Your novella"Displacement" was easily one of the best stories I’ve read this year. Through the stories there is a common theme of child abuse. Have you worked with abused children before, or is it a passion of yours?
From a story-telling standpoint, I’m a big advocate of something that the 1950’s editor,HoraceGold said when he was editing Galaxy. He said, “Please don’t give me this version of the story, but tell me what happens after.”
The general consensus is Gold would have rejectedMad Max, and instead have asked forThe Road Warrior. I want to concentrate on what happens after. And often what comes after has as its origins child abuse.
Being on the punk scene, I’ve seen the effects of a lot of child abuse. It’s such a constant with all the people who not only go on the punk scene, but alcoholics, drug abusers, outsiders and the people I choose to write about. I find a lot of people are of this category.
Do you like showing the harm we can cause when we, as you said, ‘create monsters?’
I feel morally obliged to show the harm. It is so easy to project monstrosity onto people. This is a dehumanizing act, and it is also dehumanizing to the person who judges. Hoisting monstrosity onto other people is basically a self-monster-fic-ation, to coin a term. I’ve seen it destroy too many people.
Making someone a monster isn’t just ascribing something amoral onto those people; it’s placing yourself higher by passing moral judgment, by saying you’re too innately good to be capable of that monstrous behavior.
You killed a character named Brian Keene in "Displacement". Brian said that his killing of you in The Rising was only ‘a little in-joke at a buddy.’ Was your death of Keene the same? Or did you take it more seriously?
I think I recall emailing Brian when I wrote that part of "Displacement". It was a little return jab. A little shout out.That character named Brian Keene in "Displacement" was actually based off of someone I knew a long time ago who made all of his employees lives miserable.
How upset were you when Se7en came out?
I was bummed. Before Se7en had come out, I had sent "Displacement"to KrisRusch and Tom Monteleone, John Pelan and Rich Chizmar, and I was getting nibbles. People were saying it was really good, but they can’t publish it.
I’m a movie reviewer and I did the press screening of Se7en and I went, “Ahh, shit.”
I put "Displacement" away and left it in my files. Then over the years I saw how much Se7en and serial killer fetishization had been infusing our culture. I knew I could re-tweak the story and make it comment on this. The real kernel of the story, I think, was those glorious Vincent Price "ornately ironic murder movies," like the two Dr. Phibes movies and Theatre of Blood.
Was "Little Round Head" about a kid being raised by wolves? I seem to remember a little girl who was raised by wolves, then taken in by humans.
I am not going to tell you what it is about, because people who love the story have wildly different readings of it. I feel like I’d be limiting its interpretation if I answered that.
Recently, in Ukraine I think, they found a girl raised by dogs in an apartment complex. She was taken in by dogs. I was sort of aware of that, but no, I wasn’t writing about it.
Something about "Little Round Head" also reminds me of a song by Nine Inch Nails, titled "Right Where It Belongs". He says, “See the animal in his cage that you built? Are you sure which side you’re on?” Was this a story to get us to look at the other side? Looking from an animal’s perspective, who looks more civilized?
That’s sort of in my cultural DNA, and that goes back to every story that asks “Who is the real monster?” That goes back to Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Holocaust. Humans are only civilized when they question their own validity. Jack Ketchum certainly catches that with his "Dead River" series.
I love that you basically said monsters breed monsters. This is true. Growing up, don’t our parents change us the most?
Oh, sure. In every child’s life, parents make a difference.
You seem to write about children often. If you could change the education system, how would you do it?
You’re talking to a guy who quit teaching.
Well, I’d change many things. The most important thing that I can think of to reform education is something I learned about while I was getting my certification. That is a thing called “The hidden curriculum.” It is an unspoken paradigm or outlook that infuses the school. The teacher and principal might not be aware of it, or they might not. It is heard as an agenda more than any teacher recognizes, it was one of the reasons why I hit the ejection seat as a high school teacher.
What I saw was a secret curriculum about a hidden hierarchy of class and conformity which I found completely appalling. I was teaching in a suburban high school, and the hidden curriculum of that school was rewarding an outlook of kids who were Stepford children. I thought, as a punkrock DJ, I could be perpetuating a much better outlook for that generation.
The all pervasive message was that “The world outside of our class is scary and the people above us know better.” It was hidden better, not stated that directly, but it was problematic. If I could change anything, it would be the phasing out of the old hidden curricula, but that would probably create a new one.
In "The Siege", we explore Ghosts getting revenge. The ways that you depict them as caring about what their actions will incur seemed more thoughtful than most people who are alive. I liked the way that story was done. Should ghosts haunt or terrorize?
They weren’t really ghosts, but reincarnated beings who were doing in flesh what ghosts have been ascribed to do. I’ve just noticed a lot of people who are so burdened by their past that they can’t live in today. They are their own ghosts, but they aren’t dead yet.
Ghosts and avenging spirits don’t go in for the easy, quick kill. They fuck with you. Look at Sadako in Ringu and FreddyKrueger; they don’t go in for the kill. That could be more a device for storytelling, but they always seem to be pretty patient. If you have all of eternity, why would you rush things?Freddy isn’t going anywhere. He can fuck with you all he wants.
Would you like to believe that we learn something, passing from this world to the next?
The thing I want to learn is how not to die.
I think the most important thing you can learn when being hit by a bus is to use the cross walk, or when you're on a respirator, that you shouldn’t have smoked.
I certainly hope that there is something after all this. I hope that we learn something and bring it past this, into the next world.But I think we need to learn from the spirit world and bring it into ours. If I could get investment tips from Diamond Jim Brady, that’d be awesome.
You say so many songs changed for you after Marian died. I’ve never had someone close to me die, knock on wood. But drugs have affected many of my father's. How long did you labor over “Exit Wound” and “...And the Damage is Done?”
