Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Year in Review and What's to Come in 2010

Everyone else on the Internet is making lists of favorite moments, so I might as well too.

2009 was supposed to be the year that I tackled all of those “Oh my god, you have to read this!” books on my to-be-read list. I was going to read Stephenson, Danielewski, Pynchon, DeLillo, etc.

Remember this list?

Give me a moment to stop laughing and catch my breath before I continue.

There we go. I think the giggles are subsiding. In the end, I managed to read two of those, White Noise and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Obviously, my New Year’s resolution for 2009 fell flat on its face.

I have a new resolution for the upcoming year. I resolve to read what I want to, when I want to, and not plan anything ahead. My tastes have a tendency to come and go in phases, and trying to stick to some sort of grand literary plan is an exercise in setting myself up for failure down the road. The next twelve months will be dedicated to reading whatever my book fever throws at me, be they nonfiction volumes about eating seasonal produce (I still need to finish How to Pick a Peach) or Young Adult titles I first read nearly twenty years ago (I need to tear through all those yellowed Christopher Pike novels I picked up for eighty cents apiece during Half Price Books’ 20% off sale this weekend).

To hell with lists.

Another thing that will be different next year is the rating system I use. I’ve noticed recently that I have a tendency to give out a lot of fives, which should be reserved for books that really blow me away and refuse to leave me for days after finishing them. Either I read a lot of mind blowing stuff (which is a possibility, I suppose) or I’m using a rating system that’s a bit too vague for my needs. I think the latter is more realistic, especially since I’m not a paid reviewer and tend to read what I’m already interested in. Of course these books are going to be rated higher by me than a completely objective, experienced critic. I’m already expecting to enjoy them when I pick them up, which means I’m more inclined to give them high scores when I’m done.

Next year, I’ll be using a scale of ten instead of five, reserving those perfect scores for books that really steamroll me. Most of what I gave fives to this year should really have been nines, I think. Too many fives are starting to make this little blog look lazy and, perhaps, biased. Starting with the next review, I’ll be implementing the new system. We’ll see how that works out. I’m thinking it will be a lot better than what I’ve been doing.

Also starting with the next review, the tags at the bottom of each write-up will be expanded. Author and title will still be included, of course, but genre, year of review and any other important key words (non-spoiler plot or theme words, awards won, etc) will also be included. I’ve noticed recently that the Labels column on the right-hand side of the blog is underutilized, so either I start adding more tags or I get rid of the feature altogether.

That’s about it for new things. I’m fairly fond of the XML theme I used to replace the boring old default I started off with, so that should be staying the same. Any other changes will be put in place if and when they’re needed.

With that out of the way, on to the 2009 year in review. As I said earlier, I didn’t get to the books I’d promised myself I would be reading this year. I also didn’t read the volume of books I had hope for, either. By the time the year is over, I will be at either thirty-two or thirty-three books, assuming I finish the fascinating Nevermore by Harold Schechter in the next day or two. There were a few things I posted this year that have had a lasting effect on me that I’d like to say one or two more things about before the ball drops and the books tally resets to zero.

Spook Country - Back in the late 90s, while attending college, I had a friend named Andy Fisher who loved telling a joke called, if I remember it correctly, “A Thousand White Ping-Pong Balls.” It was a joke with a hilarious punchline that took at least twenty minutes to set up. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of the details of the joke, but William Gibson’s novel works much in the same way. The book spends most of its time setting up a hilarious scene at the very end that had me rolling with laughter. Comedy isn’t something that i would normally associate with a Gibson work, but this was absolutely amazing. I keep a pristine copy on my shelf and another with a battered dust jacket in my car in case I find myself somewhere without reading material. I go back to it again and again in tiny increments because it’s just that good. Nerds with a fascination for technology and a slightly skewed sense of humor cannot go wrong with this novel.

JPod - Video games, dysfunctional families, crazy coworkers and the longest-running in-joke I’ve ever employed. I cannot walk down the candy aisle of a grocery store and spot a Toblerone bar without saying, out loud, “Steve turned Toblerone around in two years!”

Machine Man - Max Barry’s experimental, online novel was great fun to read every weekday morning. Sometimes it was the first thing I laid eyes on after waking up, still nestled under my covers. It was an awesome, wacky novel with a completely original plot that I can’t wait to pick up in revised, paperback format.

Microserfs - Coupland’s early 1990s cubicle drone comedy (a predecessor to JPod, which retains a lot of the same spirit, only in an updated form) gripped me with an iron fist of nostalgia that had me laughing and remembering fondly the years of my life I wasted and will never get back. I kind of miss that ugly Geo Metro.

Liquor - This book taught me that Poppy Z. Brite will always be awesome, even if she’s left horror behind. It also taught me that reading lengthy, indulgent passages about food will cause me to drool all over myself. Brite’s husband, chef Chris DeBarr, opened up a new restaurant this year called Green Goddess that is an absolute must-visit for me once I finally make the trip down to New Orleans.

White Noise - Reading White Noise made me realize that perhaps I’m stupider than I originally thought I was. Being one of those people who “just don’t get it” stings a bit, but I’ll have to deal with it somehow. Maybe someday I’ll be up to the intellectual challenge.

Interviews. I absolutely love being able to pick the brains of the people behind the books, especially those books I’ve read and enjoyed. This year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Wayne Simmons, Derek Goodman, and D.L. Snell, all really awesome guys (I’ve met Derek in person and can especially vouch for his coolness) involved in one way or another (two authors, one editor) with books I highly enjoyed reading this year.

I’m looking forward to an equally awesome 2010, only with a higher count of books read by this time next year. No more slacking. Now, back to reading.

Monday, December 28, 2009

#31 of 2009: Nightlight by The Harvard Lampoon

Sometimes you’ve got to hate something to appreciate the jokes about it.

I was late to the Twilight party. I didn’t get caught up in it until the fourth book was about to be released, picking up a softcover copy of the first book and reading up to Eclipse. I bought Breaking Dawn but there is no way in Hell I’m ever going to read it. By the time I made my way through the first three books, I was so thoroughly irritated by Meyer’s writing style, her horrible handling of both vampire and native lore and her hideous, insulting character development that I doubt I’ll ever read another sentence written by her again.

I have a tendency to get suckered into something out of sheer curiosity, which is the only reason I read beyond the first book in the first place. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. On a related note, anyone who wants my hardback copies better lay claim to them before I render them into booksafes. I’ll get more use out of them that way.

There are a million different reasons to hate the Twilight series, and I’m not going to go into them all. If you want to read some very well thought out, well written responses to Meyer’s work, check out Stoney321’s dissection of the series on Livejournal or Mark Reads Twilight So You Don’t Have To. You’ll save money, save time and retain your sanity while still being able to laugh at Twilight’s unintended hilarity.

For the few people who’ve read and enjoyed the Twilight series and have a sense of humor about it, and for those who’ve read it and hate it, there’s no better rip on the series than The Harvard Lampoon’s new book, Nightlight.

Belle Goose, a girl so clumsy and unable to control her limbs that she can’t walk through a door without self-injury, leaves Phoenix and moves to Switchblade, Oregon to be with her father, the town’s greatest (and possibly only) window-washer. Once there, she realizes that everyone in town adores her, including the mailman, the school secretary and all of her classmates. Only one person, the mysterious computer nerd Edwart Mullen, seems impervious to her blazing charm. There has to be a reason for this. He must be a vampire. Despite having little to no evidence to support her theory, Belle falls head over heels in love with him in record time, even though they’ve had almost no contact with each other outside of a few glances in each other’s direction during classes.

Thus begins the romance of a lifetime.

Nightlight is incredibly stupid, but it’s a calculating, mocking stupid. Every ridiculous line is crafted to mimic Twilight’s unintended hilarity:

He frowned and looked down at the tablecloth. “Actually, you’re the one person I can’t read. I’ve always considered myself good at looking at people’s expressions and making wild guesses as to how they feel, but you - I look at your face and try to guess what you are thinking, and all I hear is ‘BEEEEEEEEEEEEP.’ Just this giant beeping sound - the sound a medical monitor makes when you die and everything goes blank. ‘BEEEEEEEEEEEP.’ Like that.”

“Gosh, Belle. When someone asks you, ‘What’s new?’ the correct answer is, ‘not much.’ Besides, isn’t it a little soon to cut yourself off from the rest of your peers, depending on a boyfriend to satisfy your social needs as opposed to making friends? Imagine what would happen if something forced that boy to leave! I’m imagining pages and pages would happen - with nothing but the names of the month on them.”

