An Interview with Dan Poblocki

Posted June 11, 2015 By JS Daly
Dan Poblocki is the author of an ossuary full of horror books written for kids, including The Nightmarys, The Ghost of Graylock, and his most recent, The Book of Bad Things. He joins Awake at Midnight under gathering clouds that mark the impending release of The House on Stone’s Throw Island.

 
Dan_Poblocki_2014


Awake at Midnight:
Names like New Starkham and Dexter August in The Stone Child hint at a strong Lovecraftian influence in your writing. How do you avoid falling into the standard tropes like creeping tentacles and The Necronomicon and still bring a mythos flavor to a story?

 
Dan Poblocki:
Lovecraft has definitely been an influence in my writing. (For true chills, nothing beats
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.) What I love so much about his stories is that, most often, the most horrifying scenes are the ones in which he allows you to imagine the horror that is lurking in the darkness without describing it outright. I connect with this aspect of his writing more so than the larger mythos that people associate with him– the tentacles and Necronomicon and such.
 
I also appreciate that the different towns he writes about each have their own kind of folklore/ monsters. I thought it would be fun to use that construct, especially in
The Stone Child and The Nightmarys, which I sort of see as companion books. Gatesweed’s monsters in The Stone Child have a different flavor than the evil that lurks in The Nightmarys’ New Starkham, yet I wanted each place to feel like it had its own specific history that would catalyze their respective troubles.
 
 

How do you go about designing the puzzles in your stories, like the words in Hesselius’ lighthouse floor in The Nightmarys or Rebecca’s poem in The Ghost of Graylock, (and of course, The Mysterious Four series)? What do you do when a puzzle/solution doesn’t fit into a story the way you want it to?

 
The story is what demands the design of the puzzle. I really don’t even remember what inspired the puzzle solutions in The Nightmarys and Graylock. (The Mysterious Four is another thing entirely… Those books were incredibly difficult to write! Puzzles upon puzzles and clues upon clues…) Ultimately, the characters must meet obstacles while barreling toward their goal– whether that obstacle is an enemy, a personal problem, or a secret code that needs to be deciphered, I strive to never make it easy for them.
 
I keep a notebook that I fill with ideas of objects and numbers and images that might somehow connect.
 
I often think of the story’s ending first, and then work backwards, planting clues throughout the book for the characters to discover along the way and then use to bash through whatever obstacle pops up. If a puzzle/solution isn’t working for the story, or if I find it’s making things too complicated, I’ll simply cut it. I try not to fall in love with any particular idea or image. I’ve cut out entire characters and plotlines when they’ve become too troublesome.
 


Stone Child Nightmarys Ghost of Greylock


 

Authors and editors often say it’s difficult to find a balance in books for the middle-school audience where a story is easy to read, but not condescending. Is there is a similar level of “scariness” you try to maintain for your readers, or do you strive to write the most frightening story you can?

 
I’ve had the pleasure of working with some editors who don’t worry about “scariness” level, so I don’t really worry about condescending to my readers. I feel like my writing voice is pitched right around that middle-grade area. I write what I want to read, or what I remember loving when I was in fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. That age is so unique — you literally are in the “middle” — not quite ready to leave childhood behind entirely, but you’re also kind of unprepared for what adult life is about to throw at you. Being in this middle place can be scary.
 
I remember fretting near the end of my sixth grade year that seventh grade was going to be SO much harder. My fear of seventh grade got so bad I had trouble sleeping. Emotions are already so intense at the age of 12, I think it’s not such a large leap to add something supernatural or spooky into the mix of everyday life. I think that middle-schoolers can relate to scary experiences, because they already live in that liminal space.
 
That being said, I do strive to write the most frightening story I can. In fact, my editors have sometimes suggested I make the books more frightening. And once I was given that permission, I was like: GREAT! LET’S DO THIS. HAHAHAHA!!!
 
