My latest interview is with the Australian horror author Aaron Dries about his books and writing
Books & Writing: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Aaron Dries: When I was younger I tried my absolute hardest to keep a journal, but I always ended up filling it with lies. That way if someone picked it up and read it they’d think, “wow, what an absolutely interesting life this guy lives!” Safe to say the journal didn’t last and I discovered that fiction was my forte. All of these years later I still feel the urge to embellish a little when asked questions like this. So indulge me.
Hi, my name is Aaron Dries. I was raised in a travelling circus and speak fluent wild wolf. In my spare time I fight crime and write high-selling vampire fiction…
Yeah, that’s not exactly the truth. In reality, I’m 27, I live in rural Australia and I work as a copywriter. I lead a considerably normal life. By night I write horror novels. I spend my time dueling time. It seems to be the one battle I always lose.
Books & Writing: Do you remember the first story you wrote?
Aaron Dries: I was recently at my mother’s place, where she has this chest full of the Dries boys’ old school reports and projects. It is a goldmine of memories. I went through it (the smell of mothballs washing over me) and found an old English book of mine from the third grade. It was covered in contact and old stickers. Within was a short story I had written. It involved a school excursion to the zoo, where naturally, things did not go as planned. A tornado ripped through the city and dropped a witch among us (she had been flying north and had been sucked into the vortex). On account of being thrown completely off course, she was very angry, and in the heat of the moment picked up our teacher and threw her into the lion’s den. The end.
And people are surprised I became a horror writer. I’m pretty sure the writing was on the wall long ago.
Books & Writing: Were you inspired by someone or something?
Aaron Dries: I’ve always been inspired by other writers and their work — this will never change. When I was a kid I lived and breathed R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps and Fear Street series. This was the glorious stuff that I cut my teeth on before discovering Stephen King, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, who certainly sealed the deal for me. As soon as I read their work I knew that I wanted to become a writer. In the seventh grade I told my English teacher this and she laughed … If only that witch from my childhood story had picked her up and fed her to the lions. I also think that disbelief was inspiring in its own perverted way.
Outside of the writing sphere, I’m highly influenced by my surroundings. I tend to write about the places in which I’m doing the writing, or about places that I have been. My debut novel, House of Sighs, is set in a small Australian town called James Bridge, which is just my hometown of Branxton under a different name. I’m highly influenced by the people I meet and the concepts that challenge me.
Books & Writing: What do you love about writing a story?
Aaron Dries: Writing is fun on a number of levels at a lot of different times. There are the initial planning stages, when your head is like a bubbling cauldron you throw ideas into in the hope that something emerges. And then there’s the actual writing itself—the momentum you feel, the drive to get it finished. I love to let my characters do all the work, but they only take on a life of their own if you put in the hard yards initially.
On the flip side, there’s a lot about writing books that’s difficult. Finding time is the usual thorn in the writer’s side—between jobs and personal commitments it can be difficult. And then there’s the incredibly daunting first page; it’s terrifying seeing that blank screen staring back at you. On top of this there’s the pain of rejection and the nervous expectation as you wait to hear what the world thinks of your work.
Yet, at the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker, each one of these negatives is a success waiting to happen. You found the time; you filled that first page; your story was accepted; people like your work. Hopefully. It’s easy to be sidetracked and it’s easy to be knocked down by criticism. You just have to get up on your bruised and bloody horse and keep on ridin’.
Books & Writing: Can you tell us something about your book “House of Sighs” and the main character?
Aaron Dries: ‘House of Sighs’ is set in the mid 90s and is the story of Liz Frost, a woman on the verge of suicide. She has a gun in her handbag, and instead of taking the plunge and using it on herself, she takes it to work. Liz is a bus driver.
It doesn’t take long for the passengers of the Sunday bus into town to realize that something is very, very wrong with their driver. They don’t know that she began her day planning to kill herself. But they know that she’s threatening to kill them. They began the ride as her passengers, but now they’re her captives. She’s already shown she won’t hesitate to use that gun in her hand, and no one wants to be the next to die. They have no idea where she’s taking them, who will be left alive when they get there, or what’s in store for the survivors. With a madwoman at the wheel, the bus has gone far off its route, deep into insanity. And for most of the passengers, the next stop will be their last.
