Suburban Terrors by Pauline Montagna
Thank you, Pauline, for this interview, and a warm welcome to my blog! Firstly, let me congratulate you on writing Suburban Terrors – a truly strong, edgy and very well written collection of stories.
My first obvious question – what inspired you to write these stories?
In a previous life I was a teacher of Adult Literacy and English as a Second Language. One of my favourite classroom resources was the local newspaper and in one lesson we read an article about a car chase.
The police were chasing a stolen car down a suburban street. The stolen car flew over a speed hump, clipped another car that flipped over trapping the two elderly passengers, then crashed into a front fence. The teenage driver leapt out of the car, jumped over a few back fences and tried to hide under a house that was being renovated. Unfortunately for him, he was found by the builder who kept him trapped there until the police came for him.
Soon after that I was asked to write a horror story in Short Story class. I’m not much of a horror fan, but I do like ghost stories and I remembered that newspaper article. What if, I thought, the car thief had actually got inside a house, a house that belonged to an elderly couple that were in that car he hit? And what if the couple didn’t survive, but had been killed? Out of those thoughts came the earliest story in the collection, A Hostage Situation.
The success of that story gave me the idea of putting together a collection of stories based on real events, but with a twist. So for the next few years I collected interesting true stories from my own experience, from stories people told me and from the media. Those true stories provided the seeds for the fictitious stories in the book. Sometimes seeds from several sources were combined to produce a single fruit. Sometimes the fruit bears very little resemblance to the seed that spawned it. But all of the stories have at least a tiny grain of truth in them.
Are any of these stories based on real life experiences?
A couple of the stories are based on my own experiences and since I’ve already discussed those in earlier interviews I might tell you about one that was based on a sensational news story I came across, The Day They Came to Earth.
One evening I was listening to talkback radio in the car and a caller rang to talk about a special reunion that was to be held that week commemorating an event which took place forty years earlier when he was a schoolboy at an outer suburban high school. One afternoon he and many others at the school saw a UFO in broad daylight. It was a large white round object that moved silently with incredible speed and was being chased by several small planes. The object seemed to land behind the trees of a nearby reserve, stay there for 15-20 minutes then rise again into the sky and shoot off at incredible speed leaving the small planes behind. One of the witnesses was the science teacher whose story appeared the next day in the local newspaper and then the following day in the daily papers and on the television news. Soon after the science teacher was visited by men from the RAAF, but instead of asking him for more information as he expected, they terrorised him, warning him to say nothing about the incident and quoting the official secrets act. In fact the whole school community was forbidden to speak about the incident. Forty years later the science teacher was still traumatised, not by the UFO but by the RAAF. Nonetheless, the Department of Defence denies they had any involvement in the incident.
I was fascinated by this story and rushed home to look it up on the internet. Sure enough, there was the story in one of the daily newspapers.
My story follows the facts very closely, but speculates about whether those men were really from the RAAF.
Do you see any particular group as your target readership for these stories? Is this the same target readership when you started writing your stories?
At the time I began writing Suburban Terrors, I was looking about for a way to make some sort of a living from writing, and fell on the idea of combining my teaching and writing skills to produce Graded Readers, slim volumes in different language levels designed for adult students of literacy and English. They are mainly published by academic publishers based in the UK. The majority of them are adaptations of existing works, but there are also original stories. I thought I might produce an Australian series.
So taking half a dozen of my stories, I rewrote them in an appropriate language level, packaged them up and sent them off to England. Then I waited and waited. Finally I contacted the publishers, only to be given a litany of excuses as to why they hadn’t even bothered to acknowledge receipt of the package, and of course, to be told they weren’t interested.
For most of the stories, I, of course, reverted to the original for the final project, but I found that in the case of one story, I Know What You Did, that simple, direct language was perfect for the story and so I kept quite close to that version.
Suburban Terrors as it now stands is aimed at a general adult audience, not necessarily at diehard horror fans, but anyone who enjoys a good story.
What’s your favourite story in the collection and why?
Wendy, you have four beautiful children. Which one is your favourite?
Can you tell us about your overarching theme for your story collection?
I don’t know if there is an overarching theme. The connection between the stories has more to do with location and genre, and with their basis in ordinary, day-to-day life. Readers will easily be able to see themselves or people they know in the stories.
What do you prefer to write – short stories, or novels? Why?
At heart I’m a novelist, or perhaps more of a saga writer. Many of my ideas seem to stretch to series of three or four volumes. However, of all the writing I’ve done, the most successful has been in a form that falls between the short story and the novel, namely the novelette. The novelette is defined as a story between say 7,500 and 20,000 words, and is a format that has been very popular in science fiction where there are several awards dedicated to them.
