Being part of a Writing Group
Being part of a Writing Group

NEW BLOOD: Special Halloween Edition – A Conversation with Stuart Conover

NEW BLOOD: The Rebirth of Indie Horror

Special Halloween Edition – A Conversation with Stuart Conover

by Matt Micheli

 

These interviews are intended to be very candid and conversational. There is nothing off limits.

 

***

Today for the special Halloween Edition of NEW BLOOD, I felt it only fitting to bring you the founder of the very platform we are reading from this moment, The Horror Tree, which has been a big force for indie horror and speculative writers… Welcome, Mr. Stuart Conover!

Stuart, before we get into the Horror Tree and where it’s headed, I wanted to talk about something that surprised me a little… You don’t just work behind the scenes helping other indie authors; you write, too, and have over 85 stories in print, your newest publication in the newly released Lockdown Fantasy #4 by Black Hare Press

 

When did you write your first story? 

Hah, well, that is a bit of a complicated question. I would say I had three firsts. I have a memorable first story that I wrote in third grade, another memorable one in high school, and finally, a ‘first’ in what I consider my actual writing in about 2006 when I was 25, which was ‘The Full Moon’ and ended up revised and in print in 2011 in the 31 Nights of Halloween anthology (and that I’m quite embarrassed now re-reading as I’m sure all of us are with our older work) from the now defunct Rainstorm Press.

Embarrassment is just part of being a writer. I too was victim to writing horribly and was lucky (or unlucky) enough to find a publisher that actually released my first trainwreck novel onto the world. They too went defunct, actually bankrupt (hopefully not thanks to me). Needless to say, I never got my $400 from book sales. 

And three firsts, huh? Most people only get one first. You’re lucky.

 

What inspired these first ventures into writing (as in: what shows, movies, books were you into at that particular time)?

So when it comes to the first story, it was based on the Bob-omb characters from Super Mario Bros. 2 (though I think I wrote it when the third game came out in the franchise.) The second was from a high school writing assignment, so it was more guideline-driven than external motivation, and the third was thanks to a combination of being pushed to write fiction outside of freelance writing from the girl I was dating at the time, combined with my love of reading and Halloween.  

The ol’ girl I was dating (magical creatures, they are)…

 

What were these three memorable stories about? 

So the first was the story about a day in the life of a Bob-omb who was trying to live its life in peace. It had references to others from the games and ended in a humous twist of Mario stomping on it when it was just trying to avoid everything, and honestly, while I was probably too young for it at the time, could have been a great allegory on how we all get dragged into things against our will. The second story was about a first kiss which I had turned into a vampire story. I don’t have a real memory of what the story was about, and like the first one don’t still have a copy. I’ll explain why this one was important to me in a moment. The final of the three had to do with two kids on the verge of becoming teens who were on a hayride at a pumpkin patch on the last ride before the coming of darkness… and werewolves!

 

Were your three (can’t wait to see your fourth) first times good experiences or bad (writing that is—ha)?

So the three stories I mention here were key memories of the three times I started writing fiction in my life (the third still being ongoing and likely will stay that way!) All three were positive experiences. In the first story, it was the first recollection I have of writing a story for no reason outside of the fact that I wanted to and quite enjoyed doing so. I highly suspect I wrote things outside of being required to from school before this, but it is a foundational memory of enjoying creating a new story from scratch.

The second story, I honestly do not recall much about the tale at all outside of turning a story I had to write for an English class into a vampire story. I highly suspect this was around the time or after ‘Interview with the Vampire’ had come out, and I had fallen down the Anne Rice spiral and was knee-deep in her work. The reason this sticks out is that my English teacher at the time liked it. He REALLY liked it to the point where it changed how he talked to me in class and the type of writing assignments he gave me. I continued writing from this class until some point in college. All in notebooks that are long gone. I ended up switching to this from writing web content for years which slowly built up what was side income at the time, and this blunted my love of writing fiction for years.

Finally, the third story I mention here was also my first in print. It was also written because of a girl who I was dating at the time. She was very clear that she knew that I wrote on the side and pushed me to write fiction since I had mentioned at some point that I used to. I finally agreed, and it quickly became apparent to me that this was something that had been missing from my life, and I’ve been creating worlds again ever since! 

