For the most part, this column travels in semi-chronological order, chronicling the writers I’ve discovered the last few years who’ve had an impact on me as a writer. I will, however, occasionally stray from this chronological path, simply because, well, I feel like it. This is one of those cases, as we discuss writer Paul F. Olson.
Paul’s story is an interesting – and also sobering – tale about how unpredictable the publishing business is. My discovery of Paul’s work is a different tale entirely, a perfect example of why it can be so rewarding discovering the work of writers you’ve never heard of before.
Let’s set the wayback machine to roughly four years ago. I was listening to the most recent episode of Brian Keene’s podcast (which you should all be listening to) The Horror Show. On it, he was talking about important magazines in the horror genre’s recent past, most specifically The Horror Show edited by David B. Silva. Brian exhorted his listeners that if we hadn’t read The Horror Show’s output, we should run right out and search third-party markets for the Cemetery Dance collection, The Definitive Best of the Horror Show.
Generally, when Brian tells me to read something, I do so. So, at that very moment, I found a copy on Amazon and bought it. I didn’t get around to reading it until the following summer, but what a discovery it turned out to be. Featuring work of established masters (Robert McCammon, Dean Koontz, Ramsey Campbell), The Definitive Best of the Horror Show showcases writers from all across the spectrum. Really, this collection is worthy of a column itself, and it makes me wish I’d been into horror fiction in high school, and that I’d had access to magazines like The Horror Show.
I could go on about this collection, (really, even at its Amazon prices, it’s worth the purchase), but I’ll try and stick to the column at hand. What made the collection so amazing were the writers I’d never heard of before. See, even around four years ago I was still struggling with the preconceived notions that if I’d never heard of a writer before, or if they’d never made it “big,” that said something about their talent.
To be fair, when encountering a story written by an unknown, I never once thought: “I haven’t heard of this person; they must not be any good.” It went more like this: when I’d finished the story and was blown away, I asked in amazement, “Why haven’t I heard about this writer before???”
When I read “The Visitor” by Paul F. Olson, I was rocked onto my heels. I’d heard Paul’s name whispered around, but not very widely. And upon finishing “The Visitor” I again experienced that pleasant shock: “Why haven’t I heard about this writer?”
“The Visitor” is a straightforward tale about a innocuous, seemingly insignificant man who visits a small town every year. No one knows what draws him there, or what business he has. What they do realize, slowly enough, is that every year the visitor is responsible for some sort of accident which leaves someone hurt and, in some cases, dead. As the years pass, the “accidents” become worse. When the narrator —t the behest of his friends—confronts the visitor and demands that he leave and never come back, the visitor says with a chilling smile that he must come back, because he has “work to do.”
It’s a gem of a story, first of all, because of its pedestrian beginning. We begin the tale rooted in a very solid sense of reality, something which I think speculative stories don’t do well enough, often enough. As the story continues and these accidents get worse, the tension and unease slowly escalates. At the end, we’re never delivered anything outright supernatural. Just that this man seems to cause chaos wherever he goes. Even worse: this chaos is his goal, his purpose, because he has “work to do.”
Is He Death? Or some other nebulous force of Chaos? It doesn’t matter, because the chill has been delivered. He’s unstoppable, He’s imminent, and inevitable. He’ll return to this small town, every fall, because he has “work to do,” and nothing will get in His way.
The second story of Paul’s in The Definitive Best of the Horror Show was “They Came From the Suburbs,” which, again, left me shaking my head as to why I hadn’t heard more about Paul. F. Olson. In my opinion, it’s one of the finest “suburban weird” stories I’ve ever read.
In it, a bored but mostly content employee at a record store in a mall notices something odd: a breed of folks who wander aimlessly throughout the mall, buying nothing, simply walking around, staring at nothing, picking over items they have no intention of purchasing. When he asks a fellow employee about them, all he gets is the cryptic response: “Around here shopping’s important, even if they don’t have any money. Shopping is their life.”
The shoppers cannot be denied, or ignored. One night while closing, the narrator’s store is attacked when the shoppers, for no known reason, have stormed the mall upon its closing. They force the record and video store to open, they ransack the shelves…and pull the narrator to the front counter, against his will, to “ring them out.”
There is no explanation for the shoppers’ behavior, no zombie plague, and no reason why, really, our narrator should give in so easily to their demands. But there’s a surreal truth in this zombie-like species of mall walker, as anyone who’s worked in retail sales can attest to.
And also, the slide into weirdness is subtle, right up until the shoppers lay siege to the mall. This is an effect I can say has had a huge impact in my development as a writer. I love stories in which the demarcation line separating the normal and the “strange” is so faint that readers don’t even know they’ve crossed over until they’re right in the thick of it.
