It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however, in the backwoods the beauty can be mistaken for the beast! “Blister” is the latest horror novel from four time Bram Stoker nominee Jeff Strand. Released by Sinister Grin Press, “Blister” tells the story of Jason, his agent, Rachel, her father, town folk and psycho! Simply put boy meets town freak, boy is scared by town freak, boy befriends town freak and finds out town freak, Rachel, is amazing. Jason even fights off townies to protect Rachel and does the insane for her. It’s a dark and disfigured tale for the modern age of horror romance served up by Jeff Strand. We grabbed Jeff and forced him into a cabin to talk about Blister, working with Sinister Grin Press, writing horror romance and more.
How has the partnership with Sinister Grin Press been and what are your thoughts on the landscape of micro budget publishing giving opportunities to authors who might not get the opportunity with the larger publishing houses?
It’s been great. Beta readers have always been invaluable to me, and for the past several years, Tod Clark had been providing professional-level editing in exchange for me saying “Thanks, dude!” on the acknowledgements page. So when he got hired as a Sinister Grin editor and asked me to send him a book, there was no other answer but “Yes!”
I think authors can still find a mass market home for horror fiction, but I haven’t sought one since Leisure cancelled their horror line. (I do have a traditional mass-market publisher for my young adult novels.) It makes the most financial sense for me to work with a small press for the print editions and do the digital edition myself. It’s a great time to be an author, although I have to admit that I’m glad there were gatekeepers when I started, because I absolutely would have self-published some crap, and the sting of shame would last to this day.
Blister is a macabre romance with horror elements. How difficult is it to craft a somewhat realistic romance novel for horror fans?
Well, I call it a “love story,” since the term “romance novel” implies a certain formula that must be followed. While I was writing it, I was never thinking, “Uh-oh, I’d better make sure this one appeals to the horror crowd!” because it’s a nasty little tale and I wasn’t worried that horror fans would scream that I’d pulled a bait and switch on them. I’ve written an all-out romantic comedy (Kumquat) before, and even if they’re not love stories, novels like Pressure and Dweller are definitely relationship books, so while I definitely don’t want to say that Blister was easy to write, it didn’t pose any special challenges as far as pleasing the fan base.
The main character of Blister aka Rachel has scarring on her face which has kept her inside a shed for the last five years of her life by choice, recovery and her over protective father. Talk about Rachel having the scars later on in life instead of growing up with them and it impacted the character. Did that aspect help to define her personality, attitude and fear she faces in the story?
She’s not Quasimodo. Rachel is damaged, but in many ways she’s still the same person she was before the hellish experience. If the last five years were her entire life experience, we can assume that she’d be a very different person…and probably a lot closer to what Jason expected when he first met her! She’s not somebody who says, “Well, this is the existence that I deserve.” Sure, she’s hideously disfigured, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant that Jason is fifteen years older than her. She’s a strong character who has retained her core personality despite the nightmare she’s endured.
What was the thinking behind not only cutting Rachel face with a straight razor but using a blow torch? Why that specific? Why a straight razor?
It had to go further than just a burnt face. It had to be something that Jason would have never encountered before; thus, she was sliced up and burnt. I didn’t consider other weapons. A straight razor just naturally felt more menacing than a hunting knife or any other tool he could’ve used. (At least without going too far over the top. I mean, he could’ve used a potato peeler or a meat tenderizer and taken the scene into true Grand Guignol, but that’s not what I was going for.)
Jason Tray is a wonderfully sarcastic character that I connect to. He has an ego and a hero complex to him also that really through most of the book seems to cause more harm than good. Is he the best balance of protagonist and antagonist in the book? Why go with him as the narrator? Was writing a comic strip a dream job?
We see in the very first chapter that Jason creates his own problems, but his heart is always in the right place. He sees a wrongdoing, and chooses to get involved, even if it might be better to mind his own business. I don’t see him as an “antagonist” in the book. He certainly upsets the status quo, but it wasn’t a very good status quo.
