Friday, June 19, 2020

Leisure and Me




My first mass-market horror novel, Like Death, was published by Leisure Books in 2005.  Before that, I’d published a horror novel called The Harmony Society in 2003 with small-press publisher Prime Books, but it hadn’t gotten much notice. Plus, back then, Leisure was where it was at when it came to horror fiction. The horror boom of the 1980’s was long over by the early 2000’s. Back in the 80’s, I’d been concentrating on writing fantasy novels (none of which ever sold), and while I occasionally wrote horror short stories, I didn’t start publishing them with any regularly until the 90’s. I wish I’d tried to write a horror back then. I certainly was reading plenty of it. But despite the massive amount of horror paperbacks on the shelves in bookstores and supermarkets, I didn’t realize that it was a booming market where a young writer like me might be able to break in. There was no Internet yet, so no message boards or social media chatter where people might’ve advised me to Submit a horror novel to Zebra Books, you idiot! I can’t tell you why it didn’t occur to me to try writing a horror novel back then. I’d been a horror fan all my life, and I think maybe horror meant so much to me that I was intimidated to try it at novel length. I sometimes wonder how different my writing career might’ve been if I’d gotten my start as a horror writer during the 80’s.

I did catch the next horror boom in the early 2000’s, though, led by Leisure Books. These days, those of us who published with Leisure are viewed as horror veterans. A lot of younger writers read Leisure horror growing up, and our books were the ones which influenced their artistic development. (This is hard for me to believe sometimes. I wrote books that someone read, enjoyed, and which influenced their writing? Me?) The other day I ran across a Word file containing a couple articles I wrote for Leisure’s website back in the day to help publicize a couple of my books. I haven’t republished them anywhere, and I figured I’d post them here on my blog for anyone that might be interested. And that thought led to another. I haven’t written much about my experiences with Leisure, but it occurred to me that now would be a good time to rectify that, and that’s just what I’m going to do. Once you finish reading my current thoughts on Leisure, you can read the two previous articles, neither of which has seen the light of day for fourteen years. I left them just as they were, for better or worse. Both talk about the inspirations for my second and third Leisure novels – Pandora Drive and Darkness Wakes.

Before I continue, let me say up front that my experiences with Leisure – and especially with my editor, Don D’Auria – were all positive. When the company eventually began to collapse (and Don had left) I asked for the rights to my books back, and I got them before Leisure died, plunged into bankruptcy, and everything went to hell. I was lucky. A lot of writers weren’t, and they had to fight tooth and nail to get the rights to their books reverted to them. Brian Keene was instrumental in helping Leisure authors get their rights back, and I’m not sure people are aware of just how hard he fought for his fellow writers. That alone makes him a true hero of horror in my book.
I will say that there are audiobooks of my Leisure novels available on Amazon, and I have no idea who put them there or who’s getting the money for them – because it sure isn’t me. I’ve made inquiries of Amazon over the years and have gotten nowhere. I think the audio rights to my books were sold to Amazon with a bunch of other Leisure titles back during the company’s bankruptcy, and someone in the company handling the bankruptcy didn’t realize Leisure no longer had any rights to my titles, audio included. At this point, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to figure out what happened or get the audio rights to those books back. And honestly, I’m so busy writing new stuff to care very much. So if you’ve bought – or want to buy – any of those audiobooks, it’s fine with me. I just hope you enjoy them.

So, here, for the first time, is my Leisure story.

