What Inspired The Stories In Served Cold
- Paperback: 312 pages
- Publisher: Grey Matter Press (17 Sept. 2019)
Huge thanks to Kendall Reviews for having me as a guest again. When Gavin asked me to write something to coincide with the release of my second collection, I asked him what sort of thing he’d like. He suggested “Maybe a mini break down of each story?”
I deliberately haven’t included those post-story notes in my collections – I thought about it with Crow Shine and decided against it, then considered it again with Served Cold and came to the same conclusion. I’d prefer the book to stand on its own and whatever people take from the stories is theirs, and it’s correct. I don’t want someone to get something from a story only for me to spoil it right afterwards by stomping in with my opinions.
That’s the thing about stories – the moment they’re out there, they belong to the reader. The author has no say in how those stories are read. Art released into the wild is free. But a little bit of a breakdown somewhere outside the book, that people can choose to read or not? Sure, that could work.
So here we are. If you’re the sort of person who prefers to read without any preconceptions, I’d skip this post. If you’ve read the book and still want to retain your own feels about the stories, again, skip this post. But if you’re interested in some of the inspirations and ideas behind the stories in Served Cold, read on. I’ll make sure to avoid any spoilers.
This story was written for editor Jack Dann and the Dreaming in the Dark anthology he edited for PS Publishing. It was then a Finalist for the 2016 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novella and a Finalist for the 2016 Australian Shadows Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction. I had the idea of a lonely kid in an outback town whose best mate had moved away, trying to carve out a new place for himself where he didn’t really fit. He’s up against it with an abusive stepfather and has turned to self-harm for some sense of control, but his actions have unexpected consequences. That’s only the backdrop for what is ultimately a revenge story, hence the title of this yarn, and the book.
There are a couple of different revenge plots at work here, interweaving with each other. And it has ghosts, criminal motorcycle gangs, and more. The thing the young boy discovers in a house on the edge of town comes from a true story. Without giving anything away, a discovery exactly like that actually happened (albeit with entirely different circumstances) in a house in the US. That was the original trigger for this whole story, because it was something so weird and macabre that I simply couldn’t let the idea go.
This was written for Midnight Echo Magazine when they put out a call for a themed issue of ghost stories, edited by Craig Bezant. I wanted to write a ghost story that wasn’t a regular ghost, but a new twist on the idea of haunting. At the time, I was pretty obsessed with film photography and the permanent nature of it, especially compared to digital. This story then grew into another revenge/comeuppance yarn. We might as well establish here that a lot of my work deals with revenge and the concepts of justice and injustice, and consequences. It’s a common theme in horror in general, and one I come back to often.
“Exquisite” (previously unpublished)
This one is a kind of twist on a body horror yarn. I’m normally all about the supernatural and the uncanny and the downright weird, but every once in a while I like to delve into the old school horror style. There’s no revenge here, it’s all about the horror of discovery. It was originally conceived after I read an article about a man in Germany who signed an agreement to let another man kill and eat him. Which is truly bizarre. There’s no killing and eating in this story, but that was the seed that got me thinking about what does happen in this yarn.
“Crossroads and Carousels”
Music is central to my being. I play guitar (fairly poorly) and used to play in a band. Of all the things that move along in life, probably the thing I regret the most is no longer playing in a band. I simply don’t have time to commit to the rehearsals and gig circuit, but I miss it so much. Naturally, every once in a while music in one form or another finds its way into my stories.
This one (originally published at The Red Penny Papers) is a riff on the classic “devil at the crossroads” idea, but it’s also a straight up homage to one of my favourite songs. The story follows pretty much the exact events laid out in the song, only I’ve tweaked it with other, intertwining events. I’m deliberately not naming the band and song, but if you can spot it and you want to email me to let me know, I’ll send you an ebook of your choice from my back catalogue.
“Simulacrum of Hope”
This is another outback story, but one with a different kind of twist, originally published in Strange Aeons Magazine. Another common theme in my work, it seems, is kids fighting against abusive or distant parents, or standing up for themselves in one way or another. My parents certainly didn’t fall into that category – sure, they made a couple of egregious errors in my upbringing, but nothing truly devastating, and they were otherwise singularly good parents.
But my innate sense of justice really fires up when I see injustice to kids or animals. Grown-ups can fight for themselves, but the vulnerable having a hard time really gets to me. And I think that since I’ve become a parent, I’m terrified I won’t be able to protect my son in some way in the future. If you asked me my biggest fear right now, that would be it. So stories like this one come to me and slowly coalesce.
And this particular story also combines with another common theme of my work: loss. I’ve had a lot of people die and leave over the years, and it’s something I often explore in fiction. Plus this one has added monstrous weirdness, because of course it does. I love a bit of supernatural weird.
“How Father Bryant Saw the Light”
Editor Marty Young was putting together a largely unthemed horror anthology called Blurring the Line, so I took the opportunity to write this story and send it in. It had been in my head for a while and I just needed an excuse to write it. It’s a combination of two things I love in horror that never seem to get old: possession and religious leaders questioning their faith.
