Seventeen Skulls by Joe Powers Genre: Horror, Thriller
Someone is stalking and killing the residents of a homeless shelter in Beaverbrook. And he’s doing it from a cell at the Garden Island Super-Maximum Security Penitentiary, over a thousand miles away.
Notorious serial killer Eldon Grant has discovered the ability to travel through the Shadow Realm – a dark and sinister conduit that lies in the murky fissures between the physical and astral planes. This allows him to return to his old stomping grounds and resume his rampage without leaving the cozy confines of his cell. It’s the perfect crime.
But his actions haven’t gone unnoticed.
As the bodies pile up, shelter worker Jennifer Brennan vows to get to the bottom of the murderous spree. Along with a disjointed group of companions, she sets out to learn who’s responsible and figure out a way to stop him before they draw his attention and become his next victims.
Note: This is from a scene in which Grant has seen an opportunity to take revenge on old nemesis Bernie Rose and kill him, and in the process reveals his special powers to Bernie.
Bernie rounded the corner and leaned against the wall outside his door, fishing for his room key. He withdrew it and pushed his way into the room with a grunt. The door banged open and swung half closed, the key still in the lock. Bernie stumbled past the bed to the bathroom, leaving that door open as well. He leaned on the wall with one arm, groaning with relief as he pissed on the floor next to the toilet.
His head swam as the room slowly spun around him, threatening to knock him off his feet and send him sprawling to the tiled floor. He splashed water from the sink onto his face and sagged against the wall. “What the hell was I thinking?” he muttered to the empty room. He dug the pill bottle from his pocket, realized he was feeling no pain, and tossed a small handful back anyway. The boat ride in the morning ought to be a real joy after this.Might as well try to sleep off as much of it as I can.
Stepping back into the main room he stopped suddenly, staring at the shadowy form in the open doorway. “Sorry pal, this room’s occupied,” he slurred.
The dark figure didn’t move, not flinching or even seemingly breathing, remaining stone still. Bernie shifted uncomfortably. His hand slid into his jacket pocket and he pressed the button on the small recording device he carried with him. He often did this out of habit when confronted or placed in a situation where he felt a record of the events might prove useful. He took a step toward the bed and slumped down on the edge.
“Come on buddy, keep moving. No party here tonight.”
The figure stepped into the room. Bernie noticed, in a vague, detached way, that the man hadn’t stepped out of the shadows—they had followed him into the room.
He blinked hard and gave his head a shake. “Well okay, if you insist. Could you flip on the lights on your way by?”
The figure drifted closer—Bernie thought it strange he didn’t see the dark stranger’s legs moving when he walked—and stopped directly in front of the bed. Bernie squinted, trying to make out the facial features of the intruder, but could see nothing in the darkness. He struggled to grasp what was going on through the haze of alcohol.
Then the stranger spoke. “My old nemesis. How are you, Rosie?”
Bernie felt a jolt of adrenaline. That voice was unmistakable. “How is this even possible? What’d you do, escape?”
“No, sadly, I’m still inside. Well, mostly. I do venture out once in a while though, for special occasions.”
“You stay away from me, Grant,” Bernie said, suddenly more alert. He tried to stand but his feet got tangled, and he dropped to the floor with a painful cry.
“You should have stayed home, Rose. Or better yet, you should have bled to death on the courthouse steps.”
“Fuck you.” It sounded less forceful than he’d intended, but the pain that shot through his leg made his voice shake. He reached for his pills and fumbled with the lid.
“I should have done this years ago.”
Grant drifted toward Bernie, arms outstretched. Bernie cowered at the foot of the bed and struggled to push himself back and away with his good leg. In desperation he lurched to his feet and took a stumbling step toward Grant. He tried to dodge around his assailant and past him to the door, but in his state was too uncoordinated and nearly stumbled directly into Grant. He tried to twist to one side as he fell, and landed awkwardly with a painful cry. Grant stood over him and reached for his chest, hesitated, and grabbed him by the throat instead. Bernie tried to scream but it came out as a strangled choking sound. He flailed at his attacker but his hands passed through easily. He felt a tightening around his neck like a vise, with a searing heat burning into his flesh. As he slipped toward unconsciousness he heard a muffled exchange from somewhere nearby.
“What the hell…? Hey man, you okay?”
“What’s going on? Is he all right?”
“I don’t know, go get some help.”
Neither voice was familiar. He thought one was male and the other female, but he wasn’t sure. He only knew that neither of them were Grant. And as blackness closed over him, he found he didn’t care either way.
Joe Powers is a Canadian horror writer and long-time fan of all things scary. From his introduction to the genre on a stormy Saturday night at the age of six - his first viewing of Bride of Frankenstein - he's been hooked. Among his many inspirations he lists Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Michael Crichton, Rod Serling and Richard Matheson. He enjoys introducing the reader to flawed, believable characters and leading them on dark journeys with an unexpected twist. His work has appeared in various anthologies and collections. Seventeen Skulls is his second novel, following 2019’s western/horror crossover Terror in High Water. In his spare time he's an avid hockey fan and creative writing instructor. He lives in New Brunswick with his wife, Sheryl, and an assortment of furry creatures. Follow Joe at www.joepowersauthor.com.
