Joe Powers is a horror writer with a fondness for literary sleight-of-hand. He loves the idea of prompting a strong emotional reaction using no more than words and his slightly off-center imagination, and delights in taking the reader on journeys to previously unexplored regions.
The Scribbler is most fortunate to have Joe as our featured guest this week. He has agreed to a 4Q Interview and is kindly sharing an excerpt.
Joe Powers is a Canadian horror writer and long-time fan of all things scary. From his introduction to the genre on a stormy Saturday night at the age of six - his first viewing of Bride of Frankenstein - he's been hooked. Among his many inspirations he lists Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Michael Crichton, Rod Serling and Richard Matheson. He enjoys introducing the reader to flawed, believable characters and leading them on dark journeys with an unexpected twist. His work has appeared in various anthologies and collections. His debut novel, Terror in High Water, released in September. In his spare time he's an avid hockey fan and creative writing instructor. He lives near Fredericton with his wife, Sheryl, and an assortment of furry creatures.
4Q: Your website explains your passion for writing in the horror genre. What inspires you to write scary stories?
JP: I’ve always loved horror, as far back as I can remember. I grew up on stuff like The Twilight Zone and Shock Theater. Books, movies, comics – anything and everything with a scare element, I was in. As a child I read Stephen King’s Night Shift, which taught me two things: short stories are viable publishing options, and there is clearly a market for scary stories. As I’ve discovered, both of these things still ring true today.
I think people like to be scared, in a safe way. Horror has, in some form, been around for as long as we’ve been telling stories. In the middle ages they scared people with dragons. The Grimm brothers told cautionary tales of ogres, trolls and faeries. Nowadays, it’s found footage hauntings and summer camp slashers. Nobody wants to actually put themselves in danger, but at home in a comfy chair with the lights down low and no consequences, most people like a good scare. I’m no different, except I also like to create and provide those scares.
4Q: Tell us about The Christmas Storm, your first publication.
JP: Ha! That one’s very out of character for me. It wasn’t very scary at all, although I’m told it made a lot of people cry. For anyone who’s interested you can read it here. Here’s the story behind that piece.
Back around the end of the last decade I decided it was time to find out if any of the stuff I’d written over the years was publishable. I think that’s a turning point for most writers: we write all this stuff and stash it away, but the decision to put it out there for someone to critique – and possibly reject – is a big step. Anyway, during the course of my search I found an online magazine called Bread n’ Molasses, based out of Miramichi and produced by a lady named Kellie Underhill. BNM had an open call for stories for their Twelve Days of Christmas series. I wanted to participate, but clearly didn’t have anything appropriate for that call. So I sat down and wrote The Christmas Storm, which was about a man who rescues a dog and her puppies in the middle of a blizzard. It’s a nice, heartwarming little story, and when I told Kellie years later she was pleasantly surprised to learn she’d been the one to publish me for the first time.
That little story did spark a chain reaction of benefits for me though. Kellie and I became friends, and a few years ago years she featured me in an interview on the podcast she launched. Additionally, in that same issue of Bread ‘n Molasses I spotted a tiny ad for a horror writing workshop offered by a local author by the name of Biff Mitchell. I took the workshop, Biff and I hit it off, and we’re good friends to this day. Through Biff I met my friend, editor and mentor J. Richard Jacobs, another great influence with whom I remain close. So even though I had no idea any of this would happen when I wrote it, this story has definitely been a good experience for me.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
JP: This is a good question that really made me think. Here’s a little story I hadn’t thought about in a really long time, about an event that played a role in prompting me along my path in writing.
One day when I was about nine they had an assembly our school. They herded us all into the gymnasium where we had a guest speaker, a lady named Carole Spray. Carole had written an excellent book called “Will o’ the Wisp: Folk Tales and Legends of New Brunswick” and was going around to some of the schools to talk about it.
Now, I was familiar with the book already because we had a copy at home and I’d read it numerous times. But here was the author, in the flesh, right in front of me. Until that point writers were, in my young mind, larger-than-life people from distant lands, mythical creatures who regular people never got to see up close. But Carole was from Moncton and lived right here in Fredericton, and there she was in the same room with us, mere feet away. I have no way of knowing what any of the other kids thought about her visit. I can only speak for myself. I sat enthralled the entire time as she spoke about some of the stories, the way she’d gathered them and compiled them into this wonderful book that I still have a copy of in my collection today.
