What Screams May Come: Richard Farren Barber’s ONE OF THE DEAD

banner What Screams May Come by Rick Hipson

One Of The Dead by Richard Farren Barber
Crystal Lake Entertainment (March 18th, 2024)

The Synopsis

cover of One of the DeadTerror doesn’t stumble and moan—it walks silently among us, cloaked in the guise of the overlooked. 

Nick, burdened with the rare ability to see these dead predators for what they truly are, faces a nightmare when his girlfriend, Abby, becomes ensnared by their sinister intent.

These are not your typical undead. They blend in, their appearances mirroring the forgotten faces of society, making their predatory nature all the more chilling. A touch is all it takes for them to latch onto their prey, draining life in a way that leaves the body walking but the spirit doomed.

As Abby becomes the focus of such a being’s obsession, Nick is drawn into a desperate struggle not just for her life, but for her very soul. Their fight for survival takes them from the deceptive safety of city streets to the foreboding quiet of a cemetery, where the boundary between the living and those claimed by the shadowy grasp of the dead becomes perilously thin.

One of The Dead weaves a tale not of a zombie apocalypse, but of a quiet invasion, a creeping horror that targets the heart. It’s a story of love tested by unfathomable forces, of a battle against an enemy that never rests, never forgives, and never ceases its pursuit until you become one of its own.

One of the Dead is a novella of quiet horror for fans of Paul Tremblay and Thomas Olde Heuvelt, which explores the horror in society.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)  

CEMETERY DANCE: Richard, I have to admit, just when I thought we had seen everything there was to see about zombies, your tale promises to give us zombies that we may be unprepared for. Without giving too much away, of course, what can you tell us about the design of your personal brand of undead?

RICHARD FARREN BARBER: Thanks, Rick. I’m delighted you thought it was different. I enjoy a good zombie story as much as the next reader, but I often worry that the big names in horror — zombies and vampires and ghosts (oh my!) have a tendency to be over-used, so I was interested in trying to do something a little off-piste.

The undead in One of the Dead are aware, individual, motivated. They still need to feed on the living in order to sustain themselves, but it’s a more nuanced diet. There are no raw brains on the menu.

Oh, and they walk among us without us noticing. Selecting their prey. 

I’m a sucker for stories in which the protagonist is the only one who sees things for how they are while everyone else just thinks the protagonist is nuts, or otherwise out of touch with reality. Here, not only is Nick the only one who can see the undead for what they really are, it’s his girlfriend who has a target on her back. What do you feel this dynamic brings to the table if both of them knew exactly what was going on while being in equal levels of peril?

I think one of the challenges horror writers face in the modern age is how to make their protagonists truly vulnerable. We’re all just a mobile phone away from calling friends or the police for help. You can look to mitigate that by physically isolating them — and novels like Michelle Paver’s Thin Air, Christopher Golden’s Ararat or Adam Nevill’s The Ritual are brilliant examples of how to do that — but what I was really interested in was how I could make a character feel isolated while standing in the middle of a busy city center. We haven’t all found ourselves up a mountain or in a Scandinavian forest, but we’re used to being in busy spaces.

I also really like the tension which exists when you know something but the people around you cannot, or will not, believe you. I think it takes us back to the frustration and vulnerability we experience as children when adults have the power.

So with One of the Dead I was really interested in isolating Nick and forcing him into a situation where he had to try and persuade someone else of his version of reality. 

Not only is this a story with plenty of guts and fear to go around, but it’s also one of immeasurable heart as your main characters Nick and Abby are forced to dig deep into their respective souls and work together to survive hell on Earth? Did their dynamics come before or after your apocalyptic vision for this story? Also, how important was it for you and the story that you blended such opposing forces for One Of The Dead?

The relationship developed as the story progressed. I’d love to claim it was intentional and mapped out in advance, and maybe that was one of the reasons why it took so many re-writes for me to feel happy with the story. I am definitely in the pantser-set when it comes to writing, so the first draft is usually a journey for me. I started off knowing I wanted Nick to have to try and convince Abby of his view of the world. I also really like the tension that it is more nuanced than one person is good and one is evil, or one person is right and one person is wrong.

What, for you, is it about a doom which crawls ever so slowly forward that terrifies you even more than a doom which strikes fast and hard and all at once?

I think it’s the sense of vulnerability and powerlessness. When you’re in the middle of something, you respond to it instinctively. Our primal-selves come to the fore and we react to whatever is in front of us. In that moment it’s all about reflex. At that level the horror is physical. I really like the slow dread which comes from being able to see what is going to happen and knowing you can’t do anything about it. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I find ghosts stories so appealing, because they tend to have an atmosphere of creeping terror culminating in a finale. As a reader, that experience of the damned inevitability of it all touches me on a deeper level than someone having their head chopped off or being disemboweled. Although, let’s not get too deep about this — I’m sure everyone winced at the hobbling scene in Misery!