I’ve realized that the line I can’t really cross has to do with graphic violence. It’s a fine line, and difficult to discern, because bad things do happen to the characters in my books (sometimes even very bad things), but I try to write sensitively about those things. Sometimes this restriction (in terms of what the age-group can handle) helps– less can be more when it comes to the horror genre. Like I mentioned regarding Lovecraft, what the reader comes up with when a writer leaves out a vivid or bloody description can be a much more terrifying story experience.
 
 

How do you outline? How many scary scenes does it take to build a strong ambiance of fear?

 
It depends on the book. Sometimes I’ll just start writing and see where it goes. Most often, I’ll have a sense of the characters and place, as well as an idea of where the story will end up. Then when I’m about fifty or so pages in, I’ll start to lay out a more specific outline. Sometimes, a single scene will call for play-by-play choreographed movement around a place. (I had to do that for the action-packed scene at the end of Gabriel Ashe, when Gabriel rushes into the burning barn, literally outlining every step he took.)
 
As for how many scenes does it take to create a certain ambiance, that’s the sort of thing I get a sense of once I have a first draft written. I can read back through the manuscript (usually a giant mess) and take notes and move scenes around, or make cuts, deletions, or additions based on how things are flowing.
 


Gabriel Ashe Bad Things Stones Throw Island


 

Your readers have heard of the town of Heaverhill in more than one book, and Nathaniel Olmstead from The Stone Child comes up again in The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe; will future books continue to draw on and expand the same shared world?

 
I think so. I never plan on it, but it just sort of happens. As a reader, I think it’s fun when I discover a link between a certain author’s separate works. Stephen King does this a lot. I’ve also noticed an obscure connection between M.T. Anderson’s science-fiction novel,
Feed, and his historical epic, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which made me feel really smart! David Mitchell is also a magician in terms of intertwining story.
 
An author’s mind is its own contained world, so why not have all the stories that live there connect, even if only in minuscule ways? Whenever a reader points out that they’ve noticed my “easter-eggs,” I give them a little wink for paying such close attention.
 
 

Many of your stories deal with abandoned places. What kind of “urban exploration” have you done for inspiration?

 
Most of my exploration has occurred only online. I’ve watched way too many YouTube videos of people crawling through the ruins of abandoned houses, mansions, hospitals, and prisons. Living in New York City has made it hard to go do it myself. Abandoned sites in and around New York can be truly dangerous. And since I don’t own a car, it’s hard for me to venture out on my own.
 
But I’d be totally up for it, if anyone can suggest a safe, legal way to do it!
 
 

Was Graylock based on a real hospital in upstate New York? How did you discover it? Can you tell us more about it?

 
Graylock is an amalgam of a few places. There actually was an abandoned psychiatric hospital north of where I grew up in New Jersey, called Greystone, which I believe is in the process of being destroyed to make room for new housing. (Boo!) I never went inside, but my family drove us through the grounds when I was a kid. It freaked me out, imagining that much of the old furniture and equipment was just sitting inside, rotting. People told lots of stories about it, some of which made their way into my book.
 
There is another (functioning) psychiatric hospital up in Massachusetts, not far from where my family now lives, that sits on a lake. That lake was an aspect I decided would work well for my little story.
 
 

What was the scariest experience you recall having as a child?

 
As a kid who spooked really easily, this is a very hard question to answer. There are SO many! My imagination was always filling in the gaps of things I didn’t understand – and it filled them with horrors. Thankfully, I lived a very pleasant childhood. Nothing very traumatic ever happened to me. But that didn’t stop me from freaking out occasionally.
 
The most terrified I ever remember being was on a summer night when I was lying in bed, the window open beside me, the electric fan cooling me off. It was a ranch-style house, so my room was on the ground floor. From just outside the window, in the thick evergreen bushes, I heard a voice call out. It sounded like a very young child. “Mommy?” it said. I froze. What the heck was a little kid doing outside in the middle of the night? The voice called out again, this time louder. “MOMMY?” I heard the bushes rustling. I sat up, unable to catch my breath. I was just about to call out to my own parents, when the voice called a third time, this time rising at the end into what sounded like a howl of pain and terror. “MOMMMMMYYYYYY???”
 
