What Screams May Come: MEAN SPIRITED by Nick Roberts

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Mean Spirited by Nick Roberts
Crystal Lake Publishing (March 15, 2024)

cover of Mean SpiritedThe Synopsis:

An alcoholic teacher and father’s world spirals out of control when a former student is killed and he is left with her dog and the dark presence that follows it.

Matt Matheny teaches during the day, drinks at night, and barely hides his functioning alcoholism from his veterinarian ex-wife, Lucy, and his six-year-old son, Mikey. His world spirals out of control when a former student is killed, and he’s left with her dog, Conehead. But something isn’t right with Conehead. A dark presence follows him, and very soon, people around him die. Matt realizes the only way to protect his son is to sober up and work with Lucy to expose the dog’s mysterious past and face a secret so shocking — an evil so relentless — that it threatens to unleash hell on an entire town.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: Nick, I think it’s safe to say that any book which involves addiction of any sort is going to hit some personal chords with many readers, whether by firsthand experience or as an outsider looking in on someone who has struggled. If done right, that personal chord will vibrate with painful recollections and hold far more meaning than it would have had the main character not been motivated and changed to some degree by the suffering of his own addictions, a topic you also explored with your award-winning debut novel, Anathema.

I understand this topic is especially personal to you as someone who has stared his own addiction demons in the face and, thankfully, found a way to kick it in the teeth and escape its terrible possession of you. What was the experience like for you tapping into something so personal in order to ensure this vital aspect of the story was done as realistically and meaningfully as possible? 

NICK ROBERTS: Addiction is a ghost that haunts many of my stories. I know that comes from my own lived experience with substance use disorder. From sixth grade until age 25, I sank deeper and deeper into an existence I wish upon no one. It started with a botched ingrown toenail surgery by a podiatrist with Alzheimer’s disease. He prescribed way more narcotic painkillers than any kid should take. My mom gave them to me as prescribed, but the problem was that I already had these underlying mental issues that I didn’t know how to deal with. Even though I had a great upbringing, played sports, and had some great friends, there was always this black cloud of anxiety and depression looming over me. This constant voice kept saying, “You’re stupid. You’re ugly. You’re not good enough. You’ll fail.” Well, as soon as I popped that first hydrocodone, the physical and mental pain went away. I felt like how I thought everyone else felt.

From that point on, my brain stored that memory as a successful method for dealing with my irritability, restlessness, and all-around discontentment. It would say, “Hey, did you have a bad day? Getting high will make you feel better. Did you have a good day? Guess what? Getting high will make you feel even better!” This is why I don’t believe in triggers. I always say that oxygen was my biggest trigger; whenever I breathed that shit, I wanted to get high.

After run-ins with the law and several overdoses, I ended up going to a long-term residential treatment facility at age 25 and had to learn how to live life on life’s terms. What worked for me might not work for everyone else, but I do know there is value in helping others find recovery. This is why I advocate for people still out there struggling and openly share my story.

Now, to finally get to your question, I deliberately set out to write a story with a protagonist in recovery whose central character arc wasn’t “Will he or she stay sober or not?” I felt like that was the only representation of people in recovery I saw in movies or TV at the time. My character was going to have a rocky past, but she worked her ass off to overcome it. Once she’s forced to confront absolute evil, there’s never a temptation to relapse. The whole point of that story is that people who have a solid foundation in recovery can do everything “normal” people can, except successfully use drugs and alcohol. As dark as the themes in Anathema are and as bleak as some say the ending is, I choose to see the little bit of light in the darkness and focus on that. 

Do you find writing what you know from the heart, no matter how painful it may be, to have offered any kind of cathartic benefits to you, perhaps even to your readers based on feedback they’ve provided? I’m assuming you don’t make yourself actually suffer as much as your characters do for the sake of entertaining us, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

Readers have definitely connected with me and told me how my books that deal with these themes have either helped them with their issues or helped them deal with a loved one’s addiction. There can be a cathartic element to writing no matter what the content. The very practice of writing as a form of escapism is cathartic. For an hour-long writing session, I get to create worlds and play God. In this moment, I am in total control, the opposite of my existence in the real world. I do find that in tackling heavier subject matter, it sometimes yields greater rewards.