Let me tell you, this was an eye-opening experience for me. On that day I learned that writers are just everyday people, who can and do come from anywhere and everywhere. Anybody with a will and a desire to become an author can do so. If I had to look back and pinpoint one moment where I realized this was something I could do someday, that would be it. Carole passed away a few years ago. I never met or spoke with her again after that day, and I regret not having reached out to thank her, and to let her know the impact she had on my budding young career.
4Q: Tell us about the excerpt below.
JP: The excerpt I’ve chosen is a scene from my novel, Terror in High Water. A demonic figure known as The Man has swept into the tiny isolated Texas town of High Water along with his monstrous band of goons and taken over. With extortion, threats, and violence they keep the town in a state of constant fear. Out of desperation two of the townspeople attempt a daring escape under cover of darkness to try and go for help. They quickly discover that escape is impossible and the situation in High Water appears completely hopeless.
4Q: When Joe Powers is feeling the most creative and saunters off to write, where might we find him and what habits does his writing take?
JP: I’ve been known to write virtually anywhere. On napkins or notepads, on my phone or my laptop, wherever I happen to be when inspiration hits. That’s because the story ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, at any time, without warning. For me, when I have an idea or something that might be worth looking at, I need to get it down right then. There’s nothing worse than sitting up in bed in the middle of the night with a great idea, then assuming it’s too good to forget and going back to sleep only to lose it by the time you wake up. I’ve lost more great titles than I can recall this way! In the past my prime time was any time after 10 or 11PM and lasted into the wee hours of the night. Years of burning the candle too brightly at both ends wasn’t sustainable, and it eventually caught up with me. These days I do most of my writing in the evening on my couch with my laptop and a pile of scribbled notes next to me.
My process is a little different from most other writers, I think. I’ll take an idea, mentally flesh it out and mull it over, work through the entire thing in my head and look for plot holes. If it seems workable I’ll write out a skeletal outline, try to get a sense of the story. Once I have that I can go back and “put the meat on the bones”, as I call it. Each time I read through I look for places where the story needs a little more fleshing out and add to it as needed. By that point I’ll usually have an idea of whether or not the working title is ideal, or if it needs something else.
4Q: What’s next?
JP: I sent my new novel, Seventeen Skulls, off to my publisher in December. It’s a creepy horror/thriller with supernatural overtones. Hopefully we’ll see that released later this year.
It’s based on the defunct Animaland roadside attraction, which I’m sure some of your local readers will remember. That’s scheduled to release early in 2020.
I do take little breaks in between projects, but never idle for long, I’m in the process of fleshing out my third novel. It’s a monster tale set in Canada’s harsh northernmost reaches. It’s in the early stages but I hope to wrap it up this summer.
4Q: Anything you would like to tell us about?
JP: I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to plug my writing courses. In Crafting the Short Story I teach writing basics, good writing habits, character development and story structure.
On another note, I mentioned earlier how I missed out on meeting one of my earliest inspirations. In the last decade-plus I’ve been lucky enough to have met and made friends with a lot of wonderful people in the industry. Writing has opened these doors and many more to me, and I’m eternally grateful for that.
Lastly, I’d like to thank you for doing this interview with me. It thrills me that there are readers who enjoy the things I write, and are interested in learning more about me. It still catches me off guard a little bit too, but in a good way. So thanks to you, again, for exposing me to a whole new audience.
**It’s my pleasure having you as a guest, Joe. It’s interesting people like yourself that makes the Scribbler so popular.
An Excerpt from Terror in High Water:
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission.)
* * *
Ken Sharp stood under the eaves of the general store, inconspicuously tucked into the shadows. He stared across the square at the looming facade of the hotel, alert for any sign of the Hell Hounds. He figured the riskiest part of their escape plan would be making it out of the town itself. The Man had eyes everywhere, to the point where even conversations had to be clandestine and brief. The further they got from town and the more distance they put between themselves and the Hounds, the better their chances of escape.
A sound from the alley between the store and the boarding house made him jump. He sucked in his breath, held perfectly still, and peered into the darkness of the alley. A dark figure shuffled around the corner toward him. He tensed, then relaxed when he saw the round face of Lester Hammond staring back at him.
