Jeff Strand and I are best frenemies. How it happened is complicated, and Jeff detailed his feelings for it in the introduction to my first book. Which is, still, by the way, available at Amazon.

I've put off my own side of it for a long time. I'd say around twenty years. I guess it's time to pull the trigger and see if anyone loses an eye.

I had a very high profile back around the early 2000's. The Shocklines Message Board was the hub of the horror fiction community, and I was its moderator and main provocateur. A lot of people, writers, readers, publishers, came to me with requests.

Jeff contacted me at one point. I couldn't say what year it was. 2002 maybe? He said that he thought I was a prime example of his target audience. He wanted to send me some books. I sat up like a dog and begged for the literary treats.

Books dutifully arrived in my mailbox. It was two or three of his Andrew Mayhem novels, and a stand-alone called Mandibles. I didn't wait long to dig in.

Here's the hard part. I, I...

I didn't like them. The humor was a bit too broad and heavy-handed for my taste.

This might make me seem like an jerk. I didn't relish my dislike of the material. I felt guilty about it. Honestly, I felt like pure shit.

This begs some questions. If someone does not like your writing, is that person an asshole? The cool crowd loved to support the genre. Maybe it's best to lie, or at least stretch the truth, and praise books we honestly do not like? It happens all the time. I've had writers confess to me that they hated a book, but since that author praised their books, they feel obligated to reciprocate.

Is it all right for a friend to dislike another friend's book? Can they be honest with each other?

I didn't want to publicly say I disliked the books. Doing so seemed gauche. This is why I almost never accept free books for review anymore. If I pay for a book, I feel like I have the right to take a piss on it if I hate it. I've earned the privilege. Even if I get it from the library. I don't like to bite a hand that is trying to feed me.

So I said nothing. I hoped Jeff would forget, but of course he didn't. He is a classy guy who did not bug me about whether I read the books or not. I really hate writers who do that.

I'm sure he felt bad about it. I felt bad. I'm the kind of guy who feels guilty if I don't like a book, and I feel guilty if someone does not like mine. Especially if they paid hard-won cash for it.

Time passed. I guess I inadvertently snubbed Jeff here and there in the ensuing years. I suppose I've done that to quite a few people. I'm sorry. I can't be everything for everyone.

People told me to give Jeff Strand another chance. I was skeptical, but when I saw a Leisure paperback of Pressure at a thrift store, I took a chance. I was assured it was his best novel.

Guess what? I loved Pressure. I felt it was a hard-hitting, tough suspense novel that ratcheted up the tension until the nerve rattling finale.

I picked up some Strand titles here and there after that. I mostly enjoyed them all. A funny thing happened along the way. Jeff and I began playfully sparring online. It was playful on my part, but residual guilt played a role in it. Just as I assume residual resentment played a role on his end of things.

The thing is, I really like Jeff Strand. He's funny, he's smart, and he knows as much about horror as I do. He's always been great to me. When I had drives to keep Horror Drive-In open, Jeff always contributed. The first time I met him in person, he and his wife bought my lunch.

We are friends now. I like to think the playing field has leveled out. I buy Jeff's books at Amazon. I hand over hard cash at conventions for them. He in turn has been generous to me. His wife's wonderful art graces the covers of my books.

I enjoy most of his books. I didn't really care for Clowns Vs. Spiders, which felt like the early ones I didn't like. I downright love a lot of them. One of his most recent publications, Twentieth Anniversary Screening, is a big favorite.

Dweller is considered the other best book by Jeff Strand. I finally bought a copy, direct from the sinister Mr. Strand, at the first Authorcon convention in Williamsburg, VA. I was unsure about a story dealing with a boy and his monster, but I plunged in earlier this week.

Dweller takes the place of Pressure as my favorite Jeff Strand to date.

Jeff's books tend to be very fast-paced, and highly entertaining (and also pretty sick), but Dweller has more depth than many of them. It's a heartrending story of a boy who makes the acquaintance of a hairy beast with deadly fangs and claws in the woods. A bullied and unpopular kid, Toby puts all his love into the relationship with Owen the monster. The friendship brings great joy and unimaginable horror to both their lives.

Despite violence and death plaguing the pair, both are highly sympathetic characters. Most horror people are misfits with messed-up childhoods, and I'm no exception. I could wholeheartedly relate to Toby.

The story takes place over the decades of their lives. I couldn't guess where Jeff was taking me at any point, and I was continually surprised and moved as the events unfolded. It becomes a given that tragedy follows the two unlikely friends, and the finale is as grisly as it is heartbreaking.

Owen is the most sympathetic creature I've seen since I re-watched Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's tormented monster in the James Whale movie. Toby's fate is as sealed as Colin Clive's in the same picture.

I'm glad I gave Jeff another chance, because I have really enjoyed his work. I'm also glad he gave me a chance to prove I am not such an inhuman beast.

Written by Mark Sieber

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