By day, Barbara Custer works as a respiratory therapist. By night, she weaves tales of horror and science fiction, bringing her medical background to the printed page and blending it with the supernatural. Her impressive list of published works include Close Liaisons, Life Raft: Earth, and Steel Rose and she joins me today to talk about her upcoming release, When Blood Reigns.
Todd Allen: Tell me about your anticipated release.
Barbara Custer: When Blood Reigns is the sequel to Steel Rose, but it works as a standalone book. Alexis has teamed up with her lover, Yeron, and four other survivors to search for an underground laboratory, where they believe renegade scientists are making the chemical responsible for humans becoming flesh-eating zombies. Alexis is the only female among five men, and struggles with the hardships of military life. Despite one of the survivors turning on her, she fights and kills the ravenous flesh-eaters that go after her team. But health problems plague her, distracting her from the renegades who watch her every move. When Kryszka alien officials capture her, she becomes deathly ill. Can DNA splicing save her? Will Yeron’s attempts at rescue jeopardize all their lives? Read the book and find out!
TA: What drives you to write in the horror genre?
BC: What I’ve actually been doing is cross-genre writing, a cross between SF and horror, with emphasis on the horror. Most horror tales encompass the good-versus-evil theme, and basically, that’s the theme of my tales. Human monsters exist, and I have to wonder what drives their behavior, so I’ll try to explore this as I write. I also suspect life exists in other worlds. I find it hard to believe that the universe was created just for us humans. This gets me to speculating, are these beings friendly or not? What are their customs and beliefs? As for zombies, in theory I believe their existence can be made possible through biological weapons and chemicals.
TA: The pessimists among us might say we are not far off from being zombies right now. We mindlessly consume everything in our path. We destroy the environment, the oceans, other species. All that’s really missing is the cannibalism.
BC: A lot of folks are like that—for example, the dentist to who shot Cecil the lion and left his body to rot. I would classify them as greedy, spoiled but not necessarily zombies. But…more virulent strains of bacteria and viruses are evolving, and not all of them respond to antibiotics or preventive shots. That and the chemical and biological warfare. I believe that one day, someone will develop either chemical or biological warfare that will alter humans, turning them into flesh-eating zombies. How? When the brain deteriorates, as it would with this agent, it no longer recognizes the difference between right and wrong. It only knows hunger.
TA: What scares you? How does it affect your writing?
BC: The one thing that has always scared me and likely always will is the sight of a human skeleton, especially if it’s covered with blood and other debris. It started at age ten, after I visited a mummy on display. At the time, I expected to see a live model or at least a statue. Instead, a skeletal woman clothed in a dress was sitting inside a bathtub and waving her hand. Later on, I learned that the tub was a sarcophagus and that most likely, wiring was used to move the limbs, but at the time, I knew nothing about this. Every so often, I use skulls on my book covers—notice that When Blood Reigns portrays a skull and some of my most horrific scenes will involve human bones. The walkers in When Blood Reigns are wasted, skeletal zombies.
TA: I experienced a profound fright as a child as well. And the more I talk to horror writers, the more I hear about similar childhood traumas. Do you think a seed was planted when that mummy scared you half to death? Did that event steer you toward the genre?
BC: Although I doubt that the mummy by itself steered me toward the horror genre, it certainly started the skull rolling. As I hit my teens, I became a fan of Dark Shadows and the Hammer films. But any time there was a scene involving a skeleton, I’d shield my eyes. Those films steered me toward horror, until finally I read a Stephen King novel, ate it up, and continued buying. So I started reading books by other authors and watching other horror films, like The Mummy.
TA: What got you started with writing?
BC: I made my first attempts with writing back in 1991 after my mother passed away. I took her death really hard, and my college instructor suggested that try journalizing and writing short stories. I decided to try horror. Why horror? Because at the time, I was making an avocation of reading Stephen King books, and I began asking myself and speculating: could I write something like that? So I began with short stories and migrated onto books.
TA: I started writing for similar reasons and I found that the pen helped me to work through some tough times. But the process of writing also forces those personal troubles to the forefront. You have to face them for the untold hours it takes to complete a story. What was that process like for you?
BC: In most of my books and short stories, I managed to scare myself and if I did the scene well, I had nightmares about dead people chasing me. I don’t get them the way I used to now, and even when I do, I assure myself that the dead can’t come back to life. Still, that didn’t stop me from draping a sheet over the skeleton in my anatomy class or at my orthopedist’s office. Once, at the doctor’s office, when I yanked off my sheet, the skull snapped off the neck, landed on the floor, and rolled down the hall like a bowling ball. Thankfully, my doctor had a great sense of humor.
TA: What do you find most challenging about writing?
BC: So often a scene will play through my mind, but when I go to translate it to paper, I lose the thought, or it will take several rewrites to get it right. I’ve struggled with visual problems over the years, and have had difficulty reading facial expressions, so I find that I need to research body language to have the feelings come through in a scene. You do what you have to.
TA: Sparse descriptive writing can leave a reader guessing. Highly descriptive writing can bog the reader down in details. Finding the middle ground can be tricky. How do you know when you get it right?
BC: That can be challenging—when something is sparse, it pretty much stands out. I have to ask, would this setting be clear to a reader unfamiliar with my work. According to one of my editors, more than two adjectives can clutter a sentence. To help find a middle ground, I work with a writer’s support group—one of the other members writes horror. I’ve used Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass to help. Finally, before I send any book manuscript to a publisher, or decide to self-publish, I send it to a developmental editor. No matter how good he or she is, no writer can see their own mistakes.
I have been in discussion with Barbara Custer. Look for her latest work, When Blood Reigns later this year. For more information on this and Barbara’s other releases, visit BloodRedShadow.com.