Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review of "Darkening Around Me" and Interview with Barbara J. Hancock

Published:  2013
Setting:  Modern

A ghostly white face materialized out of thorny shadows and I instinctively held up my hands in defense.  It took seconds to realize the face belonged to a life-sized statue.  It took longer before that seemed to matter to the instinctive fear that raised the hair on the back of my neck and kicked my pulse into rapid overdrive.  

Even as I forced my hands down at my sides, the vine-covered marble unnerved me.  It was a woman.  The patina of age and the effects of weather didn't hide her expression of grief and fear.  The wear made her tears seem ancient and ageless and never ending.

I swallowed and stepped closer.  I didn't want to.  For some reason, I couldn't experience the slightly embarrassed relief a person usually feels when they've been startled or frightened by something that turns out to be ordinary or mundane.

The statue still scared me.

Her eyes were moisture-filled and wide.  Her mouth was slightly open, as if at any second she might beg for help or scream.

A step on the path behind me caused me to spin.  My breathing hadn't recovered.  Now it hitched in a sudden intake that hurt my chest.


Only the stirring wilderness of leaves all around and the occasional gasping sigh of a wilted petal as it fell.

My eyes, though, had adjusted to the artificial night created by the overgrown and neglected garden.  Now I saw them.  Face after face slowly revealing themselves to my wide peering eyes.

There were dozens of statues.  All of women.  All with horrible expressions- pain, shock, grief- forever frozen and on display.  The garden seemed to hold a perpetual funeral in its leafy embrace...

Samantha Knox is recovering from an attack that nearly ended her life.  One day she was a vivacious, hopeful young woman who relished in jewelry-making with her aunt and the next she was fighting for her life after a vicious stabbing, and learning to live with her scars (both physically and mentally).

In a bold act to reclaim her life and accept her battle scars, Samantha employs renowned artist Mike O'Keefe to sculpt a marble statue in her nude image.  However, in doing so, this requires the brave deed of Sam traveling to a remote mansion as a live-in-residence for one week while O'Keefe works his mastery.

O'Keefe, handsome and lithe as he appears, is all but a reclusive eccentric who has shut himself inside his gothic mansion replica.  He travels the halls a haunted man, his every move and devotion monitored by the ghostly eye of The Thornleigh Bride.  Legend has it that the bride has haunted the mansion for decades, unwilling to relinquish her desperate hold on the artist for fear her story will never be told...

At first Samantha is able to dismiss the footsteps she hears, as well as the events that befall her as mere coincidence, yet apparitions are much harder to apply logistics to.  In the meantime, her sitting sessions with O'Keefe are nothing if not brazen.  She finds her body reacting to the strong, lean hands of the sculptor in ways it never has.  But the closer Sam comes to relinquishing her fears at the hands of a man she is inadvertently falling in love with, the harder the ghost bride seems to clutch at  the darkened rooms of Thornleigh mansion.

Then one afternoon as Sam is jogging along the beach, she stumbles upon an old withered clapboard beach house where O'Keefe's cook resides.  The cook is dazed, stuffing a doll...and speaks absently of the unknown.  Smothering of filth and mold, Sam is horrified to see she is standing in a room filled with hundreds of stuffed porcelain dolls...all with the same empty expression, one haunted replica after another...all damaged by water and mold in one huge, shelved heap.  It is then she realizes that Thornleigh is haunted, through and through...but what torments the ghost to the point that she has to pour her mourning across the old house and into it's every inhabitant?

As Sam falls more deeply to the affectionate charms of O'Keefe, she also finds herself falling into the story of a haunted bride, a bride scorned, a bride murdered in a selfish act of hatred and betrayal...and Sam is playing a firsthand role at the edge of a cliff, where the ghost drags her with icy, ashen fingers...

Will she survive to tell the story, or will she again fall victim to a ruthless crime, albeit supernatural and unbelievable?

This was the very first book I read in the Harlequin EShivers attempt at reviving the original vintage gothic, and let me tell you, I was NOT left wanting with this read.  Barbara weaves a fantastic tale of mystery in the guise of an artist haunted by a ghost.  She gives an unbelievable devotion to imagery so fantastic that you'll find yourselves hovering in the mists of the weeping statue garden, every one of them trapped by time and anguish.  I was haunted, yet horrified and drawn in by the tale of the dollmaker/cook in the clapboard shack.  The mystery is so enmeshed in  gothic elements of the old style that you'll feel you've picked up a masterpiece from the 60's.  The passion that ignites between O'Keefe and Sam will not leave you wanting, either.  And the tragic story of Thornelighs ghost is not one you'll soon forget.  I was also surprised and appreciative how brave the heroine was in this story, as well as the haunting attractiveness of the hero.  This is just one fantastic book that I could not put down!  Thus, the timeless gothic romance has been reborn! 

