SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Alan Gibson owns a pick-your-own pumpkin and Christmas tree farm. Not typically the stuff of horror fiction.
But that’s exactly the setting he used as the setting for his new book, “The Dead of Winter,” about two couples who come to a farm much like the one Gibson owns for a weekend respite from city life. They go on a haunted hayride for fun. That’s when the murders begin.
Thirteen years ago, Gibson and his partner, Scott Beard, bought Ridgefield Farm, an established destination farm begun 20 years ago. “We were going to stay five years,” he said. The couple came to like rural living on the edge of Shepherdstown, a small college community brimming with culture.
Gibson writes ad copy, but he never thought of himself as a writer. Still, he always wanted to write a novel. “A couple of years ago, we were flying to California, to a conference at Disneyland,” he said. He thought about a scenario where city people encountered more haunting than they expected. His imagination went to work.
“By the time we landed, I had outlined a horror movie,” Gibson said. Gibson writes many commercials, and thought film would be his genre of choice.
He wrote what he thought was a script about two couples from Washington, D.C., who travel to the West Virginia countryside for a fall weekend of pumpkins, cider, corn mazes and lighthearted hauntings.
“It’s all very family-friendly,” he said. “It is a good scare.” The story morphed into a book, however. Plans for the movie kept getting shelved, and Gibson decided to self-publish his story as a book. It took him about two and a half months to write the draft, working late into the evening and early mornings, around his advertising accounts.
The novel focuses on atmospheric horror, in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King. While there’s some blood and gore, he imagined a scenario where a protagonist disappears. The West Virginia backdrop, with its dark nights, rural farmland, and locals who provide more frights than their visitors bargained for, gives the novel a true horror movie feel.
In the book, Ridgefield Farm is not only a destination farm, but the house is a bed and breakfast. In reality, there’s no B&B. In the novel, a foursome come to spend the weekend on the farm, to pick pumpkins and apples. But the crisp, fall getaway they sought turns horrible.
A lifelike spooky hayride, chainsaws popping up unexpectedly, hillbilly accents that suddenly stop being hillbilly, and lost wi-fi and cell service all point to a world that is not what it seems. And that’s Gibson’s intent.
One of the weapons is a figure skate, an idea he ran across former Olympic champion skater and medical doctor Tenley Albright, whom he recently met. “She thought that was a good idea.” Much of the action takes place in the basement of the century old farmstead. The farm’s wind machine also plays a role.
Gibson is halfway through a sequel, involving Appalachian Trail hikers and the trail’s slogan, “Leave no trace.” “It’s a thriller with horror elements,” Gibson said. “The first novel was a horror with thriller elements.”
He wrote the first book in present tense, and got some nice reviews, including one from the Kirkus Service. “Josh and company are prone to occasional bouts of stupidity, much like characters in a slasher film; for example, they really should have stopped drinking Ma’s cider,” the reviewer wrote.
The review continued, “Nevertheless, Gibson knows that readers have seen this type of story before and delivers an enjoyable romp that’s alternately terrifying and foreboding. The main characters are initially unsympathetic when they mock the townies, but readers will cheer them on after their story turns into a bloody fight to survive. Gibson’s also not above spurts of black comedy, as when one character coldly notes, ‘Curiosity killed that cat. That an’ a chainsaw.’ Although readers will know what to expect, this spine-tingling book will still induce shrieks.”
Gibson, who gives his age as “in my 60s,” continues with his advertising business. He has a degree from Washington and Lee University in linguistics, and teaches a course at Shepherd University. He’’s also working on a social media platform with a classmate from Washington and Lee, and the farm requires a good bit of his time. The farm has 2,500 apple trees, with a dozen varieties.
He’s got many more book ideas, and he’s still working on turning the first novel into a movie.