If you’re into ’80s horror and anthologies like I am (and I’m guessing pretty much most of the other genre fans out there), then you should definitely grab a copy of Employee Picks to enjoy for yourself. Written by Brent Abell, Dillon Brown, Sean Cochrane, and Jack Wallen, Employee Picks gives us a wraparound story told throughout the book that features a group of young horror fans who stumble upon a mysterious VHS rental store, and are given four different movies that the store’s purveyor—Dante—promises will shock them to their very cores. Thus, setting up a series of individual stories written by the quartet of authors, all celebrating various elements from ’80s horror.
Daily Dead recently caught up with the writers behind Employee Picks to discuss their working relationship and how they initially came together on another writing project, the inspirations behind their chapters in Employee Picks, which four movies they would include in their own movie marathons, and more.
To grab a copy of Employee Picks for yourself, head on over to Amazon HERE.
Can you discuss how initially this book came together and the inspirations behind it? It feels very personal, and I don’t think I would be renting from Dante anytime soon, myself.
Brent Abell: It all started with a random message from some guy I’d never heard of on Messenger one day. Sean told me he knew Jack and wanted to see if I was interested in doing an anthology project. Before I answered, I hit up Jack to make sure this Sean guy was for real. Well, it turned out he was, and it led to one of the books I’m most proud of, Disquieted. Over the course of putting Disquieted together, the four of us became a pretty tight unit. It was only natural we continue working together, and our shared love of ’80s horror quickly became the focus of what Employee Picks would become.
Jack Wallen: We’d already put together the first Disquieted anthology and really enjoyed the project (and working together). During discussions for the second, we realized we all shared a love for ’80s horror and decided to do an homage to our favorite genre.
Sean Cochrane: Two years ago I quit drinking (May 2nd, 2019). I had been destroying my life, marriage, and everything around me with alcohol, and I made the decision to acknowledge I’m an alcoholic and take steps to fix the things I’d broken. I quickly realized there was a giant void—all the time I had spent drinking needed to be filled with something. I’ve been a writer since I was a child, but somewhere along the line I stopped being creative and focused all my energy on drinking. I decided I wanted to publish a book, but doing it alone was intimidating. So I reached out to Dillon and Jack. Jack recommended Brent, and we all came together to publish our first book, Disquieted: A Brief Horror Collection. I’m incredibly proud of that book and the fact that my name is on a published work, but the best outcome of that was the friendships we forged. A lot of our conversations had absolutely nothing to do with the book and were just four horror nerds geeking out. We had so much fun on Disquieted that we immediately wanted to do another, but this time have an overarching theme. We’re all huge ’80s horror fans, and I think it was Brent that suggested the VHS rental idea, and Dillon threw together some concept art. We were all in.
Dillon Brown: We had written another short story collection together about a year before starting Employee Picks and it was so much fun that we knew we wanted to get together again for another collaboration. We were casually throwing around ideas and somewhere during the conversation VHS tapes came up. Once we started in our love for video stores, it was an easy decision to take that route.
I know that you all wrote your own contributions for Employee Picks, but how did you handle the wraparound chapters? Was that a team effort or did you break them up into segments?
Jack Wallen: Initially, I don’t believe it was intended to tell a seamless story, as it turned out. Interestingly enough, as we started writing our wraparound stories, what originally looked like inconsistencies in the narrative worked in our favor, as we realized that portion of the book was actually telling the story of how the rented tapes affected each of the characters. It was a happy accident that led to something special.
Sean Cochrane: Brent had the beginning and ending idea, but we needed the rest of the wraparound pieces. I don’t recall whether he or Jack suggested the round robin approach, but it sounded fun. Dillon and I had never done it before, so we were excited about it.
Dillon Brown: We basically just assigned wraparound segments to everybody, and Brent handled the intro and outro portions. I'd never actually written a round robin style story before, so it was a ton of fun to just take a stab at my entry and then see what happened next. Every time someone uploaded their portion, I felt like a kid at Christmas because I couldn't wait to see how the next piece was going to fall into place.
Brent Abell: We were shooting ideas back and forth one day, and the idea of the wraparound came up. I’d worked on a few projects that used the wraparound or round robin styles of storytelling and thought it might be interesting to see how we could make it work for Employee Picks. I liked the challenge it brought to the table and was curious about what we could do with it as part of the book. Now, the thing we want readers to figure out is who wrote which segment. The connective tissue between the tales really helped give the book a fun, nostalgic narrative and gave each of us a chance to add our own touches to the era we were professing our love of. It was a fun bit of experimentation that worked out well. This is another instance of how our styles can blend together to create something fun for the readers… and ourselves.
Can you each discuss your main chapters and what were the influences on your respective chapters (I picked up quite a few vibes and nods, so I’m curious to see how close I might be in my own guesses)? But they all have such different approaches (especially “Who Am I?”) and they worked really well together.
Sean Cochrane: “Final Girl” is my love letter to ’80s slashers. I tried to throw in all the hallmarks and tropes that I could and added a few thinly veiled tips of my hat to icons in the genre. I have a “3 Bs” formula I use to judge slashers—beer, boobs, and blood—that I made sure to follow, and I also tried to keep it a bit self-aware. I also wanted to switch up the final girl trope a bit. We’re all used to seeing the naive virgin survive by the skin of her teeth or, on the other end of the spectrum, a woman suffers abuse and exacts her revenge. I didn't want Tammy to have to be a victim in order to be a badass. My story in Disquieted made that mistake, and I’m not putting any more girls in refrigerators. More than anything, I wanted it to be a fun story, and I think I accomplished that.
