I’m really excited today to introduce you to my friend, the Candian author Duncan Ralston, and if you already know him, then you can learn more about his journey to creating his newest book, Ghostland! In full disclaimer, D is one of my closest friends, but my friends know, I won’t go bananas on your work unless you’ve proved it warranted (also, yes I know D is allergic to bananas – but he can have my virtual screaming bananas!). So though we are friends, I suppose it’s his creativity and personality that drew me to him in our friendship, and so in that vein, I also enjoy his story ideas and his written pieces. There is no bias here, I just really want you all to get to know his mind and to experience Ghostland. Ghostland is like nothing I’ve read this year, and really, maybe ever. I fully enjoyed it. So I hope you’ll take my review and recommendation for what it is and then enjoy the interview below – you’ll learn a lot and probably laugh along with us as well.
Ghostland, Spoiler-Free Review –
I read a lot of horror, and especially over the years reading slush, editing books, promoting books in horror, I tend to start to see same plots and themes and characters emerging. Not with Ghostland. It’s totally unique. I think I really appreciated that freshness this year. That creative juice and the bravery to go outside the box. I have to say it’s the best book in the genre I read all year and I’m so thrilled I got to read an early copy. It gave me entertainment and fun in a read that I was really desiring and didn’t even know it. I was beginning to go outside other genres again to feel through reading what I needed. I can’t even think of what category it belongs in – it’s too entertaining, but also not in a corny way. It’s coming of age, but not in a melancholy way. It’s scary but not in an atmospheric paranormal way. It’s PURE FUN.
It’s for adults – it’s terrifying in parts – so don’t get me wrong, it’s horror. It reminded me a bit of tv shows American Horror Story’s Murder House and Channel Zero, but it features two young protagonists. I love how he used this viewpoint of characters of a younger age (seniors in high school) without it being strictly YA. I love that he utilizes the male and female friend relationship as well – and how much depth he created in the characters. I could feel their emotions and was both sad and hopeful, as well as understood the pain and love that shone through. the bits of humor. You can have all that in adventure horror novels too and Duncan pulled it off well. Duncan does a great job with characters in his other books and here it’s no different. He delivers psychological themes but easily dispersed throughout the story. I could relate to the subjects of illness and death, walls and trauma, forgiveness. He creates the sort of intermediary/host as the psychiatrist which also worked really well too I thought. He has heart within a story that is mainly an action-filled journey at the most amazing horror theme park in the world.
What’s not to love?
He writes thrillers, he writes ghost stories, he writes horror stories, he integrates virtual reality in a cool way, and he seems to have easily rolled all that up together in this bundle of entertainment called Ghostland. You’re going to hear a lot about Ghostland, I’m sure. His marketing plan was dynamic and bold. I could talk often about it and it can be an example to a lot of indie authors. It should be nominated for awards and noticed for its innovation as well as its well-written prose, for its creative ideas and description, and for its character development.
There is interactive fun too – within the book on Kindle you can click to learn about the ghosts and attractions this way. On the print, you can read about the attractions in the back. There’s a park map. What other books in horror are penned with an innovative experience inside in which you can click and learn more on each haunted locale or ghost you encounter along with the characters at the park? He even goes the extra mile and has an AR technology component for print buyers. And all the attractions are so neat and cool!! (And scary!!) A haunted lighthouse (check), a pirate ship (check), a circus (check). I’m feeling happy with just those, but there was so much more.
If you haven’t read this book, you’ll need to get your tickets soon because the park is open and they can use all hands on deck to keep the ghosts inside. This would make a great gift for someone for the holidays along with a Ghostland t-shirt! People who enjoy video games from teens (who might read some dark fiction) to adults will especially like the virtual game component of this novel.
So much to love. Buy it today.
Without further rambling, here is our interview:
Interview, Duncan Ralston –
Hi, D! Welcome to my Oh, for the Hook of a Book! site. I’m excited to talk to you today about your newest endeavor, a novel and interactive experience called GHOSTLAND! I got up early and baked a carrot cake AND we have the entire cake to ourselves, so have a seat in the big comfy chair in my library and I’ll be right in with some giant slices. Also, what would you like to drink? Rye and Diet Coke? I’m figuring on it, so I’ll go ahead and pour. I think I’ll opt for a hot rum toddy myself.