One nice thing about my dad is, as an old person, his hearing isn’t too great. So when I closed the door to my room, unpacked, cried uncontrollably, slammed the door, and threw my clothes around my room in a fit of dejected rage, he didn’t notice. it was a relief to let some of my steam out, but I wasn’t ready to let all of it out yet. That would come later, when my dad was asleep and I was lying awake thinking about how ordinary kids my age are. If only one of them were extraordinary, then I’d be rid of this insomnia.

I could not put this book down once I'd started reading, and in the two hours it took me (including breaks for dinner and moments to breathe deeply and control my laughter) I must have burst out into at least twenty separate fits of giggling.

It takes genius to mimic stupidity, and I find it hilarious that a bunch of college kids half-assing it managed to so superbly imitate Meyer and her cast of inane, vapid characters. Nightlight is absolutely fantastic in its mockery, doing in a mere one hundred and fifty-four pages what took Meyer five hundred and forty-four to accomplish, and she was taking the endeavor seriously.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

#30 of 2009: Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is back to narrate another heinous murder in Bangkok to an unnamed Western audience in Bangkok Tattoo, the second in John Burdett’s exotic crime fiction series.

This time, the top earner at The Old Man’s club (a prostitution joint owned by Sonchai’s mother Nong and his boss, Royal Thai Police Colonel Vikorn) has returned to the bar after taking a client back to his hotel room, her once silver dress now covered in blood. The john, an American CIA operative named Mitch Turner, has been castrated and nearly eviscerated atop his hotel bed. Whatever the reason for killing him, his murderer has gone to great lengths to harm him, leaving his severed penis on the bedside table in a position seemingly, considering the circumstances, oddly respectful.

Before retiring to an unoccupied room on the upstairs floor of the Old Man’s Club, Chanya admits she murdered Turner, shouting “I’ve done him in!” before stripping off her underwear and curling up with enough opium to render a woman her size blissfully stoned for hours on end.

Nothing in a Burdett novel is quite as simple as it initially seems. Vikorn concocts a fake statement to hold onto in case the CIA find out Turner has been murdered, a document that claims Chanya was sexually assaulted and killed the man in self defense. The victim’s identification is disposed of and the body scheduled to be cremated. The Old Man’s Club is finally seeing a profit and their star whore cannot be detained in prison. So it is in Sonchai’s world, where he is the only one who refuses bribes and desperately tries to keep in the Buddha's graces while the world around him falls apart.

Sonchai and Vikorn, however, soon find that they missed one crucial piece of physical evidence on the corpse. And so begins the unraveling of Vikorn’s little cover story.

The initial coverup barely scratches the surface of Bangkok Tattoo’s twisting plot, which despite all of its detailed intrigue takes a backseat to the inner lives of its core characters. Like its predecessor Bangkok 8, the second novel revolves around the lives and loves of several people, with healthy doses of Buddhism, Islam and Western culture clash blended into the narrative. Nothing is as it seems, and what should be a simple crime is anything but.

Also included in the novel are several subtle and not so subtle subplots that are either left entirely open for the third novel, Bangkok Haunts, or are tied up in such a tenuous way that readers will assume them to be primed for further exploration at a later time. Sonchai's American GI father is mentioned in passing, and Vikorn's rivalries with other crooked officials rise to the surface here and there, hinting at further exploration in other volumes.

Once again, Burdett has written a novel that is part detective fiction, part East vs. West comparison. There have been several negative reviews for Bangkok Tattoo, mostly by Western readers, claiming that the story is a hard slam against Western culture. This reviewer, though, feels that perhaps they should lighten up a bit. It’s fiction, and obviously exaggerated for the purposes of entertainment and for bolstering an already scandalous (and somewhat controversial, in our post-9/11 culture) plot. In most fiction, though, there is a grain of truth, and perhaps readers have a slight something to gain by taking the story in with an open mind and a desire for a damn good murder story. Behind Sonchai’s “You’re deprived of X because of your culture, farang" lecturing (which is entertaining and enlightening in an “I kind of see what you mean” sort of way) is a bloody, perverse and altogether engrossing story that deserves to be read cover to cover.


Burdett’s fourth novel in the series, The Godfather of Kathmandu, hits stores in hardcover on January 12th.

#29 of 2009: The Devil You Know by Poppy Z. Brite

Sometimes, as a reader, there will be times when I want to drop myself into an immersive world full of well-written characters with a long story that will keep me occupied for days. Other times, feeling less interested in universes and plot intricacies, I find myself looking for a good short story collection to keep me entertained in smaller, much more manageable bites.

Poppy Z. Brite has been, for me, a literary mainstay for fifteen years or more. I read her novels Lost Souls and Drawing Blood for the first time back in middle school, falling completely head-over-heels in love with both her writing style and subject matter during a period in my life where I was beginning to take my own attempts at storytelling somewhat seriously. She became for me, over the next few years, a source of both inspiration and heavy-handed imitation, before I found my own style and voice and moved on to penning things that were a bit less of a rip-off of better writers’ plots.

I never did forget her stories or stop admiring her as an author. As I grew older, I branched out into other genres and styles, and I didn’t go back to her fiction as often as I used to. Some of her smaller books, the ones not released by mainstream publishers, were a bit out of my price range as well. However, she popped back into my mind every now and then, and over the last year or so I have been both revisiting the works I read as an impressionable teen and finally getting to read the books I missed between that time and now. I reviewed Drawing Blood in late 2008 and Liquor this past summer, and I have to say the magic is still there, with both the older works and the newer ones.

There’s something about a well-rounded, well-written set of short stories that suckers me in and refuses to let me go, and the collection The Devil You Know is an amazing mix of old Brite creepiness and new Brite food fetishism, with the usual strong characters and mundane-yet-bewildering settings longtime fans have come to love. Published by Subterranean Press in 2003, The Devil You Know is more “average New Orleanians in odd situations” type of stuff than it is the old horror works of Lost Souls, Drawing Blood and Wormwood (her first short story collection, which is also worth reading and is still in print), but it is still the smirkingly unsettling stuff I craved as a youth and still have the urge to read to this day. To say I was not disappointed would be a serious understatement.

A good single-author collection should have an interesting foreword to rocket the reader in the proper direction, and, like Wormwood before it, this one contains a classic. Unlike the foreword to Wormwood, which was written by Dan Simmons, The Devil You Know’s introductory section was penned by Brite herself. In these brief few pages, titled “Dispatches from Tanganyika,” Brite gives readers some background information about her writing process, her departure from the horror genre and explanations of each story and how they came to be. Before I’d even read any of the fiction between the covers, I was in a comfortable place, feeling as if I’d just returned to a home I’d never meant to stray from.

The stories in this collection run the gamut from creepy to humorous, terrifying to bittersweet. Some are meant to elicit chuckles and disbelieving shakes of the head (especially those that feature alter ego New Orleans coroner Dr. Brite and her ruminations on death and food), while others are small illuminations on the subjects of human nature and love. At times I found myself laughing, while other times I felt only bitterness or soft optimism by a story’s end. Brite is a magnificent writer who has not in any way lost her touch.

The Devil You Know also contains two short stories written using copyrighted characters for projects Brite has been involved in. “Burn, Baby, Burn,” a story that takes place during Liz Sherman’s teenage years, was written for a Hellboy anthology. “System Freeze,” taking place in the world of The Matrix, was written as a promotional piece for the now-downsized whatisthematrix site.

I’ve heard complaints from readers on various Internet forums about Brite’s common use of homosexual characters in her fiction recently, and though it honestly shouldn’t matter I feel it deserves a least a moment’s attention in this review. Yes, she prefers writing about gay men, often explicitly, and it’s certainly not going to please everyone. No, this collection isn’t any different than anything else she’s written in that regard and there’s quite a bit of none too subtle male-on-male eroticism going on. If that’s not your cup of tea, or if it bothers you to the point of distraction, look elsewhere. Mostly these comments are found in conjunction with criticisms about her so-called “Goth phase,” which is long over and really only spanned one novel (and a handful of short stories), which was also her first work of long fiction and was published while she was in her early twenties. One of the comments that still stands out in my mind went something like “She writes about underaged gay Goth kids having sex all over the place (and in great detail), and writing ‘fuck’ on their shoes as if she wants everyone to know just how cool and weird she is.” This irritated me to no end because the individual who wrote it obviously only read Lost Souls and then stopped, because that is the only book where Goth kids have a huge presence. Only one kid writes “fuck” on his shoes (Lane), and it is mentioned only briefly.

