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AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Steven Hopstaken & Melissa Prusi

Steven Hopstaken & Melissa Prusi

Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.

Today: Steven Hopstaken was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he spent his formative years watching and reading science fiction and horror. He has a degree in journalism and spends his free time traveling; writing screenplays, short stories and novels; and practicing photography.

Melissa Prusi was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (often mistaken for Canada), and has been a video editor, a semi-professional film reviewer, a three-time champion on the quiz show Jeopardy!, and a Guinness world record holder (1990 edition, for directing the longest live television show).

They met in a college screenwriting class and married three years later. They spent a brief time in Los Angeles, where they both worked for Warner Bros. television. They eventually ended up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they love the arts scene but dread the winters. While they both currently make a living as website content managers, they have sold two screenplays, which have been lost to development hell.

They’ve indulged their fascination with Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde through trips to Dublin and London to research their lives and visit sites mentioned in Stoker’s Wilde.

They live in St. Louis Park, Minnesota with their cat Daisy. If they’re not writing, you can usually find them at a movie, local theater production, improv show or pub quiz. This is their first novel.

Thanks so much, Steven & Melissa, for joining me!

J. Scott Coatsworth: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it. 

Steven Hopstaken and Melissa Prusi: Our first published work was Stoker’s Wilde, the first novel in our series. It came out in 2019, but we’d been working on it for about a decade off and on. It grew out of an idea Steve had for a short story. He’d heard that Bram Stoker had based Dracula on his boss, Henry Irving, so Steve started a story where Bram learned Henry really was a vampire and had to kill him. While researching Bram, he learned more about his life and his friendship/rivalry with Oscar Wilde. Then the idea got bigger, Melissa joined the fun and the story became a novel about Bram and Oscar teaming up to battle a vampire cult. 

JSC: What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers? 

SH and MP: Any word processing program will do, but we find that Scrivener is a fantastic tool for building out your chapter structure and keeping things organized. It’s easy to rearrange things if needed – though that has its own pitfalls if you do it too much – and the metadata can help you keep track of who is in a scene, when it takes place, etc. 

We’ve also started using ProWriting Aid for rooting out passive voice, repeated words and other nuisances. 

JSC: Tell us something we don’t know about your heroes. What makes them tick? 

SH and MP: Our fictionalized Bram and Oscar are very different, but have learned to value those differences, even as they each drive the other one a little crazy. Bram has a strong sense of duty and honor, and Oscar is, of course, more hedonistic, but over the course of three books they each try to be a little more like each other. Bram loosens up a little and Oscar risks his life for others many times.

JSC: What was the hardest part of writing this book? 

SH and MP: We had the idea for the second book in the series before we were even done writing the first. With this one, we didn’t have a clear idea of what the main story should be. We knew we wanted to branch out from vampires, but kept going back and forth between various other supernatural creatures. Ultimately, we decided to pull out all the stops, and now Bram and Oscar are dealing with ghosts AND witches AND Frankenstein-type monsters. It’s a lot, but fortunately they’ve formed a very capable team around them. It will take all their skills to beat back this new supernatural threat. 

JSC: What character gave you fits and fought against you? Did that character cause trouble because you weren’t listening and missed something important about them? 

SH and MP: Ellen Terry was one of the main characters in Stoker’s Wilde, but barely appeared in Stoker’s Wilde West. For Land of the Dead, we knew we wanted to bring her back into the monster-hunting fold, but the, er, interpersonal issues lingering from the first book made it tricky. Ultimately we think we were able to use those issues to deepen all the characters involved and make for a more interesting partnership. 

JSC: What inspired you to write this particular story? What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

SH and MP: We’ve always been interested in the spiritualism movement that was happening around the time of our stories, and thought the idea of a fake medium who turns out to have real powers was intriguing. We also wanted a female villain for this story, though our medium, Lorna Bow, became much more complicated than that. She helped lead us toward putting more of the spotlight on our women characters and their relationships.

JSC: What secondary character would you like to explore more? Tell me about them. 

SH and MP: We introduced Cora Chase in the second book and brought her back for this one. She’s a Pinkerton detective turned monster hunter for the White Worm Society, the secret organization that tries to keep supernatural forces at bay. She is often at odds with our heroes, but with the same ultimate goal in mind, so the push-pull on whether or not to trust her at any given time is interesting. She may get a spin-off story of her own someday.

