Source: Issue 1 Cover Reveal
Kurt Amacker can seem like a walking contradiction at first, in some ways. Once you get to know him a bit, though, he only gets weirder.
That probably explains why we get along. He’s a man of an often stern, deadpan demeanor, though also ribald, frequently brazenly opinionated, also an educated, thoughtful, uncommonly articulate, sensitive friend, the kind of guy anyone should want on their side when life gets rough…a gentleman and a scholar, in the truest sense. He’s also, clearly, possessed of a wild, twisted imagination, manifesting itself vividly in successful underground comics like Immortal: 60, Tad Caldwell and the Monster Kid, Cradle of Filth: The Venus Aversa, and the forthcoming Dead Souls: Resurrection.
His first prose novel, Bloody October, now available from Dark Notes Press, promised to be a treat. It was certainly that, decidedly not what the lurid retro-pulp cover-art would lead one to expect…though Kurt’s never been one to pander to expectations.
In any case, after I read an early copy of the novel, Kurt was kind enough to answer some of my questions on it.
In writing your take on the vampire tale, you smartly sidestepped a lot of tired clichés by fundamentally altering a lot of the typical “rules” from the start. What core aspects of the vampire myth resonate with you strongest, and how did you seek to explore those themes and make them your own? What works in this broad mythology (of folklore, literature, film, etc.) have stuck with you, and how did those influence/inform upon your story/characters?
KA: The aspect that resonates with me strongest is the existential dilemma presented by immortality. I explored this already in Dead Souls (my first comic book miniseries), but I wanted to show a character dealing with the more mundane aspects of it. John Devereux’s greatest problem is that he’s bored, and the world has changed around him. The “lonely vampire” thing has been done to death elsewhere. I didn’t want the boredom and depression that would arise in his situation to look poetic or romantic. For reasons that are revealed in the book, he’s realized that he can’t help the people he loves after a certain point. So, he drinks a lot and distracts himself. That, to me, is more realistic than keeping a journal by candlelight, while staring at the full moon.
Vampire folklore and mythology didn’t influence John Devereux much as a character. However, we hearken back to those older stories from Eastern Europe. Jason Castaing meets Lord Chaz and Maven Lore, and they tell him about the difference between the vampires of folklore and more contemporary depictions. But, John and his situation were influenced more by offbeat or independent vampire films, like Nadja, The Addiction, Habit, and Vamps. I also read Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends, because it had more of the tone and tenor I was looking for—sardonic, realistic, and just a little funny.
This isn’t the first story I’ve read to feature a humanized/sympathetic/misunderstood vampire as the main character, with misguided humans as the real antagonists. In other cases I recall, though, they were typically would-be-Van-Helsing vampire-hunter types, an obvious allegory for bigoted humans fearing and attacking what they don’t understand (P.N. Elrod’s Jack Fleming novels come to mind as my first encounter with this). On some level, the wannabe-vampire cultists serve the same function, seeking to pressure a creature they don’t understand into sharing his powers, with no idea what they’re asking for. This rings true on pretty much the same levels to me, about some of the worst tendencies we, as humans, are all capable of. How did that idea come about and evolve?
KA: People are obsessed with vampires. I’ve seen that fixation really feed into larger personal problems. You get the feeling that some people are leaning on this very powerful archetype to compensate for other things that might be missing. But, I think anyone that has spent time around fandom knows that this applies to many genres, sects, and subcultures. People can destroy their lives with an unhealthy fixation on anything, be that music or even Star Wars. I wanted to really push the envelope on that idea’s logical outcome. In this case, there is one vampire who absolutely refuses to share his “situation.” That, in and of itself, should dissuade most reasonable people. If I ask you for half of your sandwich and you say no, that should be the end of the conversation. But, some people are so obsessed with an idea or a person, that they’ll do anything—even to the object of their fixation—to get near them.
I’ve also seen it when it comes to celebrities and working with talent. I’ve done some stuff with bands and other artists in the past—everything from live show production, location scouting for music videos, DJing, interviews, journalism and a passel of other things. And, I’ve seen otherwise reasonable people I knew really lose their cool when I had a chance to introduce them to someone famous. In some cases, people would outright lie or otherwise behave unethically to get the attention of the talent. I remember one girl in Finland trying to physically move me to get near a friend of mine in a bar who had been on television. There’s a sense of entitlement we’ve nurtured in people through the media, where everyone thinks they’re just a celebrity who hasn’t been discovered yet.
The cult’s fixation on John is a commentary on that kind of irrational obsession with vampires. He won’t give them his blood. He can’t even transfer his illness. When someone tries some vampire blood near the middle of the book, they become extremely ill. All signs point to “No,” but they still won’t listen. The cult is so fixated on vampires that all other considerations, including John’s own wishes, are secondary.
The story almost seamlessly blends traditional horror elements with a naturalistic slice-of-life narrative approach [such as, say, Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson], as well as some cues lifted from classic hardboiled crime/noir fiction [such as Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler]. What works from those latter territories stuck with you and how did they find their way into your approach?
KA: I’m going to confess something: I’ve read very little of the kind of hardboiled crime novels that influenced Bloody October. I mean to change that. However, I’ve seen a lot of noir movies. The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Out of the Past, Panic in the Streets, and The Maltese Falcon are just a few examples. I really mined Amazon, Netflix, and the local library for movies that I thought might contribute to the tone I was seeking—more like a crime novel with horror elements than the reverse.
There’s a lot going on in this story…This book truly feels like it’s about more than just vampirism, not simply in the sense of what the plot consists of, but rather of what you have to say thematically, unconsciously and otherwise, about the human condition/experience (the ups and downs of friendship, history, drug/alcohol dependency, the dangers of willfully irrational belief and cultish zealotry). How did all these things find their way together in your mind with the central premise, and how did you approach exploring them thematically (as in, for example, how life-experience/observation/personal philosophy influenced this)?
KA: A lot of it is drawn from my own life and experiences. It’s not like there’s been this clamoring for “the real me” or anything, but most of my work has been more influenced by history and other books, comics, and films than my own life. I wanted to write something that, while not necessarily confessional, was at least influenced by my life and experiences. To be clear, Jason Castaing is not me. If anything, he is what might have happened to me if I hadn’t joined the Marines and performed a significant course correction. But, the rest of it is culled from experience and observation. I’ve had friends—platonic and romantic—who were absolutely fascinating, and whose company I wanted very badly. But, then they’d disappear or back away. Then, they’d come back. Sometimes, the excuses, the stories, and the lies were just overwhelming. And, I wanted to believe them so very badly.
The emphasis on history really just comes from my love of a rich backstory. It’s probably a bit trite at this point, but I love when a story opens years before the main narrative, with something that incites the events of the main story. War (and really, any military service) are life-changing experiences for people. With my own rather unexciting stint in the Marines, I wanted to draw on that idea of life through a veteran’s eyes.
The use and abuse of alcohol are also just drawn from personal experience. I love a good drink, but it’s something that I’ve always tried to keep an eye on. I’ve seen both friends and family members gradually slip into alcoholism. They don’t realize that it’s a problem until it has been for a long time. New Orleans is filled with people that would probably thrive and succeed elsewhere. But, the liberal availability of alcohol is too much for them to resist. And so, they get stuck in a rut and on a barstool, talking about their unfinished screenplay, their plans to finally move to Europe, or whatever else. I made the bad decision to work with people like that a time or two, because they had good intentions. In the end, it came back to me in a bad way. Jason is very much an example of that. He could probably be a successful writer if he wanted, but he’s too busy drinking and talking to accomplish anything more than he already has.
