Duncan Ralston is one of those authors who knows how to worm his way under your skin and then cause absolute havoc with your nerves.  Whether it’s through brutal violence, stomach-churning gore, teeth-grinding suspense, or bone-chilling creepiness – Ralston knows how to push just the right buttons to get a reaction out of the reader.

Like a grim marriage between Clive Barker and Stephen King – Duncan Ralston is a man who so far has delivered addictive horror short stories that linger on in your mind for some time afterwards.  And with his first full length novel due for publication in November 2015, Ralston’s quickly becoming an author who you really should be keeping a keen eye on…

DLS - Hi Duncan.  Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on DLS Reviews.  To begin with it would be interesting to know when you started writing fiction and what made you first put pen to paper?

DR - Hey, thanks for having me, Chris. I started writing for fun when I was 15. My English teachers often told me my stories were great (or at least better than what they were used to), and I realized sometime during grade 8 that I actually enjoyed writing. It never really occurred to me that I could do it for a living, it was just something I liked doing.

I had surgery when I was 17, and took a semester off school. That’s when I really caught the writing bug--thankfully that was the only infection I got. Writing horror helped me get through the real fears and pain of convalescence. Coincidentally (or maybe not), when I wrote Gristle & Bone, I’d just undergone the same surgery almost exactly 20 years later.

DLS - Stephen King and Clive Barker both seem to have had a pretty big influence on your writing.  Would you agree with this statement, and are there any other authors you think have had a noticeable influence on your work?

DR - Oh, definitely. They’re my two biggest influences. Barker’s style featured heavily in my early writing. I used to read those stories aloud to myself in a bad imitation of his accent.

After approximately a 20 year hiatus from writing prose, during which I wrote scripts (nothing produced, yet), I returned to short stories. There was a lot of Palahnuik in this later stuff. I was a big fan of his early books; I liked the cadence, and repetition. I’ve toned that down, but it sometimes trickles back in. Harlan Ellison is one of my newer favorites, and his writing has a bigger influence on me these days. His short stories are pretty wild.

DLS - I understand for your day job that you work behind the scenes in TV.  Could you tell us a little about what you do, what influence it’s had on your work, and if you have any plans to take your own work into this field?

DR - I’m in master control. I watch a fair bit of television, which is why I don’t watch much TV outside of work. I love TV, but there’s only so much of it I can take. They say the average American watches five hours of TV a day; I watch eight, plus whatever I happen to catch at home. I do tend to prefer TV over movies, though. There’s a lot of quality in today’s productions, as evidenced by all the famous actors in starring roles. And so much more horror on TV these days!

I’m not sure it’s had much influence on my writing, aside from the fact that I was able to use some of that “special knowledge” for a couple of stories about the film and TV industry.

DLS - What’s a typical day in the life of Duncan Ralston?

DRSince I work evenings, I generally wake up around 9:30 or 10 (no alarms for me), eat breakfast, walk the dog, and then get down to business. I write as much as I can, then read on the commute to work and back home. Typically that’ll give me at least an hour and a half of reading and about two to three hours of writing, depending on the day. Weekends I usually carve out some time to have a life.

DLS - Would you say writing comes naturally to you, or do a lot of blood, sweat and tears go into the making of each offering?

DRTo quote Meat Loaf, “Some days it don’t come easy. Some days it don’t come hard.” (Try to get that earworm out of your head.)  Sometimes it really is like Stephen King says, where you’re chipping away at a piece of granite, trying to find the shape that’s already there under all the stone. Sentences and paragraphs come out so fully formed you have to Google them to see if you aren’t subconsciously ripping off some other writer’s work.

Typically, dialogue usually comes easiest for me. The rest is a lot of writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting, trying to get it just right. I usually find I’m not happy with a fair bit of the stuff I’ve done--Oh, I could have written this better, or This word is wrong, you should have put that instead, idiot. But once it’s out there in the world, the madness has to stop.

DLS - So far the style of writing in each of your short stories has been vastly different from each other.  Is this something you’ve consciously tried to achieve?  And did any particular style of writing come more naturally than others?

DRGenerally I try to make the style fit the story. First-person stories come easier because you don’t have to put a ton of work into the prose. You’re not crafting sentences so much as you would in a story told in third-person, you’re basically writing dialogue. Scavengers seemed to come the most naturally, probably because I’m most comfortable with dialogue writing (all of those years writing scripts), and it’s told by a narrator. Once I nailed down the “voice” of the character, the rest was simply telling the story as he would tell it.

Artifact (#37) was about pornagraphers, so I wanted the prose to have a lot of attitude, or what one reviewer described as “muscular prose.” I don’t know if I achieved that as well as I’d hoped, but it was definitely intentional.

Most of what I’m doing is going through the first draft and cutting out stuff that seems cliche, extraneous, or too precious or clever. Like, Oh, you can just tell he agonized over that sentence. Best that these things come naturally, at least that’s my opinion.

