I first met author Steve Stred last year, when we followed each other after liking each other’s replies on a friend’s Twitter thread. He offered me an advance copy of of his early 2019 short story collection, The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, in exchange for an honest review. I was immediately struck by how visceral his storytelling was, and how much it scared me. I don’t scare easily in print form, so when I read a story that truly creeped me out, I knew I’d read something special.
I felt the same way when I read an advance copy of The Stranger, Stred’s upcoming release (out June 1, but available for pre-order now). I asked Stred if he’d like to have a virtual chat with me about his writing, and he was kind enough to do so. Read on for why forests are a draw for dark tales, what separates Canadian horror from American horror, and thoughts on triggers and sensitivity in the genre.
Sonora: When did you first start writing? Tell us about your early work versus your more recent pieces. Have there been any major changes? What’s stayed the same?
Steve: I started out writing some short fiction and poetry in high school — so about 20 years ago. Back then it was more of a passing thing. I loved it but I had no real direction and it was more about me following a desire to write.
Fast forward and in 2010 I really got the bug and started to develop my first novel Invisible. I had the basic premise and the ending really locked in place but through a series of events it kept getting delayed and delayed. I kept working on it and really finished it up in 2016.
At that time I found a passion to write and release stuff. So I worked on my first short story “For Balder Walks,” then developed a few more — “The Fence,” “Time Out Noose” and “Edge of the Woods.” Then as life progressed I wrote “Jim and Mr. Tross.” I got to the point where I submitted and contacted different folks and got some great advice.
Now the biggest change, I think at least when I look back is the ability to edit myself, but also have the story flow easily. Working with David Sodergren so much has helped me beyond anything, really. He is ruthless with line/copy editing, so I figure if I can give him less work on his end, I’m being more efficient and a more effective writer.
Sonora: Do you gravitate more towards long or short fiction? Do you know when you sit down to write how long a piece will be?
Steve: It’s an interesting question — because I’ve come to a cross roads with my work. I think it’s more of an enlightenment, truthfully. I’ve had one long read (Invisible) and my second comes out June 1st (The Stranger). I have one more novel planned this year (Piece of Me) which is completely written but I need to go through it one more time, then send off to Sodergren and fix what he finds wrong. But going forward everything will be novella length or collections. It’s just how my writing mind works. I can’t describe it other than thinking about writing a novella makes me happy, whereas trying to force a full length does not.
Sonora: You also wrote a collection of poetry, having been inspired by Erin Al-Mehairi’s Breathe. Breathe. Tell us about that. What was it like writing poetry versus prose?
Steve: Yes! God, I was a pretentious snob before reading that, haha! Erin has been so helpful and always supportive and I really, really like to support those who support me. In this case though, I believe she sent me a copy as a birthday gift! When I read it I was blown away. She just has this gift of absolutely decimating your mind with the way her words jump off the page. I would read a poem and I felt like I’d read a novel. The imagery she created was incredible.
I don’t think I can ever match what she did, not by a long shot, but it kicked me in the butt and made me step back and look at my previous history with writing poetry as well as the joy and impact it’d had on my life. So I gave it a shot!
It was a weird process to go back to writing poetry. I don’t think I have a very large vocabulary so I really had to push myself to not sound like a 75 year old, white male rapper who used the same word to rhyme over and over again, haha! I also worked hard to tell a story without telling a story but implying a story and it was tough. Erin’s collection is a must read.
I wrote Dim the Sun with the goal to also help raise some funds for my buddy Rob Derman, who is an amateur athlete. Right now, while writing this, I’m not sure what his future holds as the sport of Skeleton in Canada is going through a shakeup, with the closing of one of the training tracks.
Sonora: Your latest release, The Stranger, is a summer vacation tale with several haunting twists. Tell us what went into writing it.
Steve: Well, surprise twist — I like to write stories set in the woods! I think a big part of my constant theme with Mother Nature, more specifically the woods, is from where I grew up and how much time I spent in the forest and in the mountains. I love the mountains, but I’m also scared to death of them. Too many things lurk that you can’t see. When I go there, I’m in their home. They have the advantage and that scares me.
I wrote it after being inspired on a camping trip and spotted a unique looking smudge mark or burn mark on the cement bin around the camp fire. Coupled with the sights from far above on some plane flights and I just let my imagination go where it wanted!
