Leigh Paynter provided me a copy of her book, The Pine Barrens’ Devil, to review. I enjoyed the book so much that I asked Leigh for an interview and I am thrilled she agreed. The Pine Barrens’ Devil is a collection of stories about the Jersey Devil, each set in a different time period. In Leigh’s book, the Jersey Devil is an intelligent, seductive, and manipulative being able to pinpoint and use the insecurities, desires, fears, and misdirections of his human prey as an opportunity to pounce. The devil, in this book, does not pull humans apart with his teeth or claws, but with psychological mind play.
The Jersey Devil is not the only central character of the book, but it is also the vast, confusing forest. The forest is a living being that seems to suck in the human visitors of each story. Get lost in the woods and you might find yourself trapped in another dimension, like a mouse in the Jersey Devil’s cage. After reading each story, you might find yourself reaching out for something tangible (a wall, a chair, your dog) to ensure you were not absorbed into the Pine Barrens as well.
The book, less than 150 pages, is a quick and spooky read, perfect for a stormy night or while sitting outside on a cool autumn evening. You could read it while camping but, after reading the book, I recommend you “Stay out of the forest!” (My Favorite Murder). With digital and print format under five dollars, this book is a spooky bargain.
I was excited to learn more about Leigh’s book and writing process. Enjoy the interview below and then check out the book for yourself!
For those unfamiliar with New Jersey, could you explain what the Pine Barrens is (and is like) and your experiences with the area?
The Pine Barrens is 1.1 million acres of relatively untouched pine and cedar forest that stretches across the middle of New Jersey. The soil is sandy, so it’s not good for farming, but the water, despite being brown in color, is chemically pure. The U.S government describes it as being like glacial ice water.
Having grown up near the Pine Barrens, it can be scary because it’s very easy to get lost in it if you are not following the river. Adding to the creepiness are several abandoned colonial and mid-1800 era villages.
My favorite location is Batsto Village. It’s an old ironworks village from pre-Revolutionary times that has most of the original buildings still standing and is beautiful during the fall.
Who is the Jersey Devil? And, how much does the Jersey Devil permeate the culture of New Jersey? Your life?
Most South Jerseyans grew up hearing about the Jersey Devil. The professional hockey team is even named “The New Jersey Devils.” The legend says in the 1700s the Jersey Devil was born a beautiful boy to a Mrs. Leeds, who didn’t want to have a 13th child. She cursed him during childbirth. Shortly after he was born, he started to turn from a chubby, blue-eyed baby into a demon who flew out the chimney and into the Pine Barrens.
The stories of missing livestock, strange tracks, odd noises and bizarre creature sightings all direct back to the mysterious Jersey Devil. There have been multiple newspaper articles written about the Jersey Devil, a few movies and books, and a diner called Lucille’s Country Cooking that has a wooden statue of the Jersey Devil outside.
My younger brother and I loved being scared and we would seek out books on cryptids and monsters at the library when we were kids. We both experienced night terrors and I started using those nightmares as inspiration for campfire stories.
In your stories, the Jersey Devil is sort of a chess player and the humans that wander into his woods are his pawns. What made you portray the Jersey Devil in such a way?
My mother first told me the legend of the Jersey Devil and perhaps because of the way she told it – she sounded so sad when she said his mother didn’t want him – I always grew up seeing the Jersey Devil as a sympathetic character and more man than creature.
As a kid, I loved Washington Irving’s stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, and I gravitated to the idea that the protagonists were not heroes, but flawed people.
While writing The Pine Barrens’ Devil, I used real people who had been in the subject of national news as inspiration. I’ve always been curious about what people are truly capable of – is evil something that will inevitably come out or does it take an experience, an opportunity, or a test to reveal itself?
What inspired you to write these stories? And, since each story is set in a different time period, what type of research did you do? How much were you inspired by Jersey Devil folklore?
I first started telling these stories as a middle school-aged kid to entertain my little brother. Chapter Four I created in high school. They were always oral stories, but my brother asked me back in 2012 to write them down for him. He died in 2014 after a long battle with veteran’s PTSD.
Translating an oral campfire story into a written story required a lot more work, so these are not exactly as my brother would remember them. I needed to build out the characters and provide more detail for someone not familiar with New Jersey or the legend.
Being from New Jersey, I know that New Jerseyans would be very insulted if I did not accurately portray the history and geography of the state. I spent a whole year gathering research on what actually was around during certain time periods: what the towns’ original names were under British rule, dates of certain historical events, and how tall trees in the Pine Barrens could grow, for example.
I did change the original legend, because I learned that Benjamin Franklin may have made up the whole story to tarnish the reputation of Titan Leeds, a rival publisher. The strange sightings also predate Benjamin Franklin and the legend.
This is your first book (right?), could you share the experience of writing your first book for those that may be interested in doing so in the future?
I never intended to be an author. This was a gift to honor my late brother, Jared. The whole process took two years, but mostly because I needed to do so much research on New Jersey’s history.
I wanted to keep it short for a first book, so it’s novella length – just slightly longer than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
For new writers, I highly recommend hiring a freelance professional editor. I hired two through Reedsy – the first was an editor from Simon & Schuster, who gave me an editorial assessment. Then after I made revisions, I hired a second editor from Penguin Random House to copy edit and proofread. I also hired a digital artist, who I discovered on Instagram to do my book’s cover art.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I saw an opportunity to get my book out right away by self-publishing through Amazon and hopefully reach people bored sheltering in place. Amazon has a user-friendly platform and you’re able to make changes and market on the website and Kindle. Amazon also did a great job on paperback publishing.
I set up a website to help further promote my book, but since the pandemic shut down many events this year such as cryptid and horror cons and Halloween book readings, the best help has been to find influencers that can introduce the book to a bigger audience.
You can purchase the book on Amazon in both Kindle ($2.99) and print ($4.99) format.