 

These are big moments: your first story written for joy, your first story that got recognition from a credible critic, and the first story that got published. 

 

 

You used the word embarrassing earlier and I want to go back to that word. No stones left unturned. Ha. It seems that girls you dated had quite the influence on you and your writing.

What is the most embarrassing thing that a girl you dated ever influenced or convinced you to do; that one moment you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you try?

 

This one is really difficult for me to answer, and not because I have an overly embarrassing moment to think of. I’ve been married for over 11 years. We dated for a few years before that, and I’ve had two children since that time. When I say that the girls I’ve dated are from over a lifetime ago, I am genuinely not exaggerating. What I once thought of as embarrassing, I look back and really don’t have any connection with anymore. They are all a stretch, to say the least. I could say that not being a singer, it was when one of my exes got me to do karaoke which I don’t enjoy as I’m pretty tone-deaf, and it hurts my throat. 

That isn’t a big thing or something that came to me quickly. 

Really, what it boils down to is that none of these have had a lasting impact on me at this point in my life. I can think of positives (helping motivate me to get in shape, learning to drive stick, expanding my diet to be more plant-based, finding new interests and hobbies, obviously writing, etc.), but the ’embarrassing’ moments, or even any that were once painful, don’t come up for me. Life is too short to dwell on the negative. 

 

 

 

Way to move on and leave the past to the past (or dodge the question; we’ll leave that up to the readers—Ha). Let’s take a big step back, all the way back to the eighties. Where’d you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?

 

I grew up in a small suburb outside of Chicago. I’ve lived in the suburbs and the city for my entire life. It was the gap years between Gen-X and Millennials (I hate the term Xennial, but it really is fitting.) We’re often described as “a micro-generation that serves as a bridge between the disaffection of Gen X and the blithe optimism of Millennials” and I couldn’t agree more. I share a healthy dose of cynicism and optimism in my life, which really straddles the two eras perfectly. 

My friends and I had all of the freedom of coming home from school and just having to be home by nightfall. Latchkey children is a great description as we often fended for ourselves. I grew up pre-internet, but it came to prominence in my teenage and college years, though I had been fortunate enough to be online pre-internet through BBS’s and FidoNet. I was fortunate enough to have gotten a computer quite early, which my father felt was an investment in my future. Which, considering I ended up working in IT, seems to have paid off. 

I think outside of having early access to a computer at a time when they were rare, I had a pretty typical childhood. I went biking with my friends, played with a slew of toys (He-Man, Lego, Transformers, and G.I. Joe were standouts growing up.), Nintendo and Atari games as they slowly started to come into our lives, MTV, back when it played music, was often on, and being an only child, I read. A LOT. I became a huge fan of comic books at an early age (Marvel), adventure books, and science fiction. Sci-Fi anthologies were actually my gateway into speculative fiction with how many my mother owned. 

 

Man, those toys bring back the memories!

 

You mentioned your mom being a sci-fi reader… Of her collection, what is one book that stands out, and what was it about that book that stuck with you? 

 

Now that is a tough one. I remember a lot of work put together by Isaac Asimov. I feel that the vast majority of the anthologies and magazines had his name plastered all over them. I feel that there was one anthology in particular that I enjoyed, and I can see the cover in my mind but not the text on it. I just spent about an hour going down the Google Rabbit Hole of searching for his anthologies and magazines as well as science fiction anthologies from the 80s and, unfortunately, was unable to find it. 

 

Oh, man. I’m sorry. The Google rabbit hole is a scary place! I’m sure at some point, it’ll come to you, and you’ll once again, be able to go on with your life without spending every second racking your brain for the title of that elusive book.

 

 

Your career is in IT. For some reason, IT makes me picture buzzing fluorescent lighting, stale coffee, cubicles, and 1-ply toilet paper. Is this an accurate description or are you able to bring some fun and solace to the job? Give us a rundown of what your day looks like and how you survive the corporate death ship. 

