Skin in the Game: When Your Antagonist Goes Viral

Imagine this: Your protagonist is faced with a deadly enemy that can’t be seen, felt, smelled, tasted. Undetectable until it’s way too late. Imagine victims dropping all around him, many with horrible and frightening symptoms and signs. Things like blotchy purple skin rashes, raspy, wheezy breathing, bloody vomiting and diarrhea, confusion or psychotic and aggressive behaviors. Yet the cause of all this mayhem is unseen, and unknown.


How do you identify such an enemy, or defend yourself from it?


Infectious diseases have terrorized the world for centuries. The Black Death was just one, the worst, of the plagues that swept through Medieval Europe. It killed one third, maybe one half, of Europe’s population. With many of the above symptoms. The meager state of medical care—-or understanding—in 1350 could do little. The church was equally impotent.


Imagine the terror that gripped the entirety of Europe. What caused these horrible things to happen? Was it bad air, some miasma? Was it spread by one group or another? Was it punishment for your sins?


Where could you go to avoid the plague? What could you do to protect yourself and your family? Who could you turn to? What would you do if an infected stranger appeared at your door? Would you trust your local officials or pray to a God that let this happen?


There were no heroes available at that time.


But there have been, and are, other plagues that are more modern and equally as deadly. The 1918 flu claimed millions of lives around the world. Now we have such pleasant afflictions as HIV, Ebola, and the Marburg virus. Besides, isn’t the coming Zombie Apocalypse due to an errant virus?


Scary stuff.


The Plague was caused by a bacterium that today is easily treated with antibiotics. Drugs that weren’t available in the 14th century. Okay, great, The Black Death can’t happen today. Not so fast. What about viruses? Things like Ebola and Marburg. We have little effective testament for these guys. So, a new Black Death is always possible. And as the world turns, new creatures are evolving. A series of simple mutations could easily produce the next pandemic and yet again kill off half the population. In fact, it probably will someday. History repeats itself.


And such an unseen enemy can make for a nearly perfect fictional antagonist. I mean, you can flash a mirror, or cross, at Dracula, or fire a silver bullet into the Wolfman, or simply run from Frankenstein—he wasn’t very fleet of foot. Godzilla stomping your city to rubble creates different, but not insurmountable, problems.


But where do you hide from a virus?


I’ve practiced medicine for over forty years and I can say without doubt that the greatest stress placed on any human is when they face death, disease, or injury. There are so many unknowns and the feeling of helplessness is universal. The same is true if the sufferer is a parent, child, or loved one. It produces anxiety on a very basic and visceral level.


This innate fear of death and disease is part of the human experience. And excellent fodder for thriller writing. Sure Frankenstein and Godzilla are scary, but what about an unseen, unavoidable, untreatable enemy? One that has no boundaries, permeating the air you breath, the water you drink, the loved one you hug. There is nowhere to hide since the miasma can creep beneath your door.


It doesn’t bite, or maul, or stomp, or any of those physical things, but rather attacks from within. By the time the victim realizes something is wrong, it’s often too late to fix. Or worse, there is no fix.


Infectious processes have been the subject of many thrillers, both written and cinematic. Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain (1971) was an early example. An organism comes from outer space and kills quickly. Earthlings have no defense. Just as Europeans had no defense when the Black Death appeared. Others include The Cassandra Crossing (1976), 28 Days Later (2002), and Outbreak (1995).


Thrillers need a resilient, believable, relentless, deadly, seemingly-unstoppable antagonist. An unseen infectious creature that attacks from within fits the bill.



The Black Death:


1918 Flu:


D. P. Lyle, MD

D.P. Lyle is the Amazon #1 Bestselling; Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Award-winning; and Edgar(2), Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, Scribe, and USA Today Best Book(2) Award-nominated author of 18 books, both non-fiction and fiction (the Samantha Cody, Dub Walker, Jake Longly, and Cain/Harper thriller series and the Royal Pains media tie-in series). Along with Jan Burke, he was the co-host of Crime and Science Radio and hosts the podcast series Criminal Mischief. He has served as story consultant to many novelists and the screenwriters of shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.




