Saturday, April 12, 2014

Of Serpents and Skeptics: A Review of Walker's Vale

John Zelenski's first novel is a quick read, clocking in at 134 pages, and an intriguing one because it was inspired, in part, through the author's own childhood experiences. At its best, Walker's Vale (Tate Publishing, 2012) presents an intimate look at spiritual warfare from a very human viewpoint. The reader experiences, through the eyes of its protagonist, the horror and plain weirdness of the unknown and supernatural. At its worst, the story shows the importance of proper back and forth between author and editor.

James Cooper and his family are looking for the good life. There is a subtle strain in the marriage, brought on in part by James' own slipping faith in God, and in part by stress over their little girl, who at four, has never spoken a word. A quiet home in the tiny town of Walker's Vale, Pennsylvania seems to be just what the doctor ordered for James, his wife Maria, and their autistic daughter Liza.

From the first day, things take a turn for the odd. The local Reverend shows up, just in time to kill a poisonous snake that somehow managed to get into the house. Snakes will continue to figure into the goings on at Walker's Vale as well. Beyond this, James notices small things at first. Things that, taken separately, would simply be shrugged off as just another part of living in this crazy world, begin to take on a surreal quality as they form a pattern of spiritual... wrongness as James questions his own skepticism and fears for his family's safety.

Overall, the story is a compelling one, as James slowly begins to realize his normal, rational world is crumbling around him. The normality and safety he sought for his family is pulled away, piece by piece, and his fear, as written by Zelenski, is natural in the face of everything he experiences. As such, James is a relatable and fairly developed for the short story span. There are also some interesting twists and turns throughout.

It's a short read, and as such there are some problematic areas in the way of plot and character development. Some characters engage in seemingly unmotivated activities, make decisions which don't make much sense, or simply fail completely to question things any reasonable person really ought to question (for example, the presence of an FBI agent for what would appear to be a very minor local matter). These, in particular, are areas where Zelinski could have benefited from the objective eye of a professional editor. A good editor, after all, will not merely make sure the manuscript is (mostly) error free and readable, but will also advocate for the reader if the story fails at any point to make sense or deliver on expectations.

I found the conclusion troubling as well. I understand where the author was going with it, I think, but I'm not sure it landed. I won't say more than that lest I violate my own no-spoilers rule, but suffice to say I was bothered enough to bring it up.

Still, the problems didn't take away from what was an otherwise engaging and interesting story. For many readers, Walker's Vale will prove well worth the afternoon it takes to give it a read.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Realms of Horror! And a Giveaway!

We've made mention before of the fact that RealmMakers is returning this Summer. The Christian speculative symposium will feature multiple courses of interest to writers of science fiction, fantasy, and, yes, horror.

There are any number of reasons an aspiring -- or even working -- writer may want to join the ranks of those attending from May 30-31. In fact, a trip over the the Realm Makers blog at Faith And Fantasy Alliance will put you face to face with several benefits, as told by past attendees and faculty alike.

As the RealmMakers Blog Tour rolls by AFitD, I'd like to tell you why you, reader and creator of faith-centered suspense and horror, would benefit from making the trip to Villanova University this year.

I'll start by mentioning, again, this year's keynote: Tosca Lee. Tosca made a name for herself among fans of Demon: A Memoir. She has more recently authored a series of books with dark fiction mainstay Ted Dekker, "The Books of Mortals." The chance to hear this great keynote is alone almost worth the price of admission. Fortunately for us, though, there's more.
Christian suspense and supernatural fiction with her breakout novel,

Writer L.B. Graham will talk character development and getting beyond the 2-dimensional villain. Travis Perry will draw on his own military experience to talk about danger and trauma in fiction.

And again A Flame in the Dark will be represented with yours truly (Randy) examining faith-based horror, modern torture porn, and how we can make scary good again. "The Ins and Outs of Christian Horror" will examine and critique modern and classic horror, and the modern expectations of the genre versus our mandate as Christians to focus on the True, Noble, Right, Pure, Lovely, and Admirable.

The 2013 RealmMakers horror panel, (l-r) AFitd Contributors
Randy Streu and Kat Heckenbach, with N. Paul Williams,
explore the question, "What Is Christian Horror?"
There are even rumors (I know, because I started them) of another horror panel in the works, building on themes from last year's panel.

