Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Interview: John Shirley on his new historical western!

John Shirley is the author of several of my favorite novels and Collections, including Demons; Crawlers; City Come A-Walkin’; Really, Really, Really, Really, Weird Stories; and the classic cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth: Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona. He is the recipient of the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award and won the International Horror Guild Award for his collection Black Butterflies. Shirley has fronted punk bands and written lyrics for his own music, as well as for Blue Oyster Cult and other groups. A principal screenwriter for The Crow, Shirley now devotes most of his time to writing for television and film.

This interview done 9/29/14 over e-mail.

David Agranoff: John, can you give us the idea behind this novel?

John Shirley: Besides being a novel intending to capture something of what the frontier, the Wild West, might really have been like, it's also about providing a balanced view of Wyatt Earp.

People tend to vilify or deify him. He's either a villain or a hero. Recently Larry McMurtry published a novel that vilified him, based on very 1960s style prejudices. I am setting the record as straight as fiction can set it. I did a lot of research. He was a man with a dark side but he was always trying to work for the community--in his way. Except when he lost his way. We all lose our way. He was brave as any man in the old west, and as Bat Masterson said, "If you want to know the true story of the West, ask Wyatt Earp. But he's not telling."

DA: Have you always wanted to write a western? What was it about this real life historical figure that inspired you to tell his story? JS: I grew up with westerns. They are romances for males, in a sense. They tend to depict idealized maleness. I wanted to be more ideal than I was! But also Earp's steely eyed determination has its own strange poetry to it. And that drew me...And the people around him! Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, the Earp Brothers. And others I reveal in this novel--colorful characters few know had connections with Earp...

DA: How did your ideas of the man change from doing the research?

JS: Earp lost whatever sainthood I might have cherished for him, but I also saw him as courageous, resourceful, always willing to start anew, never giving up, a true frontiersman who, as he matured, learned that *community* was worth fighting for. But he was a man who was, to cold fury and the desire for a reckoning, as a lightning rod is for lightning. And that is something that drew me. For there is little justice in the world.

DA: Did getting into the head of the man in writing further influence your thinking on the man?

JS: Of course. I thought of him as a human being, with a need for love, and acceptance, and with a desire for success, and a love of family--and above all, a man who knew regret. He regretted his early association with the prostitution industry. He also had issues with addiction--to drink and gambling. So he gave up drink. But never quite gambling.

DA: “The Land didn’t need Laws but the people did.” A line from the novel I liked can you tell me what this statement says about the period?

JS: It would have seemed obvious to people in the East but in the west, where laws were weakly enforced, it mattered more. It came galloping up in relevance! People are unaware of their true selves, barely in control of themselves--they need laws until they have an inner compass. Few do.

DA: The western style action is well done and adds to the tone can you tell us about how you approached it?

JS: I researched it --read a good many books about the wild west, joined the Wild West history association, researched guns at the time, read accounts by Bat Masterson--who was there!--and then used my imagination to try to sense how it would be in real life. DA: I remember You saying when you wrote your Batman novel it was like dressing up and playing batman as kids do. Did this feel similar despite the serious tone of a lot of the novel?

JS: No this is more serious than the Batman novel. I was more serious with the Batman novel than you imply really, but Wyatt in Wichita is trying to capture something real. The sweat, blood, determination, heat, cold, the fall of the cards, the staggering of the drunks--the wild west. Serious stuff to me.

DA: There is a lot of elements of weather and environment – something I think is important to Westerns what did you achieve the feeling of the old west?

JS: I live in the new west, have traveled through the midwest, have been to Tombstone, but most of all--research. Reading accounts of pioneers, newspaper descriptions, biographies of Earp and many others. Masterson and Wild Bill Hickok and many others. You get a feel for it. Also remember--they did not have air conditioning, or electric fans, or central heating or cars, or trucks. They had a few planks and a potbellied stove at best, on a winter's night; they had little shade and intemperate weather. But they felt the exhilaration of freedom...

DA: This is a less famous moment in the man’s life, what was it that inspired you to work on this period of his life?

