Songs of Sorrow and Pain – Semi-Live Volume 2

A Conversation with King of Pain John F.D. Taff

While I would never go so far as to call myself an authority on the works of John F.D. Taff, I do consider myself to be somewhat more widely read and familiar with them than the average reader. From the very first words of The Bell Witch  to the final sentences of the most recent collection, I’m pretty damn sure I’ve read all or nearly all of his books and stories. And you know something? Out of the literally hundreds of Taff tales (Taff Tales, I like that) that I’ve read, I’ve never bitten into a bad apple. John is a master wordsmith who’s alacrity with the written word is nothing short of exceptional and he always leaves me breathless and pensive and somehow feeling more special for the experience. It’s a rare author who can make me feel that way, but the King of Pain does it every single time. But be warned, Taff is frequent breaker of the hardest of hearts, and his newest collection, Little Black Spots, from Grey Matter Press is one of the finest examples of that you’ll ever see. And speaking of that, today Rich Duncan and I are happy to have the heartbreaker himself here with a conversation about, well, about a lot of things, but mostly books. New books, old books, books in his brain and books on the drafting table, books that are homeless and books that have been adopted. Books of all kinds. This was a delightful and informative chat and we hope you enjoy this as much as we did.


J: Thanks for having me. With my inclusion on both of your Best Of lists this year, and the great review for LITTLE BLACK SPOTS, you are two of my favorite humans! Actually you’ve been two of my favorite humans for years now.

S: Okay, so John, I want to start off today with a little exercise. You game?

J: Absolutely!

S: Okay, this is kind of like word association, only I want to do something called story association. The readers I’m sure will understand what I’m getting at soon. Here goes:

“Purple Soda Hand”

J: Violent

I could say that about most of them. Heh

S: “Gethsemane in Rain.”

J: Secrets

R: “The Immolation Scene”

J: Fear of love.

S: Ohh, good answer. “The Bunny Suit.”

J: Hard one…

S: Just go with Twisted, hahah.

J: Ummm…wow…that’s kind of secrets, too.

Yes, big ones.

Yeah, dark ones….bad ones.

R: “The Coriolis Effect…”

J: One event changes everything and everyone. That was more than one word, but…

R: It’s okay, Shane and I aren’t big on rules haha

S: My bad there for not clarifying length at your discretion.

J: Yeah, I’m trying to think in shorthand here.

S: So, let me explain to the readers real quick what we’re talking about John.

J: OK!

S: What all these stories, and many more, have in common is they all reside in a new book from Grey Matter Press entitled LITTLE BLACK SPOTS. This book is anything but little, and nothing less than remarkable. We’ll be talking about that a lot today, and a lot of other cool shit too.

J: COOL SHIT! I am so in !

R: To kick things off, I’ve always been curious about how authors put together short story collections. With a variety of stories to choose from, what was your process choosing stories for LITTLE BLACK SPOTS? What are some things that were important to you and how do you decide how to order the stories? Did you try to build a cadence with the order?

J: OK, good question. I’ve got a lot of short stories, both published and unpublished. So, first, I wanted a good mix of both. That involved a lot of making lists of both types of stories, then peeling them back until I had about 20. Then, I turned it over to Tony at Grey Matter and he nixed a few. I nixed a few, then we arrived at what we thought was a strong number and mix. Once we arrived at that, then we both sort of worked back and forth about what tone we wanted to start with and end with. We shifted the stories around a little before we arrived at what we liked. We cut a story at last minute and swapped in “Lincoln & Booth at the Orpheum,” and he thought that was a great way to end it. And there we were.

What I like about the collection is that most of the monsters are human. That was what I wanted to shoot for with this.

S: And you succeeded masterfully.

J: Thanks!

S: So, the other day I mentioned your alacrity with painting vivid human emotion on the page and Brian Kirk, later agreed. Can you talk a bit about that? About what makes your stories, whether dark or light-hearted, so often poignantly human? How do you exercise that muscle?