“Jesus, Lester. You scared me half to death,” he hissed.
“I scared you? When you jumped I thought you were coming for me.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t clobber you.” Sharp exhaled. “Well, at least we’re both here. I wasn’t sure if you’d actually show up.”
“Why wouldn’t I show up?” Lester asked, sounding defensive. “I want out of here as bad as you do.”
“All right, never mind. Let’s just get out of here. Did you bring the stuff?”
Lester held up a burlap sack. “Got everything we need, right here.” He’d brought enough supplies for two days, which should be plenty if all went according to plan.
Sharp had spent much of the day scouting and watching the movements of The Man and his underlings. He knew the Hounds watched the town and the movements of the people closely all day, even though there was never more than one in plain sight at a given time. He hoped they holed up somewhere at night, which would allow him and Lester to slip away under cover of darkness.
He’d been heartened by the fact he hadn’t seen any of the Hell Hounds since late in the afternoon, and hoped they’d been sent on some mission elsewhere. Or maybe The Man wasn’t as clever as he seemed, and thought night guards were unnecessary. Whatever the reason behind their absence, he felt they needed to seize upon the opportunity and make their getaway before the Hounds returned from wherever they’d gone. They decided to avoid the trails in and out of town and go cross country to the northeast. Once they got past the flat stretch and reached the hills, they’d have better cover than out on the plains, and it would be a more direct route to the closest town anyway. All they would have to do was put some miles between them and High Water and they’d be in the clear.
They crept along the boardwalk past the boarding house and the main road to the north as they made their way toward the edge of town. They passed a few houses and storage sheds, and departed the square at the northeast corner. Within minutes they had made their way past the final few buildings, and the edge of town was within their sight. They paused to steel their nerves, took a final cautious look over their shoulders to make sure nobody had spotted or followed them and, huddled together in a crouch, scurried away from town at a brisk pace.
Lester did his best to remain discreet, as difficult as that was while out in the open. He felt completely exposed and vulnerable, and knew how easy they would be to spot out on the moonlit plain. At any moment, anyone who happened to look out a window of the hotel or any of the houses that ran along the street behind it would see them as plain as day. He cursed their luck, or lack of foresight, but kept moving.
The first portion of the journey beyond the town limits was the most nerve-wracking. They hurried and took advantage of sporadic clouds which obscured the moon to dash across the open area. Lester managed to keep pace with Sharp even though his heart pounded so loudly he would have sworn it could be heard from a mile away. He felt as if it might burst from his chest at any moment. The wind rustled the low-lying brush, and even the crickets seemed unusually noisy, as if the entire area conspired to give their position away.
Eventually, after what felt like hours, the ground began to flatten and they could see the outline of the rolling foothills in the distance. It seemed much darker this far out of town, as if whatever fleeting light from the moon and stars was stifled by the blanket of fear barely held at bay within its limits. They also knew that any animals or person lurking in the area would most likely be up ahead, among the hills.
They reached the first of the low ridges and stopped to rest next to some large boulders. Lester crouched in the dark recesses while Sharp drifted a bit further ahead to scout the land. He heard the mournful bale of a wolf in the distance, somewhere to their left. He scanned the outcroppings, his eyes peeled for any sign of movement or activity, but saw nothing. The howl was answered a moment later by another, which sounded disturbingly close. Sharp quickly made his way back to where he’d left Lester, and found him standing with his back pressed against the rock and a terrified look on his face.
“What the hell was that?” Lester demanded.
“Wolf, most likely.”
“That weren’t no wolf, Ken. You an’ me both know it. Ain’t hardly no wolves around here these days anyhow.”
“Sure there are, plenty of ‘em.” It hadn’t sounded exactly like a wolf to Sharp either, but he’d hoped it would go unnoticed. “Coyote then, maybe. What else could it be?”
Lester had no answer. He reached into the bag he’d packed and rifled through the contents until he found what he was looking for. He withdrew a small bottle with a cork stopper, and with shaking hands he pulled the cork free and took a long pull from the bottle. He winced and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and offered the bottle to his partner.
Sharp took a swig, made a face, and coughed. “What’s in this? Lamp oil?”
“Good for what ails ya,” Lester said, and sounded a bit more at ease. The clouds had drifted away from the moon again, bathing the clearing in a soft, pale glow. They would be easier to spot, and at the same time, would be able to see an attacker approach from further away.