The dangers of cultish obsession and irrational belief are similar to my earlier answer. Sometimes, people want to believe things that are patently dangerous because it shields them from something else unpleasant—be that their own shortcomings or circumstances, or their inability to respond to the world in a healthy way.
Throughout the story, you touched on some of the ways that John’s a man from another time, struggling to adjust to modern society. Ironically, the story is itself a period-piece of sorts, often throwing into perspective just how much our own world and society has changed in our lifetime, just in the last eighteen years. A) Was that always part of the concept, or did you realize what era the tale was set in as you found your way into it? B) What sort of mental workout was it, finding your way back in time to that era, almost like John’s journey through time in reverse, if you will?
KA: I actually set the story in the late 1990s for several reasons. First, I wanted to write a noir story, but something different than the traditional 1930s and 1940s setting. That would have just come out like Humphrey Bogart fan fiction with a vampire. So, Bloody October looks through the same lens of bittersweet nostalgia that we watch those old movies. But, it looks at a different time period. Second, the New Orleans gothic scene in the late 1990s was a really exciting time. There was a group of dark rock bands that performed regularly. The community was really thriving, and the future looked pretty exciting. There have been dozens of books and movies about New York during CBGB’s heyday, and London during the punk years, and Los Angeles during the glam metal explosion. I wanted to give that kind of nostalgic sendoff for a period in my life that was extremely influential. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s my last word on my involvement with the goth scene. I still DJ at events sometimes. But, I’ve backed out of that group by degrees over the past couple of years. Writing Bloody October provided me with some closure, and allowed me to revisit an era that I remember fondly.
It wasn’t really a mental workout going back to that time period. I have an unfortunate knack for remembering minute details, especially when it involves interpersonal drama, romantic shenanigans, and anytime where I’ve felt slighted. So, I was able to just draw on the sense of awe I felt when I first started going to that bar on the corner of Decatur and Ursulines, and on all of the unfortunate details I’ve never been able to forget.
On the acknowledgments page, you sort of allude to ways in which the narrator, Jason, has some autobiographical shades of yourself, but at the same time decidedly isn’t you. How much of that was conscious when you first wrote him? By what route did Jason evolve into his own distinct character in your mind, with a life of his own, as opposed to just dropping yourself in as an “everyman” for the reader to relate to?
KA: Initially, I cribbed a bunch of my own biographical details as temporary filler for Jason’s backstory. I was trying to get the story out, so I plugged in bits of my own life with the intention of changing them later. Some of them absolutely were changed. A couple of others stayed in place, because other aspects of the story grew out of them organically. It would have been a pain to retrace so many steps and rewrite subplots and ideas from the beginning. Jason evolved with the story, as I realized the impact the situation would have on him, and the consequences of his actions. He isn’t a terribly likeable person. He’s not even a very good writer. And, there are just so many scenes of smoking and drinking, because New Orleans is just like that (especially back then). I realized that I would have to acknowledge his emerging alcoholism and incorporate it into the story.
I should reiterate that, again, Jason is not a Mary Sue. I’m not a journalist, though I did write for an entertainment website for a few years. He drinks far more than I do or have in the past. And, I’m married, so I haven’t destroyed all of my interpersonal relationships. I also don’t know any real vampires. Jason is more like an extrapolation of where my life could have gone. But, I joined the Marines, met my wife, and thankfully have had the support of friends and family to keep me out of a rut like that.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about how John, in an earlier draft, was a far more unsavory fellow, who became far more humanized and relatable as the book developed. How else (interrelated and otherwise) did the story start out seeming like one thing, and how did it evolve from there?
KA: The book was intended to be more of a droll comedy when I first started writing it. Think something along the lines of Reality Bites or A Confederacy of Dunces, with a series of dry observations about New Orleans. A lot of John and Jason’s interactions were based on the latter putting up with an enormous amount of BS from his friend. John was more of a wanton drunk and party animal. In the earliest draft that retained that characterization, I realized that, vampire or not, no one would put up with John for very long. He was completely unlikable. As the story built, I realized John would work better as a man out of time desperately trying to adjust, and even be “cool.” Without a bunch of gags a la Austin Powers, that was much more interesting to explore. And, John isn’t even that old. I think part of it was a commentary on how society is pretty dismissive of older people because they were, shockingly, raised in a different time and haven’t adjusted their values overnight.
Comic-book, screen-writing, and prose-fiction writing have many commonalities so far as basic storytelling chops, yet each requires its own set of skills and mindsets. Was that a difficult transition for you?
KA: It was. Comic books can have as many or as few words as you care to write. They’re obviously dependent on the visual images. Writing a novel means managing over 100,000 words. Dealing with the mechanics alone is exhaustive, much less revising one’s way through plot holes, internal consistency, and plain bad writing.
How would you describe the difference between working within these two different mediums? What sort of new skill-sets/mental approaches did you have to master? In what ways would you say that dictated the kind of story you told, and how?
KA: Comic books are fun to write. They are a mental trip to an amusement park. And, you can just describe the visuals in instructive terms for an artist. It doesn’t have to be pretty or interesting. It’s just to help the artist draw your ideas. And, visuals will always guide and influence the dialogue. It’s just fantastic seeing your ideas rendered visually a short time after you describe them.
Switching to prose means taking on the entire workload, outside of some really generous friends who helped edit and proofread for me. Your skills as a writer are laid bare before the reader. You can’t rely on an artist, or disguise your middling prose with snappy dialogue. Comics are great, and I love them. But, they’re usually done in collaboration between a writer and artists. Granted, I letter my own work. That makes the writing process that much more involved. But, writing prose was more difficult than I imagined. I won’t lie about that.
Which comic-book writers inspired/influenced your craft in the storytelling mediums, and how?
KA: Oh lord, there are so many. In terms of style, I’d say Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Besides the fact that they are simply amazing writers in both prose and comics, they often write the latter as if they are simply illustrated stories. If you extract their comic scripts from the art, they often stand on their own. James O’Barr and The Crow were enormously influential when writing Dead Souls. I like Ed Brubaker’s modern noir sensibilities. Warren Ellis is a master of juggling intricate, obscure concepts and keeping them tied into the story. I’m also very fond of Bronze Age Marvel creators like Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, and Larry Hama. Again, those guys wrote dense comics that read more like novellas. Modern Marvel and DC Comics are very spare. Some of them are outstanding, of course, but they are meant to be read quicker. In the Bronze Age, there was this notion that you should cram as much story into an issue as possible to give the reader more bang for their buck (or, 35 cents).
Which prose authors did you study finding your way into this new storytelling medium, and how?
KA: I don’t think I really studied anyone assiduously. It’s weird, because I didn’t alter my reading habits much for Bloody October. I read George R.R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire a couple of years ago. I started rereading Robert E. Howard’s Conan cycle. Then, I picked up Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in the original Middle English. I’m enjoying it, but it’s obviously a pretty dense book. It goes slowly. At the same time, I read the odd short story from H.P. Lovecraft, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Oscar Wilde, or whomever will last me through a soak in the tub and a drink. I try to champion “Literature with a capital L,” but I admit to straying from that diet more often than I’d like. I read Vladimir Nabokov’s A Pale Fire a couple of years ago, and I loved it. That is a clever and thoroughly well-written book disguised as a memoir and literary criticism. It’s strange, though, because I don’t often read in concert with what I’m writing.
You’ve accomplished some impressive feats from a rather grassroots/underground start, including some hefty collaborations with some big names in the game, such as Dani Filth. What advice do you have for aspiring storytelling voices, on getting one’s foot in the door, and circumnavigating the business from there?