In the summer of 1999 – ten years after I finished grad school with my MA in English – I finally landed a full-time tenure-track gig at Sinclair Community College, back in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. I’d been teaching part-time and writing for the previous decade, but my first wife was pregnant with our second daughter, and she wanted to cut back on her work as a psychologist so she could spend more time with our new child than she had with our first. I was our first daughter’s primary caregiver during the day while my wife worked (I taught and wrote at night), and I thought it only fair that my wife got her chance to be a (mostly) stay-at-home mom. This meant I needed a full-time job, and I was thrilled to land one, especially at Sinclair, where I was hired to teach composition and creative writing, and to serve as the department’s coordinator of creative activities. But we lived in Columbus at the time, about a ninety-minute drive from Dayton, which meant we needed to move. My wife, however, was on bedrest. Our first daughter had been born prematurely, and my wife’s doctor advised her to remain in bed as much as she could during her second pregnancy. This meant she couldn’t travel to Dayton with me to look at houses. There were no smart phones back then, no Facetime, etc., so I took a video camera with me to record my walk-throughs of potential new homes.
During my trips to Dayton, whenever I stopped someplace to eat or gas up my car, I kept seeing missing child fliers for a nine-year-old girl named Erica Baker. They were everywhere. My first daughter was four years old, and I kept thinking that I was moving my family to a place where young girls disappeared. Yeah, I know, my horror writer’s imagination was at work, but it was also my father’s protective instincts kicking in as well. It was so damn sinister. (Poor Erica’s disappearance would remain a mystery for years, but eventually the man who hit and killed her with his van confessed. He had a criminal record, and he took her body from the scene in the hope of concealing the girl’s death. He was convicted and served time, but Eric’s body has never been found.) Those fliers stayed up for years, and Erica’s face and name haunted me during all that time.

As I settled in to my new job at Sinclair, I started publishing horror stories more regularly and in higher-profile venues such as Cemetery Dance. I’d worked hard to develop a “Tim Waggoner” style of horror, a kind of surreal, psychological dark fantasy. I’d used this style in The Harmony Society, but now I wanted to try to write a horror novel and sell it to Leisure. At the time, Leisure was putting out two horror novels a month, and I bought and read almost all of them. Don D'Auria published all kinds of horror, from fun pulp to more literary stuff, and I loved it all. I felt that Don was as much a horror fan as I was, and that if anyone could “get” my stuff, he would. Even after having completed The Harmony Society, I didn’t have a good grasp on how to tell the kind of surreal stories I liked to write at novel length. But after reading Douglas Clegg’s You Come When I Call You and Tom Piccirilli’s A Lower Deep (both Leisure releases, of course), I felt I’d finally figured it out.
I decided to use the mystery of a missing child in my story, remembering how haunted I’d been by Erica Baker’s disappearance, but I needed more. I decided to challenge myself by using two horror tropes that in general I find disinteresting – ghosts and serial killers – and see what I could do with them. I also decided that I’d let my imagination run completely wild and let it take me wherever it would.

The result was Like Death.

It was 2002, and I planned to attend the World Horror Convention in Chicago. Several editors were going to be taking pitches from authors at the con, Don among them, and I was ready and eager to pitch Like Death. I emailed the appropriate person to request pitch sessions, and I specifically asked for Don, but I didn’t get him. I was assigned to pitch to a couple other editors. I was very disappointed not to get a pitch session with Don, but I decided that I’d try to talk to him at the con and see if he’d be interested in taking a look at my novel.

It was only a few months after 9/11, and I was nervous about flying, but I was determined to go. Several days before the con, I fell onto a paved park path while carrying my second daughter, and while I managed to hold onto her and land on my side, protecting her from the impact, I didn’t do such a good job protecting my ribs. (Ironically, this was the same park which features in that chapter in Like Death, and if you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about.) A visit to my doctor revealed my ribs weren’t broken, or even cracked, but they hurt like a bitch. I have medical anxiety, and I made the mistake of researching rib injuries on the Internet. I learned that people often don’t breathe deeply enough when their ribs hurt, and that they sometimes contract pneumonia because of this. You better believe I started breathing as deeply as I could.

When I got to the con, I was already majorly stressed. My job demanded a lot from me, and my wife was still working in Columbus on the weekends, during which she’d stay with her parents who lived there, leaving me to wrangle both of our daughters while she was away. I was trying to grade papers and write on the weekends too, and my anxiety in general was through the roof, and I wasn’t taking meds for it. Traveling to the con, and being surrounded by so many people all the time just made things worse. I did get to meet Charles L. Grant, who was awarded the Grandmaster award that year, after only knowing him from the GEnie message boards, as well as Bob Weinberg and Lois Gresh, and a number of other online friends. Online friends were a new thing back then, and it was pretty special to get together with them in real life. And Charlie Grant was an absolutely legend.