JSC: Who has been your favorite character to write and why? 

SH and MP: Oscar Wilde is so much fun to write. There have been many portrayals of him in popular culture, and they usually focus on the tragic last years of his life. When he’s depicted as a younger man, he’s sometimes pictured as a shallow fop, but he was so much more than that. We show his hedonism and arrogance, but also make sure he comes across as both brilliant and brave.

JSC: What was the weirdest thing you had to Google for your story? 

SH and MP: We had to get weirdly detailed about the availability of electrical power in New York, London and Paris in 1884. It’s one of those details we could have fudged, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it, so we had to find a way to make it plausible. It seemed like a pain in the butt at the time, but ultimately it made for some fun sequences that are among our favorites in the book.

JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!

SH and MP: Steve just turned in the manuscript for a solo-written novel called A Man Among Ghosts. No publication date yet, but it will be released by Flame Tree Press.

Melissa is in the plotting stages for a solo effort of her own. The less said about that at this point the better. (She’s superstitious that way!)


The Land of the Dead

And now for Steven and Melissa’s new book, coming out Tuesday – Stoker’s Wilde book three: Land of the Dead:

Science and the supernatural collide in this terrifying tale of witches, reanimated corpses and spirits invading our world from beyond the grave.

Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde have returned to their lives in London after their adventures in the American West. Bram is managing a theatre and Oscar is rising to fame and planning his upcoming wedding when they are once again called upon to battle supernatural evil.

Grief-crazed scientist Victor Mueller needs Bram’s unusual blood for his mad quest to bring his dead wife back to life, and he’ll resort to kidnapping to get it. Meanwhile, a young medium named Lorna Bow runs fake séances in London under the thumb of an abusive uncle. When her mother Endora returns, Lorna learns the truth: they come from a long line of witches, and soon Endora has awakened Lorna’s dormant powers.

When the scientist and the witches combine forces, all Hell breaks loose. Long-dead souls find themselves back in the land of the living, and some of them have scores to settle with our heroes. But as Mueller’s ambition and her mother’s desire for vengeance against the men who imprisoned her become clear, Lorna soon finds herself questioning the morality of their work.

Bram and Oscar must team up with American secret agent Cora Chase to protect all they hold dear. Only a mission into the Land of the Dead can stop Mueller and Endora from bringing back more souls.

Bram’s wife Florence must call on the monster-fighting skills she honed in America, and even Oscar’s bride Constance has to face new challenges as she learns how the supernatural has shaped her own history.

In an adventure that spans continents – and even other worlds – they confront old enemies and unknown dangers. Teaming up with old friends Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Burton and new allies like Arthur Conan Doyle and Nicola Tesla, they too must harness both science and magic to protect our world from intruders from the Land of the Dead.

Publisher | Amazon


Excerpt

This excerpt is taken from a chapter near the beginning of the book, when Bram Stoker has been abducted by a mad scientist. He is writing about the incident in a report to the White Worm Society.

When I awoke, it was morning. I was no longer bound, and I clawed away the blankets covering my face and sat up. I was on a cot in a corner of a large, open room with high ceilings. With its walls of stone and a ceiling of wide wooden beams, the building looked to be old, maybe even medieval. The only windows to speak of were small and up near the ceiling. 

I could hear crashing waves that sounded like they were far away, as though we might be on a cliff above the ocean. I could also hear a rushing stream and creaking that sounded as if it could be a mill wheel.

An enormous fireplace at the far end of the room provided heat. There was a laboratory table in the middle of the room. On it was a rectangular object, about six feet long, covered with a blanket. Water was seeping out from under the blanket and dripping to the floor. I assumed the object was a block of ice that was melting from the heat of the fireplace. It struck me as strange, even in a room full of strange things.

It was most definitely a laboratory. I recognised modern scientific apparatuses throughout – glass beakers, Bunsen burners, and the like – as well as quite a bit of electrical equipment that I could not identify but that looked out of place in an ancient building. Wires ran along the ceiling and walls and it was then I saw the place was lit entirely with Edison bulbs. I am not sure how Mueller was generating the electricity, as I was certain we were in the middle of nowhere.