KA: It’s all about networking, with a hefty dose of good manners and a basic understanding of how to work the system. I’ve always told people that you can talk to any artist or performer you want if you can think of a good enough reason. I really wanted Dani to see my work, so I just contacted the record company and asked if we could do an interview in the back of the first issue of Dead Souls. That was just a matter of patiently navigating the system.
And, as for aspiring storytellers—just start creating, and take yourself and your work seriously. The opportunities to get your foot in a door will emerge over time. You have to prove that you’ve got the drive to keep going. Seeking out opportunities is always good, but forcing yourself into situations is rarely advisable. You can send all of the submissions to comic publishers that you want. Most of them won’t even be seen. Now, creators have all the tools they need on hand. Why wait for someone else, when you can just put out your own work? After that, spend time with the people in that world. Go to conventions. Hang out with other creators and artists. Talk about work with them.
Circumnavigating the business of writing and creating isn’t easily described. All I can say is don’t be afraid to ask questions, pay your taxes, and do lots of research. You learn by doing, and you will make mistakes (so many stupid, stupid mistakes). That’s okay, though. Even a blown opportunity is a learning experience. You know what not to do next time.
So what’s next in the works, in comics/prose/etc., that readers have to look forward to?
KA: The reboot of Dead Souls is still in the works. Monty Borror from Cradle of Filth: The Curse of Venus Aversa is doing the art. He’s almost done the first draft. After that, we’re going to revise the art and add the old lettering—revising and rearranging as necessary. It won’t be a quick process, but Dead Souls has always felt like an open wound to me. I want to be proud of it.
There’s also another prose novel in the works. It’s about feuding community theater companies trying to put on the same play before one another. And, there’s some magic and psychological horror in the mix. You wouldn’t expect anything less from me, would you?
First review of The Trail of the Beast is in, from Dark Perceptions, and it rocks (with bare-minimal spoilers). What are the rest of you waiting for? Get readin’.
Love ya, Geek Mountain State!
Among the local hippies and squatters of Brattleboro, Vermont, Sally Wildfire is on the run, hiding from her cruel, relentless family. She finds unexpected love with Rob, a bristly young man freshly awoken to alien sensations and ancestral memories of a long-forgotten realm…setting them both on a collision course with a brutal rite of passage, as the Wildfire family leaves a trail of mangled corpses on the road to Brattleboro.
Clearer in the Night, dark fantasy, erotica, new adult, New England dark fiction, New England horror writers, Penner Publishing, Rebecca Croteau, Vermont ComicCon, Vermont fantasy writers, Vermont horror writers, werewolf
Over the past few years, Rebecca Croteau has become one of my favorite authors. There’s really no point in obfuscating the fact that she’s also been a close, treasured friend for far longer than that. We first met in college, as fellow aspiring writers who bonded over our obsessive enthusiasm for the craft of storytelling. In the years since, it’s been a pleasure, a privilege and an honor to keep in touch, watch each other’s styles develop and solidify, sticking it out through the rejection-slip years as few manage, and finally cracking the professional scene at around the same time with remarkable serendipity. Somehow I always sensed it would turn out like that. Rebecca’s always been one of those winners you can spot and bet on straight out of the gate. Sometimes it’s fun to be right. She’s a woman of endless wit, empathy, passion, thoughtfulness and unique insight, and it’s all there on every page of her work. She’s a versatile storyteller with an unmistakable voice, who at this point I’d gladly follow into just about any territory.
So far as weird writers singing each other’s praises, she always makes me think of HP Lovecraft’s memorial essay to Robert E. Howard: “It is hard to describe precisely what made Mr. Howard’s stories stand out so sharply; but the real secret is that he himself is in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-making policy he could adopt — for even when he outwardly made concessions to Mammon-guided editors and commercial critics, he had an internal force and sincerity which broke through the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote. Seldom, if ever, did he set down a lifeless stock character or situation and leave it as such. Before he concluded with it, it always took on some tinge of vitality and reality in spite of popular editorial policy – always drew something from his own experience and knowledge of life instead of from the sterile herbarium of dessicated pulpish standbys.” Swap out some pronouns and such there, and I couldn’t say it better about Rebecca Croteau.
Croteau’s paranormal page-turner Clearer in the Night (Penner, May 11, 2015) is raw, angry, scary, and viscerally, emotionally and psychologically unapologetic, while also gorgeously atmospheric, expertly paced, and sexy as all get out. In short, it’s a damn good yarn.
Tell us a bit about Cait as a character, who she is to you, where she evolved from, and what about her story grabbed you and pulled you through the writing of it to the end?
RC: I wrote Cait when I was in the midst of the worst depressive episode of my life. What blew me away was how fierce she was, how even when she was tempted to give up, she refused to be destroyed by forces outside of her control. In a way, I wrote myself a lifeline, and then used it to haul myself out. (Uh, and meds, and therapy. In a big way. Because wow, that year sucked.)
In the broad strokes, Clearer followed a fairly well-trod werewolf-story plot, yet wound up feeling like an utterly fresh, unique take, for a combination of reasons. How did you approach making this mythological creature your own? What, to your mind, sets this take on the subject apart?
RC: When I started writing the original draft of this book, what was huge on the market was Anita Blake, Meredith Gentry, Twilight—all these books that told stories of mythological creatures basically being neutered and made tame. It was incredibly boring. I grew up reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz and watching Nightmare on Elm Street. I wanted to be afraid of werewolves and vampires. So I wrote a book that scared me.
But as I started exploring the characters that happened in the story, what I started to think about was how unbalanced all these paranormal relationships are. You’ve got these men who are supernaturally powerful, often hundreds of years old, and these young, naïve girls. Especially in Twilight. It’s creepy, seriously creepy. So I found myself playing with that quite a lot as well. More than one early reader has messaged me as they read the first part of the book, asking “I don’t like Wes. I’m not supposed to like Wes, am I?” To which I generally reply with an enigmatic grin and a digital shrug.
Which other characters in the story resonate most vividly with you, and on what levels ?
RC: Mrs. Dennis took on a life of her own. In the original draft, she was just this lady showing up with food for Cait’s mom, and then there was just SO much more for her to do. There’s still a lot of story to tell about her, how she got involved in all the things she’s involved in, and what she’s willing to do to maintain what she sees as the status quo.
Of course there’s the other stuff going on, paranormal elements we don’t necessarily associate with werewolves, at least not in the sense they’re used here. There’s the telepathy, a secret organization (which I don’t want to spoil so much about here), and all these other colorful, ambiguous characters running around with their own agendas. You weave all these potentially disparate elements to create a unique new tapestry. How much of this world-building was consciously crafted, and how much did it all just fall into place intuitively as you went along?
RC: I think all of it was a combination. Like, the secret organization. Stuff kept happening at the church, and I found myself asking why is Eli always here? Okay, let’s give him a reason. Cait’s telepathy happened very late in the drafting, as I recall, and I had to go back and retro fit a lot of the story to make it work, but it added something important to her character for me.
This town Meredith Falls seems to be full of weirdness, just under the surface of what most people perceive as mundane daily reality. It all catches Cait off guard, of course, so she’s in over her head, yet she might be surrounded on a daily basis by residents who are “in the know,” for whom something like werewolf-attacks would hardly be a blip on the radar. She has passing encounters with all sorts of enigmatic figures. Sometimes just a sentence or two would make me go, “Wait, hold up, that person sounds like their story could be its whole own book, or at least a short-story or novella.”
