The Graveyard on the Hill by Shane McIntire
My Rating: 3 of 5 Stars – Great Psychological Suspense
Murder is on James’ mind as he leaves work, and he soon finds out he’s not the only one feeling that way. Arriving home, James finds his abusive brother-in-law dead, killed by his sister-in-law, Molly. Together with his wife Liz, the trio agree to hide the body, each imagining that this will be a fresh start. But guilt soon tears apart any hope they held for a peaceful life.
Reminiscent of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” this is a story of the aftermath of murder. Each character slowly becomes undone under the weight of their crime. Molly falls into religious zealotry. Liz begins spending more and more time with a secret gun. James starts to relive traumas of his past and is plagued by nightmares of the graveyard on the hill. And as Detective Chaney’s suspicions grow, pressuring each to reveal the truth, the family feels like a ticking time bomb. McIntire masterfully explores how sometimes murder is just the beginning.
I struggled a bit to write this review, as I wanted to like the novel more than I did. As a character, Liz felt incomplete at times, and there were points where her role seemed to be dictated by where the author wanted to take the story rather than an organic development. The end of the story felt rushed and didn’t provide a satisfactory conclusion for my taste. However, overall, this was a good debut novel, and I look forward to reading more by this new voice in psychological horror.
Shane McIntire was one of the first people I met on Twitter last year, and I knew right away that we’d get along. Throughout that time, we’ve talked about horror movies, writing legends like Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, video games like Silent Hill, and our mutual love of Chris Cornell. And I knew, that once I’d read his debut novel, Shane would be someone I’d want to interview.
WS: With many horror novels, the build up to a murder is usually the focus, and little time is spent on the impact it has on the characters. In The Graveyard on the Hill, you’ve started with the crime and take the reader through an emotional rollercoaster of the resulting guilt. What drove you to tackle this angle?
SM: As you mentioned, we’re both fans of narrative video games like Silent Hill, and I’ve always been an admirer of stories that managed to successfully explore the realm of guilt. Silent Hill 2 was most likely the greatest example of this, but growing up, I always loved visceral horror films like Jacob’s Ladder, which really formed my own mind as a writer. In these stories, we get to explore the guilty mind in a way that is not commonly offered to us. As you said, it is more likely that a horror novel will explore the murder, as opposed to what happens afterward. That gray area was more important to me than anything else, perhaps due to the sorts of stories I grew up on. That was where the idea came from. I remember driving home from work one day, being frustrated with something that had happened. I felt that rush of that sort of primal anger that we all feel from time to time, hoping that the person who I had had the altercation with would just die or something, but as I sat in traffic, cooling off, I began to feel really bad that I had ever thought of such a thing. Suddenly, the first scene of the novel popped into my head. What if I walked into my house, and the person I had wanted dead in that moment of anger was lying on the ground, with a knife sticking of their chest or something equally grotesque. Would I be satisfied? The immediate answer, was no. But in that prior moment of rage, I wasn’t so sure. Anyway, that’s where the guilt angle came from.
WS: Each of the characters deal with the cover-up of murder uniquely. How did you come up with their different coping mechanisms?
SM: I think that James, Elizabeth and Molly were all different parts of me at some point. James was supposed to be, in his own mind, a man’s man, who, again, in his own mind, was not supposed to feel anything about it, one way or the other, which is probably why he gets hit the hardest early on. He tries to suppress his emotions, instead of letting it all play out, which is especially prominent in the recurring scenes of having him replay the scene in his own mind, trying to decide if the body had moved before he filled in the hole, never really sure one way or the other until the end of the novel, and even then, the reader is never given a conclusive answer other than his own. So instead, James decides to escape back into the fantasy world of his books, which, in the end, seems to turn on him too.
Elizabeth had a more interesting reaction to the cover-up, in that she ended up taking on the stoic role that James was going for. I think she was searching for the proper reaction, in that she really wasn’t sure what she wanted in life after this traumatic even occurred, which was something I was going for in the book, but unfortunately did not really show up in the final version of the novel. That was probably my biggest error in this one. First, she tries to absorb herself in her work, becoming more and more obsessed with it, until she finds that this avenue has been closed to her due to the incident with the substitute. Then it’s the gun she finds, which she practices with until she’s gone as far as she can go with it. In between, she has this off-beat debate with her religion, something I was feeling within myself, and still do, honestly. There is a struggle within her, caught somewhere between James’s militant atheism, and her sister Molly’s newfound fanaticism for the church. Elizabeth is detached from it, wanting desperately to be a part of God’s light, and that bliss that those around her seem to feel, but she just can’t believe the way she used to. I was listening to Nirvana’s song All Apologies when the church scene was coming to me. Those lyrics: “I wish I was like you/Easily Amused/Find my nest of salt/Everything is my fault” were really on my mind then, and I think that defines Elizabeth’s feelings about religion and God. She wishes she could be like everyone else, and she is kind of hung up on it.
