Family curses, haunted houses, winter, small towns – Pennsylvania-based horror writer Joe Schreiber seems to be on course to be a contender for Northern Gothic Author of the Year. I was first introduced to Schreiber’s VERY creepy work when his first novel, Chasing the Dead, was published in 2007. I HIGHLY recommend this book: A single mother gets a phone call that her daughter has been kidnapped and she must follow the instructions to the letter of the kidnapper if she wants to see her daughter again. The catch that Schreiber does so well is that the novel is set on the shortest day of the year, December 21st, in extremely wintry rural Massachusetts and the kidnapper may or may not be supernatural. A lean and mean scarefest.
His second novel, Eat the Dark, also has a hair-raising setting – a soon-to-be abandoned hospital where only a skeleton crew remains the last night to treat a prisoner being brought in for some tests. But, as is the case in horror, this is no ordinary prisoner/patient and … well, things just don’t go well for anyone working in the hospital on that, again, wintry night.
Now, his third novel, No Doors No Windows, set to be published October 13th (how fitting), finds a New England family gathering for the patriarch’s funeral. And again, things start to go very wrong for the Mast family very quickly, not just including the problems with the titular house.
Dread Central recently spoke to the very enthusiastic and funny Joe Schreiber about how No Doors No Windows came into being, the many homages to other famous horror tales in the book (see if you can spot them), and the one thing no one knows about Joe Schreiber. For good reason (brrrrr…)
DC: Well, Joe. We meet again. And under the usual creeped-out circumstances I so enjoy from you. When we spoke last, back in November 2007, just after your second book, Eat the Dark, was published, you told me just the tiniest bit about your next book which, at that time, you were calling The Black Wing. Then, you told me that the basis for Chasing the Dead (your first novel) came from you having to drive to school early on wintry mornings on desolate backroads and return home, also in the cold and dark. And, working nights in a hospital gave you the inspiration for Eat the Dark. That and a colleague telling you about the time a patient from the psych ward wandered down into the basement where you both worked. I’m almost afraid to ask how The Black Wing/No Doors No Windows came into being?
JS: My wife and I were first-time homebuyers a few years back, and our realtor was taking us around showing us what was, at the time, in our price range. Some of it was pretty bad — old, small, eccentric places. But there were a few houses, one in particular … it was small, but when I looked at it from the sidewalk, it occurred to me that maybe there was more inside than you could see from out here. A lot more. I wrote the first scene that night, with the couple and their realtor, looking at this strange house … a sequence that never got used, but the concept stuck to me until I did it justice.
DC: Here’s your chance for a pre-publication synopsis to really get the horror fans excited – how would you sum up the plot of No Doors No Windows?
JS: NO DOORS is about a guy, a would-be writer, I guess you could say, who comes back to New England, to his hometown, for his father’s funeral. His father was not a particularly literary person, but the son, our main character, discovers this unfinished manuscript that his father was working on, a ghost story called The Black Wing, about a house with a whole section that you can’t see until you’re inside it. Eventually he decides maybe he could finish the story himself. And then he finds that the house itself not only really exists, but that it’s just outside of town. So he moves in. And he starts to realize that there’s something much bigger going on, a curse that’s been over his family for generations. And now he’s part of it.
DC: What went into the decision to change the title from The Black Wing to No Doors No Windows? Someone who thought readers might confuse The Black Wing with a book on ornithology?
JS: There was someone who suggested maybe The Black Wing sounded more like a vampire novel. Which it isn’t at all. “Wing” is just one of those words, I suppose, with a few too many possible interpretations.
DC: Was there some “inspiration” for the Mast family and the “problems” they passed down through the generations?
JS: I happen to be a big fan of multigenerational family horror sagas … John Ferris’ All Heads Turn As the Hunt Goes By is a great big juicy example of this. It’s like taking a big bite of an apple and finding it rotten inside. When it comes to suicides, murder, psychosis and hallucination, the ground is so fertile it’s more a question of figuring out what to leave out.
DC: I thought it interesting that you named the town Milburn. A wink to Peter Straub’s terrifying Ghost Story perhaps? Or am I reading too much into things?