So how did this weird little town evolve in your imagination? Did you just explore and discover it while you followed Cait around through it, or did you have much of it pre-mapped out?
RC: My favorite series novels have these sorts of connections. I love paranormal arcs, but I’ve always found that they have a chronic problem; the main character has to keep facing bigger and badder threats in order to keep the reader interested, which means they have to keep getting more and more powerful. Dresden had to become the Winter Knight, Anita had to become whatever the hell she is now, Meredith Gentry had to keep gaining hands of power. Sooner or later, I would roll my eyes and find something new to read.
As a reader, the arcs that could keep my attention were Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, or Stephen King’s Derry books. Because each story focused on a different character or scenario, loss was more possible. Even when Harry Dresden fell into Lake Michigan at the end of Changes, I don’t know anyone who was like OH GOD HARRY DIED, it was more, “Okay, how is Butcher going to write himself out of THIS?” It leaves the reader with a lack of tension in the story, if you know the main character’s going to make it out somehow.
There are some characters in Meredith Falls that I know damned well are getting their own books. The fiddler who turns up late in the book is the romantic hero in my current WIP. There’s something going on at Strange Brews that I haven’t quite figured out yet, but that little coffee shop is an important part of this town, and we’ll be visiting it again. And of course, there’s the organization. But other than deliberately inserting the fiddler, once I realized who he was going to be, no, it was all organic, happening as I followed Cait’s exploration of her world.
Cait’s story goes to some pretty harsh, raw emotional places, both through Cait’s inner psychological journey and through some of the other equally interesting characters we meet (good, bad, everything in-between, and a case or two of “the jury’s still out on that one”). Digging deep into that sort of territory takes no shortage of nerve and guts. Particularly in dark/horror-themed fiction, that sort of warts-and-all rawness can get too intense or even controversial for some readers. Do you ever step back from some extreme place you’ve found yourself and go, “Maybe I need to dial this back a notch or two,” or is that the time to go, “In for a penny, in for a pound; go for broke or go home”? Where’s the line for you?
RC: So the original ending of the book was just Cait, sitting home alone, saying that she wanted to go out dancing. Essentially, I was saying that after everything she’d gone through, nothing had really changed for her. I sent it to my alpha reader (i.e. the only person who sees my drafts after nothing has happened but spell check), and for the first time in fifteen years, she emailed me back and was like “No. Fucking well NO. This is too goddamn dark, and you go back, and do it again, and you do it RIGHT this time.” So I changed the ending to give it as much hope as I could manage, given everything Cait had gone through.
Other than that, I push for the darkness. I refuse to write angst for angst’s sake, but to my mind, one of the benefits of horror and fantasy settings is that the horrible creatures and nightmareish settings can stand in for things that we’d never be able to say in realistic fiction. If you pitched a book to a publisher and said “I want to write an exploration of how reality TV hurts kids, and makes us all participate in our own cultural destruction,” you would be laughed out of your pitch, but set that in Panem, and you have a brilliant, wonderful, amazing series that goes a thousand times darker than realistic fiction could ever get away with.
You’ve been building your fiction-career both on dark fantasy and straight-up erotica. The fantasy writing also includes its share of hot, steamy scenes. I seem to recall you mentioning something about how the smut-factor can create confusion about how to market it. I think of horror/dark-fantasy authors I read all the time growing up…Poppy Z. Brite, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, hell, Stephen King sometimes…None of those folks were prudes about letting their characters sex it up between running around being menaced or being menacing. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, mixing horror and eroticism is at least as old as vampires in popular fiction. Why the (perceived by some) need to differentiate now, do you think? Am I missing something?
RC: I think it’s less about the erotica and dark fantasy, because as you say, they blend very well. Romance and dark fantasy, however, can make things complex. Romance writers are some of the most amazing, wonderful, and passionate readers I’ve ever encountered, but they are also very aware of the expectations of their genre (most specifically, the happily-ever-after ending), and can be justifiably brutal when a book that they expect to be romance turns out to be something else entirely. So we had multiple conversations at Penner about how to best position this book to get it in front of the audience that (I hope!) will enjoy it. In the end, it’s packaged very much as a New Adult book, which carries a certain expectation of romance. I do think it’s a romantic book, with interpersonal themes and stories very much at the forefront, but readers who expect a story primarily about the girl being torn between two hot guys are not going to get the book they’re looking for. I hope that they like the book they have in front of them, but I have put on my flame-proof suit, just in case they don’t.
I do think there’s room for a lot more in the New Adult genre than erotic romance, and I hope that Clearer can help to expand those boundaries a little bit.
A lot of the spirit of your work puts me very in mind of classic Victorian Gothic horror which I’ve always loved, particularly in the erotically charged elements (which you make your own through a more conscientious, modern lens, and are of course allowed to be more overt). Who/what were some of the authors/books/storytelling traditions that informed upon this book and these characters? What notes on the craft did you bring from there to here, and what would you have to say to aspiring storytellers about that?
RC: I’m such a horrible lit major. I’ve never gotten into Victorian literature at all. Everything I’ve read in that strain has been second and third generation at least. Outside of Dracula, actually. I love Bram Stoker’s Dracula intensely, because of the things it says about sexuality and independence, and how women in particular are punished for wanting.
If I had to point my finger at a single book that defined a lot of how I think about feminism, and women, and women in fiction in particular, I’d have to look at The Handmaid’s Tale. I read that book over and over in my early teens, and there’s still so much there. The book is so focused on the feminine, even though it’s very much about how men are basically enslaving fertile women as breeding machines, and it still explodes my mind every time I go back to it.
I suppose what I love the most about Dracula, the second-generation Cthulu type stories, and the more modern explorations of detective stories in urban fantasy is the way that it plays with this idea that the world around us is a veneer laid over this seething underbelly of The Real World, and how the characters we’re reading about are protecting us in our sheepish ignorance. Urban fantasy of course has its roots in the magical realism stories of Latin America, with Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books being the most famous.
I’m rambling. Advice to the would-be storyteller: read. Read in your genre, and out of it. If you hate it, read it until you understand why. If you love it, read it until you understand why. Do more of the stuff you love than the stuff you hate. Write until you figure out how you write, and then keep doing that. Also, hone your marketing skills. Read blogs about marketing, publishing, and the industry side of things. I strongly recommend Seth Godin for marketing, Writer Beware for industry news. If there was ever a time when writers could afford to take the first offer that came at them, that time has passed. The flat-out truth is that while your publisher will (hopefully) do everything they can to market you, the most impassioned connections come personally. I’ve reached out to the community that arose after everything happened with Ellora’s Cave and the Dear Author lawsuit last year, I’ve reached out to friends who write reviews in parallel industries, and I’ve made the most of connections I have through college and writing communities. The only thing that hasn’t changed in the writing profession in the past decade is that word of mouth sells books. I honestly think that’s the one thing that will never change when it comes to books and stories. An impassioned fan is your best ally.
Whatever the genre territory, your narrative voice is one of one of the liveliest and most unmistakable I’ve read in a while. As a storyteller, what would you say are the strongest overarching, driving obsessions in your work (as in themes related to characters, their psychology, the challenges they face and how they cope, etc.)?
RC: Aw, thank you!
I’m obsessed with relationships between women in general, and between sisters in particular. Sisters are a big theme in this book, and mother-daughter connections are huge in the sequel that I’m working on. Family connections, how we oblige and forgive each other. How women operate in our society, and how they gain and lose power.