A few years ago I thought I might try to master this format and produced a few which I offered for free on Smashwords. They were taken up in the thousands, a level of success I could only dream of for my other books. Admittedly they were free, but I think it’s a format perfectly attuned to today’s readers and to reading on ereaders and iphones. Even if only a small proportion of those readers are willing to pay for such novelettes, they offer me an opportunity of making some sort of an income and gathering a readership, which, one day, might be willing to read my longer works.
Over the last year or so I’ve outlined several series of novelettes in a variety of genres which I hope to release on a monthly basis as ebooks and then collect into one volume as paperbacks.
Have you ever thought about turning any of these short stories into a novel? Tell us more please!
A friend once suggested that I could expand Jim-from-next-door into a full length novel, but I think that story has found its perfect length. The whole point of that story is that the narrator’s relationship with her neighbour is not as intimate as she thinks. My house-mate and I thought we knew our neighbour well, only to discover that his shy and friendly demeanour hid a shocking secret.
Actually the trajectory has gone the other way. A Cry in the Dark is based on the characters I developed for my first series of novelettes, The Soothsayer Mysteries, though I had to change the way the clairvoyant and the police officer got to know each other in order to make the story work as a one-off
Do you plan any more short story collections?
There are the novelettes, of course, but after finishing Suburban Terrors, I did play with the idea of a second collection I had entitled Suburban Horrors. I thought this collection might be of longer, more cerebral stories in which there is a long period of discovery rather than a twist. If Suburban Terrors takes off, I might resurrect that idea.
Do you have a favourite short-story writer? A favourite short story?
Actually, although I enjoy writing them, I’ve never been a big short story reader. I’ve always liked to get my teeth stuck into a novel. However, as I get older and my attention span shortens, I’m discovering the benefits of the short story!
Of course you have the Australian classics like Henry Lawson. I just love The Loaded Dog. And I’ve recently discovered the short stories of Edith Wharton. But if I think back, my favourite short stories were in science fiction and the stories of Isaac Asimov stand out.
There are several I particularly remember, but the one that has always tickled my fancy is The Last Trump in which God decides that humanity is beyond redemption and He will end the world on New Year’s Day, 1957. The angels try to talk Him out of it but He is adamant, until they come up with an irrefutable argument. Which 1957 does He mean? Is it 1957 by the Christian calendar, by the Jewish calendar or by the Buddhist calendar, as all use different systems. God is so bamboozled by this argument that he gives up and the Earth is saved. What makes this story my favourite is that I was born on New Year’s Day, 1957!
Could I also take this opportunity to tell readers that I’ll be holding a book group discussion about Suburban Terrors on my Goodreads Group between September 1 and 12 (one day for each story). To join in you will need to become a member of my group at https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/114808 . In the meantime you might want to comment on this book tour, or put a question to me. I look forward to seeing you there.
Do we really know what secrets lurk behind the tall fences and locked doors of our city’s suburbs?
Here are twelve stories that delve into that mysterious realm. You’ll find a few thrills, a touch of horror, a ghost or two… and much more.
‘ …these stories are all entertaining, compelling, and enjoyable, making this the perfect book for bedtime or public transport reading. It’s a great book to have in your bag, ready for the next break in the day. Georgina Laidlaw, Australian Reader
Pauline Montagna was born into an Italian family in Melbourne, Australia. After obtaining a BA in French, Italian and History, she indulged her artistic interests through amateur theatre, while developing her accounting skills through a wide variety of workplaces culminating in the Australian film industry. In her mid-thirties, Pauline returned to university and qualified as a teacher of English as Second Language, a profession she pursued while completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. She has now retired from teaching to concentrate on her writing. She has published two books, The Slave, an historical romance set in Medieval Italy and Suburban Terrors, a short story collection.
Where to Buy the Book
As an eBook for $2.99
Author’s website at: http://paulinemontagna.net/suburban-terrors/
As a Paperback for $12.79
It was all Dave’s idea, I swear. He figured it was easy money. Grab a dog (you had to make sure it was well looked after, no use picking a stray) ring the owners and demand a ransom. Easy. I mean it’s not like you’re grabbing a kid or anything. We just needed some quick cash, just to see us through ‘til the crop headed.
But it was me that found the dog. A little black thing it was. Just a puppy really. Dave said it looked like a big black rat. I thought it might be a fox terrier, or maybe a cross, part labrador or something. Anyhow, it came to me when I called it, all trusting and wagging its little tail and looking at me with its big black eyes, while Dave jumped on it from behind with this sack. It struggled a bit when we shoved it in the car, but it didn’t make a sound.