Criminal Mischief Podcast Series:

Crime & Science Radio:–science-radio.html

Raised as siblings by an itinerant “gypsy” family, knife expert Bobby Cain, trained by the US military in the lethal art of covert eliminations, and Harper McCoy, nurtured by the US Navy and the CIA to run black ops and wage psychological warfare, are now civilians. Of a sort. Employing the skills learned from the “family” and their training, they now fix the unfixable. Case in point: Retired General William Kessler hires the duo to track down his missing granddaughter, a Vanderbilt University co-ed. Their search leads them to a small, bucolic, lake-side town in central Tennessee and into a world of prostitution, human trafficking, and serial murder. The question then becomes: Will their considerable skills be enough for Cain and Harper to save the young woman, and themselves, from a sociopath with “home field” advantage, a hunter’s skills, and his own deeply disturbing agenda?

Guest Post: The Evolution of Requiem in Frost

It’s 2016. I’m struggling with a novel project—a big, epic dystopian fantasy that I have no clue where I’m taking. I have a big list of short stories I want to eventually write, but I don’t make time for them because I’m too fixated on this novel. A simple story idea occurs to me one cold winter day: a little girl moves into a house haunted by the ghost of a black metal musician. I imagine it being oddly funny and heart-warming, but I don’t have time for it now. I must heed the call of the novel and its ever-reproducing plot holes. The girl and her ghost are banished to the black hole that is my “Story Ideas” Word file.


Flash-forward to 2017. The girl and her ghost are swirling in the “Story Ideas” void, seemingly never to return. I audition for’s “The Next Great Horror Writer” Contest and am accepted, becoming one of fourteen eligible contestants. Every few weeks, we have another writing challenge to compete in—from a horror romance poem to a blog post. In June, hostess Emerian Rich tasks us with writing a music-themed short story. Out of nowhere, I remember the girl and her black metal ghost, and get to work immediately. With that, Requiem in Frost is born, escaping the void as few other ideas can.


It’s hard pairing the story down to fit the word count requirements, but in the end, I turn in a rough draft I’m proud of, and feel connected to. I don’t win that challenge—that honor goes to the amazing Naching T. Kassa—but I do score reasonably well and get a brief mention on the podcast.


I do eventually win the contest as a whole, earning a novel contract with Crystal Lake Publishing and a short story contract deal with They choose Requiem in Frost as the story to publish under their Horror Bites imprint. I’m more than happy for a chance to share the story with people, and also for the chance to expand it past the 5,000-word limit.


Flash-forward to 2019. I’ve edited the story, turned in my draft, and gotten notes back from both Emerian and Naching (who is now working for Their feedback is hugely helpful, and I use it as a guide to whip the story into even better shape. Certain scenes get expanded; others are trimmed. They suggest Ingrid be aged up a bit, and I agree. Eventually, we get it into its final draft.


What I’m getting at here is that even for a short story, writing is a long, multi-year process. And when that story is finally out, it feels amazingly good to share it with others.


I’m stoked that I’ll finally be able to share Requiem in Frost with you after all this time.

BLACK METAL LIVES! Located in the deep frostbitten woods of Norway, Ingrid’s new home is old, spooky, and possibly haunted. Guttural screams wake Ingrid and her mother nightly. When they discover the shrieks belong to deceased former occupant and extreme metal musician, Skansi Oppegård, Ingrid investigates the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Hoping to exorcise Skansi’s ghost, she talks her mom into being part of a metal band. Oppegård’s last musical creation awakens forces beyond Ingrid’s understanding and causes Skansi’s murderer to resurface. In the battle between a madman and zombies, metal may be the only weapon she has. Available on Amazon.

Jonathan Fortin

Jonathan Fortin is the author of Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus (coming December 2019 from Crystal Lake Publishing) and Nightmarescape (Mocha Memoirs Press). An unashamed lover of spooky Gothic stories, Jonathan was named the “Next Great Horror Writer” in 2017 by He attended the Clarion Writing Program in 2012, one year after graduating summa cum laude from San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing program. When not writing, Jonathan enjoys voice acting, dressing like a Victorian gentleman, and indulging in all things odd and macabre in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow him online at or on Twitter @Jonathan_Fortin.   