One thing that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately is what a feminist superhero looks like. A lot of the female superheroes that we look to get their power through the abuse or protection of men. Carol Danvers gets her powers because Marveil protects her from an explosion. Natasha Romanova is conditioned and abused into becoming the Black Widow. Do not even get me started on the BS that is the origin story of the Slayers.
Cait is not exempt from this, not at all. But I want to continue to examine that idea, how women gain and lose power in their own narrative, separate from abuse and male narrative. There’s bigger stories happening in Meredith Falls, and Cait will have a part to play in those stories, though it’s going to be a while before she gets her happily ever after.
So what’s the next big thing to watch for from you, in fantasy, horror, erotica, or whatever else?
RC: I don’t have release dates yet, but I have stories forthcoming in anthologies at both Circlet Press and Cleis Press. In Circlet’s Coffee: Hot!, I have a lesbian erotica sci-fi story called “Flavor Profile of a Smuggler.” A lot of things are up in the air at Cleis after their sale to Start, but I believe that Kristina Wright’s For Play anthology is still going to be released, and I have a story called “Telling Bedtime Stories” included. It’s a somewhat unconventional M/f/f story. I’m working on the second Meredith Falls book, and hope to have it in front of an editor before the end of the summer.
People looking to keep track of what I’m up to should follow me on Twitter, @ReeCroteau, it’s where I blab the most.
Rebecca lives in the wilds of New England with her family. She is owned by two cats. She has a fountain pen habit. You can also follow her at www.rebeccacroteau.com.
Upon first sampling the fiction of Garrett Cook, it doesn’t take long to realize, you’ve hit a live wire. His literary voice is instantly unmistakable. His thumb is squarely on the pulse of an age of incendiary, increasingly complex social-political upheaval in Twenty-First century American culture, and he’s not afraid to tell you the truth as he sees it, often too-close-for-comfort in-your-face, with an enraged primal shriek. The guy seems fearless, to a rare, inspiring degree, be it in introspection, social observation, or when pulling the dripping, often rancid gobs from his rich, lurid imagination, throwing them at the wall in bloody chunks, and seeing what sticks. He anchors it all in the best old-fashioned way: he knows how to tell a damn good story. I suspect, as Garrett’s work reaches an expanding readership over time, he’ll come to be known as one of those talents people either love or loath passionately, with little in-between. There’s not enough of that going around these days, in my opinion, and I’m always happy to discover such a voice.
I found Garrett’s short-story collection You Might Just Make It Out Of This Alive, (now available from Eraserhead Press and all major online retailers) to be one hell of a ride. After I bought the ticket, took the ride…and yes, made it out alive…Garrett was nice enough to let me pick his brain over the experience.
This collection was my crash-course introduction to this new genre they’re calling Bizarro fiction. I now feel like I have a solid sense of what that means, but I can’t quite put my finger on it in words. How would you define the genre? What sets it apart from, say, surrealism, absurdism, magical realism or fantasy, etcetera?
GC: I would say Bizarro is about working with dream logic, moreso than Absurdism. Absurdism kind of starts at the intention to mock. Bizarro is in certain ways more personal and more about being one’s own genre. It’s almost about taking things in and processing them wrong, or rather about an expressionistic approach to dreaming, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. It’s about being your own planet.
Did you start with Bizarro by consciously cultivating stories in that form/mode (the way, say, Michael Moorcock clearly set out to write his own take on sword-and-sorcery with the Elric saga after being inspired by the likes of Tolkien and Howard), or did you just naturally slip into it because it fit your own unique creative inclinations like a glove (as Stephen Kind and Anne Rice initially did as “horror writers”)? Or somewhere in between?
GC: I didn’t necessarily know I was writing Bizarro when I was doing pieces like Along the Crease and The Man in the Film Noir Hat. I just loved authors like Lansdale and Ellison and splatterpunk stuff by writers like John Skipp. I was just trying to tell stories that wanted to get to the limits of language and imagination. When I discovered other Bizarro writers, I didn’t know if I would fit in but I did and it permitted me to stop holding back. As I stopped holding back, my work became more like the Bizarros around me but also more like me and that felt good. To quote Supertramp, “I have to have things my own way to keep me in my youth.”
Since Bizarro’s a pretty new scene, who are some other practitioners in the field whose work drew you to it? In other words, I guess, for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with the genre, who are some other authors you’d recommend from your all-star playlist roster?
GC: D. Harlan Wilson’s Dr. Identity and Jordan Krall’s Piecemeal June were the first two Bizarro books I encountered and I thought “damn, this is amazing”. Carlton Mellick III is our Mickey Mouse. He is the most popular author in the genre and the main representative of it, and for good reason. I recommend his books The Baby Jesus Buttplug wholeheartedly. Autumn Christian is new to the scene but her books We Are Wormwood and Crooked God Machine should shut down anyone who says that this shit is stagnating. Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Angeldust Apocalypse and We Live Inside You were huge intellectual and spiritual influences on how I assembled this collection. His new one Skullcrack City is a book I’ve been waiting for since I read the Cemetery Dance interview with him that first introduced me to the concept of Bizarro…shit, eight years ago. Laura Lee Bahr’s Haunt will tear out your fucking soul and you will send her flowers and candy for doing so.
Are there any older authors you’d point to as pioneers, whose experiments laid the groundwork for what’s evolved into Bizarro fiction? The proto-Bizarrists, if you will?
GC: Burroughs, Harlan Ellison, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Grant Morrison, The Noid, The Marquis de Sade, Lewis Carroll, Takashi Miike, David Lynch, Lloyd Kaufmann, John Skipp, Joe Lansdale, Steve Gerber, Phillip K. Dick, Luis Bunuel, Todd Browning, Jean Luc Goddard, Quentin Tarantino, Dr. Seuss, John Waters, Syd Barrett, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Robert E. Howard, H.P Lovecraft, Jimmy Hendrix, Saturday Night Live, The Kids in the Hall, Captain Crunch, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Telegram Sam, Little Willy, Polythene Pam, Francisco Goya, Dante Alighieri, Jack Arnold, Gene Roddenberry, Salvador Dali, David Cronenberg, Stuart Gordon, Roman Polanski, Allen Ginsberg, Ishiro Honda, Shigeru Miyamoto, Musashi Miyamoto, Edgar Allan Poe, Doctor Who, Clive Barker, Mary Shelley, Kathy Acker, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Don Cornelius, Steely Dan, Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy. Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Prince, Andy Kaufmann, Malcolm McLaren, Andy Warhol, Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen, Rod Serling, Roger Corman and Henry Winkler as The Fonz
What authors inspired and spurred your own development as a storyteller? What elements from their work stuck with you, and how would you say you’ve made it your own?
GC: Many of the people I’ve listed above. Dante, Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury and Joe Lansdale I think have influenced me the most. That question’s kind of too big to answer. I don’t feel like I know enough about my work to do it justice. I got a quiet intensity from Oates. I got a love of big stories from Lansdale and a warm regard for pulp told smart. I’d like to give credit where it’s due but I use the tools for the story at hand and they might come from anywhere from Raymond Chandler to Debby Does Dallas.
You’ve written elsewhere comparing the construction and arrangement of a short-story collection to that of a music album. Appropriately, for me, reading YMJMIOOTA felt a lot like listening to a raw, hard, in-your-face piss-your-parents-off rock an’ roll album for the first time (discovering Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar as a teenager comes to mind). Van Morrison’s Into The Mystic is alluded to in several pieces, I noticed, and you’re a musician yourself (a metal vocalist and lyricist, among other things I don’t wonder). What’s the relationship like, between music and your creative process as a prose fiction storyteller? Do you listen to music while you write, etcetera?