Many of my heroes (Toby in Dweller, Alex in Pressure, Rebecca in Faint of Heart, Andrew Mayhem, etc.) do not have a lot of self-confidence. For Blister, I wanted to mix it up a bit and have the narrator be an alpha male. As a contrast to Rachel, he needed to be somebody who was very comfortable in his own skin.
And, yes, my dream job would be to write and draw a comic strip. If only I could draw…
The story offers both realistic horror with the elements of fear, hate, revenge and body horror with the characters in this town. Can you talk about those elements of horror and how they played into the pace and movement of the story? Also, having a town legend like Blister, we all have these myth figures as we grew up. Did you have one where you lived? What kind of fun is it to craft your own?
Blister is a horror/mystery/love story/comedy and I tried to play around with the reader’s expectations with each element. So the first big horror scene happens sooner than you might think, and some heavily comedic moments happen after the book seems to be getting down to serious business.
I don’t remember any one specific town legend, but I grew up in Alaska, where in the middle of winter it would be complete darkness when I left for school and complete darkness when I got out of school, so we certainly had our share of creepy stories. For us, though, it was more about unsavory neighbors than deformed kids being locked in basements.
Much of the fun of “the legend of Blister” came from the idea that the town had many different variations of Blister’s story, some of which veered into the realm of the supernatural. That was actually something I’d originally wanted to explore more, but I didn’t want the reader to think the book might be headed in that direction.
Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) is such an infamous catalyst in Blister as we see Rachel, Brandon and his friend Allen deal with it in different ways. Do you have a fear of clowns? Was it always the focus in the different drafts of the novel to have the real visceral horror be surrounding a clown? Talk about the description of that scene in the book and how it helps to define Rachel?
I don’t have a fear of clowns myself, though as a guy who has embraced the “horror comedy” label it’s the perfect image. My second short story collection is called Dead Clown Barbecue, I wrote the vampire clown point-of-view chapters in Draculas (my collaborative novel with F. Paul Wilson, JA Konrath, and Blake Crouch) and I’m planning to do a full-fledged scary clown novel very soon.
The clown was in Blister from the beginning. Truthfully, I went with a clown because it fulfilled the requirement of the story without needing additional backstory. I can basically say, “Rachel’s got a phobia of clowns” and the reader doesn’t demand a complex psychological explanation for how she got this way.
It’s not focused on as much but what role did the death of Rachel’s mother and Malcom’s wife play on their relationship?
Malcolm’s already lost somebody close to him, and he’s not willing to lose anybody else. You have to assume that he’d be making better parenting decisions if he had to discuss these things with his wife.
One thing that reflects in Blister, is the influence of the Takashi Miike film Ichi the Killer for several reasons. Any connection? If not what did influence the idea of this story?
This is where I have to shamefully admit that not only have I ever seen Ichi the Killer, but I don’t know what it’s about. But I’ve seen Audition, so I hope that redeems me a bit. The influence was a more general desire to put a spin on the “parents keep deformed kid in basement/attic/shed” trope, and of course there’s some Beauty and the Beast in there.
Why did you have Sheriff Baker as the moral compass of the story? Why is he such a flawed character?
Baker definitely cares about his job and wants to do the right thing. I think we can assume that in his perfect world, where a “big” night involved breaking up a drunken brawl, he’d do an excellent job of keeping the peace in Lake Gladys. His primary flaw is that he lets himself get pushed around, which is not a good character trait for a law enforcement professional. I’m not sure I would call him the moral compass. He and Jason both see the same thing. The difference is that Baker considers it a private family issue, and he knows that getting involved could be messy. Jason doesn’t care about the mess. Who is right?
What is next for you and where can they find out more?
I have a novella called Cold Dead Hands that will be published by Cemetery Dance. There’s no publication date set as of now, so don’t start bugging them quite yet. A feature film adaptation of that book is currently in pre-production, to be directed by Lynne (“Chomp“) Hansen. My next young adult novel, Stranger Things Have Happened, will be out in early 2017 from Sourcebooks. I have various other projects, one of which will be out very soon, but they’re all in “can’t blab about it yet” status.
People can learn more than they ever wanted to know at www.jeffstrand.com.
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