In each installment of this author series, we begin with a mini-Q&A with Spooky House Press publisher, Robert P. Ottone.
Jacque Day: The Disappearance of Tom Nero is a novelette of eighty pages with a distinctively surprising design. TJ Price himself intimates it could be a challenge to market. Why was it important for you to embrace this book and give it a home?
Robert P. Ottone: I like a challenge, but more specifically, I like to be challenged. Marketing isn’t a problem if the author pushes themselves, so I wasn’t worried there. The work speaks for itself; it’s a fantastic, intelligently designed piece of work brought to life not only by TJ’s masterful writing, but by Alexis Macaluso’s fantastic interior design.
JD: We’re not to be fooled by the length of Tom Nero — it is an intense book, and its impact far outlives the time it takes to read. How did you react to the manuscript when you first read it, both as a publisher and a reader?
RPO: I smiled, nodded, and knew I wanted it. I was very lucky in that TJ was kind enough to trust us with the book, so I was just filled with excitement about it. Still am. We didn’t execute everything I wanted to, vision-board wise, solely because my time has been focused in so many different places and on so many projects, personal and for Spooky House. But in the end, I think we have a fabulous book that I hope TJ is proud of.
Jacque Day: TJ, I’ll confess that from where I am now — in the deeps of the creeps courtesy of your compact, superbly written novelette — I am seriously itching to pick your brains about the riddles and puzzles of The Disappearance of Tom Nero. For one, what is the origin of screb? (If you’re willing to demystify that, I’m delighted to print it.) That established, I know from your interview with Ivy Grimes that you prefer to leave the mysteries of this book to the mind of the reader. You hint as much, when Tom crosses out the passage, “I’ll leave the rest to your imagination,” in his journal.
But I’m jumping ahead.
Since Horror Tree is a resource for writers, we’ll dedicate some of this interview to the structure of the book, some on editorial choice, some on aesthetic, some on business.
Before we get to all that, seriously, your book is working on me — has me freaked out, wondering if I’m next screbbed. Just know that alongside every question I ask, in my head, I am screaming, Screb screb screb screb! How does that make you feel, as the author?
TJ Price: In writing, I believe there can be many goals, but I do think that first and foremost, it is used to communicate, and so I am thrilled that the themes in this book, as well as their presentation, were so effective for you. To answer your question, first, a brief anecdote. A very long time ago, I was introduced to a curious game, the rules of which were very simple: You would always be winning, until you remembered that you were playing, at which point, you would lose. The other rule was that at the moment of recognition, you would then announce that you had lost, and thus anyone around you, remembering that they too were playing, would also suddenly lose. Well, I have a very associative brain, and everything constantly reminded me that I was playing, which of course endangered everyone else in my immediate vicinity. I was branded an anomaly, a glitch, something the rule-makers didn’t account for, according to the acquaintances I knew. Some were upset or irritated with me, but I felt a strange sense of pride. It is this same feeling that comes over me today, reading about your reaction to this story.
JD: Tom Nero opens with a graphic, the cover of Tom’s composition book. Later, when Tom meets Silas, the journal cover serves as the point of entry for their relationship. Fitting that it’s also our point of entry into the story. The cover contains no name, no “Property of Tom Nero.” Just the words, NON SUM QUALIS ERAM, Latin for “I am not as I was.” Why did you choose this place, and the words, NON SUM QUALIS ERAM, to draw us into Tom Nero’s world?
TJ: I have always loved so-called Latin “sententiae,” in all their compact and poetic glory. Most people are familiar with such maxims as “Carpe diem!” and Caesar’s apocryphal “Veni, vidi, vici,” but there are so many more out there. You can find them everywhere, embedded in various cultures and in various languages — and they contain so much more than their simplistic phrasing lets on. They are even sometimes found engraved into the seals of individual states, or family crests, where they can serve as either mission statement, welcome, or — perhaps — even warning.
I will let the reader decide which one of these serves as the motivation behind the inclusion of this particular phrase in this story, as well as what its placement might mean.