 

I’ve worked the job that you describe here. While the cubicle never really went away (until the pandemic), the rest just is an outdated theme for many work environments. Most of the companies I’ve worked at in the last decade serve at least decent coffee and have better lighting with open windows across an entire wall. There are absolutely still support locations that cling to ‘the old ways,’ but big business and many startups have turned the tide on what an acceptable work environment is. 

My current job is actually quite fulfilling. I work for a non-profit that truly helps the customers in the industry it is part of. We have a large IT staff and the company, on the whole, believes in providing a solid work-life balance. Ideas are listened to at every level of the organization, and, to be honest, I haven’t been in the office for more than five days since the start of the pandemic. We always had a culture that allowed you to work from home, which only increased once we were all forced to do so, and there wasn’t a decrease in productivity. There is also a stress on recognizing accomplishments that have fostered a positive work environment where collaboration and owning your work really are rewarded.

While I foresee more will be returning to the office over the coming year, it will never be what it once was, and on top of that, we’re moving locations to one with a more open floor space, a variety of working environments outside of standard cubicles, and even more accessible floor to ceiling windows located throughout. 

 

 

 

As a kid and later as a teenager, what did you want to be when you grew up? What were your BIG dreams? 

Starting a company and retiring early rich. None of these things have happened, nor will they as I’m getting on in years. While Horror Tree has a fantastic community that pays its writers and contributors, I, personally, have made the least off of it as it was run “in the red” for years. 

 

 

So wait, as a kid, your dream was to start a company and retire early? Most kids want to be a fireman or cowboy, and teenagers want to be pop stars… Am I missing something here, or were you a young Bill Gates?

 

I wouldn’t go that far, but between computers and comics, I was quite the geek. I was growing up as the Internet was, and the idea of being able to build something that could have grown with it was fascinating to me. It just wasn’t something that materialized. I’ve always enjoyed starting things, though, so it is no surprise that I’ve started quite a few websites.

 

There is something cool about building and/or creating. When the old lightbulb buzzes inside that grimy truck-stop restroom of a brain (at least that’s how I picture mine), and something you just spent time on—a website, an IKEA bookshelf, a story—somehow comes together and works, it’s a great feeling. And anyway, according to all the 80’s movies I grew up to, the “geeks” always ended up with the girl, so there’s that…

 

 

Think hard on this question: would you trade where you are now for the dream of retiring young and rich? 

 

Not a chance. My measure of success has completely changed. While the idea of retiring early is an attractive one that would allow for more time with the family, working out, and writing – I can’t complain. I have a wife and two kids who I absolutely love and adore with all my being. I have a job that pays our bills which I am good at, my talent is recognized, and I enjoy doing. It also provides a work-life balance that allows me to spend time with my family. I have a few websites that I run which I love to do. I feel that the only place that I’ve fallen behind on was my writing and that was really due to the pandemic interrupting my life and not being quite back into the creative place that I used to be, though the words have been coming once more.

Glad to hear you are in a place you feel good in, and you are able to appreciate what you have. I always like to think that every moment and decision we’ve ever made has led us exactly to this point and if you were to change even something as small as ordering something differently at the drive-thru, your entire life would be changed. I’ve been asked this question before, and I always say No. Because if I were to have changed my path, my life, my wife, my daughter, wouldn’t exist. I am beyond grateful for what I have. And the thought of changing anything scares the crap out of me. Gratitude is key.

 

Let’s talk Horror Tree. Where were you and what were you doing at the exact moment that the idea of starting the Horror Tree came about?

Entertainingly enough, Horror Tree was one of the few websites I had started without a purpose to begin with. It was created at about the time I had started using WordPress, and I was looking for an excuse to really learn the platform. I had already started writing at this point, and a few of my friends and I were lamenting that there weren’t a lot of places to find paying markets specifically for horror. So, on a whim, that is how Horror Tree came into being. If anything, my one regret is that I hadn’t thought bigger when starting, as we haven’t had a sole focus on horror in over six years at this point. These days, it feels like horror and speculative fiction markets are the easiest to discover, and I hope that we’ve been able to have some impact on helping with that. 

