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Carnegie horror author finds instant success with 1st novel

| Friday, April 15, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
J.D. Barker is a horror and suspense writer who recently moved to Pittsburgh.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
J.D. Barker is a horror and suspense writer who recently moved to Pittsburgh.

He is an emerging talent in horror and slated to re-work one of the genre's most fabled legends. For his first novel, he borrowed a character from Stephen King's oeuvre, with the grandmaster's blessing. His second novel, due to be published next year, is attracting interest from major film studios.

If J.D. Barker wanted to crow about his achievements, no one would blame him. But the relatively new Carnegie resident — he moved to Western Pennsylvania with his wife, Dayna, in October 2015 — is quiet and unassuming, even as his profile increases.

How down-to-earth is Barker? He left the warmer climes of Florida on purpose in order to move to Pittsburgh. OK, his wife does have family in the area. But the Barkers still get strange looks when they tell people about their relocation.

“Florida is nice to visit,” Barker says, “but if you're down there in the middle of July when it's 110 degrees and you start sweating when you walk to your mailbox, it gets old really quick. One of the things I like about here is the cold, as silly as that may sound. I like it being cold when I wake up in the morning; I like walking the dog in the cold. I enjoy it.”

And fans and critics of the horror genre seem to enjoy his work. Barker's first novel, “Forsaken” (Hampton Creek Press), was a best-seller and garnered a nomination for a Bram Stoker Award for best first novel. It didn't win, but the author got a far more substantial reward: Dacre Stoker, grandnephew of Bram Stoker, asked Barker if he'd be interested in writing a prequel to “Dracula.” A further inducement: Barker would be given access to a trove of Bram Stoker's materials, including a journal and an alternate version of the classic horror story.

“There's a Dracula story we all know here in the U.S.,” Barker says. “But we're finding, as we translate versions of ‘Dracula' from other countries, the story is different, and not just subtle differences. We've got totally different characters, different scenarios. We're trying to figure out how that happened, if the English publisher made drastic changes to the manuscript and other countries didn't.”

Barker's second novel, “The Fourth Monkey,” is slated to be released in spring 2017. It's already piqued the interest of a few movie studios, and the author hopes film rights will soon be sold.

Not bad for a guy who once wrote profiles of Poison, New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson and other artists with teen appeal for Florida newspapers and national magazines, including Teen Beat and Seventeen. There are some lessons he learned from penning those stories that he still uses in his novels.

“I'm constantly watching people,” he says, “so it really doesn't matter what scenario I'm dropped into. With musicians, you see the extreme end of it. … That unfiltered language, when it comes to writing dialogue, it's huge.”

For “Forsaken,” Barker used Leland Gaunt, the shopkeeper from King's “Needful Things,” as a character. Which, obviously, was problematic without King's acquiescence.

Through an acquaintance, Barker obtained King's email address, sent a message and hoped for the best. Much to Barker's delight, King replied four hours later and gave him permission to use the character. Beyond that, King has acted as a sounding board for Barker.

“Every once in a while, I pick his brain,” Barker says. “… The fact that he takes time out to do that speaks a lot to his character. I'm forever indebted to him.”

Barker and his wife soon will move to a home they've purchased in Brentwood. They are expecting twins, so there will be more changes. No matter what happens, however, he'll keep writing, keep trying to dazzle and delight and sometimes shock his readers with the genre's ability to examine the extremes of human emotions.

“I don't get too dark,” Barker says. “I have a lot of fun with it. … If I'm writing in the dark and I write something that forces me to turn on the lights, I know I'm on to something.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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