At this point, I started screaming too. My parents came running. I told them what I’d heard, certain that there was a toddler or a baby outside who was lost or trying to crawl away from something truly awful. My mom and dad peeked outside and discovered that it was only a couple of neighborhood cats who were getting rowdy.
 
I was shocked. I had no idea that animals could sound so human. I also had no idea that my imagination could go to such a dark place. It was a real learning experience.
 


Hauntings Heists Clocks and Robers Monsters Mischief


 

Who do you feel are the most exciting new mid-grade/young adult horror authors?

 
Jonathan Auxier has written the most frightening middle-grade book I’ve read recently:
The Night Gardener. Truly imaginative with the most frightening villain maybe in all of kid’s literature. Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman trilogy has some horrific and exciting elements for middle-grade readers (or adults!) looking for strange fantasy set in the 1980s suburbia. Andrew Harwell’s The Spider Ring is a creepy story full of heart (and spiders). I’m hotly anticipating Lair of Dreams— Libba Bray’s follow-up to her 1920’s supernatural teen-novel, The Diviners. Also on the YA side, I really loved Robin Wasserman’s The Waking Dark, Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers, and Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series, which is one of the darkest literary horror tomes of all time. I also couldn’t put down Gretchen Mcneil’s Ten (a riff on Agatha’s Christie’s And Then There Were None) which reads like a clever homage to old-school R.L. Stine Fear Street books. And Holly Black is my go to for very spooky urban fantasy – The Darkest Part of the Forest was awesome in so many ways.
 
It really is an exciting time for readers looking for frightening page-turners. I can’t wait to see what else is on the horizon.
 
House Clock Walls
 

What was your favorite John Bellairs novel and why?

 
I love the original Lewis Barnavelt trilogy the most.
The House With the Clock in its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring. I just love how weird and funny and comforting they are – strange aspects for horror-fantasies, no? Also, the dynamic between Lewis’s magician uncle, Jonathan (Weird Beard), and their elderly witch neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, is classic and defines for me John Bellairs’s greatest strength– quirky grown up characters who are surrogate parents to his young protagonists.
 
 

You’ve mentioned your own growing collection of very creepy toys. Which is your favorite (and why)?

 
Years ago, while exploring some thrift stores in upstate New York, I came across a broken, wind-up stuffed monkey that I recognized from the cover of one of Stephen King’s story collections. In his scary tale called “The Monkey,” the namesake’s cursed cymbals crash together whenever something bad is about to happen. The monkey that I found was the same kind of toy. Its expression made it look like it wanted to kill someone. No wonder it inspired Mr. King.
 
The wind up mechanism in the monkey that I found was broken . . . as was the monkey’s face. His eyes were pushed into his plastic head and gaped out, slightly askew. But he had the same striped pants, and yellow vest, and he clutched the same cymbals I recognized from the book. I couldn’t resist. I had to get him.
 
I think I like him so much because he’s broken. I feel a little bad for him. But if he could actually still play his instrument, I don’t think I could keep him in my apartment. I mean, what would happen if I heard him chiming in the night…?
 

Related Posts:

Interview with Dan Poblocki
The Stone Child
The Nightmarys
The Ghost of Graylock
The Book of Bad Things


 

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The Book of Bad Things

Posted June 5, 2015 By JS Daly

Bad Things

The Book of Bad Things

by Dan Poblocki
 
Scholastic, 2014
 
256 Pages
 
Young Adult
 
four_stars
 

 
 
 
 
I reserved this book from the library for the sheer enjoyment of asking for it by name! Dan Poblocki again proves himself a master of the middle-grade horror novel. His latest is perfectly suited for fans of John Bellairs, Julie Berry’s Splurch Academy, or Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Witch’s Sister who are ready to take a step into darker shadows. There are some pretty creepy chapters in this book, my favorite being a nightmare version of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars.
 
