale of all time? Perhaps. Don’t dismiss the legendary Richard Matheson’s HELL HOUSE, though. These are the Halloween treats that simply must be present in the bag. If you haven’t read Shirley Jackson or Richard Matheson, there’s no time like the present to make amends.

 

 

DON’T LOOK NOW

3. Bite-sized treats: Deliciously dark and nuanced and sadly so much more remembered for their film treatments than their original stories is the Daphne du Maurier collection DON’T LOOK NOW, also published as NOT AFTER MIDNIGHT. Sharp-eyed readers of THE CYPRESS HOUSE won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of her novel REBECCA, but the short stories in this collection are gems. Including a little tale called THE BIRDS. Didn’t know that the Hitchcock classic was adapted from the same woman who wrote REBECCA? Well, I’d urge you to give it a read.

Blog: Where Ideas Come From

One of the things any writer hears often, probably the most-asked question unless you are speaking to writing students, in which case it has to do with finding agents or publishers, is along the lines of “How do you get your ideas?”

Some people have been to enough talks to get the sense that authors don’t like this question, and so they phrase it shrewdly, as in “Is there a special place from which your ideas come?” Or perhaps “How do you dream up the things that happen in your books?” While the phrasing is perhaps more palatable, the question is the same, and writers can be pretty obnoxious about this question, and unfairly so. Just because you don’t have a quality answer does not mean that it is not a quality question.
In the case of “The Dark Side of Sunlight Basin,” I can answer the question with specificity. A very good writer and editor named Christopher Golden approached me and asked me to write a story for an anthology he was putting together. I told him I didn’t have anything remotely close to a vampire story idea. And then…
At the end of June last year, Those Who Wish Me Dead had just been released, my book tour was done and I wanted a break from civilization, or at least from e-mail— so my wife and I headed to Montana. This was her second backpacking trip in the Beartooth Mountains, where that novel is set. The Beartooths are truly rough country – it is the largest block of tundra in the lower 48 and has more than 25 peaks over 12,000 feet and our trip was spectacular: it is so, so rare in our modern times to have the opportunity to stand in the deep snow while getting rained on and getting a sunburn all at the same time. Add to that the experience of being bitten by mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, that are able to draw blood right through the gloves you’re wearing to keep the frostbite at bay.

 

IMG_7102People in our urban lifestyles take these treats for granted, and it was a real pleasure to be able to introduce my wife to the gentler, simpler pleasures of wilderness living. She felt so freed, in fact, so uninhibited, that she proceeded to use language that would ordinarily get sailors thrown out of bars at the wharf, so I think my attempt to remove her worldly stress was a smashing success. For some reason, when we returned to the CDP – it isn’t accurate to call our home base a town or a city, it is technically something called a Census Designated Place, which creates an amusing portrait of the census worker assigned to this district – she wanted to do something less strenuous for the rest of our days in the mountains. We’d been told that Cody was an interesting town with a great museum, and my great-grandfather once rode in the Bill Cody Wild West shows, so I was intrigued by that and we set off on the drive. Now, it is important that we pause here so I can state something very, very clearly: I have never run out of gas in my life.
This had become a point of pride for me, and something of a contest with my father, much to the delight of anyone who rides with us. But on the way back from Cody, you traverse sixty-some miles of mountain switchbacks with no cell service and few areas to pull off the road. It was at the last possible turn off with cell service, the cheerfully named Dead Indian Pass, that an executive decision was made from the passenger seat – the very place from which no executive decisions should ever be made – and we came to a stop overlooking an area called Sunlight Basin and I was forced to call for help. Then I did a particularly wise thing, and called my father to argue that I hadn’t lost our contest, and explain the technicality involved – the car was still moving, there was still gas in the tank, and so this didn’t count as running out of gas.

 

My father’s quote: “Well if there’s gas in the damn thing you should be moving until you can’t move anymore!” I agreed, but sadly my dad had his own bit of misfortune that day, though, in that my mother had picked up the other line unbeknownst to him, listening to him tell me that I should have disregarded my wife’s opinion and continued on down the switchbacks, gas or no gas, cell or no cell. When I hung up the two of them were embroiled in a rather grim conversation of their own.

 

IMG_7090We had plenty of time left to wait for rescue, but wind and hail started buffeting the car. It actually began to shake where it was parked and for whatever reason my lovely wife was simply not in a talkative mood with me. Not only that, but she’d taken my copy of the New Yorker to read, which seemed very rude, but it didn’t seem prudent to point that out, based on the occasional muttered threats coming from her side of the car. So, I sat in the car waiting on our friend to arrive from an hour away with a can of gas and I looked out on Sunlight Basin, which earns its name by the way it catches and holds light. I could see the darkness at the fringes of it and suddenly I did have an idea for a vampire story.

So here’s a small taste of that story, which I’m honored to say appeared in a collection with some absolutely fantastic writers, and as honest an answer for the question of “where do you get your ideas?” as I can provide.