GC: I’m really flattered by that. Thank you. That’s what I’m hoping to do with it. I love the thought of tossing something on the turntable and suddenly ye shall be changed. I love music. I love poetry. I like to be surrounded at all times by art and words. I actually get very uncomfortable without them. Music too. I will forget to listen to music for days though and then rediscover it and have a great upswing of productivity.
From the “About the Stories” notes at the end, it sounds like Re-Mancipator resulted from a bundle of disparate ideas you pitched to a publisher at once…so of course your least favorite – “Zombie Lincolns” – was what captured the editor’s heart and had to be the central narrative thrust. I just gotta pry for more details on how you shaped the rest of it from there.
GC: Well, it was stupid but somebody was ready to pay and publish me for it, so I said “fuck it, I’ll do this”. From there, I had to make sure that I was entertaining myself. When I’m not surprising or entertaining myself, I’m dying. My will to live has always been a fragile thing and while I don’t mind pain and suffering and sadness and loss and abuse as much as I should, I can’t really stomach tedium. So I had to find meaning in it, I had to see what the central dream of a zombie Lincoln attack is, who would have that dream and what the consequences were. Mostly, this story was about not writing a story that’s about zombie Lincolns. I chose the hardest way possible to do that.
Making John Wilks Booth – one of history’s more deeply demonized baddies – the tale’s tragi-comic hero was a bold move. As the first story in the collection, it’s one of the first flashing signals that we’re headed into some provocative territory. How much of that would you say is the result of going, “Wow, that’s an insane idea…so fuck it, let’s roll with it!” and/or how much calculated button-pushing and thought-provocation is going on there? Is there even a line between the two, in your mind?
GC: The dream goes where it goes. What’s true’s true. Sometimes I’m trying to make myself laugh or cry or cum, sometimes I’m trying to make somebody else laugh or cry or cum but most of the time I’m just looking for the terminus of the particular dream, the place where it all ends up. Sometimes the truth is ugly but fiction is not about telling lies. There’s somebody to lie to you on every street corner. Nobody needs my help getting lied to.
You did say Absinthe helped. I know how that is, except you refer to the drink as a man. The Green Fairy always materializes to me more traditionally, as a woman, though now that I think about it, it makes sense for that one to switch genders at will depending on who he/she’s visiting. So what’s that green weirdo like in dude-form? Or is that confidential information?
GC: I have been through some things and I don’t want to think of anything that makes me vomit as a lady.
You dive headfirst into the mindsets of some pretty despicable point-of-view protagonists (The Adventures of Blackmetal Bjorn and Accomplice Boy and Hit and Fun come to mind, especially). Properly capturing that kind of headspace always reminds me somewhat of Will Graham [the serial-killer-profiler in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon); one can get lost in some nasty places within the psyche, or at least it can feel that way. What’s been your experience, working within the relative safety of the imagination, with the connective tissue between your own shadow and these disturbed, over-the-edge people?
GC: It can hurt sometimes. The headspace of Jeremy, the “hero” of Murderland, for example, is a really toxic place. I don’t like being there. It makes me pissy. It makes me distrust those I love. The narrator of the horror novel I wrote makes that place look like Free Beer Monkey Superbowl Anne Hathaway Blowjob Chuck E Cheese. I questioned the value of my own life and the project of carrying on, of falling in love, finding a home and being happy from that place. But when you don’t ask the question, you don’t get any closer to the answer. Maybe I’ll never know what I’m worth but I sure as shit will pursue this line of inquiry to the terminus of which I spoke earlier.
In the case of Hit and Fun, it sounds like the main draw into that yarn was the “What if?” mythos of the Trikloptikon. Still, the Slashcats are a pretty strong, driving forefront presence in and of themselves. They put me very much in mind of old-school splatterpunk, except that the unreliable narrator often makes what’s not graphically described more disturbing and disgusting than what is. Did those guys grow out of the larger, cosmic idea, or did you have them and their ilk stuck in your head for a while, waiting for a fitting premise to drop on them?
GC: I like giant bug and alien invasion movies from the 50s. I thought it would be fun to do one of those where the hotrodding teenagers were reprehensible, sociopathic dickfaces. And to have it pretty much narrated by Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth.
And on the other side of the coin, there’s An Author is a Beagle as a Flying Ace. The title alone beautifully sums up something about the wish-fulfilment factor of writing (and reading) adventure fiction. The story felt like an exploration of how that’s a trap, how such larger-than-life myth and metaphor can take us to the truest, most vulnerable places, in this case the complications of male/female relationships. Would you say that’s accurate? What stories resonated with the themes of this piece, and how’d they gel into the form they took here?
GC: My book Jimmy Plush, Teddy Bear Detective and Archelon Ranch deal a lot with the line between narcissism and heroism and how thin it is. I have a tough relationship with success of any kind, material, spiritual, professional, romantic. This is why these things don’t come calling often as they could.
Speaking of wish-fulfillment, you often seem to use it as a trap…particularly with erotic daydreams, where a hookup appears to be working out too easily for the protagonist, but of course, there’s a catch. You could easily be writing straight porn, but of course you’re not one to make it that easy. What draws you to this method of attack?
GC: I guess I just don’t like safe spaces. Masculinity as we know it is too safe a space in some ways, as problematic as it is. Pulp and porn are safe spaces to be a man. Though on the other hand, it is in the nature of manhood to be confrontational and challenge other men, so maybe I fall into that trap.
The Wake at the House of Butchered Hogs makes for an effectively mind-bending experience…It seems to run on dream-logic, maybe even stream-of-consciousness, particularly in the blurry line between the two layers, the protagonist watching this madcap silent film and what’s going on up on the screen, and how the two eventually converge. There’s a lot of that dream-logic at work in other tales, particularly All About the Sheriff. It takes a special skillset, to take that approach and retain any readable narrative coherence. You sort of make it look easy. Some thoughts on the relationship between dreams, storytelling, and cutting out the middle-man of it as you seem to do here?
GC: It’s about interpreting dream and seeking out the metaphors that work. We all have our own vocabularies, our own language and glossary and catalog of images. I teach techniques like that in my workshop. It’s not expensive. Folks should take it.
As for TWATHOBH, the transcript/description-of-a-silent-film is a unique approach, or at least it’s new to me. Was that an experiment you’d had in mind for a while, tried before maybe, or did it first suggest/manifest itself uniquely for this piece?
GC: I’ve always liked old timey horror comedies and silent horror. There’s an eerie otherworldliness. But not dragon sex or belligerent metafiction. People deserve dragon sex and belligerent metafiction. I cannot tell if it is humanitarianism or misanthropy that fuels that statement, however.
Brian’s Girl was one of the most uncomfortably sexy things I’ve read in a while, one of the strongest pieces in the book I’d say, yet there’s no mention of it in About the Stories, I noticed. Tell us a bit about that one…or should I be afraid to ask? If so…well, I just asked for it, didn’t I?
GC: Thank you. It’s a pretty literal transcription of a nightmare I had. I woke up screaming and hyperventilating. Described the dream to my girlfriend, who laughed. Wrote it into a story. Some people said it was pornography. Some people said it wasn’t scary. Some people said it wasn’t funny. Everybody was right. That story sucks in all those ways. But that’s also why it works. If it was actually horror or porn or satire as folks know it, it wouldn’t be good Bizarro. Scary Movie is not Bizarro. Showgirls is not Bizarro. More unlike than like. That’s what makes this thing work, if it works and some people tell me it works, so I’m inclined to believe that it did.