Still, the Brite-hater had a point. There’s a lot of gay sex going on in her fiction, and there always will be. Nothing wrong with that.

Readers who don’t mind (or enjoy) homoeroticism, and are looking for an eclectic collection that spans a whole array of moods and themes, should check out The Devil You Know, if they haven’t already.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

#28 of 2009: John Dies at the End by David Wong

Sometimes you hear about a book through word of mouth, not through reviews or advertisements, and it seems so interesting that you immediately go out and pick up a copy to find out for yourself just what this work is all about.

For many people, that’s exactly how they were exposed to David Wong’s John Dies at the End, a novel that began as a free online serial. I missed the boat the first two times around, both when it was online and when the print edition was first published by Permuted Press, but I recently had the opportunity to pick up the new St. Martin’s Press edition and was pleasantly surprised by what I read.

I remember, years ago while JDatE was still an online novel, people ranting and raving about how terrifying and absolutely mind blowing the story was. I have a tendency to take online opinions, especially those of people on generalized message boards, with a grain of salt, so it’s no surprise that I missed the novel in its first few iterations. However, earlier this year I found out that it was being rereleased in a gorgeous new hardcover format and, and usual, the cover caught my eye and refused to be ignored.

I bought my copy with a Barnes and Noble gift card I’d received for my birthday, slipped the cover off and tossed it into my bag, taking it everywhere with me for several weeks while I spent most of my time on campus focusing on my coursework. I’d read a chapter here and there, before classes, after classes, sitting in my car between classes when classes were cancelled. It was sporadic reading, forced to fit into the slots that my academic life allowed, and because of that I was much slower in finishing the novel than I normally would be.

So, did it stand up to the hype I’d seen lavished on it years ago? Yes and no. I didn’t find the novel to be so much terrifying as I found it to be crude, immature and utterly hilarious, with healthy doses of creepy and unsettling thrown into the mix. It didn’t feel to me like the kind of book that would keep a reader up all night fearing the movement of shadows, which for me is the very definition of terrifying. It certainly would, however, keep a reader up all night snickering at the very bizarre mental images running through their head the whole time they left the book open, which is exactly what happened with me. On more than one occasion I found myself, long after retiring the book for the night, remembering the outrageous things I'd read just a few hours before and giggling like a kid that's stayed up past their bedtime to catch something inappropriate on Cinemax.

One of the strongest points to the novel is just how convincing the two main characters, Dave and John, are. They’re far from unique individuals, and there’s a strong chance that people who read the novel will either be just like one of them or know someone who is. These are the guys who work at video stores and look down on the people renting stupid movies, the guys who when not at work drink beer, play video games and make jokes amongst each other about the impossibly massive size of their genitals. Don't lie and pretend you don't know the guys I'm talking about here, because we all know you do.

John Dies at the End is, essentially, the story of impending cataclysm with only two slackers standing in the way of utter destruction. Dave, the narrator, buys a mysterious drug (referred to as “Soy Sauce”) off of a fake Jamaican, which turns out to have both mystical properties and a malignant origin, bestowing users with extrasensory abilities before causing their very visceral deaths. At the same party, Dave finds a dog that he realizes belongs to a guy he knows named Jim Sullivan, and when he returns Molly (after reading her tag and learning her name) to her proper home, Jim’s sister Amy tells Dave that she’s worried her brother may be dead.

Things get weirder from here on in. Evil entities make appearances, and time and space shifts somewhat. The story becomes slightly hard to follow in places, but the humor keeps it afloat as more and more characters are brought in and the stakes are raised. There are excerpts of other works within the narrative, including a book by paranormal lecturer Dr. Albert Marconi and Jim Sullivan’s amateurish short story writing, which caused the loudest and longest bout of laughter to erupt from me throughout the whole book.

There's a lot more to this book, but it has to be read to be understood and appreciated. Suffice it to say, though, that it's nearly four hundred pages of penis jokes, pop culture humor and hilarious one-liners (usually uttered by John, who manages to be both moronic and strangely endearing as he charges through the story, Dave in tow) interspersed with an intricate parallel world plot that almost needs a chart to track its complexity. It's an unusual combination of cheap laughs and plot twists that manages to work where the effort of a lesser writer would have easily fallen flat.

While it may not have lived up to the “Oh my god, you guys, this is the scariest thing I’ve ever read in my life” hype for me, as a lover of crude humor and off-the-wall storytelling it hit the bullseye perfectly.

John Dies at the End still has quite the web presence despite its numerous printings, and its page is still active and updated.


What follows is a conversation between myself and D.L. Snell, editor of the Permuted edition of John Dies at the End, on the editing process and finding balance between writing and editing the work of others. Enjoy.


D.L. Snell is a writer and freelance editor at Permuted Press. He edited Dr. Kim Paffenroth twice, John Dies at the End once, and provided a constructive critique to Joe McKinney on his next major novel after Dead City. He has also edited Permuted’s Undead series. Snell’s second novel DEMON DAYS, co-authored with screenwriter/producer Richard Finney, deals with demonic possession, near-death experiences, and Armageddon. Snell’s websites are exit66.net and finneyandsnell.com.

First of all, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I haven't been given the opportunity to pick an editor's brain yet. This is very exciting for me.

No problem, Jessica! My pleasure.

How did you get into editing? What's your background like? How did you come to work with Permuted?

I started off as a writing tutor at my community college. I learned a lot about grammar, mechanics, proofreading and clarity, and more than I ever wanted to know about MLA citation. Also, I learned how to convey, both in person and online, the concepts of revision and clarity.

As an editor, I started at Permuted Press working on its first anthology The Undead. Jacob Kier liked my submission to the antho and thought I’d make a good editor--even though in my own story, the protagonist’s name changes on the second page! Anyway, my background in tutoring gives me a special edge as an editor, because I approach the job more as a teacher. I make the writer fix things. And if I fix stuff, I explain why.

I recommend tutoring to any writer or editor: you can never really know something until you’ve taught it.

How does your editing process work?

Usually to start, I read the editing project and make overall comments using Microsoft Word’s Review tools. This first round I reserve for big-picture suggestions, such as critiques on plot and characterization. (No sense in tackling grammar and mechanics on material that we’ll change, you know?) If the writer doesn’t agree with my big-picture advice, we discuss compromises until we’re both satisfied. Then the author revises. It’s important to let writers control these types of edits, so they can maintain their style and sense of ownership.

The next few stages involve line edits and proofreading. I document all of my revisions using a Review tool in Word, called Track Changes. Using this technology, the writer can quickly sort through and reject or accept my changes. If I think some revisions might be difficult for the writer to understand, I use Comments to explain my reasoning; I’ve found a higher rate of acceptance using this method.

(Here is a little demo I created on how to use Track Changes.)

Throughout the various stages of revision, I keep a copy of every round of edits, as well as the original manuscript. I even use a numbering system in the filenames to track lineage. These types of records are crucial if an author ever accuses me of a mistake or any wrongdoing. For example, if someone accuses me of adding too many urine scenes to her book, I can present the original manuscript and prove the contrary.

Am I crazy for noticing them mostly in books you've edited, or are you actually fond of semicolons? I don't often see them elsewhere these days.

Ah, you have the keen colonoscope of a proctologist! I admit I abuse semicolons. And em dashes. And urine. The writers I edit have the right to argue any semicolons I insert in their work.

Personally, I use whatever punctuation sounds best when I read something aloud. In my opinion, periods create an entirely different rhythm than semicolons.

How do you balance editing with the original work an author gives you?

My plan differs for each project, depending on my estimated volume of revisions. I always task the writer with the big-picture edits, as described earlier, but as for line edits… I have worked on books so rife with errors that by the end I could be considered a co-author. Thanks to Track Changes, all of my work is fully transparent. If the author doesn’t like a change I made, we work it out. Ninety-eight percent of the time, negotiations remain peaceful and resolve satisfactorily, whether or not I prevail.