I know for me and many others, The Horror Tree has been huge, especially for newer writers. If it weren’t for your OPEN CALLS, I wouldn’t be where I am right now with several anthology publications, magazine pieces, and 2 books under contract with a killer publisher I discovered through y’all. Not to mention, the info you provide for writers through interviews, reviews, and articles on writing. Y’all really are a vital tool for horror and speculative fiction writers, and a priceless platform for new writers trying to find their way through the writing world/community which can be an intimidating and daunting task to say the least. It only made sense to want to host my interview series on The Horror Tree, and I’m glad we did.

 

What were your initial goals for The Horror Tree and have those goals changed over the years?

As mentioned above, at its inception, there wasn’t much in the way of solid goals for Horror Tree. Have they expanded over the years? Absolutely. About six months into working on Horror Tree, I looked at my analytics for the first time (even though they had been there for months) and was quite surprised to see that we had traffic. It was nowhere near the number of visitors that we have these days, but at the time, it was clear that we had people coming to look at the website outside of the 4-5 people who had originally known about it. Knowing that the site was growing, I was curious to see if we could expand into an actual source for horror authors to find places to send their work to. As time passed and this goal was achieved, we expanded into all forms of speculative fiction, writing advice, author interviews, book reviews, original fiction, and so much more! 

All great stuff! 

 

Where is Horror Tree headed?

The future of Horror Tree is something that I am excited about. We’ve recently been starting to expand into videos, as can be seen on Horror Tree’s Youtube Channel, though this is just a drop in the bucket as to where we’re hoping to expand in digital media. We have some ideas to expand further into publishing past our Trembling With Fear line, one of those, I am hoping that we’ll be able to unveil at the end of November. In preparing for our new site design next year, we’ve taken down our store and will be opening a much larger one on its own domain later this year that includes many options past just Horror Tree’s offerings for lovers of fiction. For those who receive their paychecks for writing outside of fiction, we’ve also done a soft launch on Write Career, which is a job board for opportunities for technical writers, publicists, editors, and so much more. There is still a LOT to do on this site for what is available and speeding it up, but I knew if we didn’t get it running, I could spend the next year tweaking it, so wanted to put it live. We also have a few complimentary services for authors in the works, though they’re all pretty early stage at this point. 

Wow! More support for the indie writing community is always welcomed!

 

Since this is the special Halloween edition of New Blood, let’s talk about the spookiest Holiday of them all!

Do you dress up and if so, what are the best and worst costumes you’ve ever worn?

Hah! Well, for the last few years, my wife and I have been going super simple and dressing up with these pumpkin outfits, which might fall into the worst category in the best possible way. Best? When I used to write for a lot of horror magazines, I would sometimes get some neat stuff, so I, once upon a time, had some of the early inflatable costumes and more modern light-up ones that all made a splash at Halloween parties. I wouldn’t say any were a favorite, though. While cool to look at when they were released, so was ‘Avatar.’ Great visuals don’t stand up to great content 😉 

What will you and family be doing on Halloween night?

Halloween is absolutely a thing for my family. It is usually 2-3 weeks before Halloween as the village I live in has a haunted forest walk two weekends before Halloween, a “trick or treat” trail down our main street for all of the businesses to hand out candy to the kids. The weekend of Halloween, we always have a party with neighbors that will involve kids’ Halloween movies, usually a large amount of food that is slowly eaten throughout the day, and just an overall good time. Halloween itself this year isn’t on a weekend, so on Halloween itself, we’ll be meeting up with a couple of local families and letting the kiddos have at it for trick or treating. (With a good chance that we’ll be taking turns as to who is walking with the kids and who is handing out candy.) This actually works pretty great as the block we live on does not get a lot of foot traffic at all, so being at a friend’s who does means we get to really participate in all of the festivities. 

Sounds pretty similar to what our Halloween night will consist of! I tell you, having a kid completely revitalized holidays for my wife and I, including Halloween. It doesn’t get much better.

 

Okay, okay. Everybody wants to know… Is Stuart Conover a candy corn or chocolate guy?

Candy corn is an abomination from one of the lower circles of Hell, so while I’m not a big chocolate guy unless peanut butter is involved (#TeamReeces), that is easily my pick. No question. 