What is something unique/quirky about you? They say friends come and go, people drift in and out of your life over the course of time, and I guess as I think about it that’s largely true. However – and I’m told this is pretty rare, especially the older I get – I’m still very close with a couple of friends from childhood, and we still get together a couple times a month. The more time goes by, the more I realize how rare and special a thing this is. I don’t know about unique, but it’s uncommon for sure.
Where were you born/grew up at? I was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, which for those unfamiliar is part of Atlantic Canada, in a creepy, old, labyrinthine hospital that no longer exists. I spent my formative years in the small nearby community of Maugerville, which nearly everyone mispronounces (that’s how we identify outsiders!), and aside from a few brief sojourns, remain here today.
What do you do to unwind and relax? I have to say, I’m pretty low-maintenance. I enjoy talking about writing with my wife, Sheryl, who is also an author. We like finding interesting movies and series on the various streaming platforms. There’s a little cabin in the woods a couple hours’ drive from here, and in the summer I like to get up there as often as I can swing it. I’m an avid hockey fan and spend the winter months cheering for my New York Islanders. I have a fairly small inner circle, but I do enjoy spending time with friends.
Do you have a favorite movie? There are a few that come close, but so far nothing has managed to unseat JAWS as my all-time favorite movie. I was quite young when it first came out and I don’t remember how old I was when I saw it or the first time – probably around eleven or twelve, maybe – but the buildup throughout the film, from the opening underwater scene from the shark’s point of view, to the first time we see the fin in the water, the slow burn all the way up to the first time we see the shark pop out of the water… just incredible storytelling. The cast is superb. And it’s held up remarkably well for a movie that’s approaching fifty years old.
Which of your novels can you imagine made into a movie? I mentioned this in another piece I wrote, about casting the lead for Seventeen Skulls (spoiler: I went with Anthony Hopkins), but I feel my first novel, Terror in High Water, would make a really good film. In fact, I saw it play out like a movie in my mind as I wrote it. It’s the tale of a demonic creature in human form who rides into a tiny Texas town with his gang of otherworldly thugs and terrorizes everyone. Just lays claim to the entire town, sets up shop in the hotel and rules over the whole place with an iron fist. The only thing that can save them is a legendary gunfighter/monster hunter, who may or may not even exist any more. I imagine it like a Tarantino-style thing with wild gunfights and demons and monsters and such, all set in the old west. There’s enough going on, with plenty of characters and subplots and such that it would lend itself nicely to an episodic miniseries, too. So, if anyone has any pull with the bigwigs at, say, Netflix, I’d be happy to have a conversation!
What inspired you to write this book? Seventeen Skulls was first conceived in a cramped corner of an artists’ studio I shared with an assortment of artists. This was during a brief period when having such a space seemed like a good idea, and I guess it was in the sense that this book got its beginnings there. I had a little work space off to one side, but I would often pace around the room and out onto this little balcony we had that overlooked a small courtyard below. I’d go out there at night, when everything was quiet and dark, and try to work through whatever story ideas I had going on at the time. There was a story making the rounds at the time, about a serial killer in the area. Nobody knew for sure if there really was such a person, but it seemed an inordinate number of indigent or homeless people were turning up dead. I don’t know if the police investigated these deaths and found no connection, or they were found there was no foul play, or whatever it was. It did seem to me that an awful lot of people either hadn’t heard about any of it, or didn’t seem that interested. So I thought about it for a while: who would target the homeless as murder victims? What would make them do such a thing? And why would there be so little interest in solving so many murders, especially in a place where there really aren’t that many homicides, relatively speaking? I didn’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I was intrigued at the possibilities. Around that time I read a news story about an actual serial killer from the area who had spent most of his adult life in prison and was now petitioning to be transferred to a lower security facility. I finished reading the story, and immediately thought: what if all of this was connected? What if this guy was still killing people somehow, even while incarcerated? From there it was a short leap to my killer, Eldon Grant, and his ability to travel through the Shadow Realm.
Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in Seventeen Skulls? There are five key characters in Seventeen Skulls, but let’s start with the villain. His name is Eldon Grant, and he’s been an inmate in a super-maximum security penitentiary for nearly three decades. He’s been convicted of murdering at least five people, and was suspected of many others. Now an old man, he’s got that down-east charm casting a veneer over the dangerous killer that still lurks within. Jennifer Brennan is a social worker, a ‘save the world’ type who works with the residents of a men’s shelter in this little town where the murders have been taking place. She knew all of the victims personally and takes these slayings to heart. Bernie Rose used to be a journalist, but has seen his star fall in the years since he covered the Eldon Grant murder trial. Now physically disabled, addicted to painkillers, and bitter at the world around him, Bernie has gained a cult following as an angry blogger with a particular hatred for politicians and the police. Amy Watson was also a journalist, a rising star in the media world. Some poor choices and her unwavering pursuit of the next big story - at any cost - saw her topple from grace and hovering at the fringes of the industry, looking for one last way back in. When Grant asked for her personally to conduct the first interview he’d given in years, Amy saw it as her golden ticket. Mike Nelson is an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer on shaky ground with his superiors and frequently toeing the line between reprimanded, suspended, and fired. He’s assigned to the homeless murders case as a last-ditch effort to save his career and go out on a high note, but he sees it as a fool’s errand with no happy ending.