… House of Sighs is an ensemble piece full of interesting characters, but Liz is the driving force behind all of their motivations. She’s both muse and muggufin, so to speak. She was both a challenge and a joy to write. I wanted to reach inside the page and pull her out of her depression, but there were all of these obstacles in the way. That’s why the book ends the way it does. Tragically.
Books & Writing: Why did you decide to rename the book, because you originally called it Disunity I believe.
Aaron Dries: For those who may not know, I entered and subsequently won the Rue Morgue/ChiZine/Dorchester Publishing ‘Fresh Blood’ competition, which included ten finalists who underwent public voting rounds until one writer was left – ala Survivor. Throughout all this my manuscript was titled Disunity. When I won, both the editors at ChiZine and Dorchester thought the title was too misleading, and not mysterious enough. I agreed with them. It spelled out the central theme a little too openly, detracting from the novel’s elusive nature, and it simply didn’t resonate with horror readers. With a title like Disunity it could have been about the London riots … So I settled on House of Sighs, which is far more atmospheric and haunting. It says a lot without saying much; it poses questions. Where is the House of Sighs, and what’s so bad about it that it earned having a horror novel written about it?
Books & Writing: What attracts you in Horror?
Aaron Dries: I was a horror nut even as a kid, even though the general perception of family and friends was that I would eventually outgrow it. I’m very happy to disappoint them on this one. I don’t really know what drew me to it because a lot of the horror films I saw as a child (at way too young an age, mind you), deeply upset me and gave me violent nightmares. Child’s Play traumatized me. A Nightmare of Elm Street haunted me for years. Jaws still has me terrified of the water. A lot of those fears have never gone away. I guess horror resonates. I’d love for someone to read my work and never be able to forget it; that would be my ultimate aim. I guess it boils down to mortality, doesn’t it? The desire to be remembered, or even feared after we’re gone. Fear is an emotion we’re programmed to respond to, but we deny it to ourselves at every opportunity. I’m happy to give people what they don’t know they actually need. I guess if I couldn’t write I’d design ghost train rides, or something. Actually, I’d still love to do that.
Books & Writing: How long have you been working on this book?
Aaron Dries: I started House of Sighs almost three years ago now. I found an old copy of Rue Morgue magazine whilst backpacking abroad and saw the advertisement for the ‘Fresh Blood’ competition — but there was only three months left until the deadline! I worked hard, pounded out the novel and got it in by the skin on my teeth. Don D’Auria accepted the manuscript, and then the elimination rounds stretched on for almost eight months (I honestly can’t remember, it was fairly anguishing). After winning, the book was un-officially acquired by Dorchester Publishing as per the prize of the competition, only to have the powers that be let Don go … So I was left with a sort-of-accepted novel with a company that appeared to be treading financial water, and without an editor, no less. I waited things out for almost six months, baited by Dorchester’s promises of publication (with nary a contract to be seen). In the interim I wrote my second novel and sent that to Don who was by that point well established at Samhain Horror. He bought the rights to both books with 24 hours of my initial submission. It was, without a doubt, one of the happiest days of my life.
Books & Writing: How does it feel to have your book published?
Aaron Dries: After all that I went through with the Dorchester collapse, I’m relieved. At the same time it all feels surreal. I’m amazed that there are people out there reading my work. My insular thoughts are now in the hands of strangers. That both excites and terrifies me. But I’m cool with that … my aim is to make them feel the same way. Tit-for-tat.
Books & Writing: You are also working on a few screenplays and the follow up to House of Sighs. Can you tell us a bit about those?