JD: We turn the page and plunge directly into Tom’s notebook, handwritten in all its coffee-ringed, navel-gazing, doodle-riddled glory. It is a voyeuristic, highly subjective view of his inner world reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, especially as he spirals deeper and deeper into screb-ness. You made a bold decision, graphically presenting the first of the two major sections of Tom Nero as a handwritten journal. Take us behind the scenes on that choice, from the design to the font selection, and how you worked with the publisher to achieve the effect.
TJ: The initial drafting of this story included bracketed-off “descriptions” of the journal’s appearance, as if annotated by an invisible editor, and they were not nearly as prevalent as they became in the final book, though they did continue to evolve over the course of the story, “illuminating” both Tom’s desperation and descent. Once I submitted the story to Spooky House Press as a novelette, Robert read it and extended an offer of publication, after which we entered into an idea-fueled conversation regarding how to best present this story. I am not much of a visual artist, unfortunately, but Robert really wanted to lean into the idea of actually illustrating the doodles “described” in the brackets on the page. Enter Alexis Macaluso, who not only had the ability and talent to bring that kind of presentation to life, but who immediately understood what the story needed to really screb off the page. At some point, I had the idea of using Shunn formatting for the second part of the story, and when I suggested it to Robert via email, he was all for it. I could not be happier with the end result: This was a true collaboration in every sense of the word.
JD: Tom is a chronic couch-surfer, a drifter who seeks out casual relationships with men, both as a means of finding shelter and, I think, to remain visible, to keep proving to the world that he’s there. And the screb — which I can’t accurately explain so I’ll just clumsily call it a seemingly ageless force that disappears people — seems to spread like a virus, from person to person. In Tom Nero, you’ve given us a sliver of a glimpse into how the screb infects the world you’ve created. But Tom isn’t the only person in this story to disappear by the screb. This could be the story of the Disappearance of Asa D. Piper, the Disappearance of Silas Monson, the Disappearance of Lem Shrowl, perhaps even the Disappearance of Vina Singh, who points out that her name anagrams into “vanishing.” What in particular drew you to Tom Nero as a unifying figure?
TJ: 1. A word that is sometimes used for those folks who inhabit that nebulous, dangerous place known as the fringes of society is “transient,” which I have always found interesting. The word seems to refer to someone that is only present for a short time, someone who doesn’t stay, and yet it’s such a permanent label — an identifier for something or someone who isn’t around long enough to be known more.
- When I was very young and first came in contact with the philosophical concept of solipsism — ostensibly, that everyone and everything outside of oneself ceases to exist once it has passed out of the sphere of one’s conscious recognition — I began to wonder: What made me so sure that I was the center of that sphere?
JD: As I read the first pages of Tom’s journal, Dostoevsky, and more specifically, Nabokov’s Pale Fire flashed in my mind (I wasn’t at all surprised to see the latter come up in the Ivy Grimes interview). Nodding to Nabokov, Tom is prone to navel gazing and probably isn’t the most reliable of narrators. Enter his head at your own risk, in other words. What did it feel like to create him and bring him to life? What did it feel like, after all that, to vanish him?
TJ: In some ways, a disappearance is worse than a death — at least, in death, there is finality, evidence: There is typically a body, carnal remains of some kind. (Bizarrely, in this instance, the transient becomes permanent, yet a crucial element has vanished.) In death, there is mourning and grief, and then the passage of time, and, eventually, acceptance and emotional closure. Not so in a disappearance, though. There is always a lingering question in the minds of those who have been left behind — it is then that hope turns to poison, and one which someone willingly takes, again and again.
I wrote a play once, in which a character (during the penultimate scene) decides to simply walk offstage and out of the lives of those with whom she’s been embroiled. My mentor at the time, Dr. Walter Stump, cautioned me against this during a round of classroom critique. He said, in a particularly dolorous and regretful tone, seeming to address the entire class, that if I kept said narrative decision intact, that “vanished” character would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I feel like Tom Nero haunts me in much the same way.
