Review: Southern Fried & Horrified by Ronald Kelly

Southern Fried & HorrifiedSouthern Fried & Horrified by Ronald Kelly
Stygian Sky Media (September 2022)
245 pages; $70 limited edition hardcover; $15.95 paperback
Reviewed by Blu Gilliand

Veteran horror author Ronald Kelly has a new book out, and — as expected — it’s chock full of unusual and horrific elements like rats scratching in bedroom walls, and women with second sight having troublesome visions, and eerie encounters with sketchy clowns.

Things is, this book is nonfiction.

Southern Fried & Horrified is part memoir, part writer’s guide, and all good. Told in Kelly’s laid-back Southern style, it’s a fascinating journey through the ups-and-downs of Kelly’s decades-long career in the horror fiction trenches.

Kelly goes deep into his past to discuss his influences, recalling with fondness the monster movies, comic books, and tall tales told by relatives that stoked the fires of his vivid imagination.  Of these chapters tracing his early life, my favorite is “The Last Halloween,” a bittersweet recounting of his last night as a trick-or-treating youngster. There’s excitement in the air as young Ronald picks out his costume and plans the night with his buddies, but there’s an overwhelming sense of sadness, too; not just for him, but for the way children today are unable to enjoy the kind of care-free night he was able to enjoy back in 1972.

Some of the more compelling chapters describe the times when Ronald struggled with his writing career. The first phase, what he calls his “angry young man” phase, covers his earliest years, fresh out of high school, when he couldn’t sell a story to save his life. He toiled away in a series of manual labor jobs, but despite the mountain of rejections, he never gave up. That’s a recurring theme throughout his career, and perhaps the best lesson to come out of a book full of them: never give up.

Ronald’s persistence eventually pays off and he becomes a regular member of the Zebra roster. Zebra was a paperback house that churned out horror novels by the fistful back in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and Ronald’s work not only fit in, but elevated the line above the typical dime-a-dozen scares. Ronald gives a fascinating book-by-book account of his time with Zebra, using his novels to not only chart his career at that time, but the wildly fluctuating state of horror fiction as a whole.

The story of Zebra’s fall, and Ronald’s subsequent hiatus from writing, is told with brutal honesty and sadness. He takes an unflinching look at his state of mind in the years he spent away from writing: the despair, hurt, dejection and self-doubt that plagued him in the aftermath.

While folks were out there, still finding my battered paperbacks in used bookstores and wondering what had become of me, I was gasping for air in the darkness, prematurely buried by my own foolish hand.

If you’ve been following horror fiction at all, then you know this story doesn’t end on a downer. You know that Ronald Kelly is in a new phase of his career, one in which he’s seized control of his back catalog and is churning out works for fans old and new.  If you’ve read his fiction, you already know what a smooth, engaging storyteller he is — rest assured that same style is at work here.

In addition to his own personal story, Ronald shares a number of writing tips for those whose ambitions mirror his own. These come in the form of short chapters of their own, in addition to a series of essays included at the end of the book.

All in all, whether you’re a reader or a writer or both, Southern Fried & Horrified is worthy of standing alongside Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing and Stephen King’s On Writing as books that are equally entertaining and educational. Highly recommended.

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