“Ah, you are awake, Mr. Stoker.” I turned around to see a short man with thinning white hair entering the room. He was wearing rose-coloured spectacles and a white lab coat, looking very much the part of a scientist. “I am Dr. Mueller,” he said with the slightest hint of a German accent.

He walked over to me on the cot and held his hand out for me to shake it, which I ignored.

“What do you want with me?” I asked. 

“For you to keep your word,” he said. “I plan to keep my part of the bargain. My solicitor will arrange for payment for a pint of your blood. Had you kept your part of the deal, I wouldn’t have had to resort to such extreme measures. I knew from my work with the Black Bishop that the White Worms would try their utmost to interfere in my business.”

The tall man who had brought me there entered with a tray of food. “Your breakfast, master,” he said, putting it down on a nearby table.

“Please, have something to eat, Mr. Stoker. I so rudely interrupted your lunch yesterday and you must be famished.” He pulled out a chair at the table and gestured me to sit in it.

I was hungry, so I reluctantly accepted the invitation. I knew Mr. Hammond and his men would be searching for me, so it was best to comply, if only to play for time.

Mueller sat down to join me at the table. “I’m afraid Risto is not much of a cook, but I hope this is to your taste.”

It was cheese, dried fruit and bread. I eyed the bread knife for a moment but, remembering how strong Risto was, decided against any sudden moves. I looked around the room once again, to see if I could find some avenue of escape.

He assumed I was marvelling at his handiwork and, with pride, said, “All electric lights. The bulbs are of my own design. All powered by the mill wheel and a supplemental kerosene dynamo.”

“Impressive,” I said. In other circumstances, I likely would have found this fascinating, but as things were, I had little interest in humouring my kidnapper’s desire to show off his handiwork. I quickly got to the matter at hand. “To what purpose do you wish to use my blood?”

He did not seem to mind the change of subject. In fact, a smile spread across his small face. It reminded me of smiles I have seen before on the smug faces of other madmen. “Why, to bring the dead back to life, of course.”

I remembered the mindless creatures that had attacked us. “To create monsters, then? Why would you do such a thing – killing people just to bring them back to do your bidding!”

“I did not kill those men I experimented on. There was an accident in a lumber camp near here. A large tree came down and killed them. It was a fortuitous opportunity that provided me with my subjects. Those things I sent were failed experiments, sadly fit only as a diversion,” he said. “I can, and have, done better. You have already met my first success.” His eyes looked up to Risto, who was standing next to the table staring off into space like a dutiful servant.

I looked at Risto in bewilderment, which Mueller took for wonder.

“Yes, I returned him from the dead. As you can see, he is a functioning, live human being, capable of thought and speech. He can be taught and learn. He is my crowning achievement, my Adam.”

I have to admit, my bewilderment did indeed turn to wonder.

“I found him drowned in the river. Washed right up to my mill wheel like a gift from God. Decomposition had not even set in yet. He was perfect.”

Mueller jumped from the table and went over to Risto, intently studying his face.

“When I discovered there were such things as living-dead vampires, I began to wonder if we could use them to conquer death itself. Could we use vampire blood to restore life? Could I eliminate the negative traits of vampires and harness the good? I have corresponded with Henry Irving about that very thing.”

“Yes,” I said. “He has been looking for centuries for something similar and has not found it. Even Henry, who has managed to quell his appetites, still has darker impulses that he struggles daily to control. You cannot split the monster from the host.”

“Ah, but I have. I have, using your blood to create a serum! Those other things you saw – I brought them back with vampire blood and electricity. They are mindless, drooling creatures with no impulse but to feed. But when I used my technique with your blood – the sample given to me by Reverend Wilkins – I  created Risto. He lives! He really lives!”

He circled Risto, who remained motionless. Mueller pointed to Risto like a lab specimen as he blathered on.

“I administer the vampire blood, then your blood, then electricity, and life is restored. They retain some vampiric traits, not only life but super strength. Risto here is as strong as five men, is impervious to the cold and has great resistance to pain. Yet he does not need to feed on blood; he lives on food like any human. And as you saw, he has all his strength in the daylight. None of the bad vampire traits remain.”