Epeolatry Book Review: Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories


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Title: Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories
Author: Deborah Sheldon
Genre: Horror
Publisher: IFWG Publishing Australia
Release Date: 18 November 2019


Brutal. Compelling. Sinister.

From wheat farms, roadhouses, caravan parks and beaches to quiet suburban streets and inner-city apartments, award-winning author Deborah Sheldon tells distinctly Australian stories about violence, loss, betrayal and revenge.

Figments and Fragments includes three new stories written especially for the collection.

“He was wearing a balaclava, but you didn’t have to see his face to know he was dead.”

This is the latest collection from Australian award winning author Deborah Sheldon. There are about 35 short stories here including some flash fiction (i.e. pieces under 1000 words). Some of the short stories have been published elsewhere, revealing an impressive range of magazines and anthologies in Deborah Sheldon’s CV but there are three new stories written just for this collection as well.

I first came to a Deborah Sheldon novel when I read and reviewed (for the Horror Tree site) her bio-horror novella Thylacines which I hugely enjoyed and so I became a fan of her fiction. 

It is always an enjoyable experience to venture into her fictional worlds, conjured up so vividly and so succinctly in these shorter pieces.

These are dark tales, which step into the underbelly of society and the fringes where folk scurry around to make a buck. They are set in hospitals, the outback, (the powerful punch to the gut opening story Basket Trap), on wheat farms, on roads in cars, in caravan parks (the bitter sweet The Sequinned Shirt where the past is a trap and the present is pretty grim too), in roadhouses, in urban offices (the clever twisting Cash Cow where comeuppance is brutal and final) and on the beach. 

Deborah Sheldon is adept at drawing you in, writing fast, furious dialogue, making you smell and taste the landscape and the characters’ sweat, taking you on a journey with the lost, the displaced, the broken, the runaways, the misfits and the mad, who populate the pages. Many of her characters are in transition, running away from their dangerous past.

I did say the tone was dark. 

This is not always the most comfortable of reads, be prepared to be challenged even disturbed by some of the narratives. There is violence and not many happy endings to be found, though there is some delicious dark humour to be savoured.

But the characters leap off the pages, real, flesh and blood, smoky and smokin’ hot sometimes. You might not want to meet up with them but in these stories you can hang out and still be safe.

My personal favourites – tough call but – the opener Basket Trap, took my breath away; it’s about one woman’s fight for survival in the outback in brutal circumstances, with whole back stories evoked in one sentence. Man with the Suitcase (reminiscent to me, of Donald E Westlake, author of The Hot Rock) in tone, and is a smartly written, slick caper story which reads like a mini movie and pays rereading for its twists and turns and White Powder set around an air plane journey, simply because it was funny and made me laugh.

Definitely worth buying and dipping into.

Bonus Content!

Deborah Sheldon shares a little of her thoughts behind the creation of the collection.

‘I chose the title Figments and Fragments because the collection largely comprises stories based on figments of my imagination or memory fragments.

This is my go-to technique for coming up with story ideas: allowing something to germinate. Something small. An image from a bad dream, perhaps, or a snippet from a painful event in my past. A strong, disquieting emotion that won’t ease up. An overheard conversation. I hold onto the figment or fragment and allow my subconscious to work on it for a while. More often than not, a story begins to form.

I think writers are, by definition, troubled souls! Fiction is about conflict and this is true for every genre, even upbeat ones such as romance. Like many writers, I’m drawn to the exploration of what it means to be human. I just explore it from the “glass half-empty” perspective.

Emotion is the universal human experience. It’s the common language we share, regardless of sex, age, nationality, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status or any other kind of identification label. Writers strive to put emotion into words. As readers, that’s what we look for in fiction; the shared experience of emotion, the mutual understanding, the reassurance that we’re all in this thing together.