Duncan: Hey, E! Thanks for having me! Man, that carrot cake smells good. Is that cream cheese icing?? Yum yum! And yes, Rye and Diet Coke, of course.
Erin: Let me just set this all down on the coffee table and we can enjoy while we talk. Just don’t get any crumbs in my cushions! Later, we can move to the dining table for dinner. If it was much warmer, we could sit out back and eat under the trees, but you know, it’s just a bit too cold in Ohio now. I’m sure you’ve had similar weather in Toronto?
Duncan: Been warmer and drizzly the past little bit, but I can’t complain. At least it’s warm inside.
Erin: I don’t have any heat on. Don’t take off your hat and gloves! I’m kidding. (I set the tray on the table). Let me take your hat and coat. It’s all cozy here. (I walk over and hang the coat on the rack, put gloves in pocket). Help yourself to your drink and cake, and I’ll start the questions or the masses will get hungry and want cake too!
I know that everyone asks this question, so bear with me since some of my subscribed audience is a bit all over in terms of readership and genres and probably need something to start with. What IS Ghostland about and where did you get your inspiration?
Duncan: Ghostland is about two former best friends reconnecting over a mutual love of horror. The setting is a theme park where the exhibits are actual haunted places and objects. It’s clear from the start things aren’t quite right at this theme park – are the ghosts real or VR? And if they are real, are they being held captive? That element plays a big part in the proceedings once the park tech goes haywire, freeing all of the ghosts on the unsuspecting guests.
I drew a lot of inspiration from my love of Stephen King’s books, particularly in my youth. The teenage protagonists are horror fans, like I was (and still am). I like to think of this book as The Shining meets Jurassic Park, though it has elements of a lot more than just those two books. Several readers have correctly pointed to the 2000 remake of Thirteen Ghosts. But those two books were the biggest inspirations for Ghostland, aside from horror video games, which I still love to play when I get a chance.
Erin: What type of reader is Ghostland for – adults only? Does it appeal to YA readership? It’s a ton of fun with ghosts, but how extreme is it? Is it for seasoned readers of horror only or what other types of readers might try it?
Duncan: It would definitely have appealed to me as a kid. It is a tad darker than standard YA, although from what I’ve been hearing YA horror is taking more risks these days and adding more dark content. The main protagonists are in their late teens, just about to head off to college. But the story is adult-oriented. I think that’s an age most of us can recall relatively clearly. High school and those first few years of setting off on our own path seemed to be burned into the psyche of most adults. It also deals with finding your own path and discovering what you want to do with your life, coming of age, finding and pushing your limits, childhood trauma, etc.
Erin: Yes, YA horror reads quite a lot darker these days. I mean there even IS YA horror. I love that it encompassed all those themes.
Working in marketing for many years, I was quite intrigued by your plan to set the stage for social media users to create excitement for the book. Can you tell us the backstory to Rex Garrote and your short prequel story The Moving House? If readers missed out on that early fun, can you tell them about it?
Duncan: Rex Garrote – and let’s be clear, he is not a real person – is the main antagonist/Big Bad in Ghostland. He was a semi-famous horror author from the late’1970s to the late-’90s, when he took his own life. In my media campaign I pretended Garrote was an author whose work I grew up with – but nobody else remembered. I can’t recall why I settled on this idea, though it seemed to spark people’s imaginations and curiosity.
It was good fun pretending Garrote was a real person. Most people who were initially fooled seemed to enjoy it as well. The only problem is the book I “remembered” became the focus of the campaign – and though I was planning to write The House Feeds at some point, the demand for it means I’ll likely have to write it sooner rather than later.
“The Moving House” is a ghost story on a smaller scale. The creator of Ghostland‘s tech, Sara Jane Amblin, and the current owner of Garrote House, Christopher Hedgewood, enter the house for the last time prior to moving it to the Ghostland park grounds. It’s their first time being there at night. Things do not go well for them.
Read about Rex Garrote here.