“Ain’t no wolves in Texas,” Lester repeated, as if to reassure himself. Both men were well aware this was not exactly true, though they had been seen much less often in recent years. The silence unnerved Lester. He suddenly wished he was back in his little house in High Water, which felt far safer to him than the wide open spaces inhabited by unseen dangers. “How much further is it to Jerome’s place?” he asked. “Maybe we could drop in there, gather our wits before we head out.” Although he had never met Jerome, he knew the Ward ranch lay somewhere to the north of town, even though he’d never been there and had no real concept of where it was situated.
Before Sharp could reply, a large black mass landed heavily on the path before them, as if a chunk of the nearby shadow had broken off and dove into the patch of moonlight. It looked like a dog of some sort, far too large to be a wolf or coyote. It was slung low to the ground and solidly built, with a huge shaggy head and broad shoulders. Its wide, flat head hung low, and it regarded the men with beady red eyes which gleamed in the moonlight. It squared itself to the men and stared up at them with a low, steady growl from deep within its throat.
The startled pair froze in their tracks, scarcely breathing, too frightened to move. The dog snarled and took a lumbering step toward them. Slowly, without taking their eyes from it, they eased around the rock away from the dog, stepping backward deliberately and slowly so as not to provoke an attack. Neither uttered a word nor made any sudden movement. Though the dog continued to stalk them, it kept pace but neither gained nor lost ground. It forced them back around one of the hills then fell back a few paces, which gave the men enough space to get away as long as they kept moving. Finally the dog lay down on the trail and watched them closely as they retreated.
They continued to retrace their steps until they were almost back to town. They could no longer see or hear the dog, but knew it was out there somewhere.
Lester stared into the darkness beyond, as if he hoped to catch a glimpse of their pursuer. “What do we do?” he asked.
“Well, we sure as hell can’t go back out there,” Sharp said.
“You ever see a dog like that ‘un before?”
“No, no dog or any animal that looked anything like it. Damn thing was as big as a bear.”
Lester sighed, exasperated. “Well, what now? Should we try another direction?”
“That thing found us in the dark—it knows our scent now. It’ll be watching for us.” He scratched the back of his neck. “No, I believe I’ll stay home where it’s safer.”
“But The Man, those goons of his—”
“We’ll figure a way around him, one way or another. I’m not any happier about it than you are. As for right now, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. At least if we go back we’ll be a lot more likely to see morning come.”
Lester dreaded the idea of what might be in store for them back home, but seeing no real alternative, he reluctantly agreed. They parted ways and crept back to their homes as stealthily as they could.
* * *
The Man sat at the table in one of the rooms above the bar with his feet up and his hat pulled down low over his eyes. Agamemnon stood across the room from him and stared out the window into the darkness. On the moonlit plain he spotted two figures darting toward town. They moved with exaggerated, almost comical stealth, but his sharp eyes and sensitive ears picked up on them immediately.
“Here they come,” he growled.
The Man peered out from under his hat. “What are they doing?”
“Going out of their way not to be noticed. They look like idiots out there. A blind man could have spotted them by now.”
“You think they’ll try again? Maybe head off in a different direction?”
The large man watched their movements. “I don’t think so. Nah, they just split up. They’re going home, I’d say. Tails between their legs.”
The Man smiled and tugged his hat back down over his eyes. “Well, there’s a story for the locals come tomorrow,” he said. “Not only are we a mean bunch of hombres, we’ve got a badass pack of devil dogs guarding the premises.”
Agamemnon grunted and turned away from the window. “We should do something about them though,” he said. “Better not to let them think they got away with it.”
“Fear, Agamemnon,” he replied. “Fear is our greatest tool. Think about it. We go down there and kill these fools, nobody knows what happened to them. We let them live, think they got away with something, they’ll tell everyone they see. Once word of this gets around, nobody will even want to go outside for a piss after dark.”
Agamemnon nodded once. “Makes sense,” he grunted, and went back to staring out the window.
* * *
Thank you, Joe, for sharing your thoughts and a sample of your work.
For you readers wanting to discover more about Joe and his writing, please follow these links:
Terror in High Water
Crafting the Short Story
An Introduction to Publishing