I discovered, for lack of a better term, the fiction of Todd Keisling early in 2014 with “Radio Free Nowhere” & “When Karen Met Her Mountain”, the first two entries in the “Ugly Little Things” series of shorts. I was immediately hooked and jumped into ULT #3 “Saving Granny From The Devil” which hit me on an emotional level, and “The Harbinger” which tackled one of my primal fears. I quickly became a fan. Eventually reading “A Life Transparent” (book 1 of the Monochrome trilogy) later in 2014 and “The Liminal Man” (Monochrome book 2) earlier this year. Mr. Keisling has a deftness and multi axis take on horror, able to hit on many different levels simultaneously.
Last week I had the opportunity, and pleasure, to chat via email with Todd Keisling, concerning his most recent release “House of Nettle and Thorn”, the final (for now) Ugly Little Thing, as his focus shifts solely on the upcoming Monochrome book 3 Nonentity.
TK: I’m well! A little sore and sunburned from working in the backyard over the weekend, but that’s the worst of it.
ZDubbz: Congrats again on the new home, I hope everyone is settling well. Is your new office as rad as it looks online?
TK: It’s pretty great. My old office was a cave without windows or ventilation. It was a damn sauna in the summer time. The new office is the perfect size, has a window, and more importantly, a ceiling fan. What can I say? I’m pleased by simple things.
ZDubbz: What kind of décor or talismans do you have to set the mood?
TK: Let’s see . . . I have a three gargoyles sitting atop my hutch, one of those Halloween candles shaped like a skull, a pair of plushy Cthulhus that were handmade by my wife, an Alien action figure from my childhood, Bruce Campbell in bobbleheadform, a Funko Pop Cthulhu (which will soon be joined by Pinhead and Count Olaf), a Boomer plush toy from Valve’s Left 4 Dead series, a green alien fetus in a jar (it’s a lamp), one of Anthony J. Rapino’s “Slag” sculptures, and a one-of-a-kind plush Cretin (also made by my wife). I’m also going to have framed prints of my book covers hung on the walls at some point in the near future.
ZDubbz: Sounds like a hell of a sanctuary. Are there any eerie vibes or sounds? Basically I guess what I am asking, is your place is haunted? Are you a believer of that sort of thing?
TK: I think it is (and to answer your question, yes, I suppose I am a believer in that sort of thing). We’ve had a few bumps in the night, but that’s to be expected in a house that’s over a hundred years old. My old apartment was extremely active, too. Voices, thumps, moving furniture, shadows—I’ve seen it all.
ZDubbz: On to the issue at hand, can you tell the Mouthskateerz why you have decided to step away from the Ugly Little Things (To be referred to as ULT) series?
TK: I made a commitment to readers about three years ago when my second novel was published. That book ended on a cliffhanger, and I promised I’d return to finish Donovan Candle’s story after I’d taken some time off to work on other things. Those other things turned out to be the ULT series, which grew to be something bigger than I expected it would. Earlier this year I realized that I only have enough bandwidth to focus on one or the other, so I had to make a judgment call.
ZDubbz: Was this a difficult decision to make?
TK: It was. The ULT series defied my expectations and became more successful than I imagined it would. It’s been a fun ride and I’m hesitant to bring it to a halt, but the Monochrome’s calling my name.
ZDubbz: Are you leaving any ULT stories unfinished? If so, are you concerned with losing touch, losing momentum, with these stories, and do you expect any difficulty in reconnecting in the future?
TK: Oh yes. I have incomplete drafts of seven other stories that will eventually see the light of day. Combined with ULT #5 and ULT #6, they will complete the second volume of the series. Honestly, I’m not all that concerned with losing touch or momentum. Hell, ULT #3 was in various states of progress for about four years before I completed it. ULT #4 dates back to 2007. Sometimes these stories need longer to cook. They’ll be ready when they’re ready, you know?
ZDubbz: I get that, you can’t force the magic to happen. The ULT series was my introduction to your work, are you concerned with losing momentum with the fans, especially those that caught on with ULT first?
TK: It’s always a concern. I’m not an author who can have constant output. I wish I could be. I’ve tried, and I just get burned out too easily. I like to take my time and put a lot of thought into a project. I’d like to think that if I’ve done my job well enough, those fans will still be there when I’m ready to show them something new. That’s probably unrealistic, but a man can dream. I tried to use ULT as a vehicle to introduce new fans to the Monochrome series, which is why each individual story contained an excerpt from one of the novels.