I found out about Marian dying maybe nine months after she had. At that point, I was already on deadline with “Exit wound.” I just restructured it a little and made it dedicated to her. In terms of deciding to do the next story, "...And the Damage Done", about her, that seemed appropriate to the theme of the anthology that the story was commissioned for, Outsiders: 22 All New Stories from the Edge,which was edited by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick.
That was a moment I said, “Yeah, I need to talk about Marian more.” It wasn’t a case of deciding to; the opportunities arose and seemed appropriate.
Did any of Marian's circle hear of the story and talk to you?
I wrote emails with Daniel DeLeon, to whom I mailed copies of the stories years ago. He knows. Lilly Scortis-Ayers, who directed Last Fast Ride, the documentary about Marian that just played Sundance, knows about it. I’m sure she communicated about it with a few people.
The story behind "Shibboleth" is a sad one. The story behind the word is pretty crazy, too. Is that why you chose this title?
Yes. The story is about getting past a militarized check point, so I thought I could develop the idea of a shibboleth as a theme. And also, most of what I write is a shibboleth of some type. I’m not very straight forward.
You use poetic language and don’t pause for others catch up. If you could make a living off of only writing novels or poetry, which would it be?
Novels. I’ll be… I’m pretty certain I could make more money writing fiction than I do. Right now, I am doing a fairly commercial novel. The rewards are so low, that I’d rather write off-the-wall stuff that I like to write.
I could sell-out for$10,000. But if I sell out, I want to sell out for a lot more than that! The rewards for selling out are so low, why do it? With my interactions with publishers, I’ve been offered 10 grand to sell out, but it hasn’t been worth my while.Back a dump truck full of money to my door, I'll sell out in a heartbeat.
Tell us a bit about your other projects. What is Dawn Song about? How about "MediaDrome"?
The next book that I am working I can’t talk about. Don't want to jinx it. But it is fairly commercial and who knows if I can sell it?
Dawn Song is probably going to be the novel I am best known for, even though if it sold for crap. Really low sales numbers.
The book blurb describes Dawn Songas, "A darkly erotic exploration of supernatural evil in very human circumstances. Lawrence is an invisible bookstore clerk in Boston, drawn through no choice of his own into the greatest conflict of all–a struggle for dominance between two of the most powerful devils in Hell. As the media frenzy of the Gulf War buildup enthralls the city, Lawrence feels the presence of something ethereal and beautiful that has come to Boston, as he has, in search of fulfillment and love everlasting. If he only knew what it was…"
Even though I sold the book, it is contrary to about everything we are taught about publishing. I think I sold it as an alchemical-cabalistic take.
Have you written any movies yet?
I think this is why I write such convoluted stories. I’m a movie reviewer. I look at such upfront story telling as my job, and as such, I am always looking for something else. I’m looking for something you can’t experience like that. I think that is why I go for such ambiguous and coded storytelling.
You don’t want to write cinematic fiction when you review it. It’s hard for me to get into the rhythm of it. Maybe I should try Larry Cohen’s method of dictating screenplays into tape recorders, but I’m not good at it. And yes, the idea I’m working on now as a novel started as a teleplay. I had been toying with sending it toMasters of Horror. Initially, I wrote it as a screenplay, then changed over to prose every other chapter, then back to screenplay format. Eventually it just became a novel.
You do a lot of reviews. What are the top 10 horror films under the radar? Stuff for a new author to watch.
Hobo with a Shotgun, Jack Ketchum's The Woman… I’ll get back to you on this one.
How surreal is it to be published at place like Cemetery Dance?
Not at all. It was gratifying, but I have been dealing with them for ten years. What was really sort of surreal was that the book sold out so damn fast.
I saw that you lost air pressure in the plane you were on? Can you explain that one?
Apparently it was a mechanical failure. The device that monitors interior air pressure fails sometimes. My ears were popping as I was working on the plane. I didn’t even notice that the masks dropped at first. I didn’t hear the first announcement.
When I saw everyone moving around me, putting the masks on, I put mine on. I was like, “Gee... I could die!”Somehow, I was just mellow. People were taking it very calmly, reading their newspapers.
This ties in with the theme of The Plague Years and shibboleths. People in the face of death kind of let things happen. People just go on. Humans who survived the Black Death in the 14th Century did well because, as other people died, there was more land for them to cultivate and therefore more food and people could fight off the plague better.
I talked with a bartender who was a house painter in a city by a naval base.He was working painting a house with a buddy when he air raid sirens on the base went off. The base hadn't told anybody they were running a test of the sirens, so as far as anyone knew, this was real and the nukes were on their way. When the bartender and his buddy heard the sirens, they just shrugged and went on painting, knowing they could die any moment.
Another friend woke up, saw the mushroom cloud from the Mt. Saint Helens blooming as the volcano blew, and just shrugged and went back to bed. She figured it was the end of the world. That sort of resignationfound its way into"Shibboleth". That was all pervasive when I grew up in the 80’s.
I did not expect to live past 35. There was a sort of terror and resentment that evolved the attitudes of us back then.
I don’t see the War on Terror as so apocalyptic as the culture that existed back during the era of the Bomb. The certainty of apocalypse in pop music was everywhere. Look at "99 Luftballoons" and "The Final Countdown". As a 1980s punk rocker, the fear of being vaporized was a constant theme during our days.
It’s not as pervasive now, because the anxieties of the Cold War saturated into everything.Fear hasn’t done that, with what’s going on now. Then again, I’m an old fart and I might be getting comfortably numb about all this.
I want to thank Michael for doing this interview. His novel, Stories from the Plague Years, is a great read that I recommend, full of mystery and horror.