Erin: If you’re using the Kindle app to read, you have a great interactive built-in in which you can click in certain spots and read more about the apparitions and such. How do you think this has added to people’s experiences and how much fun did you have creating that within the book? Do print readers miss out or how does that work?
Duncan: Quite a few readers (and reviewers) have mentioned that they enjoyed the semi-interactive elements of the book a fair bit. I based the idea off of the Thirteen Ghosts DVD, which had backstories on the ghosts within the movies. Originally I’d woven these backstories within the narrative, but they were killing the flow of the story. I came up with the idea of doing them as a clickable “guide” much later on and wasn’t even sure if I had the ability to do such a thing. With some research and a bit of help from fellow writers, I figured it all out and I think it worked out about as well as it could have given my budget and technical skills, or lack thereof.
Print users lose out on the clickable aspect, but the guide is still within the book, as endnotes. One thing print readers get that ebook readers don’t is the “Interactive Ghostland AR Experience.” If you scan the QR code found within the paperback, you will be able to see the cover in Augmented Reality. There’s a fun surprise there which ties into the novel, since the park uses a more sophisticated form of the technology for guests to see the ghosts.
There’s also the companion website, which is as much a guide to Ghostland as it is a story in itself. This will tie into future releases within the Ghostland universe.
Erin: Are all the ghosts and attractions made-up in your book or are any real or based on something or someone real? Did you have to do any research?
Duncan: Most of them are made up. Some are inspired by “true” ghost stories. A few “real” ghosts are mentioned in passing. I don’t want to spoil which is which. But there are a few you might have spotted from some of my other stories – those are definitely not real.
Erin: What was your favorite ghost or attraction you created?
Duncan: I said in another interview that my favorite ghost is Morton Welles, a mental patient from the 1900s who was psychic driven by his psychiatrist to become a sort of sleepwalking murderer called the “Bright Falls Zombie,” like the old German expressionist movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I’ll stick with him for now.
Erin: The friendship between your two main teen characters was very real and very meaningful, even though this was a book seeped in entertainment. Do you feel teens will relate and not mind the horror? Furthermore, do you feel adults can relate and why? You have strong character development, why do you feel that’s important to the reader?
Duncan: I feel like without interesting characters, there’s no reason for me to care about what happens to them, as a reader and a writer. It’s one of the reasons I don’t tend to like a lot of slasher horror – in many of them, the main characters are unlikable, interchangeable teens.
I try to make sure my stories are grounded in reality and a lot of that comes from using things I’ve experienced in my own life as the heart of my main characters. From Ben’s health problems to Lilian’s anxiety about her future, these are things I’ve experienced in my life and many people have as well. I’m not sure people need to identify with characters to appreciate them – but we have to at least understand their wants and needs on some level. I hope that comes through in the book but you never know.
Erin: How did you come up with your character of the psychiatrist that accompanies the teens to the park. Why was she, without spoilers, a key component to your story?
Duncan: I’ve been interested in psychology since I was quite young. I knew early on there needed to be an intermediary with Ben and Lilian. Originally this character was a funeral director obsessed with Garrote House (one of the major exhibits), who acted as a chaperone because they were too young to attend on their own. When I bumped their ages up I thought it would be interesting to deal a bit with PTSD, which Lilian suffers from after having been on headset with Ben while he “died” for several minutes. His heart attack caused them to drift apart. I knew she wouldn’t go to Ghostland without a fight, so Dr. Allison Wexler insists she consider it “exposure therapy” and Lilian goes along with it partly out of spite and partly to show up her therapist.
I think that’s as far as I can say without getting further into spoiler territory. But Dr. Wexler is there out of professional curiosity. She’s concerned about her patient but she also believes long-term exposure to Ghostland‘s Augmented-Reality technology could potentially be harmful to the psyche.
Erin: Did you consider reconstructing it into a YA? If so, why did you decide against that?
Duncan: One of the major reasons I decided against it is that the YA community has started to eat itself alive. I didn’t want to put myself and my work under that sort of scrutiny, especially considering some of my previous books. “Ghostland, the new YA horror novel from the author of Woom.” Probably wasn’t going to fly. (If you’re wondering, Woom was my relatively successful foray into “extreme horror.”)