JS: Because it hadn't been done before! And because it was the making of Earp the man, as opposed to Earp the reluctant gunfighter of Tombstone...Wyatt in Wichita is in a period that's closer to the origins of his character.

DA: Any chance you’ll write a purely fictional Western?

JS: This one is partly fictional--the murder mystery is fiction. I would love to write a western straight out of my imagination. If this one sells--that'll make it possible.

DA: What is up next for you?

JS: I'm planning a near future science fiction novel called STORMLAND. I've written part of it--an early version of which appeared in Interzone magazine late last year. But I'd love to write another historical fiction. I'm at least as interested in historical drama as I am in the future.

Book Review: Wyatt in Wichita by John Shirley

Wyatt in Wichita: A Historical Novel

by John Shirley

Paperback, 320 pages

Published August 5th 2014 by Skyhorse Publishing

Wyatt in Wichita is a novel I have been reading buzz about for a long time. Being that one of my all time favorite authors was spending years working on passion project western, I had of course been intrigued. I really hate to think of authors ever as totally genre exclusive, I mean in this case John Shirley while know as both a Horror and Science Fiction writer transcends the genres everytime he writes a novel marketed in either genre.

Authors known for genre fiction have a history of writing historical novels that they consider some of their best work, and often they end up pleading with their readers to pay attention to these books. David Morrell a thriller writer known as the father of Rambo had this experience with the Last Reveille and F.Paul Wilson with Black Wind (However The Wilson novel fits into his mythos and doesn't feel like a departure to me). Each are excellent novels, and WIW clear deserves equal praise.

While it is a historical western on the surface it doesn;t seems like a departure for the writer who stories were once called Lollipops of Pain, Shirley was up to his old tricks. He delivered an intense view of the world just set in this period.

Focused on a less famous part of the legendary life of Wyatt Earp's life this novel follows a fictionalized murder case. This is a tool to explore the life of the famous sometimes Lawman sometimes gambler. While sometimes the legend paints a hero, or villain the strength of this novel is shades of grey Shirley paints with. This novel has plenty of action but it is above all a character study.

I recently read/reviewed a horror western that I thought lacked many elements needed for a successful Western I was pleased that they were all here. Period accurate action, engulfing natural landscapes that jumped off the page and characters that made me a little uncomfortable. That is a western in a nut shell.

I found myself dog earing some pages and marking some quotes that I really liked. Many of things quotes will show off the tiny details that set the western tone such as…

“It was largely a land without Borders - something that attracted him and disturbed him both. The land didn't need laws. But the people did."

“The room was quiet, for a moment, but for their breathing. Santilli waited for the order to commence shooting.”

“It was a hot day, though scarely past midmorning. When the weather turned in the Dakotas, Swinnington reflected, it turned like a marching solider doing a left face.”

Read it! Up next an interview with John Shirley about this novel...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Interview: Award winning artist and author Alan M. Clark

One of the people I miss after moving away fro Oregon is Alan Clark. I always enjoyed talking to him at Lovecraft film fest and Bizarro con. Last spring in one of my last Eugene hang outs Alan hosting myself and few friends at his house. We spent hours looking at paintings and talking horror with someone I consider a master of the dark arts. I was a super magical experience.

So after reading Alan's most recent novel Say Anything But Your Prayers I wanted to explore the book further and Alan agreed to this interview.

David Agranoff: How did you get into dark fiction and how far back does this love go?

Alan M. Clark: My father, a neurologist, liked dark, creepy things, and we had that in common as well as a love for art of all sorts, so he was a big influence on me. The house I grew up in had a lot of medical books, remnants of my grandfather’s medical research (he was head of the anatomy department at Vanderbilt University), a lot of human bones, Indian relics, two attics and a large, damp basement full of stuff from earlier generations. Skeletons (perhaps dead from the siege known as the Battle of Nashville) were exposed in their shallow graves across the street from my home when the creek eroded away the soil that covered them. Of course I liked horror films. We had The Big Show in the afternoon on the black and white Zenith when I got home from school. With literature, I had a slower start. I didn’t read well as a child. I found it difficult. I’m still a slow reader. My father, a life-long voracious reader, was disappointed that I didn’t read much for fun. Finally, in my early teens I got better at reading and discovered Lovecraft’s work, which about that time, 1970, were being published and distributed in paperbacks. Well, that spilled out into reading all kinds of horror, science fiction, fantasy. I tended to always seek darker stuff, whatever the genre.

