Ten writers are selected for a summer-long writing retreat with the most celebrated and reclusive author in the world. Their host is the legendary Roderick Wells. Handsome, enigmatic, and fiendishly talented, Wells promises to teach his pupils about writing, about magic, about the untapped potential that each of them possesses. Most of all, he plans to teach them about the darkness in their hearts.
The writers think they are signing up for a chance at riches and literary prestige. But they are really entering the twisted imagination of a deranged genius, a lethal contest pitting them against one another in a struggle for their sanity and their lives. They have entered into Roderick Wells’s most brilliant and horrible creation.
The Dark Game.
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launched in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
About the Author
Since then Jonathan's work has been lauded by writers like Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, Tim Waggoner, Bryan Smith, and Ronald Kelly. Novels like The Nightmare Girl, Wolf Land, Savage Species, and Dust Devils prompted Thunderstorm Books to sign Jonathan to an eleven-book deal and to give him his own imprint, Jonathan Janz's Shadow Side.
His novel Children of the Dark received a starred review in Booklist and was chosen by their board as one of the Top Ten Horror Books of the Year (August 2015-September 2016). Children of the Dark will soon be translated into German and has been championed by the Library Journal, the School Library Journal, and Cemetery Dance. In early 2017, his novel Exorcist Falls was released to critical acclaim.
Jonathan's primary interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children, and though he realizes that every author's wife and children are wonderful and amazing, in this case the cliché happens to be true. You can learn more about Janz at www.jonathanjanz.com.
Read an Excerpt
Lucy sat in the back of the limo, blindfolded, unaware she was entering the nightmarish plot of a madman instead of a writer's retreat.
She reached up, fingered the sweaty fabric of the blindfold. "Mind if I take this off?" No answer from her driver. Around her the limo juddered like a malfunctioning carnival ride.
Relax, Lucy told herself. You'd have been a fool to pass up this opportunity.
She laced her fingers in her lap, the limo shuddering harder. She imagined a barren landscape out there, the trees stunted, the ground scorched. Like her future, if this didn't work out.
Lucy balled her hands into fists.
It occurred to her she hadn't even asked the driver for identification. No one knew she was here, and she wasn't allowed a phone. She chewed a thumbnail, a hundred horror movies flashing through her head. Why was it always a woman who got hacked to pieces?
The limo rumbled over a rougher surface. Branches thwacked the roof with appalling violence, the antenna twanging. Lucy's stomach performed a somersault as the limo jounced over a pothole and slued sickly.
Hands trembling, she thumbed the window control, but he'd evidently engaged the child lock.
"At least let me have some air," she said through her teeth.
An endless pause. Then her window lowered and a muggy breeze flooded the car. Her heartbeat had begun to decelerate when something — a fingerlike branch, she assumed — harrowed her shoulder. She gasped and a grisly scene flickered through her mind: the forest closing in around her, eager to spill her blood, the trees groping for her like a shambling horde of ghouls.
Dry-mouthed, Lucy raised the window.
"We're close enough," the driver said. "You can take the blindfold off." She burrowed her fingers under the slick fabric and worked it upward until, with a final tug, it came loose. She flung it aside, the dreary May afternoon a punishing contrast to the darkness of the blindfold.
When her eyes adjusted, she realized they were rolling through a murky forest, the swirled trunks and gnarled, low-hanging branches reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm. At their approach a screeching blackbird tumbled from its perch, veered toward the windshield, and swooped over the limo's roof. Heart pounding, she peered through the rear window after it, but all she could make out were massed shadows and ancient trees. She half-expected to glimpse a witch leering at her through the undergrowth.
After a time, the corridor of trees widened into a grassy clearing. Across it, she spotted a lone figure leaning against a tree. As they drew closer, she noted the scarlet tank top, the khaki cargo shorts, the faded leather Birkenstocks. The man was perhaps thirty, very handsome, skin smooth and tan, his curly brown hair not quite shoulder-length.
The limo stopped. Lucy flung open her door, sucked in a great heave of cedar-tinged air, climbed out, and stretched luxuriously. The driver opened the trunk, hefted out her suitcase, and without making eye contact returned to the car. A moment later, the limo described a gradual loop and disappeared the way they'd come.
Lucy studied the fantastical forest. No sign of a house. Or a path, for that matter. Was this whole event a practical joke? The worry had plagued her since she received the invitation. Her first thought upon being invited was that they'd made a mistake, that she was too successful for a contest like this. Her second, more upsetting, reaction was the old fear, the suspicion her early success was dumb luck, that she'd be eaten alive by the other contestants, who were no doubt younger and more talented.
But Lucy couldn't be a has-been at age thirty-three. Could she?
The stranger approached. There were reddish indentations on his temples where a blindfold had been. He raised his arms, stretched, the movement clearly intended to show off his lean but sculpted biceps. He sighed and halted, his bare toes only a foot from hers.