Also, I intended this to be a book any fan of horror could enjoy. Since I don’t personally read a lot of YA it didn’t make sense to me to write it as YA.
Erin: Your cover is also beautifully done by Dean Samed. He’s a great artist and I’m in love with the cover. Do you feel it captured your book well besides drawing reader’s attention?
Duncan: I really do. It pops. It’s enticing. It’s different. I mean, how many hot-pink horror covers have you seen recently? But it also creates a sense of mystery. How did this haunted house get stuck among these theme park rides? The lights blazing from the windows imply something mysterious and possibly supernatural inside. And the teens standing on the threshold, about to enter – it could go anywhere from there.
Erin: You also had a logo and park map done (which you haven’t showed off enough in my opinion) and there are t-shirts, mugs, stickers, and such. Does this add to the overall experience for readers? It’s almost like you’ve created a real theme park! Tell us about that and where to get some items.
Duncan: That’s exactly why I did it! Like the Rex Garrote character, I wanted the theme park to feel like it could be the real deal. I wasn’t just writing one novel; I’m creating a fictional world where ghosts have been proven real and everyone is having to deal with that fact. It’s still relatively new and some people haven’t accepted it and others can’t fit it into their world view. There are people seeing the proof of the afterlife as a chance to get off the ride. They’re starting to teach kids about death in fifth grade health class. I could lie and say I meant this as a metaphor for some real-life crisis, but I didn’t at all. I just tried to imagine how our own world would deal with the news. A lot of people believe ghosts exist but if they could see them? If they could prove it? It would fundamentally change how most of us perceive death. And what it means to be alive. I just thought there was so much I could do with that concept, why limit it to just one book?
Check those out here.
Erin: Let’s head over to the table and I’ll pull out the fajitas I left warming under cover and eat. I’m starved. You must be after traveling all the way from Canada! Off topic, as I set the table, but have you ever thought of doing a world book tour and what that would be like (if dreams could come true)?
Duncan: Love me some fajitas. Can’t wait.
The idea of a book tour in general doesn’t appeal to me very much for several reasons. The first is, what happens if nobody shows up? That would be mortifying. The second is, I’m weird about praise. A roomful of people there just for me – I appreciate people reading my books but it seems like something I wouldn’t like very much.
I would like to go to some conventions in the future, just to meet and greet fellow writers and readers. But I’d rather go as a fan than a guest.
Erin: It would be cool to set a book signing in haunted locations set around a map though, wouldn’t it? I’m full of ideas. Of course, you’d need a sponsor to pay for it. But you never know? A & E Channel? Ghost Hunters? Ha!
What has been your favorite part about writing and launching Ghostland? What has been the most challenging?
Duncan: Aside from writing the book, which took two years off and on – and was both the most fun part and the hardest – I really enjoyed making the website. It was a ton of work but I feel like it was worth the effort. It’s something that will function just as well for further novels in the Ghostland universe.
Erin: Ghostland would make a really good movie, but probably an even better episodic tv show. It reminds me a bit of Channel Zero and American Horror Story’s Murder House with its own twist of course. You work behind the scenes in TV, so this must have crossed your mind! How would that go?
Duncan: Thank you for saying so! I’ve been considering what I would do with it if I wanted to adapt it – how much I would have to cut for it to work as a film, how much I’d have to stretch it or restructure it to work as a TV series or miniseries. I think it would work best as a miniseries, though I could easily see the story going beyond the Ghostland park – as I intend to with the books. The perfect situation would be a blockbuster, 2 ½-hour movie of the events in the book, followed by a sequel series. Maybe a tie-in, open-world video game, as well.
Yeah, I guess you could say I’ve thought about this a bit. 😉
Erin: Without spoilers can you entice readers with something about some of the attractions? What are they? Who are they? How did they get there?
Duncan: They’ve all been meticulously disassembled down to moveable pieces and reassembled in Ghostland, from all over America. There’s a prison, an asylum, Garrote House, a haunted lighthouse, a farmhouse, a Wild West ghost town, a circus, a funhouse, a pirate ship… virtually anything you can imagine. There are yachts and cars and smaller objects like cursed mirrors and snow globes. Some of them are “possessed,” others are haunted by poltergeists, revenants, all kinds of spirits.
