Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Occult Crime, College Campuses, and Why I Wrote THE UNIVERSITY

“On some campuses, the paperback Satanic Bible by Church of Satan Founder Anton La Vey is outselling The Holy Bible.”

The above quote is from Time magazine in their March 13, 1972 issue. That year also happened to be the year when I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In the eighteen years that passed between 1972 and the year I went to college, 1990, The Satanic Bible enjoyed a sales explosion on college campuses assuming media references are to be believed. By August 1, 1990, The Daytona Beach News-Journal was reporting this statistic:

“‘The Satanic Bible’ outsells the Bible 6-to-1 at college campus bookstores."

If true, this would be a pretty impressive run — to go from outselling the traditional Bible “on some campuses” in the early 1970s to a dominant 6-to-1 sales ratio less than two decades later. When you consider that The Holy Bible is generally regarded to be the best-selling book of all-time, La Vey’s book (circa 1990) seemingly would’ve had to have been selling at Twilight-like levels on college campuses. Twilight-like sales…on steroids.

Publisher Avon Books should've been rolling in cash.

Cults and Secret Things

As a college student in Nebraska in the early 90s, I remember hearing the 6-to-1 statistic mentioned and talked about in hush-hush tones. So I checked at both of the bookstores that served my campus to see what all the uproar was about. I found no Bibles on any of the shelves — either God’s version or Satan’s. Just oversized, overpriced textbooks mostly written and approved by committees. Either something was off with the ever-growing stat, or the “Satan is destroying God in sales” trend had yet to reach the Midwest.

Looking back, I have no doubt that American college students tend to read about “other belief systems” more than a large percentage of the general public. Many people make key decisions about their beliefs, and the kind of lives they want to lead, in the late teens or early twenties. (Now whether or not we stick to those beliefs, that’s another matter.) It’s probably also natural for young people to have interest or curiosity in something that seems taboo. Fortunately, most college students don’t seem to end up as lifelong Satanists.

Ah, but the dabblings along the way can be dangerous. And sometimes the details about the dabblings can make or break a person’s life. And the devil is in the…well, you know where.

The word occult comes from the Latin word occultus, meaning hidden or secret things. As a fiction writer, particularly one in the Mystery genre, “secret things” are always good to include in a story. With my most-recent novel, The University, I decided to explore how occult elements and dabblings might affect the lives of characters in a college campus setting. The idea seemed to lend itself to a lot of inherent suspense.

Worlds of Their Own

Universities can be pretty interesting places, I think, especially when viewed through the lens of potential mystery and intrigue. You have young people who are already adults in many ways, yet not quite ready to handle certain things. Many are away from home, isolated, and vulnerable. College campuses can almost become worlds or cultures of their own.

At some institutions of higher learning, you also have questions about who is responsible for safety between local law enforcement, campus security (if there is any), and university officials. Things can get interesting when you don’t have agreement between parties or a commitment to the truth, wherever it may lead. Then there is the question about the level of power some faculty members hold. It all adds up to an interesting — and potentially disturbing — mix.

The plot of The University deals with a college student who is trying to figure out why his best friend disappeared and really not liking where the answer leads him: right into the hands of a cult group operating on his campus. Meanwhile, an investigative journalist is looking into an unsolved murder case that could be related to some of the strange activities at this seemingly normal Midwestern university.

One thing I enjoy about this particular book is how many people have their own story for me about the college they attended. There is often some old building they were afraid of, a professor they weren’t quite sure about, or some experience while they were there that was unsettling.

Like any novel, there is a whole lot of autobiographical truth mixed with a whole lot of “complete fiction” that went into The University. I might not have come across a copy of The Satanic Bible or any actual hard-core occultists (that I know of, at least) during my university days, but a seed of intrigue was definitely planted back then. Exploring some of the “What Ifs” fifteen years after the fact has been a worthwhile journey, and one that I’ve enjoyed seeing how people respond to.

More about the book: 1, 2, 3

Read an excerpt.

The University page at Amazon.

Blogs about my previous novel, Dark Friday: 1, 2


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shot to Death - guest author Stephen D. Rogers

Stephen D. Rogers is the author of SHOT TO DEATH (ISBN 978-0982589908) and more than six hundred stories and poems. He's the head writer at Crime Scene (where viewers solve interactive mysteries) and a popular writing instructor. For more information, you can visit his website,, where he tries to pull it all together.

SHOT TO DEATH contains thirty-one stories of murder and mayhem.