JD: Tom Nero’s journal introduces his whirlwind love affair with Silas Monson. For Tom, Silas’s entry into his life looks like a turning point, a promise of something real and lasting. Where Tom’s journal ends, you pick up with the second and last major section, Silas’s manuscript, “The Disappearance of Tom Nero.” Without giving too much away, Silas is also a writer, a more disciplined and more formal writer than Tom. (He uses the Shunn format, of course!) And while Tom draws us in with his intimate style, Silas puts himself at a literary distance from the events. Part overlapping account, part retelling, part continuation, in Silas’s section, the story turns tragic. Tell me about your choice to strike such contrasting tones between Tom’s and Silas’s narratives, and how that contrast serves the story.
TJ: I think one has to consider the purpose or point of both presentations in each part of the story. In the second section, Silas is clearly someone who is used to having other people read his work: This is evident in the way the manuscript is presented, as well as from the bits of information we get about him in Tom’s journal. I might argue, however, that Silas writes in an inward-facing direction. Even though his words are submitted and (eventually) published. He is the kind of person who writes for himself, not for other people. This is in direct contrast with the spirit of Tom’s journal.
A journal, or a diary, is typically written for oneself — or at least, it’s not really meant to be seen by anyone other than the writer. Curiously, Tom himself comments on — and then disagrees with! — this fact at the outset of the book, proclaiming that he is keeping this journal specifically for other eyes; future eyes, in fact. Tom even invokes his “future archivists” in these pages, projecting his own immortality, unaware of what is about to happen to him.
I think this is the contrast that unites them, which provides the context for their relationship — unfortunately, it is also their doom.
JD: Because Horror Tree is a resource for writers, I have to throw in a few practical questions for good measure. How long did it take you to write The Disappearance of Tom Nero? How many drafts did you go through? How many words did you write to get to eighty pages? How long did it take you to sell it? And what was your experience working with Spooky House Press?
TJ: The first draft of this story took about a week. I wrote the first part very quickly, stalled on the second (until I realized what was happening) and then a few days went by where I agonized loudly over the ending, which at that point had yet to manifest. Something happened around day five. I wish I could remember what it was, because I’d bottle it if I could. A thunderclap: Boom, I had my ending. Of course, this didn’t stop the agonizing. I was terrified that it was a cop-out of some variety, and it wasn’t until I gingerly passed off a first draft to Demi-Louise Blackburn (an excellent writer and very good friend) and received her feedback, that I finally started feeling a little more secure with the piece on a whole. Demi-Louise was the first one who really championed the story, and it was also she who convinced me that it was worth sending out for publication.
Once everything was finished and in place, I went back to the story and made minor revisions — mostly those of language and syntax, then looked the whole thing over with a flensing eye for repetitions and weasel words. It then sat in a folder for a long time (about two years), though I made mention of it to a few folks I met along the way. Some read it and expressed their appreciation, which bolstered my hopes, though a story that is around fourteen thousand words is a tough sell for any market, as I discovered. Most publication venues have a pretty limited cap when it comes to word count, and for good reasons, too.
Thankfully, though, recently the novelette/novella is getting its day in the sun, and I just happened to catch a few rays when I read about the call that Robert put out for Spooky House Press in June of 2022. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Robert really liked it and wanted to publish it. I signed a contract in August, and the book was released in May of 2023. The Disappearance of Tom Nero became my first paid publication; up to that point, I’d only had a few pieces accepted in non-paying venues such as Coffin Bell Journal, Complete Sentence, and the now-defunct Bear Creek Gazette.
The process itself was fantastic: Robert was incredibly passionate, and (as mentioned in prior answers) brought a stunning amount of energy and talent to the project, not to mention was encouraging of and receptive to the ideas and thoughts I had along the way. The book would not be the same without his involvement.
JD: I just want to tease the puzzling elements of The Disappearance of Tom Nero. (Promise, I won’t ask you to decode anything here.) The book is filled with surprises, anagrams, things that look like mistakes, stones to turn. Do you have a particular penchant for puzzles?
TJ: Yes, especially those which — once solved — throw a whole new light on the experience of solving. I am also a fan of jigsaw puzzles and crosswords, or anything involving language and vocabulary. I have a hideous love for puns, wordplay, and so-called “bad jokes.”
