It was a pleasure being a part of Kenneth W. Cain’s Book Blog Tour. I’ve had the privilege of reading this awesome collection. I highly recommend it. Cain’s career is destined to be a long one!
Release date is March 31st! Mark your calendars!
BE: Good to have you here, Ken. I was lucky enough to get a review copy of your collection, Embers which will be published soon by Crystal Lake Publishing. I was particularly struck by the emotions in or behind these stories, like, The Chamber, Gone and Final Breaths, just to name a few. How did you summon the courage to write these stories? The latter really pulled at my heartstrings.
KWC: I tend to wear my heart on my sleeves for all to see. My wife Heather claims it was one of the things she first found attractive about me, that I had this emotional side. The truth about these stories is that I’ve experienced great heartache and loss.
Being raised as a Christian, I was brought up with that religious guilt. That’s been a struggle right from the beginning. When several young men ganged up on me for my Germanic roots, I felt guilty, though I’d done nothing to warrant that fight. Listen, I can’t change the fact that I was born as a white mostly German male, but if you know me, I’m not one of THOSE types. I’m full of love for everyone. So getting beat up like that really pierced my heart. “The Chamber” partly comes of that experience.
“Gone” came about of more obvious reasons. One of a parent’s greatest fears is to have their child disappear. And with this story, I attempt to delve into one possibility. No, it’s not your everyday abduction, but that story had that same sense of terror for me. What would I do? How would I act? Where would my mind go? So I explored that sentiment as deeply as I could at the time.
The interesting thing about a story like “Final Breaths” is how it came about. My brother’s niece died far too young, and I promised him I’d honor her in a story. The thing I can tell you about being in that situation, as I’ve had similar moments, is that you’d give anything to take their place. Throw in the fact that it’s your child, and you’d move mountains if it were possible. I pulled from a lot of different areas for this one: watching my father die in hospice care, my niece’s death, and my brother’s experience. By the time I finished this story I was in tears. It’s so heartbreaking that in the end we are only human, and you feel so helpless.
BE: Several of your stories deal with water or tight spaces…why is that? What experiences in your life influenced these stories?
KWC: Back when I lived in the suburbs of Chicago my friends and I used to catch crayfish around a local sewer drain. Those drains were big due to the heavy rainfall in that area, and we eventually learned there were catfish in that stream back inside the tunnel. The farther underground we ventured, the stranger the creatures we found. Eventually, we ended up a good four blocks or so under the city, and the pipe got so cramped that I got stuck. It still heightens my anxiety just to think about it now. Those feelings have stuck with me all these years.
As for water, I’ve always had this fear of not being able to see in the deep. What’s lurking down there, waiting to grab your toes and yank you down? It’s quite terrifying, and I guess I’ve never truly conquered that fear. And I still haven’t been able to fully describe either fear the way I want, so prepare to see more stories like that in the future.
BE: I’ve noticed a few stories that dealt with losing a child, is this a fear of yours? I know you have two children…did you ever experience this firsthand which inspired one of those stories?
KWC: I think that’s a fear of any parent, having your child harmed or taken or worse. In reality, a lot of this comes from real life experience. A drunk driver killed my niece at the young age of 16. That loss has left a giant hole in my heart. Like anything else in life, it’s hard to imagine the horror of it all until you experience it yourself. And once you have, it’s very hard to let those demons sleep. They’re always at you, haunting every decision you make.
One time, on a vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando, my son Gage got freaked out by one of the Power Rangers. I have no idea why, but he took off running into this huge crowd, and I couldn’t find him. My heart raced as I pushed through people, screaming his name. But he just kept on running. I couldn’t see him, and no one would offer any help. It was a traumatic moment for the both of us. Eventually I found him, but what likely lasted only a minute felt like twenty. Seeing him again made everything so much better. God, I hated that feeling that someone might have taken him, or that he could have gotten hurt. I’ve had many a nightmare about that moment.
BE: What led to your unique twist on classic horror stories dealing with zombies and vampires?
KWC: You read a lot of comments from people who are tired of these tropes. I get that, but I’ve always believed there are angles worth exploring. I’m not saying I hit each note every time, but it’s long been a goal of mine to exploit one of those angles efficiently, so you’ll see me try again and again. This is one of those white whales I can’t help but chase.
BE: The last two stories in your collection have some humorous moments. Is humor a big part of your life? Would you define yourself as a funny person or a fun person to be around?
