“This is one grim, twisty, short story that filled this horror fan’s heart with glee.” That’s what I had to say about Call Drops, today’s author’s short story collection, when I read it a couple years ago. Looking at his reviews, I’d say he’s made many horror fans happy. Welcome John F. Leonard!
Which urban legend scares you most?
I’m not sure any urban legend really scares me but one I find endlessly fascinating is the idea of the ‘dark’ village or town. Those vaguely anonymous localities where things aren’t quite right at first glance and something truly horrendous bubbles below the surface. It’s a concept that appears in a lot of my writing. Whitewood Heath in Bad Pennies is a place touched by the demonic. The Bledbrooke Works is heavily reliant on the notion. Newgate Wood from Night Service goes a step further in that Newgate exists beyond our everyday reality. Any unwary traveller driving in will find it very difficult to leave.
Actually, thinking about urban myths, freaky food is one that does cause me genuine concern. There are numerous disturbing food stories – chewing gum stays in your gut for years, bottled water causes cancer, fingers fried in with the chips. All tales that are mostly untrue and easily dismissed. However, I can’t shake off a more deeply-seated uneasiness about our modern diet. Here in the UK, the pandemic has accelerated a trend toward online grocery shopping. Plus, takeaway delivery companies have proliferated. It’s great in many ways and worrying in others. One consequence is a huge section of the population simply take what they’re given. I mean, why go to the trouble of actually inspecting what you’re going to eat before buying it when stuff can be thrown into your porch with a few clicks?
We trust the delivery, the origin of the contents, and what we’re told about the ingredients. Life was very different when I was younger. My mother used to feel fruit and vegetables before purchase was even considered. The butcher had to show her the cut of meat and name the source. She cooked our meals with the confidence of knowing precisely what was in them.
The possibilities for story-telling are endless and endlessly scary. However trustworthy the merchant, what are you really getting in that crate from the market or steaming bag from the takeaway? Will it contain something you don’t expect or want? A mutagen, an undetectable additive which could be changing you, altering the very fibre of your being? Muahahaha.
Have you ever had a tarot card reading?
No. I’m pretty sceptical, despite writing scary stories and being interested in the supernatural. Cartomancy is one of those areas which requires a considered distinction between the fictional and factual. In my experience, people who charge for this sort of stuff are frequently charlatans and those doing it for free all too often deluded. A measured dose of cynicism a day keeps the doctor away. It’s also likely to save a few quid and help you make better decisions.
That’s not to say I’m completely dismissive. There are definitely areas beyond our comprehension that defy logical explanation. But the world is also full of folk just itching to take advantage. A bit of harmless fun is fine, so long as you don’t get duped or dragged into infinitely dark realms : )
If you watch horror movies, are you the person who yells at the characters, covers your eyes, or falls asleep?
I watch horror movies and don’t usually do any of those things. Although, on reflection, I do recall that The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock made me hide behind the sofa when I was a kid.
Digressing slightly, but my early years were illuminated by horror movies. Hammer Horror and the like. They were a wonderful distraction from routine life. I’m well past the spring chicken stage now and the films I watched in my youth seem impossibly distant and yet still resonate. There was an innocence to it all. Those old movies are gentler, gore and guts weren’t necessary to create a sense of horror. Some see it as a golden era when the genre was more finely crafted. Subtler, atmospheric and quietly disturbing. Entertainment that generated some unsettling deliberation rather than the gag reflex. We were yet to reach the age of instant gratification and visceral repulsion. The drift toward the latter is understandable – the ante needs to be upped as you hit a certain level of saturation. Plus there was no continual internet assault to influence attitudes and dull appetites.
Do you ever see figures in your peripheral vision?
They appear with an alarming regularity. The moth memories smudged on reality, ephemeral and whispering the walls. Spectral things, slipping through a crack in the past and speaking of bleak tomorrows. That said, and being totally honest, it’s mostly when I’m the worse for drink. Mostly.
Would you and your main character get along?
I’ve written a lot of characters and generally identify with all of them in some respect. By that, I mean I’ve climbed at least part way inside their heads. Gone to bed thinking about the fictional person and drifted into an unsteady sleep thinking about how they deal with the mundane and the extraordinary. It’s the only way to write, as far as I’m concerned.
There are no ‘throw-away’ characters, they all have to contribute. It might not be in an obvious way. A reference to or association with another story. A figure that adds to and illustrates the general situation you want to portray. If they’re good, I don’t think you need to justify them too much. Relevant to the concept is what matters.
Which book have you read more than once?
For me, rereading an old favourite is one of the great joys of life. Especially with a decent interval between the visits. Enough time to have lost a little detail so the revisit offers an occasional surprise or forgotten moment in the story. There are quite a few books which I’ve read more than once.
Several Stephen King titles spring to mind – The Stand, a definitive apocalyptic horror novel. Salem’s Lot, one of my best vampire stories ever written. The Tommyknockers, a delightful take on alien invasion/artefacts. Just writing the titles has brought a smile to my lips. Radix by A. A. Attanasio is another which I’ve probably read half a dozen times over a thirty year period. A science fiction fantasy that fired my imagination as a teenager and is still intoxicating.
By the way, I’d love to spend some time with either of these authors. They’ve given me so much with their writing. If nothing else, it would be nice to shake hands and thank them face to face.
What are you working on now?
I’ve got a ridiculously long list of story ideas. Some are started or in progress and others merely rough sketches. Choosing the next to finish and publish isn’t finalised in my head. Odds are it will be an apocalyptic horror story from the Scaeth Mythos, set on an orbiting space station, with the provisional title of The Offearth Experiment.