The editor and agent pitches were on Saturday morning. Don D’Auria’s plane was delayed, and he didn’t make it. I pitched Like Death to a British editor who told me she liked the book’s premise but that “horror is crap right now” in terms of the market, so there was little chance she would publish it. I think she requested my agent send the book to her anyway. In my mind, I was like Why come all the way from England to a horror convention and listen to pitches for horror novels if you think the market for horror is crap? Later in the day, Don made it to the con, and after a panel he was on, I caught him in the hallway, introduced myself, and asked if he was going to be rescheduling the pitch sessions he’d missed. I didn’t tell him I hadn’t actually been scheduled for one of those sessions, though. Don pulled out a small planner notebook, and we made an appointment to meet for a pitch. I’m sure it was later that day, but I don’t remember when we got together specifically. When I pitched Like Death to Don, he thought it sounded good and told me to have my agent send it to him. I was, of course, thrilled – and I felt guilty for having scammed my way into a pitch session with him, but not that guilty.


Don D'Auria and me at the 2006 World Horror Convention in San Francisco

All of my stress – over my job, my hurt ribs, being an introvert acting like an extrovert for the weekend – began to get the best of me. On Sunday morning, I accidently took a double dose of Sudafed, had way too many cups of coffee at breakfast, and my heart rate shot into the stratosphere. My rapid pulse only made me more anxious, and instead of catching my flight home, I called a cab to take me to the nearest hospital. I figured I was fine, but I didn’t want to take a chance that I wasn’t. I wish I’d just gone home. Instead, I ended up in a lousy hospital (with a staff who hated working there and complained about it all the time) in the cardiac unit for three days before I finally got an ultrasound of my heart, and a doctor told me my problem was just stress and I should go home. He gave me a few beta blockers and some anxiety meds to take, and told me to follow up with my doctor at home. Sometimes I think that this experience was the Universe’s way of balancing the scales. Like Death would eventually get published, so I had to endure several days in a miserable hospital with a pulse that kept pounding like a jackrabbit’s, trying to convince myself I wasn’t going to die. (I started taking an anti-anxiety med as well as an antidepressant after that. I got some therapy, learned how to manage my anxiety and establish a better work-life balance, and in general I’ve been fine ever since.)
Don had Like Death for a couple years before he made an offer. Several years later, I was at a con in New York City, and I got to visit Don at the Leisure offices. He had manuscripts stacked everywhere in his office, and I understood then why it had taken Don so long to read my book. He actually read all the submissions he got. When Don made the offer, I discovered that Leisure’s advances were low, but Leisure books showed up in bookstores all over the country (back when there were a lot more bookstores around), they had a horror club people could join and get each month’s horror books mailed to them, and they promoted their books on the web and in horror magazines. I decided all of that was more important to me than a larger advance at that point in my career. Plus, Don liked the weird-ass horror that I wrote, and when a writer connects with an editor who really understands their stuff and who believes in it as much as you do . . . well, that means a whole hell of a lot. And it was cool to be a Leisure author. In the horror community, it was like being a celebrity, plus it was wonderful to see my work come out from the same company that published so many writers I admired: Gary A. Braunbeck, Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Tom Piccirilli, Douglas Clegg, Bryan Smith, J.F. Gonzalez, Thomas Tessier, Melanie Tem, Sara Pinborough, John Skipp, Tim Lebbon, T.M. Wright, Mary Sangiovanni, Edward Lee, Richard Laymon, Mort Castle, P.D. Cacek, Simon Clark, Ray Garton, Sephera Giron, Ed Gorman, Jeff Strand, John Everson, Rick Hautala, Elizabeth Massie, Graham Masterton, William Nolan, James Moore, Michael Laimo . . .

Like Death was published, got good reviews, and horror readers seemed to dig it. The artist Caniglia did the cover, and he was nice enough to send me a print of it, which hangs in my office to this day. 



Like Death was followed by two more books: Pandora Drive and Darkness Wakes. My sales weren’t awesome, and Don told me that if they didn’t pick up, he might not be able to make an offer on a fourth book from me. I realized that I hadn’t done a whole lot to promote my first two Leisure releases, so I decided I was going to do my best to promote the hell out of Darkness Wakes. And during my efforts, I made the mistake of mentioning on a horror message board that if the book didn’t sell well, Leisure would likely drop me.