ZDubbz: Tonally, the ULT stories were, if not darker and heavier, because that is subjective, definitely more graphic. How did it feel to flex that, for lack of a better term, deviant side of your brain?
TK: It was a great relief. Very cathartic in some ways. I spent almost four years working on the second Monochrome book, and by the end of it I just needed some fresh air. I was tired of the Monochrome and needed a change of scenery. I wanted to see if I had anything new to add to the genre. Horror has its tropes, and I wanted to tackle them on my own terms. ULT was the result of that experiment.
ZDubbz: Well, if I may throw me two cents in, my time spent in the ULT universe has been an entertaining journey. What do you feel is your finest moment in the ULT series thus far?
TK: That’s tough to say. I’ve enjoyed reading the reactions the ULT#4: THE HARBINGER, whether positive or negative. It’s a polarizing story that some will love and some will hate. But after thinking it over for a few minutes, I think maybe ULT#3: SAVING GRANNY FROM THE DEVIL is my finest moment in the series. Out of the all the stories, it’s the most well-received of the bunch. It’s also one of those stories that’s haunted me for years, and completing it was almost like climbing a mountain. I can look back with pride and say, “I did that.”
ZDubbz: You met your mountain, nice. Sorry, I had to. Do you have a favorite overall scene? The ending to The Harbinger is a bit of a gut punch.
TK: Yeah, I agree The Harbinger’s climax is a doozy, and I’d have to say that it is my overall favorite scene. Not just what happens at the pig farm, but the following morningwhen Felix is sent on his way, I wasn’t sure how that scene was going to play out until I wrote it, and the revelation of his doll’s identity was as much of a shock to me as it has been to readers. It’s not a perfect story by any means, but I’d say it distills everything I know about horror into a single punch to the face.
ZDubbz: I would say overall, ULT #3 is my favorite of the bunch. Although there are memorable moments from each story, I seemed to connect with #3 the most. It brought up a lot of feelings and emotions I had buried. Do you have a personal favorite ULT story? Why?
TK: If I exempt ULT#3 from consideration due to its personal nature, I’d have to say ULT #2: WHEN KAREN MET HER MOUNTAIN. I think it’s my favorite because of the way it came together. It started with a dream, and then I struggled with how to approach the story for several months before I finally plotted the whole thing from start to finish (which I never do). I wrote the first draft in a ten-hour sprint, and barring a few details here and there, it remains mostly unchanged. There are days when the magic is barely there, and then there are days when it’s with you every moment. Writing Karen’s story was one of the latter.
ZDubbz: Are there any disappointments?
TK: Yeah, a couple. ULT#2 didn’t do so well, and neither did ULT #5. Some folks didn’t like how short ULT#1 was, or how it ended. But that’s the way it goes sometimes. I try to tell the best story I can, in the best way I can. Sometimes I hit the mark. Sometimes I don’t.
ZDubbz: I get that, readers are finicky and tastes can be subjective. Beware the things that are universally loved or hated, only a Sith deals in absolutes. The first batch of ULT stories were collected in a very nice, limited, hardcover presentation last year, congrats on that beautiful release. Overall, would you consider the ULT series a success? Do you consider the limited hardcover a success? In the future, do you expect a similar limited hardcover release for the second batch of ULT stories?
TK: Thank you. I do consider the series a huge success. I was hesitant about releasing the stories individually at first, but the reception of Radio Free Nowhere put my fears at ease. Kindle Nation Daily wrote a feature about it which ran on its release date, and that propelled it up the charts. It was my first bestseller, and the momentum carried on through subsequent stories. The hardcover release was icing on the cake. I really didn’t think we’d sell more than a dozen at most due to the price point, but it ended up hitting 45 (all signed and numbered). One of them even went out to Henry Rollins, which I consider a high point. I’d like to do a similar release in the future for volume two, provided I can create enough content to warrant it.
*(NOTE: Henry Rollins lent lyrics to Todd’s first Ugly Little Thing, “Radio Free Nowhere”.)
ZDubbz: That’s awesome. Mr. Rollins is a real cool, talented individual. Did you happen to get any feedback from him on the book?