DLS - You seem to have a bit of a knack at getting under people’s skin.  Is it something you intentionally set out trying to do when writing a story?  And is this something you enjoy doing? 

DR Oh it’s definitely intentional, and yes, I love it. A friend (who will remain anonymous) once commented that one of my stories made her “lady parts” hurt. I’m not ashamed to go right for the gross-out. I like to make people squirm.

DLS - Both ‘Scavengers’ (2013) and ‘Dead Men Walking’ (2014) use a very distinctive character voice to tell their respective stories.  Why did you choose such a writing style for these stories and did you have any particular individual in mind when writing them?

DRWith Scavengers, the voice was inspired by Tom Hanks’s Paul Edgecomb, with less of the Southern drawl. Dead Men Walking… I’m not exactly sure where that voice came from. Maybe one of the characters from Oz or The Sopranos. I do a lot of accents in real life, and sometimes they worm into my characters.

The original version of Dead Men Walking was intended to be the opening chapter of a zombie prison novel, until The Walking Dead did a prison season, and I scrapped it. (I may get back to it at some point since I had a ton of ideas for it, and had already “fleshed out” the majority of the story, so to speak.) I decided to rewrite it as a monologue, since I’d never tried that type of writing before, and I thought it would add something extra to what at the time was pretty standard zombie fare. It also gave me the opportunity to voice some of my own opinions without jam-packing it into his thoughts or dialogue, or worse, into an authorial aside.

DLS - Your characters always seem incredibly important to your tales.  Do you purposefully put a lot of time and effort into the characterisation, does the story come first then the characters, and do you find yourself basing the characters on real people?

DRThe characters don’t show up fully formed, but a lot of it is instinctual. The idea comes first, the concept, or an image that fuels a concept. Then I add characters I hope will cause the most drama for that concept. That’s something they teach you with screenwriting: concept before character.

I don’t write about people I know, generally. Too risky. But the team of gonzo pornographers in Artifact (#37) are definitely the guys from the Bang Bus, a reality porn company.

DLS - So far your stories don’t seem to really rely on an obvious protagonist.  Is this something you’ve done intentionally?

DRI like antiheroes, and characters who generally don’t seem suited for the situation they’ve been thrown into. I think a lot of it is subconscious or instinctive.

DLS - There’s a lot of graphic content in ‘Gristle & Bone’ (2014).  Is this something that you particularly wanted within the collection, or did it just come out like that?

DR - Oh, definitely. It ain’t called Puppies & Lollipops. I really didn’t want to shy away from the nasty bits.

DLS - The short story ‘End User’ from your collection ‘Gristle & Bone’ (2014) seemed to be heavily influenced by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968).  Was this deliberate and can you see yourself doing more sci-fi inspired work in the future?

DRI wrote that story a few months before the trailers for the Spike Jonze movie Her came out, and had to push it out into the market before anyone accused me of stealing the idea. But really, the sentient computer character has been around since A Space Odyssey, like you said, and I just wanted to mash that idea together with a dash of The Terminator. Another thing I wanted to do was make the sentient computer have a female voice. I was thinking about the computer in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also the station announcement voice on the transit system in Toronto.

I do plan on doing more sci-fi in the future. I have a sci-fi novel plotted out that I’ll get around to, eventually--it’s sort of a sci-fi sick-lit book. I’ll never write anything as densely scientific as Asimov. I don’t generally enjoy hard sci-fi, and I don’t think I could write it. I’m more into the big ideas of science fiction, without all the scientific mumbo jumbo. Probably why I don’t love Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick’s writing so much, but I do enjoy the movies. I guess I need it dumbed down a tad.

DLS - On more than one occasion you’ve cited the Twilight Zone (1959 - 1964) as being a heavy influence on your novelette ‘How To Kill A Celebrity’ (2015).  Do you have any plans to produce any more stories of this nature?

DRI would love to do more, I just have to find the right idea. That’s another story, like //END USER, where the timing was bad. I wrote it last year, then rewrote it after a trip to New Orleans. Within a week or so, I heard about Stephen King’s story with an almost identical concept (rather than an editor of video obituaries, King’s character is a writer--go figure), and I had to push it out hastily into the market. I’m a little miffed about that, because I’m certain it would have fit nicely in a Twilight Zone-inspired anthology. Anyway, these things happen when you’re coming up with new ideas all the time: sometimes you inadvertently tap into the zeitgeist. I’m looking forward to reading King’s story to see how much it differs from mine.

DLS - Whilst we’re on the subject of ‘How To Kill A Celebrity’ (2015), there seems to be a Koji Suzuki influence coming through in the tale, as well as within your short story ‘Viral’ (2014)?  Would you agree with this observation?  And are you a fan of his work?

DRI’ll take that. I do enjoy the American movies based on his stories, The Ring and Dark Water in particular. Japanese horror has had a big influence on my writing, though it mostly comes from my obsession with the Silent Hill games. I love how heavily the guilt of the characters features in the games, and how they (sometimes) find redemption through dealing with the demons of their past. There’s no other game I know of that goes so in-depth with the player character’s psyche.