J: People watching mostly. I pay attention to people, when they’re interacting with me or even when they’re not. I find people endlessly fascinating. What they do, how they think, why they do the things they do. And how they feel about it. That plus I’ve gotten more comfortable weaving my own experiences and emotions into the stories. A lot of times, I think writers are too embarrassed to let their feelings show in their work. If not there, then where?

I like when human thought goes off the rails, when the person thinks they are being totally normal and reasonable, when they are so clearly not.

S: And yet, you never seem to be exaggerating that. It always seems and feels so natural. It’s what usually draws me to your stories and more often than not what succeeds in breaking unbreakable hearts.

J: Empathy, at least I’d like to think so. As a writer, you have to be empathetic, even to character who act in ways you certainly wouldn’t.

I think it’s a respect for the characters I put onto the page. I sympathize with the shit I put them through.

It bothers me when authors don’t do that, too.

That’s why I tend to prefer endings that have some hope of redemption, at least. Maybe not a happy ending, but not something totally bleak. Mostly, that is.

Mostly. Most of the time…

Mostly. Sometimes you gotta go dark.

R: I think that’s a great answer, and honestly one of the things that I love most about your work. You capture a wide range of emotions and that empathy shows through and makes for memorable moments and characters.

J: I want to scare readers, but often with me that’s not a direct BOO! It’s more unease and dread and sadness. That, to me at least, makes for a much more layered approach than just something shaking chains in the cellar.

R: One question I love to ask writers is what attracts them to writing. When did you first realize you fell in love with writing fiction? Not necessarily a pivotal moment in your career, but the thing that drove you to write a story for the first time?

J: Oh, geez. Since I was about in Third or Fourth grade. Luckily, grade school and middle school English classes didn’t bore it out of me.

But it probably arose from my deep, deep love of reading.

I read a lot when I was younger…a lot. Books are a big deal to me. So, ultimately, I wanted to try my hand at producing these things I had such love for.

I wanted to put into practice everything I’d learned, from Shakespeare to Straub and everything in between.

R: Speaking of Straub, many of your fans know you have a deep love for his work. What was your experience in discovering his work for the first time? What are some of the qualities of his work that appeal to you and inspire you?

J: Straub. I have an authorly man crush on Mr. Straub. Ghost Story was my first read, and it hooked me. But Shadow Land…oh, wow. That was a revelation. His writing is classically awesome, yet so visceral. I love his unreliable narrators in books like Koko, Mystery and (especially) The Throat.

I love the way he holds his cards, plays them at the appropriate moments.

S: Fuck, Shadowland. Oh my.

J: Yeah!

S: The first horror novel I ever read was Salem’s Lot, but the first horror novel that ever scared me was Shadowland.

J: Yeah, I read Salem’s Lot first, right after I’d read Night Shift. But Straub really spoke to me on a different level, a kind of bedrock terror that King often can’t touch, at least for me. King’s horrors are everyday things, that’s his strength. But Straub’s horrors seem old and mysterious and almost unknowable.

S: It helped that I was of an age similar to that of the characters. Now speaking of fear and being afraid. You have another book on the horizon soon, right? Wanna talk about that any, John?

J: The Fearing is sort of my master’s thesis in horror. I worked on it for five years, drifting away and coming back. Took me forever to juggle the characters, the scope, the BIG IDEA of the book, which is sort of a Jungian concept. What if there was a big metaphysical bowl of all the fears of mankind, filling over the millennia. What if it filled up and had to empty to reset itself? In other words, what would happen if every fear was dumped onto the earth at the same time?

Cats and dogs living together…MASS HYSTERIA!

That sort of thing. So it’s a big book, and, of course, no one wanted it. Agents thought it was too big (and I too unknown). So, I floated it past Tony at Grey Matter. And this Spring it will finally see the light of day. And we have some big plans to letting it loose, unusual plans. That Tony has not cleared me to talk about yet. But ARCs will be going on shortly to some lucky people. And I scored with getting a writing idol of mine, Ray Garton, to pen the intro. I am very, very excited about this since it represents my first novel in years, since Kill-Off, really.

