Horror writer Kealan Patrick Burke wants you to face your fears. His poetic and visceral prose have helped earn him a devoted readership since The Turtle Boy won the Bram Stoker Award in 2004. Frequently mentioned in the same breath as Josh Malerman, Stephen Graham Jones, and Paul Tremblay, Burke has managed to carve out a unique place for himself writing dark and terrifying work that gets under your skin in the best of ways. He has also laid claim to an often neglected form—the novella. In fact, some of his most popular works are not his novels—although he’s written five of them, and is finishing up a sixth—but his novellas Sour Candy, Jack & Jill, and Blanky, among others.
Burke was born and raised in the coastal town of Dungarvan, Ireland, sneak-reading his horror loving mother’s Stephen King books, books that left a lasting impression on him.
When I ask why he writes horror, Burke states, “Why horror? Why not? People don’t seem motivated to ask this question of writers in other fields. Why westerns? Why romance? Why comedy or science fiction? I write horror because it feels like the most honest means of confronting the things that scare me. I could write a story about a happy man selling happy flowers to a town full of happy people and it might be good, but I doubt I would enjoy writing it or find it spiritually or emotionally rewarding. Horror feels like shadowboxing, preparing for what’s coming. It’s a way to explore my own psyche, my own traumas, my own fears, and I don’t have to mute the colors to suit the expectations of rosier genres.”
And the palette that Burke uses in his own work is indeed, dark. His stories tend to start bleak, and then go pedal-to-the-metal into the void from there. Don’t expect happy endings or enlightenment. If you’re a Kealan Patrick Burke character, you’re lucky to survive, and if you do it’s with a whole lot of scars and a ghost clawing at your back.
“Terrible things have happened to me. Terrible things happen to people every day.” He says. “I write about terrible things as a way to make sense of them, and because it’s what I know. Love happens too, but I’m not nearly as equipped to write about that.”
After coming to America in 2001, Burke took the next two years to focus on writing, with a promise to reenter the workforce if his efforts hadn’t borne fruit. But within that two years he worked his way up from amateur to professional magazines, sold a collection, and saw his novella The Turtle Boy win the coveted Bram Stoker Award.
“I also sold an anthology full of my heroes, Taverns of the Dead, to Richard Chizmar at Cemetery Dance.” Burke says. “This was my first contact with Rich, with whom I found I had much in common, and while we were working on Taverns, I was also trying to place a story in his magazine. This proved to be no easy feat. Eventually, after he shot down several of my stories, I won him over with ‘The Number 121 to Pennsylvania.’ Cracking Cemetery Dance magazine felt like a major milestone to me. Later, when I wrote The Hides, the sequel to The Turtle Boy, Rich bought it for his novella line, and that, as they say, was that. We’ve since done a lot of books together and, I hope, will do many more.”
Most of the work Burke released over the next few years was published in limited editions by small presses such Thunderstorm, Subterranean Press, and Cemetery Dance. In 2010 he decided to self-release The Turtle Boy as an e-book.
“I’d been working as a fraud investigator for two years by the time the e-book thing came to prominence.” He says. “With a substantial backlist of titles to my name, I decided there was nothing to lose by giving it a whirl and thus, went about teaching myself the process of self-publishing, from formatting to cover design. At best, I expected to be able to pay a utility bill here and there and would have been quite content with that. Instead, I ended up quitting my job and returning to writing full-time two years later. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Teaching himself how to navigate PhotoShop and create his own book covers led to Burke discovering he has an eye for design. Take a look at his covers and you’ll see some of the most haunting imagery to grace books since the heyday of 1980s paperbacks. He eventually started his own design company called Elder Lemon (a term of endearment his mother used for him, based on an old television commercial about dancing lemons) and has designed covers for writers such as Bentley Little, Ronald Malfi, and Tim Lebbon.
Horror means different things to different people, but when you step into a Kealan Patrick Burke story, you’re stepping into a world in which light is hard to find. Men are caught in senseless circumstances, creatures stalk you in the woods, infants die suddenly, and sometimes all your teeth fall out. These stories and images leave a mark on the reader’s psyche, one that’s hard to shake.
I asked Sadie Hartmann (known online as “Mother Horror,” and co-owner of Night Worms, a monthly, curated horror book club) about her first experience with a Burke story. She told me, “I love to read extra spooky books for the Halloween season. I saved Blanky for Halloween night. My husband and son had gone out to do a little trick-or-treating (in the rain—no thank you) and I stayed home and read this novella in one sitting. I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Kealan’s writing style is instantly engaging. Within the first couple of sentences. you’re hooked.”
Shane Douglas Keene, of the ezine Ink Heist, had a similar experience. “The book that truly hooked and made of me a KPB acolyte was the amazing exploitation/survival horror novel Kin. Really more of an anti-exploitation novel—you’ll have to read to understand. It’s the most beautifully written novel of its type that I’ve ever read other than the great Jack Ketchum’s Off Season. That’s not mean to lessen the value or the quality of that story, but to say, yeah, the dude is that good.”