And one quick disclaimer: I still have never run out of gas. Stopping the car with gas in the tank is NOT running out of gas. This is science, and it can’t be debated.
51MBvSKCv2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_They had a good time taking photographs of the new-growth forest where nearly thirty years earlier an incredible forest fire had roared through Yellowstone, but Kristen began to joke that their trip was cursed when they ran out of gas at an overlook above the Sunlight Basin called Dead Indian Pass. Jim was defensive, having insisted that they could make it through after leaving Cody without stopping for a refill, but he still had to smile at her incessant stream of snark as they waited hopefully for the return of a passerby in a Chevy pickup who had accepted fifty dollars in cash and promised to return with a gas can. There was no guarantee that he wouldn’t pocket the fifty, laugh at the tourists, and continue on his way, but it was the best option Jim had found.
“He’ll come back for us,” he told Kristen.

“I know he will. He’ll come back and tell us that there was no gas station ahead for miles, but he’s happy to report that there’s a hotel with, like, ten rooms in the whole place. And he’ll take us down there so we can sleep for the night in comfort. When we check in, we’ll notice that he seems to know the owner. It’ll be subtle, you know, just a little bit of eye contact, but it will be enough. The game will be in play then. And you know what the game is?”

He sighed and shook his head, trying not to smile.

“Cutting our heads off with a chainsaw,” she said, nodding. “Exactly. That is exactly right, babe.”
There was the trembling roar of exhaust down the highway, and Jim turned and looked out and saw the Chevy returning.

“Here he is.”

“When he mentions the motel…”

“I’ll tell him that we have a tent,” Jim said. “Got it.”

The driver had been good to his word, handing over a five-gallon can of gas from an Exxon thirty miles up the highway, complete with a Post-it note that read “ha, ha, ha” signed by the wiseass who ran the gas station. He did not mention any motel, and even stayed until Jim had poured in the gasoline and proved that the car would start.

“Where ya’ll headed, anyhow? Cooke City, Silver Gate, Red Lodge?”

“Somewhere in the middle,” Jim said.

“Ain’t much in the middle. What are you after?”

“Pictures. I’m a photographer. We’ve been driving for close to two months now. Working on a project called American Ghosts.”

“American Ghosts? You think there’s phantoms out here?”

Jim couldn’t tell if the man’s smile was good-natured or offended. He would have made a hell of a poker player.

“There are plenty of abandoned places, at least,” Jim said. “Things that were once, and are no more. From forests to towns. That’s what I’m after.”

That got a slow nod and no verbal response. For some reason – probably because the good old boy had provided him with gasoline on a lonely highway – Jim pressed on.

“There are supposed to be old copper and silver mines up in those mountains north of us. Abandoned equipment, gated entrances, and –”

“Adits,” the stranger said.

“Pardon?”

“Those gate mineshafts? They’re called adits. In mining, a tunnel goes straight through and comes out the other side. A shaft goes down, and a winze goes up. A horizontal entrance that goes nowhere? That’s an adit.”

“Okay. Good to know. Anyhow, I was hoping to get some pictures of them in the right light. You know, right at dusk. When they look good and spooky.”

Jim smiled, but it wasn’t returned. The stranger looked out across the Sunlight Basin and when he spoke again his eyes were someplace far away.

“They’re spooky enough. Just be careful which ones you pick. There are gates up for a reason, you know.”

“I don’t intend to go inside of them. Just take some photos.”

“All right,” the stranger said. “Go have fun, kids. But next time, fill `er up. Not everybody around here is as helpful as yours truly, and those mountains?” He waved a hand out over the basin. “They look mighty pretty in your pictures, I know, but they’re not jokers, either. They’re the real deal. You want to pay attention out here.”

Jim thanked him again and then turned back to the car and Kristen’s wide, mocking smile.

“How’s that male ego feeling?” she said when he opened the door.

“Bruised and battered, but still kicking.” He put the car into gear. Below them, the aptly named basin held all the light of the day, a tease that suggested there was no need to rush, but the surrounding mountains were already catching shadows. They needed to get a base camp up in a hurry, and then, if things went just right, they’d be lucky enough to catch the abandoned mines at twilight.

 

 

 

 

What Are You Doing, Writing a Book?

FullSizeRenderSept 29 was the release of the mass market edition of THE PROPHET, which, I have to say, looks handsome in its new jacket. I like the imagery – the empty football field under the lights, a dark unknown town somewhere beyond. That suits the tone I had in mind opening the book, and I spent plenty of time around a football field while I wrote it. Despite my ability to critique the coaching of professional and college teams with ease, it turns out that I don’t actually know anything about the game. Considering one of the two lead characters was a head coach, that seemed to need a little work, and I was graciously invited to shadow the Bloomington High School North team during a wonderful season.

 

Prophet MM blogThings started beautifully, when I attended a spring workout and the head coach, Scott Bless, (who appears briefly in the novel) thought I was a scout for the enemy. I was hoping that might be the last identity crisis of the process, but the team’s quarterback spent most of the season locating me on the sidelines to ask “what I saw out there.” I usually directed him back to competent people, but once I couldn’t help saying, “Looked pretty clear to me – you overthrew it by five yards.”