(A quick aside: Some year’s later I found out that a woman in Florida read Pandora Drive and, fearing that I might be dangerous to my students, wrote a letter to the Dayton police department. You can read the letter here: http://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/2011/11/think-before-you-slice.htm)


Me at the 2006 WHC reading from the novel that makes Florida women think I'm a dangerous lunatic


Then Leisure began getting emails and posts on their website’s message boards asking them to keep publishing me. Most of these messages were polite and professional, but – and this won’t come as a shock to those of you who’ve spent more than a few seconds on the Internet – some were not. I appreciate those readers who liked my work well enough to ask Leisure to bring out more books by me, but the publisher wasn’t happy with the optics of the whole situation which people saw as Mean company being mean to nice writer of weird horror. Don relayed the publisher’s unhappiness to me, and I began to spread the word that, while I appreciated people’s support, it would probably be best for everyone to get off Leisure’s case for a while. Thankfully, people listened.

Leisure ended up dropping me anyway. Did the email/message board campaign I accidentally started have anything to do with it? I doubt it. I’d long known that writers have about three books to establish themselves, and if you don’t sell well enough, that publisher won’t bring out your fourth book. I was disappointed, of course, but I’d been writing tie-in books for Wizards of the Coast, as well as other companies (I know better than to ever put all my eggs in one basket in this business), and I continued onward, writing and publishing, sometimes more tie-in stuff, sometimes horror for small-press publishers.

Eventually, Don was hired to create a horror line for Samhain, a small-press romance publisher that wanted to branch out. I sent him my surreal zombie apocalypse novel The Way of All Flesh. He published it and also re-printed my novella A Strange and Savage Garden. No advances, royalties only, but I figured it was worth it to work with Don again. If anyone could build a successful horror line, it was him. But Samhain had no clue how to market horror, and the publisher eventually died. Don worked as a freelance editor for a while, then he got the chance to develop a horror line at Flame Tree Press, where he’s published my novels The Mouth of the Dark, They Kill, and The Forever House, with Your Turn to Suffer and We Will Rise written and forthcoming. And I recently signed to do two more books for Flame Tree (which I have yet to write): A Hunter Called Night and Lord of the Feast. Once these last two books are written, I’ll have done twelve books with Don, the most I’ve done with any editor. It’s pretty damn amazing when I take the time to think about it. Flame Tree, while small press, busts their asses to promote their authors, and I’m happy with how things have worked out there for me. I still write media tie-in novels for other publishers, which I enjoy, but horror is where my cold black heart will always be – and Leisure was where it all started.
Okay, as I promised earlier, here are the two essays I wrote for Leisure’s website back in the day. Hopefully they’ll provide a little more insight to the books I did for Leisure – and into where horror authors get their strange ideas.

Cruising by Pandora Drive


Close to twenty years ago, my wife and I were still newlyweds, both in graduate school, living in a small apartment, childless and – despite all the studying we had to do and papers we had to write – with plenty of time on our hands.

One afternoon during those newlywed days, we were out driving around the Dayton, Ohio, area with no particular destination in mind. (Given how today I have to drive like Speed Racer on a cocaine and amphetamine cocktail just to get somewhere late, the idea of driving for the fun of it seems nearly unfathomable to me now.) I can’t remember which of us was driving. Probably me since I hate being a passenger and am only truly comfortable in a vehicle if I’m operating it. (Can you say control issues?) As we were driving around, a street sign caught my eye. It said Pandora Drive.

I grew up in the country, where most roads are named after families who’d lived in the area since God was a teenager. Mote Road, Emerick Road, Jay Road . . . Serviceable names, but hardly evocative for someone like me, blessed (or cursed, you might say) with an overactive imagination.

But Pandora Drive . . . now there was a street name to conjure with! A story idea popped into my head. What if there was a woman, a Pandora, living on this street? And what if, like her counterpart in Greek myth, she unleashed terrible woes upon her friends and neighbors? But unlike the classical Pandora, the plagues mine would release would come from the repressed fantasies and desires of those who were unfortunate enough to live close to her.