For example, I wrote a short story called “Devil in the Snow” for this anthology called Vampires. I had no desire to write a story about vampires. I can count three or four vampire books that I love; however, I decided to use this as a way to challenge myself. When I was struggling in my teenage years, my parents sent me to stay with my brother at an Air Force base in Alaska to see if a geographical change would suffice. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Anyway, I decided to use this real-life experience as the setup for “Devil in the Snow.” My brother had his own addiction struggles. He had some great periods of sobriety but ended up passing away from an accidental overdose in February 2023. When I started writing this story of two brothers shortly after my own brother’s death, I discovered that I got to revisit the best version of him during one of the high points in his life. There are certain scenes in that story where the characters are talking, and as I wrote that dialogue, I felt like I was in the same room with him again. Being able to relive that memory was bittersweet when the story ended. 

Not only is your protagonist, Matt Matheny, a functioning alcoholic, but he’s also a teacher with an ex-wife and a young child and is clearly not handling the balancing act of his life all that well. As far as you’re concerned, how important is it to insert these very real human elements into a novel of supernatural terror, not only in Mean Spirited, but in other stories in general involving everyday people who find themselves in conflict with the supernatural?

If I can’t ground the supernatural elements of my stories, then the readers are less likely to suspend disbelief and become engrossed in the world. If they’re not firmly embedded in the story, they’re not going to get scared, and that’s always my primary goal. My brand of horror is meant to creep people out. I want my stories to linger long after you close the book. If I can do what books and movies like The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, and The Blair Witch Project did to me — make me question every sound in the dark and temporarily believe that monsters are real — for someone else, then I’ll consider that a success. The best way for me to do that is through the characters. If you don’t care about the characters in one way or another, the scenes when they’re in peril will be boring. Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of room for every sub-genre of horror. Sometimes I just want to kick back and watch Leatherface go ham on a bunch of archetypical teens. 

In the synopsis, it’s suggested that Mean Spirited isn’t just for the hard-core genre fans, but also for those who may not turn to horror as their focus of reading. Now that I have you cornered, what makes this story in particular one which non-horror folks are bound to enjoy even if they’ve not read horror before?

That’s a marketing ploy. Plain and simple. You gonna let me out of the corner now? Honestly though, this answer ties back to my previous one. I put characters and story first and then crank up the scary. I also work hard to end a chapter on a beat where the reader just has to jump to the next page to see how it turns out. This type of pacing has universal appeal that’s not exclusive to the horror genre. 

By contrast to that last question, horror seems to be enjoying one hell of a resurgence of late over the past handful of years. Assuming the secret isn’t in the spiked punch bowl, I can only assume it’s because readers of other genres have, for one reason or another, made the leap over to the dark side and are finding they like it a lot. As someone who has stuck around this thing of ours for a while and has no doubt seen some of its ups and downs, what do you attribute to this uptick in horror popularity too? Bonus points for anything you can suggest we do to keep it going until the wheels fall off.

Well, horror is certainly one of the few genres still getting theatrical runs alongside superhero movies and other tentpole franchises. I attribute that to the roller-coaster nature of it in conjunction with the ability to turn a profit with minimal risk. Low-budget horror and even micro-budget horror benefits from having “the scare” be the star of the show. You don’t have to have a huge budget to induce fear. Blumhouse, Atomic Monster, Monkeypaw Productions, and A24 have proven that time and time again.

That’s the movie world, though. I don’t see the same trend in the literary scene. If you look at the number of reviews of fantasy, mystery/thrillers, and romance novels and compare them to horror, it’s quite a wake-up call. Book reviewers on TikTok and Instagram who champion the genre are certainly the torchbearers right now. An indie horror novel can go viral based on the right person posting the right type of review at the right time of day. I’ll use Aron Beauregard’s recent book Playground as an example. Yes, it has an eye-catching cover and some shocking scenes, but there are thousands of books that have pushed the envelope way further. Why did Playground take off? It started with people reading it, getting to one scene in particular, and making a big deal about it on TikTok. This morphed into a viral dare to read the scene, and before you knew it, readers were either repulsed and making videos about their repulsion, or they were blown away by the book and made videos championing it. Either way, it was everywhere for a while.

To address your last point of how we keep the pendulum of horror swinging in our direction, we get more horror books in the hands of viral reviewers, and then we get big name directors to take a chance on adapting them. Remember, Stephen King credits Brian De Palma adapting Carrie for his astronomical rise, and we all know we wouldn’t be here without the King. 