The other two percent saddens me, because I work extremely hard to help authors improve their writing in what I believe to be a reasonable, empathetic manner--sometimes only to have it thrown back in my face. In the end, it’s my responsibility to honor an author’s wishes, and if those wishes go against Permuted’s standards, it’s better to cut ties with the author and let her do what she wants with her work. Or his. It’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, I learned that the hard way.

Do you edit anything other than horror?

Haven’t yet. I do write in other genres, such as fantasy and sci-fi. Or I at least blend those two (and more) into my horror.

How do your personal tastes as a reader run, and does editing alter how or what you read for pleasure?

My reading tastes are eclectic: fantasy, horror, sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries, poetry.... Sometimes I only have time to read whatever I’m editing; thankfully, I’ve enjoyed almost every project.

From the editing end of the business, what do you make of the popularity of zombie fiction right now? Is this a trend, or am I just suddenly noticing what's always been there?

As with every staple of the horror genre, some new book or movie on the subject will spark interest in both readers and writers. And now more than ever, writers have more avenues to reach an audience, whether it’s through self-publishing, the small press, or podcasts; therefore, the saturation is more widespread--and the more widespread something is, the more interest it’s likely to accumulate. Up to a point, of course.

Is there anybody you haven't worked with that you'd particularly enjoy editing?

Uh, Stephen King? Kidding… sort of. Since I edit for Permuted, I’ll answer with Permuted names: I wouldn’t mind working with someone like David Dunwoody or Wayne Simmons, and the late Z.A. Recht would have been great to edit; I met Dunwoody and Recht at Horror Realm, and they both seemed like stand-up guys--and they’re great writers to boot.

I know you're also a writer. What have you written, and how long have you been involved in both writing and editing?

I’ve been writing longer than I’ve been editing. But I’ve edited more than I’ve written--it’s so much faster! However, I’ve been slowly shifting that ratio. My work appears in just about half of Permuted’s anthology line-up, and I also sold a story to Pocket Books’ Blood Lite (alongside bestsellers such as Jim Butcher and Charlaine Harris). I have two novels out as well. The first one I mock, yet cherish. The second one we’ll discuss in a minute...

Does your experience on both sides of publishing makes it easier for you as a writer?

In many ways writing is problem solving, whether it’s at the plot level or at the scope of an individual sentence. When a writer hasn’t communicated clearly and provocatively, the work needs repair. Editing has taught me to recognize problems and to observe them objectively from different angles; this makes solving the issues easier because I’ve learned to think up multiple fixes, and to predict how those fixes will affect the interlocking pieces of the story. This ability has vastly improved my own writing; my work wouldn’t be at the same level had I never edited.

Also, editing allows me to network with a variety of authors. For some of the anthologies I’ve worked on, my co-editors and I received submissions from the likes of Kevin Anderson and Simon Clark. It builds great rapport--especially when you reject them.

Tell me about this Demon Days project I keep seeing the trailer for. What was that like, collaborating with another author on a full-length project?

DEMON DAYS is my second novel, a supernatural thriller co-authored with screenwriter/producer Richard Finney. The story mixes the classic theme of demonic possession with the phenomenon of near-death experiences--and then twists them into a plot about preventing Armageddon. An extended synopsis and a sample chapter are available at finneyandsnell.com.

Collaborating with Richard Finney on DEMON DAYS was awesome. Richard’s got a great sense of business and story, and he couldn’t be a nicer, more flexible guy. We got along well throughout the process of writing the book, and we hope to do it again soon.

Do you have anything else in the works that you're able to discuss?

Yeah, a sequel to DEMON DAYS subtitled ANGEL OF LIGHT. We expect to finish it in 2010.

Thanks for the interview. This was a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to picking up more works both authored and edited by you.

Thank you--I appreciate your time!

#27 of 2009: The Rage Plague by Anthony Giangregorio

I picked up my copy of The Rage Plague at Permuted Press’ table a few months ago during the Horror Realm convention here in Pittsburgh. I had some extra money to burn and was about to take off for the day, and I was a bit indiscriminate in my choices. I wanted new books to read and didn’t take much time choosing them, picking titles willy-nilly and hoping my usual luck with finding good reads would hold out.

To be perfectly honest, one of the reasons why I picked The Rage Plague was its cover. I’m a sucker for well-done, minimalist covers, especially when the fonts catch my eye. I’ve been deceived by attractive covers before (by a whole series, once, whose red and white stylings in no way held up to my expectations of its actual contents), but The Rage Plague’s simplistic bloody hammer against a white background called out to me in a way I couldn’t ignore.

What I found, after cracking the book open, didn’t exactly delight me but it certainly wasn’t a bad choice on my part.

The Rage Plague is a story most horror aficionados have witnessed before. A group of survivors find themselves stranded in a city that’s been reduced to rubble and uninhabitable structures, overrun with creatures that attack and devour the living. There are many places a fanatic can go on the Internet to argue whether or not fast-moving, psychotic people who’ve mindlessly abandoned their former lives truly are zombies, but this is not one of them. For the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to refer to them as Infected.

The Infected are incredibly violent, swift-footed and ravenous, suffering from a tunnel vision that prevents them from doing much besides assaulting, murdering and devouring the living. At the start of the novel, hero and main focal point Bill is stuck on the roof of a local school with a handful of other uninfected survivors. They’re trapped there, with the sun beating down and the mad Infected surrounding the building. Among the other survivors are a kindly woman a few years Bill’s senior, some random women, a man who’s barely able to hold it together after the death of his wife and a young hothead ready to take Bill on for control of the group.

Elsewhere, one Infected, who has managed to retain most of his sanity despite the virus’ effects, rises to control the horde, while the military fortifies Chicago’s now-abandoned airport as their new de facto base.

It’s an interesting premise, though as has been stated before it is by no means fresh or unique. The characters feel like cliches that have been fleshed out a bit more in an attempt to appear original, but they still resemble their former selves. You have Middle Aged Man Who Rises to the Challenge, Young Tough Who Challenges Our Hero, Cigar-Chomping Army Man Who Yells At Everyone, Kindly Older Woman Who Teaches Patience, Moron Who Does the Wrong Thing For Love and, of course, Evil Villain Who Was Invisible in His Former Life and Now Wants the World to Pay.

Just because the characters are familiar doesn’t mean they don’t work. They do, for the most part. The story’s enjoyable, and the plot moves at a decent pace. It’s just that the novel doesn’t do anything anyone hasn’t seen before. Sometimes we pick up books to be exposed to new ideas or ways of thinking, and sometimes we pick up books to be entertained. The Rage Plague has loads of entertainment value. It’s packed with action, snappy dialogue and tense situations. However, most readers will have an idea of where the story is headed, and how it will end, after reading the first chapter or two.

The Rage Plague is, at its core, the zombie equivalent of the Summer Beach Read, a piece of exciting, entertaining fluff that feels as familiar as it does thrilling, and there’s nothing wrong with that.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Jason Brannon's "Order of the Bull" Available for Preorder

I'm a huge fan of small press horror publishers. When I was much younger, during my "raid the used bookstores and buy everything with creepy covers" phase, the Internet was just beginning its journey to become what it is today. Webzines and small, nearly nonprofit print outfits were the first places to show my work, and I still seek them out to this day. There's something beautiful and inspiring about people involved in horror (and indie fiction of all kinds) for the sheer love of it.

I just found out about another small press venture, Corpulent Insanity Press, today, and I'm passing along the info not only because there's a publicity contest going on (the way to my heart truly is through free books), but because these kinds of businesses never can get enough exposure. After having worked with so many extremely cool, dedicated people over the years, I like to pay it forward as much as I possibly can.

Jason Brannon's new chapbook, The Order of the Bull, will be out on December 10th. It's a very limited run, so make sure you snag a copy before they're gone. Copies are ten dollars and signed by the author.


This holiday season, check out The Order of the Bull by Jason Brannon. It’s a tale of courage, redemption and trailer park terror. But don’t wait. There are only 26 copies available. Go to www.corpulentinsanitypress.com now to order your copy.

“In Order of the Bull, Jason Brannon paints a picture of nightmarish terror and cruel sacrifice. Jason shades and textures his work with the skill of a Renaissance master using a pallet of very real human frailties, sins, fears, and anxieties.”
–Bowie Ibarra, author of Down the Road and Pit Fighters

“An engrossing, terrifying read that forces you to ask how far you are willing to go in chasing the promise of a better life, who you are willing to sacrifice, and whether or not you are willing to face the consequences of the choices you’ve made. A five star read.”
–Trish Ramirez, the Horror and Fantasy Book Review

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

All Good Things Must Come to an End

The last chapter of Max Barry’s Machine Man came out this morning.