The highlight of confusion came well into the season, in late October, at which point I’d been around the games, practices, and staff meetings for months. Everyone understood what I was doing – we thought – until I asked a few questions during a Sunday meeting and one of the defensive assistants said, “What are you doing, writing a book?” Turns out he thought I was on the offensive staff, and had all year. “Coach Alaska” (he’d grown up in the North Pole, a subject of more than occasional commentary) hasn’t lived that one down yet.

 

Monty Howell | Herald-Times A familiar mystery on the sidelines at North, Michael Koryta.
Monty Howell | Herald-Times
A familiar mystery on the sidelines at North, Michael Koryta.

I can’t say enough good things about the patience and kindness that Scott Bless, Tyler Abel and the rest of the North coaches and players and families showed me during that time, and it was one of the really fun stretches of research I’ve ever been involved with, evidenced by the fact that I kept coming back. The game became more interesting to me, I saw new layers to it; the games within the game became particularly fascinating. As much as the research was designed to help me think from Kent Austin’s perspective, it also brought Adam much more alive to me – standing on the sidelines, feeling a part of something and distant from it all at the same time, gave me a better sense of Adam than I had before. And also of The Prophet, watching practice from the bleachers. Just a casual fan. Maybe a townie. Maybe a former student. A little familiar, but impossible to place. Nobody threatening, though, no cause for alarm, he’s just that guy right up there in the…oh…he’s gone now. Oh, well. I’m sure he doesn’t mean any harm…

The Prophet Playlist

I write to music, and below are some of the songs that made the regular playlist while I wrote The Prophet. Although always influenced by music, I felt this novel was perhaps unusually connected to certain songs, and I’m grateful to the artists who provided them.

 1) Juarez,  Augustines

A dark rock number with lines like “Tell my sister I’ve gone to find someone, and I won’t come back no more” that felt surreally close to my fictional world.

 

2) Return to Me, Matthew Ryan 

I’ve never felt such a strong connection between a song and a novel as I did with this haunting number by one of our most talented songwriters. It seemed to be Adam Austin’s personal anthem to me.

*Not available on the Spotifiy playlist*

 3) Free Fallin’, Tom Petty

One for Marie Lynn Austin. Provided the inspiration for what became one of the turning-point scenes in the book, the scene when the police search Marie’s childhood bedroom.

 

4) No Harm, The Boxer Rebellion 

Look close enough and you’ll find the phrase “no harm” in a critical moment of the novel.

 

5) After the Storm, Mumford & Sons

Plenty of tracks from this standout album lived in my headphones during the writing, but none made more frequent appearances than this number.

 

6) Bloodbuzz, Ohio, The National

A favorite song from a favorite album, I saw The National play live at a point when I was struggling with the book, and this song connected that night and many times after.

 

7) I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together, The Horrible Crowes

If Matthew Ryan provided the theme song for Adam, then The Horrible Crowes provided the bulk of the soundtrack. The album “Elsie” arrived when I was nearing the homestretch, and I felt as if it had been written by the characters in my book. In this song’s case, by Chelsea and Adam. “I think that your trouble and my trouble shook hands…”

 

8) Blood Loss, The Horrible Crowes 

9) Ladykiller, The Horrible Crowes 

And the beat goes on…with lines like “I can leave the wound wide open, and maybe see if I can tough it out” you’ll understand why I was feeling this album. A haunting but propulsive rock ‘n roll masterpiece, these are songs that Brian Fallon seems to sing from his bones.

 

 10) Carolina, M. Ward 

This would be the Kent Austin anthem of the mix, I believe. The story of a man divided, walking backward to the place where he’s come from, “but that ain’t enough, no, you want me to run.”

 

 11)  Lines on Palms, Josh Pyke 

Another one of the “Kent” tunes, and one of the few upbeat, pop numbers in the dark mix! Josh Pyke is a wonderful Australian talent, and this is a lyrical gem. The opening lines defined Kent Austin to me.

 

12) Goodbye, The Drive-By Truckers 

Patterson Hood just doesn’t miss with me much, and he sure doesn’t on this country-tinged rocker.

A Great Review From Across the Pond

12042777_10153603929309244_4264373295063852405_n“A thriller has to be fast-paced and tense, but to stand out there has to be more to hold your interest. Koryta delivers it in spades. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into this book – the claustrophobic setting, a strong likeable protagonist whom you want to succeed, and a solid mystery that keeps you guessing right up to the end.”

 

Read the full post from Crime Fiction Lover: http://bit.ly/1iKwFaS

 

Behind the Book: A Look into Private Investigation

My history with this week’s Behind the Book interview goes back to high school — Don Johnson gamely agreed to mentor me in an independent study program in private investigation. Later I began part-time work with him, and when I graduated from college  moved to full-time. To say that Don has been an influence on my life and writing would be a gross understatement. He gave me numerous opportunities that I didn’t deserve, always supported my writing interest even if it meant less convenient schedules for him, and always answered questions. He’s also an excellent investigator — once honored as national private investigator of the year — and is currently the director of the National Association of Legal Investigators.