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Terror in East Texas

Austin novelist Bruce McCandless on Sour Lake, his sci-fi thriller three years in the making

Austin photo: Contributor_Michael Graupmann
Austin photo: News_McCandless_Sour Lake_Jun 2012_cover
Austin photo: News_McCandless_Sour Lake_Jun 2012_headshot
Bruce McCandless III

Novelist Bruce McCandless is a huge fan of obscure Texas history.

Having grown up in Houston and Austin, the lifelong Texan knows full well the amazing stories of the people and politics that have swept over this immense, ever-changing state. And it is within Texas's borders that McCandless chooses to introduce a little bit of added mystery into the mix.

In his latest historical novel, Sour Lake, or The Beast, the Austin author drops a horrible, deadly monster in the woods outside turn-of-the-century Atcheson, TX, to terrorize and feed upon the unsuspecting townsfolk.

"Sour Lake is a real place, as is the town of Atcheson; but my depiction of it is based on several towns that existed during the early 1900s," explains McCandless about his process. "I do a lot of research on the history of the time period — newspapers, journals, old Sears catalogs — to learn how people lived and talked and thought back then. I spend a long time giving them authenticity."

As you might expect, there is more to the monster than meets the eye, and it takes the combined wit of the town's sheriff, a nomadic drifter and a mysterious government official to get to the bottom of the gruesome case. The beast is not even the real villain of the story; and that individual's membership in a shadowy organization will surprise history fans and sci-fi buffs alike.

"Finding a villain is harder and harder these days because of stereotypes and expectations of what a villain can be, and I want to avoid that," says McCandless. "The chief villain is part of a group that really does exist. At the time I started writing this book, it came to my attention almost by accident and I couldn't help but learn more about it."

Fans of H. P. Lovecraft's ominous, otherworldly creatures will appreciate the intentionally vague description of the "Atcheson Horror" that lets your mind fill in the terrifying details yourself.

"That's the classic problem with writing monsters: how you parcel out the details without giving away too much," McCandless laughs. "A monster seen too early loses its mystery, like in old horror movies. Finding that balance was probably the hardest part of writing the story."

McCandless says he got the initial idea for the story from a dream that he quickly interpreted into a long form poem. The more he wrote, the more invested he became with his characters and their back stories, and pretty soon he felt a plot was forming amongst his chosen setting.

A self-proclaimed fan of historically-based action movies like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and fantasy novels like George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, the author was pleased by how this story "consumed" him, driven forward with an urging plotline that demanded a full novel's length to complete.

Even so, with his busy day job as a plaintiff attorney and as the father of young girls, McCandless admits that he writes only intermittenly, when he can find the time to focus his attentions on reseraching and writing about the past. "I'm actually a textbook case of the wrong way to write a novel," he muses. "It took me three years to finish once I decided to expand the initial story into a novel."

The novel found an initial audience after a small local print run and availablity at BookPeople and through e-books. Since then, he has found fans across Texas, at various signings in Houston and San Antonio.

Soon after the book's release, McCandless was contacted by the author of Weird Texas who shares his fascination with unusual and unexplained Texas phenomena. "It's exciting to think that other people are out there reading this, but I sometimes have to remind people that, while some of the setting is based on fact, this is not a real story," he says.

At the same time, McCandless understands the allure of rewriting history with a supernatural twist. He counts Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead as clear inspiration for his work and interests. "I love when you can't easily separate what's real and what's not."

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Sour Lake, or the Beast is available online or at BookPeople, where McCandless will also be doing a reading and signing on July 6 for a hosted local author night.

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