Thank goodness. I heard one of the four consistent characteristics of a serial killer are: head trauma, hurting animals, they’re pyro’s, and they like candy corn. I have to say, I was a little worried about your response…

 

What is your favorite scary movie to watch around Halloween?

Does my favorite movie have to be scary? Ever since I first saw it on a limited big-screen run in Chicago in 2007, ‘Trick ‘r Treat’ has become my go-to Halloween movie. Pre-kids I would usually do a 31-movie countdown to my favorite holiday; these days, I fit in one a weekend after the kids go to bed, as well as a ton of kids’ films. This year’s lineup is ‘Hellraiser,’ ‘X,’ ‘Prey,’ ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ which I missed last year, and, of course, ‘Trick ‘r Treat. I’m also hoping to get in ‘The Midnight Club’ on Netflix, as most of the streaming shows I’ve been watching have hit seasons finales this month. 

Trick ‘r Treat is one of our Halloween favorites as well. Halloween horror has to not only be a little spooky, but it needs to have a level of cheese and fun to it. Good choice.

 

What is your favorite scary book to read to get you in the Halloween spirit?

This is a tough one. I don’t think I have a direct favorite; however, there are two set around Halloween that both take place in the midwest of the US, so, they’ve always spoken to me. The Ray Bradbury classic Something Wicked This Way Comes actually takes place in Illinois in the week leading up to Halloween, which has always been a great fit. Secondly is Norman Partridge’s Dark Harvest, which also takes place in the Midwest. Both of these are set a little older than stories that I prefer but were great reads for the season.

It’s hard to be a horror fan and not be a Ray Bradbury fan. I mean, is that even possible?

 

What is your favorite indie horror book, currently, and why?

I’m currently reading Tim W. Long‘s ‘Z-Risen’ series as he has long been a friend, and I’ve enjoyed his work for years.  He had gifted me the first book in this particular series when it was first released in 2013, and I somehow had forgotten about it after enjoying the first one. I’ve recently re-read the first book and am currently enjoying the second! For a long period, I read only zombie-themed novels and overdid it, so it has been refreshing to fall back into an enjoyable series about the undead.

Very cool! It’s so neat to meet people whose work you’ve read. I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of indie horror writers (minus a couple who aren’t deserving of discussion) are the kindest, most generous people, which makes me think the happiest, nicest people write the darkest stuff. Weird how that works.

 

What do you want to see more of and less of in indie horror?

One of my favorite areas is folk horror which has notably been on the rise as of late. Outside of this, I’d love to see more genre mashups. I want horror mixed with fantasy or science fiction. Also, I’d love to see more horror set in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I know we had a slight increase in this thanks to Stranger Things though I feel it is a ripe era for stories to be told. As to what I’d like to see less of? I honestly can’t say. There is such an amazing mix these days that nothing feels like it has oversaturated the market. 

There are a lot of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s that are craving more nostalgia. I’m one of them. Bring on all you got! And Stuart, you’ll be happy to know my second novella to be released by D&T is set in the summer of 1986 (Two Minutes with the Devil coming June 2023).

 

Before we wrap this thing up and get all sentimental, you’ve been married 10 years… For those youngsters out there to who 10 years sounds like an impossible eternity, what’s the secret to a lasting and fulfilling marriage? And please no “happy wife, happy life” stuff. We all know wives are incapable of being happy. Kidding.

Absolutely having a happy wife! However, the way we’ve worked in being happy about everything is genuinely working toward having open communication and being on the same page on things. Our goals, our wants, our needs, and our finances. No one likes to talk about money, but we knew going into it that it could be one of the biggest killers of relationships, so wanted to make sure we were on the same page regarding where we were, what we owed, what we wanted, and putting together a plan to try and plan for retirement someday.

Open communication is key. My wife and I never leave anything unsettled. Sometimes you have to have those uncomfortable conversations; you both owe it to eachother.

 

You are parents to 2 boys which I can only imagine are like a continuous tornado twisting through the house and streets and grocery store aisles, leaving a mess of destruction everywhere they go… you and your wife futilely trying to pick up after them. Am I close? 

