A Spooky Q&A with Jeff Szpirglas

Imagine walking home from school one day and seeing a brain on the side of the road, a brain that, it turns out, is looking for a new home. Or instead of paying attention to the teacher, you shoot a paper airplane across the room and accidentally rip a hole in the fabric of the universe. And what would you do if you discovered that your class reading group was actually recruiting kids with telekinetic powers? Tales from Beyond the Brain is a collection of thirteen spooky stories that are as outrageous as they are terrifying. It’s a throwback to the weird tales of yesteryear, in the vein of Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone, but with contemporary characters and settings. Getting an education has never been more dangerous.

Happy Halloween, Orca readers! To celebrate the scariest holiday of the year, we asked Jeff Szpirglas, the author of the spooky story collection Tales From Beyond the Brain, to tell us a bit about his experiences writing horror for young readers.

What inspired you to write scary stories?

Although I wasn’t exposed to a ton of horror movies or books as a kid, I was always drawn to spooky media, and have vivid memories of taking horror audio plays out of the library as a youngster, or being inspired by the creepy endings from TV series such as the classic Doctor Who and TV Ontario’s Read All About It. The visceral reaction I had to those kinds of tales stuck with me – and I think this is the case for a lot of horror fans, who tend to be very passionate about the genre and keep looking for that next big thrill. Case in point: I’ve also just released a book about horror movie soundtracks, fusing my obsession of film music and scary films (it’s not a book for young readers).

Do you ever get spooked writing your own stories?

I haven’t, but that’s because I’m in control of how the story unfolds. But I do find that when writing scary stories – such as the ones for this book – I go into an almost trance-like state, where I’m reading aloud as I write, and really trying to “feel” out the buildup of tension. The horror genre has a very poetic, and almost musical quality to it, in terms of tone and pacing, that I really gravitate towards.

Which short story in Tales From Beyond the Brain do you think will scare readers the most?

The tone of the stories in Tales varies quite a bit – some are weird and silly, others quite scary. I was blown away by how much Orca embraced this project, including having Steven P. Hughes provide some of the freakiest illustrations I’ve seen in a middle grade horror book for some time. I always thought that The Reading Group and Two Brains, One Alice build to endings that come close to crossing a line of some kind.

What’s the scariest story you’ve ever read?

There was an anthology of tales from Daniel Cohen called The Headless Roommate and Other Tales Of Terror that freaked me out as a kid, and not unlike Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, which it predates by a year.

Are you scared of the dark?

I used to be. Sometimes I still am after seeing a particularly scary movie. Recently, that’s been the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. I’ve been a huge fan of series creator Mike Flanagan since I caught an early screening of his first film, Absentia.

Have you ever been inside a house that was haunted?

If I was, the ghosts took no interest in me.

Vampires or werewolves? The fans demand to know!

Let’s go with werewolves, because I often resemble one when I forget to shave.

What kind of monsters or supernatural creatures do you think are scariest?

Although they’re not supernatural, I used to be terrified of sharks, thanks to seeing Jaws at an impressionable age. But that has a lot to do with fears of the dark (e.g., sunlight doesn’t penetrate deep underwater), of things hidden out of view below the water’s surface, and of being hunted by something with big teeth that you can’t reason with. These fears can coalesce into any kind of creature or monster. I get bored when monsters are used in the same way all the time, such as with zombies or the living dead. But when a monster is used in a new or creative way (e.g., a kid-eating clown in a sewer), it’s a recipe for terror. We’re most frightened by things we can’t anticipate or don’t expect (or can’t control). When a monster can meet those criteria, you’re in for a scary good time. Ultimately, what’s scary to you or I is totally subjective and personal.

(I’ve since made my peace with sharks, having gone snorkeling with whale sharks in Mexico, and written a shark-positive Orca Echoes story that’ll be coming out next fall.)

Do you have any advice for those who want to write their own scary stories?

Horror writing is an enjoyably cathartic activity because inevitably, you’re going to be working out your own fears and anxieties. I don’t think there’s any one formula you can follow, other than just to keep writing and experimenting. With the case of Tales from Beyond The Brain, some of these stories were written years ago when I was in university, but the bulk of them were written when my twin children were born, and I was still trying to keep some kind of writing routine, despite being busy as a teacher and a new dad and not sleeping a lot. Consequently, there’s a dreamy, weird, sleep-deprived feel to some of these tales that I associate with my kids as infants, and where I was so tired while writing that I followed my unconscious voice – such as on a tale like A Kernel Takes Root. I haven’t been able to replicate that quality since! When you’re writing scary stories, I suggest not holding back, or worrying about what an editor or publisher might initially think – write the story or scenario that scares you, because it will be authentic.

Jeff Szpirglas is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, including the bestselling Wild Cards and the Red Maple Award nominee You Just Can’t Help It! He has worked at CTV and was an editor at Chirp, Chickadee and Owl magazines. He is the father of twins and has two cats (the cats are not twins). In his spare time, he teaches second grade. Jeff lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

The spooky illustrations in this blog post are pulled from the pages of Tales From Beyond the Brain and were done by Steven P. Hughes, an award-winning Canadian illustrator whose clients include the Globe and Mail, Reader’s Digest and Scientific American. He graduated from Sheridan College with a BAA in Illustration. He lives in Bolton, Ontario, with his wife and their two dogs.

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