S: I’m excited about that too. Ray is a favorite of mine, kind of like an Edward Lee/Dallas Mayr mashup. I’m also excited as fuck about the premise to that book.

R: That’s such an incredible idea. And I can see why lengthy books may scare some publishers, but personally, I love them. Also, those unusual plans sound VERY interesting. I think Shane and I may have to pester him until he breaks.

J: Pester away. Tony loves that.

R: Oh, we know that all too well lol

S: Yeah, I for one was fond of those old King and Straub encyclopedic tomes.

R: Exactly Shane. It lets you completely lose yourself in the story. It’s a totally immersive experience

J: I’m really jittery to reveal the plans, but he’d kill me.

S: Yes, he would. And shame you on social media.

J: Right? I mean I think most readers like to lose themselves in a huge, sprawling novel. I can’t be alone in that.

R: Great minds think alike John!

J: Well, the reaction to the book has been great so far. From Foster, Malerman, Kirk, Stone, Johnson.

S: Some heroes of mine right there.

J: Yeah, I was gratified by the reactions I got.

R: That list is like a who’s who of Ink Heist favorites, so we’re definitely excited!

And we all agree that big sprawling novels can be a great reading experience, but I’d love to switch gears and get your thoughts on the shorter formats of horror. Authors often talk about how sometimes writing a good short story is one of the hardest things to accomplish. Personally, I consider you one of the best at the short story format. What kind of challenges do you face when trying to write a short story when word counts are often at a premium? And what was it like going from new short storiea in Little Black Spots to something as daunting as The Fearing?

J: Of course, Tony and Sharon helped me clean it up, streamline it. But it’s still gonna be a 500-pager.

Thanks! Short stories are my first love, and they are harder for me than novels. Having that room to spread yourself and try things makes novels kind of a breeze. Short stories demand packing a lot of stuff–maximum story, character and emotion (and pay off!)–into a relatively small space. It’s hard to do well, harder (I think) than writing a novel. Writing novels takes persistence. Writing short stories takes diligence. And a kind of shorthand that you have to learn as a writer.

Going from shorts to long is a joy for me, because it’s what I like to do best. Even novellas (a form I love and continue to produce) are a great release for me. Novels take time, it’s really more of a drudgery. Short stories are like biking down a steep hill with your hands held high in the air, whooping all the way. At least for me.

I meant to say going from long to short is a joy for me. I think the whiskey is kicking in. Next up: those authors I detest.

S: The novella is one of my absolute favorite forms, but I tend to be all over the place as a reader and I guess it’s just a damn good story that I crave, regardless the form. Someone likened learning how to pen a short story to learning how to bake a single cookie. That painted it in whole new light for me.

J: That’s a cool analogy. I like that.

S: Let’s talk collaborations a little bit.

J: Great!

S: I’m collaborating on a few projects right now and it’s had me thinking of you a lot. You collaborated with a group of authors on I Can Taste The Blood, and rumor has it you have a few other collaborative projects going, one of them with those same amazing authors. What’s the skinny, John?

J: Well, Dan Stone [J. Daniel Stone], Erik Johnson, Josh Malerman and I have formed a writer’s “band” we’re calling The Four. We’ve decided to treat it all like a band releasing albums. I Can Hear the Shadows is our follow-up to I Can Taste the Blood, and we’re hunting down a publisher. The stories are phenomenal.

R: That’s awesome, I’m so excited you guys are teaming up again.

J: I’m also working with Brian Kirk, who is like my younger, sexier brother, on a fun, outrageously creative piece that will see us taking turns writing a series of novellas that tell a complete story. It’s deeply mythological and is going to be a blast.

S: Well, that is intriguing, and exciting as fuck. Talk about that process. Does it go pretty smoothly? Any glitches along the way?

Working with other authors, I mean. Particularly in the case of ICHTS.