Sonora: A major theme in The Stranger is the monstrosity of racism. What was it like writing this story? How was it inspired by the current political climate? How was it inspired by your own experiences?
Steve: Oh lord, haha! You write something and then you don’t want to talk about it! For those unaware, I grew up in Canada, in a very small town in BC, which is the farthest west province in our country. My father was from northern BC, my mother from the town I grew up in. There’s a generational thing that casual racism seems to occur and I found that it would pop up time and time again. I don’t believe some of my relatives are straight forward racists but these little comments you’d hear at family gatherings, whether in jokes or whatever just kept getting too me. Even when I was young. In the afterword I mention how I overheard a joke that was very poor and crude and repeated in front of my mom. She was livid.
I just felt I needed to write this book but also early on, by having a Native American creation type tale involved, which I don’t think is a spoiler at all to say that, I needed to tell a bit of the other side of it. The privileged aspect I guess. I really struggled with writing it. I also typically don’t swear a lot in my writing. I did in The Girl Who Hid in the Trees and it just felt odd haha! So I worked really hard to show disdain for a specific group of people but not go the Tarantino route of expletive after expletive.
Our political climate is usually very different from the US stuff, but funnily enough, we had a guy come onboard to run for Premiere of our province who follows a very similar path as the current sitting President down south. Unfortunately he won our election so now we kind of have to hold our breath and wait and see the damage he wants to bring in.
Sonora: In writing about racism as a white, straight, cis-man, you talk about the how and why of what you wanted to accomplish in both the foreword and afterword. This isn’t something I see a lot from other authors, and it was nice to see in your piece. Do you think more authors, especially authors from privileged demographics, should talk about this when they write similar stories?
Steve: I had to write the foreword and afterword. I wanted it there as a warning for readers. In the afterword I did say that with the story coming from me (from my perspective at least) people may just take it with a grain of salt. I hope they don’t, but they might. I myself have no triggers, but that’s me. I usually write dark horror and I didn’t want to surprise anyone who snagged this and who maybe loved Wagon Buddy or YURI and then started reading and had to stop because they weren’t expecting the subject matter. So I wanted to write the foreword to let folks know that there was some difficult themes ahead. I have a whole environmental/human footprint narrative in the story as well, but at the end of the day if someone writes me a 1 star review and says “this guy sucks he wanted me to think about how much garbage I create or I need to recycle,” I’ll smile, because I don’t think you’ll see that. But the racism/bigotry stuff is a tough, tough area and I wanted to make sure I was upfront with it and to make sure people wouldn’t go into the story oblivious to what was about to happen.
The afterword I also felt I needed to do. I just wanted to lay things out there so people knew how I felt and it may sound a bit cowardly, but I wanted to protect myself and let people know I’m no Malcolm (main character in The Stranger). I mention it in the afterword but Kealan Patrick Burke gave me some great advice and I took it to heart. I knew this was a story I needed to write but I knew it was a story that I might have to defend myself about writing a bit and that’s fine, but I wanted to make sure people knew my intentions were genuine and my hope for what readers took from it was purposeful.
As for others doing it — I think it would be fantastic to see it when the subject matter suggests we should. If it’s a creature feature that’s just gore and death, well, I think we know it was written with some fun behind the scenes!
As I side note — I wish more authors would write an afterword. I absolutely love reading about where they got the inspiration for the story. Even if it’s something as mundane as ‘I was playing with my son in his sandbox’ (which was where I got the inspiration for one of my upcoming 2020 releases FYI), I want to read about it!
Sonora: You also hired a sensitivity reader for The Stranger. I’ve seen a lot of arguments for and against sensitivity readers from many different voices. Have you worked with a sensitivity reader before? Do you think hiring sensitivity readers should be common practice?