When I ask Burke what he feels is his scariest book, he responds, “I’m not sure I’m the best judge of that. After all, what frightens me doesn’t always correspond to fear in the reader. There are certainly scenes that give me the jeebies every time they float back into mind, like the mass of gloves nailed to the bedroom ceiling or the father’s phone call in ‘Andromeda,’ the head rolling off during sex in ‘Empathy,’ the dream sequences from Jack & Jill, the backpack discovery scene in The Tent, the sequence with the Doctor and the fog in Master of the Moors, the old lady at the top of the stairs from ‘Peekers,’ and the scenes with The Scholar in Vessels. As far as the books go, I think Blanky is the most frightening overall because of what it’s about, and because it happens all the time. When it comes to horror, real-world fear always trumps the monsters.”
And it’s tapping into those real-world fears that have gained Burke such a devoted following. Take a look on Twitter and you’ll see his name frequently pop up when people discuss their most loved horror books, or favorite stories of the year. Look on Instagram and you’ll find dozens of pictures of his work, beautiful photographed by “bookstagrammers..
The online horror community is a vibrant and active organism, constantly championing new writers, posting positive reviews all over the web, and generally getting other readers excited to take a trip on the dark side.
“Horror fans are the best fans in the world,” Burke says, “and on those days in which the words aren’t coming and I question my worth as a writer, seeing that kind of enthusiasm is just the tonic. I’ve been dragged out of more slumps than I can tell you by the enthusiasm of readers, and it’s been that way since the first. Quite sincerely, I wouldn’t still be here writing if not for the appreciation of horror fans. They get it.”
2018 saw the release of two seasonal short story collections—Dead Leaves and Dead of Winter—within months of each other, and the short story collection We Live Inside Your Eyes was released in 2019. But 2020 is shaping up to be an even busier year for Burke.
Back in 2018 Burke first teased Ward, a prequel to fan favorite Sour Candy, by posting a chilling cover that depicts a shadowy figure with antlers coming out of its head. An image that echoes the stark beauty of the original book’s cover.
“Ward is still scheduled for a 2020 release,” Burke says. “It’s been delayed so far because of development on a Sour Candy film, which may incorporate some, if not all, of the prequel. I’m waiting to see the finished script before I decide how best to handle the book’s release. In the meantime, I’m hard at work on another project I’m hoping to get out there this year, The Widows of Winding Gale, about a remote island, the occult, sea demons, and the community of women forced to battle them. I’m also bouncing ideas around for a Kin sequel, though that won’t likely appear for a long time. And of course, there’s The Great Almost-Finished Novel, Mr. Stitch, which I’ve been laboring over for what feels like an eternity and which I’m determined to conquer this year. Until then, there are a lot of novellas and short stories due in various anthologies and other venues keeping me burning the candle at both ends for 2020.
Whether you read horror for the chills and thrills, or because you’re trying to subconsciously face some deep-rooted fear about the senselessness of the world, know that the dim light you see floating in the fog, that’s not a specter, that’s just Kealan Patrick Burke carrying a lantern into the dark, telling his readers that it’s okay, you just have to face it, whatever it is.
CEMETERY DANCE: What was the last book you read that really genuinely creeped you out?
KEALAN PATRICK BURKE: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. Chilling, oppressive, surreal. Reading it is like being stuck in somebody else’s nightmare.
What are you most afraid of?
Losing loved ones.
If you got to choose one author to collaborate with on a novel, who would it be?
Choosing just one is too hard. So, either Clive Barker, because his corrupt imagination excites me and I think he’d be fun to work with, or Caroline Kepnes, because I dig the ragged soul and dark wit of her work.
Handwrite or type?
Pen or pencil?
You have to pick one book to reread, which is it?
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
What’s one question you’re never asked in an interview, but you wish someone had the nerve to ask?
Nobody ever asks my thoughts on religion or politics, and as the old saying goes, that’s probably for the best if we’re all to remain friends.
What do you feel is the most underrated / unread horror book that deserves more attention?
There are so many of them out there that come along and just seem to be immediately relegated to the dusty backrooms of bookstores. The work of Charles L. Grant, for example, seldom pops up on popular lists and a moodier more evocative horror writer you’d be hard-pressed to find. Karl Edward Wagner, same. Melanie Tem too. But the book my mind turns to every time I’m asked this question is The Cipher by Kathe Koja. The book launched the Dell-Abyss paperback line and was received well enough at the time, and yet when I talk to readers, it’s either a book they’ve never heard of or one they’re planning to read eventually. It’s an exceptional book, a modern classic, and anyone who hasn’t read it needs to.
You’re in a horror film…how do you die? Okay, now, how do you survive?
Ah, you see, I was in a horror film*, and I did die (via meat cleaver to the head), so we don’t need to speculate here.
Okay, now, how do you survive?
We all know the best way to ensure that….
*The film he’s talking about is Slime City Massacre, 2010.
Tyler Jones is a horror writer whose fiction has appeared in the Chuck Palahniuk-edited anthologyBurnt Tongues, the Literary Taxidermy anthology One Thing Was Certain, and online at Coffin Bell. His interviews/articles have appeared in Gallows Hill Magazine, and forthcoming in Dark Moon Digest. The film rights to his short story “F For Fake” sold to a Sundance Award-winning producer. He lives in Portland, Oregon.