Horror Tree Presents… An Interview With Justin Holley
Selene – Welcome to the Horror Tree, and thank you for agreeing to an interview with us. First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Justin – Hey, Selene! Thanks for having me. It’s been a funky year for everyone, so thank you for continuing to promote the horror community during these difficult times. So, about me? Eeep! I’m not terribly exciting but here goes. I love writing, of course, but also the outdoors. The wife and I live somewhere “up north” on the Mississippi river and really enjoy boating, kayaking, paddleboarding, hiking, etc. My writing space offers up great views of the river and is inspiring to say the least. The rest of my limited time is divided up among family events and…paranormal investigation (which has been quite limited this year as one would expect). I dig the normal stuff too: sports, fantasy football, golf, and playing volleyball (when appropriate).
Selene – What about the horror genre draws you?
Justin – It evokes emotion and stimulates critical thought. And I’ve always been attracted to what scares us. I grew up watching horror movies with my mother. Watched the Amityville Horror at seven and never looked back. Then it was a stream of Alien, Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, and so on. A little later in life, I got into horror fiction with Ramsey Campbell, John Coyne, Rick Hautala, some King, and then a dude named Brian Keene. Keene, especially, motivated me to start writing and see what I was capable of. I tend to be drawn towards horror more extreme (Keene, Ketchum, Laymon, Everson) because you get the visceral along with the chills. A great combination. I’m also a sucker for coming of age work. Love it, because nothing is as raw and visceral and optimistic as youth.
Selene – Your most recent novel, Seven Cleopatra Hill, came out in April. Tell us about it.
Justin – I was so thrilled when Silver Shamrock Publishing took a chance on this story! What some peeps may not know is that I researched and used a real (purportedly) dark ritual as the centerpiece for the novel. I chopped it up, of course, so no one could try it at home. We don’t need any more demons floating around…lol. *Looks around nervously* Anyway, SCH is part supernatural thriller and part coming-of-age horror story. I needed something to trap folks in the heights, thus the thirty-year-blizzard became my plot device. Within the blizzard a ritual-born abomination which terrorizes both the town and a Romance writer’s convention at the Jerome Grand Hotel. Carnage ensues.
Selene – I was surprised to find out it was actually the fourth in a series, Bruised. Do you have to have read the other books to enjoy Seven Cleopatra Hill? Tell us about the Bruised series.
Justin – Actually, SCH is a standalone novel which lays a few Easter eggs for those who have enjoyed the Bruised series. So, nope, no need to read the Bruised series to enjoy this one. However, I will say, if you want to enjoy Miles and Janey to the fullest, then go ahead and get the Bruised series under your belt first. The original Bruised novel is a distinct work of coming-of-age horror which follows a girl named Jewel who is having some problems at home and Jason, the boy who loves her and who is desperate to help her. The final two books in the series (Wednesday’s Child and The Gullies) feature Jason (and his kids Miles and Janey) as an adult. Bruised is written from Jason’s perspective and the final two are written from Tracey’s (another prominent character from Bruised).
Selene – I really enjoyed the young characters, Miles and Janey. How do you develop your characters, and is it just a coincidence Miles shares a name with the kid from The Turn of the Screw?
Justin – Ha ha! Yes, just a coincidence on the name. But thank you for making the reference. Also, thank you so much for your kind words about Janey and Miles. Coming-of-age is my wheelhouse and they are my favorite characters-children. How do I develop my characters? I wish I had some super-fancy formula or sophisticated process to share, but I go a lot by feel. I develop a vague outline of the character out ahead and flesh it in as intuition and plot dictates. I knew from the beginning that I wanted two ghost-hunting kids who feared nothing and would dive into any gruesome situation with vigor. I also knew I wanted a character who feared many things but was in denial about these fears…thus James was born of the pen (or the keyboard such as it is).
Selene – If someone were to make a film of one or more of your books, who would be your “dream cast” of actors?
Justin – Let’s go with SEVEN CLEOPATRA HILL! James (Johnny Depp), Victoria (Emma Watson), Angela (Mila Kunis), Miles (a young Rebel Rodriguez if we could go back in time), Janey (Kennedi Clements), Marion (Jamie Lee Curtis), and if we’re dreaming then Sheriff (Samuel L. Jackson).