JS: Nope, it’s totally deliberate. GHOST STORY was a big influence on this one. I told Peter that when we sent him the ARC for a blurb. He seemed to appreciate it.
DC: I must comment on what I noticed when reading the description of Round House – it seems to be the “fraternal twin” of Hill House. Shirley Jackson’s classic describes that house from hell as: “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House …”. Was this a conscious decision of yours, to make Round House as frightening as Hill House only … skew the architecture?
JS: Totally. I reread HILL HOUSE during the first big edit of NO DOORS because I love the whole idea of skewed architecture as a source of unease and dread. Just the idea of things being a little off. It’s enough to twist your entire perception of reality, which can be a very dangerous thing.
DC: Again, about Round House, I just could not keep from picturing it as an octagonal house I saw once in a book about haunted houses. Is there a “real” Round House that inspired you?
JS: Not that I know of. Although I’d love to build one and host the publication party there.
DC: In your biography, it states that after graduating college, you worked as a house-sitter and were able to explore some “very strange old architecture”. I would love for you to elaborate on what sorts of old places you explored.
JS: One of my favorite old houses was in Ann Arbor, Michigan — rumor was that it had been owned briefly by Charles Lindbergh, in his later years, after the kidnapping, after the paranoia and xenophobia had taken hold…it literally had a secret passageway that went under the house and across the road to a hidden exit. I spent a few extra hours just checking it out.
DC: You have created some fascinating characters for No Doors No Windows: Scott and Owen Mast, little Henry Mast, Sonia Graham, Colette McGuire, Red Fontana, creepy Aunt Pauline McGuire and the “ghosts” that haunt the Round House and the woods around it. Any chance of a prequel or sequel? I know I would love to read more about the Mast family and Round House.
JS: It’s interesting—there’s actually a first draft of the novel that incorporates a huge amount of material about the family and some of the characters. It was totally rewritten to the extent that only the first fifty pages are the same. So Henry, Aunt Pauline and a host of others are still living a kind of mirror-life inside that alternate draft of the book’s reality. Who knows how they might eventually find their way out?
DC: Winter seems to be your favorite season in which to set your novels (not that I’m complaining). Is this also a conscious decision or do the stories just lend themselves to wintry, frigid cold with the occasional snowstorm to really amp up the tension?
JS: I love winter as a setting, maybe too much. Growing up in Michigan and later, the East Coast, just cemented it for me. It’s the best, creepiest time of year, hands down, period.
DC: Has there been any interest from producers to option No Doors No Windows or any of your other books? I know I would prefer to see something like Chasing the Dead to another PG-13 crapola remake.
JS: Every so often I get offers for CHASING THE DEAD and EAT THE DARK … I will say that the screenwriters and producers who express interest in them, really express interest. They’re passionate about it. But Hollywood is so fickle about stuff like that, that the whole arcane process of what gets optioned, and what actually gets made…you can’t predict it.
DC: There are some seriously scary scenes in No Doors No Windows, my favorite being when Scott hears the thump and then the dragging noise in the dining room of Round House, just as he’s gotten some news that has almost knocked the wind out of him. And of course, the black corridor, Faircloth and Rosemary Carver. Do you enjoy writing these scenes and do you get creeped out writing them (like Stephen King did while writing about Room 217 in The Shining)?
JS: Oh, those scenes are the most fun to write. I don’t necessarily get creeped out writing them, but I have realized that I get so intensely focused on the scene when I’m writing it that, if anybody were to come up behind me and tap me on the shoulder, I would’ve gone right through the roof. My kids love to do that to me, by the way. They live for those moments.
DC: I kept waiting for the obligatory hospital scene and you didn’t let me down, Joe. Hospitals, by their very nature being places most of us would rather avoid at all costs – will you continue to freak us out with hospital scenes in future books?
JS: I don’t know…I don’t want to be known as that hospital guy. But I can’t seem to help it. I guess if you spend as much time as I do in the basement of a hospital—and I work almost exclusively midnight shifts now—it’s gonna find its way in there. And you’re right, they are scary places. The more you see, the scarier it gets. Seriously.
DC: What scares Joe Schreiber?