"Tommy Marston," he said, hand out.
She shook. "Lucy Still."
He narrowed his eyes, appraising her. "You look like a YA writer. Am I right?" She considered telling him of her early success, transforming his arrogant expression into a look of awe. She could boast of the advance she'd received at age nineteen, the starred reviews in Every Important Writing Publication, her instant literary fame.
But then he'd ask The Question: What have you written lately?
"She's forty minutes late," a deep voice called.
Tommy scowled at the man emerging from the woods. "How do you know that?" The man waggled his wrist.
"I thought we couldn't have technology," Tommy said.
"That's not what the contract stipulated," the man answered. "Anyway, this watch is analogue." He was taller than Tommy, the white t-shirt and dark blue jeans stretched taut by bulging muscles. He reminded Lucy of a college football player, one who's been kicked off the team after too many arrests. He had a crew cut the color of weak coffee, wintry blue eyes. His mouth was fixed in a permanent smirk.
He nodded at Lucy. "Bryan Clayton. You are?" She told him.
Bryan studied her a moment, then gestured toward the woods. "It's majestic in there. Poplars, willows, tamarack, hickory. Even a grove of Fraser firs. Extremely rare for Indiana."
Tommy frowned. "How do you know where we are?"
"Innate sense of direction."
Tommy looked at her. "Innate sense of bullshit."
"We're southeast of Chicago," Bryan said. "That puts us in Indiana, right?" He reached into his hip pocket, brought out a folded sheet of paper. "My driver told me to follow these directions once you guys arrived." He favored her with an indulgent look. "That is, if the princess is ready."
Asshole, she thought.
"Time to get my hands dirty," Bryan said, shouldering a hunter-green backpack. "I'm ready to show Wells I came here to win."
Tommy glanced at her. "So did we."
Bryan eyed him. "You'll be gone in a week."
"At least I'm not some fake man's man."
Bryan's smirk faded. "I write fact-based survival stories."
A corner of Tommy's mouth rose. "Personality like yours, I bet you know a lot about being alone."
One moment they were nose-to-nose, the next Tommy was spinning and crumpling to the grass with Bryan atop him. Tommy's forearm was pinned behind his back, Bryan levering the wrist higher until Lucy was sure the arm would burst its socket.
"Okay okay!" Tommy yelled.
Bryan straddled Tommy's back, his big arms flexing as he drove Tommy's wrist higher, nearly to his shoulder blades now. Bryan leaned down. His square jaw strained a few inches over Tommy's reddened face, which was mashed sideways in the grass. "Gonna talk shit now?"
A high-pitched keening issued from Tommy's throat.
"Get off him," Lucy said.
Tommy moaned. Any moment she expected to hear a sickening crunch.
"Call me fake again," Bryan said.
"I said get off," Lucy said, stepping toward them.
Bryan shot her a glance, something feral in his eyes. His face spread in a slow grin. Then he released Tommy and rocked back on his heels with a look of almost euphoric satisfaction.
Tommy groaned, his arm limp in the grass.
Bryan pushed to his feet. "Next time you mouth off, make sure you don't insult a collegiate wrestler."
"Prick," Tommy muttered, rising. His overstressed arm hung limply at his side. Lucy didn't think it was broken, but he'd be sore for days.
"Can we go to Wells's house now?" she asked. "I don't want to be late."
"Sure," Bryan said. "As long as you guys remember who's in charge."
Lucy opened her mouth to answer but closed it when she recalled the savage gleam in Bryan's eyes.
It was a look she'd remember the following night, when the first writer was murdered.CHAPTER 2
Rick Forrester gazed up at a twist of ivy, vines, and slender green branches.
WELLS FOREST, the sign read. A PLACE OF MAGIC.
His driver had told him to wait here for the next writer, but now that he was alone in this primordial forest, a discordant note sounded over and over at a volume his ears couldn't detect but his bones could.
He winced, slapped the back of his neck, and examined his palm. The dead mosquito resembled a smudge of mascara streaked with red greasepaint.
Maybe coming here hadn't been such a brilliant idea.
A white limousine rolled down the lane and stopped beside him. The window descended and the driver, a young guy with a close-cropped ginger beard, leaned toward him. "I presume you're one of the authors?"
"What gave me away, my profound gaze?"
The driver got out and opened the door for a young woman with punkish blond hair and a couple dozen bracelets. Nice figure, but it was toward her clothes that Rick's eyes were drawn. Her frilly top was purple-and-white, her beige skirt adorned with colorful buttons. One said MARK DARCY'S LOVE SLAVE; another read IF YOU'RE NOT CAREFUL, I'LL KILL YOU IN MY NOVEL. She donned a pair of tortoiseshell glasses and gazed dubiously about the forest. "This is Roderick Wells's estate?"