At one point, we tried to keep up with their mess. Now we’ve moved their play area to the basement, so it is once every 2-4 weeks cleaning down there, and they need to keep the upstairs areas tidy as part of their chores. It isn’t perfect, but it has gotten leaps and bounds better. I also think it would have been impossible to get them to follow this schedule two years ago. Also, to be completely honest, I don’t know if we ever need to buy Lego again because I swear they sprout on the children and just fall wherever they sit down. 

There. Are. Lego. Everywhere. 

 

Nothing scarier than the thought of stepping on a Lego in the middle of the night. Nothing. 

Y’all also are dog-parents to a husky/lab mix which I would think would also have some tornado traits. Being a Husky lover and owner of one full-bred and one mix (both rescues), is your dog a turd but impossible not to love?

I will say that when Ali was younger, a tornado was a very good description of her energy levels (and creativity in trying to problem-solve.) When she started to age out of being young, she became quite the hunter, which is a shared trait between the two, and had a knack for catching bunnies, birds, and more. Which, really was SUCH a treat to go into the backyard and see. Fortunately, she stopped that before our boys got old enough to stumble across her prizes, as I don’t think they would have been thrilled to know what their dog was up to. As she’s gotten older (she’s 13ish now), she has really embraced her Lazy Lab side. 

 

One more thing before we finish this thing out… you’ve got a horror novella and a fantasy novella in the works. Can you give us a little insight into the stories, and what’s keeping you from typing THE END and sending it in for publication?

When it comes to the two novellas in question, I’ve been working on one of them since pre-pandemic, and the other I started about three months ago. The horror one is about a man who has been cursed by a monstrous entity after it was promised his soul and yearly is hunted by the creature’s minions. We jump into the story multiple years into the hunt and are able to see what the man has pieced together about his situation. This one stalled out due to the pandemic when just about all of my creative writing took a huge pause as my writing schedule was thrown to Hell (it used to be my commute to work), and after I was able to adjust, I was just too drained to come up with anything. The last six months have really seen that haze around my creativity lift, and I’ve been writing again. I’m down to the final act of this novella and already know how it needs to come together. I just lack the time to finish it quickly. 

When it comes to the fantasy novella, it kicks things off with the remains of a Dwarven kingdom that has been sacked by humanity. Humans were the guiding light of the lands when the elves abandoned the world, and something changed. While some of my planned works here focus on humanity, I wanted to kick the books off with more of an outside perspective as the Dwarves (and the readers) find out the lay of the land. 

Both of these novellas take place in worlds I have previously created in short stories, though the links might not be overly obvious from the start. 

 

Interesting. I’ve never been a fantasy genre guy, but never say never. As long as there are a couple scares in there someway, somehow. 

 

One of my favorite questions: How will you be remembered by loved ones—friends and family—after you’ve passed, as in, what will be written on your tombstone and said about you at your funeral?

I hope to be remembered as a loving husband and father, above all else. It would also be neat to be considered a great author, though I have a long way to go before that happens. 

As I’m likely to be cremated, I doubt there will be a tombstone, however, if there was one, I once read, “I hope to arrive to my death late, in love and a little drunk.” While I’m not a big drinker, I’ve always felt that it would be a rather fitting way to go! 

When I go, I would hope mainly good things were said and that my life is celebrated and not that my death is mourned. 

 

Good stuff. Simple but meaningful. As far as making the quote work, you don’t have to be a big drinker; you just need to be a “little drunk” when you take your last breath. Something to work toward…

 

One of my least favorite questions because it symbolizes the end of the road… Where can people find the great Stuart Conover?

I’m pretty easy to track down, and you can find me at any of the following spots, though I’m mainly active on Twitter:

Stuart Conover’s Homepage: https://stuartconover.com/

Stuart Conover’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/stuartconover

Stuart Conover’s Facebook: https://facebook.com/stuartconoverauthor

Stuart Conover’s Instagram: https://instagram.com/stuartconover

Thanks for the great interview!

 

Stuart, thank you for all you and The Horror Tree team does for indie horror and speculative fiction communities, and thank you for the great discussion! Again, without you taking the time to list something as seemingly-small as “open calls”, I wouldn’t be where I am at, today. Speaking for myself and other Horror Tree fans, it’s been our pleasure getting to chat with you. Now go finish those novellas!

 

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