Cassidy Bean is visiting her sponsor family for the summer, part of a program to get city kids out of the asphalt squalor to breathe some fresh country air. Only her friend Joey just isn’t the same this year. He’s withdrawn and despondent, still grieving over the loss of his dog last year. Or it could be that he still blames Cassidy for Lucky’s death, since she’s the one who had the genius idea to go and have a regular, normal, everyday chat with their town’s resident crazy-lady at the end of the road– a visit that resulted in Lucky’s death.
 

** Dead Dog Alert **

Lucky was horrifically murdered last year, appearing to be either the result of psychic phenomena… or Ursula’s insanity.

But the crazy hoarder-lady, Ursula, has just died and the town has come out in droves, filching her stuff faster than you could grab the stapler from a co-worker’s cubicle when he quits.
 

Soon, she became a pariah, the target of eggings, of small fires set in her driveway, of the awful graffiti that now decorated all sides of the poor old farmhouse. They started calling her The Hermit of Chase Estates.

 
Cassidy finds a more receptive friend in the next door neighbor Ping, an outcast who has an interest in the paranormal. This is great, because Cassidy needs someone to confide in. One night she sees Ursula shambling down the road in a zombie-like stupor with a limping Lucky beside her. Then the townsfolk who snagged stuff from Ursula’s house begin to complain of ghostly visitations from the old lady– and then begin to die in horrifying ways.
 
The “Book of Bad Things” refers to Cassidy’s diary. She uses it to record all of the bad stuff she can think of. I’m reminded of a line from Zero Mostel’s appearance on The Muppet Show: “Once they’re counted and compelled, they may quickly be dispelled.” That’s the idea behind the journal; it provides a sense of order and security in a world where bad things can happen, and Cassidy has recently had a pretty big scare. Will her enumeration of every horror she has ever faced help her against the oncoming zombie crisis?
 

His exposed skin was shriveled, vacuum-sealed to his bones. His jaw hung open, his lips pulled back to expose what were left of his brown teeth. His hair was long and grey and wet, plastered to his skull and neck, dangling down to his shoulders…

 
Poblocki skillfully raises our hackles in suspense as we wonder what’s causing the dead to rise. The mystery deepens as Cassidy, Joey, and Ping explore the ley-lines that converge within the town and discover a hole in the cellar wall when they go to explore the crazy lady’s festering house. The author pulls no punches in this Night of the Living Dead meets Stephen King’s It terror tale. The zombies are real, and there’s something dark slithering under the town.
 

Related Posts:

Interview with Dan Poblocki
The Stone Child
The Nightmarys
The Ghost of Graylock
The Book of Bad Things


 

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Book Review: The Nightmarys

Posted May 31, 2015 By JS Daly

Nightmarys

The Nightmarys

by Dan Poblocki
 
Random House, 2011
 
325 Pages
 
Ages 8-12
 
four_stars
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
Dan Poblocki’s second horror novel brings a more complex plot and more frightening imagery to the page as two kids face another intrusion into our reality by a supernatural entity. His excellent characterization leads the reader to sympathize with his characters and the injustices of youth, and his plot offers twists, puzzles, and nightmares for a more mature middle-school audience.
 
Timothy July’s brother Ben, a soldier, has been wounded in battle. His family doesn’t know exactly how bad yet, but his parents are wracked with guilt and they won’t let him talk about it to anyone outside the family. As if that’s not enough, his best friend Stuart holds a grudge when Timothy accidentally pairs off with the weirdo new girl for a class project.
 
Abigail Tremens is staying with her grandmother, her Mom believing that she has Abigail snowed about her parents separation, but she’s no fool. She hangs onto her father’s lighter in his absence, dresses in black, and keeps to herself. But she has been troubled by nightmares recently.
 