When we got it home we took it out to the backyard. I had this old lead from when we had a dog, a big pit bull terrier, but someone came over the back fence and poisoned it and stole our crop. Dave wanted to get another one, but I couldn’t stand it. I loved that old terrier. Maxy, his name was. Anyhow, we had this old lead, so I used it to tie the dog to the clothesline. Used one of those really good knots I learned in the boy scouts so it wouldn’t get loose.
The dog had a collar with the owners’ phone number, but no name. I asked Dave if we should ring the owners straight away, but he said wait a bit and let them stew. He said they’d pay more that way.
So we left the dog and went to the pub.
We got home pretty late because Dave was meeting this bloke he knew who was selling us one of those big plasma TVs off the back of a truck. He was only asking $500. Dave loves his footy and I don’t mind a good flick now and then, you know, one with a good car chase. So we had to wait ‘til well after dark for him to turn up and then we had to have a couple of drinks with him. He was trying to sell Dave an indoor gym as well. He had to be joking. Anyhow, Dave was trying to put him off without admitting he didn’t have any more money. Once we’d got home and brought the telly inside it was well after midnight before we remembered to feed the dog.
When I saw the mess I just swore to buggery. You should’ve seen it. Chewed up marijuana plants thrown around all over the lawn. And they were just about to head, too. Dave came racing out. When he saw it he roared. ‘Where’s that fucking dog? I’ll kill the fucking cunt.’
I got to the dog first. I could’ve killed it myself. When it saw me it got up, wagging its little tail and looking at it me with its big black eyes. I’ll give you wagging your little tail I was thinking, but then I saw it couldn’t’ve been the dog. It was still tied to the clothesline just as we’d left it, same knot tied in the same way and all. I showed it to Dave. He was still so angry he’d’ve given the dog a good kicking anyway, but I made him see sense. Whatever the little mongrel had done, it meant money to us, money we’d need more than ever now. Dave gave the shed door a good thumping instead.
The next morning I cleaned up the mess, but it wasn’t ‘til I went to feed the birds that I saw the worst of the damage. They were all lying still in the bottom of the aviary, their little claws stuck up in the air. And there wasn’t a mark on them.
That night Dave rang the owner while I listened on the extension. A woman answered. Dave put on this really tough deep voice. ‘We’ve got your dog. It’ll be five thousand dollars if you ever want to see it again.’ Dave reckoned that was fair compensation for losing the crop.
There was nothing for a moment on the other end, then she said, ‘Is the dog all right?’ She sounded worried, but pretty calm.
‘For now,’ Dave said.
‘I’m just a pensioner,’ she said. ‘I can’t pay five thousand dollars.’
‘You will if you want your dog back in one piece.’
‘You won’t hurt the dog, will you?’
Dave just laughed. ‘We’ll give you another ring soon. You think about it.’
‘I’ll call the police.’
‘No you won’t, love. Not if you ever want to see your dog alive, you won’t.’
Dave gave me a grin as he hung up. ‘She’ll pay.’
Dave had bought another plant from a mate, just for our personal use, so we decided to put the dog to bed in the outside laundry, just in case. I tied it up to the pipes with a good strong knot. We left it sitting on top of the washing machine and bolted the door. We didn’t hear a peep all night.
The next morning I got up and went outside for a piss. I thought I might check up on the dog, give it a drink of water or something, when I saw all this water coming from under the door. I unbolted the door and jumped back. It opened by itself and all this filthy water came pouring out. I thought the dog must’ve drowned, but when I looked in it was sitting on the washing machine, just where we left it the night before. The taps were running and the trough had overflowed. I rushed in and turned off the taps and then looked around. It was a bloody fright. All the dirty clothes we’d left in the washing machine were torn up and thrown all over the place. There were even bits hanging from the rafters. Everything was covered in soap powder, and all the bottles were open and the stuff inside emptied out all over the place making this sticky goo. But when I checked out the dog it was completely clean and dry and when he stood up you could see the spot under him was clean, too.
We rang the owner again that afternoon. I’d managed to clean up most of the mess before Dave got up, but I had to tell him what happened. He wasn’t too happy, but the old woman wouldn’t budge. ‘I still can’t pay you,’ she told us.
‘Look, lady,’ Dave said, ‘you’ve got a nice little dog there. You wouldn’t want to see it come to any harm, would you? There are places that’d pay good money to get their hands on a healthy specimen like him. Would you like that?’
‘No, I wouldn’t,’ she said, ‘but I just don’t have the money.’
‘All right,’ Dave said. ‘What about two thousand dollars? You think about that and we’ll call you tomorrow.’