J: The collaboration with The Four was fun, because we tied our stories together in little ways that are like threads woven throughout. I think readers will love it. And I love all those guys, Dan, Erik and Josh. It was a pleasure. I also love Brian, and this will be different as we’re really looking to challenge each other in unexpected ways.

The cool thing is all of these guys write totally different than me, so the clash of styles and tones brings a great energy to projects like these.

R: That sounds awesome. With the Four, I know you guys are all close. Do you guys get together (whether virtually or in person) almost like a writer’s group? And that’s something I noticed with I Can Taste the Blood, the different styles, but how they all compliment each other. I know as a writer, you’re constantly learning new things and trying new things. Working with those guys, did you pick up any new tricks or did they inspire you to maybe take a risk with your writing?

J: I’ve got this, a novel called HE LEFT, a few stories in projects I can’t talk about just yet, a new novel I’m calling OCCULT HOUSE that I’ve started, and I’m putting the stories together for a followup novella collection to THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS. Busy here at Taff Lodge!

R: That’s music to our ears! Shane and I are always giddy at the mention of a new project from you.

J: Well, hopefully people who like my brand of horror will have plenty to read in the near future.

S: I love your brand of horror and I know I’m not alone in that. Little Black Spots has shown up in multiple best of lists, not to mention a few of ours, and that speaks to the love that people have for your work.

J: Oh, plus The Seven Deadliest, coming out this Spring from Cutting Block. Edited by Patrick Beltran and D. Alexander Ward. With me, Bracken MacLeod, Rena Mason, Brian Kirk, Kasey Lansdale, John Foster and Richard Thomas. Again, the stories are phenomenal!

That’s always humbling and gratifying, it really is. And the dual nods on the Stoker Award Preliminary Ballot. Not why I do any of it, but it is nice when there’s some positive vibes coming back.

S: Okay, that all sounds amazing and obviously, us fans have some stuff to be uber excited about now. I think I’ve exhausted the extent of my intellectual and social abilities at this point so I’m going to defer to Rich for any followups, and we’re going to wrap this and let you get back to your evening.

J: Okay. I think Deb wants to eat dinner!

S: That’s what I was thinking. Dinner time in MO.

J: Yeah, and i still have bread to bake!

J: Guys, let me just say here that I appreciate what you both do for the horror industry. You guys provide a hugely valuable service…all of you, Sadie, Tracy, Gavin, David, the list goes on and on.

So there!

R: Thanks John, that means a lot!

S: That hits me right in my heart what you said about what we do, John. We do this mostly for readers, but it’s huge to us that it benefits the writers we love too. Those two things are what it’s all about.

R: That sounds awesome. With the Four, I know you guys are all close. Do you guys get together (whether virtually or in person) almost like a writer’s group? And that’s something I noticed with I Can Taste the Blood, the different styles, but how they all compliment each other. I know as a writer, you’re constantly learning new things and trying new things. Working with those guys, did you pick up any new tricks or did they inspire you to maybe take a risk with your writing?

J: I absolutely mean what I said about you guys. I certainly wouldn’t be in the position I am (whatever that is) without help from you.


S: And me too. John, I appreciate everything you do and all the support you’ve given us over the years. It means the world to us and I hope to be reading your work and being your friend for many years to come.

J: As for The Four. I’ve learned burning passion from Dan. I’ve picked up a great ear for fantastic lines and otherworldly weirdness from Erik. And from Josh? Man, he’s just cool. His writing flows like water, and his stories have a huge, pulsing weird heart in them.

R: I agree with Shane. You’ve supported all of us, but on my end, you were one of the first people to support my book reviews when I launched THB. Ive never forgotten that

J: The feeling is mutual, Rich!

R: Thank you so much for doing this John! We had a blast and it was an absolute pleasure talking with you.

J: Always guys, always!


6 replies »

    • Isn’t it, though? That’s kind of a thing though with Grey Matter Press. If you go to Amazon and search for Anthony Rivera, you’ll see most if not all the GMP books and the covers are all amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

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