I also feel like I would be remiss to not mention what, for many, may be the proverbial elephant in the room. The back of the book tells us there is a dog in this book. It tells us dark things follow it. What it doesn’t tell us is how that malevolent relationship might work out for the dog. For those who might be hesitant to pick up the book for fear of what horrors might befall the dog, what do you say to them to get them on board and not miss out on everything else Mean Spirited has to offer them?

Mean Spirited was written as a response to reactions I received after having dog characters in two of my previous novels. The dogs in Anathema and The Exorcist’s House meet different fates. I quickly discovered that there’s a large group of people who can’t read anything where a dog is even in peril. I’ve read so many comments like “Kill the family and kids, but you better leave the dog alone!” This blows my mind. There are people who can giggle their way through gruesome child deaths in Playground, and then berate an author for depicting a fictional dog’s demise.

Here’s my rule of thumb on the subject: don’t take scenes out of context. If someone asks me, “Does the dog die?” I’m going to politely tell them that I won’t spoil my own book, but there are plenty of people he or she can privately message and get a response. I’m not a shock value guy (though I don’t look down on that at all); it’s just not my style. Everything I write is intentional and in service to narrative authenticity. No matter what the taboo subject, it’s never the art that holds the power. Art is subjective. If one has a trigger, then it is that person’s choice to overcome it and become empowered or remain victimized and enslaved to it. My name on the cover of my books is the closest thing you’ll get to a trigger warning from me, but like Jack extending his hand to Rose in Titanic, I’m asking, “Do you trust me?”

And what is it you hope folks will be most impacted by as they read through the hell Matt Matheny is forced to endure?

Matt’s journey in the book will hopefully subvert expectations and leave my readers satisfied. There’s a lot he has to deal with in this tale: evil entities, alcoholism, an ex-wife he can’t get over and her new boyfriend, and the mysterious death of one of his former students that kicks off the story. In dealing with all this chaos, I hope folks will be most impacted by the complexity of his relationship with his ex-wife and their son.

Speaking of endurance, I want to take a moment to talk about your own methodology for staying the course of what I can only imagine was your own emotional turmoil throughout the writing process. When it comes to writing the tougher stuff, the stuff involving bad endings for children, for animals, and broken families, does this kind of story trope cause you to alter your typical writing process in any way, such as taking more breaks, writing faster to get though it sooner, or any other such alterations as you put down the first draft?

Here’s my writing process. I sit down and try to crank out an average of 1,000 words per day. I don’t plot or outline, so when I’m writing a scene, I’m experiencing it for the first time, just as my readers will. If I can make the hairs on my arm stand on end, then I know I’m onto something. It’s weird. There’s a movie playing in my mind, and I peck away at the keyboard, dictating it. I think that’s why so many readers have described my novels as being very cinematic. I’m big on sensory language and imagery because I see the story; I don’t hear it. Admittedly, my prose could benefit from a little more Faulkner and less Hemingway (no, I’m not comparing myself to Ernest Hemingway, just his linguistic minimalism). I’ll never be David Foster Wallace or Cormac McCarthy, but I guarantee that I’ll never bore you.

It’s kinda funny that it feels I’ve been hearing about you and your craft for a very long time, even though your first novel came out just over a few years ago. Considering the outstanding accolades you’ve earned along the way, I think it’s safe to say we will be seeing much more of your work as long as you keep writing.  I have to wonder; do you have any trunk stories that taught you what you needed to know to start getting published that you’ve considered going back to and perhaps polishing it up for future publication?

photo of author Nick Roberts
Nick Roberts

I don’t have anything tucked away, unfortunately. The first time I sat down to seriously write something was a short story called “The Deal” that ended up getting published in The Blue Mountain Review. Once I had that credit, it gave me the confidence to take a stab at a novel. My problem is that there aren’t enough hours in the day. I know what my next three books are going to be; I just need to make the time to write them. I’m a teacher by day and a writer by night (except during the summers when I can really be productive). Throw a wife and three kids in the mix, and it becomes quite the balancing act.  

