On our annual Jamaican reading/crosswording vacation, the book pages fly, and nearly every year I discover something new. This year, somebody told me that I needed to read a thriller called AS I DIE LYING by Scott Nicholson (I thought it was my friend Ray Garton, not a bad thriller writer himself, but Ray says I’m mixed up, and what was that book again with the great title?). I cued it up on the Kindle, and found myself so entertained and impressed that I just had to go get me some mo’!
AS I DIE LYING is a meta-novel “written” by a character called Richard Coldiron, who has endured a childhood so disgustingly awful that he’s invented an imaginary friend to help him deal. Then he invents another. Before long, not everybody inside Richard’s head is all that friendly. Sometimes one of his multiple personalities takes over the writing: talk about unreliable narrators! Frequently we step outside the action of the novel to hear about the writing and publishing process, which are life-and-deathly important to the story. But it’s all done with a blazing self-confidence that lets you relax and go along for the ride, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s funny and scary at the same time. It’s a dazzler.
I got in touch with the author. I told him how much DIE LYING had knocked me out, and that I wanted to read a couple more conventional works. I love it when form rises to meet content, but frequently that’s a show-off mode that doesn’t truly represent your auctorial ability; too often it’s nothing more than a mildly amusing impression of Harlan Ellison. Well, I read some other pieces that Scott recommended, and now I’m getting my drum out to bang for him.
Scott Nicholson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (I originally come from southeastern Virginia, so I recognize the area), and he can see the Gothic potential in everything around him: that’s where the stuff I read is set. He has a great eye and a great ear. His dialogue feels fully natural, not “written”; it sounds like people might actually say these things, particularly rural Tarheels. He demonstrates an innate sense of pacing, both in a scene and a story, that can only be gained by writing tens of thousands of lousy words: he doesn’t rush, but he doesn’t waste your time either. I’ll lay THE RED CHURCH, the most “turned out” Nicholson yarn I’ve read, alongside any other literary frightfest.
Most of his fiction invokes suspense: tension and release. Sometimes there’s a supernatural element, but not always. Sometimes it’s science fictiony. Some of Scott’s characters do very bad things: maybe they’ll get what’s coming to them, and maybe they won’t. If these were movies, they’d be rated R, and at least one novel, DISINTEGRATION, might well be too disturbing for you in toto. (I expect some of you to take that as a challenge.) Some, some, some: with Scott’s work, you never know.
Now, this boy didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. His story “The Vampire Shortstop” won the grand prize in the 1999 Writers of the Future contest, a hot annual competition underwritten by the estate of L. Ron Hubbard (no kidding, this particular award is dead serious), and THE RED CHURCH happens to have been a Mystery Guild alternate, it sold well in paper for Kensington, and it was nominated for a Stoker Award, the Oscar of the Horror Writers of America. So Scott’s fan club has many more members than just me. Without even knowing his history, I can assure you he got to this point by observing the two cardinal rules for would-be novelists: write your scrawny ass off, and read even more than that. Scott has obviously gone to school on Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Jim Thompson, Richard Matheson (a character in THE RED CHURCH even bears that family name), Robert Bloch, Ira Levin, Dan Simmons, and doubtless others whom I’ve never heard of – but he has developed his own voice well enough to scare you silly whenever he cares to. He’s written novels, stories, screenplays, comics, you name it. The guy just can’t quit typing!
Here’s another thing I like about Scott. He’s taken control of his own career. He has a website where you can buy all his books and give him feedback – which he honestly wants to hear. They’re also on sale at Amazon, where I got them, and the electronic editions are a fraction of the retail price set by big publishers. He cheerfully offers that certain of these books may get another revision before it’s all over. Though anything he puts up for sale is entertaining enough to deserve remuneration, Scott is letting his readers in on part of the process, and crafting a relationship that’s as personal as he can possibly make it. Like Mike Stackpole, Scott uses the individualized communicative power of the Web as his own personal promotional tool, and also like Mike, he has the literary chops to deliver.
Once upon a time, publishers would take a flyer on a good “midlist” author like Scott: maybe start with mass market originals, develop a reader base, and let him build on it bit by bit as you gradually increase the press run. It happened with Elizabeth George when I was at Bantam. But those days are long gone. Thank goodness there are authors who are as shrewd as they are talented, because let’s face it, building the base is now their job. Meanwhile, you want a well-written page-turner, cheap? And another and another and another? Do yourself a favor, my friend: meet Scott Nicholson.