KWC: I’m not so sure I’d define myself as humorous so much as others might. And my humor is over-the-top corny and sometimes misses its target. Quite often I’m laughing while the person I’m talking to is just sort of looking at me like I’m from another planet. I joke about that a lot, too, which adds to the unease I guess. I don’t mind people thinking I’m weird. It’s sort of a badge of honor. Besides, I’m the one who subscribed to this life. I’ve got to live it. So why not enjoy it? People can get annoyed all they want as long as this show stays on point and funny.
BE: I’ve noticed through your posts on Facebook that you’ve been battling health issues for a couple years. How are you feeling now? And has your art been a support system for your life? Is it hard for you to write fiction these days?
KWC: Yes, I have a cocktail of issues, most of them stemming back to Lyme disease in one way or another. Up until that moment when I got the bull’s-eye on my arm, I hadn’t had an issue. Things went south fast as apparently I didn’t catch it in time, but I’ve fought it all the way. Pain isn’t something I look at as debilitating. It’s a great motivator. And I’ve always refused to let it be my master. Who’s the boss of me? I am.
Early on when I started writing again, it was difficult. I’d pound out 200 words of crap and think it wonderful. The thing is, when you’re filled with pain, the easy part is getting the words out. The hard part is making sense of them, as you’re nearly drunk with pain. Plus, at the time I was drinking nearly every day, trying to cope with the pain the only way I could because none of the medications doctor’s prescribed did a goddamned thing.
Most doctor’s, even here in Pennsylvania where Lyme disease is prevalent, don’t diagnosis the illness properly and/or aren’t aware of the many diseases that can be passed along with an infection. I think this comes not of ignorance but of just not knowing enough about the disease yet. My wife was most frustrated in those days, as she saw my steady decline and knew that it was out of my hands. I couldn’t get a single doctor to believe anything was wrong with me other than being overweight. It was a frustrating time and writing was one of my few escapes.
Eventually, I was forced to take a layoff at work due to my father’s health. I stayed home and mastered the ability to force myself to work a full day of writing. What that did was give me a good long voyage of pain avoidance. So I very much came to rely on writing as part of my therapy, both mentally and physically. But it wasn’t until I went to this new pain doctor and took the advice of Sarie Morrell, that I was able to see my words more clearly. I think that’s when my fiction turned a corner for me, as I was able to apply a whole new level of care to my words.
There are still ups and downs, but I’m mostly up. I’ve joined a gym”, “but I’m feeling much better now” (I wonder if anyone will remember that TV reference). My writing is crisper with a cleaner line. But I also rely on those “darker days” (actually the title of my next collection, also due out from Crystal Lake Publishing) to help form my ideas. Some of my best ideas come out of that darkness.
BE: You mention you take pain pills. What for?
KWC: Who knows? Doctors have called it a variety of things, but the latest is Lyme–Induced Fibromyalgia. I also suffer from chronic migraines, arthritis (thanks to playing baseball so long), and a few degenerating/bulging discs. It took forever to get my pain meds right, but now that they are I feel like I’m in my twenties again (more like thirties).
BE: So, are you a bad sleeper?
KWC: The worst. I have this problem shutting off my brain. And on nights I forget to take my pain pills, the unease only makes it worse. That happened last night actually. I’m lying in bed, and my mind is going a mile a minute. It feels like I’m wide-awake and yet every time I check my clock, 2 or 3 hours have passed. It’s maddening. But the worse part is the words.
I’m a little manic about my writing, so I think about writing pretty much all the time when I’m not writing, whether that’s contemplating a story I’ve recently read or working out a plot in my head. Whatever the case, when I go to sleep, I can’t keep from writing stories in my thoughts. I end up waking up a lot to jot down notes. I liken it to this screensaver I have, where all these dictionary words shoot across my screen along with definitions. That’s how it looks in my dreams, and I’m pulling them out as they pass and writing that story. What’s really bad is I’m editing it all at the same time. I imagine some psychologist would have a field day with that.
BE: The stories in this collection run the gamut. You just don’t go from point A to point B. It’s rare to see a varied collection of horror fiction like this. How did you go about selecting the stories? Some of them really expand the reader’s imagination and take a person to new places that remind me of Clive Barker’s work. Was it your goal to have something for everyone in this collection?
