Sunday, June 30, 2013


Independent American author Riley Hill isn’t the sort of lady you’d expect to have a dark side. She comes off as gentle, somewhat self-effacing and rather shy. She’s at ease with nature and likes quiet, contemplative places for her frequent hikes. She has read widely and deeply and is an admirer and self-taught student of more than a few classic fiction writers. She plays the fiddle and the mandolin in her downtime and loves Bluegrass and “pickin’ people”. Since her divorce a few years back, and with her kids long since grown up and gone, she’s been known to turn downright reclusive from time to time, when the world has gotten too stifling for her. Like the time she lived alone in a trailer, on an island, on the great Columbia River, in the lush wilds of Oregon for a couple of years, in order to force herself to come to terms with the stories in her head.
Independent autor Riley Hill
That particular experience resulted in a volume of stories that made it clear why she needed to come to terms with them, considering the darkness, mystery and evil that lurked in its pages. The mood-setting title story, called “Burn Pile” (originally—and eerily—entitled “Dark Smoke Things”) was a clear example: What other passersby saw as just an ugly scar on the lovely American Northwest island landscape where the rubbish got burned, Riley Hill imbued it with a sinister atmosphere, morbid intentions and a macabre story to match that makes the hair stand up on readers’ necks and makes them want to glance over their shoulders and lock the windows if they happen to be in the house alone when they read it.
Darkness, or what she calls the creep factor, is clearly Riley Hill’s muse. Of that muse, she says, “If you despise mysteries, hate horror, and loathe twists of reality, then you’re going to take issue with it. My muse is not amusing. It has an energy that sucks the life out of me.”
Hill says it’s not that she doesn’t try to “walk in the light” but that her mind just naturally seems to take her to “this other place.” And as a writer, with time and maturity, she finally just decided to roll with it. Burn Pile, which gives free rein to everything from an extrasensory dog to the haunting oppression of the black smoke things that the burn pile hides, is beautifully, yet frighteningly written in a style that doesn’t depend on shocking effect, literary trickery or bludgeoning people with a pickaxe to send chills up the reader’s spine. Instead, it makes use of the contrast between the seemingly ordinary and the frightful unknown that lies just beyond it to stimulate the reader’s own conveniently forgotten fears and repressed apprehensions.

In this sense, Riley Hill’s mention of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as her all-time favorite novel is no coincidence, since this single—and singular—book of Lee’s is, perhaps, one of the most masterful portrayals in contemporary American literature of the evil that lurks behind life as usual in a small picture-postcard Southern town. Says Hill: “To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book I read that truly juxtaposed innocence against evil in a way my eleven-year-old mind could absorb. This is my favorite book of all time, and I see it as both dark and light literature. It cracks the fragile shell of innocence and exposes the darkness within, but still somehow manages to emerge the reader into understanding and light. If horror can’t reveal light, it has failed in its true purpose.”
In Split River, a mystery-thriller that followed Burn Pile, Hill weaves a chilling story about a serial killer on the loose in a usually quiet community set in the Oregon coastal region, where great rivers wend their way to the ocean. Like her confessed contemporary hero, Stephen King, whose stories are almost as interesting for their descriptions of the stark landscapes of western Maine as they are for their creepy nature, Hill demonstrates a conversant knowledge of the Oregon watershed that goes beyond mere anecdotal descriptions. Of her research for Split River, her first published novel, she says, “I spent some time getting to know the island that figures in the story. I walked the trails and explored off the trails, interviewed residents and law-enforcement officials, watched the birds, and basically breathed the life. Most of my stories come from the earth, so I tend to be locale-oriented in my writing. For example, I’m currently living in southern Arizona and   absorbing the atmosphere there for my next project.”