I ought to give the above statement some context. The last book I published is The Dead Boxes Archive, a collection of shorter stories and novellas written between 2017 and 2020. Seven stories, five available to buy as individual books and one with limited availability. The last was new for the collection. Compiling and publishing this felt like a watershed moment. I hadn’t set out on my author odyssey to write lots of stories. My original intention was to publish one book. My second, 4 Hours, featured a spin-off character and was entirely down to reader request. After that, I just got kinda caught up in the process.
By the time of The Dead Boxes Archive it felt as if things were spiraling out of control. My other writing, non-fiction and consultancy for websites, was putting increased demand on me and there are only so many hours in a day. So, I reluctantly decided to slide fiction onto the back-burner and make sure the mortgage was paid. Writing fiction is fabulously enjoyable and taking the indie road offers maximum freedom. However, freelance commercial stuff offers greater predictability on the income front.
All of which makes me treasure The Dead Boxes Archive. It won’t be my last fictional publication and that was always a possibility when I’d finished it. Instead, it stands as a personal marker – a ‘you are here’ kind of thing. I think it’s a good representation of my writing so far. Quiet horror that gets somewhat louder in places : )
The Dead Boxes Archive is a chilling collection of short horror stories and horror novellas. Together for the first time in one volume, seven tales from the critically acclaimed Dead Boxes series.
Dead Boxes are scary things. Wonderful and dreadful secrets hiding themselves in plain view.
On the surface, they often appear to be ordinary, everyday objects. Items which are easily overlooked at first glance. Perhaps that’s just as well because the Dead Boxes are as far from ordinary and everyday as you can get. They hold miracle and mystery, horror and salvation, answers to questions best not asked and directions to places better left unfound.
This collection offers an insight into some of these delightfully eerie articles. A stunning omnibus of old school inspired horror, the brooding and ominous variety. Not to say that there isn’t a little gore and gruesome in the mix. But one of the beauties of horror is that it comes in many forms. Blood and guts don’t need to be stars of the show for a story to be dark and disturbing. Something that will stay with you long after the reading is done.
Our diabolical banquet opens with Call Drops, a deliciously dark look at second hand shops, car boots and the infernal treasures which sometimes lurk within them. It might give you pause for thought about our ever-increasing reliance on the ubiquitous mobile phone.
“10 out of 5 stars” – Erik Henry Vick, author of Demon King.
Next up is the rather beautiful and deceptively innocent Doggem. In many ways, this short story defies description. It’s about a toy dog and school days and so much more. Ordinary families with folklore legacy, mundane existence amidst vaguely mythical settings, witchcraft and the supernatural. All mixed with apocalyptic undertones.
“The Velveteen Rabbit meets Rosemary’s Baby” – Barb Taub, author of Do Not Wash Hands In Plates.
A Plague of Pages is a nightmarishly enjoyable look at the perils of writing fiction. Betrayal, revenge and instruments of ultimate evil are blended into a mesmerising and horrific cocktail. Written well before the terrible events of 2020, it also touches upon historic pandemics and the prospect of present day apocalypse.
“ a wonderfully creepy read” – Gingernuts of Horror, premier UK horror review site.
Night Service is a tale of travel and terror that quickly gets up to speed and then doesn’t slow down until the haunting finale. A warning for all the night owls out there who use those last dance, last chance darktime buses. It can sometimes be a helluva ride!
“ flies by …excitement, chases, tension and bloody gore galore” – Char, leading Horror Aficionado and Vine Voice.
The ghostly Burntbridge Boys might initially appear to be about professional football. Don’t be deceived. When a Dead Box is involved, fraud and corruption in sport are only the tip of a demonic iceberg that spans dimensions and stretches into the dim and distant past.
“Sammy’s meeting with Burntbridge’s Chairman Millicent is stunningly good” – Terry Tyler, author of The Devil You Know.
The spooky old house, a gothic horror staple, gets a fresh lick of paint in Linger. Inheriting lots of money and a gothic mansion from a father you never knew sounds like some sort of dream come true. This revisit breathes new life into a horror classic.
” the Gothic …concentrated to its essence, with the richness this implies ” – Ramsey Campbell, British Horror Legend.
We conclude with The Screaming Mike Hawkins Story, a darkly inventive final twist from a mind filled with bleak and creative twists. Part author’s note, part biography, the shadowy career of Michael Hawkins is a mystery wrapped in more than one conundrum.
The Dead Boxes Archive UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08P7VHWS7
John messes around with words for a living. He was born in England and grew up in the industrial Midlands. That was where he learned to love scrawny cats, the sound of scrapyard dogs and the rattle and clank of passing trains.
His official education mostly involved English, Art and History. Everything else came later. The employment record is somewhat difficult to summarise. Chequered is probably a good word for it. Shop worker and office boy, sculptor and odd-job man, fraud investigator and thief. It’s all the same, when you boil it down. Pay your way and try to have a good day.
He enjoys apocalyptic stuff, horror, comedy and football (not necessarily together). A family man, John now lives a few miles from the old Victorian house in which he was born. Scribbling scary stories seems to keep him vaguely sane (accurate at time of writing). Current projects include more tales from the Dead Boxes, another everyday cosmic horror novel from the Scaeth Mythos, and new books set in the post-apocalyptic world of Collapse.
Say hello on Twitter: https://twitter.com/john_f_leonard