I’ve been a fan of Kealan Patrick Burke since I first read his book Currency of Souls last year. What a fantastically twisted, surreal story… I couldn’t put it down. I went right out and bought The 121 to Pennsylvania and Others right away, and that was just the beginning. So when I was offered the chance to not only preview and review his newest novella, Blanky, but also interview the man himself, I was thrilled beyond measure! But I was also nervous. What if the man behind these touching yet terrifying tales turned out to be a real jerk… or worse yet, a one word question answerer! As you’ll see as you read on, none of these worries came to fruition. As a matter of fact, I would say that this was one of my favorite interviews ever.
“Twenty years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to pull off the kinds of stories I write now, or even been all that interested in them, but as I get older, I find myself drawn more to the nature of the inexplicable. The themes get darker. The things that scare me never change, but the way I write about them does.”
PopHorror: First off, I want to thank you for granting PopHorror this interview. I’m a big fan of yours and I’m humbled that you are giving us a bit of your time.
Kealan Patrick Burke: Thanks very much! Happy to do it!
PopHorror: You were born in Dungarvan, Ireland, a place rich in local lore. What was it like growing up there? What are some of the stories you remember hearing about the area as a child?
Kealan Patrick Burke: Honestly, I don’t think of growing up in Ireland as being all that much different than growing up anywhere else, though if there’s a distinguishing element, it’s how old the country is. In my hometown alone, we have the remains of a castle wall that’s been there since the 12th Century and the ruins of an Augustinian church that’s even older. Castles and towers and fairy stones and druidic circles are everywhere. But I grew up with no real understanding of or appreciation for these ancient remains. They were just there, and as teens, we got into as much mischief as anyone, but instead of sneaking into the woods, or gathering at a mall, we were hanging out in the abbey ruins, daring each other to peek into the cracks in the tombs. I wrote about much of this in my short novel The Hides, which serves as something of a walking tour of the town as it was back in the ’80s.
It was, however, a culture rife with storytelling, and I heard many stories around the fire, which is why for the longest time I bought into the old-world superstition that told of hungry grass – patches of grass that would drain the strength from your body if you stepped on it, cursed wells, sacred burial mounds where the ghosts of old warriors roamed, banshees I swore I heard the night before someone in our neighborhood died, and fairy stones that caused the death of anyone who tried to remove them. I believed it all and it inflamed my imagination very early on.
PopHorror: Talk about a basis in history! In my section of Connecticut, we had Michael Ross, our own local serial killer, but that’s boring compared to things like hungry grass and fairy stones. Is this history where your writing gets its surreal, horror-fueled flair?. Was this a passion you grew up with or did you discover it later in life?
Kealan Patrick Burke: Twenty years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to pull off the kinds of stories I write now, or even been all that interested in them, but as I get older, I find myself drawn more to the nature of the inexplicable. The themes get darker. The things that scare me never change, but the way I write about them does.
PopHorror: The depth of the horror certainly increases over the years, doesn’t it? Who or what are some of your horror influences?
Kealan Patrick Burke: The list is very, very long, and we’d be here all day if I listed them all, but off the top of my head, I am endlessly inspired by the works of Stephen King, James Herbert, Peter Straub, early Koontz, Ramsey Campbell, Steve Rasnic Tem, Charles L. Grant, Graham Masterton, Scott Smith, Michael Marshall Smith, John Connolly, Dennis Lehane, Larry McMurtry, and Cormac McCarthy.
PopHorror: You named some of my favorites! Larry McMurtry turned me on to making everyday life worthy of a story, and Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan blew me out of the water. I’m actually reading John Connolly’s Nocturnes right now. What was the first horror story you remember reading? Where did you find it?
Kealan Patrick Burke: The first one I clearly recall reading was The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe and it was part of a collection of his stories called Tales of Mystery and Terror. It was an abridged, profusely illustrated version aimed at the YA audience and it was one of the books my mother used to buy for me every week on her shopping trips. I was about six or seven at the time.
PopHorror: Your mom gave you Edgar Allen Poe when you were six? I bet those tales got your imagination flowing! What was the first horror story you ever wrote? Where did you get the idea for it?