Brent Abell: “The Bone Box” was my wink and nod to one of my favorite movies as a kid, The Gate. When I wrote the scene of the little bone bodies in the bedroom, I remembered the scene of the little demon dudes coming up from the hole in the backyard in the movie. Nothing explains my childhood more than that film does. There is also the theme of something getting their revenge, like in HBO’s Tales From the Crypt. I had the luckiest childhood. My impressionable early years were spent watching Tales from the Crypt, Freddy’s Nightmares, Friday the 13th: The Series, Monsters, Tales from the Darkside, and the new Twilight Zone. The syndicated and cable horror anthology shows were where I really connected to the genre, and it helped me be the me I am today.
Jack Wallen: “Who Am I?” is a nod to a particular scene in Hellraiser, with the skinning of Uncle Frank. I share a similar fascination to Clive Barker in this (a theme which comes up frequently in his work), in how we all wear masks to hide some other beneath the flesh. For some, that other is a monster; for others, it’s more an extension of the truest self.
Dillon Brown: So my story, “The Dinner Party,” is heavily influenced by John Carpenter's The Fog. I absolutely love that film and wanted to pay some homages to it with my characters. I'm also a fan of Native American folklore and I happen to live about 15 miles from where the actual Donner Party incident happened in Northern California, so tackling cannibals, the undead, rituals, and a very pissed-off forest creature just seemed perfect for me.
Did you guys work out who would be tackling what kind of story for the book ahead of time, or did it just work out a certain way on its own? In your eyes, how do you feel like your style complements the style of your fellow writers in Employee Picks?
Jack Wallen: Not at all. The one thing about this anthology series is that we trust each other to deliver the goods, so there’s no need to dictate anything other than the theme.
Sean Cochrane: When I gathered the group to make Disquieted, my only direction was “a short horror story.” My approach is “let artists make their art.” That hasn’t changed. We came up with the theme for Employee Picks and we each retreated into our own workshops for a long while to let each other make our art. We each definitely have a different approach, different tastes, and different influences; but there’s a strong trust between us. At one point when we were discussing the wraparound ending, Brent just said, “I have an idea. Trust me, I’m a horror author.” And we did. I want that on a t-shirt: “Trust me, I’m a horror author.”
Dillon Brown: The only thing we really discussed ahead of time was that it would feel like a 1980s horror film and that we wanted to have this wraparound story about a video store. And then we all just sort of fell silent for about a month while we worked. It was so cool to see it all come together, because we definitely had our own unique stances on the genre. I'm the youngest of the bunch, so I had to rely on what I knew from watching the films of the ’80s rather than actually experiencing them when they first came out. I didn't fall in love with horror until I was about 12 or 13, so I spent most of the ’90s catching up on the ’70s and ’80s.
Brent Abell: No, we let the horror flow through us. In a short amount of time, the four of us have built an incredibly high amount of trust in each other. Jack and I have worked together before, and we knew what to expect from each other. When Sean and Dillon were added to the mix, we became a solid team. The trust between the four of us is something I’ve found refreshing and reinvigorating. I trust that whatever theme we come up with, the other guys will bring something fun and unique to the table. I think we all complement each other due to our different styles. We are four distinct voices, but we sound like a unified scream in the genre when we put our voices together.
Because the crux of this book is centered around cursed horror movies that these characters pick up at a video store, what would be your ideal four-movie marathon then?
Sean Cochrane: Man! Such an unfair question! It’s so hard to go with just four. I’ll give it a go, though. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Hellraiser, Hatchet, and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Card subject to change…
Brent Abell: Ugh, only four? The Howling, Hellraiser, Jacob’s Ladder (the original), and In the Mouth of Madness. I could go on and on and on…
Dillon Brown: I'd have to go: Jaws, The Thing, Scream, and Jurassic Park. Definitely a mish-mash of flicks there, but all dear to my heart, and Jurassic Park, although not horror, was my first intro to scary moments in a theater and remains my favorite film of all time, so it's always included in a marathon.
Jack Wallen: Hellraiser, Pumpkinhead, Hereditary, and The Conjuring.
What’s been your biggest takeaway from your experience writing Employee Picks?
Dillon Brown: We're four very different dudes who happen to all love horror. Spread out all across the U.S., we've come together over creating stories and it's been such a damn fun experience for me. I've used the other guys' work as tools to aid in my own writing as well, so that's been a ton of fun. And I know this: we'll be writing another one together soon!
Sean Cochrane: This one’s easy. It’s the friendship. As I said before, we’re a group of horror nerds that like to geek out together; we just happen to write stories as a group, too.
Jack Wallen: Having a group of writers who really just want to create something fun and creepy, sans all of the drama that can rise up when artists gather for such a thing, is all the incentive I need to want to keep this thing going. Working with Brent, Sean, and Dillon is as awesome as Trick ’r Treat on Halloween.
Brent Abell: The experience of writing both books has been a breath of fresh air. There are times where you reach the point of not having any fun writing anymore. The drama and other crap can weigh heavily on someone. When I did these books, it gave me a chance to relax and have fun again. The two books recharged my batteries, and I’m ready to go a few more rounds. It meant a lot finding a solid group to work with where we support each other. The most important thing that’s come out of this endeavor has been the friendship and tight bonds we’ve formed. We have plenty more things in mind, and we hope you will all join us for a walk through the cemetery while we tell some scary stories together. The four of us have lots more to tell you…
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