I don’t often find straight-up meat-and-potatoes horror stories outright scary anymore…thrilling, disturbing, atmospherically spooky, yes, but I’m sad to say, it’s hard to get that good ol’ fashioned “Lock the doors and look under the bed” jolt out of me anymore. The Granny Crunchbones Gospels got under my skin, though…I think part of it’s how spot on the epistolary voice captures the folks on the message board, and how that dovetails back and forth with the rest of the narrative. It feels like I know these people, this kind of weird, not-quite explained brush-with-something-out-there sort of experiences, and that the author does too…along with just the right spots to cross the “What if?” line, and how far. The effect is the sensation that ‘this could happen,’ even if only while reading the story. Any real-life anecdotes and associations that helped inspire this piece? Change the names of the innocent and the guilty, if you have to.
GC: When I was little, I had a book called Tales of Monsters and Trolls. It fucked me up. Don’t buy it for your kid. It’ll fuck ‘em up.
While I’d by no means call your work religious fiction or anything like that, religious themes and imagery come up repeatedly, with the undisguised active participation of God and Satan, etcetera, with a heavier sense of sincerity than other convenient fantasy/mythological troupes, particularly in Along the Crease. Whether one literally believes in such things or not, or however one feels about organized religion’s effects on society, these are powerful archetypal manifestations/projections of aspects of the human condition. They oughtn’t be taken lightly, and your stories don’t take them lightly. What sort of personal history with religion/spirituality do you draw on, and how would you say it’s impacted your work?
GC: My history with religion is a long and complicated one. There are aspects of Christianity that I love deeply. Aspects that I don’t. But the inquiry is important for me. I am currently a believer in and occasional practitioner of Haitian Vodou. I am uninitiated but it has brought a great deal of peace and satisfaction and insight and power and delight to my life. There’s written between the lines an idea of relating to God, a God that is about the right thing, the good thing, more than about dogma and jealousy, through the higher self and through saints and aspects of God. The idea that none of us walks alone and that welcoming the divine should not be a frightening thing fills me with love and joy. I question any God who we wouldn’t want to show up in our lives, I question a God who you have to appease and who doesn’t want you to be happy or to love. That’s what Along the Crease is about. Through Vodou, I feel the contentment of working for good ideas.
So tell us a bit about some of your other works, and what you’re cooking up for us next. Any fresh, weird thematic territory you’re looking to push into?
GC: I’m right now working to just do more of whatever the fuck I want. This collection should cement in people the idea that I try my best to do whatever the fuck I want. I recently finished a very intense and sad and brutal horror novel that I hope makes the cut. I’m working on a kind of arthouse pulp vampire novel sort of in Criterion colors. Whatever happens, I just hope to come at with curiosity and conviction.
It can be tough for ol’ Superman to keep up with the game these days. You can’t blame the guy for this. Among the growing pantheon of instantly pop-culturally recognizable costumed crusaders for justice, Supes is the one who started the whole racket. Everyone else evolved from there, in every elaborate direction you can think of. To one degree or another, though, there’s an inevitable double-edged sword for any such groundbreaking creation. It’s gotten so ol’ Big Red can seem a tad quaint for the modern sensibilities of some. The most frequent criticism is that he’s just too all-powerful, idyllically good, and nearly indestructible to be engaging. Another popular argument is that the only interesting story to tell about him is his origin story. I’m first and foremost a Batman guy. Usually when I see Superman working as a character anymore, it’s playing second-fiddle to Bats, and/or as part of the ensemble of the Justice League. Yet there’s still that starry-eyed little kid in me, who remembers tying on a bath-towel off the clothesline as a cape like young Clark does in the movie MAN OF STEEL, still shouting in rebellion, “Hey, c’mon already…It’s freakin’ Superman!” Are we really too culturally inundated with smug, cynical hipster-sophistry for a truly fresh, rip-roaring epic Superman yarn, embracing the character unironically and three-dimensionally…a story of a well-established, fully-formed Superman that stands up just fine next to the best of the Batman and X-Men stories out there? Writer Scott Snyder (who seems to write everything in DC Comics these days…seriously, does the man ever sleep?) apparently shares my sentiments. With the miniseries SUPERMAN UNCHAINED, freshly collected into graphic-novel form, it’s like he decided to hand in a definitive answer the question, “Not at all, and here’s a truly great Superman story to prove it.” With the help of artists Jim Lee, Scott Williams and Dustin Nguyen, he pulls out all the stops, and that’s exactly what he’s gone and done.
The story, of course, is set within DC’s recently rebooted/freshly modernized “New 52” universe. For anyone reading who doesn’t keep up with this sort of thing, major comic-book companies have to keep putting out new books with the same characters indefinitely, while keeping it contemporary for each generation of readers. Hence, they occasionally come up with some wacky way to tweak the continuity/reset the timeline, to explain why none of these characters have aged while the world around them continues to do so. The N52 is the latest, most drastic overhaul. So Superman has existed as a fictional character for 75 years, but in this new universe, him, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the whole gang have only been around for five years or so. A variation on our modern world is still getting used to them, figuring out whether or not they should be trusted, etc. They’re all a bit different from the characters you remember from your childhood or whenever, to varying degrees. Snyder’s first masterstroke is in how he runs with this. What if seventy-five years ago, there was in fact another humanoid super-powered alien who fell to earth…another “Superman,” of sorts, and he’s been secretly working for the US government this whole time? Superman as we know him is about to find out all about this guy/creature/…thing…and it’s clear they’re going to have serious disagreements about how to do the whole “hero” thing. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of a richly layered tapestry of subplots involving a terrorist group called Ascension, an ominous US military conspiracy, and of course Lex Luthor.
If you have a mega-super-powered hero, the biggest essential challenge is making the stakes convincingly huge and daunting for him. Snyder demonstrates how a guy like Superman would have to be smart to make all his superpowers and lofty good intentions worth a damn. Even if you had super-strength, the ability to fly, x-ray vision, etc., there are still a million and one physical/scientific variables you’d have to account for, when, say, rescuing people from a plummeting spaceship or collapsing skyscraper. You’d still have to make all sorts of split-second tough decisions. Snyder puts us right in Superman’s red boots in these knuckle-biting moments, so it gets to feel just as real and intense as a situation faced by, say, a real-life firefighter or a paramedic saving people from bleeding to death at the scene of an accident. That’s what Superman has to deal with, because that’s what heroes have to deal with. Superman’s not “has Plan A-through-Z for every conceivable scenario” Sherlock-Holmes-scary-smart like Batman, so instead, he has to be think-on-his-feet, quickly-adaptable smart. The scale is huger-than-life and epic and fun to look at thanks to Lee’s art, because that’s the sort of mythic fun we go to these stories for. When such stories work, we stay for the ways they touch us on a deeper, universal human level. That’s what this book does, over and over again, keeping the pages turning, on levels I can’t discuss without spoiling all the twists and turns.
You think Superman’s too invulnerably powerful for us to feel any personal jeopardy for/with him? Snyder has that covered too. In a modern geo-political landscape where an extraterrestrial hero operates on his own without government sanction, he has to contend not just with bigger, badder alien threats, but with the government developing super-scientific weaponry powerful enough to take him down, and they’ve cooked up some truly nasty, scary shit to throw at him. At this juncture, it seems, Kryptonite is the least of his worries.