Kealan Patrick Burke: I can’t remember the first or second or tenth story I wrote, probably because they were dreadful, but as I wrote them when I was about eight, I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise. I do remember The Calling, which I wrote in my early adolescence. It was about a small harbor town where, one night of the year, the townspeople lock themselves inside the church or else end up being forced by some hypnotic spell to drown themselves in the tide. I can’t remember the genesis of the story, but I know at night I liked to hang out down by the old stone wall which separates the church from the beach. It was a creepy place, especially when the fog rolled in…
PopHorror: Talk about inspiration! Speaking of writing, when you begin a story, do you know how it’s going to end? Or do you let the idea take you where it wants to go?
Kealan Patrick Burke: It’s different with every story. Sometimes I know it from beginning to end, only to have it alter itself in the writing. Other times I know only the beginning, or only the end. Sometimes I know nothing beyond the opening scene. But most often, no matter how much I think I know, it ends up taking on a life of its own.
PopHorror: I can totally relate to a story taking on a life of it’s own when you start feeding it words. It’s like the story is already there in the universe and you’re just lucky that you can tune into it. You don’t get to choose how it goes. You’re most recent publication is a dark, depressing short story called Blanky. Do you remember what sparked this story idea for you?
Kealan Patrick Burke: Not really, which is unusual, because I almost always remember the trigger for a story. I know the idea had been hanging around for a year or so before I wrote it, though, and that the reason I decided the time was right was because of a picture of a vintage child’s blanket I happened to see on Etsy. That thing was unnervingly creepy.
PopHorror: What is Blanky about?
Kealan Patrick Burke: It’s about grief and its many manifestations, about how difficult it can be to move on and live your life after losing the person that means the most to you. It’s about how much grief costs you.
PopHorror: You can pay your debts is much more than just money, that’s for sure. I had a hard time reading Blanky because it was so very heavy. Was it a challenge to write it as well?
Kealan Patrick Burke: It was. I can point to novellas like Sour Candy and The Tent and recall grinning from ear to ear when I wrote them because they were just crazy, mischievous fun. This one was not fun at all. It was a long, exhausting, and depressing slog to get it on paper. To write convincingly about characters in pain, you have to become them. It’s like method acting, and that takes a lot out of you. But that’s what I do, and the fact that the book seems to be affecting people in all sorts of ways means every hour spent in that grim world paid off.
PopHorror: Aw, man, I really loved The Tent! There is also a special place in my heart for your story, Peekers. Is there a story behind this one? What do you think makes it so terrifying?
Kealan Patrick Burke: One of my hobbies is photography. In my old house, we had a creepy stairway with a door at the top of it. I asked my sister-in-law to go behind the door at the top of the steps and lie down so that only half her face could be seen at the top of the steps. It made for a supremely creepy photograph, especially in black and white. It made the viewer demand to know why the girl was there and why she was hiding from the camera. Some months later, I realized rather late that I had a story due by a midnight deadline. I sat down at the kitchen table, laptop open, and, desperate for inspiration, looked up those creepy stairs and remembered the image. I wrote the story in about two hours.
I think the most terrifying elements of the story are that it happens in daylight and is very – perhaps too – easy to imagine happening to you. Also, it’s freaky enough to see your own doppelganger. It’s another thing entirely when it expresses a desire to play with you. I think all these reasons, plus the complete lack of an explanation, which demands that you answer them, combine to make this one that resonated with readers.
PopHorror: Not only why she was hiding from the camera, but what she was hiding. What if only one half of her was human-looking? What does the rest look like? Were you happy with the filmed short Peekers? What did you think of Rick Hautala’s script?
Kealan Patrick Burke: I was very pleased with the job Mark Steensland and the late, lamented Rick Hautala did with the short. On a zero budget, they somehow managed to convey all the freakiest aspects of the story. And despite knowing every beat of the piece, it still gave me the creeps to watch it. I couldn’t have been more impressed.
