Exclusive Interview: “A Child Alone With Strangers” Author Philip Fracassi
As loyal viewers of Law & Order: SVU and Criminal Minds will tell you, it’s always deeply satisfying when a kidnapped kid escapes or gets revenge on their captor. But in Philip Fracassi’s police procedural horror novel A Child Alone With Strangers (hardcover, Kindle) — which he discusses in the following email interview — revenge for the child in question is a dish best served scary.
To start, what is A Child Alone With Strangers about, and when and where does it take place?
So the novel is about a young boy named Henry who is kidnapped and taken to a remote farmhouse in the deep woods where he’s held captive by a small band of bad guys. What the kidnappers don’t know is that Henry has a telepathic mind, and while captive he finds himself communing with a strange creature that lives in the surrounding forest. A creature who needs the kidnappers gone as much as Henry does, because there is something in that old abandoned farmhouse it desperately wants. From there, chaos and horror ensue.
The story takes place in the 1980s, and the setting is Southern California, primarily in the San Diego area.
Is there a significance to this taking place in So Cal, and to the kid ending up in a remote farmhouse, as opposed to, say, it happing in New York City or in a remote house in the desert?
I’ve lived in Southern California most of my life, and I knew I wanted to base the novel on territory I was familiar with. It’s such a massive novel with many characters and settings so I didn’t want to struggle too much with setting.
That said, I live in Los Angeles, so I still had to do quite a bit of research to make sure the San Diego areas I was describing were authentic, especially the large national forest where most of the book takes place.
Where did you get the idea for A Child Alone With Strangers?
This novel was my first crack at writing a genre novel, and I really wanted it to be a throwback to those doorstop novels of my youth like Stephen King’s The Stand or Clive Barker’s Imajica. Obviously, that meant having a story that could easily expand to 600 pages or so. I honestly don’t recall how I got the core idea of a kidnapped boy communing with a monstrous entity to take on his kidnappers, but once that seed was planted I quickly began assembling additional characters and storylines in order to flesh out the adventure and cram every with something exciting and scary to keep the readers engaged.
When describing the novel, I sometimes refer to it as a “kitchen sink” book because I essentially threw in every great horror trope I could think of in order to create the funnest, scariest novel I could, while also doing something I felt was fresh.
So then is A Child Alone With Strangers just a horror story, or are there other genres at work in it as well?
Child is definitely a horror novel, but it’s almost equally a crime novel. I would describe it as a hybrid of the two. One of the primary storylines deals with the FBI and Henry’s guardians hunting down information on where he could have been taken. It’s essentially a police procedural, and I was fortunate to have a resource in the CIA who helped me with a lot of the technical information — how the FBI would operate and so forth.
But to your point, a majority of the book lands squarely in horror. When you have a kid with telepathic abilities and a monster in the woods, you know you’re in a horror novel.
Unless I’m mistaken, A Child Alone With Strangers is your fourth novel after Don’t Let Them Get You Down, Gothic, and Boys In The Valley, as well as two short story collections: Behold The Void and Beneath A Pale Sky…
My publishing career so far has been somewhat atypical. Because I’ve primarily been an indie author, my books have taken strange routes to reach the mainstream. A couple of my books sold initially to boutique publishers and were released in limited runs. For example, I technically published Boys In The Valley before the other novels you mentioned, but only 500 copies were produced, and they sold out in less than a day. My novel Gothic was produced as a limited edition of 250 copies and sold out in less than 20 minutes. But I’ve since found some success selling to bigger publishers, so while Child will be my first wide release, I also have Gothic being reissued widely in February 2023, and Boys will get a worldwide release in July 2023.
And yes, I’d previously published the two story collections you mentioned, as well as the literary novel Don’t Let Them Get You Down, albeit with a small press. My third story collection, No One Is Safe, is set for October 2023, as well.
Cool. So, are there any writers who had a big influence on A Child Alone With Strangers but not on anything else you’ve written? You mentioned The Stand and Imajica already.
I’d say I was primarily inspired by a lot of the books I read and enjoyed as a teenager — specifically books by such greats as Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
Along with all the fiction, you’ve also written a book of poetry called Tomorrow’s Gone. How do you think writing poetry — and, I think it’s safe to assume, reading poetry — influenced how you wrote A Child Alone With Strangers?
