What Screams May Come: Jeff Strand’s IT WATCHES IN THE DARK (EEK!)

banner What Screams May Come by Rick Hipson

It Watches in the Dark (Eek!) by Jeff Strand
Sourcebooks (April 2, 2024)

The synopsis:

cover of It Watches in the Dark (Eek!)“She glanced over her shoulder. Had the scarecrow moved? It stood there, smile stitched on its face, but now it felt like a smirk.”

Prepare to be scared silly in this creepy middle-grade novel! Twins seek medical help in a remote village after their father is in a canoeing accident…only to discover the scarecrow that stands watch in town may have a stronger hold over the residents than expected. Perfect for fans of R.L. Stine, Dan Poblocki, and Mary Downing Hahn.

Twins Oliver and Trisha love going on adventures with their dad. Canoeing and camping on the Champion River will be their best trip yet! But when they capsize in rapids, their father is knocked unconscious. Alone and without cell phone reception, their only choice is to continue down river for help.

Hours of paddling brings them to an old dock, and a narrow path leads them to a small village. The townspeople are kind and helpful, but strangely focused on the giant scarecrow in the village square. “He watches over us,” the twins are told in whispers. “He keeps us safe.”

An old woman warns the twins not to spend the night in the village. Not if they ever want to leave. But with the sun soon to set and their father not well enough to be moved, how can they escape? More importantly, can they survive?

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: Jeff, I would say welcome back to the playground, but that might come off as a bit creepy, so instead I’ll go with, it feels like it’s been a few books since you put out anything for your Young Adult (YA) audience. Why now? Why this story?

JEFF STRAND: I’d done five YA comedy novels for Sourcebooks, and my editor asked if I wanted to age it down a bit (to middle grade) and write some horror novels for them. I said, “Of course!” because that’s what you say in these situations. One of the sub-genres I’d never tackled is folk horror, so I wrote up a pitch for Scarecrow Square, which after the marketing people did their thing became It Watches in the Dark. 

I noticed you have also a book titled Nightmare In The Backyard (Eek!) which is set to be released in early August. Is that title a coincidence, or does all this Eeking(!) mean we can expect a middle grade series of Eeks(!)?

Yes, but it’s like Goosebumps, where the individual books aren’t connected. So Nightmare in the Backyard (my contribution to Lovecraftian horror) is Eek! #2, but it’s unrelated to It Watches in the Dark. Hopefully Eek! conveys horror with a strong sense of fun! Right now, as I’m answering these questions, I don’t know what Eek! #3 will be about, but I’ll be hard at work on it by the time this interview is published.

I also noticed that rather than go the usual of late route and self-publishing this series, you’ll be releasing your Eek! Books through Sourcebooks Young Readers. How has it been for you to put the meat of the marketing on someone else’s shoulders again?

I’m a big fan of self-publishing, but I’d never want to do it for one of my books for younger audiences. Sourcebooks gets the books into schools, libraries, bookstores, Walmart, and so on, which is really important when you’re marketing to kids, and extremely difficult to do with a self-published title. (And there’s definitely a thrill when I walk into a Barnes & Noble and say, “Oh, look, there I am on the shelf!”) My previous books for kids have also been Junior Library Guild picks, been reviewed by School Library Journal, and been in the Scholastic Book Club, none of which are likely to have happened if I’d self-published them. So as much as I love doing it myself, Sourcebooks brings too much to the table for me to ever consider self-publishing a book for kids.

When you get a fantastic deal like you have with your Eek! series, how do you factor the added workload into other projects you were likely working on when, in this case, you got the call from Sourcebooks? I mean, do you put the brakes on everything creative BUT this one, or simply pencil it in like any other additional task?

Though I wouldn’t say that these books had generous deadlines, they were reasonable deadlines. They were a high priority and I couldn’t be a slacker, but I didn’t have to drop everything else I was working on and leap right into them. 

Did Sourcebooks also handle the covers for this series? They’re stunning!

Yes, they hired David Seidman to do the covers. Hopefully he’ll keep doing them for as long as the series lasts!

Getting back to It Watches, you have mentioned before the big difference between your adult-oriented work compared with your stuff for kids, is there tends to be much less cursing and graphic violence for your younger audience. Still, this one starts with a pretty mature theme in that it involves twins who are forced into a spot where they must rescue their father after he suffers a canoeing accident. Is there any extra care you need to take to make the struggles of your characters relatable while still pushing young readers to be challenged by the content while still enjoying a fun experience in your creative world?

