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?