Rating:  5 Stars 

In addition to being superbly talented, the wonderful Barbara J. Hancock is also a generous spirit, as she's taken the time out of her busy schedule to indulge me with an interview!   Enjoy!

Stacy:  Let's begin by talking about your writing career. I know you have written extensively in the genres of romance and paranormal romance, and you are a beloved Harlequin author as well. How far back does your writing career date? When did you publish your first book? And, roughly, how many books have you penned to date?

Barbara:  I sold my first full length book to Samhain Publishing in 2008. I sold my first novella to Harlequin for their Nocturne Bites line that same year. These sales came about around two years after I started seriously sending submissions to publishers. I've been writing my entire life dating back to the time I could scribble with a crayon! But it wasn't until my twins went to school that I began to pursue publication as a career instead of a now and then hobby. I think I have fourteen or fifteen books currently available.

Stacy:  Fifteen books in a matter of five years or so…impressive!  Of all your books (and I did a quick amazon search), the paranormal and supernatural really stand out for me. What do you feel first captivated your interest in paranormal romance? Were there any definitive books, authors, or movies that inspired you to weave your own wonderful tales of suspense and romance?

Barbara:  For as long as I can remember, I've loved ghost stories, gothic and supernatural elements. It might come from the mountain tradition of eerie tales from where I grew up in Virginia. Hauntings are a big part of our history. And it's common to have this or that relative get "fey" feelings about things. My mother once called me in the middle of the night because she swore someone saying my name woke her from a sound sleep. Did we question her logic? No. My husband and I rose from bed to check on the children and the house. It might be a Scotch-Irish thing. It might be a southern thing. But paranormal is somewhat normal to me!

Stacy: I can totally relate to that, I live along the Appalachians and these old hills are full of folklore!  Now, as a poet, I know that a lot of my poetry and my unique writing style was developed, in part, out of my admiration and interest in the unique styles of other poets. Do you have a favorite gothic/paranormal author/book? Do you feel these authors/books have proved influential in your own writing style and genre?

Barbara:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I read it when I was a young girl and it was a gateway book for me. It led me to the gothic romance genre. I was always struck by the idea of the heroine saving the hero. Because that's what Jane did. Though she wasn't physically strong, she was strong in ways that were very inspiring to me. After Jane, I devoured Victoria Holt and Barbara Michaels as a teen. People seem to focus on the heroine in jeopardy when they think of gothic romance, but it's her ability to get herself out of jeopardy that draws me to the genre and makes it my favorite!

Stacy:  Jane Eyre was actually the very first gothic romance I ever read! In my quest to find books similar to Eyre, I was sent to the gothic romance section of the public library…and the rest was history!  But I wanted to speak for a few moments on the new E-Shivers Harlequin series. You have been included in both of the new box set releases that began just this past winter. For those who read the blog and might not understand, define for us the mission behind the E-Shivers series. And, as I'm sure a lot of us fans are, I am curious as to whether Harlequin intends to make this a long-standing series, or perhaps just some temporary releases? I have always enjoyed the Intrigue line of romantic suspense and am really hoping that Shivers becomes a mainstay as well!

Barbara:  I'm very excited about the response to the new Harlequin EShivers line and we are all furiously working on upcoming releases! I have several more coming this year and plans are in the works for more after that. Of course, it will all depend on the readers. As the new Digital First Series for Harlequin, Harlequin E has its "ear to the ground" for what readers want. My friend, Jane Godman, who also writes for Shivers, is working on a Harlequin E Intrigue Noir series that sounds fantastic.

Stacy:  And speaking of the E-Shivers series, as you can see, I just completed (and thoroughly enjoyed) your new release Darkening Around Me. I was hoping E-Shivers would stand up to its promise to resurrect (if you will) the vintage gothic and I have not been disappointed! When reading your book, I fell in love with the dark details, particularly the little shabby cabin with all the creepy dolls, and of the huge assortment of statues that seemed to be almost grotesque. You wrote with such intimate detail of these things, I was wondering, where do the ideas come from? I know if I were to write even one book, I would probably exhaust whatever gothic elements I had knapsacked away in the far corners of my mind. How do you, as a writer, feel that you regenerate so many new ideas and storylines for all the different paranormal stories you write with such great detail?