Molly is somebody I knew, not literally, of course, but she was partially based on a friend’s experiences with domestic abuse. Thankfully, my friend’s story turned out a lot better, and she was able to escape that relationship, moving onto much better things, but for a while, she slipped into this sort of weird state of regret, remorse, filling that hole with religious fanaticism. Now, this is not to say that there is anything wrong with religion, but there is a certain level that some people seem to take it to that is unhealthy, and that’s where she was. When I was doing my research on domestic abuse, and those who have survived that brutality, I was extremely depressed to find out how many women never make it out, even if they manage to escape the relationship, this is something that follows them for the rest of their lives, and I saw another statistic that talked about rates of suicide later in life for survivors, which was even more depressing. Near the end there, I was listening to The Doors song Five to One, which the opening lyrics to very nearly gave the novel a new title: “No one here gets out alive”. Wouldn’t that have been depressing?
WS: Music forms a large part of how the reader gets to know your character James and is used well for foreshadowing throughout the book. What is it about music that lends itself to horror novels?
SM: I’ve always loved horror movies that effectively utilize music to either heighten the drama or inform of character emotions. The best example of this, I think, was the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, which many of the songs are directly written into the film, being sung by characters, so much so that the film is very nearly a horror-musical. Each strike of a key, each chord on the guitar, every note seems to fit so perfectly into place, and I always try to take inspiration from that. Another source of inspiration was the master himself, Stephen King, who always used music to inform his characters. One reference to a song, and we are in the mind of his characters, picturing them cruising down the street listening to One More Summer by The Rainmakers, or everybody in the military base dying of a mysterious flu-like virus to Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. I think horror and music meld so well together because of that element alone, in that it brings some aspect of normality to an ever increasingly insane circumstance that we love to watch (or to read) but would never want to be a part of. I still hear Don’t Fear the Reaper on the radio from time to time, and think immediately of The Stand, or hear Huey Lewis and picture Patrick Bateman cutting up a co-worker with an axe in American Psycho (by Bret Easton Ellis). Perhaps it is the memory of it more than anything else. We are reminded of music that brings us back to a better time (or a worse one for that matter), like James turning on the radio months after the cover-up, and then damn near breaking it to get it off when he hears Jackson Browne, which he has not heard since the night of the murder.
WS: In 2017, you had piece published in Thank You: A Tribute to Chris Cornell. How did you become involved in this project?
SM: I was part of a fan community on Facebook that had (jokingly) taken to forming the Church of Chris(t), which had taken Chris Cornell as their Lord and Savior, due his own physical likeness to Jesus of Nazareth. I had liked their page and become an active member, posting in the group. When Cornell passed away, it obviously hit everyone pretty hard. He had been my favorite musician since I was twelve, which was when I first started seriously getting into music. His music had been a constant voice in my life, being there for all of my teenage years, through middle school, through high school, and the death of my grandmother. I remember staying up that night, listening to the Temple of the Dog album with my Grandfather, and when my grandfather passed, I carried on that tradition. So, when I saw it announced on CNN that night, around 2 A.M., I just about got sick. As a writer, I knew then that I had to do something, so as the last official post on my previous blog, Psychological Horror Drought, I wrote an essay discussing what he meant to me, and to all of his other fans. Within the fan group mentioned earlier, a member of the group, named Angela Maher, decided to put a call out for essays, creative works and other pieces of work to compile in a book, as a tribute to the man who had meant so much to all of us. With the essay already having been written, I decided to send it over to her, and she included it in her book. It was the least I could do, for Chris Cornell, and it will never repay everything he has done for me, or others, even if he never realized it in his own life.
WS: I understand you are nearing the completion of a new novel, The Pagoda, to be released by Solstice Publishing. What can you tell us about your next release?