Aaron Dries: Screenplay wise, things are all in the idea cauldron, but one day I’ll get those full-length screenplays out there. I have an intense passion for film; it was my first creative love. All my life I wanted to direct. I made award-winning short films and worked in television editing suites. But the harder I worked the more I realized how much money it took to get places, and I just didn’t have the income to drop everything and write even more on spec, or to direct between multiple freelance jobs. So I turned all my energy towards novels, which is similar to directing, only without the union interventions. I still make short films and I recently made the trailer for House of Sighs, which people really seem to like. Check it out here: ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ogZtwRjRDE&feature=youtu.be )
As for the follow up to my debut … it’s written and is will be released later this year. It’s not a sequel to House of Sighs, but it certainly takes place in the same universe. Locations and minor characters do appear in both, but the two novels are independent from each other. Creating this larger universe has been an amazing experience. James Bridge is to me what Castle Rock must be to Stephen King. I think every writer wants to create a unique and fully-developed world over a number of novels, only to knock it down.
My second novel is called The Fallen Boys and I’m very proud of it. It is about a father’s journey into darkness as he tries to discover why his young son committed suicide. It is a novel about Internet bullying, and about the ways people use the infrastructure of their lives (whether it be the Internet, or something like religion) to hurt innocent people. It’s a tragic, hard-hitting, psychological horror novel.
Books & Writing: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Aaron Dries: As many authors before me have said, writing is re-writing. Embrace it and find the joy in it. Format your manuscripts properly and work on your punctuation and grammar — it can always be improved. Write about what makes you angry, or moves you, or about the things you love. Also, if you’re going to write books, don’t think that the work stops once you’ve been published. Trust me, it doesn’t. You have to work on publicizing your book long after its release. I wish, more than anything else, that I could make a living out of writing novels so I could dedicate myself fully to getting the word out there. It’s an upward slope, but a worthy hill to climb.
Books & Writing: Which author inspires you?
Aaron Dries: I’m inspired by a lot of authors out there. I think Stephen King is a tyrant in the genre, who sets the bar high and who deserves everything he has earned. Earlier I mentioned Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho and other amazing works. I recently played tribute to him on my website (http://www.aarondries.com/apps/blog/show/13547984-pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain-on-forgetting-robert-bloch ). Outside of the genre I love the works of Bret Easton Ellis and Daniel Handler, whose works just blow my mind. I’ve been re-reading a lot of old Ira Levin stuff recently—the economy with which he writes is something we all could learn from. Rosemary’s Baby makes my palms sweat.
Books & Writing: Where can people go and read your work?
Aaron Dries: If you’re interested in seeking out my work the best place to start is my website (www.aarondries.com ).There you can read excerpts of my work, find free short stories and you’ll discover links to my blog. Outside of this, the best place to get a taste of what I do is to read House of Sighs. So head on over to Samhain Horror (store.samhainpublishing.com), or snap up a copy wherever good books are sold, as the saying goes.
Books & Writing: Where can people find you on internet?
Aaron Dries: Hit me up at my website or follow me on Twitter (AaronDries) and Facebook (Aaron-Dries/297589356966510 ) . I love meeting readers—and not exclusively those of my own work. If you love horror, I think we’ll get along fine. Swing by and say hello. I don’t bite. Much.
Books & Writing: Is there anything else you want to share with the readers?
Aaron Dries: I think that’s pretty much it! Of course there will be something that I forgot or should have said and these things will spring to mind later tonight when I go to bed. I had a ball! To everyone reading: thank you for keeping the horror genre alive. If you feel like getting the shit scared out of you then consider this the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Below is an excerpt from his book House of Sighs!
Prologue: It Begins
“There is only one Evil: Disunity.”
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
One Hundred and Four
Suzie Marten was ten years old when she died.
Her passion was dancing. Spinning herself dizzy in search of rhythm, pirouetting until her toes hurt. Her father had bought her a pair of ballet shoes—a perfect fit, and with pink ribbon laces that wound all the way up to her ankles. She scuffed and broke the soles with a serrated kitchen knife she snatched from the kitchen drawer. Suzie adored those shoes with a pure love that only children can seem to feel for inanimate objects. She was wearing them when she was torn apart.
It was November 12th, 1995.
