Interview with John Brhel: Author of Corpse Cold: New American Folklore (2017)

by Jason Flatt

In today’s day and age, anybody can turn their creative endeavors into published works. John Brhel, co-author of the upcoming Corpse Cold: New American Folklore talks about horror and sharing it with the world.

Were you captivated as a kid, or an adult, by the horrifying intrigue of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or Stephen Gammell’s harrowing accompanying illustrations? Did the bizarre scenarios of R.L. Stein’s imagination give you the titular Goosebumps? The daunting style of the 80s and 90s is back to leave you shaking in your skin with John Brhel and Joe Sullivan’s upcoming book of scary short-stories, Corpse Cold: New American Folklore.

I had the opportunity to interview John and discuss his upcoming book, as well as learn a bit about what it is like to start your own publishing company.

Getting to Know John

Describe in your own words your upcoming book – what it is and what it means to you.  

Corpse Cold: New American Folklore is a collection of 15 campfire-style short stories, based on urban legends and folklore and illustrated by artist Chad Wehrle. It’s basically geared toward adults who grew up on series like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Goosebumps, but who want a more mature reading experience. Those types of books had a huge influence on my co-writer, Joe, and I when we were kids.

Joe and I have had this idea for a couple years now. We’d written stories in a similar vein and some of our books had cover art that was evocative of those 80’s and 90’s books, but we wanted to go all-out and make a fully illustrated collection and really focus on that storytelling style from yesteryear. It’s great to see the project finally coming to fruition, especially with Chad doing the art. His stuff blows me away. 

Who do you see as your intended audience? 

The target audience is definitely people who grew up reading books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and other spooky story collections, and who still love that 80’s and 90’s style. This book appeals to fans of horror and urban legends in general, though. You don’t need to be an 80’s or 90’s kid to enjoy it.

What are some of your personal influences in your writing?

My biggest influences are authors who write stories with great plots and fun twists, with real characters in real conflict. Ghosts and demons are neat and all, but it’s got to be about the people.

My favorite writer of this type is definitely Richard Matheson. He is best known for writing books like I Am Legend as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone. Beyond that, I’m a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and many others. Alvin Schwartz and R.L. Stine of course.

Do you ever dabble in other mediums besides writing?

When I was young, I drew a comic book titled Smiley Guy, which starred an evil genius with a smiley face. For years, it was my sole mission in life to become a professional rock musician. I put out records, played tons of live shows, really went for it. When that went kaput, I shifted my creative energies to writing. I’ve done some video stuff too. Joe and I actually shot a few episodes of a sitcom. I just like making stuff. It’s fun.

Unsettlingly Reminiscent

The type of horror that Bhrel writes and pulls his influence from is somewhat subtle. It is reminiscent of a campfire story told by some friends. It is not necessarily to keep you from sleeping at night, but more to trigger intrigue and give you the creeps. Each story feels as the title suggests; new American folklore. The settings are familiar and the scenarios are personal. The terrifying illustrations sprinkled throughout Corpse Cold are in the style of those they gain their influence from, but every page feels just as modern as it does timeless.

When you read Corpse Cold: New American Folklore, it will not hit you right away. The horror is in the anticipation. You know from the chilling images, the settings, and the context that you are reading a scary story. But the payoff is never obvious. The stories keep you captivated while waiting and wondering what will happen at their conclusions. When it comes, there is no mystery or complex thinking involved. No reference to outside material. The frightening end is simply apparent and universal. The result is total unnerving and horrifying imagery stuck on repeat in your mind.

Telling the Kind of Stores You Love

What’s your favorite American folktale?

My favorite American folktale is, hands down, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, and it has been since I was about 12. It perfectly captures the spirit of Halloween to me. I love the pastoral New York setting, Irving’s beautiful prose, and the mystery of the story. I read it every fall.

What do you love most about storytelling?