For anyone not already acquainted with the novel, it’s an internet serial that ran for the better part of a year, updating in short microchapters Monday through Friday, that dealt with the themes of love, transhumanism, corporate greed and self-mutilation in the name of science. Typical Barry craziness, really.

It was excellent.

Access to the entire novel cost me approximately seven bucks, with new chapters delivered to my inbox every morning before I was even awake. What an awesome thing to read during breakfast.

The beginning chapters are still available for free (and the feed is still active for any new readers who want to buy the whole thing), and it’s coming to print, but for anyone who hasn’t experienced it yet, seeing it in raw form is amazing. I can’t wait to be able to compare it with the hardcopy edition.

Thanks for the daily goodness, Max. I loved every page.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Love Poppy Z. Brite? Check This Out.

Poppy Z. Brite was a huge influence on me as a teenager back in the 90s. Once I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing horror, her novels became shining examples of everything I wanted to achieve with my own prose. While other girls my age were reading Seventeen magazine and YA titles, I was devouring Poppy’s stories of vampires, gay men in haunted houses and necrophilia.

I turned out a bit odd, but I don’t blame her entirely. There had to be some sort of inborn element present to start things off. She was just the amazingly brilliant (and absolutely creepy) catalyst that set everything in motion. I wouldn’t have it any other way, either.

Over the last several years, Brite’s changed her focus from horror to restaurant-themed fiction, and the woman’s still after my heart. Next to vampires, ghosts and zombies, nothing captures my attention quite like food. Brite’s Liquor series, as I’ve stated before in my review of the first novel, is pure food-porn bliss. Her writing style hasn’t changed nearly as much as her choice of topics, and the stories are superb. Ricky and G-Man are every bit as lovable as Zach and Trevor or Steve and Ghost, and their stories are hilarious and heartwarming in that weird, warped Brite way.

Hurricane Katrina hit Brite and her world hard, and I didn’t think we’d be seeing any new Liquor novels for quite some time. While that may still be the case (Ricky and G-Man’s restaurant is fictionally located in a section of the city that was rather brutalized), her two related novellas The Value of X and D*U*C*K are available now as a softcover collection titled Second Line: Two Short Novels of Love and Cooking in New Orleans. These were originally available only as hard to find hardcovers, and while they’d been on my radar for quite some time any copies I managed to track down remained firmly out of my price range.

No longer. The collection has an MSRP of sixteen bucks, and is currently on sale at Amazon for $10.88. Very cool.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

#26 of 2009: Drop Dead Gorgeous by Wayne Simmons

I’ve been on a real indie book bender lately. There’s something refreshing about small press novels that I really enjoy, be it the DIY spirit of the venture in general or the groundbreaking ideas that the books themselves contain. I think one of the things that grabs me the most about the small press world is the sheer amount of heart and dedication that go into the production, a feeling that’s miles and miles away from the cold, corporate feel that sometimes radiates from Big Publishing.

Don’t get me wrong, corporate entities have their place, I suppose, but small presses give me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, even when they’re printing things that shouldn’t generate that kind of response.

Drop Dead Gorgeous, published by Permuted Press, is one such book. I loved it, every page and every minute spent with my nose buried in it, but damn is this one of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite so bleak before, despite having read literally hundreds of horror novels from my teen years to this day.

DDG is, essentially, the story of a zombie outbreak in and around Belfast, Northern Ireland, but what makes it so unique (and, in my opinion, chillingly effective) is that the focus throughout remains squarely on the characters. Two high school kids, a tattooist, a radio DJ, an aging Loyalist soldier, an IRA supporter, a retired college professor, a twenty-something slacker and several others have found themselves alone, the rest of the citizenry suddenly dead for reasons unknown. People have fallen in their homes, keeled over at the wheel of their cars and dropped dead on the streets, all for little to no reason. Bodies are left to rot where they lay as the city’s infrastructure shuts down, and the survivors hole up in enclaves scattered throughout the country.

Some of the bodies, however, defy the rotting process, and become more and more beautiful with each passing day...

I don’t think I read the word ‘zombie’ once during the whole novel, though I could be wrong about that. My point to this is, though, that the reanimated dead are never treated as the shamblers found so often in Romero-style zombie stories. Nor are they swift-footed zombies, tearing after human survivors while screaming and clawing at the air. They’re dangerous, to be sure, and sometimes form mobs, but the reanimated women are wholly original creatures. Inside their non-living brains reside memories, albeit seemingly hidden ones, and when they return to life their former emotions come very much into play.

DDG is a very slow burn. The horror doesn’t come into play for quite some time, instead focusing on the people who’ve found themselves thrown into chaos and the things they must do to ensure their own survival. These are people who have lost loved ones, sometimes their entire families, and must now make do with a life without camaraderie or the comforts they once took for granted. Simmons handles this heartbreakingly well. Several times I found myself feeling real pity for his characters, wanting them to somehow find their way to happiness. There were times, as well, when I almost didn’t want to turn the page, knowing fully well that in horror novels those that die often outweigh those that survive to see The End.

DDG is a wild, highly emotional ride that I’m very glad to have taken. Its sequel, DOLL PARTS, is forthcoming, and I’ll be picking it up the moment it hits Amazon.


Once again, this review comes with an interview as well. This is another area where indie publishing tends to trump its corporate brethren - small press people are way more accessible, in general, and several have been kind enough to grant interviews. The following is a conversation I had with Wayne Simmons on the topics of writing techniques, DDG, tattoos and future projects.


First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to pick your brains like this. This is very cool.

Not at all. In fact, the pleasure’s mine! Thanks to you for taking such an interest in DDG!

I'd also like you to know that I couldn't put this amazing book down all day and neglected college coursework to finish it, so when I get lackluster grades it's going to be your fault.

Hahah! I’ll write a letter to your tutor, explaining everything. Weirdly, I’ve done a bit of tutoring, myself. I’m a fully trained teacher, as it happens!

What's your writing process like? Do you work off notecards, outlines, write organically, etc?

It’s chaotic… I use a lot of free-writing to develop the characters. Just scribbling, randomly, to conjure up scenarios and fill out their personalities. I’m very much into writing solid, believable, likable or hateful characters, and allowing them to drive the story. That’s what I like to see in a book, myself.

I’ll have a basic outline of where I want to go, with a project, but I’m always willing to adapt that according to where the characters decide to take me. Writing in this way keeps the story fresh for me, and I hope that transfers across to the experience of the reader, too.

How long did it take you from concept to rough draft, and from rough draft to finished manuscript?

It took about a year to actually write, then self-edit DDG. With this being my debut novel, much of this process involved finding my own voice as a writer, and then feeling confident with using it. Once the completed manuscript was passed to Permuted, it took about another year to get everything in place, from their end, including assigning an editor to the book (the very talented Travis Adkins). I have enjoyed working with Permuted – they have treated me very well, making my first splash into the horror market very enjoyable and enlightening.

How many ideas did you go through? Did you nail the story on the first try, or did you switch things around a bit?

The ending was changed, according to the wishes of Permuted. They found the original conclusion a little vague, and unsatisfying. I was going for subtle, but it obviously wasn’t working! It was at that stage, I introduced the character of Herbert Matthews to the story – the agoraphobic professor. He’s become one of the book’s favourite characters for a lot of readers, so it was clearly a good move in bringing his story into the final cut. He also helped to bring a more satisfying sense of closure to the first part of the story, as well as setting up a clear direction and purpose for the sequel…

This is a very, very unconventional zombie tale. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen anything even remotely similar. How did you come to this story idea?

Thank you! To be honest, the story idea came about because I’m an awkward bugger! I wanted to make things difficult for myself, as a writer, to try and create a fearsome creature out of a breed of undead who were not ugly and repulsive looking, but instead outrageously beautiful…

I guess I didn’t want to write a traditional zombie tale, much as I love to read such. I wanted to do something different, something bizarro in its feel. I was watching (and reading) a lot of Asian horror, at the time of writing DDG, and I’m quite sure the likes of Sadako from Ringu inspired the kind of ‘zombie’ I wanted in my book.