TK: I haven’t heard from him, unfortunately, but I know he’s a busy guy, so he gets a pass. Honestly, I’m just grateful he took the time to respond to my request—and to grant me permission.
Zdubbz: Side note: do I remember something about the limited hardcover smelling of lavender? My book didn’t smell of lavender.
TK: We sprayed the postcards with a lavender-scented body spray, but it didn’t adhere very well. I didn’t want to spray the actual book because I was afraid it would stain the pages. Sorry about that.
ZDubbz: No apology necessary, I was just curious. A horror fan can’t really complain about something not smelling of lavender, can they? It might result in a loss of street cred. Blood maybe? Perhaps if a Vol. 2 comes to fruition, it can be packaged with a musty iron bar to simulate blood. A second side note, I am still picking through the items included with the bonus ULT website.
TK: Yeah, good point! Maybe I’ll package the second volume with rotted meat or something. Glad you’re picking through the website. I tried to put as much content as possible on there to make it worthwhile for readers. There’s a ton of reading material there.
TK: ULT #6 is titled HOUSE OF NETTLE AND THORN. It’s a weird, twisted story about a couple of college kids out looking for a good time at a sorority party. Things get . . . a little strange. It was originally titled GIRLS FROM THE INTERNET, in the same fashion as all those classic (and cheesy) sci-fi films from the 50s and 60s. The idea for the story goes back to when I was a senior in college over a decade ago. Took me this long to find the right angle for it, and I guess I have the advent of Facebook and smartphones to thank for that. Readers who enjoyed ULT#4 will probably enjoy this one as well.
ZDubbz: Good job on the title change. When we discussed “House of Nettle and Thorn” last year, before its initial release, you seemed less than satisfied with it. Did this have anything to do with the circumstances surrounding its initial release? Hasyour opinion of it changed at all?
TK: This story has never been a favorite of mine. It was originally going to be ULT #5, during the initial run of ULT stories early last year, but I couldn’t find the right way to end it. The circumstances leading up to its initial release didn’t help matters, as I wasn’t happy with the edit it received, nor with how I was treated by the editor. That said, this version is a different edit, and in my opinion, superior to its original version. I’m not 100% satisfied with it (I never am), but I’m happier with it now than I was last year.
ZDubbz: I liked “House of Nettle and Thorn” quite a bit when it was first published. I really dug the throwback “Tales From the Crypt” vibe and loved the sorority sisters’ dialogue. I enjoyed it just as much upon rereading it a couple of months ago. I’d go so far as to say it is one of my favorite ULT stories (top three at least), is that surprising to you? What kind of feedback have you received about “House of Nettle and Thorn”?
TK: Thank you. It does surprise me, but I guess it also reinforces that old saying about the artist being his or her worst critic. Feedback for this story (in its various forms) was amusing. When I read it aloud to my wife, she had a confused look on her face the whole time; afterward, when I asked what she thought, she simply said, “That was fucked up and you’re a strange man.” And my longtime editor Amelia suggested I release it under a pseudonym because it might be misconstrued as a fetish piece.
*( NOTE: I read House of Nettle and Thorn for the third time last night, the first read of the new edit, and I agree that it is a stronger piece than originally published.)
ZDubbz: The Monochrome series must be your baby due to it being your firstborn, but what stimulates you more as a writer, the graphic and edgier tone of the ULT series or the cerebral tone of the Monochrome series?
TK: A little bit of both. I love the splatter of gore as long as it has a purpose within the fiction, but I also like fiction to have something between the lines, a deeper purpose. Some folks would call that “literary tendencies.” I try to find a way to marry the two, so that the reader gets their horror fix while also being forced to contemplate something. The horror is there on the surface for everyone; those philosophical, literary tendencies are between the lines for anyone who goes looking for them.
Zdubbz: And as a reader?
TK: As a reader, I’m all over the place. I’ll read pretty much anything by King or Barker. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti, and I recently finished Kathe Koje’s “The Cipher.” But I also enjoy non-horror: some of Koontz’s thrillers (“Intensity” is one of my favorites), the weird literary fiction of Haruki Murakami (“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” in particular,” modern fantasy by Neil Gaiman(“American Gods” is a classic), and even Chuck Palahniuk on occasion (his fiction and non-fiction alike). So like I said, I’m all over the place.