When tackling such a saturated horror trope as zombies, did you have any rules, guidelines or otherwise that kept you on point as to how your version would operate as far as how they would and wouldn’t act?

I should have! The administrator in me screams that I ought to have planned out the world-rules in advance, but maybe my approach in my writing is a sub-conscious antidote to my day job. I had a guiding principle that I wanted to keep a good distance from the established tropes of zombies. I did have to spend some time working through the rules after I’d finished, and in the edit I had to tidy up inconsistencies in how the dead behaved.

It seems that Nick and Abby aren’t just stumbling through the apocalypse trying to survive any way they can in the same vein as, say, those of The Walking Dead. You actually gave them a destination to strive for much like in The Stand. Without giving away any spoilers as to when they discover their destination, how important was it for you to give them one, and what was your reasoning for doing so?

I think “just trying to survive” is a useful approach when you’re working on a series and you need to keep the gate open for the next installment, but One of the Dead always had a definite end-point in mind. For me, to drive the story forward, I needed something for Nick and Abby to aim for in order to motivate them. It’s effectively the ticking clock. I worried that without it there would be no real tension in the story.

I love how in your story, all it takes to fall victim to your undead invasion is simply being touched by them. I find this simplicity and ease of infection absolutely chilling, especially while memories of our Covid days are still very much fresh. How much does real life atrocities and fears informed your work? 

Thank you for that! For One of the Dead I wanted something which was simple and discreet — in keeping with the conceit that the dead were all around us but unseen. It’s interesting, because One of the Dead was written pre-Covid, but it does feel like it resonates with our experience of the pandemic. I did have one novella which was scheduled for publication in 2020 but, after discussions with the publisher, we pulled because it dealt with death in nursing homes, and given what was happening in the UK at that time it felt distasteful. Personally I tend to shy away from using real-life atrocities as a seed for ideas; mainly because I’m very aware that we are talking about real people going through terrible events.

In terms of real-life atrocities and fears, I think we absorb everything around us and we are influenced consciously and subconsciously. Maybe it’s the result of an overactive imagination, but I manage to see danger everywhere! I was recently on holiday in Northumberland and my wife and I took a walk along the cliffs with the dog we were looking after. Throughout the walk I was suppressing images of the dog jumping over the side, pulling my wife after him. The more extreme of my neuroses don’t make it into fiction, because readers would just swat them away as completely unrealistic. But… I do think the things which touch me on an emotional level are going to find a way into my fiction on a conscious level. It’s mainly the things which frighten me that also interest me, but I suspect there’s an awful lot more going on under the hood on a sub-conscious level.

When I first saw the cover of your book, I was, of course, immediately drawn to the wonderful contrast of the girl in the bright yellow dress set against the grey of the graveyard. I couldn’t help but wonder how the cover might relate to the story within, especially as to the purpose of having this girl stand out so much from her surroundings. What can you tell us about any connective tissue which may be going on here?

Can we first take a moment to appreciate that cover? I love it. Joanna Halerz is an amazing artist and she did an incredible job with the brief.

The girl is a minor character in One of the Dead; Jane Hamilton. I say minor, although she is the catalyst for Nick’s intervention. With the cover, I was worried it would be too close to the classic image of Georgie Denbrough in his yellow raincoat. I’ll be honest — on the surface the idea was just the contrast between the bright yellow and the grey headstones, I thought it would make a striking image and in Joanna’s hands I was right. But, it also speaks to the idea of the Dead becoming more alive as they feed, and then fading as the effect of their feeding begins to fade. It’s also a reflection on the idea within the book that the Dead are invisible to all of us — except to Nick who sees them everywhere and focuses upon them.

To switch gears for a bit, when considering how you’ve got two novels and eight novellas along with a couple of chapbooks (not to mention several short stories) is it safe to assume you’re of the camp who feels great horror is best told in the confined spaced provided with a novella length more so than a novel?

photo of author Richard Farren Barber
Richard Farren Barber

Well…. Let me give you my stats! I’ve written 272 short stories and had 84 published. 10 novelettes and had 2 published. 13 novellas and had 8 published. 18 novels and had two published.

This does reveal a particular Achille’s heel of mine. I love writing first drafts. Editing feels like hard work. I also think as the piece of fiction grows longer more my approach of “let’s start this sucker off and see where it goes” becomes a liability.  There are other reasons (I wrote my first 7 novels longhand, and I haven’t dedicated the time to typing them up, mainly because a lot of them are really bad!) but it seems a novella hits something of a sweet spot.

Looking at my own successes, I think it’s also partly driven by the independent press embracing and enthusiastically supporting novellas in the genre.

But to face your question head-on, I do think different genres suit different story lengths. It’s rare to see a great short story in crime because you don’t have the space to set up motivation, suspects, clues, etc. But for me, in the short form, horror is the most powerful genre. It can deliver a physical punch and an emotional blow. I also think it’s incredibly difficult to sustain a heightened sense of terror over an entire novel; it’s just exhausting! But also, even the most horrific experiences become mundane with familiarity. It is one of the things I find challenging as a writer and reader of horror fiction. Within the story the horror has to ebb and flow, and then build to a crescendo. So you need to have other things going on in the narrative to keep it interesting, and not just as a bridge between set pieces.

Besides the obvious difference in length, how do you feel a novel differs from a novella by way of overall reader impact and the type of story which is best told by either length?

I think a novella has a focus which is sometimes absent in a novel. I love big books, I cannot lie, and there is something about disappearing into an all-consuming world which is unbeatable. But, and maybe this is just me and my advancing years, there is something about the brevity of a novella which is appealing. I don’t have to worry about remembering a cast list of hundreds. I don’t have to recall an event which happened 300 pages ago and is now pivotal. I feel like I can hold the structure of a novella in my head in a way which I can’t do with a novel.

With so many short stories of yours out there in various publications, do you think we’ll get to see a collection of your favorites put together at some point in the not so distant future?

If someone will publish it! Actually, I have put together a table of contents for either a collection, or a series of shorter collections. I have half an eye to self-publishing this as a toe-in-the-water as I have a few of my older novellas and one of my novels which are currently out of circulation and would like to see reissued. It’s another item on the to-do list!

I understand you have recently completed a new novel called Caborn & Reeves #2. What can you tell us about this one and when we might be able to find it in the wilds?

Ha-ha! Maybe never, looking at my track record!

This harks back to what I’ve said about my love of writing the first draft. Caborn & Reeves is a series of three novels. It’s actually crime rather than horror, and I started it because I was in a real slump and horror-wise, everything I touched turned to mush. For about six months it seemed like I couldn’t string a sentence together, so I started Caborn & Reeves as an antidote. It was originally conceived as a story told over three novels. I wrote the first one, got hallway through the second one and realized my plan was never going to work. I put aside the second book and instead wrote the third novel in the series (Don’t ask… I think we have established my writing career and logic are barely on speaking terms). I then went back to the second book in the series to finish it. 

Caborn & Reeves is actually one of two series I’ve been working on. The other series is horror. It focuses on a professional wildlife photographer, Jason Trainer, who in his spare time goes off and tries to capture the unknown and the supernatural. So far he’s been chasing ghosts in Ireland, then he returned to Ireland to experience a creature similar to the Banshee. He’s been to a primordial forest to search for giants (based on Biogradska in Montenegro, but set elsewhere.) If my will breaks and I start writing another first draft instead of buckling down to all the editing I need to do, he’s got plans to go vampire hunting in Poland and also to search for the immortal who guards the gateway to Hades.

What might you be working on now, or next?

It depends how disciplined I am. I’m just about to finish the first draft of a novella where strange statue-like figures start appearing around a small town in the middle of England. Once that’s done I have two novellas which need editing, one of which I really love, but is going to be a horrendous piece of work because the whole story is based around chaos so the first draft is just a hot mess. Then it’s going to be down to whether I pick up one of the novels to edit. Because, you see, I’ve also got an idea for a new novel I am really interested in exploring…

Getting back to One of the Dead, what do you think people are bound to remember most once they’ve completed the trek across your wasteland of insidious death?

I’m not so sure it’s something people are bound to remember, as such. What I would love is that occasionally, someone who has read One of the Dead might be walking down the street and spot someone. There’s something slightly jarring about this person’s appearance; maybe they’ve got a shaving cut on their chin, or a rip in their jeans. The reader looks at that person and, just for a moment, they wonder whether they are seeing one of the Dead.

For those who enjoy this book, of which there is bound to be plenty, what would you suggest they read of yours next?

Thank you, I am delighted you enjoyed the book. It really means a lot to me.

There are two novellas of mine which immediately spring to mind: Twenty Years Dead, which is about a world where the dead briefly return to life exactly twenty years after they’ve died. It’s one last chance for them to give up secrets, for families to heal, for lovers to reunite, But of course, we’re talking about humanity, so it’s not going to be as noble as that, is it?

Another novella, which came out a few years ago, is Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. Set in a world just after a plague, a small community come together to try and survive the outbreak. It focusses on the crew whose job it is to remove all the dead plague victims from the area — they do a really nasty job, and you’d think the rest of the community would be grateful to them….

And finally, what remains your favorite memory from writing this one?

Honestly, it’s probably the moment when Crystal Lake accepted One of the Dead for publication, as that felt like vindication for ten years of toil. But I’m going to finish on something less navel-gazing. Without giving anything away, my favorite scene to write involved a dead body and maggots. There is something inherently unpleasant about fat, white maggots squirming around in red flesh, so that was fun!

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