To Suzie, Sunday morning was the final stop between freedom and school. She both loved and hated Sundays. Suzie despised school and feared her raven-faced, balding teacher, who would sometimes get so mad he threw things. She imagined he spent his Sundays alone, watching the clock, eager for Monday to arrive so he could overturn another desk. He had done this to her best friend. Books and pencils had crashed to the floor, an eraser bounced up and clipped one boy’s ear. At recess Suzie sat beside her humiliated friend and wrapped an arm around his shoulder—a brave move considering his sex—because as any ten-year-old girl knows: where there are boys, there’s a whole lot of germs. “It’s okay,” she whispered in his ear. “I saw on the T.V. that teachers can’t hurt kids and we can sue him if we want. He’s such a…dirty shit.”
They looked at each other, shocked. Dirty shit.
“Suzie Marten, you can’t say that! If they hear you, they’ll send a letter home to your mom and she’ll wash your mouth out with soap, or something. I saw that one on the T.V. too.”
“Na-uh she won’t. My mom’s too tired to do that. Always in bed. And besides, she says words like that! She works the dogwatch at the hospital—whatever that means. She gets home from work when everyone else is getting up. I don’t know what a dog has to do with it. I once saw this boring black-and-white movie about a vampire who only ever came out at night. He could turn into a bat and flew around eating people—or something—and during the day he slept in a box. Did’ja ever see that one?”
Suzie once teased her mother’s mouth open with a spoon while she slept, to see if she had fangs. Donna Marten bolted awake, grabbed her daughter by the wrist and pulled her under the sheets. They laughed. That night they had Fruit Loops for dinner.
On the morning of the ninth, Donna fell into bed after a ten-hour shift. Her knees ached, the smell of disinfectant and cigarettes sweating out of her pores. She was too tired to shower. Suzie pulled the blankets up to her mother’s chin.
“Mo-om,” Suzie said, her voice drawn out and meek.
“What is it, honey? I’m dead on my feet.”
“Come on, out with it. I’m two ticks from dreaming.”
“Well, I was just wondering. How come on television moms don’t get old? How come Julia Roberts never gets wrinkles, or anything, but you’re starting to look like an old lady? Like a bit of an old rag.” Mother stared into her daughter’s innocent eyes… Innocent, Donna had to remind herself. Innocent.
Forgive her, for she knows not what she says—it was an expression her own mother had been fond of using, and often. Donna never really understood its meaning—its weight—until that moment. There in her bedroom with her daughter. For the last time.
“Count yourself lucky I love you, Suzie,” she said, wishing her little girl were old enough to start lying like everyone else. But despite this, they kissed goodnight and all was forgiven. She watched her daughter pull the door shut, taking with her the smell of Strawberry Shortcake and pre-teen sweat.
Suzie passed a cabinet full of her gymnastics trophies in the hallway, the glass planes shaking as she bounced along. Her reflection twittered from one family photo to another. Leaping into the kitchen, she slid to the refrigerator in her socks. It was covered in drawings and magnets, school reports and shopping receipts. Alone at last.
Her father was away on another business trip. Where he went she rarely knew, but she was always glad to see him go, as he never came back empty-handed. Once he brought a packet of windup crayons—the good kind, unlike those some of her friends owned, which would have to be thrown away if you twisted too far—and another time, the ballet shoes.
She watched Sailor Moon over cereal. Afterwards, she pulled her hair into a ponytail and brushed her teeth, the bristles as frayed as the wheat stalks on her uncle’s farm after a storm. Suzie didn’t see much of her extended family any more, least of all her uncle in Morpeth, not with her father always traveling and her mother sleeping day after day.
Donna Marten found dried toothpaste splashes on the bathroom mirror a week later. She licked them off and fell to the floor, her mouth tasting of mint and the briny tang of tears.
Suzie put on her headphones even though the padding itched her ears, and slipped into a pink leotard and tutu. She pressed Play on her Walkman and music filled her ears. She slammed the front door as she went into the yard.
In the house a mechanic hum escaped the freezer; the grandfather clock ticked away. Gentle draughts tickled the wind chimes near the window until they laughed. And through it all Donna Marten snored.