DLS - Your novelette ‘Dead Men Walking’ (2014) appears to be very anti-capital punishment.  Is this something you feel strongly about and was this something that you intentionally wanted to tackle in the story?

DRI’m firmly anti-death penalty. There’s a huge difference between punishment and revenge, and when the state takes a life, the government is condoning vengeance on a large scale. Prison is meant to punish, but also to reform. I don’t believe with certain crimes or criminals that reform is necessarily possible. Some unrepentant criminals need to be locked up and never see the light of day.

The thing about the death-penalty… it assumes an infallibility in the law that simply doesn’t exist. People are wrongfully accused all the time. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously faulty. Judges and juries can be bought. How can you put someone’s life on the line with circumstances like this?

I read a story about a woman who pointed out her rapist in a lineup. He went to jail. For ten years. All the time maintaining his innocence. Finally, DNA evidence exonerated him. His accuser apologized. They’re good friends now. They go around the US speaking to groups about wrongful convictions and reform in eyewitness testimony.

There seems to be a real shortage of forgiveness in the world these days, and that’s something I find very disturbing. Stories like that really give me hope.

DLS - Again in ‘Dead Men Walking’ (2014) you seem to want to make a firm distinction between a prisoner on Death Row and a ‘monster’.  Without wanting to ruin the end for anyone who hasn’t already read the short, you seem to make a particular point about how those on Death Row can be perceived.  Was there a particular intention with this separation between ‘human’ and ‘monster’?

DRI did a lot of research for that story, since it began as a novel. One of the things I looked into were the last words of death row prisoners. There’s a website on the “dark web” that has all of these things listed, so I read them. Pages and pages of them. Hundreds of them. And one of the things I noticed is that two phrases come up over and over again, almost invariably. Those phrases are “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.” They’ve got nothing left to lose at this point. Most of them have made their peace with death, there’s nothing to stop them from holding on to their anger and bitterness into whatever awaits them. And yet their last words are of peace. Now, to me, that’s not a monster. Monsters don’t apologize. Monsters don’t love.

DLS - Have there been any novels or authors that you’ve recently come across which have really stood out to you as being something exceptional?

DRJoe Coffin by Ken Preston and GodBomb! by Kit Power are two great indie books. Prior to that, O-Zone by Paul Theroux really affected me. It’s the near-future (this was written in the ‘80s), and half of America is contaminated with nuclear waste. This area, the O-Zone of the title, is teeming with all different types of aliens. These rich people plan a trip to the O-Zone, and about a third of the way through the book you realize these “aliens” are literally other human beings: black, Hispanic, poor people, etc. All this time they’ve been talking about the government and vigilante groups exterminating aliens, and the aliens are people. Blew my mind. It really felt like an extreme version of what the ‘80s seemed to be leading toward. I guess with Donald Trump on the road to the White House we’re not far from that future.

DLS - I understand that you have a full length novel entitled ‘Salvage’ coming out later this year.  Could you tell us a little about the story and where the ideas behind it came from?

DRI do! It’s scheduled for release on November 10th. Salvage follows Owen Saddler as he travels to a small town called Chapel Lake to find out how his sister, an experienced diver, drowned. The lake itself got it’s name because of the church steeple that can be seen above the water; it used to be a town before it was flooded in the late ‘70s for a hydroelectric dam. The ruins of the old town still remain under the water, and naturally, it may or may not be haunted.

The initial idea was an image of a man sitting in an armchair underwater. I think this originated from a Radiohead video. I’d watched the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou recently, and the scene where the valley was flooded, I thought it would be cool to write something about a town flooded for a dam. After that I started looking into more recent floods for hydroelectricity. A few hundred kilometers from where I live there’s a place called The Lost Villages, these old towns flooded for the St. Lawrence Seaway. I read about the salvage diving in the area. From “salvage” came the idea of “salvation,” and I imagined a church steeple rising from the water.

DLS -How have you found writing a full length novel compares to writing short stories?  Did you prefer writing the full-length novel?  And, in comparison, what has been the biggest challenge?

DRI love writing both short stories and longer works, but I find it difficult to maintain the same “voice” or prose style in a novel, especially during what could end up being dozens of edits. Fortunately I had an editor in the late stages to keep Salvage on track, and a proofreader with an editing background.

DLS - Other than the release of ‘Salvage’, is there anything else currently in the pipeline for you which you can tell us about?

DRSalvage rises on November 10th, and I’ve got three short horror stories coming out in anthologies and e-zines in October and November. I’m also working on a new novel, a big high-concept ghost story, but it’s ultra-top secret right now. I’m hoping to finish this one and a third novel by this time next year.

DLS – Duncan, thank you so much for taking the time out to be interviewed on DLS Reviews.  It’s been great.

You can visit to Duncan Ralston’s official website here

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