Tell us about your main characters- what makes them tick? In the case of all five of the main characters, I think they each have something – a burning desire that drives them forward. Most of them, as it turns out, are rather unhappy people. By thrusting them together into a situation they can’t avoid, I’ve given them little choice but to try and be more like the people they were before their circumstances made them lose sight of that. Grant is conflicted by the paradox of his desire to be the most notorious serial killer in Canadian history, and his inability to confess to his murders or especially his methods. He feels the world has always been unjustly out to get him, and rationalizes his actions as those of a misunderstood man whom life has handed a raw deal. Jen is a good person who genuinely wants to do some good for those who need it most. She’s frustrated at the inaction over the killing spree, and uses whatever tools at her disposal to effect change for the men in her shelter. On some level she feels partly responsible for those under her care and takes her inability to save them very personally. Bernie is a bitter old man who, I think, sees Jen as his salvation. She’s the lone bright spot and the only source of joy in his otherwise miserable life. Beyond that, he’s driven by his desire to avenge the wrongdoings against him – both real and perceived – by exposing corruption and incompetence to the masses. But he secretly worries that time has passed him by, that nobody’s really listening or gives a damn any more, and he’s becoming a living embodiment of the ‘old man yelling at clouds’ trope. Amy had the world by the tail and let it slip through her fingers. On her way to being the pre-eminent investigative journalist of her time, she pissed off the wrong people once too often and found herself outside the industry looking in. She’s arrogant, and feels she’s been unjustly wronged and blackballed from the field she deservedly dominated. But she’s also fearful of missing her chance to make her mark, and never getting another chance to cement her legacy. Mike’s got more than his share of skeletons in his closet and a haunting past, which he hides behind a tough façade. He used to love being a cop, and on some level still does, but living alone in a town he can’t escape and ostracized by most of his superiors and coworkers, he’s felt the joy slipping away with each passing year stuck in his current post.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead? Interestingly, when I wrote my first published novel, Terror in High Water, I saw it playing out on the big screen in my mind. I always (and still do) maintained it would make a really good movie – I’m sure a lot of writers feel the same way about their work, of course. As for Seventeen Skulls, if someone decided they wanted to do a film version and put me in charge of the casting, I might go with someone like Anthony Hopkins to play the part of Eldon Grant. He’s the perfect combination of harmless old man and dangerous psychopath and can flip back and forth effortlessly.
Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why? It varies, depending on what I’m working on. I always used to write with music playing in the background, and I still do sometimes, but it’s not a requirement by any means. Whatever the noise is, it has to be something that isn’t attempting to compete for my attention with what I’m writing. So, for example, the TV can be on, just not something that I’m really interested in watching.
Do you write one book at a time or do you have several going at a time? I will sometimes have more than one on the go at the same time, but that generally means I’ve put one aside for the time being and am working exclusively on another one. I don’t actively work on more than one at a time; I prefer to give my full attention to each thing I write. But sometimes, a work in progress needs to marinate for a while. At those times I might go back to something else and putter with it until I’m ready to return to what I was doing before.
What are common traps for aspiring writers? One of the most common things I come across that people struggle with is, believe it or not, actually writing. It sounds so simple and basic – writers have to write, right? But many aspiring writers seem to have a hundred reasons why they don’t have the time to write. The thing that I try to impress upon my students is that you will never find the time to write. You have to MAKE the time. Job, kids, spouse, social life, pets, all this and a lot more demand your time and attention. Scattered in among these things are little slivers of time that a writer has to claim as their own. Maximize the time you do have. Even 200 words a day – a paltry amount that the average person will eclipse many times over each day in the form of texts and Facebook posts and such – works out to 73,000 words in a year. It’s doable.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want? Ideally you hope your original ideas are what readers want! But I think it’s important to write things you enjoy and not worry about chasing fads or trying to please a given demographic. What’s popular changes frequently and unpredictably. Write what you enjoy, write often enough, well enough, and hopefully the readers will find you and follow along.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from other genders? It’s difficult in one sense, because you’re attempting to write from a perspective you have no firsthand knowledge of, or experience with. It’s a concern any time I write something from the female perspective that I’m going to get it all wrong, lose all credibility, and break the reader’s suspension of disbelief I’ve worked so hard to immerse them in. On the other hand, I think it’s important to bear in mind that people of all genders are just that – people. We’re all individuals. If I ask myself “what would a woman do in this situation?” I remind myself that there is no catch-all answer, that individual women will think and react differently to a given scenario. Of course, I’m more than willing to go to the source, so to speak, and ask some of the women in my life about generalities that may be more likely to apply. Ultimately I trust my instincts and hope that what I’m writing will come off as believable, and won’t insult anyone’s intelligence.
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