After an aborted trip to Stephen King’s vacation house, a successful indie thriller, and a subsequent Bram Stoker Award nomination, author J.D. Barker’s career is only getting more unusual: the writer has been tapped to coauthor a prequel to Dracula with Dacre Stoker, Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew. “I’ve received over 500 emails and messages on social media telling me not to flub this up,” Barker says. “It’s extremely daunting.” While he can’t reveal any spoilers, Barker says they’ve created a book—with the blessing of the family estate—that Bram Stoker would be proud of. But how did a relatively unknown indie author end up cowriting a prequel to one of the world’s most popular novels?

It began when the pair met at the Bram Stoker Awards in May 2015. Barker’s Forsaken was a finalist for the award for best first novel, and Stoker was a presenter. “I gave him a copy of Forsaken, and we parted ways an hour or so later,” Barker says. Stoker read the book and liked it, and got in touch to ask whether Barker would be interested in coauthoring a Dracula prequel. (Stoker had previously written the authorized Dracula sequel, Dracula the Un-dead.) “At that point,” Barker says, “I checked the room for cameras and waited for Ashton Kutcher to jump out to tell me I had been Punk’d.” When he realized the offer was genuine, he accepted, and the pair got down to work.

Barker began his career writing for outlets like Teen Beat and Seventeen, interviewing Debbie Gibson, Bon Jovi, New Kids on the Block, and others. He also worked alongside Brian Warner, the man who would later become Marilyn Manson, at a magazine called 25th Parallel. After realizing that journalism wasn’t for him, Barker rediscovered his love of fiction and began working toward writing and eventually publishing his first novel—the story of a successful horror author who writes a disturbing tale of a 16th-century girl on trial for witchcraft. He sent hundreds of query letters to agents but became discouraged by the lack of response. “I knew I had a good story, but I couldn’t get a single person to take a look at it, let alone get me in front of a publisher,” he says. “I decided I might be better off proving myself on the indie path and approaching the publishers down the road with a strong track record behind me.” Forsaken has attracted a loyal following since its release in November 2014. “I’ve received drawings of the characters from all around the world,” Barker says. “One reader in the U.K. painted a picture of one of the monsters on glass.” Forsaken reached the top 100 bestseller list on Amazon in the U.S. and U.K. and the #1 spot on Amazon Canada. It also hit the #2 spot on Audible. “I got stuck behind Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman,” Barker says.

It probably also helps that the book has a tangential connection to King: one of Barker’s characters buys a journal from a Mr. Leland Gaunt at an antique store called Needful Things—a reference recognizable to fans of the King book of the same name. After an aborted attempt to show up at the doorstep of King’s Florida vacation home to ask permission for the reference (fear of snipers turned him back), he decided to email King’s assistant instead. A quick exchange confirmed that King was fine with this. “To this day, I’m afraid to check my email for fear of finding a reversal,” Barker says.

The prospect of creating the prequel poses the biggest challenge for Barker. “Dracula has fans worldwide, and to many people—myself included—the book is sacred ground,” he says. For their background research, he and Stoker met to investigate a trunk full of Bram Stoker’s personal papers—everything from maps and receipts to diaries collected from the famous author’s family members over the years. “Parts of Dracula were actually written in a daily planner, and [Dacre] had copies on hand,” Barker says. Bram Stoker’s revisions to his famous book are evident as “Dracula” finally replaces the author’s original name for the character, “Count Wampyr,” in the various drafts. “It’s impossible to see this and not picture Bram at the moment his legendary character was born,” Barker says. Amid all the papers, an idea for the prequel began to take shape. “As I dove into his notes, I quickly realized Bram fully believed vampires were real,” Barker says. “Our novel explains why.”

Barker advises fans that the best place to keep up to date on the project is Once the final draft is complete, the plan is to shop it to traditional publishers. In the meantime, he is also working on his next novel, a suspense/thriller crossover set in Chicago called The Fourth Monkey.