PopHorror: I totally agree. Sometimes a filmmaker misses the mark with a short story, but this one hit on all disturbing points. You won a Bram Stoker Award for your novel, The Turtle Boy, which is available as a free download from your website. What is this one about? Are any of Timmy, Pete or Turtle Boy’s stories based on personal experiences?
Kealan Patrick Burke: The Turtle Boy is about secrets and lies and the moment in which a young child realizes the world has sharp edges. It’s a coming of age story about the loss of trust and love and magic. It’s about growing up. All the locations in the story are real (so are the turtles). I lived there for eight years, and the boys are based on my stepson Tyler and his best friend Pete. While searching for inspiration one day, I looked out my office window and saw the boys digging for buried treasure in the field behind our house. Beyond that field was a pond full of turtles (and other things.) The innocence of adventure of a summer day was both beautiful and tragic and set my mind alight.
PopHorror: The Turtle Boy reminded me a lot of Robert McCammon’s book Boy’s Life, which I love and recommend to everyone. Currency of Souls was the first book I read of yours and the one that turned me on to your stories. I noticed that there was a change in the story’s temperature and feel after the bar burned down. Was this on purpose?
Kealan Patrick Burke: That’s a very astute observation, and yes, you’re correct. Currency of Souls started life as a self-contained novella called Saturday Night at Eddie’s, which is the first section of the novel, the section that ends with the destruction of the bar. When my publisher, Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press, read the original novella, he liked it so much he asked if I’d consider expanding it into a novel. So, I did. It’s a weird, Frankenstein’s monster kind of a novel, but so much fun to write, and it holds a very special place in my heart because I felt truly free to go bananas with it.
PopHorror: I really loved it and I couldn’t wait to see what Cadaver – and another unmentionable character – would do next. Now that Blanky has been published, what’s next for you?
Kealan Patrick Burke: I’m simultaneously researching and writing a new novel about art and madness entitled Sometimes They See You, which I’m quite excited about and obsessed with.
PopHorror: That sounds intense! And maybe a little autobiographical? I kid, I kid. If you could see any of your stories made for the silver screen, which one would it be and why?
Kealan Patrick Burke: The good news is that a number of the ones I would have chosen for my answer are in various stages of development. The bad news is that with Hollywood, anything can happen, so I’ve learned not to get too excited until I’m actually sitting in the theater watching one of them. But, despite a number of near-misses over the years, I remain hopeful. One that isn’t under option, and the one I’d love to see either on the big screen or as part of a cable anthology like Tales from the Crypt, is The Tent, which I think, if done well, would be a lot of fun.
PopHorror: Oh, man! The Tent was great! What a devilish camouflage tool! If only Joe Hill’s Tales From the Darkside reboot hadn’t fallen through. Can you recommend any horror authors… besides yourself, of course. (laughs)
Kealan Patrick Burke: So many, but the danger is always that I’ll forget someone and they’ll be mad at me. So I’ll just keep it to the most recent, because aficionados are probably already familiar with the others. Josh Malerman and Grady Hendrix are recent discoveries who are killing it with their books. I heartily recommend to the discerning reader, Bird Box by the former and My Best Friend’s Exorcism by the latter. Another book that blew me away lately was I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid, which was like reading someone else’s nightmare. There are more, but honestly this year hasn’t been a big one in terms of reading horror. I’ve read a lot of plays, nonfiction, and crime, but there are an awful lot of up-and-comers on my reading list, so hopefully next time you ask this question, I’ll have a better answer.
PopHorror: I actually did read I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I love the play on words with the title and the twist came out of nowhere. So this was a great answer! I’ve immediately added all of these authors to my reading list. PopHorror is a horror review website, so I have to ask: what’s your favorite horror movie?
Kealan Patrick Burke: Without question, John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s a masterpiece.
PopHorror: Is there anything you would like your fans to know that I didn’t ask you about?
Kealan Patrick Burke: Just that I’m a lot less warped than my books might suggest. And also that you shouldn’t believe everything I say, especially that previous sentence.
On that slightly ambiguous note, we once again thank Kealan Patrick Burke for his time and we at PopHorror cannot wait to read Sometimes They See You. Keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming review of that one, hopefully sooner than later!