Worse Than Death

In this first novel by Barbara J. Ferrenz, the writer's dilemma is laid bare for all to see. How does one spend many hours and lonely nights writing erotic horror (sex and murder!) and still maintain a marriage and all the family relationships expected of a suburban wife and mother? How does one travel to convention after convention, willfully (or seemingly) neglecting those relationships to hang with a group of strange but like-minded people? How does one click from one persona (mild-mannered wife and mother) to another (sexy make-up and leather-clad vamp) without losing something along the way? Substitute your own situation here, if you are a writer!

Mary Kate Flaherty is, on the surface, a typical mom. Two kids and a loving husband, a house in the suburbs of Baltimore, a job she loves. But digging deeper finds a husband and sons all too easily annoyed at her long absences either when writing or when attending conventions to sell the books which bring in a needed second income. Frustrated with her family's increasing annoyance and her neighbors' irrational disdain, Mary Kate has no choice but to become Theodora Zed, vampire novelist, to further her career. Indeed, Theodora is her escape hatch from the frustrations, allowing her to bond with a batch of fellow horror writers including Conner Drake—who clearly would love to be more than a friend.

But when a vocal critic of her novels turns up dead at a convention and her shoe is found next to the body, Mary Kate/Theodora is propelled into a real-life nightmare. Is she being framed or stalked? And who among her friends stands to gain something by her death or arrest? And what of the religious movement against writers of horror "smut"? The bodies start piling up as the "vampire" killer follows her to other conventions, drawing tighter the noose of suspicion around her neck. At home, the situation degenerates rapidly as her family openly rebels against Mary Kate's choices. Her only defender is Conner—or is he a suspect, too? When the murderer follows her home, all bets are off as Mary Kate has to call on her Theodora persona to solve the crimes, protect her family, and reassert her values.

This is a novel that will make writers, especially horror writers, nod with agreement and frustration over and over. Ferrenz draws a dead-on snapshot of convention social politics, both at the bar and on panels, touching on the friendships and the inevitable jealousy that surround careers on the way up and on the way down. Writers do suffer the slings and arrows of critics and friends/enemies, and sometimes their families, to continue doing what they must do—which is create even if misunderstood. Mary Kate is a bit too naive, missing clues and plot twists obvious to the reader, and too meek, allowing herself to be shamed by her critics. Still, she rings true for all that because any of us who write material that's not everyone's "cup of tea" have been stung by someone's critical stare or cutting comment. (Though since her identity is hidden behind a pseudonym, you wouldn't expect her neighbors to know what she does—a slight weakness which would have been cured by having her write under her own name.)

Ultimately this fast-moving mystery satisfies a little more due to the honest look into the horror writer's world, the convention subculture, and the family-career crisis we can all relate to on some level. As in Michael Slade's more vicious Bed of Nails, Ferrenz is able to draw on personal con experience to flavor a book that's also delicious in other ways. I'd buy both Theodora and Mary Kate a drink, and I suspect most other writers would, too. She might well make an interesting amateur sleuth to follow on future cases, but she'll have to develop a thicker skin. As a horror writer, though, that's guaranteed. A very strong debut and especially resonant with those of us who straddle two worlds willingly, but sometimes wish we didn't.

About the Author

W.D. Gagliani

W.D. Gagliani was born in Kenosha, WI, but grew up in Genova, Italy. He now lives and writes in Milwaukee, WI. He earned his Master's degree in English at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where he also taught Composition and Creative Writing. Bill's first novel, Wolf's Trap, was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award in 2004—and was published by Leisure Books in 2006. He is also the author of the novels Wolf's Gambit (2009), Wolf's Bluff (2010), and Wolf's Edge (October 2011 from Samhain Publishing, who will also reissue Wolf's Trap in a new edition in 2012). He is also responsible for the thriller Savage Nights, and the novellas Wolf's Deal (2011), and The Great Belzoni and the Gait of Anubis, as well as the collection Shadowplays (all of which are available in all the popular ebook formats). With collaborator David Benton, he has published Mysteries & Mayhem, as well as various short stories and the middle grade novel I Was a Seventh Grade Monster Hunter (as A.G. Kent). Recently he has had nonfiction in On Writing Horror (WD Books), Thrillers: The 100 Must Reads (Oceanview), and the October 2011 issue of The Writer magazine.

His short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Dark Passions: Hot Blood 13, Malpractice – An Anthology of Bedside Terror, the German anthology Masters of Unreality, and the ezine Dead Lines (all with David Benton), plus Undead Tales, Wicked Karnival Halloween Horror, Robert Bloch's Psychos, More Monsters From Memphis, Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas, Extremes 4: Darkest Africa, The Asylum: The Violent Ward, Small Bites, The Black Spiral: Twisted Tales of Terror, and The Midnighters Club, among others. Fiction has also appeared in mostly now-defunct ezines such as Horrorfind, 1000 Delights, The Grimoire, and Dark Muse.

Besides ChiZine, his nonfiction articles, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Cemetery Dance, Hellnotes, HorrorWorld, Paperback Parade, Flesh & Blood, SFReader.com, Bookpage, BookPage.com, BookLovers, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Science Fiction Chronicle, Bare Bones, The Scream Factory, Horror Magazine, Midnight Journeys, and various others.

Along with the Bram Stoker Award nomination for Wolf's Trap, he has had six Honorable Mentions in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and won the 1999 Darrell Award of the Memphis Science Fiction Association. He is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA), the International Thriller Writers (ITW), and the Authors Guild. For more info: www.wdgagliani.com. Find him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/wdgagliani and on Twitter @WDGagliani.