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First of all, we at TopShelf want to congratulate you on your upcoming release of The Children of Red Peak, available November 17, 2020 and currently available for pre-order in paperback and ebook formats. “The survivors of a doomsday cult’s horrific last days reunite to confront their past and the entity that appeared on the final night.” What originally inspired the basis for what became The Children of the Red Peak?

Thank you for having me as a guest at TopShelf!

The Children of Red Peak is about several adults who grew up in an apocalyptic cult. After surviving a horrific mass suicide and massacre, they now live with the trauma of what they experienced, which will lead them back to Red Peak to unlock its final mystery.

When I write horror, I look to turn tropes on their head. The story is about a cult, but the group doesn’t start that way. The people in this religious group aren’t hypnotized crazies, they are ordinary people with strong religious beliefs. It is only when their leader hears the voice of God telling them to prepare for ascension that things get bad. Even then, everything they do has a hard logic to it that is rooted in their belief system. The psychology of it is fascinating.

When writing horror, I also like to examine the consequences of tropes. We all know the story of Prince Charming fighting the dragon, but does he suffer flashbacks years later? Does he scream in his sleep? What’s his relationship with the princess now? As adults, the survivors of the Red Peak massacre struggle with trauma, memory, and the mystery of what happened to their parents. And we see that while they left the cult, the cult may not have left them.

Thematically, I was interested in exploring the line between belief and delusion and how religious belief has been a source of humanity’s best and its worst. A source of inspiration was a reading of Genesis, where God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountain and then bind and sacrifice him, only to stop him at the last moment. I wondered: What if God didn’t stop him? And: What if the story was told from Isaac’s point of view?

Publisher’s Weekly calls this a “chilling story of cult abuse… Horror readers will be hooked.” This is something of a novel take on “cult abuse”, where the characters come together decades later to relive their shared experiences as adults, and through them, the readers see glimpses of what they endured “at the isolated mountain Red Peak”. In fact, it’s been said that The Children of Red Peak will appeal to fans of novels like Stephen King’s It, which held very much the same premise of reuniting characters as adults after the main “trauma” occurred in their childhoods. What appealed to you about writing the darker moments of reliving trauma instead of writing about the trauma of “cult abuse” itself? 

The Children of Red Peak has two storylines, one following the adult survivors as they cope with what they experienced and eventually find their way back to Red Peak, and the other following them as children as their parents descend into collective madness. So, we get both—the horror of it happening firsthand as well as the trauma experienced afterwards by its survivors. I chose this storytelling path for two reasons.

First is, well, truth. I could have told a grisly Charles Manson-style story, which might have been titillating, but I wanted to take the subject seriously, thematically go much deeper, and give the reader a story that would stick with them long after they closed the covers. In my view, good horror holds up a fractured mirror to the human soul. It entertains the reader but also invites him or her to question treasured truths. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people committing evil for the purest reasons. This idea is fertile ground for horror because of what it says about human nature and the idea of good and evil itself.

The other reason has more to do with craft, and it was done for atmosphere and impact on the reader. There is something stirring to the soul about survivors who came through a horrific event together. A pathos in their shared tragic bond. When we see the survivors as children, we see the group as they do, simply and with blind faith in their parents. This storyline eventually escalates to provide the complete account of what we know is coming, providing catharsis. When we see the survivors as adults, we get a mature perspective on what happened to them as children, and the story teases the reader about what will eventually be revealed in the other storyline. This is all craft happening behind the scenes, and the reader won’t be aware of it aside from experiencing much greater tension, a stronger awareness and investment in the mystery that the characters must solve, and a heightened sense of tragedy, of pathos.

How much research did you have to perform before sitting down to write about cult survivors, their shared experiences, and the individual traumas they faced for years into their adult lives? What type of research did this include? Was there anything that surprised you doing the research process?

I do a lot of research for my fiction. I find it really flavors and helps shape the story. The more grounded and realistic you can make your horror story’s world, the scarier and more believable its horror element will be. Among Red Peak’s survivors, one is an indie musician, another a psychologist, the last a cult exit counselor. In this story, what these people do for a living has a strong relation with who they are, particularly how they cope with what they experienced and in what context they view it. It also provides framing and context for the psychology of cults, belief, and trauma. I did a lot of research to connect these occupations to the story and make them feel lived in and natural to the characters, who become real people on the page.

As far as surprises, I think some readers will be surprised by surrendering their preconceived notions about cults. When researching The Children of Red Peak, I did some research of actual cults but focused most of my effort on exploring the psychology of cults: the techniques they use to control people, why people join them, and how to escape them. There are thousands of groups with new religious ideas, different from more zealous forms of traditional religion only in these ideas deviating from what most people would consider “normal.” What makes a cult a cult is whether the group uses various manipulation techniques and in their level of harm.

Thousands of people join these organizations not to suffer harm, but to find love, meaning, and the security of a simple belief system that ascribes meaning to and makes sense of a chaotic world. Unfortunately, many of them are systematically exploited and harmed in the process. The cognitive conditioning is sophisticated, akin to military training, and it often involves being stripped of one’s identity and utter dependence on a group and its leader. Once somebody is in a cult, it is extremely hard to get out, and they often struggle afterwards if they leave.

J.D. Barker, internationally bestselling author of She Has a Broken Thing Where Her Heart Should Be, called The Children of Red Peak “a master study of darkness and light and the meaning of life.” What draws you to the reflection of these themes in your work? Do you prefer this over writing gritty, horrific, “in the moment” psychological and supernatural horror?

My intent is always to do both. Provide an entertaining story about people the reader can care about in a world that feels real. And once the reader closes the covers, he or she will hopefully reflect on a powerful and challenging theme. It’s the kind of fiction I love to read, and so naturally I gravitate to writing it.

What do you hope readers take away from the gripping experience of reading The Children of Red Peak?

I hope people who pick up The Children of Red Peak enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. That they’ll find it entertaining, stirring, and thoughtful.

Did you draw from any real personal experiences of your own when writing these characters or building the plot and backstory?

Certainly, but only in a general sense. I like to say that all my characters are me, and none of them are. Writing is a bit like acting, where you breathe life into a fictional person, give them motivation, and let them do their thing in a series of escalating challenges.

What are your favorite genres to read when you have the time to sit down and enjoy a good book for enjoyment’s sake? 

I’m a hound for any type of genre fiction, whether it’s horror, fantasy, science fiction, Westerns, historical military fiction. As long as it delivers, while also being smart. The Power by Naomi Alderman is a good example. Even years after reading it, I still talk about it.

If you could sit down and half a cup of coffee (or alcoholic beverage of choice) with any person, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

This is usually the author of the last great work I read, as one of my favorite things to do is talk shop with other authors. The last great books I read were Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Chronicles, the basis for Netflix’s The Last Kingdom series.

For our readers out there who may be writing their own Psychological Thrillers and Supernatural Horror novels—or those thinking about diving into the genre—what would you say are the most important elements to include in novels of this genre? 

That’s a great question, how much time do you have? [laughs] As a writer, I could talk shop all day. As a reader, I guess the short answer would be this. Give me ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. Make me care about them, as that connection is necessary for empathy, for me to feel what the characters feel. Have them behave and react realistically. Give the whole thing a twist, either a monster element that is surprising, or the trope turned on its head, something new and intriguing. Provide a mystery with real stakes that the reader can invest in. Tie the story to some type of theme that deepens my appreciation of the story and possibly makes me think.