After attending the Scares That Care Author Con 2 last year in Virginia, I was amazed to meet so many local authors at the con. And I’ve since learned of even more talented West Virginian authors. What is it in the water that you think breeds so much talent all in one place? Is there some sort of cult or sacrificial ritual going on over there that we should know about? And obviously, your secret is safe with me and anyone else who happens to be reading this interview, so feel free to use this as your safe space to unburden any secrets you’ve felt inclined to keep bottled up all this time.

Scares That Care in Williamsburg, Virginia is a horror writer’s paradise. I wasn’t a vendor there last year, but I drove up from South Carolina on Saturday to make my way around the room. It was the first convention I’d ever been to, and it was so amazing to meet all these amazing authors who I’d been engaging with online. I’ll never forget stumbling in after a four-hour drive and running straight into James Aquilone and awkwardly talking his ear off as I pounded energy drinks. I bought a shit ton of books and ended up going out for Thai food with John Durgin, Aron Beauregard, Daniel Volpe, and others. But yeah, there are some talented artists that come out of West Virginia. There’s the scenic beauty of the state, but there’s also this underlying darkness in those blood-stained hills. Appalachia has a rich tradition of passing down ghost stories, and most of the people are the nicest, hardest-working individuals you’ll ever meet. It’s not all Wrong Turn and hillbillies runnin’ amuck ‘round these here parts. As for ritualistic sacrifice, feeding the Mothman a pepperoni roll is a surefire way to get a best-seller banner on Amazon. 

On a more serious note, I really enjoyed browsing your author website. Not only is it a great one-stop destination to discover and purchase your books and other publications containing your short stories, it seems like a great example of what authors today need to do in order to make the most out of their fan base on top of making it easier to read their work. What advice would you give to writers starting out and are wondering if they need a website complete with merchandise and any info their readers might wish to know about them but are afraid to ask to make sure the site helps go towards their overall success in this business?

One of my friends from pre-school who is doing big things in the world and possesses great business acumen advised me to form an LLC, build a website, share my story, and offer online commerce. As much as I know that going into detail about my story of recovery could inspire someone, I also know that it could make people root for me. People love a comeback story and genuinely want to see those who struggle get back on their feet. So, business-wise, investing in a website that offers all that functionality and taking the time to learn the basics and build it is essential. Just think about what you like about websites and what turns you off and go from there. Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve updated anything on my site other than product quantities, that I need to make time to give it a bit of a facelift. 

As your writing life builds more momentum, do you see yourself returning to what got you writing in the first place and putting some focus back to screenwriting or maybe even children’s stories, whether they be dark or more YA geared?

I am a screenwriter at heart. Skipping school in 1995 and renting a VHS of Pulp Fiction changed my life. It showed me the artistry of both written and visual language. If someone wanted me to adapt my novels into screenplays, I don’t know how that would go, but I’d certainly be interested in telling new stories and bringing them to the big screen.

It’s funny you asked about books for kids. The other day, I’d actually considered starting something tonally akin to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark more so than Goosebumps. Kids need to be scared. It’s healthy and prepares them for a scary world in a safe and entertaining way. Now that my seven-year-old daughter is showing interest in writing and illustrating, there might be some sort of collaboration coming up.

And finally, Nick, what are you most ecstatic about as you look ahead to the rest of 2024 and beyond?

I can’t wait to see how people respond to Mean Spirited. It’s not in the same universe as Anathema and The Exorcist’s House, and it started out as this little experiment where I just wanted to write a creepy prologue that felt like The Strangers meets Stolen Tongues. It snowballed into the whole dog thing and just became its own beast.

I’ll be so happy when I finish The Exorcist’s House: Genesis next month. That comes out in September of this year. It’s more epic in scope and structurally different than its predecessor, so it’ll be interesting to see if the diehard fans of the first one go along with this ride.

I’ve also been writing a serialized novella on Patreon called Dead End Tunnel. I plan to self-publish and release that in June, and I’m excited/intimidated at the whole idea of self-publishing.

At the end of May, I’ll start writing Anathema: Legacy. Tantor Media has acquired the audiobook rights for that, and I will release that myself, as well. If all goes according to plan, it’ll come out at the beginning of 2025.

Lastly, I just bought an original piece of art from one of my favorite artists, Dusty Ray, to use as the cover for what will be my darkest book yet, My Corpse Has a Heartbeat. It’ll be my American Psycho, but I don’t know what method of publication I’ll choose for that one. 

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