The year is 1860, the world is so much simpler, peaceful and vast. This is not the case, however, for Sheriff Sam Lock who is investigating a series of bizarre events surrounding the Crownhill Family and their patriarch. Trapped in a massive snow storm, a mad figure is on the loose killing with a focused evil against the white and endless canvas on the vast estate of Evermore. Thrilling, tense, off-balanced and gothic, Beneath Ash & Bone is the latest from talented author D. Alexander Ward through Necro Publishing. Ward took some time out to discuss with Jay Kay a variety of topics including the authentic feel, racism, dark secrets, gothic horror and more for the Horror News Network.
Jay Kay: Thank you David for taking the time out to speak about Beneath Ash & Bone. First, talk about how this novel developed?
D. Alexander Ward: I’m a big fan of old Victorian Gothic tales or stories that use that setting and that vibe. So, I wanted to marry the Victorian Gothic with the Southern Gothic, mix it up with some murder mystery and some supernatural horror. That was pretty much the world I wanted to create when I started fleshing out the story and the characters.
JK: Beneath Ash & Bone takes place in 1860. What went into the overall research for the characters, setting, description and investigation?
DAW: Being a Virginian myself with an interest in history, I kind of already had most of the basic tools to render the period, setting, and characters well enough. The biggest challenge was not to include too many anachronistic expressions or modes of thought but still be able to tell the story in language that is pretty contemporary.
JK: We deal with different shades of racism. How did you handle writing this theme especially during a time period of slavery in 1860?
DAW: I didn’t want to whitewash the issue of slavery and race but I also felt like to really examine it and delve into it, that would be a longer book and a very different kind of book. So I tried to acknowledge it and to honor those who had been put through it. But in the book, the characters are isolated because of the storm so we only have this one family and a handful of their freed slaves who have various kinds of personal relationships with the family members. And within that little microcosm of the outside world, we find that there are indeed different shades of racism (from institutionalized to overt) shown toward these servants who are now almost like family. Which seems a strange dichotomy, but it exists because all of these people are products of their time in history and their environments.
JK: With the character and catalyst of William, you deal with age, gender, race and family status. How powerful was the sequence with William’s death and mutilation? Was it a challenge to create a crime scene in a blanket of snow?
DAW: It was! But I was able to use the snowstorm as a way of slowly revealing things. Peeling back the layers.
JK: Where did the two main characters of Sheriff Sam Lock and the free slave Colvin come from? Any personal influences?
DAW: I wanted to create this kind of odd couple of Sheriff Sam and the freed slave Colvin. There’s a bond there, certainly, but—like everything else with this story—it’s not without suspicion and secrets. I’ve known men like Colvin and like Sam but I can’t say either one is directly based on someone in particular. There’s some of me in Sam, some of my own father in him, too. Bits and pieces of other men I know and greatly respect also.
JK: Can you talk about Lock’s guilt and the burden he carries from the relationship with his father? How did you balance duty versus fear connected with being a man?
DAW: With Sheriff Sam Lock, he comes to the story with baggage. And in this case, it’s that he does not ever feel like he will measure up to his father as a lawman. His father could ride faster, shoot quicker and straighter, had a zeal for the law, and was ruthless in his application of it. Sam falls short in all those things and he feels it especially after having failed his father when he was a deputy, which resulted in his father’s death. So that is some massive guilt he carries around. And even though he doesn’t feel like he measures up, being a lawman is his lot in life, so he stands on principle and does what needs to be done. He’s kind of a paladin in that way, if maybe a somewhat reluctant one.
JK: Can you talk about the Crownhill Family as a whole? Where did the idea of Evermore come from? What is so intriguing about a family’s dark secrets?
DAW: Since I was trying to blend Victorian Gothic and Southern Gothic, it seemed only logical to have it centered around this family who clearly represent the aristocracy in the Antebellum South. Although they are maybe more on the outside of it than they used to be. So, you have the rich white family, the big spooky house, and the salt-of-the-earth hero in Sheriff Sam. And he gets a taste of this family’s quality of life only to find out that it’s not as it appears on the surface. There’s darkness and secrets and tragedy just like with any family. And I believe that is true. “Every family has secrets” was kind of a tag line I played with in connection to the book. Granted that your family’s secrets and families are probably not as dramatic as those of the Crownhill’s, but they’re there. Maybe it’s the alcoholic grandfather no one talks about or the worrisome nephew who is too fond of setting things on fire or the aunt who miscarried even though her husband is known to be infertile…those are small dramas that everyday families have. But I do believe they are there.
JK: What does a massive snow storm offer to this book and as tool of conflict?