Their class takes a field trip to a museum, where Timothy and Abigail join up just before getting soaked by a water balloon. They choose a grim looking painting as the subject of their report. Too bad that ancient cursed jawbone had been removed from display for cleaning. Now that would have been perfect subject material.
 
If you read closely, you will notice that the interludes between chapters involve those people related to the disappearance of a girl named Delia years earlier. Her alleged kidnapping was the basis for the Zelda Kite novel The Clue of the Incomplete Corpse.
 
A copy of that very book is dropped by a shadowy figure in the museum basement, leading the kids to the Zelda Kite Mysteries as they dry off. (Zelda is a slueth paralleling Nancy Drew, even so far as being ghost written.) Their author, Ogden Kentwall, was the pen name used by one Heironymous Kindred… funny, that was Abigail’s grandmother’s last name.
 
Then the nightmares begin, compliments of nothing less than an ancient curse. The shadows from Poblocki’s mind turn truly horrifying when Ben shows up in a giant specimen jar in Timothy’s closet.
 

Through the smudged glass, drifting in the liquid, two arms and a leg came into view. They looked human. After a few seconds, the thing inside the jar came close enough for Timothy to distinguish the military emblem on its decaying sleeve… Timothy’s brother, Ben, opened his mouth wide and showed him his purple swollen tongue.

 
Abigail invites Timothy over to her grandmother’s place so they can work on their class project. (It seems unlikely that a girl, even one who is sweet on him, would ask a relative stranger over to do something so intimate as help her dye her hair, but she does.) And she also confides in Timothy a secret.
 
She relates the story of two girls who back in Jersey, made her life Hell at school, teasing her and driving all her friends away. She dubbed them The Nightmarys after a Nathaniel Olmstead novel (remember Olmstead from Poblocki’s first book The Stone Child?) But now she is being visited by two spirits. Real Nightmarys. And they want Abigail to go away with them.
 
Stuart ends up in the hospital, the victim of a nightmare at the bottom of the pool. He blames Abigail. After all, his water balloon was targeted at her… her vengeful anger must be the source of the horrifying visions. Has she got a jawbone under her pillow?
 
Timothy and Abigail follow clues and learn more about the cursed jawbone. It is the remnant of a timeless evil spirit called The Daughter of Chaos, and the bone must be charged with power from a human sacrifice. Such a sacrifice allows the owner to cast deadly nightmares upon the intended victim.
 
During this research, serendipity leads them to the bricked-up office of Christian Hesselius, previously a pillar of the community, a professor and the architect who built the local lighthouse, now defamed with controversy. A young eye-witness claimed she saw Hesselius speaking with Delia just moments before her disappearance. It was Zilpha Kindred, Abigail’s grandmother.
 
Remember the shadowy figure that dropped a copy of Abigail’s grandmother’s uncle’s book? The son of Hesselius himself appears under an assumed name, befriends Zilpha and her neighbor (I am reminded of the Spider-Man issue where Peter comes home to find Doctor Octopus having tea with his Aunt May,) yet soon after reveals his true colors… with a jawbone from another age in his hand.
 
Abigail falls asleep and follows the Nightmarys away. Can Timothy find her and defeat Hesselius before she becomes the next sacrifice to The Daughter of Chaos? This mystery is atmospheric, filled with hallucinations, and will provide hearty scares amidst intriguing puzzles involving baseball cards, underlined book passages, and a collapsing stone floor. A top pick for quiet cemetery reading at Halloween.
 

Related Posts:

Interview with Dan Poblocki
The Stone Child
The Nightmarys
The Ghost of Graylock
The Book of Bad Things


 

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The Ghost of Graylock

Posted May 15, 2015 By JS Daly

Ghost Greylock

The Ghost of Graylock

by Dan Poblocki
 
Scholastic, 2012
 
272 Pages
 
MG (Ages 10-14)
 
four_stars
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Neil and Bree’s mother needs some time to herself. Her recent divorce really hit her hard, so she sent the kids to stay with their aunts Claire and Gladys for a while. Her emotional state creates a spooky parallel for the kids’ encounter with a spirit that was institutionalized for mental illness.
 
