Hey there, Storyside folks! We’re talking today with Melissa Crandall, author of Shell Game, Search and Rescue, Weathercock, and most recently “Thicker Than Water,” one of the three novellas that make up the newest release from Books & Boos Press: Three on a Match: The Terror Project, Volume 2.
In “Thicker Than Water,” Cora Coleman lives in a small Connecticut whaling town in the 1700s. With the witch trials of both Massachusetts and Connecticut being things of recent memory, Cora is terrified to discover rumors of witchcraft circulating about herself and her daughter, right at the time they are most vulnerable: while her husband Brendan is at sea. There is only so much a woman alone can do to defend herself in male-dominated eighteenth century New England . . . and then the witch hunter arrives . . .
Rob Smales: Melissa, you chose the perfect place and time to set your story. Being a New Englander, I’ve read a bit of nonfiction about that region in our history, and I have to say you captured the feel of the time quite well. This being a period piece, did you have to do much research for it, or was it a setting you felt comfortable with in your own knowledge?
Melissa Crandall: I wound up doing rather a lot of research for “Thicker Than Water.” When I first wrote the opening scene—which had come to me while I was working on a completely different story, and arrived in my head intact—I envisioned the story taking place somewhere along the southern coast of Maine. That changed for two pivotal reasons. First, I discovered I required a nearby whaling connection. Second, my plan to have an otherworldly aspect related to selkies or some other aquatic creature was pooh-pooh’d by my muse. Seriously, this story had a much clearer notion of what I was meant to write than I did, and it wasn’t shy about literally bombarding the inside of my brain with images until I really didn’t feel I had any choice but to go where it took me, which definitely wasn’t with the selkie connection. The power behind the story sent me off to research witchcraft trials, and that’s when I discovered Connecticut has its own rich and tragic history in that regard.
Rob: Well, your muse was right—that setting worked. Now, one thing I really appreciate in fiction is when an author spends the energy to give us a really good villain, someone to counterbalance the hero/heroine; as George Burns said in Oh, God! “You can’t have a good without a bad.” Your Orias King, witch hunter, is a very interesting villain: not overtly evil or histrionic, like some of the people around him, you instead manage to make him quite threatening in his quiet competence and polite self-assurance. Where did he come from? Is he based on anyone you know?
Melissa: I’m so pleased you like Orias! He’s become one of my favorite characters, although I hesitate to say I invented him. Even before he appears in the story, I knew everything about him—looks, mannerisms, the works. His name alone brought him to me in his entirety, completely and utterly himself. This was one of those rare occasions when I didn’t have to discover a character, or have the character slowly reveal him- or herself to me. I knew him, as if we’d actually met. As for where he came from, I’ve utterly no idea. He certainly isn’t based on anyone I know or have ever met. He’s just who he is.
Rob: Well, I’m very glad you made his acquaintance. Even his name works; it’s understated and not overtly aggressive, but unusual enough (at least these days) to stand out a bit from the rest.
Melissa: Little side note for those who care about such things: I found the name ‘Orias’ on a list of demons. He’s the Great Marquis of Hell.
Rob: And that’s . . . not creepy at all, that the Great Marquis of Hell just introduced himself into your imagination, fully-formed and cooly pleasant. Ah . . . ahem.
Right! So, let’s get away from “Thicker Than Water” for a bit and find out a little about you, Melissa. You’ve obviously written some strong science fiction, and have thrown in a healthy dose of fantasy; now you’ve entered the horror arena and have taken to it like a duck to water. You seem to be able to do it all, so . . . what’s your kryptonite? What gives you the hardest time, writing-wise?
Melissa: That bastardly inner voice that rears its butt-ugly face now and then to remind me I’m no good, to tell me all the ways in which I don’t measure up, to play scales on my insecurities. I finally gave the voice a name—Phyllis—so I can forcefully say, “Shut the hell up, Phyllis!” and go back to work. It helps.
Rob: I was going to ask if you had any advice for the younger, newer writers out there, but your mention of that “bastardly inner voice” (a doubt most writers face, some of us constantly) changed my mind. You’re already used to giving yourself advice, so I’m going to ask you to do it again: if you could go back in time—maybe even before you’d given Phyllis a name—and tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Melissa: This—all of the writing/being published thing—is going to be harder than you can imagine, and it’s only going to become more difficult over time because of massive changes in the field. So work harder. Take more chances. Take yourself more seriously, sooner, and begin submitting your work frequently, sooner. Don’t be afraid—not of failure, but of success (yeah, believe it or not, that was one of my bugaboos). Never give up.
Rob: Well, we’re about out of time here, so I’m going to wrap this up with one final question: what are you working on now? What’s the next thing we should be looking for from Melissa Crandall?
Melissa: God willing, and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be able to one day soon announce that my nonfiction book, The Man Who Loved Elephants has sold. In addition to that, I have three short stories and one novella out to various markets and have started work on another story, although it hasn’t told me yet what length it wants to be. There may be another horror anthology in my future if our editor doesn’t choose sanity over book publishing, and I’m working on a nonfiction magazine article about elephants.
Rob: Well, I think I speak for Crandall fans everywhere when I say I’m glad to hear you’re so busy. I’ll let you get back to that new story now.
We’ve been talking today to Melissa Crandall, author of the frightening new novella, “Thicker Than Water.” You can check out Melissa’s freshest foray into the scary story in Three on a Match: The Terror Project Volume 2, alongside novellas by g. Elmer Munson and Kristi Petersen Schoonover, with an introduction from The Storyside’s own David Daniel, fresh out from Books & Boos Press.
“Creepy and thrilling. This one is a real page-turner!” ~ Amazon review
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, which won the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. His story “Photo Finish” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Preditors & Editors’ Readers Choice Award for Best Horror Short Story of 2012.
His latest work is a collection of short stories entitled Echoes of Darkness, published by Books & Boos Press (2016). Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eFestival of Words.
More about his work can be found at www.RobSmales.com, or you can look him up on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Robert.T.Smales.