Finally, writers will have the chance to meet several like-minded individuals, and even publishers who specialize in speculative fiction. Pitch your best ideas at one of the pitch sessions, or just get some free advice on making your work even better!

Okay, I've said my piece. Join the Rafflecopter below and win free stuff!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, February 24, 2014

God and The Undead, part 1: Thinking Dangerously

A Christian
"Zombie" novel
Can you write a "Christian" zombie novel? This was a question recently prompted by author James Somers at the SpecFaith Blog and his article, "How Then Can It Be Christian?"

Ironically, in the course of denying seemingly arbitrary limits by some evangelicals against fantasy fiction, Somers creates a seemingly arbitrary guideline of his own: Dragons and elves and plagues are in; the living dead are taboo.

I'm currently working on a new novel series that would seem like a zombie plague has broken out and threatens the world. Are zombies - the living dead - real beings? Could they actually exist? Of course they couldn't. Dead is dead. Muscles don't work without blood flow and a heart to pump it and lungs to oxygenate it. So, I can't do living dead, but I can explore a story about infected individuals who are living and what such a pestilence or plague could do.

A Christian
Vampire Novel
Somers' chief objection seems to be creating a world that contradicts God's Word. How this line is crossed by zombies, for example, and not by dragons, is never made clear. But does Somers have a point? Does a revenant cross a line other fantasy archetypes do not? Is there something that makes zombies -- or vampires, as they, too, number among the undead -- too fantastic for the Christian author? Does this same taboo exist for werewolves and other shapeshifters as well, which also seemingly defy the "natural order," or for ghosts?

In his own response to this point, titled "No Zombies Allowed," author Mike Duran says that, for the creative storyteller, "forcing fiction to neatly fit your theology is a losing proposition."

It is indeed the very nature of fiction to question, or even sidestep, reality. For speculative fiction, this is even more the case. I recently explored this idea, also at the SpecFaith blog, challenging the notion that, if God didn't create it, Christians ought'nt write about it (which appears to be the notion at the root of this "undead" taboo Somers introduces).

I'm going to suggest that reality is a poor indicator of something's worthiness. A great many things have survived unreality, and have been deemed very worthy indeed.
Creation, by its nature, is fantastic; you cannot create what already exists. As a storyteller, it must go without saying that the tales woven aren't real. So, any objection to fantasy fiction which attacks the unreality of the stories and thematic elements is in fact an attack on the nature of fiction itself. (from "All Fiction is Fantasy")
Zombies, Vampires, AND
Werewolves? Now we've done it.

I would carry this, and Duran's point, even further. If you never allow your fiction to work outside the bounds of the theologically comfortable, you do yourself, and your readers, a grave disservice. The trouble with having a theology so limited by human imagination is that, when reality crosses that boundary, we find our theology -- and with it, our faith -- weakened, or even broken.

Many a Christian has lost his faith because nature failed to conform to the way he viewed the world. Many a post-Christian Atheist walked away from religion because God wasn't who he thought He was. We cannot limit God -- or His world -- to the sum of our own experiences. This is dangerous for any Christian, and if I may be so bold, downright detrimental to a creator of fiction.

So perhaps there are no vampires, no zombies, mentioned in Scripture. Perhaps their very existence is the stuff of fantasy. To put it bluntly, so what? Is the God of the Universe somehow diminished in a fictional world where the Dead walk?

That may be your box; my God doesn't fit in there.

Coming soon: God and The Undead, Part 2: In His Image

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bits & Pieces 02.19.14: Record Breakin', Realm Makin', Water Walkin', Devil Stalkin' Edition

Just as he did for the first of his Outlaw Books, Eyes Wide Open, Ted Dekker is releasing his new project, Water Walker, as an episodic series of novelettes. And as before, Episode One is available free. You can download in various formats from Dekker's website.

The blogosphere is gearing up for Second RealmMakers Conference with a blog voyage, currently underway. Readers can enter to score a huge prize basket from multiple contributors at each stop of the tour. Watch AFitD for our stop on the tour March 7, and head over to the Faith and Fantasy Alliance blog for a complete list of dates and participants.

Billy Coffey, author of When Mockingbirds Sing (reviewed here), is set to release a prequel, set in the same idyllic southern town of Mattingly. The Devil Walks In Mattingly drops March 11. Preordering now available on Amazon. Watch for a review of Coffey's latest offering soon.