The Ghost of Graylock has some of the creepiest moments I have experienced from Dan Poblocki. An abandoned asylum on an island in a still, seaweed-tangled lake lures the kids to do some urban exploration, and the quiet isolation of the ruin invites the shivers. The basement is flooded with dark, stagnant water and there are cages around the stairwells. The dismal atmosphere is disturbing not only because it is decaying, but in that the hospital was abandoned suddenly, leaving behind a snapshot of life unnaturally forsaken, preserved in a museum of death.
 

They say she smiles as she holds you under– her face blurred as you stare up through the silvery surface, her teeth glistening white– delighted to continue her murderous quest to end the suffering of the insane.

 
While exploring the Graylock Mental Hospital with their friend Wesley and his older brother Eric, to whom Bree seems to take an immediate liking, their electronic devices go dead and they encounter the ghost of Nurse Janet as the door behind them slams shut! It’s a good thing Neil has so much experience with the supernatural given his die-hard fanaticism for the show Ghostly Investigators.
 
When they discover that Nurse Janet is really still alive, the whole crew goes to visit her. But Janet’s son is there and he becomes suspiciously irate at the kids’ bothersome questions. But if Janet Reilly isn’t the ghost of Graylock’s room 13, who… what… was sitting at the foot of Neil’s bed, dripping wet, in the middle of the night? The water puddles on the floor weren’t his imagination. Nor was the lake-weed in the bathtub that tried to drown Bree.
 

A scream filled the night. It took Neil a moment to realize where it came from. The aunts turned toward the house too. The light in the upstairs bathroom looked stark, alone. “Help me!” Bree cried out, before screaming again.

 
The ghost, they discover, is really that of Rebecca Smith, a girl who was an inmate at the asylum. What does she want of Neil and Bree? Why does she keep sending visions? The kids are pressured to solve the mystery of the of the antlers, the sheet music, and the andirons… (Did you see what I did there? A little John Bellairs humor…) before their father drags them back home.
 
They know the history of the ghost, but they don’t know if she’s there to help them or harm them in a rage of vengeance. The ending is exciting enough for film. Rebecca’s murderer appears, determined to keep his secret even if it means killing again –and again– as the murky water entangles Bree and Neil in the dark.
 
This book is one of Poblocki’s best. It should not be missed by fans of John Bellairs or TAPS!
 

Related Posts:

Interview with Dan Poblocki
The Stone Child
The Nightmarys
The Ghost of Graylock
The Book of Bad Things


 

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Book Review: Hex Hall

Posted May 8, 2015 By JS Daly

Hex_Hall

Hex Hall

by Rachel Hawkins
 
Hyperion, 2011
 
352 Pages
 
Young Adult (12-14)
 
Review by: Kristin Grady
 
three_stars
 
three-skulls
 
 
 
 
Sophie is a witch. She gets into trouble at her normal school for doing a spell and is exiled to hex hall which is a school for witches, shape-shifters, and faeries. On her first day she is attacked by a werewolf, saved by a really hot but really rude warlock, finds herself hated by the three most popular witches in the new school, and ends up sharing a room with the only vampire in residence, who is despised by the entire student body.
 
When people start dying, they blame her only friend, her roommate. As if that were not enough, soon Sophie will have to fight an ancient enemy that is determined to kill everyone, especially her. Will Sophie be able to save everyone? Will she find out what she really is?
 
This book was a lot of fun to read, and I really enjoyed it. I liked the history of the school and of the main character, Sophie, and her family. There was depth to all the characters. I can’t think of anything bad about this book. The bad guys were great and I loved the twist in the story when they pop up. I recommend this book to everyone who is looking for a great
paranormal romance with a little bit of mystery!
 
For fans of Kimberly Derting’s The Body Finder series and Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys!
 


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