KWC: Well, it’s an honor even to be mentioned in the same breath as Barker. But it’s not a fair comparison to him. While I like the idea of a themed collection, and I’ve even entertained trying one or two in the future, I like to cast a wide net. My thought has always been to try to reel in as many readers as I can, let them sample my work, and hopefully seek out more. That doesn’t mean that these stories don’t relate in any way, because they do. It’s just not on the surface. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find a thread running through these stories. Although, I suppose you could say the darkness ties them together, it’s deeper still.
BE: Some of the stories remind me of The Twilight Zone, yet are unique and stand by themselves. Kudos! Do you, like Rod Serling, see the world through that mirror darkly? Is there anything you’re trying to say with a particular story?
KWC: Wow! Yes, when you put it that way, that’s exactly how I see the world. And The Twilight Zone among other shows of that era were most formative in my creativity. On the surface of this world, we have all these people walking around, connecting with each other, making friendships and falling in love. But in the subtext of life, there is darkness we do not always see or understand. Like what people are thinking when talking to someone who has a boogie hanging in their nose. Or like the woman who stalks a man. The dog whose thoughts we could never truly comprehend (yet!). I like to explore those gray areas.
As for a message, I know some people find that a bit cliché, but yes, occasionally I am trying to say something. It’s kind of like climbing to the top of a mountain and screaming at the top of my lungs. This is the voice I have. Maybe only a few will ever hear what I’m saying, and that’s okay. Those who want to hear it will receive the message. In the end, I just hope everyone enjoys a dark twist.
BE: The “Terror Tale” is a hard nut to crack. And you did an excellent job with, Water Snake—just to name one. How do you develop that fear and suspense? Is any of it reflective of your own personal experiences?
KWC: Although the “monster’ from that story isn’t real, that pond very much is, and I could never express enough how truly terrifying it was to have all those snakes attack at once. For me, the terror tale is about beats, similar to music. You hit the notes in order, one by one, ringing a certain tone and building on the greater work. If you hit them in the correct order, the story can be splendidly fun. But it takes some effort in the editing phase to get them where I want, and I’m not sure I ever really feel any one story is ever done. I release them when they have that right composition.
BE: What story in this collection resonates with you best?
KWC: That’s tough, because in ways they all do. But I guess “The Benefit of Being Weighty” does most closely. I’ve been shamed for my weight quite a bit, and at times, by folks who shouldn’t be judging anyone. I’ve never understood why some people seem to have this need to make other people feel bad. And when they do, how can they not regret doing so? People should be a lot kinder to one another.
But also, that story came together thanks to a real-life event, where a small tornado chased me down the street. So that entire fishing scene down to the character racing down the street with a tornado on his tail is all true up to the point someone dies. As comical as it sounds, I’m dead serious (no pun intended). I remember peeling my face off the street and looking up to see Heather laughing her butt off. Jeez, glad I didn’t get sucked in or she would have had a good hoot. Ha!
BE: Do you have any regrets?
KWC: Oh yeah! Forgetting to take my pain pills last night for one. But honestly, I have tons of regrets. I love when people say things like “I regret nothing” or “if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing.” Sure, maybe I’ve even said those things, but not without a little disdain for myself. Of course you’d change things if you could back in time. Who wouldn’t? Maybe I’d place a bet on the Cubs finally winning the World Series or skip a date that turned out a nightmare or find a different friend or whatever. As a writer, I think that’s the sort of thing you speculate on a lot, the “what ifs.”
BE: What’s your ultimate goal as a writer of fiction?
KWC: To make lots of money as a writer! Ha! Occasionally, I’ll write a story and some small section of that story will just click. When I’m done, I’ll look at that paragraph or whatever it is and find a sense of pride. I want things to click all the way through, if only just once. I’m not talking about writing a good story or even a great story. And I’m not referring to what a reader thinks of a story, as they may (I pray) like most of what I write. What I’m talking about is the whole puzzle coming together for me. Something I can look at afterward and know it’s right. Does that make sense?
BE: Some awesome early praise has been coming in for this collection. What do you have in store for us next?
KWC: Well, there’s Darker Days, which I don’t have a date for yet. Currently I’m working on edits for two novels (Construct and From Death Reborn) and a young adult novella (Shadows in the Storm). None of those are where I want them yet. I’m shopping around a dark literary novelette, A Season in Hell and slowly constructing the next collection (roughly titled In The Empty Spaces). But who knows where my mind will take me in the meantime?