That night we emptied everything out of the old broom cupboard off the kitchen and put the dog in there. Dave screwed a huge bolt to the door and we even wedged a chair under the door handle. There was no way he was going to get into any mischief in there.
But the next morning I was woken up by Dave bellowing like a wounded bull. I rushed out to see what was wrong. There were broken CDs and DVDs all over the living room. The videos had all been unwound and the tapes were all tangled up together. And the brand new plasma TV was lying smashed up on the floor. Screaming like a banshee, Dave ran out to the kitchen and pulled the carving knife out of the drawer. ‘Where’s that fucking dog?’ he yelled. ‘I’m going to kill it.’
He pulled the chair away from the cupboard door and unbolted it. I stood back (I’m not good with blood) but Dave stopped in his tracks, the knife still in midair. I peaked over his shoulder. The dog was still tied up inside, wagging its tail and looking at us with its big black eyes.
Dave backed out and turned and looked at me like he was in shock or something. I sat him in a chair and took the knife off him. I made him a cup of coffee and sat down with him, but we had nothing to say to each other.
That day, I talked to the dog’s owner. ‘Look, lady, we know you don’t have much money, so we’ll do a deal with you. We can give you the dog for a thousand dollars.’
But she wasn’t ready to deal. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘That’s still too much.’ And she hung up on us.
We put the dog in the aviary that night. We tied it up with two strong ropes so it could barely move. We locked the door and tied it shut with another strong rope, making sure the knot was well out of reach. And they were good knots too, the strongest ones I’d learnt in the boy scouts. There was no way it could get out of there. Then we went inside and locked all the doors and shut all the windows.
But I tossed and turned all night. I kept having these dreams about the little dog sneaking around the house, looking for some more mischief. I finally fell into a deep sleep in the early hours of the morning, so I didn’t wake up until late. Still pretty groggy, I went to the kitchen to make some coffee and found Dave lying unconscious on the floor. One leg and an arm were lying at funny angles and he was bleeding and bruised all over. While I was waiting for the ambulance, he came to. He couldn’t tell me what happened, just that he’d got up in the night to get a drink of water and fell over something. He said it was something warm and moving.
After the ambulance took Dave to the hospital, I went out to look at the dog. It was sitting, just as we left it, tied up in the aviary, looking at me with its big black eyes.
I rang the owner again that afternoon. I couldn’t let Dave down altogether so I asked for five hundred dollars.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, really cool like. ‘I’ve already told you. I’m a pensioner.’
There was no use carrying on so I asked her for her address and said I’d bring the dog round to her. I thought maybe she’d give me something for my trouble, but she refused to tell me and hung up on me.
I was at home all alone with the dog that night. I put it back in the aviary and tied it up. I locked and tied the aviary up. Then I took all the heavy things I could find in the shed and the backyard and put them in front of the door and all around it. I locked all the doors and windows in the house. I went to my room, locked the door and moved a chest of drawers in front of it. But I still didn’t feel safe. I sat up all night, and all night I could hear something outside my bedroom door, scratching and knocking.
In the morning the noises had stopped, but I was still too scared to go out. I called the owner on my mobile. I begged her to come and get the dog. I swore I wouldn’t hurt either of them.
She didn’t say anything for a while, then she said, ‘All right. Tell me your address. But if there’s any trouble I’ll call the police.’
Quarter of an hour later, I opened the door to this really weird looking woman. She was tall and sort of elegant, pretty young looking for a pensioner, except that she had this really long white hair. She was wearing a long black dress with all these symbols sewn on it in red. And she had these really blue eyes that looked right through you. ‘I’ve come for the dog,’ she said, ‘and no funny business.’
I wasn’t going to give her any trouble.
I took her out to the backyard and let the dog out. It jumped straight into her arms and licked her all over. She laughed and kissed it back, talking baby talk to it.
As I took her back through the house to the front door she looked around and said, ‘Where’s your friend? I thought there were two of you.’
I told her he was in hospital.
She gave this cold, cruel smile and said, ‘Well, he should be safe there.’
I opened the front door to see her out. Ours is only a short street and I know everyone’s car. There were no strange cars in the street. Where we’d picked up the dog was at least an hour’s drive away, and I knew she lived in the same area because of her phone number. I couldn’t help asking, ‘How did you get here?’
She gave me a knowing grin that gave me this cold feeling.
Before I knew it I was shoving a hundred dollars into her hand for a taxi.
‘That’s very generous of you,’ she said with that same grin, stuffing the note down her dress. She looked around for the dog. It had gone exploring up and down the street. ‘Here, Satan,’ she called to him, ‘let’s go home.’