Yeah, no cursing or sex. (Technically, you can have lots of cursing and sex in contemporary YA, but my books never did.) The Eek! series is jam-packed with action, suspense, and horror, and I think fans of my adult horror novels will enjoy these, too. My editor asked for a slight toning-down of some of the more sinister elements in It Watches in the Dark, but the ending is still completely bonkers. Obviously, the tone of these books is “fun creepy”—I’m not trying to be Jack Ketchum here!—but I don’t think of them as “Jeff Strand Lite.” You can still tell I wrote ‘em!

I imagine writing to a younger audience frees you up even more than usual with the type and amount of humor you can let loose with. Do you feel there’s any truth to that?

photo of author Jeff Strand
Jeff Strand

Not in my case. It was still important that the humor be appropriately placed. It Watches in the Dark is about two siblings whose father is badly injured and who are trying to be polite and respectful to the weird residents of this village, so they aren’t going to be speaking in zany one-liners. There’s certainly a dark sense of humor to the book, but it’s not a horror/comedy. Meanwhile, Nightmare in the Backyard is about friends having a sleepover, and there was much more opportunity for the characters to be funny. So it’s all based on what works for the story, not the target audience. 

Speaking of frights, the synopsis on the back of the book tells us our main source of fear comes from an animated scarecrow. What is it about these usually unanimated farmyard sentinels that never fails to be so effective when dishing up the spooky vibes?

They’re scary-looking, and their whole reason for existing is to be scary-looking. Clowns are supposed to be funny, and bears and wolves are just following their nature, but scarecrows are there to scare. It’s right there in the name!

To make the scarecrow extra creepy and push the boundaries of its motivations and goals, how does one get inside the mind of a being which has only straw for brains?

The scarecrow doesn’t speak out loud, but it gets into your thoughts. I was not trying to create a sympathetic, three-dimensional, multi-layered character with an elaborate backstory — it’s very, very evil. I’d guess that a real-life scarecrow, if it could think, spends its days being completely bored out of its mind, so I went with “evil” instead.

Obviously, you needn’t have spent a night alone in a small village with an overbearing scarecrow in order to have generated a believable tale about such a thing, but do you have any terrifying or just plain bizarre encounters you can share about any experiences you may have had in the great outdoors or within a small town?

I went to a Bigfoot museum in southern Florida, and if Bigfoot himself had smashed through the wall and started tearing people’s limbs off it wouldn’t have been as surreal as just talking to the owner. More recently, I went on a Bigfoot expedition with a guide who looked like Sid Haig, and though we survived, my friend and I agreed that we have permanently forfeited the right to criticize characters in horror movies for their poor decisions. My Bigfoot novel, Dweller, came out in 2010, so maybe it’s time to revisit that territory…

I can’t imagine how you would pull that off considering the way you wrapped up Dweller. Do we get to meet Owen’s family, or do you have something else in mind you probably aren’t ready to tell us, assuming there’s anything to tell at all?

I just meant another Bigfoot book, not Dweller II. That said, I do have the concept for a novel called Owen, which would be a companion piece to Dweller. It’s basically those sixty years from Owen’s point of view, and you discover that he was having lots of adventures that Toby was never even aware of. The chances that I’ll actually write it are fairly low, but we’ll see…

I feel it’s been a few months since you’ve announced any new exciting book releases until this one. Does this mean you’ve been spending more time than you care to elaborate on in your mad lab of questionable experiments, or can we expect a few more titles to look forward to by the end of this year?

I’m answering these questions several weeks before the interview actually goes live, which is why you don’t know that my novel Creep Out was just published! It’s my take on the “possessed evil ventriloquist dummy” genre. (Many of my ideas come from thinking, “Okay, what horror trope haven’t I tackled yet, and how can I put my own spin on it?”) Expect a lot of new reading material from me this year.  

And as we look down the road that is 2024, what are you most looking forward to seeing accomplished or are otherwise excited about?

I’m working on a novel called Not a Thing, which isn’t horror, but is shaping up to be the book I’m the most proud of. It’s pretty ambitious, and there’s a lot of work left to determine if I actually pulled it off. I’ve got several behind-the-scenes projects whose fate is mostly out of my control, all of which will make people go “Whoa!!!” if they happen. 

I would be remiss to end our chat without saying congrats on your new online store. What can you tell us about how that all came together, what we can expect from it, and the best ways to stalk you throughout the year and beyond?

It’s been on my to-do list for quite a while, and I finally checked it off. I get semi-regular requests for signed copies, and though the best way to get your book signed is simply to come up to me at a horror convention and thrust a pen at me, now I’ve got a one-stop shopping place for those people who want signed books without the inconvenience of getting too close to me. 

Any final words to make us go Eek!?

I’m standing right behind you!!!

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