There’s a reason why people making big decisions in cartoons often have tiny angelic and demonic versions of themselves appear on their shoulders, whispering conflicting advice in their ears. But it’s not just cartoons that have explored the dichotomy between these symbols of good and evil. In the following email interview, editor John L. French discusses Devilish & Divine (paperback, Kindle), a new collection of demonic and angelic short stories he co-edited with eSpec Books’ co-owner and publisher, Danielle Ackley-McPhail.
First off, is there a theme to the stories in Devilish & Divine?
The only rule was that each story had to feature either an angel or demon. Some authors chose one, some the other, and some even used both.
Danielle and I asked the authors to submit a story idea so that we wouldn’t have, for instance, three stories about deals with the devil. And we wanted to have a balance between up above and down below. Some authors suggested two or more stories and we picked the ones we thought would work the best or for which there wasn’t a previous suggestion. As it was, we wound up with several stories set in bars.
What genres do the stories in Devilish & Divine encompass?
There’s horror, of course. There’s some supernatural investigation. There’s a western-style story set in modern times. And best of all, there’s some comedy.
How did you and Danielle decide what authors you’d ask to contribute to Devilish & Divine?
Danielle and I have each edited anthologies before, so we both know authors we can count on to turn in good stories on time. I suggested some, Danielle others. This way we brought in authors who were new to one of us or the other, and new to eSpec.
And as you said, they came up with the ideas for their stories…
Yes, though one or two suggestions we made. I know when I invited Hildy Silverman I told her I hoped she do another “Bionic Mermaid” story. I think she’s done four now, all for anthologies I’ve edited. Once Hildy agreed, I told her I’d have to keep editing anthologies until she had enough stories for a Bionic Mermaid collection.
Aside from having to fit the theme, what other parameters did their stories have to fit?
The stories had to be new to the anthology — no reprints — and no more than about five-to-six thousand words. Content wise, they had to be respectful in tone and, at most, a hard PG-13.
You are not only the co-editor of Devilish & Divine, but you also have a story in it. What is your story called and what is it about?
My story is called “Let’s Make A Deal” And yes, it’s that kind of story and the reason why no other author could do a “deal with the devil” type story. In my story, a mysterious woman in black appears in Clancy’s Pour House, interrupts the patrons’ watching of a hockey game, and offers them whatever they want in exchange for “a service, a favor.” The bigger the ask, the bigger the price.
Did you write your story for this collection, or was it one you already had written and not published?
I had the idea for this story for a long time but couldn’t find a proper place for it. I thought about putting it into one of my character collections but it just wouldn’t fit. But then came The Santa Heist, a collection of Christmas stories written wither by me, Patrick Thomas, or both. The first Clancy’s Pour House story appeared there. That story, along with a character in another story, plus the fact that I had just finished The Magic Of Simon Tombs, which features a mostly reformed demon, prompted me to pitch the anthology to Danielle as a way to get the story into print.
As we’ve been discussing, you co-edited Devilish & Divine with Danielle Ackley-McPhail. What did Danielle bring to this process that you did not?
I’m a good editor. Danielle is also a good editor, but with a style and approach that’s different from mine. Working together, we made the stories better than they would have been had just one of us edited the book. Plus, Danielle is a grandmaster in producing and marketing books with her highly successful crowdfunding approach.
And what do you think you added?
I came up with the idea and the initial format. And I brought in authors who had otherwise who had never been in an eSpec book.
Now, along with Devilish & Divine, you also have a novella coming out next year called Chessie At Bay, which is part of eSpec’s Systema Paradoxa series. What is Chessie At Bay about, and when and where is it set?
It’s set in and around the Chesapeake Bay, just before and into the early years of WWII, and tells the story of how the creature we know (and love) as “Chessie” came to the bay, why she’s there, and why “Chessie” is not likely to leave. Its human star is Nicholas Syn, a.k.a. Scarecrow, who appeared in my first cryptid novella When The Moon Shines [which you can read more about here]. And before you ask, yes, there are snallygasters in this book.
Where did you get the idea for Chessie At Bay?
Danielle has been asked to be the Guest Of Honor at the 2021 Chessiecon, which this year is being held in the Lord Baltimore Hotel in downtown Baltimore. Now while she tries to do something special for each con she attends, as the G.O.H. she wanted to do something extra special for Chessiecon. And since Chessie is the symbol of the con, why not a novella about her? (I don’t know about anyone else, but to me, Chessie is a female. At least she is in my novella.) So Danielle graciously asked me to write a story about her.
As I did with When The Moon Shines, I started by researching Chessie — the history of her sightings and theories about what she might be and where she came from. A big thanks to Matt Lake and his book Weird Maryland. I also researched the Chesapeake Bay. When I read about the ferry system that once took people across it, I knew I had to set the book in a time before the bay bridge, if only to get the phrase “bad-ass ferries” in the book. After that, it was a matter of getting Chessie to the bay, bringing in Syn, and adding danger, adventure, and conflict.
Was there anything you were told you could not do in the book?
I was told, both by Danielle and my wife Elaine, that Chessie could not eat anybody. You’ll have to read the books to find out if I listened to them.
As you mentioned earlier, this is the second book in the Systema Paradoxa series that you’ve written; you previously wrote When The Moon Shines about the snallygasters and dwayyo of Maryland. What is it about cryptids like Chessie, snallygasters, and dwayyo that you just find so interesting?
Before Danielle invited me to write a novella for Systema Paradoxa I knew next to nothing about cryptids. Now, as a writer, I find there’s a whole new set of characters to write about. I have a new Bianca Jones Collection book called The Last Monster coming out in which several cryptids play a part.
Going back to Devilish & Divine, Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Are there any stories in Devilish & Divine that you think would make a really good movie?
There are some. James Chambers’ “Far From The Knowing Place,” Robert E. Waters’ “A Bluebird From Aspen,” and Michael A. Black’s “Seven Ravens” would all make good films. Others, like my “Let’s Make A Deal” and Christopher J. Burke’s “Bringer Of Doom” would make good short films or episodes for The Twilight Show.
Finally, if someone enjoys the stories in Devilish & Divine, what similar short story collection that someone else assembled would you suggest they read next?
The late R. Allen Leider’s anthology Signed In Blood: Deals With The Devil Gone Bad would make a perfect companion volume. Not only does it contain stories by me, Patrick Thomas, and Robert E. Waters, it also has stories by C. J. Henderson and Mickey Spillane. And if those last two writers aren’t reason enough to read the book, nothing is.