Barbara:  Sometimes I feel that I've been storing up all these beautiful and eerie gothic details for my whole life. Much of it comes from family…once my cousin spent a summer photographing historic cemeteries…but much of it comes from how I see the world…dark and dangerous, but also so lovely that it makes me ache. But I'll go back to family…I was raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where everyone had a ghost in the attic and kids often went the long way 'round the avoid crumbling abandoned farm houses. It's just in my blood to see something that whispers in the slow, creaking sway of a rusty child's swing.

Stacy:  I really loved the heroine in Darkening Around Me.  Unlike many of the females portrayed in the vintage-type storyline, Samantha was strong and resilient. She also had a quick wit about her. Do you oftentimes have a hard time putting your female heroine characters in vulnerable situations? Do you ever get attached to a character and want to turn events in their favor, rather than have them struggle through trials and hardships?

Barbara:  But, you see, I'm in charge of the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel! And it's so much sweeter for a character to reach the light after she's braved the darkest shadows.

Stacy:  I was pleasantly surprised by how well your heroine handled herself…and that is a lovely take on the characterization of female heroine characters…yes, they are vulnerable but they are strong enough to outwit the peril they so willingly place themselves in.  Okay, so I also realize you have published gothic romances in the second, and third, shivers boxed sets. I have not yet had the chance to read them just yet. Can you tell us a little about each book?

Barbara:  In Silent is the House, Grief-stricken Angelica Peters finally visits Allen House, the crumbling mansion she once stood to inherit. She’s immediately drawn to the new heir—the family lawyer whose unearthly obsession  soon has her questioning reality… is it her he desires or is he only fascinated by her resemblence to the tragic apparition that haunts the estate?

The unexplained is commonplace and everyone fears the dark in SCARLET FALLS.

A secluded hamlet ablaze in autumn splendor, Scarlet Falls is seemingly an idyllic manifestation of the New England countryside…  But Trinity Chadwick knows better.  The town is undeniably beautiful, but haunted to its very core.  For Trinity there has been no escape from the specter of the girl in the blue dress.  Her laughter still rides on the mist of the town’s eerie lake. And tragedy always follows in its wake.

Constant vigilance against malevolent forces have worn Trinity down driving her back to the last place on earth she ever expected to step foot again.  Hillhaven—her childhood home.  Only to encounter Samuel Creed.  The last man she ever expected to confront.  A long-ago kiss of life kindled an obsession at once sensual and macabre.  Trinity is tortured by the memory of her warm lips against his cold ones as she saved him. Or was he forever damned, after all?  Trinity finds Creed is as tempting as ever, a man she can neither forget nor entirely trust.

Stacy:   I can’t wait to review the new releases! I always love learning about the lives of writers. Barbara, can you share with us some of your other hobbies and creative pursuits, aside from writing? Oftentimes I think we, as readers and fans, forget that our favorite writers are also people with their own lives and interests beyond books and writing. What are some of yours?

Barbara:  I'm the mother of three boys who are avid naturalists like their father. So even though I'm more comfortable in a sunny office looking out the window, I often find myself in a canoe or on a hiking trail! When I'm not huffing and puffing after my active family, I'm an avid reader so even when I'm not writing I'm spending my time with words. I also love classic movies, all things historical and vintage and Pinterest!

Stacy: I also am a fan of the old classic horror movies and vintage books!  I know I've become a quick fan of yours in the past months.  As I'm sure many of your fans are also eager to know:  can we expect more books from you in the Shivers Series? Are you currently working on anything that hasn't yet been released (or planned for an imminent release date)?

Barbara:  The biggest news for me is Scarlet Falls. It will be my first open ended series with more and more books to come set in a town that's lovely but haunted by evil deeds from long ago. The Girl in Blue is the first to be followed by Forget Me Not. And I'm currently working on the third. Each novella will have its own couple with a fully resolved romance but they will all be linked together by the town's mysteries. It's an ambitious project and one I'm relishing!

Soon to come will be a Scarlet Falls section on my author website to keep readers fully updated!

Stacy:   You are one busy lady!  And a professional writer, yourself, what is one piece of advice you would offer to an aspiring writer of gothic or supernatural romance?

Barbara:  Believe. Oh, I don't mean believe in the supernatural, although that doesn't hurt;) Believe in yourself. Believe in your story and your characters. Believe that there's an editor out there who will love what you send them. Keep believing…even when you encounter no. Always believe "yes" is around the next corner!

Stacy:  What an elegant way of inspiration…to believe in the ability of one’s own work perhaps is the only magic we need!  Barbara, thank you so much for devoting a little bit of your time to the interview and to the blog here, and I can’t wait to read more of your work!

You can read more from Barbara and learn of new releases at her personal website: