Horror writer Scott Thomas signs "Violet" Tuesday at Bank Square Books in Mystic
Bedtime storytelling is a time-honored ritual enjoyed by kids and parents alike — one that would seem particularly great if Dad happens to be Scott Thomas. After all, Thomas has written TV movies and teleplays for Nickelodeon and ABC Family and is co-creator and executive producer of Disney Channel's "Best Friends Whenever" and XD's "Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja."
The dude was made to tell stories to children! Thomas's two daughters probably not only look forward to Story Time but might be the only children in the world who can't wait to go to bed.
Hold on, though. Thomas also co-wrote the MTV horror trilogy "My Super Psycho Sweet 16" and won an Emmy for his work on YA horror-meister R.L. Stine's "The Haunting Hour." Could some nastiness creep into Thomas's pre-lights-out narratives?
Worse than that — or better, depending on your aptitude for having the hell scared out of you — Thomas has started writing adult horror novels. The first, "Kill Creek," published in 2017 and nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, is a deliciously clever spin on the haunted house story. The hook? As a publicity stunt, four bestselling horror novelists agree to spend Halloween night in one of the most infamous haunted houses in America.
Last week, Thomas' latest effort, "Violet," a gorgeously written story of grief and a malevolent manifestation thereof, suffused with a slowly suffocating sense of dread and panic, hit bookstores. Touring behind "Violet," Thomas appears Tuesday at Bank Square Books in Mystic.
In "Violet," Colorado veterinarian Kris Barlow's husband is killed in an auto accident. In what she hopes will be a restorative experience, she and her 8-year-old daughter Sophie go to Kansas and the lake cottage where Kris spent much of her childhood. But over the course of the summer, Kris starts to recall deeply suppressed memories of her terminally ill mother's fatal decline at the cottage. Too, fractured images of a long-ago imaginary playmate start to pop into Kris's brain in eerie proportion to Sophie's slow descent into her own private world.
As an exploration of the devastating power of grief, "Violet" is a stunning examination of a woman facing her own tragic past and the possibility that certain forces or powers can feed on that energy.
"I didn't really consciously think about writing a slow-burn character study," Thomas says by phone from Long Beach, Calif., where he's on set for one of his MTV projects. "Readers would know it's about an imaginary friend; there's no way to avoid that at a certain point, so the issue becomes how to create a character that people care about. I decided to focus on the relationship between a mother and daughter, both grieving, and how the tension builds so much that the mom can't ignore what's happening anymore. Not just in their house but in the whole town."
While both "Kill Creek" and "Violet" fall within the expansive parameters of the haunted house story, they're vastly different in terms of plot and execution. "Kill Creek" establishes its can't-miss premise immediately.
"I remember reading Peter Staub's 'Ghost Story' when I was younger," Thomas says. "It's about this group of now-elderly friends who meet and tell each other ghost stories. Gradually, they become literally haunted by nightmares of something that happened in their youth. And 'Kill Creek' came from wondering what would happen if there were horror writers who found themselves in the same situation."
Thomas's first draft of "Kill Creek" was completed all the way back in 2002. At that time, he was already established as a kid show writer at Nickelodeon and Disney and couldn't seem to get "Kill Creek" into sympathetic hands with either agents or publishers. Over 10 years later, he randomly came across a new San Francisco-based book publishing platform called Inkshares, whose original blueprint was to select manuscripts based on a concrete number of pre-orders lof author-submitted samples on the company's web site.
A NEW WAY OF DOING THINGS
"I was intrigued," Thomas says. "The publishing business is really hard to break into. At Inkshares, anyone could go online and pitch their work; that's an incredible opportunity for writers."
Thomas entered "Kill Creek" in one of Inkshares Horror Novel contests. Over the weeks-long event, wherein fans and readers vote, "Kill Creek" gradually moved up the tote board. While it ultimately didn't win the competition, Inkshares CEO Adam Gomolin called out of nowhere and told Thomas the company wanted to publish the book anyway.
"I didn't have to think too long," Thomas says. "Adam's enthusiasm and sincerity were infectious. I was also just so happy someone was guaranteeing to publish what had been a really long-term project."
At about that time, the company's original premise expanded. Gomolin says, "It became clear that while (pre-ordering) was a good tool for validating manuscripts, there was much to be gleaned by taking a more holistic approach. 'Kill Creek' was one of the first books we selected not on the basis of pre-orders but rather on a broader sense of community engagement.
Thomas says Gomolin was very hands-on in terms of the editorial process and spot-on in terms of suggestions and changes. In the end, the revision took most of a year — and occurred late at night after working on his Disney day job and giving quality time to his wife and daughters.
"I didn't sleep much," Thomas laughs, "but it was worth it. It became a better book, and I came to believe very much in Adam and Inkshares and what they're doing in the industry."
"Kill Creek" scored consistently rave reviews in the online horror zines as well as from such elite mainstream sources as Joyce Carol Oates — "Intensely realized and beautifully orchestrated Gothic horror" — and in the New York Times "New and Notable" section.
The success of "Kill Creek" provided Thomas with the opportunity to stretch his creative wings and pursue "Violet," a story that reflects the literary horror tradition of works as "The Turning of the Screw" and "The Bad Seed" as well as authors like Stephen King, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft.
A STUDY IN CHARACTER
Though it's an age of short attention spans and quick-hit plot lines, Gomolin and Thomas had no doubts about the rich description and tightening-vice pacing of "Violet."
"It's true, 'Violet' is not for people who, from page one, want a roller coaster story," Thomas says. "But this is an immersive story I wanted to tell through Kris and her experiences and perceptions of what's going on around her."
He laughs and adds, "Kris actually did reveal herself to me as I was writing. Because the story is from her point of view, I had to get inside her head and know her and live with her. I wanted to be with her for every moment and put the reader there as well. To understand everything she's doing to escape this grief she's had her entire life, I had to be there and experience which of her memories are trying to break through or what any given situation might trigger."
Gomolin acknowledges the perception that publishing a literary horror novel might be a gamble in the age of "quick hit/short-attention-span" metrics used by the publishing and film industries. But points to the ongoing success of, for example, "The Shining" and "Pet Sematary."
"Those are two really compelling meditations of the corrosive, desperate things that grief can bring you to," Gomolin says, "... and they probably sold more units last year than any plot-laden horror debut. So while it's true there are fewer bets and fewer marketing dollars behind character-driven literary horror, I also don't think it's fair to say that plot has killed character."
It's easy to see why both men are confident. "Kill Creek" is in development for television at Showtime, and talks are underway with studios for a film version of "Violet."
With "Violet," Thomas establishes himself as rising star alongside young horror noveilsts like Mariko Koike, Joe Hill, Paul Tremblay and Lauren Beukes.
"I wanted this to be as immersive as possible," Thomas says. "I think for the book to work, it wasn't just that Kris and her daughter are characters, but so is the cabin and the town and the people in the town. I wanted these to be people you liked or a place you visited before and enjoyed. It should have some beauty because a lot of what Kris remembers are fond memories that increasingly juxtapose with darkness and bad things. It wasn't an easy thing to do; I really had to shut the world out. In the end, I think I did OK. Writing the book made me happy. I mean, it scared me, but in a happy way."
If you go
Who: Horror novelist Scott Thomas
What: Signs copies of his latest book, "Violet," as well as his Stoker-nominated debut, "Kill Creek"
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic
How much: Free
For more information: (860) 536-3795
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