Dark fiction digs beneath the social façades, the pleasantries, the polite smiles. I believe that horror, crime and noir are the most authentic genres of all.’

5/5 stars

In Case You Missed It – We’re Running A Digital ‘Body Farm Z’ Giveaway!

We had a guest post earlier this week about the ‘10 Most Hated Zombie Clichés.’ Buried in it, we hid a giveaway for a digital copy of ‘Body Farm Z.’! Now, we’re giving those of you who missed it more of a chance to win!


Available on: Amazon

To solve murders, you must understand the process of decomposition. Australia’s newest body farm, the Victorian Taphonomic Experimental Research Institute, is hidden in bushland some four hours’ drive from Melbourne. Scattered across its 150 acres are human donor cadavers and pig carcasses arranged to mimic some of the ways in which police might find murder victims: exposed to the elements, buried in a shallow grave, wrapped in tarpaulin. Forensic scientists and graduate students meticulously track each stage of putrefaction. Today, Detective Rick Evans of the Homicide Squad is at VITERI for the re-creation of one of his cold cases. A human donor will be locked inside a car. But the donor has other ideas… So begins a facility-wide outbreak of the reanimated dead.

Be sure to check out the original ‘10 Most Hated Zombie Clichés‘ post as well which is a great read!

The Horror Tree Presents … an Interview with John C Adams

Be Your Best Writer’s Self!

Horror Tree sat down with non-binary author and critic John C Adams to talk about how being a critic has helped them be their best writer’s self with their latest fantasy novel, ‘Dagmar of the Northlands’.

Horror Tree: So, you’re an author and a critic in both horror and fantasy?

JCA: Yep. I’ve just published my second fantasy novel, and I’ve also got a dystopian horror novel called Souls for the Master on Kindle and Smashwords.

As a critic, I write regular blog articles and I’m also a reviewer for the British Fantasy Society and Schlock! Webzine. The method of choosing what to review is quite different for each market. With BFS, I am on the team dealing with books, comics and graphic novels, and we get a list of material every month to choose from. They also have a team for self-published books, and indie publishers and RPG games, and a third team that centres around films and TV plus a whole lot more like computer games. Pretty much whatever it is, there’s someone there to review it!

With Schlock! Webzine, they have a different approach in that our team of reviewers will pick a book or film or game they’ve enjoyed recently and review it, rather than being open to submissions. The material is very similar, but each reviewer makes the choice and whereas with the BFS I just review books, with Schlock! if I’ve seen a film I like I can put in a review of that instead of a book.

Horror Tree: What’s the latest thing you’ve reviewed?

JCA: Well, the British Fantasy Society have just published my review of The Last Supper Before Ragnarok by Cassandra Khaw, from Abbadon Books. And my most recent Schlock! review was Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco. I review for Library Thing, Goodreads and Litsy, too, so I quite often delve back into the classics. My next Library Thing review is going to be Sea Dragon Heir by Storm Constantine, and for Goodreads I just reviewed the anthology Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural. On Litsy the other week I was talking about Legacy of Kings by Celia Friedman. Some real old favourites, but being able to go back to the classics helps you understand what they’ve done right to be such an enduring feature of horror and fantasy fiction: what exactly do we love about them and why do we keep coming back to them over and over?

Horror Tree: How does reviewing regularly, more or less every week, help improve you as a writer? How did it help with Dagmar of the Northlands?

JCA: Do you know, there is nothing better than really drilling down into what works and what doesn’t. You need those honed analytical skills and an understanding of what exactly the market is demanding to be able to say, ‘This is what I need to write and for whom’. It helps with identifying your market, your style, your content. It helps with everything! All writers read a lot, but for me I think my best improvement as a writer has come through reading analytically – not necessarily in an academic way but about plot, character, technique, themes, structure. Reading the masters like Ramsey Campbell, Lovecraft, Stephen King, Peter Straub is just the best way to learn, and then to mix it up with more recently emerging writers who are new but still influential in order to absolutely understand what they’re doing right.