Erin: I just love that concept and how you did that. So creative.
Let’s talk about amusement parks, carnivals, piers of fun like Coney Island in New York. I love them all and have been obsessed with this type of thing for as long as I can remember. I still get giddy if I see a giant Ferris Wheel (did recently at the National Harbor in D.C.). I’m a sucker for these things. What sorts of things (actual places, books, movies, stories…) in this theme do you like (besides Ghostland of course, which I heard is in Maryland on my route to D.C. in fact, so I’ll have to be stopping by *wink*)?
Duncan: When I was little we went to the Canadian National Exhibition. I remember this vividly, though some of it may be embellished by kid me’s fertile imagination. There used to be a large exhibit just called the Carlsberg Haunted House, I think. Presented by the beer company. Free admission. In the same building where Medieval Times is now. It was a huge haunted house with animatronic monsters, paintings whose eyes moved, all kinds of cool stuff like that. I remember being terrified by everything, but the eyes in the painting (I think it was a red devil) followed me into a recurring nightmare. From then on I was hooked, but I didn’t know it yet.
I love funhouses. I love the games, even though most of them are rigged. I love the smell of caramel corn and hot dogs and french fries. I don’t do a lot of rides – motion sickness – but I have been known to enjoy the Ferris wheel.
Erin: As I shove my mouth full of food, what is your favorite amusement park delight? 😀
Duncan: If you mean to eat, I love anything deep fried that shouldn’t be deep fried. If you mean exhibits or rides, I’m a sucker for a good haunted house. Even the corny kids’ ones.
Erin: Of course I meant food silly! It’s me. Haha!! I like fried cheese and French fries and elephant ears and…oh, were we talking…haha!
The launch of Ghostland, and how quickly you pulled that all off, must have exhausted you. How do you begin to recover and keep marketing and remotely think of writing something new?
Duncan: If you’d asked me that a month ago I would have told you it wasn’t possible. But here I am writing yet another new novel, ready to do it all over again.
Well, probably not all of it. I think I’ll skip the brand-new website/viral campaign this time around. It was a solid month of work, around my day job. Also, I don’t think it would make sense for this book. It’s a more personal story, along the lines of my first novel, Salvage. Folk horror, I guess would be the best way to describe it. I’m hoping to release that as early as February and will probably start writing The House Feeds immediately after.
Or maybe I’ll take a few weeks off of novels and write a couple of short stories. I might be due to release a third collection.
Erin: Yes, yes, and yes! Can’t wait!
You’ve written a gamut of types of books from extreme horror to thrillers and suspense to crime to a ghost story as well as multiple screenplays. Now, Ghostland is another notch that is just a tiny bit different from everything else. How do you please constant fans this way or do you not? Do you just write what comes or what you like or is there a plan?
Duncan: I never really have or had a plan up until recently, and even now it’s kind of a loose plan as to where I want to go with my writing. My ultimate goal is to keep getting better at what I do. Tell better stories. Learn from every book and every misturn in the road.
I’ve always written what feels right at the time. It may not always have been right for my “career.” If anybody would have told me that writing an extreme horror novel for British author Matt Shaw (Monster, Next Door) was going to be what propelled me to another level in the horror business, I would have told them they were crazy. I just wrote Woom to challenge myself. Somehow, it became one of my most successful books.
After that I wrote a small crime-thriller called Wildfire. Just two women with dark secrets fighting over the well-being of a young boy. Then I put out my second collection, Video Nasties. Then a horror-thriller for Kindle Press, The Method (which won the Kindle Scout contest). Then another crime-thriller, this one an adaptation of A Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer Scrooge is the alias of a hired hitman working for the Bleak House Syndicate. It’s my least successful book overall – I think I’ve sold maybe twenty copies – but I enjoyed it and I think it’s a good story.
Writing in any new genre is going to be a gamble if you’re an indie. I knew that. But these were stories that called to me at the time. I’ve found it’s not wise to ignore those urges. You’ll end up blocked.
