San Diego’s Mysterious Galaxy bookstore manages to strike a welcoming balance between homey and gothic. Dark purple walls and grey, well-stuffed shelves give their inventory—a specialized blend of horror, science fiction, and mystery—the feel of a collection of dusty, forgotten treasures in the attic of a slightly creepy literature professor. (I wish to point out that the shop is very well kept, lest I appear to be disparaging the cleanliness standards of the venerable Mysterious Galaxy staff). A stuffed Yoda doll attached to the wall near the sci-fi section, and a full-sized, plastic gargoyle perched on the corner of a horror shelf, greet you as you progress toward the back of the room. The oddly friendly atmosphere weaved into the shadows gives one the impression that the Gargoyle probably has a name. I imagine that it’s something like, “Fred,” or, “Chuckles.”
The store boasts little open floor space, but the wide area near the front counter was plenty for the intimate crowd that showed up for a Sunday afternoon book signing by young adult fiction authors Gretchen McNeil and Christine Fonseca. I realized just how intimate the event was going to be when McNeil scanned the room and said, “well, at least we don’t outnumber the crowd this time. No, we do outnumber the crowd, because you,” she added, pointing to me, “are the only stranger here.”
The small number of attendees and the fact that everyone there knew one another (and the authors) except me, made it easy for me to interact with the presenting authors and join in the conversation. Each author gave a brief talk on her book, and the process that went into developing it, followed by a short reading from the text.
After Fonseca offered a dramatic, impassioned rendition of the love letter that opens her Phantom- of- the- Opera- inspired novel, Transcend, it was McNeil’s turn to tell us the story behind the story in relation to her newest work, Ten, a high-tension horror story about a group of teenagers trapped on an island with a serial killer. McNeil mentioned that, during the process of developing the novel, her editor handed a version of the text back to her with a general note: “not scary enough.” After bringing that up, the author read a scene from the first act of the novel that involves a slow build of tension followed by a sickening discovery. After she finished her reading, I asked, “your editor said it wasn’t scary enough after reading that scene? I don’t understand.”
She laughed, explaining that what really went into making scenes like that one, “scarier”, i.e. giving them the punch and power that they deserved, was stretching out the details in order to serve the tension: “it’s about letting her walk up the stairs…have the thought, ‘if I fell here, I would break my neck’…ask herself, ‘why am I always so morbid’…hear the squeaking sound…and then look up and see the…” (the end of this statement is a major spoiler. I will not be including it. You’re welcome). McNeil credits her editor with helping her to take those rough, core scenes and stretch them out in just the right places to maximize the tension.
When McNeil found out that I had already finished the book, and had been unable to guess who the killer was, she indulged in a celebratory, “yes!” moment before explaining that she asks that question every time someone tells her that they enjoyed, Ten. Her love of building an engaging mystery makes the fact that her readers were unable to guess the ending—that we had a genuine surprise—the most rewarding part of hearing our praise of the book. This simple, unguarded moment between author and reader reinforces the most beautiful aspect of that relationship: the fact that, in the end, authors and readers are just fellow lovers of story, engaged in a long- distance game that offers challenges and simple pleasures to both. Thanks to Mysterious Galaxy bookstore and other event hosts like them, there are moments when the, “long distance” part of the game gets to narrow, allowing the players to enjoy the field face-to-face, on equal terms.