“But your entire endeavour is the height of arrogance. What right do you have to play God?” I asked. Such things must be said, though madmen never listen.

“If God did not want this he would stop me, or he is no god,” Mueller said, sounding very much like the Black Bishop at that moment. “It is the culmination of my life’s work. Why settle for easing ailments when you can stop death itself?”

It suddenly occurred to me that Risto was not triggering my sense of the supernatural. He did not give off that telltale green glow as those other Mueller creations had. Maybe Mueller had purged the vampire out. 

He sat back down at the table. “Mr. Stoker, your blood could save thousands of lives. It could reunite parents with their dead children. Do you not want to be part of the greatest discovery in history?”

“I have met people with grandiose ideas like yours before. It never ends well.”

“Tomorrow I plan to resurrect the love of my life. My wife, Charlotte.” He went to the object on the lab table and pulled off the blanket. A naked woman was suspended in a block of ice.

“With your blood, Mr. Stoker, we will bring her back from the dead!”

He told me Charlotte had been his assistant, even when he had been working for the Black Bishop. She was a scientist herself and was all on board with the raising of the dead. 

When they were chased out of Scotland, they came here where they had set up a laboratory. The cold conditions were ideal for storing dead bodies, and they had built an icehouse nearby for such a task. The remote location kept them safe from prying eyes.

But last year Charlotte had an accident, tripping down the stairs and breaking her neck. She had been on ice ever since.

I spent the rest of the day listening to Mueller’s megalomaniacal prattle and examining the laboratory as closely as I could, both to provide detail in my report and to seek some means of escape. But I was forced to admit to myself that even if I managed to slip out of the lab, I had no idea where I was. I would either freeze to death or be swiftly recaptured by Risto before I could make it to safety. 

The next morning, after Charlotte had thawed, Mueller went to work repairing her neck the best he could. I wondered if his procedure could regrow severed spinal cords, and he assured me it would.

Once satisfied with his wife’s condition, he took a pint of blood from me and divided some of it among various beakers, adding chemicals. (The bottles were not labelled and I’m afraid I cannot identify what exactly he used.) At several points, he shocked the solution with electricity. 

Later that morning he injected the body with vampire blood, then the ‘Stoker Serum’ as he called it. (He seemed to think I would be flattered.) Then he hooked electrodes to her wrists and ankles. 

Risto was his assistant in all of this, bringing him chemicals and surgical tools. I just observed, and though I suppose I had a chance to make my escape while they were busy prepping Mrs. Mueller, I have to admit I wanted to see if it could be done. Does that make me as much of a madman as he? 

Risto went to the far wall where there was a board of electrical switches and dials.

Dr. Mueller finished checking the connections to Charlotte, then took a moment to wipe his brow.

Even knowing he had done it in the past, it did not seem to me that he could restore the lifeless corpse on the table to life. The body was slightly bloated, the skin yellowed and showing signs of decay. Her hair, which looked as though it was once a golden blond, was grey and thin. Stitches from Dr. Mueller’s restorative surgery ran up both sides of her neck and oozed a greenish-yellow pus.

Mueller put on a pair of dark goggles and instructed me to not look directly at the sparks that were to come, “Staring at them too long can lead to permanent damage to your eyesight.”

He stepped back away from the table and shouted, “Now, Risto! Now!”

Risto pulled a lever down and there was a sudden firework of sparks on the board that ran down the wires into the corpse on the table.

The body lurched and flopped, as I have seen when shocks are applied to dead frogs. But this had never resulted in bringing them back to life. 

The light bulbs dimmed, smoke started to form at the connections at the wrists and ankles. It was a most horrific sight, and at that moment I thought it to be all folly. 

Then we were plunged into darkness for a moment, yet the room was lit from an eerie glow emanating from Charlotte’s corpse.

“Stop, now, Risto!” Mueller shouted.

Risto pulled the switch back up and the light above us flickered back on. 

For more than a minute, we all just stood there staring at the body. Mueller seemed despondent. Maybe it hadn’t worked. 

But then Charlotte Mueller’s eyes opened! She took in a big gasp of air. Then another. Then another. It…she was breathing.