Selene – Given the setting of Seven Cleopatra Hill is a haunted hotel, it’s easy to draw a comparison to The Shining, but I think that would be both lazy and inaccurate. Tell us about your ghosts.
Justin – So, within the plot devices and contrivances of SEVEN CLEOPATRA HILL, we have a robust system of spirits. First are the spirits of the Jerome Grand (human spirits) who are, in their ways, trying to warn and guide the main characters regarding the impending doom of the conjured demon (which was never human). We also have the Native American spirits down in the chasms beneath the hotel and also the spirits of those who have died at the hand of the demon every thirty years. Within the story, the spirits interact and try to communicate as needed. So, a demon, human spirits, and a cryptid oh my!
Selene – Speaking of settings, Jerome, Arizona is a real town, with a very haunted history. What made you decide to set the novel there?
Justin – My wife and I vacationed there for a long weekend. The story was born then and there as I sat in the restaurant of the Jerome Grand and asked, “what if?”
Selene – One bit of mild criticism I have after reading Seven Cleopatra Hill…There’s a chapter when we find out the fates of a number of townspeople, but at this point we haven’t spent as much time as I would have liked with them. And the real town of Jerome has quite the “back story,” between its hauntings and its labour history. It’s tough, as an author, to decide what to put into a story and what to take out, in terms of back story. How do you keep up the pace, while giving us enough to care about the characters?
Justin – Great point! My dilemma at this juncture was between more development or cluing the readership into what the heck is going on around town while our main characters are involved in their own activities and fraught with their own worries. I ultimately decided to craft a chapter which depicted the plight of random folks around town and how they perished gruesomely at the hand of the beast. I chose this route for two reasons: 1. I hoped that leaving the other characters on cliffhangers for a short time would build some suspense. 2. My fear was that the readership would yearn for the gory details of the plight of the town. I didn’t have enough room in the story to completely flesh out the random townsfolk, so I did the next best thing and dedicated a chapter to their individual plights. Hope that answers your question…
Selene – Speaking of criticism, how do you deal with negative reviews?
Justin – I really try to think of all reviews, positive or negative, as not for me but for other readers. To help them decide what to read next. That said, I’m not made of stone. Like anyone, if I run across a negative review it can sting, but I don’t dwell. I take what I find useful for future endeavors and disregard the rest. Any two people can read a work and have a completely different opinion. As a professional writer, I not only realize this but appreciate it.
Selene – Out of curiosity, have you been to Jerome, Arizona, or any of the other settings of your stories?
Justin – As explained above, I have been to Jerome and have stayed at the Jerome Grand Hotel. That visit was the impetus for SCH.
Selene – You’re also a paranormal investigator? How do you work your experiences into your stories? And are ghosts real?
Justin – First off, yes, spirits are very real. I understand that people who have not had my experiences can be skeptical. That’s a good thing. People should look to possible hauntings with a great deal of care and skepticism. Although I have seen and documented many spirits, most of my experiences do not rise to the level needed for good fiction or storytelling. But one example is the materialization of the ghost of the maintenance man in SCH when the group is in the basement, peering into the elevator shaft. Spirits really do manifest in this fashion on occasion (sans the gory details, of course).
Selene – You’ve written novels, short stories, and poetry. What’s your favourite form to work in?
Justin – I prefer to write novels. I don’t consider myself a great student of the short-form discipline and so only write in this form when invited or if there is an opportunity which really thrills me. Charity anthologies are one medium which can garner my attention. Other than that, I’m a novelist at heart.
Selene – 2020 has been a brutal year for most, if not all of us. Tell me something good that’s happened to you this year!
Justin – Well, Seven Cleopatra Hill released last April. That was pretty cool! Also, my wife and I built a home on the river and moved in, also, in April. It has been our refuge during these trying Covid times.
Selene – Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions. What’s next for you, and do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Justin – My sophomore effort with Silver Shamrock Publishing, TETHERED TO DARKNESS, is scheduled to release in April 2021. I’m currently and deeply ensconced in the editing process and can’t wait to be able to share this novel with all of you. I can’t share a lot right now, but it’s another supernatural story with a bit of a slower burn than SCH. Dare I say it’s less Splatterpunk and more character driven? Something like that. Anyway, I’m really excited about the project and I think folks are going to dig it.
Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate the interview!
You can follow Justin’s work in the links below!
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