JS: These days? What doesn’t? Here’s a starter: The idea of anything happening to my kids. Sickness. Neurological decay, memory loss. Sensory deprivation. People who can’t be reached or reasoned with. Any unexpected invasion of the irrational into my family’s life. A couple years ago my wife and I were up watching WALK THE LINE when the phone rang. The woman on the other end was screaming. Just screaming. She called three or four times. We finally called the police. Never found out what happened with that, but I think once or twice I recognized my name amid the screams. So she knew me, which is even scarier.
DC: What is your opinion on the state of horror lately, both cinematic as well as literary?
JS: I’m not a big horror reader when it comes to current stuff. The horror I’ve tended toward lately is 70s mass market paperbacks or old John Coyne novels—THE LEGACY, HOBGOBLIN. I don’t need Zombie Survival Novel Number 113 … they’ve gotten as overworked as vampires. As far as movies go, I’m a lot more forgiving. As long as Sam Raimi can turn out a movie like DRAG ME TO HELL (which I still haven’t seen by the way, though I really want to) I’m willing to abide Michael Bay remaking the entire 80s slasher canon. I’m a cheerful bastard about stuff like that. I can drink my way through just about anything.
DC: I know you have another book coming out just a few weeks after No Doors No Windows: Star Wars: Death Troopers. At first, I was hesitant to cover the book as I’m not a sci fi fan at all. BUT, when I read the synopsis on Amazon, that changed my mind. Horror in outer space (and I was thinking the book would be something like Han Solo becomes a zombie or something equally ludicrous). Would you mind summing up the story of Death Troopers?
JS: DEATH TROOPERS is about an Imperial prison barge, basically a giant floating prison, about the foulest thing you can imagine, that breaks down in deep space. They come across this huge old derelict star destroyer and go aboard to scavenge some parts for repair, and accidentally bring back a sickness that infects the entire prison population. I had a complete blast writing it, and I think folks are really going to dig it.
DC: After two books coming out at almost the same time, are you going to take some well-deserved time off or do you have some more creepiness on a backburner for your fans?
JS: It’s crazy, but it looks like I’ll have two books coming out next year too, actually—I just can’t talk about them right now, until the contracts are finished and the announcements are formalized. So no, if anything, I’m busier than ever. Stay tuned for details …
DC: Have you seen or read any good horror lately? New writers, new directors, new stories – anything grab your attention?
JS: That’s a really good question. I picked up a Thomas Ligotti collection called THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY which I’m working through slowly, enjoying very much. There was an excellent novel that came out last year by Jack O’Connell called THE RESURRECTIONIST, that has to be read to be believed. Just heart-wrenching, brilliant stuff.
DC: Is there anything you would like to add that I haven’t asked?
JS: I’ve been very lucky this past year or so to have a publisher and editor who genuinely care about the material I’m sending them. It’s been a good year…productive and gratifying. I’ve been able to do things I never dreamed of taking on. I only hope it continues. Before I make it sound too wonderful, though, I have to say that I’ve got an unfinished novel on my desk now that I’ve been trying to complete for the past several years, which I think would be a really wonderful suspense novel, but with every passing month I get less and less sure that it will ever be done!
DC: Thought you would escape my “infamous” final question after you gave such a colorful answer last time but … What is one thing no one knows about Joe Schreiber that you think they should know (and you cannot tell the Martha’s Vineyard story again)?
JS: Did I tell you my clown story? Here goes. When I was seven or eight, I was on vacation with my family, staying in a hotel room. I woke up early and got bored the way kids do when there’s nobody else up and you can’t turn on the TV because you’ll wake up the rest of the family. So I pushed a chair over to the door and stared out the little peephole, fascinated by the way the fisheye lens distorted my view of the doors across the hall from me. I must have been standing there for five minutes when, all of a sudden, and I swear to God I saw this, a clown came capering right up the hall to the door and put its face right up to the peephole and looked right in at me. Then it ran off again. I stood there unable to move, unable to believe what I’d seen, yet knowing for a fact that I’d seen it. Nothing like that has ever happened to me again.
Big thanks to Joe for his time. Look for No Windows No Doors and Death Troopers in October. Pre-order them below.
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