I like taking weird ideas in my head and making them a reality. It’s almost like the characters and situations become “real” to you; they’re just events that happened in some fictional world now. For example, it’s neat to drive by Calvary Cemetery, the real-life inspiration for our fictional Valleyview Cemetery, and think about the stories we’ve set there. The cemetery was interesting before, but now it’s taken on this other dimension because I can imagine all of the horrifying things that have “taken place” there. 

Why horror?

I’ve been drawn to creepy stuff ever since I was a kid. For me, it’s not about the gore or the monsters – it’s about exploring “what if” scenarios and turning real-life inspirations into weird tales. For example, in Corpse Cold, we have a story titled “Amityville Beach” which was inspired by the time I saw my mom’s doppelganger at a local beach. No joke.

Horror is still considered a fairly niche genre. Where do you see the future of the genre?

I only see the genre getting more popular. Look at the popularity of Stranger Things. Look at how It just demolished the box office. Creepypasta is huge on the internet. I’m not sure what’s going to be “the thing” in horror five or ten years from now, but I’m certain writers and creatives will find new, inventive ways to explore our deepest, darkest fears.

What type of horror scares you the most?

Dread. Big monsters and gore are boring to me. I like horror that’s subtle, that leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next and doesn’t feel the need to hit you over the head with a mallet at every turn.

Making Your Own Success

In today’s age, anybody can turn their creative endeavors into published work. Whether that is as simple as making a social media post or going as far as establishing a formal personal publishing label, the barriers to publication are lower than ever. John and Joe took full advantage of this possibility when they established their own publishing company, Cemetary Gates in 2015 to publish their work.

Seeing the translation of passion into creative output is inspiring. It shows that creativity is not just a one-way street where the successful few create and everybody else consumes. Creative expression is not just saved for classrooms and clubs. Anybody with the drive and desire to do so can share their work as wide as they can imagine.

Starting a publishing company from scratch to put out original work can be daunting. Success is not guaranteed. But, the risk is low, and can only serve to provide more opportunity than never trying at all. More artists, writers, and musicians should find the willingness to put themselves out there and share their passion. Anybody can do it, with as much or as little commitment as desired.

Making Success Your Own

What is it like writing with a co-author? How did you meet and how does that work creatively?

I’ve known Joe since elementary school. We became good friends in high school and have been hanging out and working on creative projects together for years now.  

Writing with a co-author is a unique situation, for sure. We benefit from being able to bounce ideas off each other fairly quickly – we write everything in shared Google Doc files — which helps us complete stories in less time and, as a result, publish more books. It helps that we’ve known each other for so long and aren’t afraid to voice our opinions. We also have similar sensibilities when it comes to tone and story structure, so that helps a lot.

You started your own publishing company to publish your works a few years ago. Why this route and what benefits has that given you so far?

We started Cemetery Gates Media because we wanted to publish our own books. We handle everything – from hiring cover designers to formatting manuscripts to managing ad campaigns. I like having that kind of control over the brand. We don’t have to sit around for two years waiting for a publisher to release our book. We do it all.

What’s next? What are some of your long-term goals and what steps are you taking to achieve them?

Joe and I have several books in the works. We are almost done writing a collection of weird love stories tentatively titled Her Mourning Portrait and Other Paranormal Oddities. We plan to push that out around Valentine’s Day. [Joe and I] have another book planned for next summer and a few other ideas we’re starting to sink our teeth into. The steps are the same steps we’ve been taking for two years now – write regularly, put out a book we’re proud of, and move on to the next project. Overall, we would like to just keep building our audience and delivering great stories to them.

A Horror Tradition Endures

Fans of 80s and 90s horror short stories and newcomers to the genre alike will take twisted pleasure out of Corpse Cold: New American Folklore. The book is good, scary fun. It makes for a great first foray into horror or a fond return to the genre. Visit the Kickstarter page starting September 30th for more information about the upcoming release and all of the funding incentives available. Follow John on Twitter @johnbrhel.

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