Once, I knew someone whose name perfectly anagrammed into “TRY OCCASIONALLY,” which sent them into fits of giggles when we discovered it. There’s meaning everywhere, even if you’re not looking for it, and sometimes it’s the meaning that surprises you that means the most.
To that end, I should disclose that there are some puzzles and references in this book which are not meant to be solved or understood by just anyone, though that will not detract from the enjoyment of the book. There are some things that only certain people will understand, and it is in this way that I have made a sort of obeisance to my own past vanishings, like a ghost leaving a message with streaky, invisible fingers on a foggy mirror. I like to think that someday, one of these certain people might pick up this book and be startled, though odds of that happening are slim, and odds of me hearing of that happening are even slimmer.
JD: Finally, and not to be overlooked, is how you achieve the horror in The Disappearance of Tom Nero. For me, you effectively broke the fourth wall and drew me, the reader, into the screb-compulsion. Even now, I can’t stop screbbing in my head, and I’m constantly looking over my shoulder. That’s not really a question, but I can’t help repeating it. Can’t help it. Screb.
TN: SILAS IS THAT YOU? ASA?
WHERE AM I
JGNR OG KVU FCTM KP JGTG
JD: Now, to my final question, which isn’t mine at all but one from an Amazon reviewer, who writes, “Where have you been and how can you take all of my money with your future works?” In other words, when will we see more from you?
TJ: I have a few projects in mind for the future. I am currently working on refining a collection of poetry, tentatively titled An Uncanny Guest — it does seem that I have a pattern here, for things which are difficult to market — as well as a collection of flash fictions inspired by books like The Ghost Variations by Kevin Brockmeier and some of Jac Jemc’s shorter work. I don’t seem to be able to hold much attention for longer-form work at the moment, though who knows what the future might hold. As H.S. Wollmer says in his book Phantom Islands.
TJ Price’s corporeal being is currently located in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his handsome partner of many years, but his ghosts live in northeastern Connecticut, southern Maine, and north Brooklyn. He can be invoked at either tjpricewrites.com or via the blue bird @eerieyore. Failing that, one can make a circle of chalk on the floor, stand in the center, and burn a photograph of a loved one until all that remains is ashes. Then, listen for a murmuring from within the walls. Leave your message after the sound of the screb.
Robert P. Ottone, publisher of Spooky House Press, is the Bram Stoker Award®-winning author of The Triangle. His other works include Her Infernal Name & Other Nightmares (an honorable mention in The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 13) as well as the suburban folk horror novel, The Vile Thing We Created.
Jacque Day served as the longtime managing editor for the New Madrid Journal of Contemporary Literature. Her recent work appears in the anthology, That Darkened Doorstep.
 It may be worth noting that this verb is also sometimes used to describe transmissibility or contagion. When we talk about something being “communicable,” we are usually talking about an illness or a disease.
 The name of the person in question has disappeared from my memory, unfortunately. I do remember that they were of a grayish complexion and snappish temperament. Any interaction I had with them, they always seemed to want to prod me toward making a mistake, and inevitably, once I did, they would inflate with gloat.
 The origins of this memetic “Game” have never been discovered (Wikipedia: “uncertain”), nor have the identity or identities of those who established the rules.
 Perhaps a better word choice here would be “interaction,” since when someone reads a text, it does not happen in isolation — there is reciprocal action involved. That is to say: As much as a reader is absorbing from the book, is the book not also absorbing from them?
 We do not like being called invisible. Do it again, and we shall become hostile.
 Due to the nature of how the second part of the story is “discovered” diegetically, this seemed like the perfect visual cue for the savvy reader — or at least a wink in the direction of those used to the submissions and publication experience.
 Was I someone’s else’s transient?
 Life, soul, animating force — call it what you will. The final page of the narrative has been turned.
 The way that the past haunts the future.
 Perhaps the reader themselves?
 Cf: RSL
 Q: What’s brown and sticky?”
 It was a very long time ago, and far away, when I wore a different face, and a different name — someone else altogether, you might say.
 Photograph courtesy of Lem Shrowl, from the personal effects of Silas Monson.