ZDubbz: That’s quite a palate, I have yet to read anything from Barron or Ligotti. Let me stress Yet. With juggling family, work & writing, do you get much in the way of reading time?
TK: Not as much as I used to. I try to make time and read at least a little bit every day, and sometimes I have multiple books going at once. I also listen to audio books and podcasts while at my day job. The last audio book I listened to was “Gone Girl” which was incredible, and I also listen to Pseudopod religiously.
ZDubbz: You stated earlier that the Monochrome is calling your name, would you describe it as a summoning, a serenade or a demand? Is it anything like how King describes The Dark Tower call to him?
TK: Part demand, part summoning. I’d say it’s a lot like how King described The Dark Tower’s call. On one hand I’m excited to finally focus on all these scenes that have been building in the back of my mind; on the other, I’m terrified I’m going to fuck it up.
ZDubbz: The Liminal Man (Monochrome #2) had a spectacular ending, with a solid cliffhanger. Can you tell us anything about Monochrome #3 Nonentity?
TK: Thank you. NONENTITY will pick up a few days after the end of TLM. There’s a lot going on outside the Monochrome this time, as there were repercussions on the world following the second book’s climax. Lines are blurring. People are beginning to remember those who’ve flickered out. And some of the Cretins and Yawning have found their way into our world. There’s also a matter of Donovan’s journey toward the mysterious Column, and whether or not Dullington can be trusted. Speaking of which, Mr. Dullington’s origins will also be revealed.
ZDubbz: How far along are you, and do you have a target date for finishing it?
TK: Hard to say. This is the first time I’ve written a novel out of sequence. I have a number of scenes, but I’ve not yet pieced them together into a cohesive narrative. Right now my goal is to have it complete by the end of 2016. The year is special to me, as it marks ten years since I wrote the first book of the trilogy, A LIFE TRANSPARENT.
ZDubbz: Do you have an idea on how the whole things ends or are you just along for the ride like the rest of us?
TK: I do. It could change as I get nearer to that point, but for now, I’ve got a pretty clear idea.
ZDubbz: Are there any particular themes or ideals you’d like to hit-on in this final chapter? Will Nonentity be a natural extension of the first two Monochrome books or are you looking to blaze new landscapes? And will this in fact be the final chapter?
TK: I’d like to a little bit of both. I think the story will be a natural extension and—I hope—a natural conclusion, but I’d also like to try something a little different, too. I don’t want to phone it in and write another ALT or TLM. I want this book to have its own identity . . . which I suppose is ironic when you consider its title. As for a theme, it’s hard to say, as that’s something that comes up during the writing process, and whatever I commit to here could come back to bite me in the ass in a year. So instead I’ll leave you with a few tunes which encompass the theme and say it better than I can right now:
Nine Inch Nails: “I Would For You” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJQs-ShfsMc
Stone Sour: “Influence of a Drowsy God” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVpt8amc2NM
Queens of the Stone Age: “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJiVvpH6-E0
Zdubbz: Is there pressure to top the previous Monochrome entries?
TK: Oh yes. I honestly don’t know if I can top the conclusion of the second book, but I’m going to give it my best shot.
ZDubbz: Are you concerned with the wellbeing of any of Monochrome’s characters?
TK: Concerned? No, but readers should be. The final book is going to have a body count.
ZDubbz: All right my man, I think that is all I have for you. Thank you sir for your time.
TK: No problem, man. Thank you!
ZDubbz: Any final words, items of interest? Where can fans find you?
TK: I do have a couple of things that might interest folks. I recently started a campaign on Teespring for a Monochrome-themed T-shirt. The campaign runs until August 2nd. Further details can be found here: http://teespring.com/monochrome
I’m also offering signed paperbacks of the first two Monochrome novels at my Storenvy shop. Quantities are limited, so act fast: http://monochromedreams.storenvy.com/
As for final words: “Actions birth definition.”
*BONUS QUESTION: What five books would you recommend to the Mouthskateerz?
TK: That’s easy! Read these books:
“Soundtrack to the End of the World” by Anthony J. Rapino
“Beautiful Sorrows” by Mercedes M. Yardley
“Dirtbags” by Eryk Pruitt
“Interference” by Eric Luke
“Heroin in the Magic Now” by Terry M. West