"You're Elaine Kovalchyk, aren't you?" the driver asked.
She grunted. "I wouldn't have gotten in your car if I wasn't."
The driver wrestled an immense suitcase from the trunk. "Then I'll leave you here."
"Wait, where is 'here'?" She glanced at Rick.
He nodded at the vine-twisted archway. Elaine lowered her glasses to the tip of her nose, gazed at the sign. "What kind of magic we talking about?"
The driver executed a U-turn and motored away.
Her bracelets clinking, Elaine rolled her suitcase toward Rick. "You're not a serial killer, are you?"
"Gave that up years ago."
A hint of a smile. "Since you've been appointed my guardian, I think I should know your identity."
"Where have I seen your work?" she asked.
"You ever read Gruesome Unsolved Murders?"
Her pink lips formed an impish smile. "Are you always this evasive?"
She flicked her hair off her forehead. "My profs at NYU said I was born to write dialogue."
"I'm sure it's better on the page."
She looked him up and down. "Unpublished, huh?"
"Guess the world isn't ready for my work."
"Shame. You'd look good in an author photo." She nodded at the archway. "Shall we?" He waited for her and her refrigerator-sized suitcase to pass, then followed her down the trail.
"You're awfully coy, Mr. Forrester. A man your age, you've surely got some writing credits."
"I could make some up."
She stopped, peered at him over her glasses. "What other problems do you have?"
He moved past her. "Aside from being interrogated?"
"How old are you?"
He adjusted his backpack. "Not at present."
"Which means you were."
Rick didn't bother explaining. He glanced up at the trees, but they were so dense, he could only make out the merest slivers of heather-colored sky. It hadn't rained today, but the clouds kept threatening.
"Want to hear about me?" she asked.
"Doubt I could stop you."
"I'm twenty-seven. Single, so far. I've been featured in the Goose Neck Review and the Maryland Quarterly."
"Those hunting magazines?"
"They're two of the most prestigious literary publications in America."
"You're sort of handsome for your age."
He cringed. "You make me feel like a creepy old man."
"Eight years isn't much," she said. "Too bad I'm not here to hook up."
If you knew what followed me, he thought, I'd be the last man in the world you'd want to date.
She moved ahead but kept talking. "I'm going to prove my parents wrong. Oh, they paid for my schooling, helped me that way. But they always assumed this writing thing was a phase. On holidays they'd ask me, thinking they were being subtle, if I'd contemplated changing over to some less starry-eyed pursuit."
"But they put you through college."
She glared at him over her shoulder. "They tolerate my lifestyle."
He let that hang. Hoped she wouldn't elaborate on her lifestyle, whatever that meant.
She halted. "When I win this competition, they'll stop acting like this is a lark."
"You didn't tell them you were coming?"
She gave him a sly smile. "You are cagey, Rick." Punching him lightly on the shoulder. "Looking for ways to get me disqualified?"
He opened his mouth to answer, thought better of it, then sidled around her.
"You agree with my parents?" she called after him.
"They sound fine to me."
"Sure they do. I bet you're a fellow conservative."
He wasn't, but he'd rather catheterize himself with a lit sparkler than discuss politics.
To his relief, she ceased talking for several minutes. The trail threaded through bluegreen groves of spruce, hulking stands of pine. At about the time Elaine had begun to complain of her acute thirst and her throbbing feet, the forest opened a little and revealed a dull glint of glass.
"Oh thank Christ," Elaine moaned.
They emerged into a vast, rising meadow of foxtail and wildflowers. Rick stopped and stared at the mansion situated at the summit.
For reasons he couldn't explain, he'd expected Roderick Wells to live in a contemporary house, something sleek and shimmering with windows. The mansion looming before him was much older and larger than he'd envisioned. Rick would have never said such a thing aloud for fear of sounding foolish, but there it was — the place looked sinister. Three stories tall, its many dormers and gables jutted forth in challenge, daring him to scale the hill and do his best to endure whatever tricks it had in store. The predominant façade was brick, though there were stretches of discolored stone. The mansion was in dire need of repairs. The covered porch leaned to the left, the faded ivory pillars splotched and peeling. One pane of a first-floor window was spider-webbed; a couple shutters hung askew. The slate roof was short several shingles, though the pitch was so steep Rick couldn't imagine anyone replacing them. A soaring tower rose from the mansion's far side.
Rick peered at the tower and felt a chill breeze whisper over his skin.
"Think this is it?" Elaine asked.
He tried to smile. "What's wrong?"
She shivered, scratched her forearm. "I don't know. It's just so ... "
"... haunted housey. I didn't expect it to be this secluded. If something goes wrong, how will anyone know?"
What's going to happen? he almost asked. But for some reason, faced with this towering, eldritch structure, it felt like tempting fate.