Ultimately, though, the undead are more of a backdrop to this part of the story. We see them move more into the forefront in the sequel. DDG, however, is more about the characters – how these every day, flawed anti-heroes react towards each other, within a broken, confusing and brutally silent world.

When I write, I generally write characters with attributes of people I've met or been close to in real life (disgruntled office workers, everyday women, men who love porn and PC games, etc). Did you know people like Roy, Mairead, Sean and Star in Belfast?

Sub-consciously, I’m quite sure I do know people like them. However, none of the characters were based on any one person in particular. When I write, I try to get right into the personality of the character, myself. In fact, I almost take on their personality, much like I would imagine is achieved through method-acting. It’s a draining way to write, but one I find very effective in achieving fully fleshed out, three-dimensional people to drive the story. Of course, the hard part is often in saying goodbye to these people you’ve created, and shared a journey with. Killing off characters you’ve breathed so much life into can be a bitch.

You've got, amongst others, a Republican IRA supporter, a Loyalist soldier, a retired Engineering professor, a disc jockey and a tattooist for main characters. How much research did you need to do to get inside the characters' heads?

I did a little research into the political side of the book, just to remind myself how things were playing out, here in Belfast, during the time the novel was set (Summer 2005). Apart from that, I did some research into the technical side of Herbert’s savvy with radios, and in particular HAM radios. With the tattoo artist character, I was very careful to make sure the scenes involving her profession were written with integrity. Thankfully, I’ve quite a number of friends who are tattoo artists, and so was able to run the technical detail of the tattooing scenes past them before signing the manuscript off. I owe people like Dan Henk, Jan Moat and Chris O a lot for that very specialist input.

Seeing as how horror is (usually) very male-oriented, I was struck by how many strong female characters you had in Drop Dead Gorgeous. How did these badasses come about?

I’ve no idea! It wasn’t intentional, really. I suppose, what I would say, is that I’ve always enjoyed the work of people like Joss Whedon, who is well renowned for writing strong female characters, and writing them well. Also, the Asian Horror industry hosts a lot of strong female leads, and it’s a sub-genre I particularly enjoy.

You write female characters very well. I always worry when writing male characters that I'm somehow screwing up and making them a bit cartoonish, though I'm not sure if that's true or not. How difficult was that for you?

Thank you, Jessica – coming from a female, that means a lot to me! I guess I just try to put myself into the position of the character, and have them act accordingly (male/ female/ otherwise). If it doesn’t feel real to me, I go another direction. Within DDG, of course, some of the strongest characters are neither female nor male. The Rain and The Silence are personified and play pivotal roles within the book.

Horror stories are full of bloodshed and death. Did you have any difficulties killing any of your characters?

Absolutely! To the point where some of the characters, originally billed for the scrap yard, actually ended up crawling across the finishing line in DDG

Of course, as a writer you can often see potential in someone that goes beyond what their initial role within the story had been, especially when the story gives birth to a potential sequel. Take Spike from Buffy, for example. Joss Whedon had originally intended him to be a one season bad guy, to be killed off in the middle of season 2, as I recall. And look how much of a pivotal role he ended up having…

Where did the jewelry line idea come from?

I interviewed Gracie from TORTURE COUTURE for Pretty Scary a few years ago. She was introduced to me by the editor of Pretty Scary, who wanted me to chase up a feature with her. Gracie was such a delight to interview. She was very kind to send my girlfriend some free gifts from her range, so we just ended up keeping in touch after the interview. When DDG was accepted by Permuted, I thought that it would be cool to introduce a range of clothing and accessories, inspired by the book. I basically asked Gracie if she would be keen to work with me on it, and she loved the idea. And, so, we went from there!

I'm less of a tattoo person and more of a piercing fanatic, though I plan on getting inked at some point in this life. How much of your own experience with tattoos bled into the story? How many tattoos do you actually have?

I guess, as an author, I will write about the things I enjoy – and I love getting tattooed! It’s difficult to count my tattoos. They all join into each other! At present, I have almost covered my upper torso, with the exception of my back. My most recent tattoo – ongoing work on my chest piece – has lapped onto my neck. I’ve also got a tattoo on my calf. And I’ve no plans of stopping any time soon! Most of my tattoos are inspired by my love of horror. So, I not only live, breathe, read and write horror – I also (literally) cover myself with it! Ain’t that dedication!?!

Where did you get the idea to go to tattoo magazines for reviews? Have they all been receptive?

I knew that the tattoo and alternative scene would be interested in the book because of its lead character, Star, being both punk and tattoo artist. So, I approached all of the major tattoo magazines that you see on the newsstands and drummed up a bit of interest. Magazines like Total Tattoo, Skin Deep, Skin & Ink and Pinstriping and Kustom Graphics have featured reviews and previews on the book – all of which have been very positive. I was also very fortunate to host a book signing at the recent Liverpool Tattoo Convention and hope to return there next year. I’m really pleased at how welcoming the scene has been to DDG and am delighted tattoo artists and enthusiasts, alike, are enjoying the book.

Please tell me there's more where this came from. You can't leave me hanging like this, damn it.

Yep! I’m almost finished the final draft of DOLL PARTS (DDG 2). It should be released by Permuted Press sometime in 2010. For further details, keep an eye on my interactive website.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

#25 of 2009: The Apocalypse Shift by Derek J. Goodman

I have an appreciation for all things indie. Since my middle school days, I’ve had a fondness for DIY publishing ventures, from photocopied zines to chapbooks to local music tapes. For a while, once the Internet really took of, it seemed to me like sources of homebrew goodness were drying up.

This year, ironically due to the Internet, I found several small press publishing ventures that are not only alive but thriving. Permuted Press and Library of the Living Dead put out some very awesome books, and I’ve recently had the awesome opportunity of meeting in person or talking online with several of these very cool authors.

I picked up a copy of Derek J. Goodman’s horror-comedy novel The Apocalypse Shift at Horror Realm, a local zombie-themed convention here in Pittsburgh. It’s out under Library of the Living Dead’s Library of Horror imprint, a section of the catalog dedicated to all things non-zombie in horror literature.

Caleb works the night shift at the local OneStop convenience store in the middle of a section of the city called the Hill. On the Hill, some (hell, most) of the residents are a bit unusual. Most of them aren’t even human. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, tentacled demons and others roam the streets at night, sometimes as regular residents and OneStop customers and sometimes as something a bit more sinister. The night shift is always full of supernatural mayhem, but when Caleb’s penchant for keeping “trophies” from their battles backfires, the crap hits the fan in such a way that life on the Hill may never be the same again. Now it’s up to Caleb, his zombie-loving coworker Phil and their former-coworker-turned-stripper Gloria to track the trophies down before they’re used to nefarious ends. All this, and Caleb has to keep from annoying Gloria enough to get a second date.

It’s a shame that horror and comedy aren’t blended together more often. When done right, it’s absolutely amazing, and that’s exactly what The Apocalypse Shift is. Imagine what Clerks would be like with an extended cast of supernatural freaks and weirdos, minus the donkey sex and sodomy jokes, and this is what you would end up with. It’s a wild, hilarious ride that grabbed me from the first page and kept me from putting it down until I was finished. There were places in the book where I could not stop giggling, and anyone around me while I was reading it probably assumed I’d gone a bit off my rocker.

Like most indie/DIY publishing efforts, The Apocalypse Shift has a grittier appearance than your run-of-the-mill corporate publishing venture. Library of Horror uses a font that’s slightly larger than I’m used to, and there are the occasional issues with spacing between words and subtle word choices that caught my eye. However, this did little if anything to detract from the overall experience, and anyone with a love of indie publishing knows their appeal is in the innovative storytelling and not the overall polishing of the package. Hell, some of my own best short stories have been published in magazines employing little more than a Xerox machine and a brightly-colored sheaf of heavy stock paper for a cover, and I still cherish them to this day. Typesetting aside, Library of Horror goes all out with the size of their books. Apocalypse Shift (and all of the other Library titles that I’ve seen) are published in a nice trade size, with high quality paper and attractive, glossy covers.

Copies of all Library titles can be found on Amazon, as well as some on shelves locally at Joseph Beth Booksellers.

For anyone with a love of horror and humor, I can’t recommend The Apocalypse Shift enough.


On top of the awesomeness that is The Apocalypse Shift, the author is a damn nice guy. One of the great things about indie and small-press writers is that they’re usually cool enough to grant interviews, and what follows is a conversation he and I recently had about his book, his love of horror and comedy and the weirdness that is the service industry.