The basic concept was workable, I was sure of that, but there was something missing . . .

Fast forward a couple decades.

Around the time my first daughter was born in the mid-nineties, we lived in a small apartment in Columbus, Ohio. Like so many good-sized cities, what everyone thought of as “Columbus” was really a downtown surrounded by other communities of varying sizes, each with its own name and separate identity. One of these places was called Minerva Park – another evocative name, one reminiscent of Pandora Drive. The cool thing about this community was that earlier in the twentieth century, it had been home to an amusement park. Of course, the park was old and abandoned by now, but the idea that people still lived nearby, that they’d even named the town after the park, fascinated me.

As so often happens when I’m writing, it seemed to me that two ideas – Pandora Drive and Minerva Park – might just be better than one. So I popped them both into the old mental mix-master, hit puree, and viola! Pandora Drive the novel was born.

Fast forward to last summer. In my author photo for Like Death, I’m wearing the same black jacket that I describe my main character wearing. It was just coincidence. I gave Scott that jacket only because I have a lousy imagination when it comes to real-world details.

Pandora Drive was a real place and that we were once again living in the Dayton area, it might be fun to have the author photo for this novel taken with me standing in front of the street sign. So we loaded our two daughters into our suburban cliché-mobile – a mini-van – and set out in search of a road I hadn’t seen in twenty years. (In case you’re wondering, we also had a ladder in the back to get me high enough so my face would be near the street sign.)


After a twenty-minute drive we reached our destination, and I was absolutely shocked and delighted. For across the street from the very road sign that inspired my book was a carnival: Ferris wheel, moon walk, funnel cakes, the whole deep-fried and outrageously overpriced enchilada. I couldn’t tell what organization – a church perhaps? – was sponsoring the carnival, and I didn’t care. We parked the van and set up the ladder next to the street sign with the carnival clearly visible in the background. I smiled and my wife snapped a few pictures.

Now you tell me: what are the odds of my coming up with a novel idea from a street sign, years later adding an amusement park into the mix, and then, after the novel has been accepted for publication and I’m returning to the street sign for the first time in two decades to have my picture taken, that there should be an honest-to-God carnival across the street?

And people wonder why I write the kind of stuff I do.



Darkness Wakes: Doors to Temptation

Originally posted on Leisure Books’ website in 2006.

There’s something almost impossible to resist about a door. Just ask Bluebeard’s wife, or the children who stumble upon the entrance to Narnia. Closed, locked, forbidden . . . Possibilities lie behind those doors, secrets both dark and wonderful. Will we have the courage to reach out, turn the knob, pull the door open, and step across the threshold? And if we do – once we’re on the other side and the door swings shut behind us with a soft snick of a lock being engaged – will we regret what we find there? Will we turn around, suddenly afraid, grip the knob and twist, only to find it locked, only to realize that a door, once it’s closed on us, can never truly be opened again?

It’s summertime, several years ago. My car needs to go into the shop for one reason or other. I can’t recall, but I’m sure whatever it was, it was expensive. My wife and daughters are going to come pick me up in the van after I drop off the other vehicle, but they can’t get there right away. No problem, I say. I’ll just walk over to the strip mall across the street and browse in the video store. They can pick me up there.

Southwestern Ohio can be stifling in the summer, and lines of sweat are rolling down the sides of my face by the time I enter the video store. I push the glass door open with a bell-tinkle, and a wave of air-conditioned cool slams into me like a sledgehammer carved out of ice. I nod “hello” to the indifferent clerk behind the counter and try to ignore the faint odor of mold and must as I begin checking out the display of previously used videos for sale. I make it a point to take my time browsing, knowing that it’s going to be a while before my wife and kids get here. (My wife runs on her own internal clock that never seems to be in sync with the rest of the world.) Eventually, tired of putzing around, I select a couple films – horror movies, probably, but I can’t remember – pay for them, and head back outside.

Now the sledgehammer that hits me feels as if it’s been forged from molten steel, but I ignore it. After all, I’ll just hop into our air-conditioned van and . . . Except, of course, the van’s not there. Wife-Time hasn’t caught up with Real-Time yet. Mildly irritated, but not really surprised, I decide to walk up and down the sidewalk in front of the strip mall. While I come here to rent videos all the time, I realize I have no idea what other businesses are housed on the premises. I’ve seen them, sure, but I’ve never really paid attention to them. And as a writer, I’m supposed to pay attention – to everything.