SM: The Pagoda is the work I am most proud of. I am extremely excited to see it released and let loose into the wild, so to speak, because I think it is a much better (and stronger) novel than The Graveyard on the Hill. I learned a lot between books, and I have become a much better writer for the experience of having one under my belt. The Pagoda is a novel of psychological horror, set in Tokyo, Japan, and the northern, wooded regions surrounding the Kanto region. The novel takes place from the point-of-view of our nameless protagonist, a twenty-two-year-old girl whose father has left their family home, disappearing into the northern, rural area. She begins to have increasingly violent nightmares, where she is being hunted by these shadow-demons, which she feels are pushing her out of the city, northbound, going after her father. So, after the nightmares (and finding a mysterious journal kept by her father), she decides to go searching for him, which sets her on a Lovecraftian journey between realms as she discovers the truth about her father (and herself), leading her to her ultimate destiny. I am hoping that the novel will be out in the late summer (or early fall), as I’ve just received my final round of edits from my editor.
WS: What lead you to seek out a publisher for your second novel, after releasing your first work independently?
SM: I knew that I would eventually want to go the professional route, but it did not feel right the first time around, as some part of me knew that The Graveyard on the Hill probably could have used a few more months in the oven, so to speak, but I was close to having my dream of getting published come true, that I didn’t want to lose it, so I unleashed that book on the world. With The Pagoda, I was a bit more careful, more meticulous, not having the immediate urge to just be done with it. I still have “the dream”, like most writers do, whether we want to admit or not. For as important as it is to write for writings sake, I think we all imagine ourselves getting that major contract, or that movie deal or some such thing. More importantly than that, I always wanted to be able to walk into a bookstore and find myself on the shelves, like a rite of passage as a writer, or something, and while I’m not sure that this will happen with The Pagoda, I am hopeful that it will happen one day. Managing to find a publisher who believed in my work enough to publish it was certainly a step in the right direction. Hopefully, for my next work, I’ll be able to find myself an agent and land a bigger deal.
WS: You’ve already begun work on a third novel as well, which will be in the science fiction realm. Is that a genre you’ve always been interested in? What can you tell us about this next project?
SM: Well, I’ve got two projects in the works now, both of which I am equally excited about. One I haven’t announced officially yet, as I wanted to wait a while, but this may be the perfect time to announce it. Aside from my upcoming science fiction novel, I will also be simultaneously working on a follow-up to The Pagoda, which I am really excited about. I cannot say too much about it now, as I want people to read the first one before I even get into its successor, but its definitely happening.
As for the science-fiction novel, I have been really afraid of tackling something like this for a long time. I have always considered writing something in that realm, but honestly, I’ve always felt so in awe of writers like Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, George R.R. Martin, Mary Shelley, or Stanislaw Lem, that old-school science fiction felt like some unconquerable mountain. However, wait long enough, and the idea eventually comes around. Modern sci-fi just doesn’t have the same punch that it used to pack, and I wanted to wait for something big, more in the classic tradition of speculative fiction, that focused on hard questions and gave hard answers, as opposed to the “sexy” elements of modern sci-fi, which often times pose questions that are never answered. This next novel, which will be called “An Elysian Autumn”, will ask a lot of hard questions, but also answer them. The basis of the novel features an experimental government program that is used to dispose of those that a new, authoritarian regime deems to be political dissidents, sending them off to a new, earth-like world far away, that they hope to plunder of its resources, using the dissidents as slave labor. Then, a terrible, devastating event hits earth, destroying most its population. With the dissidents no longer under control, they begin to form their own society on the new world. However, years on, we return to them, to see how their society has grown, when the portal reopens, and survivors of the old earth begin to flood through, seeking refuge. The novel will explore the decedents of the “dissidents” reaction to the refugees, as this does not happen until hundreds of years into the future of the new world, the culture clashes that follow, and the prospect of war due to changes to the world around them. I want to use the novel, in this sense, to explore the anatomy of a refugee crisis from all sides, and with my own answer to the problem.
WS: What’s your biggest fear? Have you tackled writing about that subject?
SM: I always try to go deep with fear in my work, something deeper than conventional fears, like heights or spiders, but rather exploring something like guilt or the guilty mind as a focus. That to me is true psychological horror. I’ve spent so much time working on this stuff that I think it has become my biggest fear, or maybe it always was and I just never noticed. I’m always afraid of screwing something up so badly that it comes back to haunt me, which is an inevitability in life. We all make mistakes, but in all seriousness, I’m one of those people that is kept awake at night by something stupid I may have said in conversation with someone else, and sometimes, these things come back to me, seemingly out of the blue, of some mistake I had made months ago, long after everyone else had already forgotten about it. It’s a bit of a compulsion I’ve been working on, but its hard to let it go.