In common with certain other thriller writers, Riley Hill has a way of taking even the sunniest landscapes and imbuing them with a darkness that overshadows reality—or perhaps, the illusion of reality, since, in her mind (and often in fact), even despite fair weather, there are very dark things going on. In an interview, I asked her what other writers had most influenced her in this sense, and who she considered to be great authors in the thriller genre?
“Like many in the genre,” says Hill, “I cut my teeth on Poe...No pun intended and sorry for the image! But other writers molded me as well. I think authors who use more subtext than slice 'em-dice 'em appeal to me, as I see the expression of horror as an author’s attempt to describe a shock, a feeling, and not so much an event. I’ve been influenced, for example, by John Steinbeck’s The Long Valley. I think it’s a good example of the inter-weavings of lives and how they play on each other to unknown and, quite often, ironic effect. Another classic that’s had a lasting effect on me is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, mainly because of the author’s masterful implications that leave the reader wondering what was real and what wasn’t.
“I feel I must give Stephen King his due here, as well. Not only do we share a birthday, but in my younger years, we shared a group mind. On more than one occasion I came up with a story I thought would play well, only to have him come out with a similar idea in novel form the next month. Also, he was a ground-breaker with contemporary, straight-forward looks into the dark side of ordinary peoples’ lives with novels like Carrie. At the time, the idea of challenging what could go wrong in a household built on love of Jesus was simply not done.
“Of late, I’ve discovered Dean Koontz and he’d fast becoming one of my favorite writers. He seems to still be experimenting with humor, insight, and even science fiction. He’s exploring the netherworld conscientiously and courageously.”
I pressed Hill on the issue of the dark side and why she chose it for her writing subjects when her dialogues, descriptions and craft showed a skill beyond any question of genre. In other words, why horror and not, say, slice of life or historical novels? Part of it, she thought, was a matter of preference and how her mind, in particular, functioned. But then again, what made me think “slice of life” was any more reality that the reality she was depicting?
Quoth Hill: “The light side only runs so deep and humans seem to pin it into place with happy events, and believe in those events as though they are the only reality. Undercurrents play against each other throughout life and I seek to shake the reader out of denial. Ultimately, horror writing is a sideshow to get people to count their blessings and enjoy life while they have it.
“In the early 1980s, I thought I could write comedy, and did draft a few articles. People who read my work at that time said I was ‘like Erma Bombeck only more outrageous.’ Then I went into journalism and that sort of killed that outlook. I also wrote screenplays for Tom Shaw Productions for a brief time, hoping to learn something about writing humor. However, it turned out that what Shaw made were blue movies, and I didn’t do well with that genre. In fact, when I went to work for him, I had no idea what a ‘blue movie’ was.
“Maybe someday my muse will inhale enough oxygen to explode with a fine piece of literary fiction. Who knows? It may or may not happen. But if not, there’s always next lifetime.
“In spite of appearances, I’m someone who really believes in and reaches toward the light. But then again, I’ve been accused, throughout my life, of looking too far into things, which often results in an ironic or jaded point of view. I started writing very young (my first five stanza poem was at age seven—called The Valley of Caine). My mother always asked ‘Why don’t you just write something beautiful?’ But like some other authors, I didn’t choose my genre—it chose me.
“I think the spooky stories my siblings and I told each other as children had an effect. I admired my older sister and her ability to invent stories, and my father told us spooky stories and played ‘monsters’ with us, so I guess I learned early to laugh at fear. Somehow, in spite of having led a sheltered childhood in Utah, I understood certain veins that bubbled just behind the temple of the average person. Later in life, some personal tragedies opened up a few of these veins for me, and I experienced first-hand what I had imagined in my stories.”
I invited Hill to talk about those personal horrors, but she wouldn’t take the bait, saying only that, “I believe undergoing these events provided a good foundation for expressing the feelings that accompany them—feelings that are uncomfortable for most people, but which many, in their lives, may be forced to confront. This is the silver lining of writing horror; helping others to deal with emotions and provide them with a ‘what if’ scenario to mentally prepare for negative eventualities.”
In the same macabre vein as her first two books, Riley Hill recently published another volume of short works called Bone Pile, which the fans of her unique “creep factor” are sure to enjoy. But when I asked if she was currently working on any new projects, her answer pointed to a slightly new departure.
Says Hill: “I’ve been outlining a series called Wanagi River, which may well not be formulaic enough to pass the genre muster. It’s a bit of a mix, involving Native American mythos, fantasy, and mystery. After three years of research, I wrote an ambitious novel in the early 1990s entitled Totem I: The Eye of the Wolf. This epic fantasy also involved Native Americans. I recently reloaded this novel into my computer and, after a decent amount of editing, will probably also have it published.
“I’m working on two other things concurrently: For NaNoWriMo, I’m putting together a series of short stories (horror) about the Southwest, as well as a trilogy (the first volume of which, called Deep Naked, came out on in a Kindle e-version this past month) that I’ve been drafting as time allows. I'm working on book two (working title: Skin Slickers) right now. 
“But I also continue to work on Wanagi River, which is on the back burner at the moment, but which I aim to deliver in the near future.”
All of Riley Hill’s works are available on Amazon.