It’s nothing new for comic books to self-consciously examine their subjects on the grounds of, “Just how well can this classic character still hold up to modern scrutiny, in the face of contemporary concerns and awareness and such?” It tends to degenerate quickly into treating the hero as a whipping-boy for post-modern deconstructionist wanking. One should not try to write like Alan Moore unless one’s name is Alan Moore. Snyder blessedly takes the opposite approach. It’s like he just lets Superman step up, say “Challenge accepted,” barrel through it taking his licks, emerging battered but unbowed, to pass with flying colors (no pun intended).
Superman and Lois Lane in this new continuity, it seems, are just friends…On paper, that’s a shabby, pointlessly revisionist way to treat a pair of iconic classic lovers. Yet here, it somehow works. There’s an organic vibe of a “team” dynamic between them I don’t recall seeing before, even when he has to fly in and bail her out of a jam. Lois gets to do a lot in this story, as a globe-trotting investigative journalist and then some, with and without Superman. She has some choice moments to shine (in one instance literally) as quite the resourceful heroine in her own right. What poor Jimmy Olson goes through, you will not want to know, but you’ll turn the pages quicker to find out all the same. While this is first and foremost Superman’s story, Batman gets to step in to help him out too, leading to a priceless reveal that had me giggling for minutes on end. Lex Luthor’s climactic monologue – as he corners our hero in a cruel catch-22 – captures the psychology of his grudge against the Man of Steel so it makes sense, yet in the process illustrating Superman’s flawed, human vulnerability, rendering him all the more admirable for it.
In short, this book was a pure joy. If you like the DC comics superheroes of the Justice League, check it out. If you’re a Superman fan on any level, you flat-out owe it to yourself. If you dig superheroes but think you’re too hip for Superman, this might just change your mind.
One of the highlights of 2014 for me was to appear at the first annual ComicCon Vermont in Burlington. One of the many delights was to meet, talk with, and sample the works of fellow grassroots/up-and-coming New England artists in the field of science-fiction, fantasy and horror, in a variety of meetings and striking voices. One particularly striking discovery was the dark fiction of Connecticut author Stacey Longo. Her collection Secret Things; 12 Tales to Terrify cements her place among fresh voices in dark fiction, with wicked reassurance that the art of neatly crafted short-fiction is alive and well, if you know where to look.
Stacey Longo’s short fiction has appeared in over a dozen anthologies and magazines. She writes a weekly humor blog at www.staceylongo.com and owns a used bookstore in Colchester, CT. She spends her free time reading everything she can get her hands on at home and relaxing with her husband, Jason, and two cats, Wednesday and Pugsley.
After I read Secret Things, Stacey was kind enough to let me pick her brain in this short interview.
One running theme I noticed in the yarns in Secret Things was the use of the unreliable narrator, or technically in most cases, the unreliable POV-character. The realization that what’s going on somehow doesn’t match what we’re being told at face-value, it’s a powerful way to sneakily, steadily crank up the tension and keep the reader off-balance. What would you say keeps drawing you back to this approach?
SL: The world is full of unreliable narrators – I’ve dated, been friends with, or am related to plenty myself. I’d argue that this doesn’t necessarily make them bad people (okay, sometimes it does) but certainly keeps you on your toes around them. Unreliable narrators make life interesting. Plus, some of my favorite books (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fight Club) feature unreliable narrators, so I’m sure that influence is there, too.
The unifying theme of the collection is clearly secrets, and how everyone has them (as the title suggests and the tag line on the back cover makes explicit) – Sometimes those secrets are tangible things, like covered-up crimes, the characters’ proverbial skeletons in the closet. Sometimes it’s the unspoken resentments and skewed perceptions they harbor over the years, ’til it eventually boils over unchecked into reality and causes tangible problems, like murder. What would you say it is about this theme that keeps drawing you back?
SL: Everybody does have secrets, and I think the reveal of what a character is hiding often makes for an interesting story. It sometimes amazes me the sort of things people feel the need to keep secret. I have consistently found that whatever it is that they’re hiding is not nearly as much fun as what I’ve made up in my head in the meantime.
While your narrative voice is distinctive and engaging in and of itself, elements of your work often reminded me of various old favorites, like Edgar Allen Poe, Jim Thompson and Stephen King. Among your own favorite authors, who’s been a particular influence on you, and how would you say you’ve made those elements your own?
SL: Certainly Poe was an influence, and I think it’s impossible as a horror writer today not to be influenced by King. I try very hard not to sound like King, but the simple clarity of his prose is something I make note of when I’m reading him, and that probably comes through. I’m a huge fan of Jeff Strand, and I love how he uses dark humor. But every author is different, and it’s important to read really good literature and be aware of what you like about it, and try to incorporate those elements into your own style without out-and-out copying it.
The lion’s share of the stories in the collection are straight-up psychological/grounded-in-“reality” thrillers. While they never stray too far from relatable empathy with these flawed characters, there’s an overarching dry, darkly comic flavor to a lot of them – the wicked glee the storyteller finds in these unfolding bad situations is discernible, and infectious…The narrative tone somewhat reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions on old episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, if you get what I mean. The two stories that involve overt paranormal elements [titles redacted to avoid spoilers] stand out in stark contrast to this. These pieces (and to a lesser degree the last of the zombie stories) cut straight to the raw pain, of things like loss and doubt and regret. Would you say there’s something about these paranormal elements that makes them natural metaphors for the things that haunt us through life like that?
SL: Thanks for the comparison to Hitch – that’s high praise! I’ve rewatched those old episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents a million times. Both of the stories you mentioned sprang from real losses that happened in my life at a young age. So arguably, they’re not even metaphors – they are very real incarnations of two losses that haunted me for a long time. But if it makes me sound smarter to say they’re representative of the disappointments and bad decisions we’ve all lived to regret, by all means, say that!
Your “The Stories Behind the Tales” notes in the back of the book were fun and informative. Some of the stories seem to originate, bluntly, as revenge-fantasy pieces. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. Part of writing effective, honest dark fiction is being willing and able to let out the darkest things in yourself, warts and all. Have you ever encountered squirmy static from people – either readers or family and friends who you bounce your stuff off of – who mistake this for something actually unbalanced or unsettling-in-a-bad-way about you (confusing the message with the messenger, etc., if you will)? If so, how do you deal with that/respond to such concerns?
SL: You’re absolutely right – some of these certainly are revenge-fantasy pieces. I find writing a better form of therapy than, say, stabbing out someone’s eyes with a turkey baster. I’ve had a couple of family members who’ve had hurt feelings over what they perceived as an insult directed toward them, but in those cases, it simply wasn’t about them, and there were enough other character traits in the story to point this out to them. And a few people have mentioned that they think I’m weird/disturbed/crazy. But my immediate family thinks I’m okay, and that’s all that really matters.
That said, when delving into those dark places, do you ever feel like you might be wading in too deep, maybe coming up with a something that’s too over-the-line, over-the-top and disturbing in some ways? If so, at that point, do you decide “Okay, maybe it’s time to reign myself in a bit,” or do you take that as all the more of a sign that you’ve tapped into a new level of something raw and powerful, so it’s “Be willing to go all the way or go home”?
SL: The only time I reign myself in is when I think someone in my immediate family might be hurt or embarrassed by what I’m writing. Remember how I said everybody has secrets? So does my family. That’s when I pull back and try to go in a different direction.
So what future big writing/writing-related projects do you have in the works or on the horizon?
SL: My novel Ordinary Boy is due out in spring 2015 from Dark Alley Press, so I’m working on lining up appearances and readings for that. I’m shopping around a YA novel (My Sister the Zombie) and hoping to find a home for that, too. And I’m currently working on a parallel novel to Ordinary Boy that explores the life of one of the characters from that book.