Horror Tree: And as a Contributing Editor for Albedo One Magazine you do alot of submissions reading for the Aeon Award?

JCA: That’s right. The work of Contributing Editors varies at Albedo One, which is a SF, horror and fantasy magazine based in Dublin. The magazine runs an international short fiction award every year, and that’s where I do most of my work as a submissions reader as part of the big team we have. Every story gets read twice, actually three times if there’s not agreement between the readers. It’s lovely to be working with other writers who have so much experience, and I’ve learnt alot from their thoughts and analysis of the short stories we read. Again, it has helped me to grow as an author, and I’d definitely recommend doing submissions reading for anyone who’s a writer.

Horror Tree: What are you working on now?

JCA: Well, any novel goes through editing, revisions and pre-order stages, so in fact in the months since Dagmar of the Northlands was complete I’ve been working through the polished draft of my next novel, a horror tale called Welcome to Oblivion, which is the sequel to my dystopian novel Souls for the Master. It should be out in autumn 2020. I like to alternate between fantasy and horror. As soon as ‘WTO’ is with my editor, I’ll be back on fantasy again writing the sequel to Dagmar. I’ve already done quite alot of the groundwork, and it’s always lovely to be back with characters you know and love, and creating some new ones, too.

‘Dagmar of the Northlands’ by John C Adams is out now on Kindle and Smashwords.

You can connect with John here


Epeolatry Book Review: In the Wolf’s Lair


Our reviews may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through the links in this article we may receive a small commission or referral fee. This happens without any additional cost to you.

Title: In the Wolf’s Lair: A Beastly Crimes Book
Author: Anna Starobinets
Genre: Children’s Mystery Books
Publisher: Dover Publications
Release Date: 17 October 2018

Synopsis: Life in the Far Woods tends to be tranquil because the animal denizens are strictly forbidden to kill (or eat!) one another. An elderly detective, Chief Badger, oversees the community and solves its petty crimes, from stolen pine cones to plucked tail feathers. His restless assistant, Badgercat, longs for some excitement — a desperate crime, a beastly crime! The brash youngster’s hopes are realized when some croaking frogs reveal the shocking news of Rabbit’s murder. Wolf appears to be the most likely culprit, because — duh — he’s a lone wolf without an alibi, but Badger refuses to jump to conclusions. With the help of Vulture the crime scene investigator, Mouse the psychologist, brave witness Beetlebug Buck, and other curious creatures, the woodland detectives set out to discover the truth.  
Newly translated from the original Russian, this fancifully illustrated volume is the first of a Beastly Crimes Books to come from this imaginative mystery series geared toward middle-grade readers. Look for the sequel, A Predator’s Rights, also available from Dover Publications.

In the Wolf’s Lair is the first installment of Dover Publications’ “A Beastly Crimes Book” series. The novel was written by Anna Starobinets and is also illustrated by Marie Muravski. The illustrations here really make the story and as Dover is well known for putting the extra work into making their releases stand out and this helps to do just that.

In this novel, we’re thrown into a world of animals where foul play is afoot. This is a mystery that could be for older children and young adults with the darker humor you’ll find in these pages. Honestly, this can be fully appreciated by adults as it could easily feel at home for fans of A Nightmare Before Christmas.  

If it couldn’t be enjoyed by most of our readers, you wouldn’t be seeing a review here! In another year or so I will absolutely be re-reading this with my older son when he can fully appreciate the humor in it! 

The book follows the police chief who is a badger and his depute who thinks he’s a badger. He isn’t, and you’ll come to appreciate the humor of that as you read the story. The animals in this story are all vegetarians, even the meat eaters. However, we soon find that Mr. Rabbit has been murdered.

Actually, he’s been eaten.

Now an investigation is running full steam as to who took him out. The main suspects are the predator animals but as any good mystery will show you – things aren’t what they seem.  

There are twists, turns, and humor in this murder mystery and you’ll be flipping pages to figure out this whodunit!

4 out of 5 stars.

In the Wolf’s Lair can be found on amazon here.

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