Time to rectify this, I decide, and start walking.

I travel less than ten yards from the entrance to the video store – past a row of vending machines distributing newspapers and freebie publications of various sorts – before I find myself standing in front of a gray metal door. I stop and stare at it. There’s no business name on the door or above it, no windows on either side displaying wares. Nothing but brown brick surrounding it, flaking gray paint, rust nibbling at the chrome knob, the word FUCL scratched onto the surface, as if someone with a mild learning disability tried to leave their mark by etching an obscenity. I feel a thrill of adrenaline just below my sternum, a tingly-itchy sensation at the base of my skull. Here I am, maybe a dozen steps from the video store, and I’m standing in front of a door I have never noticed before. That, perhaps, never had been here before.

My imagination, always hyperactive at the best of times, kicks into overdrive.

The family van – a Ford Sierra displaying a license plate reading WAGGVAN – pulls up to the sidewalk sometime later (how long, I’m not sure). I climb into its air-conditioned comfort, and my wife starts apologizing for being so late. I barely hear her, mumble something along the lines of “That’s okay, honey.” I’m still thinking about that door . . .

Several days later, I’ve finished a short story titled “When God Opens a Door.” I’m pleased with it (which is saying something since, like a lot of writers, I worry that everything I produce is crap) and send it off to Robert Morrish at Cemetery Dance magazine. Robert accepts the tale, and it eventually appears in CD 46. I imagine the kudos and award nominations rolling in, the requests to reprint the story in every Year’s Best Of anthology. (Remember what I said earlier about my hyperactive imagination?) That doesn’t happen, of course, but the story is received well enough, and I move on other projects.

A few years pass. I’ve published two horror novels with Leisure Books – Like Death and Pandora Drive – and I’m casting about for an idea to build a third book on. Let me amend that: I’m searching for a great idea. I have ideas all the time; the problem is sorting through the commonplace ones to find the gems, those worth developing into fully realized stories and novels.

Once more I find myself thinking about the FUCL door, and Darkness Wakes is born. The title was inspired by a fragment from the song “Music of the Night” in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera: “Darkness wakes and stirs imagination.” That door certainly stirred my imagination.

I hope it does the same for yours.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

Like Death was originally published in 2005.

You find used paperbacks of the Leisure edition fairly easily, but Apex Publications re-released it in 2011. You can find it as a trade paperback here: https://www.amazon.com/Tim-Waggoner/dp/1937009092/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=tim+waggoner+like+death&qid=1592595529&s=books&sr=1-1



Pandora Drive was originally published early in 2006.

You can find used paperbacks of it too fairly easily, and it’s been re-released by Crossroad Press as an ebook which you can pick up here: https://www.amazon.com/Pandora-Drive-Tim-Waggoner-ebook/dp/B00J6NH8SY/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=tim+waggoner+pandora+drive&qid=1592594981&s=books&sr=1-1


Darkness Wakes was originally published later in 2006.

You can find used paperbacks of this one fairly easily as well, and it’s also been re-released as an ebook by Crossroad Press: https://www.amazon.com/Darkness-Wakes-Tim-Waggoner-ebook/dp/B00PBTX4W6/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=tim+waggoner+darkness+wakes&qid=1592595296&s=books&sr=1-1


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2 comments:

  1. Hi Tim,

    Very insightful - thank you for sharing. As a (relatively) new author, I greatly appreciate any in-the-trenches industry stories from established writers. Don D'Auria's name rang a bell, so I did some digging through my emails.

    A few years ago I submitted a manuscript to Samhain. It was nowhere near publishable condition, but I was just starting out trying to submit my stuff and had no clue what I was doing. Some months later I received Don D'Auria's response - a rejection, but in the nicest terms possible. His words encouraged me to keep writing (and submitting). More and more of my stories saw print, and my first novel was published this March.

    Small gesture, but it meant a lot to me. I hope I get the chance to work with Don someday.

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