Steve: Oh man, the sensitive reader thing shows just how out of touch with a lot of things I am! I honestly didn’t know that was a thing, haha! I had written most of the story and messaged KPB. He mentioned I should get a sensitive reader and make sure what I had written was in line and not offside. So I put out a call on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I had two people contact me and I was just not sure. I received a message from J.H. Moncrieff who’s been super helpful as well with my writing and she said that I’d need a sensitive reader and that typically they can be very tough. Then I was contacted by Cassandra [Chaput] and we hit it off. I told her upfront — if I’ve done things wrong, tell me. Please don’t be worried about my feelings and if I’ve done it poorly I’d scrap a bunch of it and start again. And she was fantastic. She gave great feedback and really made all of the negatives she’d found as positives and constructive. Couldn’t have asked for a better beta-reader, let alone a sensitive reader. So my first experience was a good one!
As for others using it — I think it’d be an ideal practice if the story needed it. As an example (purely made up here) but if a story had a significant story line involving sexual assault, I’d think it’d be prudent to maybe find a sensitive reader who works in the care side of that world to help make sure things are written correctly but also in a manner that doesn’t detract from the story.
Sonora: Some readers and writers argue that sensitivity readers (and, related, trigger warnings) are especially unnecessary for horror, as the idea of horror is to disturb you. What is your response to those individuals? And, as someone who wrote a horror story (and in my opinion, a damn good one) and hired a sensitivity reader, what would you share about that experience in terms of how it affected your writing?
Steve: Thank you! That’s a tough question. I think trigger warnings are a good thing, but I personally don’t need them. I hope that doesn’t sound insensitive! Everyone reads things differently and everyone comes from very different backgrounds and what may affect one person may not another. For me, I think if the story contained a lot of animal abuse/deaths and/or infant/toddler abuse/deaths, I’d want to know going in. If it was a specific part of the story and was a key aspect, I’d be fine with it, even though I’d cringe a bunch, but if anything is written specifically for gratuitous reasons or shock value, I’m not on board. I also understand the argument — horror is written to horrify us, to make us pull up our feet and turn on the lights. There’s a difference between being scared and being personally affected and I think that’s a big differentiator for me.
Sonora: The Stranger features scary things happening to a vacationing family at the hands of a vengeful wood spirit. Your last release, The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, also features violent monsters in the woods. What draws you to the forest as a setting for horror?
Steve: As I mentioned earlier, the thing that’s always drawn me into the woods has been the idea that I’m in its territory, its world. Where I grew up the forest came pretty close up to the back of our house. We cleared it out a number of years ago, but having a forest to play in and a mountain as a back drop was always really amazing but also scared me too no end. We had Grizzly bears, brown bears, black bears, cougars, coyotes and a variety of random animals that would trek through the back of our place. We had chickens and fruit trees so there was always something that drew them down from higher up in the mountain.
In the middle of the forest in our back yard was a massive slab of a rock, so that was always our base of operations, our meeting point.
My grandparents lived just down the street from us and my grandpa used to have a trap line and when he was younger he used to go on horseback up the mountains with some of the native population to go hunting. So the mountains and the forest have always been a place I grew up in but also a place that creeped me the hell out!
Additionally I’ve always loved movies set in the woods with creepy characters. I mean two of my favourite movies ever are Predator and Harry and the Henderson’s. While both are at different ends of the spectrum — both are based on creatures in the woods. So it’s always been a big draw for me.
Sonora: What is the creepiest forest you’ve ever visited?
Steve: Easily, the forest behind our house. I’ve never travelled to any of the exotic forests around the world like J.H. Moncrieff has and she’s got some fantastic blog posts regarding her travels, but the forest behind our house where I grew up was both the single greatest place where my imagination went wild, but also the scariest place I visited. The second creepiest would be the stretch of forest between the end of our road through past the garbage dump.
That forest has inspired so many of my stories — “Edge of the Woods,” “The Call,” “Eaten,” and even “The Girl Who Hid in the Trees.” One of my 2020 releases is also inspired by the forest behind our house as well. The number of times we would play in the woods and we’d pretend to be chased by a giant beast of whatever, I mean those moments directly impacted me and it comes out in my writing. Hell, Invisible is 50% a beast chasing a man as he drives on a winding road through a forest!
Sonora: Do you notice any differences between Canadian horror and American horror? Canadian and American audiences?