Reading poetry has always been a great love of mine. I’m blown away by the things poets are able to do with language, and that has absolutely influenced my own prose, including Child. There are many different ways to write a sentence, or describe a sunset, for example, and poetry is a fundamental resource for me as a writer to learn different ways to construct visuals, expand my vocabulary, and think carefully about my word choices when writing. A rock can be “hard and gray,” or it can be “the color of storm clouds, glued to the earth by the epoxy of time,” or whatever. One is more fun to read than the other, right?
And then what about non-literary influences; do you think A Child Alone With Strangers was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I don’t think Child was influenced much by anything other than my imagination and love for old-school horror. Unlike a lot of horror writers, I’m not really big on movies or board games. I never played any role-playing games as a kid, I mostly just read. I am a pretty serious gamer, but that’s a separate part of my brain, I think.
It’s funny that you said you’re not big on movies given that you’ve written a couple, including Girl Missing. Do you think writing screenplays had any influence on how you wrote A Child Alone With Strangers?
Writing screenplays is such a great way to learn the intricacies of story structure, as well as refine writer tricks such as seeding future events to keep a reader intrigued, or writing good, realistic dialogue, and even creating great, visceral — and visual — action sequences. In that respect, I think Child is a very visual novel and, like most of my genre books, tends to read like a movie. Meaning, very visual and visceral, so as a reader you’re not only exploring emotions and thoughts of characters, but you’re also clearly seeing the action play out, feeling the heat of flames, the speed of a car, the pain of a broken toe (or the chomping down of a monster’s teeth).
I’m still writing screenplays. In fact, I’m just wrapping up a feature screenplay that I adapted from my short story, “Death, My Old Friend.” It’s found a wonderful director and producer so hopefully we’ll see it on the screen in the years ahead.
Hollywood loves horror movies, and movies in which kids are in danger. Well, up to a point. Do you think A Child Alone With Strangers could work as a movie?
I absolutely think it could work as a movie. Generally speaking, as alluded to above, my writing is fairly cinematic. Very visual. And because of my screenwriting background, my stories — especially my novels — are structured similarly to a 3-act screenplay. I think this movie would be an absolute blast to see on the big screen.
If someone wanted to adapt A Child Alone With Strangers into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Henry, his dad, and the other main characters and why them?
I don’t have anyone in mind, specifically, for the characters in the novel. I think Henry would likely be an unknown, given his age (he’s only 9 years old). And as for Henry’s father, or Uncle Dave and Aunt Mary, nothing really comes to mind.
That said, I’d love to see [The Suicide Squad‘s] Idris Elba in the role of Jim, the movie’s primary bad guy. I think he’d bring the charm and menace needed to really make that character come to life. And if we could get [Thor: Love And Thunder‘s] Chris Hemsworth to play Aussie bad guy, Liam, that would be pretty darn cool.
And would you want to write the screenplay?
I’ve had a handful of stories optioned at this point, and even though I’m adapting one of them, I don’t think it’s something I’d want to do regularly. With a short story, I think a screenwriter needs to add so much to get it to a full movie length, and for that to work best you’d want someone to come in with a fresh perspective, and not be too beholden to the story itself.
But for a novel-length work, I’d love to have the opportunity to write the script. Or, perhaps more realistically, at least be one of the writers involved. Most times, however, the studio or producer wants to bring in someone with a long list of credits in order to give financiers a feeling of security. Ditto with director. But if I had the option to write a draft of Child, I’d absolutely jump at it.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about A Child Alone With Strangers?
No, I think we covered everything. I just want readers to know that despite the book’s heft, it reads fast and furious. I’ve heard from a lot of early reviewers that it’s a lot of fun, so I hope most readers will feel the same way.
Finally, if someone enjoys A Child Alone With Strangers, which of your short story collections and which of your novels would you recommend they check out?
As for story collections, I’d probably recommend my second, and most recent, collection, Beneath A Pale Sky. It has a lot of great adventure and thriller-style horror that is similar to the tone of Child. My first collection, Behold The Void, is darker and more for folks who don’t mind their horror on the extreme side. As for novels, I think Gothic is a lot of fun and very entertaining, much like Child. But Boys In The Valley will tear your heart out. So either one does the job.