WS: Which horror tropes are you sick of reading? How can writers breathe new life into the old tropes?
SM: Vampires. I know that must be a pretty standard one, but I love the really great ones, which makes the really bad ones stick out like a sore thumb, which is most of them. But I think that there is still a chance for vampires, as they were already old when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula (my favorite novel, as it happens), but still, we see new and creative ways of people bringing them back. King did it with Salem’s Lot, George R.R. Martin did it with Fevre Dream, and Anne Rice did it with her series. I think writers can still do it today, but it’s a matter of timing, and having some originality. Do something we’ve never seen before. Like King bringing them to small town America, or Martin and his Mississippi river journey through the pre-civil war south. Where do vampires go in the future? That’s what made Dracula so effective and creepy as a novel, that you had this horrific, ancient Transylvanian myth coming to life in what was then modern-day London, with all of its Victorian civility. What happens next? Oh, and the whole “chosen one” thing, for some reason that seems to have stuck around long after its expiration date. I think it was cool in Harry Potter, and it works if its pulled off right, but I could never really put my heart into if there was really just one person in the whole world, out of billions, who could defeat the evil one, with no real reason given. I think even that can still be okay, but if they are the only one, give us a reason.
WS: What writers influence you the most?
SM: For me, it would have to be George R.R. Martin, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Poe and Lovecraft were some of the first writers I really discovered, going all the way back to the fifth grade, when we read The Cask of Amontillado and The Masque of the Red Death as part of a Halloween project. The school librarian recommended Lovecraft after she saw my extreme interest in all things Poe. But it was King and Martin, as literary descendants of Poe and Lovecraft, who have helped form my own writing career and style in a modern sense, as they inspired me to take up the pen myself.
WS: When did you know you wanted to be a horror writer?
SM: I grew up with horror and watching all of the old slasher films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th, as well as just about every John Carpenter (my favorite director) film. Horror has always held a special place in my heart, and it always will. Besides, of all genre fiction, its just the coolest, with the coolest fan community, so who wouldn’t have a good time writing for them all day? But as far as actually knowing when? Probably as soon as I started writing seriously, even my early creative works (which was mostly poetry) always seemed to take a drastically dark turn. It more instinctually than anything else.
WS: What do you look for in a great horror story, whether it be a film, video game or a book?
SM: I always look for more of a psychological element to horror works. That’s what made a video game like Silent Hill 2 (or any of the first four games) so important to me. Much the same could be said about a film like Jacob’s Ladder, which had deep psychological elements that had so many layers to it you couldn’t possibly take it all in on one viewing. That’s something I love, being able to reread, re-watch or replay a horror narrative multiple times, and find something new each time I go through the experience. Think of Apocalypse Now, another favorite psychological horror film of mine, which is so often miscategorized as war film, cut and dry. The deeper recesses of the human mind always come up, and the way we experience the world is thrown back at us in stories like that. It’s a part of what makes Stephen King or George R.R. Martin so effective. They can show us the most fantastic worlds, like that of The Dark Tower or of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire, yet it is the characters that we relate to, in all of their misery, woes or successes, be it Roland of Gilead or Jon Snow. In summary, I guess that is strong character development and heavy psychology that make any good story, but especially horror, or even those with elements of it.
WS: What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to new writers?
SM: I would suggest writing what you want, whenever you want to write it, without fear. It’s okay to make a mistake, that’s the fun of writing, and it should be fun to sit down and compose, to create a new world. Don’t wait for a degree or an invitation. It’s all in the palm of your hand, and once the pen is there, allow it to flow freely, letting it go where it wants. The best piece of advice I ever received was from Stephen King himself, in his book On Writing (a book all writers should have readily available, that one, as well as The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, along with Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury). In On Writing, King said something along the lines of “This book is short, because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” I never forgot that, and he was right. The other two books I recommend there are also short, even shorter than King’s own work. I believe the reason they are so short, is because you, as the writer, already have the answer. You just need to sit and write it down for the rest of us.
I’d sincerely like to thank Shane McIntire for taking the time to speak with me. I hope you enjoyed this interview, and if you would like to know more about the author and his works, feel free to connect with him on the following social medial platforms:
Website & Blog: https://shanemcintireblog.wordpress.com/