Steve: I actually do notice one specific difference, but it just may be me looking for it! I find American horror always has a defined place where the story happens. It’ll be “Boston,” or “New York” or a small town somewhere, whereas I find most of the horror writers I read who are Canadian seem to be a bit more elusive as to the exact location things play out. I personally never try to have an exact place. I do it for two reasons — I want it to be more relatable for the individual reading it — they can picture a place near them easier if I don’t specifically say the location, but also so I don’t have to worry about screwing up a specific detail hahaha! I won’t have someone saying “WAIT A MINUTE — THAT STREET DOESN’T EXIST!” Ideally you read that all caps section in Jim Gaffigan’s voice!
Sonora: What inspires your work?
Steve: The people who believe in me. The horror community is a fantastic community. It’s amazing and I’m so blessed to have met so many folks who want to help and support and promote. My family has been so amazing. And of course, my son. I write stories and release them, so that one day (I hope at least) he’ll see our book shelf with my books and be inspired himself.
I had a blog post before where I said I’ll probably never be a best seller and that’s fine. I still stand by that statement, but my sentiment was more about the fact that I’m not writing with the sole purpose of seeing a shiny gold star by my release on Amazon. Don’t get me wrong, that would be amazing — but not getting one isn’t going to stop me from writing and releasing the stories I want to tell.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Steve: Is there really someone on this planet who doesn’t know who my favourite author is? Haha!
For those who have somehow missed it — my favourite author is Andrew Pyper. He’s written some truly stunning works, he’s Canadian and he’s been so amazing whenever I’ve messaged him. I’m currently celebrating all things Pyper with PYPER-MAY-NIA and using the hashtag #pypermaynia
I’m also a massive Stephen King fan. Huge Joe Hill, Ania Ahlborn and J.H. Moncrieff fan. As for my other must read authors: David Sodergren, Justin M. Woodward, Andrew Cull, Joseph Sale, Joe Zito, Mason McDonald, Jonathan Janz and Hunter Shea would really round that list out. There’s just so many amazing authors right now!
As for some of my favourite books, well Andrew Pyper really dominates that haha! The Homecoming, The Wildfire Season, The Only Child, The Demonologist, The Damned, and The Lost Girls all are stunning. I’m currently reading The Trade Mission and still have a few more of his on the TBR. Loved Tamer Animals from Woodward, Now Comes the Darkness from Zito, The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot from Sodergren, Bones and Remains from Cull, The Art of Racing in the Rain from Garth Stein, The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave by Moncrieff, Brother and The Devil Crept In by Ahlborn. So much goodness.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Steve: Good lord what a question. If you’ve followed along with me at all, you’ll have come across me discussing this. I like to get everything prepped and prepared well in advance.
So currently on the go;
Ritual — Novella, release date Oct 2019. Stage — 60% through final read through, then off to Sodergren for edits.
Piece of Me — Novel, release date Dec 2019. Stage — I need to read through one more time completely, then off to Sodergren. This tale is set in the same world as my short stories “For Balder Walks” and “Poppa?”
Untitled — Novella, release date Feb-ish 2020. Stage — need to read through one more time and tweak the ending, then off for edits.
The One That Knows No Fear — Novella, release date June-ish 2020. Stage — need to read through one more time and adjust a few spots. Then off for edits.
456 Blatchford Drive — Novella/Possible Anthology. Release date Oct 2020. Stage — I need to get my butt in gear and contact a few more folks and see what I can do to get this off the ground or if I’m doing it alone.
Then I’m also prepping a short story collection for 2020/2021 release tentatively still titled The Night Crawls In and a poetry collection hopefully for 2020/2021 release as well.
I am always on the go and always blocking out when and where things will fall, so some of 2020 may change depending on a few things!
Steve Stred is an up-and-coming Dark, Bleak Horror author.
Steve is the author of the novel Invisible, the novellas Wagon Buddy, Yuri and Jane: the 816 Chronicles and two collections of short stories; Frostbitten: 12 Hymns of Misery and Left Hand Path: 13 More Tales of Black Magick, the dark poetry collection Dim the Sun and his most recent release was the coming-of-age, urban legend tale The Girl Who Hid in the Trees.
On June 1st, 2019 his second full length novel, The Stranger will be welcomed to the world.
Steve is also a voracious reader, reviewing everything he reads and submitting the majority of his reviews to be featured on Kendall Reviews.
Steve Stred is based in Edmonton, AB, Canada and lives with his wife, his son and their dog OJ.