DA: So I just finished reading Say anything but Your Prayers. It is the second in a series. On the surface it seems like they are books about Jack the Ripper, but they are not about Jack. They are about the Ripper's victims can you give us the idea behind the entire series?

AMC: The Jack the Ripper Victims Series is about the lives of the canonical victims of the murderer—those Scotland Yard have canonized as definite victims of the same killer. There are five of them. I’ve written novels about three of them so far. Two have been released by Lazy Fascist Press, OF THIMBLE AND THREAT and SAY ANYTHING BUT YOUR PRAYERS. Hopefully, A BRUTAL CHILL IN AUGUST will come out next year. Back in the early ‘90s, I was studying up on the Whitechapel Murderer while trying to write a short story for a Ripper anthology when I discovered transcripts of the inquests of the victims and the police reports that spoke of the crime scenes, the mutilations, and the possessions found on the dead. The more I looked at what we knew about the women, the lives they led within the extreme environment of Victorian London of the time, the more interested I became in what existence was like for them emotionally and the less interested I became in who the killer was. The more I find out about London of the period, the more fantastical the place becomes in my imagination. As a real world environment in which to stage drama, especially dark fiction, it is almost beyond belief. The rapid growth of British society during the industrial revolution, the disease, the poverty, the crime, the the hazards of unfettered industry, the abusive employment practices, the amount of labor required by most just to live a meager existence, and the endurance of countless simple human beings—these are great elements for story-telling. Researching the lives of the victims is like exploration to me. I’m endlessly fascinated and frequently surprised by what I find.

DA: What is it about the victims that inspired you to think about them?

AMC: They are ordinary women of their time who in their middle-age years became single and found themselves fending for themselves within an environment in which they were considered to have little worth. Their lives didn’t start out that way, but they seemed to have outlived their welcome in their world. The novels are the stories of how they started out in life and how they struggled to remain standing as their fortunes shifted suddenly beneath their feet. The drama involved is the stuff of life. It reveals human beings for what they are, creatures simultaneously indefatigable of spirit, generosity and worthy aspirations, and dishonorable, petty and small-minded.

DA: What about the victim of Thimble and Threat and Say anything that made them different for you?

AMC: They certainly led different lives. Stride was from Sweden and spent half of her life there. She grew up on a farm and then became a prostitute in Gothenburg. We know she was given to lying. When she got to England, she had some success in life with her husband in running a coffee shop, but they lost everything and both spent time in the workhouse. After he died, she was a sometime prostitute and beggar.

Eddowes liked to sing and was a friendly woman, but had a temper. She and her husband wrote gallows ballads that they printed up and sold at public executions. She had children and tried to make a good home, but eventually broke up with her husband. Poverty and alcoholism won out and she ended on the streets.

They’re just ordinary people of their time, but they have the same emotions that we do, so we can relate to them if their characters are developed. The trick is to get at that emotion in the story and show how that drove their choices—often choices born of desperation that had something to do with what happened to them.

DA: Do you see the first completed novels as compliments to each other or totally separate?

AMC: The novels are connected—I won’t say how—but they’re also able to stand on their own. To read more than one of them is to understand the environment better, but the lives of the victims were largely different except for the ends.

DA: The title Say Anything but Your Prayers is a line of dialogue in the book but what is the story of this phrase and/or title?

AMC: As you say, it is a line of dialogue from the novel. The police had from a witness an account of seeing Stride with a man shortly before her death. The witness heard the man say to her “You would say anything but your prayers. “ Her response was to laugh. It fit nicely with the theme of her difficulty with the truth.

DA: Tells us about the research process?