AFitD's favorite horrorpunk band, Grave Robber, is back at it and busier than ever. The group has committed to releasing one new free track every month in 2014. The project, called "The Cellar Sessions," features self-produced, rough mixes (they're so punk rock) of cover tunes you wouldn't expect from the undead. January's offering is Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky." Get the details at their Facebook page. Meanwhile, Grave Robber is also crowdfunding a new E.P. project, to be released on vinyl. To support or learn more about the project, hit up the band's Indiegogo page.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Letting Children Face the Dark in Fiction

In The Goblin Wars series
by Kersten Hamilton
teens battle against the evil in Mag Mell.
In a recent article in Christianity Today, “The Dark-Tinted, Truth-Filled Reading List We Owe Our Kids,” N.D. Wilson points out the need for darkness in children’s literature. Wilson feels that fiction should represent the truth of life rather than hiding the world and giving children “virtual reality goggles looping bubblegum clouds.”

Wilson believes good fiction follows God’s “artistic” example—the Bible is filled with dark stories that help point us to light. As Wilson states, “Resurrections require deaths.” God uses the wickedness in His master work to help us contrast it with good and learn to tell the difference. Wilson’s article includes this quote from G. K. Chesterton: "If the characters are not wicked, the book is."

I agree. But my own take on this topic follows more closely to something else G.K. Chesterton said: “Fairytales don't tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.”

If you think children don’t already know there is evil in the world, you don’t know children. Children have nightmares long before their first horror movie. They experience fear from a very early age: fear of the dark, fear of heights, fear of being alone. In real life, children lose parents, siblings and pets. They feel pain, get sick, and get lost in crowded malls. Children face darkness all their lives. They know dragons exist because they see them every day.

The original Grimm fairy tales were dark,
and Adam Gidwitz brings them back to
their roots--with some quirky humor.
As parents, it’s our job to help them learn to deal with those things—to help them slay the dragons—but also to show our kids how to slay the dragons themselves. And one way is to let them experience darkness in children’s novels and see that it can be overcome. That children have the power to fight the dark things in their lives.

A friend of mine, the one who shared the link to Wilson’s article with me, said in her email, “I think we give satan too much glory and our young people not enough credit.”

Children are strong when we let them be. And then get stronger when we let them, when we show faith in that strength and in the way we are raising them. My friend also said, “It’s important for kids to be allowed to engage in some of the popular cultural media and that we should trust that their upbringing will help them use the good and discount the bad.” If we don't show them that we trust our own parenting, how will they trust it?

Darkness is out there. Kids don’t need to be told that; they already know. What they need is to be shown how to identify it, and how to overcome it. And to be shown that they are capable of overcoming it. Books give them a safe place to do that, a place where they can see what it’s like to be the hero so they can build the confidence to become heroes in their own lives. Not heroes down the road—heroes now

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Two Dark Christmas Fables" is now available.

I have just published two ghostly tales of the holiday season,  "Twelfth Night", and "The Pooka of Kilarney," on Kindle. The book may be found for purchase here:

The print version (just published) is available here:

One of them, called "Twelfth Night," which I nearly christened "Snapdragon," had been optioned for the "monsters" anthology. The other tale is brand-new.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bits & Pieces 01.11.14: AFitD at RealmMakers

*Author Tosca Lee has already been mentioned as the keynote for the 2nd RealmMakers Conference, happening May 30-31. The rest of the class and faculty list has now been released. New MLP head Steve Laub will be there, along with Jeff Gerke and others. AFitD writer Kat Heckenback will be presenting a class on writing for Young Adults, while Randy Streu (that is, your humble Bits & Pieces reporter) will offer a class on writing Christian horror. Details at the link.

*We've been reporting on the sale of Marcher Lord Press to literary agent Steve Laub. Of note also is that Laub did not purchase MLP's subsidiary press, Hinterlands, nor did he choose to maintain a contract with Kerry Nietz for Amish Vampires In Space. In response, Nietz has formed his own imprint, Freeheads, which will now carry the book.

*Susan  Shearer and Christopher Shaw's supernatural thriller Familiar Spirits was 25% funded at the end of their Faith Launcher campaign. They're still accepting donations to finish the movie. Details are available at