"Terse tales of cops and robbers, private eyes and bad guys, with an authentic New England setting."
- Linda Barnes, Anthony Award winner and author of the Carlotta Carlyle series

"Put yourself in the hands of a master as you travel this world of the dishonest, dysfunctional, and disappeared.
Rogers is the real deal--real writer, real story teller, real tour guide to the dark side."
- Kate Flora, author of the Edgar-nominated FINDING AMY and the Thea Kozak mysteries

"SHOT TO DEATH provides a riveting reminder that the short story form is the foundation of the mystery/thriller genre.
There's something in this assemblage of New England noir to suit every aficionado. Highly recommended!"
- Richard Helms, editor and publisher, The Back Alley Webzine

How long would it have taken me to hammer in that nail?

So begins one of the 31 stories contained in SHOT TO DEATH (ISBN 978-0982589908). Within that beginning lurks the ending to the story and everything that happens between the beginning and the end. Or at least it seems that way to me.

"How long would it have taken me to hammer in that nail?" This is a story that is going to be saturated with regret.

Perhaps when the nail slipped from the wall, a really good picture hit the floor. I don't think so. :) Regret. Could anything cause more regret than a child running into that jutting nail and being scarred on the face?

"How long would it have taken...?" An event in the past that refuses to stay there. After all, how could she ever hope to forget what happened when the scar is so visible?

while the child is physically scarred, he was quick to recover from horror of the event and now, perhaps, does not even particularly remember that day. His mother, on the other hand, has no physical scar to represent how her chronic remembering sears.

No one seeing her could guess what she went through and continues to go through. She feels a disconnect. At some level, she wants to assume that scar, to free her son from its ugliness and to brand herself for what she has done.

What she didn't do.

It's one thing to regret what we've done. We made a decision to do something and with hindsight wish we'd done something else. But with what we didn't do, what do we regret, what we did instead?

That nail might have jutted from the wall for weeks. Every second of every day that she didn't hammer it in she made a decision to do something else instead. How can she possibly regret each of those separate actions? The only thing left to regret is herself.

This woman does not simply have nothing to lose. She has an overriding reason to hurt herself, as if that physical manifestation could lessen her pain. Sadness drenched with sorrow.

All that remains is the writing.

For a chance to win a signed copy of SHOT TO DEATH, click on over to and submit your completed entry.

Then visit the schedule at
to see how you can march along.

And then come back here to post your comments. Phew.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Novels and the Ghosts of Movies Past - Bruce Cook/Brant Randall

Novels and the Ghosts of Movies Past
by Bruce Cook/Brant Randall, author of Tommy Gun Tango

Most authors dream of their book being adapted into a screenplay. They want the paycheck (of course) but they also hope their story will reach a much wider audience, the potential millions that may attend the theater or see a movie later on TV.

However, these same authors are often disappointed in the way the script for the movie differs from the novel. What happened to their beautiful prose? Where did that intriguing secondary character disappear to? How did that that sub-plot get deleted?

Books run from 250 to 500 pages. A script is only 120. So the screenwriter who adapts the novel into a script must ask himself “Which 120 to 3809 pages shall I cut?”

The producer asks himself “How many actors do I really want to pay?” and encourages the screenwriter to cut or combine characters. And on second thought the producer wonders how many locations are really required to tell that story anyway—and asks the screenwriter to combine or eliminate settings.

Recently Richard Price had this to say in the NY Times:

"Writing a screenplay is a job. It's not like writing a novel where allegedly you're not writing to please anybody. The whole point of writing a screenplay is to please people. It's all about making people feel jazzed enough to write the big check to make the movie, getting actors psyched enough to overcome their anxiety about looking like fools, getting the director to feel it's a compelling enough story to give up two years of their life. So that's why everyone says they love everything and then they ask you to change everything.”

Wonderful means change it. Fantastic means change it. Terrific means change it. Thank you means you're fired.”

See how it goes?

Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 -- it was a year

Don't know about you, I'm happy to leave 2009 behind and get a fresh start. It was a busy year for sure. Trips to several conventions, a new book released, a fantastic book launch party and lots of signings. The end of the year finds me looking for more effective (read that: less expensive) ways to get the word out about my forensic handwriting mystery series. The two phrases I keep hearing from successful authors are "blogging" and "social networking." So, I've been typing my little fingers to the bone, guest blogging wherever anyone is interested in handwriting analysis or mystery topics, and I finally started Tweeting, too.

As 2010 begins I'm thinking about what comes next--a non-fiction book about relationships: what motivates people to keep involving themselves in the same painful situations over and over again (and some ideas about how to choose healthier relationships). I'm also thinking about my next mystery, which involves two themes that have always fascinated me. Oh, I'm not going to tell you what they are--that's part of the mystery!

May every good thing find you in the new year. And remember--buy books!