First of all, thank you for the interview. This is really cool.

No problem whatsoever. I'm excited for this, too.

I met you this year at Horror Realm. How did you like the convention?

I loved it. I've been to a few conventions before, but this was the first time I was ever at one in any sort of "guest" capacity. I got to meet a lot of other authors face to face for the first time. All the other Library of the Living Dead authors especially were amazing. As this was my first non-self-published novel, I was very nervous and kind of felt like the new kid. But the Library authors and editors and such all feel like one big family, and I'm so glad I got to be a part of it. I also got to meet and talk with some of the people from Permuted Press, as well as S. G. Browne and Jonathan Maberry. Of course, one of the biggest highlights for me was how many copies of the book sold.

Apocalypse Shift sold completely out! How many copies were there at the con? Did you expect that kind of response?

No, I really didn't. I'm not sure of the exact amount of copies Dr. Pus had there, although he said it was somewhere around fifteen. I probably had fewer books than others because it was so new and untested yet, but I figured I might be able to move most of them by the end of the con. Instead I sold the last one somewhere around 4 p.m. on the second day. I was shocked and very happy. I'm not really sure how that happened, but I think it might be because the premise of the book was so different.

Why the mix of horror and comedy? You don't often see the two together, though when they're done right they're almost like peanut butter and jelly. It's a shame it's so difficult to pull off.

Well, for me, it feels more difficult to write straight-up horror. I can sometimes be kind of a quiet person, especially when I don't know the people around me very well, and even though I usually break out of my shell eventually I still bottle up a lot of my inner sarcasm and humor. So it has to go somewhere, and it comes out in my writing. Also, too, when I spend a lot of time working on a few more serious stories I eventually need to just bust loose. All my Apocalypse Shift stories were sort of designed specifically to be a place where I could do that. The novel has a few places where it takes serious turns, but mostly I'm using it to joke about horror clich├ęs. It's me writing a love letter to horror and urban fantasy while at the same time giving it a firm jab in the ribs.

How did you meet Dr. Pus and come to have your book put out by Library of Horror?

That kind of happened in a round-about way. The first Apocalypse Shift story I ever wrote, a novelette called "The All-Night, One-Stop Apocalypse Shop," was accepted for Permuted Press's reprint anthology Best New Tales of the Apocalypse. That was my first real introduction to Permuted, and I started hanging out on their forums. From there I saw a call for stories for one of Dr. Pus's anthologies for Library of the Living Dead- this would have been for Zombology II- and I figured I'd send something in, a story I'd had sitting around forever that I just couldn't sell. It was called "Ashes to Ashes, Pixie Dust to Pixie Dust," and it was about zombie fairies. It was the sort of bizarro thing I didn't think anyone but myself would actually like, but Dr. Pus loved it. He started do a lot more anthologies after that, and I submitted something to almost every one. Then he decided to start up the Library of Horror imprint for horror that wasn't specifically about zombies, and I thought that since he liked everything else I'd sent him so far it wouldn't hurt to see if he was interested in The Apocalypse Shift. He apparently loved that, too.

How long did it take you to write The Apocalypse Shift?

Depends on how you think of it. I originally came up with the idea in 2003, but at that point I wasn't thinking of it as a novel. It was just the novelette. When I wrote it I had a blast, and I thought there was a lot more I could do with it. So I started tinkering with the idea of making it a series of short stories. I wrote another one, "The Power Pastry," and that one ended up selling before "The All-Night, One-Stop Apocalypse Shop" did. After those two I set it aside for a while, but the idea of making a novel had crept into my head. I jotted down a good portion of the first chapter in… I'm not sure, maybe 2005? But it got pushed aside again in favor of other things. Still, I absolutely loved the idea and always intended to go back to it. Finally, in 2008, I decided that if I wanted to eventually make a living at writing then I was going to need a new novel. I'd written some more experimental novels at that time, but I wanted one that people could jump right into. I remembered how much I loved The Apocalypse Shift and go back into it. I did maybe two or three chapters and then got sidetracked again. When I picked it back up and finally got serious about it, the rest of the book came together in less than two months. A very herky-jerky way to write, I guess, but that's just how it works with me. I get distracted easily.

How do you write? Do you use outlines, notecards, wing it, employ some other technique? How many drafts did you go through?

Most of the time I'm completely a "wing it" sort of author. I start out with a basic idea, maybe some simple thoughts on the characters, and then I just start going. I never know how it's going to turn out before I start. For me that's part of the fun with writing, that I get to find out what's happening at only a slightly faster pace than the reader. The deeper I get into my Apocalypse Shift universe, however, the more I find that approach not working so well anymore. I've started to keep a detailed "bible" of the universe so I can get all the details right, and it included everything from timelines to the characters' eye colors to maps of the Hill. And I've got a very rough outline of where I intend to go with the stories, as the geek in me wants it all to add up in the end with lots of clues along the way. So I think my writing style is evolving.

When I was in college I worked at a convenience store called the Cozy Corner. We had some interesting characters come in, but they mostly were obsessed with lottery tickets. Have you ever worked in a place like OneStop?

Absolutely. The entire series is based around a year I spent working the graveyard shift at a 7-11 in a rough section of a major city. It's the worst job I've ever had, but as time went on I looked back at it with a certain fondness simply because it was so damned interesting. This was a part of the city that was so bad that the store never ever got robbed, simply because the cops were already there busting somebody nearby for something or other. On the south side of the store was a crack house. On the east and west sides there were a pair of bars called the Snake Pit and the Netherworld. A few blocks to the north was the major street you went to if you were looking for drugs or prostitutes. The city was trying to clean the neighborhood up when I left, but while I was there it was crazy. I could tell a lot of stories about that place. I eventually thought to myself that it was so nuts that things like vampires or werewolves or zombies could have walked in and they would have been no more strange than anything else that happened there. And that's where the whole idea for the Apocalypse Shift came into being.

How did you come up with some of your more outrageous minor characters? Flying armadillo demons, rats with tentacled faces, biker mad scientists and violent gangs of were-rabbits aren't very common.

In the very first Apocalypse Shift story, a lot of the minor characters, and even one or two of the major ones, were based on actual people I remembered from the real store. Some of them still are, and I also base some on other customers from other places I've worked, as I've worked in the service industry for a long time. With my more recent stuff like the novel, though, the minor characters come more from a combination of customer archetypes- I mean, anyone who has worked in the service industry long enough has run into that one person who always comes in and pays with fricking pennies- with a lot of the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy I read. I guess I just run into a point where I say, "Okay, I need something here. What archetypes can I mash together in a combination I haven't seen before?" If the idea makes me laugh out loud as soon as I think of it, then it might just work.

How did you manage to keep track of all the weirdness while you were writing?

It did get tough. That's part of the reason I had to create that aforementioned "bible." The twelve artifacts that everyone chases after through the whole book were a pain in the butt all by themselves, and there's a whole section in the bible about where exactly each artifact is at every single moment of the final battle in the novel. I had to revise certain sections over and over when I realized that, for example, a naked mad scientist running barefoot through the city streets would need a little more time to get from the bar to the OneStop. The details became very important, because I'm a nerd like that. I know that if I were reading this I would latch on to all the bizarre little details that make up the world, so I would have to assume that others would do that, too.

Some of your other characters seem very familiar, two in particular. I take it you were influenced as a kid by Sesame Street and the miniseries of Stephen King's It?

My mom has a funny story about me and Sesame Street. She says that one night when I was very small she was walking past my room and heard a strange noise from inside. She peeked her head in and found me doing an impression of the Count in my sleep. So yeah, Sesame Street was a big one for me. I don't really want to give that part away to anyone who hasn't read the book yet, as it seems to be the part so far that most people get the biggest laugh from, but I do love the Count. It occurred to me that, being a vampire, someone like him could definitely have a home on the Hill but would be looked at very differently thanks to his, um, "idiosyncrasies."

As for It, I'm a gigantic fan of Stephen King. If not for him I wouldn't be a writer. I started reading him when I was twelve and more than any other writer he has been the one that drove my imagination. The character you are talking about in The Apocalypse Shift wasn't originally intended to be a parody of anything from It. That character was first introduced as a completely separate joke in "The Power Pastry." When I got to this scene you are talking about, however, I needed for the young character watching to see something just incredibly bizarre, something that would warp him for the rest of his life. A clown demon and an elven hooker seemed like they would work just fine. And I since I had a clown here, I simply couldn't help throwing in an It joke. I guess it was sort of a way of saying "I love you, Stephen, and thank you!"