Erin: Absolutely! And I love most all of those. I don’t know why your Ebenezer book doesn’t sell better – what a novel idea and I know so many people enjoy A Christmas Carol and all its many adaptations. Do you hear that fellow Dickens’ Christmas Carol and thriller readers? Go buy this now! Tis the season!
That makes me afraid to ask you what’s next for you, but if you have any cool tidbits on back titles or screenplays, or something cool you’re thinking about in the works, please share with us!
Duncan: I’m going to put screenplays on the back burner for a while. I don’t think I’ll write another unless I’m getting paid to.
Up next for me, in no particular order: The Midwives, the folk-horror story I mentioned, in early 2020. Hopefully The House Feeds (under the Rex Garrote pen name) and Ghostland 2 in 2020 as well. There will be a third collection of horror and thrillers, which will likely feature a return to the world of Video Nasties. A spiritual sequel to Woom, set in the Lonely Motel. And I’ve also been tinkering with a coming of age serial killer novella. We’ll see how that goes.
Erin: Where can everyone find all the scoop and fun on Ghostland from websites to purchase links?
Duncan: You can find everything at https://www.duncanralston.com/ghostland.
Erin: I know also on the homepage of your site at that link, readers can sign-up for your newsletter too. I enjoy it and I highly recommend! THANK YOU so much for coming over and letting me haunt you with questions. You know I loved Ghostland and always love to talk about it. Now we can relax and hang out. If there was a Ghostland video game, we could play it. 😊 I also just realized we had dessert first before dinner. Haha!
Duncan: Thanks for having me over, Erin! Always a pleasure chatting with you. And as for dessert before dinner, that’s a perk of being an adult, isn’t it?
YOU WANT YOUR COPY OF GHOSTLAND RIGHT?
Here’s the synopsis –
People are dying to get in. The exhibits will kill to get out.
Be first in line for the most haunted theme park in the world – GHOSTLAND! Discover and explore hundreds of haunted buildings and cursed objects! Witness spectral beings of all kinds with our patented Augmented Reality glasses! Experience all the terror and thrills the afterlife has to offer, safely protected by our Recurrence Field technology! Visit Ghostland today – it’s the hauntedest place on earth!
After a near-death experience caused by the park’s star haunted attraction, Ben has come to Ghostland seeking to reconnect with his former best friend Lilian, whose post-traumatic stress won’t let her live life to the fullest. She’s come at the behest of her therapist, Dr. Allison Wexler, who tags along out of professional curiosity, eager to study the new tech’s psychological effect on the user.
But when a computer virus sets the ghosts free and the park goes into lockdown, the trio find themselves trapped in an endless nightmare.
With time running short and the dead quickly outnumbering the living, the survivors must tap into their knowledge of horror and video games to escape… or become Ghostland’s newest exhibits.
Featuring an interactive “Know Your Ghosts” guide and much more, Ghostland is over 400 pages of thrills and terror!
Oh – and also, keep an eye on Ghostland’s Restoration Project website.
Duncan Ralston, Biography –
“Intelligent, character-driven horror tales.” – Bram Stoker Award-winning author Jack Ketchum’s review of Gristle & Bone.
Duncan Ralston was born in Toronto and spent his teens in small-town Ontario. As a “grownup,” Duncan lives with his wife in Toronto, where he writes dark fiction about the things that frighten, sicken, and delight him. His work has been reviewed in Scream: the Horror Magazine, Cultured Vultures and Daily Dead. In addition to his twisted short stories found in GRISTLE & BONE and VIDEO NASTIES, he is the author of the novels SALVAGE, THE METHOD and GHOSTLAND, and the novellas WILDFIRE, WOOM, and EBENEZER.
Duncan’s influences include (but are not limited to): Stephen King, Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Jack Ketchum, Roald Dahl, Irvine Welsh, Chuck Palahnuik, and Bret Easton Ellis.
He runs the small press Shadow Work Publishing, which has published the writing of Jack Ketchum, Wrath James White, Jeff Strand, William Malmborg, The Sisters of Slaughter, Glenn Rolfe, and many others.
Thanks for joining us! Please share!
I was given an early draft of Ghostland and an updated version from the author.