Mueller gently raised her to a sitting position. She looked around the room, but a cloudy veil was over her eyes, seemingly obscuring her vision. We watched in amazement as the veil lifted, revealing blue irises. With every breath she took, her cheeks regained their rosy hue. Even her hair was transforming back to its golden lustre.

“Can you stand, my dear?” Mueller asked, gently helping her off the table.

Her legs were shaky, and Mueller held her up. She clung to him, frightened. After a moment, she found her footing and pushed herself away from Mueller like a toddler wanting the freedom to take her first steps.

She held her hands out and examined them in wonderment. Then her gaze made its way down her naked body, which was still filling with life: skin becoming flush with blood and growing a more natural pink, muscles gaining tone and strength.

She put her fingers to her face and felt her cheeks and lips. Then her neck. Small ruby jewels of blood appeared around the stitches on her neck, which had been oozing greenish pus only moments before.

She opened her mouth as though she had just discovered it was there and puffed out air. She made an ah sound, and it surprised and delighted her.

Her trancelike wonder at her rebirth was interrupted by Mueller, who was clumsily trying to put a robe on her. This frightened her and she flinched away from him. She turned and looked at him, her eyes wide with horror.

“Charlotte, my love, it is me, Victor. You are safe now.”

She backed away from him like a startled fawn.

“Don’t you recognise me?” Mueller said, slowly moving towards her. “Search your memory. It is me.”

Risto rushed over to Mueller. “Remember, when you brought me back, I had to learn to talk again. I was like a child.”

“That was because you were an imbecile to begin with,” Mueller said angrily. “Charlotte is highly educated and has a brilliant mind!” He regained his composure and added, “She is just in shock. She will remember.”

He continued to walk forward. She continued to back away.

It was then I regained my senses and thought this might be a good time to make my escape. 

Mueller grabbed Charlotte’s wrist, and she shrieked and screamed. She broke away from Mueller and hid behind Risto for protection.

I took the diversion to dash for the door.

“You fool, stop him!” Mueller yelled at Risto, and in an instant he was blocking my escape. He punched me down to the floor with a fist to my jaw. 

I lay on the ground fighting to keep my consciousness. I looked up with blurry eyes and saw Mueller trying to restrain Charlotte, who was growling and scratching at him like an animal. 

Risto ran over. “No, master, she is just frightened!”

Charlotte bit Mueller’s hand until he let go from the pain. He slapped her hard with his other hand. 

She ran to Risto once again for protection, this time clinging to him.

“Charlotte,” Mueller pleaded. “I am sorry I hit you. Come here. Come to me, I am your husband, don’t you recognise me?”

She held on more tightly to Risto, hissing at Mueller like a cat.

I tried to stand, but dizziness overtook me, and I dropped to my knees.

“Do not hurt her,” Risto said, calmly but forcefully.

“I’m not going to hurt her! I brought her to life!” Mueller screamed. “Give her to me!”

Risto pushed her behind him and lunged at Mueller.

I started to lose consciousness, my mouth full of blood from Risto’s blow. I fell flat on my face and blacked out for a moment.

I came around for a second and saw Risto on his knees holding Mueller and sobbing. “I killed him! I killed my father!”

Charlotte ran up to console him and my eyelids closed once more and the world went black.

I was awakened by an icy wind on my face, which quickly revived me. It was dark. I was once more in the reindeer sledge. Risto was driving with Charlotte by his side. Neither one was wearing a coat, but Charlotte was dressed in men’s clothes.

They had me wrapped warmly in my fur coat and blankets. 

We drove for at least an hour more when we came to the lights of a farmhouse. Risto pulled the sleigh to a stop and told me to get out.

“Please do not come looking for us,” he said. “We have a right to live our own lives.” 

He pulled off into the darkness and that is the last I saw of them.

The farmer gave me a ride back towards Kokkola. We met Hammond and his men on the trail back.

As for Mueller’s lab, it shouldn’t be too hard to find. You are looking for an old monastery near the sea. It is on a river with a mill. When you find it, please destroy my blood. I know you will be tempted to salvage Mueller’s research, but I think no good can come from it. Just as the supernatural disturbs the natural order of things, I now know science can be bent to the will of a madman in similar ways.

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