You have to be a fan of Clerks. Dante or Randal?

I think there's a part of every service industry employee that wishes they could be Randal, that guy who says what he really thinks about the people around him no matter how inappropriate it might be. But I've always identified much closer with Dante. I suppose that's not really a good thing, since he lets everyone walk all over him, but it's like he's trying to suffer all the crap around him with dignity. He fails miserably, but at least he tries.

Is the Hill based on any real section of city you've been in?

Yep, but you're not going to get me to tell you which city or section. I've put a lot of clues in, though. The names of most major locations and places have been changed, mostly so I don't have anyone eventually trying to sue me or something, but the layout of my fictional Hill is almost exactly like the real one. If someone were to discover which city and neighborhood it's based on, they could go there and find Leechman and Senator Parks exactly where I described them. They might even find the OneStop, although I hear that the 7-11 I based it on is closed down now. All the street names are even the same. I only took a few liberties with geography when the story called for it.

Have you ever managed to solve a Rubik's Cube?

I don't think so, but the big Rubik's Cube craze was when I was pretty small. I was more fascinated with how the things worked than I was with solving them. I've recently seen them in stores again, and I've been tempted to pick one up just because of the importance of the one in the novel, but those things are going for like ten dollars now. I just can't make myself pay that much for a multi-colored cube that doesn't even change reality. If it did change reality when you solved it, then I might put up the cash.

Whore yourself out like an elven hooker. What are you working on now?

This year has been really productive for me, so I've got a lot of things coming out. I've got a lot of stories coming out in various anthologies for Library of the Living Dead/Library of Horror, including Horrorology, Zombology III, and Scroll of Anubis to name just a few. I've also got a story coming up in the anthology Things We Are Not, which should be available any day now. This is an antho of GLBT themed sci-fi stories, and from what I've seen of it so far I think it is going to be phenomenal. I really suggest that people check it out. As far as novels, I've got several I'm working on at the same time in my short-attention-span fashion. One I hope to have out early next year is The Reanimation of Edward Schuett, which is my attempt at a more serious novel. It takes place fifty years after the zombie apocalypse and chronicles the story of a man who came back from being a zombie, and what philosophical implications that would have on the world. Also, in January 2011 the Crucible, an industrial arts group based in Oakland, will be doing an opera based on my short story "Dea Ex Machina." It will be part of their Fire Opera series, which from what I've seen of clips on YouTube, are truly fantastic spectacles. I'm really excited about this one, and with any luck I'll have the original story available in a new edition before the opera is performed.

Any plans on another Apocalypse Shift book?

Definitely. As I wrote this one I saw very clearly several events that would happen in the future of these characters. And for every funny detail I put in, I came up with a whole backstory in my head to explain why it was there. So there will not only be more books but also more stories. The books will bring these characters forward, and over time expose a larger story arc that I hinted at a few times in this book. I intend for the series to be maybe five or six books, because I have a very definite plan for the last two books. The stories will then fill in background, and possibly give us more information on many of the side characters. I've already written two of them, and they will be appearing soon in a pair of Library anthologies. The anthology Zombie Feary Tales will feature my story "Abomination in Bootz," which focuses on the second shift clerk Kelly and shows where Caleb got one of the artifacts. The other story "And the Streets Will Run Red With the Blood of Bunnies," will appear in War Wolves, and it will show both how Gloria originally met the Senator Park Lunatics and just why everyone is so damned scared of were-bunnies. After that, who knows. I've created a giant playground with the Apocalypse Shift, and I have every intention on continuing to play in it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

#24 of 2009: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

One of the hardest things about reviewing Murakami’s work after reading it is finding a way to quantify and categorize the story into something coherent.

Let me just say this - I read it, all six hundred plus pages, and I liked it quite a bit. Still, I came off with the impression that I missed some things, which isn’t all that unusual seeing as that’s how every one of my post-read reactions has gone down with him.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about, amongst other things, a missing cat, a missing wife, a story-within-a-story about Japan’s creation of and involvement in Manchukuo, psychics, psychic prostitutes, morbid high school girls, a vaguely creepy scholar-cum-politician and a bird (species unknown) that has a call that sounds much like the winding of a spring.

There are also multiple references to Cutty Sark Scotch whisky, for really no reason I could fathom.

A fan of Murakami’s other works will find a lot to love in this giant whopper of a novel. Those put off by the sheer vagueness of his plots, though, will be driven up the wall. There’s a lot going on in this novel, but much of it feels separate from its other parts. There’s a slight feeling of interconnectedness between the characters and settings, even over large spans of chronological time, but there isn’t much in the narrative to back this up. The end result is a feeling of pieces of story floating alongside each other, nearly touching but never quite able. Which isn’t to say this is a bad book, or a book not worth reading. Really, quite the contrary. It’s a great book, a lot of fun to read, and the pages go by quickly without bogging readers down.

The trick to enjoying Murakami lies in the old adage “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” That really is the key to picking up and getting the most out of his books. There’s nothing ever concrete about them. Most of his plots can be boiled down to this short summary - A man, a completely average, somewhat slackerish man, meets some other people, goes some places, a ton of weird things happen and he comes back home. The end. Oh, and there will be references to jazz music, women’s ears (don’t ask) and brands of alcohol.

Don’t expect a plot that defines and explains everything and you should be all right. The Wind-Up Bird isn’t any different in structure than any of his other books (with the exception of South of the Border, West of the sun, which I loathed and blogged about elsewhere when I first read it last year or the year before), and isn’t about to go off giving readers concrete explanations about why things happen the way they do. They just happen. It’s all very organic and arty, I suppose, but for those who enjoy tangible stories with dramatic conclusions it’s going to be annoying.

It worked well enough for me.


And now on to a complete change of pace. I’ve managed to amass quite a pile of horror novels (focusing on zombies in particular), and I’ll be taking a run at those now that I’ve got two Must Reads out of the way. It’s been too long since I read a brand new horror novel and I’m really looking forward to immersing myself in them.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

#23 of 2009: White Noise by Don DeLillo

There exists, in my mind at least, a list of Must Read Novels that I’ve been attempting to whittle my way through. Perhaps I have mentioned this before.

The List is comprised of much-talked-about books from several countries, spanning several genres. Most of them, however, are planted squarely in the “literary fiction” category. Pynchon. Wallace. DeLillo. These are the names I have seen repeated on book lists all over the internet, interspersed with Murakami, Danieliewski and Stephenson.

This year I decided I would attempt to tackle as many as I could.

I just finished White Noise and I’m not even sure what to say about it. I’m not even sure what I read, or more precisely, what I took away from it. There’s so much to digest and at the same time it feels to me like I read three hundred plus pages of nearly nothing.

Let me get a few things out of the way. There were some points to the book that I just did not like. First and most important of these was the lack of individual voice. Everyone in this novel is a philosopher, despite most of them not fitting the type. Jack, our narrator, is a university professor, the Dean of Hitler Studies, which makes his long-winded musings somewhat believable. Murray, a colleague, is likewise understandably deep. However, even Jack’s children, some of whom are very young, have paragraph upon paragraph of musings on all manner of subjects. So does his fourth wife, and even his three ex-wives (when they make their cameos) are members of the Deep Thoughts Club.

What is the meaning of that? Is there a meaning at all? Are these people all, by chance, exceptional human beings?

My second point is slightly related to the first. What is the purpose of all of the ex-wives and ex-husbands, the children of confusing parentage and the now-you-see-them, now-they’re-gone appearances by loves from the past? Was there a point to cobbling together such a motley and difficult to remember family tree? Why all the former wives in the intelligence community? Does Jack have a spy fetish? Does he secretly harbor sexual fantasies of female James Bonds? Does this mean anything at all, or are they just minor red herrings thrown in the middle of the story to throw less worthy readers off the trail of the Real Underlying Message?

I don’t know, and I guess that’s the whole point of my having read White Noise. I’m not the target audience for this book. I honestly, truly and without sarcasm, don’t believe I’m intelligent enough for this book. If there’s a bigger picture at work here, it sailed straight over my head, which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all. It was interesting, but in the end all I took from it was confusion.

2/5, possibly because of my own intellectual bankruptcy.

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