There’s nothing quite like a possession to force someone to examine their faith, but what if the possession was real and the person was still driven to question? And what if the possession turned out to not really be a possession at all, but something different? Something worse… I got to play with a cool monster idea in this one, which is good, because the freaky fucker had been lurking in my brain for a while and it was good to finally exorcise it onto the page.
“The Goodbye Message”
Ticonderoga Publications (who published my first collection, Crow Shine, and have anthologised a lot of my stories over the years) used to have an online zine called Ticon4. This story was written for that. There’s a thing about writing where if you don’t do anything else, you end up writing about writers. I didn’t want to fall into that cliché, but this is the one instance where I let myself write about a writer. I figured I’d have to do it once, to get it out of my system.
The protagonist here is someone who had a massive hit with his first novel and is really struggling to write another. It’s clearly not autobiographical as I haven’t had a massive hit with any novel yet, and I’ve had seven published. But again, that’s just the backdrop to what’s really going on, which is the struggling writer receiving strange and seemingly supernatural messages in various places around his house. His wife puts it down to stress, tells him to be cool, there’s no rush and so on, but the messages persist, getting more frequent and varied, until eventually he realises what they’re all about…
The original seed for this story was our own answering machine at home. The protagonist of this story gets a repeated phone message that’s just someone saying “Goodbye”. At least, that’s how it starts for him. And exactly that happened to us. The red light would be flashing, we’d press the button to play the message and hear a woman say, “Goodbye” and that was it. Creepy. It happened a lot for a while, then stopped. I’m pretty sure I know why, and it’s actually quite mundane, but it’s better to leave it as a question, no?
“The Ocean Hushed the Stones” (previously unpublished)
This is another story original to this book, and another that deals with injustice, loss, poor parenting and other themes I return to regularly. It’s also a story about second chances and whether we recognise them when they come around, or have the courage to take them. Nothing worthwhile happens without sacrifice, after all, so how far are we willing to go, what risks are we prepared to take, to right historical wrongs?
The setting for this one is a place from my childhood growing up in England that, even as a kid, I saw as both incredibly cool and incredibly creepy. It was good explore both versions in their extreme with the weird stuff that happens in this story.
Editor Simon Dewar included my short story, Shadows of the Lonely Dead, in the first Suspended in Dusk anthology. That story went on to win an award, got reprinted in a few Year’s Best anthologies, and ultimately spawned a “sequel” in my novel, Devouring Dark. So when Simon asked me for another story for Suspended in Dusk 2 from Grey Matter Press, I was happy to write something.
The request was timely, as at the time I’d been fascinated by the Dark Web, and haunted video games that supposedly caused all kinds of real world consequences. There’s a deeeep rabbit hole online if you want to start looking into that stuff, but the one that really caught my attention was a dark web game called Sad Satan (you can see where the inspiration for the title of this story came from.) That was the direct inspiration for the events in this yarn, coupled with a bunch of kids getting bullied in school. I was a nerd at school, and regularly bullied. It’s why I took up the martial arts (come at me now, fuckers!) So the group of friends in this story are a lot like me and my friends back then. But thankfully nothing else in this yarn happened to me!
“In Vaulted Halls Entombed”
Cohesion Press have had a great run with their line of SNAFU anthologies. Geoff Brown asked me to write a Foreword for the original volume, and I enjoyed it so much that I submitted to the next one, Survival of the Fittest. The story I wrote was this one, and it won the Australian Shadows Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction in 2015! It’s also been translated into German for a Best Of SNAFU book published over there.
This is one of my regular forays into cosmic horror. I’d had the idea for the central theme for a long time, but no vehicle to realise it. It’s a pretty massive concept that scared me when I conceived of it, but it’s a hard idea to realise effectively. Then I started considering the SNAFU brief of “high-action military horror” and realised that was a perfect vehicle for this idea.
So a group of soldiers in Afghanistan on the trail of a group of insurgents run into a Very Bad Time Indeed. This is still one of my all-time favourite stories I’ve written and I’m so glad it’s been so well-received. I’ve since gone on to write several other SNAFU stories (“Under Calliope’s Skin” for SNAFU: Future Warfare, “Raven’s First Flight” for SNAFU: Black Ops, and I have a new story, “The Throat”, coming out in the next volume, SNAFU: Last Stand.)
“Her Grief in My Halls”
I decided to make Australian Gothic a thing. I was on holiday in Far North Queensland (in Port Douglas), and it was Halloween. I’d just been reading about fellow author, Willie Miekle, and how he always sits down on Halloween and hand writes a ghost story. I thought that was a fun idea. So after my son was asleep, I sat in our holiday apartment and wrote this ghost story set in an old mansion on the Far North Queensland coast.
It’s a melancholy, haunting piece, where I tried to take the best of the Gothic horror story ideals and fit them into an unapologetically Australian setting. Ironically, it was then published in a New Zealand anthology called Te Kōrero Ahi Kā edited by Grace Bridges, Lee Murray, and Aaron Compton. It was published by SpecFic NZ, which has members across Australia and New Zealand, so it was cool to be part of a small Australian influence on that book.