Suzie danced to Mister Boombastic (“say me fan-tas-tic!”) on the front lawn. In her opinion she lived on the most boring street in all of James Bridge, maybe even all of Australia: a rarely traveled stretch of road on the outskirts of town. Suzie had no neighbors, but should a car come along she liked the idea of being seen. This was why she danced, and why she danced so well. She didn’t twirl and then fall for herself, but for everything. There was simply nothing else to do.
Spring was hot that year, the house surrounded by matchstick grass. The valley hissed when the wind blew through the dead trees, a desperate, lonely sound.
Suzie spun and curtsied, laughing to herself. I could do this all day, she thought. And I will! Go on, stop me. Dirty shit, dirty shit!
She loved watching her shadow on the lawn, the way it was a part of her. But when she leapt into the air they were separated. If only I could fly forever, she thought and then withdrew. But I would miss my shadow. That would be sad, like losing a friend.
Four hours after falling asleep, panic reached into the dark and ripped Donna from her bed. Her stomach knotted, brow flecked with sweat. It had not been the sounds of screeching tires, or the muted gunshot that awoke her—fatigue had seen to that. It was that her mind had fled her body and her flesh had no choice but to follow.
She threw open the door and ran from room to room. Nothing.
“Suzie!” she yelled. Her voice was feral, unrecognizable as her own. Something inside fueled her dread. The house was empty.
Donna stumbled outside, her eyes squinting against the sunlight. Pain thudded in her head and shot down her spine. Suzie was not in the backyard. As she rounded the house and neared the front gate, she felt heat waves coming off the brick wall to her right. She fumbled with the latch. Next to her were the trashcans, their stench reaching out to grab her, to make her feel ill. The latch opened and the gate swung wide—a sharp cry of metal grinding metal.
Donna ran onto the front lawn and stopped.
The Walkman was shattered near the gutter, ribbons of gray tape fluttering in the wind. Suzie Marten was strewn in pieces across the road.
Crows fluttered over intestines, disturbing the stillness. One hopped onto Suzie’s head, spread its bloodied wings and squawked. It lowered its beak and bit the child’s tongue, which had been cooking against the tar.
Her daughter’s ballet shoe lay in front of her, distorted by heat waves and the foot still inside. Donna screamed.
Her breath came short as her nostrils filled with the stink; a putrid mix of chemicals and sugarcane, shit and salt. She would never forget it.
Darkness flittered over her vision and Donna ran to her child, lashing out at the birds. They twirled and cawed, sprinkling blood drops over her face. “Get away from my baby!” she screamed, arms thrashing. But the beaks returned to meat, to gorge.
Those delicate, soft stabbing sounds.
A crow settled on Donna’s shoulder, feathers brushed against her cheek. Her world emptied. She clambered over gravel. This isn’t happening, she thought. It can’t be. I’m dreaming—that’s it! I’m still sleeping, my baby isn’t torn to pieces. Donna started to laugh, short, deep bleats. Parents were not equipped to see these sights; to smell such insane, bitter scents.
She fought the birds again, kicked out, punching. Donna didn’t comprehend what she was doing until she held one of the animals in her hand. Its scream mingled with her own, formed a single high-pitched mewl that echoed across the fields. She let it drop, its wings broken.
Donna fell to her knees and attempted to scoop up as much of her daughter as she could manage. Her arms swept wide in manic, possessive hugs, pulling the larger chunks closer and closer to her chest. Tears slipped down her face. She gave in and settled on the largest intact fragment: Suzie’s head, neck, collarbone and left arm, which seemed to be only holding on by a thinly stretched tendon. But the birds were hungry and selfish and would not let their bounty escape without a fight. They swooped. Their black-on-black eyes were empty and so cold.
The chunk of Suzie was only a quarter of the corpse, but Donna thought it was heavier than her daughter had ever been intact. She turned her back to the crows, deflecting swoops and scratches.
And then without warning, the weight in her arms lessened and Donna felt something slap against her shins. Something warm and something so very wet.
Donna was a nurse and assisted doctors in surgery. What she saw sitting on her shins was unlike anything she had ever seen at work. It was small and childlike. A healthy heart that still had many years of beating left to do.
Donna collapsed amid a flurry of dark wings, dark shadows.