AMC: There are a lot of books about Jack the Ripper. There are online resources, like the Casebook: Jack the Ripper Forum. Much of what you find there is speculation, but often well-informed speculation. There are countless Google books of the time period available. Also, because the British people were so upset about the poverty and the fast pace of change during the period, the Government had to look like they were doing something about it. They commissioned countess reports on everything: such as the cost of living, the average cost of goods, wages for all types of work, employment, treatment of laborers, nutrition, how people ate, how they cooked, clothing, housing, rents, building practices, manufacturing practices, the impoverished, types of the poor, how they scavenged, types of beggars, health issues, etc. Lots of busy work, and much of it is available for research.

DA: What do you think of the revelation of The Ripper's identity? Do you buy it? And will that information affect future books in the series?

AMC: The idea that Aaron Kosminski was the Ripper isn’t new. It’s reasonable. If you look at his history, you’ll find ample cause for alarm in what must have been his emotional development. Until a peer reviewed journal of the science used in these recent “discoveries” is published, we won’t know the truth. If we gain this information only from a book someone is trying to sell us and articles about the book, then why should we believe? For the stories I’m telling, I don’t think it matters who the killer was.

DA: I know most horror folks think of you as painter and cover artist, but as a fan of your writing what is next?

AMC: Cameron Pierce, Kirsten Alene Pierce, and I are talking about writing a group of novellas set within the Pain Doctors Facility. It’s an environment that I’ve helped develop with several other writers, and has been the focus of numerous creepy medical paintings I’ve done over the years. Previous projects involving that environment are the books, THE PAIN DOCTORS OF SUTURE SELF GENERAL and PAIN AND OTHER PETTY PLOTS TO KEEP YOU IN STITCHES. They’re sort of The Adams Family meet ER. Thanks for the interview.

On 5 panels at Conjecture here in San Diego Oct.10th-12

I Just found out what panels I am doing at Conjecture Sci-fi con in October.

5 panels...

1.The End Is Near - Will Civilization collaspe?

2.Body Count - Are We Getting Immune?

3. After Twilight, Will Vampires Ever Be Scary Again?

4.Oh Doctor, My Doctor! Doctor Who

5. GMOs and The Future of Food

Details on the Con: http://www.2014.conjecture.org

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: Say Anything But Your Prayers by Alan M. Clark

Say Anything But Your Prayers by Alan M. Clark
Paperback, 224 pages

Published August 1st 2014 by Lazy Fascist Press

Alan M. Clark is better known for his beautiful award winning covers and illustrations that have been in the interior and the covers of works from authors ranging from Stephen King to Cody Goodfellow. His art is amazing but many forget that he was also nominated for a Bram Stoker award for co-writing Siren Promised with Jeremy Robert Johnson. Alan of course has his artists eye for detail and has written historical horror before.

This book is the second in a groundbreaking series that explores the Jack the Ripper history from an angle never before seen in over century of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the serial killer. This second book follows the life and demise of Elizabeth Stride the fourth victim. Each book in the series follows the life of the killer’s victim.

I admit I knew very little about Elizabeth Stride before reading this book. Any one looking for a cover to cover horror experience needs to look elsewhere. I would consider this novel to be horror but the historical elements are what make this piece so interesting. You can’t escape the main character’s fate as you go through her life, tension builds because you know how she will meet her end.

Clark includes a few key Illustrations, but the strength comes from the attention to detail and the humanizing of Elizabeth Stride. This book is a must for people with a interest in the Ripper and I hope that libraries will carry it.

Book Review: Church of TV as God by Daniel Valasty

The Church of TV as God by Daniel Valasty
Paperback, 94 pages

Published October 20th 2013 by Eraserhead Press

New Bizarro Author Series

For those of you who are not familar with the new bizarro author series let me first explain what it is exactly. A few years back Eraserhead press suffering from the inability to publish every young hungry bizaro writer started this program. Short novellas length bizarro books meant to give voice to a new fresh faced author. This series has premeired several writers that I like alot of that have made a name for themselves. To name a few…Nicole Cushing, Vince Kramer, Tamara Romero, David W. Barbee and Patrick Wensink (who had an amazon bestseller) all got their start in this series.