After reading both these stories, I made an assumption similar to the one I made regarding Alan Peter Ryan: this guy must have a ton of novels in his backlist. A trip to Amazon showed me just the opposite: I found two novels, the out-of-print novel Night Prophets and another which was self-published by Paul, Alexander’s Song.
Like with Alan Peter Ryan, I mentally shelved those two books for future reading. It wouldn’t be long, however, before I learned news which made me more excited about a release than I’d been in a very long time: Cemetery Dance’s Whispered Echoes, a collection of Paul F. Olson’s short fiction, which included a brand new work, the novella Bloodybones.
I finished Whispered Echoes in a matter of days. The stories ran the gamut from the subtle weirdness of “The Visitor,” “They Came from the Suburbs” and the particularly effective “Guides” to more straightforward supernatural tales, such as “From a Dreamless Sleep Awakened.” They were fun, entertaining stories. More importantly, it felt like they’d been written by someone who was having the time of his life. Reading these stories, I got the feeling that Paul loved writing them, he loved telling them, and was having a tremendous amount of fun doing so.
I think that’s very important for writers to remember: that on some level, this writing thing is supposed to be fun, or at least enjoyable. At the time, I really needed that reminder. It may sound contradictory considering my last installment, featuring Gary A. Braunbeck and quoting Akira Kurosawa and talking about how good horror refuses to “look away” from the awful things of the world, but having fun is important, too. That was important for me to remember; that even with all my reasons for writing horror and the “message” I want to deliver to readers…why am I doing it, if not to have fun?
The collection’s final piece is the novella Bloodybones, Olson’s first new fiction since his novel Alexander’s Song. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s simply one of the best stories I’ve ever read. It represents the best of both worlds, in my opinion. A truly engaging, enthralling ghost story with a central mystery that takes some unraveling, and also a highly emotional tale about a man trying to come to grips with the disappearance of his lover, and the mysteries she may have been hiding herself. There’s a reason this was nominated for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. Bloodybones is worth the price of Whispered Echoes alone. I was happy when Crystal Lake Publishing picked up the paperback and ebook editions after Cemetery Dance released the hardcover, because it deserved a wider audience. You should go out and get it now.
I’m conflicted about recommending Paul’s two novels, only for these reasons:
- The author’s preferred edition of The Night Prophets, (which I’ve read) is currently unavailable, even through third-party markets. Used copies of the paperback edition are available; however, it’s a tightly edited version of Paul’s preferred vision.
- Alexander’s Song is self-published by Paul, and though it IS ONE OF THE FINEST BOOKS I’VE EVER READ, I want it also to be picked up by a publisher (any of you listening?) because it deserves a bigger audience and platform, also.
Night Prophets was written and published in 1989, and though it reads in some ways as a very standard vampire tale, it’s remarkably relevant, given today’s popularity (and corruption) of megachurches and million-dollar ministries claiming to spread God’s Word. In a nutshell, Universal Ministries is a front for vampires, using its resources and influence—through the guise of goodwill, “transformative,” seeker-friendly Christian ministry—to spread evil. It’s a solid, classic, traditional vampire tale.
It represents, however, a stumbling block that many authors at the same time period ran into. As the horror boom of the eighties started showing signs of waning, some authors received pushback when they wanted to write something outside the horror genre, or something not easily categorized. Night Prophets is a solid, entertaining, fun novel—a lot like the early novels of Alan Peter Ryan’s. It was horror. It was easy to categorize. Easy to market.
What publishers wanted from Olson after Night Prophets was another clearly categorizable horror novel. Another vampire novel, if possible. What Olson had was Alexander’s Song. One of the finest novels I’ve ever read. Though his prose doesn’t have the same lyricism as Peter Straub’s (but to be honest, whose prose does?), it has the same layered complexities found in Straub’s Mystery trilogy. It’s a mystery/thriller/suspense/ghost story/lightly supernatural tale about a man desperate to understand more about the complex life and disappearance of his favorite author. It is, in short, an amazing story (publishers: start a bidding war now) about revenge, the price of fame, and how buried secrets must eventually see the light of day.
Sadly, publishers passed on Alexander’s Song, much like they passed on Ryan’s The Slave Tree. And just as sadly, like Ryan himself, Olson left writing fiction for a time and moved on to other things. Thankfully, however, he’s returned. With Whispered Echoes in ebook and paperback through Crystal Lake publishing, I hope more attention will be drawn to Alexander’s Song (Publishers? Hellooo?), and I hope we will see more fiction from Paul F. Olson. I also hope he continues to enjoy the hell out of writing those stories.
Fiction of Paul F. Olson:
- Whispered Echoes – Cemetery Dance Limited Hardcover Edition
- Whispered Echoes – paperback
- Whispered Echoes – ebook
- Night Prophets – used paperback
- Alexander’s Song – ebook
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance Magazine. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.