DAW: You know, I love stories where the environment becomes important enough to almost be an antagonistic character itself. The snow storm in the book provides the disappearance that kicks off the story and then disrupts the normal flow of Sheriff Sam’s investigation. Also, in a way similar to the storm in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, it serves as a means to keep these characters together in one place so the story can play out without the distractions and resources of the outside world.
JK: What kind of challenge and enjoyment comes with writing investigation and mystery?
DAW: Mostly I worried about getting the investigative procedure and mindset right for a small-town sheriff in the South of the early 1860s. That’s one of those things that can be hard to nail down no matter how much research you do. I worried about it some but I did not let it get in the way of the story since it wasn’t like I was trying to depict detailed forensics as they might have been. The enjoyment is in seeing where the mystery takes me, because I don’t always know when I start out. It’s in shaping the final story and seeing it come to life.
JK: The idea of sexuality has a different and twisted perception. You find different shades of taboo in Beneath Ash & Bone. Can you talk about the balance and correct usage to create a full effect?
DAW: Well, as I think I mentioned in the radio interview, this started out as a short story in a contemporary setting…the concept of it did, I mean. I wanted to explore issues of perception of guilt and innocence, and who is culpable and not culpable for acts of extreme violence with sexual overtones attached. The sexuality and the darkness of it here in the story are not as shocking in a contemporary setting because we hear of such awful things so regularly that we have built up an emotional resistance to it. I thought if I could place it in our culture of two hundred and fifty years ago, and present it through that lens, it would have more weight to it and would help to maximize the effect of the story. I like to think I was successful to a degree.
JK: Beneath Ash & Bone changes tone and focus almost two thirds through and becomes a different story in all. Why shift the focus of horror in the final third?
DAW: Because it is a Gothic story at its heart, the murder mystery aspect of it—although definitely peppered with building elements of the supernatural—sets the story up for its almost inevitable supernatural climax. So that final third of the book is when the gloves come off, so to speak.
JK: How was your experience with Necro Publishing on this book?
DAW: Well, this is my second book with Necro / Bedlam Publications and Dave Barnett since Necro put out my first novel, Blood Savages. It’s always a good experience working with Dave, who is a great guy and produces a quality product.
JK: Your experience with such recent anthologies as Shadows Over Main Street: An Anthology of Small-Town Lovecraftian Terror (Volume 1), Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, and O Little Town of Deathlehem: An Anthology of Holiday Horrors for Charity to just name a few, offers a way to explore, practice and create short form horror storytelling. How has your experience with anthologies not only helped you as a writer but with cultivating Beneath Ash & Bone?
DAW: Before I wrote my novella, After the Fire and then Blood Savages, I wrote short stories exclusively. Since I published Blood Savages and Beneath Ash & Bone, though, I have done very little short story writing. Of course, with the Shadows Over Main Street books and Gutted, I came at those as a co-editor rather than a contributor so it’s a very different point of view. I really enjoy it, though, and enjoy having a hand in seeing something for the first time and then getting it out there into the world for all to see, to read and enjoy. And being an editor does help me during my writing process because I learn new things from each editing project. Craft things about what works and what doesn’t…just by seeing what others have done. It’s the same thing you can get from just reading books and short stories but the difference—for me—is that I read for pleasure and I don’t like to get analytical about what I am reading if I am enjoying it. But when I put my editing hat on, I have to look at the stories analytically. I went back and forth on Beneath Ash & Bone to try and get the balance of all the elements I wanted in there just right. And I don’t think I could have done that without the experiences I have had as an anthology editor.
JK: How has the Horror Writers Association benefited your writing especially when it comes to Beneath Ash & Bone?
DAW: The HWA is overall pretty supportive of its writer members. Everyone kind of has their own needs and uses for the organization and for me, it’s mostly about the networking and the camaraderie. So,while I can’t say I specifically utilized HWA resources to write Beneath Ash & Bone, there are some great authors and reviewers who I’ve been exposed to because of the organization and for that I am very grateful.
JK: What is next for you? Where can we pick up Beneath Ash & Bone? Where can we find out more about D. Alexander Ward?
DAW: If you’re really into it, a hardback and all other formats are available at NecroPublications.com. My website is dalexward.com and I am on Facebook and on Twitter, too. As far as what’s next for me, I am editing an anthology coming out in 2018 called LOST HIGHWAYS: Dark Fictions From the Road. As well, I have a couple new books in different stages of being written and finished so hopefully there will be some good news from those at some point. We’ve also completed production on the audio book of Beneath Ash & Bone so look for that on Audible and elsewhere very, very soon. And who knows, I may yet return to Selburn, Virginia and look in on Sheriff Sam Lock, see what he’s up to. Only time will tell.
JK: Thanks for your time. Best of luck with Beneath Ash & Bone.