It is a good thing because many of these authors and books would never stand a chance. How else would a first time author with a book about monsters who spit wolves geta chance right?

So enter Daniel Valasty and then Church of TV as God. This is a surreal social commentary that seems a tightly packed. I think this concept and story could have been twice as long under the skill of a writer like Valasty.

For a series that is supposed to highlight beginning writers Valasty seems to have full control of the construction of the plot, arc and Prose. The only negative is I think and know Valasty can go way weirder and more edgy. Keep your eye on this one he is strong in the force.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book Review: The Ravine by William Meikle

The Ravine by William Meikle

Paperback, 218 pages Published November 19th 2013 by Dark Regions Press

I have seen Meikle’s name around before. I knew he was a Scottish born writer who writes both science fiction and horror often blending both. When I saw that he had a horror western released by Dark Regions Press I thought it was a great place to sample his work.

There is quite a bit to like here, I know at times this review will sound negative but I think Meikle did enough to interest me in his other books. At 212 pages The Ravine is a short novel but to me that is the BEST length for horror novel is around 200 pages. This novel is written with lean no nonsense style with short chapters that reminded me of David Morrell. A few lines of dialogue made me laugh like “What’s the plan?” “Don’t get dead.”

Good plan.

The story of an old west town laid siege by a plague and a spiritual war between angels and demons. My favorite character was the town saloon bouncer a badass named Issac. The novel has a few strong characters like the town Doc but I didn’t really find any of the characters stood out as a hero. There are lots of good moments of suspense,and as a monster novel there are plenty of moments I enjoyed.

So what didn’t like? Well this is a western but several of my favorite elements of the western are MIA in this novel. To me a western fits into the history or tapestry of the period and the environment. This novel failed to connect me as a reader with either element. I am not exactly sure when this takes place, maybe after the civil war as there is a group of Cavalry after all. I am not sure where we are because nothing really gives this story a sense of place.

The atmosphere of the old west is something missing from this novel. At no point did I get a sense of what season it was. Was the ground muddy? Were the characters swatting away flies? Zane Grey was the best at this in the western novel but I felt it was lacking here.

I think libraries should carry this book in their collection and I am sold on reading more of William Meikle’s work. I think this worked more as a horror novel than it did a western. It could have been set anywhere or in any period. I just wish it was more grounded in the west.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book review: Man Made Boy by Jon Skovron

Man Made Boy by Jon Skovron
Hardcover, 361 pages Published October 3rd 2013 by Viking Penguin

When I requested this book my editor at Monster Librarian pointed out “David you do know this is a YA novel.” Granted I don’t read a lot of YA stuff but have from time to time and I am not against such things. I tend to enjoy a harder, darker horror in general but I thought the concept I read online sounded interesting.

It is indeed an interesting book filled with fun ideas. Man Made Boy is the story of Boy, the son of the Frankestein monster and the Bride who lives in a NYC refuge for monsters. Hidden in plain sight from the public as a part of a freak show the monsters live in a labyrinth behind/under a theater in the city. I LOVED this concept. The set-up is beautifully done and creatures a wonderful environment that is both gothic and surreal.

Boy is a teenager and this for sure a road trip coming of age novel. Boy decides he wants to leave the show and live in the outside world. Which is not the easiest thing to do when you are made up of re-animated body parts, but he gets out there and gets a job. Once he travels he meets other monsters, falls in love and has adventures.

Where it gets muddied is a secondary plot about Boy’s love for hacking. He creates a villain named Vi. A sentient computer virus, which in effect makes Boy like Doctor Frankenstein.

The theme is not subtle, it is about responsibility. I thought the novel was fun overall and would be perfect for young teens. I should point out there is some strong language and suggestion of sexuality entirely off camera. The book says for 12 and up, that in my mind is fair but I was reading adult horror novels at that age so take that with a grain of salt.

I think YA collections should have this book, kids looking for a light hearted fantasy will enjoy it.