He began the long climb.
He glanced backward, saw she hadn't moved. "Want me to lug that suitcase for you?"
She smiled, hunched her shoulders in a way he found endearing. If she expended less energy competing, she'd be a tick north of tolerable.
He grabbed the suitcase handle, and side-by-side, they began the hike through the knee-high grass. He caught a glimpse of a purple butterfly tattooed between her breasts but didn't comment on it. Instead he directed his gaze at the late afternoon clouds, which were churning and muddy. He smelled rain in the air.
"Thanks," she said. "You're a gentleman."
"But not talented enough for the Goose Egg Review."
She gave him a shove. "Goose Neck."
As they trudged up the incline, he studied the mansion, estimated it was more than twenty thousand square feet. A cylindrical tower rose from the rear of the structure.
She asked, "Why did you get divorced?"
"I never said I was married."
"Be enigmatic then." A pause. "Why are you single?"
Because anyone I love will die? Because something is following me, and half the reason I'm here is to escape it?
"Doesn't look like a place of magic to me," Elaine muttered.
It did to him, but of the wrong variety.
Wells's mansion looked like every ghost story he'd ever read. As they drew closer, Rick couldn't shake the feeling he was about to become part of one.CHAPTER 3
At dusk there was a knock on Lucy's door. She opened it and beheld a scarlet-haired woman with a tiny, upturned nose and lime-colored eyes. She was younger than the writers Lucy had met, her green tank top and tattered jean shorts very snug.
"Anna Holloway," the young woman said. "I love your work."
A blush crept up Lucy's neck.
"The Girl Who Died got me into reading," Anna said.
Lucy glanced back at her bedroom. "Look, Anna, I'm not done unpacking and —"
"I highlighted all the naughty parts," Anna said. "Mom was furious when she caught me reading it. She called the librarian and ripped her a new asshole."
Lucy smiled despite herself.
"But it wasn't just the sex I liked, it was the writing. The voice." Anna took Lucy's hands, gave them a squeeze. "You're so good."
The present tense wasn't lost on Lucy.
"And when I heard you were here, I couldn't believe it. It'll be like having two teachers instead of one."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dark Game"
Copyright © 2019 Jonathan Janz.
Excerpted by permission of Flame Tree Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What is the book about?
The most famous and reclusive author in the world (a combination of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy) invites ten young writers to his estate for a shot at literary fame and fortune. Horror ensues.
What are the underlying themes?
Sins of omission. Some of the characters in the story have performed deeply evil actions; others have allowed evil to spread by refusing to act. This story represents a reckoning for their past indiscretions.
Did you base your characters on anyone you knew?
I’ve read about plenty of young writers who garner a huge first advance and then never live up to that early success. These writers inspired Lucy Still, my protagonist. Another main character, Rick Forrester, was inspired somewhat by my early struggles as a writer. Many of the writers were influenced by people I’ve encountered.
Who influenced you most in the writing of the book?
Stephen King and Peter Straub, most of all. Specifically, the book was influenced by King’s style and Straub’s landmark novels GHOST STORY and SHADOWLAND.
Is there any advice you can give someone starting to write?
One, avoid “don’t” and gravitate toward “do.” Two, give yourself permission to suck; you don’t have to be perfect. Three, read and write as often as possible; that’s how you learn. There are no shortcuts.
Where did you write?
I always write in my writing room/home library. It’s amazing. Cozy, surrounded by my books and pictures of my family. It’s the perfect spot to get lost in my fictional worlds.
Did you write in silence, or to any particular music?
I listen to Baroque music. It invigorates me without distracting me.
Did you find it hard to write? Or harder to edit your own work?
Increasingly, the editing is becoming harder because I’m learning more and becoming more exacting. I have a novel almost completed, but it’s on hold because I’m editing the novel before it. I’m also eager to get going on my next novel because the idea is dynamite. But the editing takes a great deal of time, and the new novel will therefore have to wait. It’s challenging. I’m psychologically incapable of letting work go out the door unless it’s my best.
What was it like to be edited by someone else?
Cool and sometimes humbling. I love the extra set of eyes, but sometimes there are house rules that can irksome. Then again, they sometimes bring to your attention a tendency you didn’t notice you had, and they make your work better because of that. Personally, I think we all need edited. Good editing saves us from ourselves. I like to think I’m a good self-editor since I do this stuff with students on a daily basis. But with my own work, it’s different. I can never be as objective about my own work as someone else can be. That sort of detachment can make all the difference.
What are you writing now?
I’m working on a novel called MARLA, or at least I will be when I finish editing CHILDREN OF THE DARK 2. After that, I’ll be working on the other idea I alluded to earlier, which is so exciting that I don’t want to talk about it for fear of amplifying the pressure I’m placing on myself to do the story justice.