“They All Come Through London in the End”
I make no secret that I’m a huge fan of Clive Barker. When editor Steve Dillon asked me if I’d consider writing a new story for his anthology, Between the Tracks, featuring horror stories around trains and railways, I decided it was time for my Barker homage. The volume was to include a reprint of Barker’s “Midnight Meat Train” anyway, so it seemed the perfect time.
This story is one of weird and frightening creatures living in the Tube tunnels under London, and their discovery by a bored office worker one day. The more he looks into what they might be, the more he wishes he hadn’t, especially when he uncovers the real reason they’re down there.
“Waters Strangely Clear”
Editor Douglas Draa asked me to write a story for a new Lovecraftian anthology called What October Brings, which would be combining Lovecraft’s mythos with Halloween. Of course, I’ve been a fan of Lovecraft’s fiction for a long time and I regularly write cosmic horror, but I’d always deliberately steered clear of actual Lovecraft Mythos. So this was an opportunity to reverse that and this became my first Lovecraftian story.
I have two favourite Lovecraft yarns – The Color Out of Space and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I took this opportunity to write an Innsmouth story, as that setting and the ideas around the people there, and Dagon, have always both fascinated me and creeped me the fuck out. Hopefully this story achieves something of a similar result.
This story is an older one, originally written for the Winds of Change anthology edited by Elizabeth Fitzgerald. Another Australian yarn, this explores the idea of land and ownership. As an immigrant to Australia I see things from the point of view of an outsider, so I’m fascinated by the (frankly awful) colonial history of this country and the terrible treatment of the indigenous population. This story doesn’t focus too tightly on that treatment itself, but it does explore the idea of land and the spread of population on land that was already populated long before we arrived here. It’s also an exploration of lucid dreaming, which is something I was quite interested by at the time and wanted to work into a story.
“Ways to Live and Die”
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to New Zealand as one of the Guests of Honour for GeyserCon, their national SFF convention. As part of the GoH role, they asked if they could have an original story for the con program, and could it maybe possibly be a story set in NZ? Particularly in Rotorua, where the con was being held.
At the time I’d been working on this story idea of an old, dilapidated house in an otherwise affluent suburb where local legend had it a person could speak to the dead. A man who recently lost his wife to an inexplicable car accident is plagued with the need for closure and wonders if those rumours are true. He’s prepared to find out.
At the time GeyserCon asked me for a story, this yarn was only in a first draft and it was no problem to change the setting to Rotorua. And the poor guy, as you can imagine, gets more than he bargained for. But maybe it also turns out not so bad for him… Given this was only published in the con programme, therefore only read by the people who attended the con, it’s almost an original story, as it had such a limited release back then.
“Yellowheart” (previously unpublished novelette)
This is a long story, and previously unpublished. When asked to explain it by someone a little while ago I said that it’s a bit like Tasmanian Deliverance meets Stranger Things, and I stand by that. It’s a dark, fantastical exploration of being the outsider, of being unsafe in someone else’s playground, when that someone else isn’t only crazy, but maybe not even entirely human. It’s also a look at the nature of love and commitment and how far we sometimes stray from our own happiness in search of something else, or in order to accommodate others, when perhaps we should first and foremost accommodate ourselves and our own wellbeing.
The setting was inspired by a trip my wife and I took a couple of years ago to the wild north-west of Tasmania. The hike the characters go on in the story is pretty much exactly the hike we took, right down to the little metal markers on the trees. Thankfully we had a thoroughly pleasant experience, but my mind is a twisted place and I couldn’t help imagining some poor bastards being hunted through the bush by twisted rednecks. And maybe also hunted by something else, entirely unnatural.
So there you have it. I hope these little explanations give something of a flavour of the stories in Served Cold, without giving too much away. I’ve tried to be as circumspect as possible. Hopefully they’ll encourage you to read the book if you haven’t already. If you have, hopefully they’ll add something to the experience for you. But remember, if you’ve read the book and something I’ve said here doesn’t vibe with your take on the story, you need to ignore me. Your take is the right one, because all these stories belong to you now. Thanks for reading.
KR: You can read the Kendall Review for Served Cold here
Collected together for the first time ever, these sixteen provocative and intensely chilling tales by multi-award-winning-author Alan Baxter venture into the depths of the darkest and most shadowy places where unspeakable horrors are the predators and we the willing prey.
Prepare for an always terrifying, frequently heartbreaking journey in multiple stages, each piece echoing Baxter’s unique voice that effortlessly blends horror, fantasy and the weird, cementing his place as a modern master of the dark fantastique, and resulting in an unforgettable volume of fiction.
Alan Baxter is a multi-award-winning author of horror, supernatural thrillers, and dark fantasy. He’s also a martial arts expert, a whisky-soaked swear monkey, and dog lover. He creates dark, weird stories among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia where he lives with his wife, son and hound. Find him online at www.warriorscribe.com or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook.