Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stephen King's Blockade Billy

So I got up yesterday morning to the news that Stephen King has a new novella coming from Cemetery Dance in just a few weeks. As word pinballed around message-board land, the doorbell rang. No one was there when I answered it -- just a FedEx package waiting on the porch.

From Cemetery Dance. With an advance copy of a forthcoming book inside. Yep, a little something called Blockade Billy by Stephen King.

They say timing is everything, and I can't argue with that. I cracked the covers, intending only to take a quick dip, and was quickly sucked in. As often happens with King, it was the voice that did it. And this particular voice belongs to George "Granny" Grantham, a geriatric baseball hand who's spinning a yarn to a guy named King about the days when he was the third-base coach for a forgotten team called the New Jersey Titans. The tale itself involves one William "Blockade Billy" Blakely, a strange kid who comes out of nowhere as a last-minute replacement for the Titans' busted-up pair of catchers. "I'll tell you about Billy Blakely," Grantham says, "Awful story, of course, but those are the ones that last the longest."

I don't know if I quite agree with that -- the tale that follows whips by like a big-league fastball, sure and strong. Or to put it another way: there's plenty of baseball here. Depending on the reader, that can be a plus or a minus. Writing a good baseball scene is tough; writing one that can appeal to non-fans is almost impossible. But King does a hell of a job with the ballpark scenes in Blockade Billy, capturing action, emotion, and a sense of a bygone era in a way that'll make readers jonesing for gametime want it just a little bit more. I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I was completely caught up in those scenes, too.

I'm sure that most reviews for Blockade Billy will focus on King's love of baseball. Of course, the game is the canvas for this novella. For my money there's also a love of the good old dark stuff at work here, and maybe just a little bit of the raw deal brand of characterization you'd find in the work of Rod Serling way back when. But at its climax, Blockade Billy roots more in the neighborhood of Alfred Hitchcock Presents than The Twilight Zone -- with maybe a little Tales from the Crypt thrown in. Fact is, I could easily picture the final brutal scene as a series of Jack "Foul Play!" Davis comic book panels, creepy and heavy on the shadows.

Most of all, King displays a real love of good old-fashioned storytelling in these pages. The kind that belonged to the yarn-spinner, the guy who's been there and done that. That's a form often forgotten in today's world of smirky wiseguy literature, but not here. Blockade Billy has an honesty and rhythm and drive all its own. Plenty of heart, too. That's cause for celebration -- and then some.

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Favorite Rejection Slip

From Amazing Stories, many moons ago:

Dear Norman:

I'm sorry to tell you that "Return of the Shroud" does not meet our magazine's needs. Although the story is well written, its survival is heavily dependant on graphic description. We are looking for a different kind of horror story. A kind more driven by plot. A kind less concerned with torture, slashed wrists, amputated digits in teriyaki sauce, human hearts imbedded with scissors, cryptic references to "dark things," and other grisly descriptive passages.

If you have any horror pieces that are built more on suspense and chills versus graphic blood and gore, we'd be interested in looking at them. Your story format was interesting and creative, and you write with a good ear.

Editor X

I have to say I love this reject -- especially the laundry list of my literary sins. Add to that the editor's last comment ("you write with a good ear") and I was tempted to send a reply riffing off Robert Bloch's infamous comment about writing with the heart of a young boy. Thanks for saying I write with a good ear, I wanted to say. I keep it in a jar on my desk.

I resisted temptation. I didn't do that.

Instead, I sent "Return of the Shroud" to David Sutton and Stephen Jones. They bought it for Dark Voices -- severed digits, teriyaki sauce, and all. Then I wrote and submitted another story to Amazing called "Eighty-Eight Sins." They bought that one, and commissioned a painting by John Rheaume to go along with it. (Click around on John's gallery page and you can find it -- look for the evil little Buddha guy in the third row.)

I liked the painting a lot. It's hanging in my living room.

The rejection slip is on display, too. I had it framed, and it's on my office wall...just another reminder to keep punching.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

You Say It, We Play It

Just heard (re: Lesser Demons) from a reviewer who's working his way through an Advance Readers Copy of the collection, Here's his email:

Hey Norm:

Offbeat request comin' up. I read the collection this week, and was in the middle of the last story, "The Iron Dead," when...I left the damn thing at work, too far away to drive back and retrieve. You don't have a word doc or pdf of that particular story handy, do you? It's just killing me to wait until Monday to finish!!! (I don't need the story notes, I cheated and read those first, as is my way.) Thanks in advance if you can get me the story, obviously no prob if it's too much of a hassle.

Your devoted reader,
Mr. X

Of course, I sent him an RTF of "The Iron Dead." And since I built that tale to echo the pulp fiction of days gone by -- it's basically the story I would have submitted to Weird Tales if I'd had a chance back in the Farnsworth Wright era -- it leaves me feeling pretty good to know that there's at least one cliff in there guaranteed to leave readers hanging.

So, hey, Mr. X -- check your inbox. You've got mail. Attached is one bad monster-killer with a pack of stitched-and-welded dead things on his tail. Enjoy!

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Tongue Is An Unruly Member

"Speak. I know you have a civil tongue in your head because I sewed it back myself."

-- Dr. Frankenstein (Whit Bissell) lays down the law to two-hundred pounds of stitched-up, ambulating teenage monster (Gary Conway) in I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (1957)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ever Dance With The Devil In The Pale Moonlight?

Subterranean Press popped the cork on a great review of Lesser Demons today, courtesy of Booklist. Here's the word from the SubPress Newsletter:

Some of the demons in Norman Partridge's new collection may not be of the major variety, but as Booklist notes, there's nothing minor about Lesser Demons: "In the afterword to this collection, Partridge credits his lifelong love of fantasy and horror for a versatile writing style that has garnered three Bram Stoker awards. Before that remark, 10 finely calibrated, genrebending tales display his broad range, from dark detective fiction to equally dark western yarns...his gift for twisting genre conventions in surprising new ways is unsurpassed."

Also, I've had some emails asking about a mention in this week's Cemetery Dance Newsletter concerning a forthcoming novella project. And, yep, I can confirm that's a go, and I'll give you a little more detail while I'm at it. Johnny Halloween is a collection of my short Halloween fiction and nonfiction, and it will include a brand new novella set in the Dark Harvest universe which involves one of the characters from the novel. It's a bit of a prequel, and the title of the piece in "The Jack o' Lantern."

Anyway, this project is slated for publication in the fall, but hasn't been officially announced. Stay tuned. I'll drop some links as soon as ordering info goes live on the CD site.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One-Line Review: Revenge of the Creature

You know, if John Agar kept zapping me with an underwater cattle-prod, I would have wanted to slice him up like a two-legged salami, too.

Monday, March 22, 2010

First Blood: Laird Barron

Laird Barron is the author of two collections: the Shirley Jackson Award-winning The Imago Sequence & Other Stories, and the forthcoming Occultation; both from Night Shade Books. His work has appeared in markets such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, Lovecraft Unbound, Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror, Clockwork Phoenix, and The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has also been reprinted in numerous year's best anthologies. Mr. Barron is an expatriate Alaskan currently at large in Washington State.

The first piece of Barron fiction I encountered was a tale in F&SF called “Old Virginia.” It was a knockout, pure and simple. A piece of situational suspense set in a contained environment -- not unlike The Thing, really, when you looked at the story in those terms -- but Barron brought so much more to the tale that it was scary. Anyway, “Old Virginia” was the kind of story that stuck with me long after I’d finished it, and it sent me looking for more of Barron’s work -- which was easy to find, because before too long he was putting together a short story collection with my friends from Night Shade Books, Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen.

After scoring an advance reading copy of The Imago Sequence, I knew Laird was definitely more than a one-hit wonder. In fact, he’s one of those writers (along with Jeffrey Ford and Andy Duncan) who frequently make me want to break my pencils. Really, he's that good. And when a protagonist named Partridge turned up in one of Laird’s stories, I was pleased to find that he enjoyed my work, too. After trading emails for several months, we finally had a chance to get together last year at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, and both Tia and I found Mr. Barron to be great company…and definitely one of the most interesting guys in the room.

PARTRIDGE: The first time I read Lovecraft's “At the Mountains of Madness,” I was on a backpacking trip in Northern California with nothing around but redwoods. It was an unsettling experience, to say the least. You're from Alaska, and you certainly dipped deep into the dark fiction well while living in a remote environment. Do you think that gave you a different view as a reader, and how did it mold you as a writer?

BARRON: I was born and raised in Alaska, a number of those years spent in wilderness camps as my family migrated with the snow. We raised huskies for travel and freighting purposes, as well as racing in mid-distance competitions and the Iditarod. Money was tight, but books we had and I read voraciously, often by kerosene lamplight. The Arctic isolation, the vast, brooding environment, contributes to a dark psychology that might dilute with time and distance, but never truly dissipates from the spirit. I’ve siphoned and filtered that energy, channeled it into the atmospherics of the stories I write.

Outside of its largest population centers, Alaska is a vast, austere landscape populated by raw, individualistic people, a lot of them fleeing troubles abroad and keen to fade into the veritable woodwork. Having spent years in seasonal blue collar industries such as commercial fishing and construction, I’ve broken bread with scores of persons who’d be quite at home in a Lucius Shepard epic -- Hells Angels, ex-con murderers, leg breakers, drug dealers turned snitches and on the lam, bouncers, washed-up NBA ballers moonlighting as strong-arm goons, prostitutes, professional psychics, DEA agents, and blue collar tweakers galore. I like to say I survived my youth. It wasn’t a picnic, but I don’t have to do much heavy lifting when I reach for a character or a scenario to base a story upon.

Touching again on the geographical influence of Alaska, I’ll give you a less abstract example of how the primordial energy of that area affects people from varied backgrounds. In the winter of 1993 I was racing a team of huskies across the imposing hills between the ghost town of Iditarod and the village of Shageluk. It was near sunset, thirty or forty below Fahrenheit, lonely wilderness in all directions, and the team trudged along due to poor trail conditions. I was tired, all attention focused upon directing the dogs and keeping the sled from crashing as we negotiated the treacherous grades.

Periodically, I noted old, old pylons made of sawn logs erected off the beaten path. Markers. Initially, I didn’t have much reaction, but as darkness drew down around us, the dogs’ ears pricked up and a general sensation of nervousness radiated from the team. Within a few minutes I was very much overcome by a sense of dread, a profound and palpable impression of being watched by an inimical presence. Later, I queried several of the villagers about the markers (which indicated trails to hunting and burial areas) and they told me that the region was absolutely unsafe to travel after dark due to aggressive spirits. In the years since, former racers, some of them hard-bitten ex-military men, trappers and hunters, have expressed identical experiences of the approach to Shageluk.

As I learned, it’s simply something almost every racer goes through if they find themselves in that stretch around dusk. Not a damned thing happened, but I haven’t shaken the creepiness of those vibes in seventeen years and it inspires me whenever I contemplate the antagonism between man and wild, the modern and the ancient, or what is known versus what is hidden.

PARTRIDGE: Tell us about your first short story sale. How long had you been writing and submitting when it happened, and how did it come about?

BARRON: I wrote from preschool age into my teens. Two full novels and several Frankenstein partials; dozens of stories and story fragments. Reams of bad, bad Robert Service-inspired poetry. Nearly a million words, perhaps more, from spending free hours filling up spiral notebooks, from scratching away in the dark with a flashlight and a sawed off pencil. Local papers printed some of my poetry. I submitted a handful of stories to places such as New Blood, Horror Show, and Grue, and received several kindly rejections.

Life intervened and I gave up writing until I was nearly thirty and long since relocated to Washington State with a job, a fiancĂ© and a stable lifestyle. I wrote a novel, showed it around briefly, then trunked it and began to seriously work on short fiction. “Shiva, Open Your Eye” sold from the slush pile at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to Gordon Van Gelder. The entire submission process spanned eight or nine months. Gordon was the third or fourth person to see the piece -- the editors at Writers of the Future and Space and Time misplaced the manuscript, and Talebones passed. Let me tell you, when I received the F&SF acceptance email, I was over the moon.

It was a huge moment and remains so. Authors have their milestones -- first sale, first reprint, first book, and so forth. Breaking into F&SF, being chosen for reprint in Ellen Datlow’s horror half of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and winning The Shirley Jackson Award for The Imago Sequence, remain near and dear to my heart in a way unequalled by subsequent accomplishments. Of those three, being fished out of the slush pile and given a chance at a life I’d longed for since childhood looms largest in my mind.

PARTRIDGE: In a few years time you established yourself as a hot prospect in the field of the dark fantastic with several appearances in F&SF. Your first collection of short stories and novellas, The Imago Sequence, cemented that reputation. What was it like to make the transition from anthology/magazine appearances to a solo project like Imago?

BARRON: The transition was smooth. Over the first five or six years of my publishing career I was usually cold-submitting to Ellen and Gordon and the occasional anthology. I wrote all those stories to dovetail thematically, to reinforce one another as a sort of mosaic in case lightning struck and I was signed for a collection, but my day-to-day goal was more survival-oriented, more basic. The actual sale of the collection fell into place without much fuss or fanfare. Unbeknownst to me, people such as Kelly Link, Paul Tremblay, Nick Mamatas, Ellen Datlow, Gordon Van Gelder, Jeff Ford, Marc Laidlaw, and numerous others, had put in a good word for me with the Night Shade team and other publishing luminaries.

Jason Williams bought the book on speculation. He warned me that collections often tank and horror is a tough sell. A horror collection by a new author represented a major risk of losing money. They purchased Imago because the guys are true-blue weird fiction aficionados and they enjoyed my work as fans.

Happily for everyone involved, Imago sold through, was reprinted as a trade paperback that has also sold well, and was pretty successful critically. I can’t thank the people who supported me, the fans, or Night Shade, enough for the opportunity.

Procession of the Black Sloth was the original novella I wrote after Jason and Jeremy committed to Imago and that particular piece was my chance to create something indicative of a shift, a signpost pointing toward artistic and thematic change to come in the next collection, Occultation. Frankly, the process of creating this sophomore book has been significantly more complicated. All but the three original stories in Occultation were conceived as submissions to themed and un-themed anthologies. This presented the challenge of satisfying the guideline requirements of the anthologies while also writing stories versatile enough to cohere in a reprint collection in a meaningful and rewarding way. Later this spring we’ll discover how that worked out.

PARTRIDGE: A lot of readers -- including me -- are waiting for the first Laird Barron novel. I know you're working on one, and I also know that novels can be a long haul. So far, what are the upsides and downsides of the experience for you?

BARRON: Yes, I’m in the middle of a first novel. The Croning follows a geriatric scientist who has retired with his famous anthropologist wife to her ancestral farmhouse in Western Washington. The wife goes off on a trip and leaves our hero alone to putter about the house. Pretty soon, amidst a bit of spring cleaning, the old fellow begins to turn up bizarre artifacts, photos, and souvenirs suggestive of much unpleasantness in the vein of Bluebeard. He suspects his wife might’ve acquired some unsavory occult practices from her many adventures in the backwaters of the world…. The Croning is something of a throwback to occult/horror novels of the 1960s and ‘70s such as Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Tryon’s The Other, and the quiet horror of Grant and Klein. Except that it really isn’t like those stories under the skin, and you’ll see why if you read the book.

So far the process has been agreeable. I enjoy having more space to develop character and atmosphere, to dial in the mood. I’ve written several novellas in recent years and find that while the forms are different beasts, a great deal of craft-related, technical/mechanical process is still applicable. I imagine I’ll have a bit more to say once I’ve gone through the entire wringer of getting this project to the finish line.

PARTRIDGE: What's your best advice for writers starting out today?

BARRON: I think Joe Lansdale summed it up concisely in your recent interview with him. Nonetheless; speaking to short fiction authors -- start at the top when submitting. Scads of micro-zine credits don’t necessarily create career momentum. Don’t obsess over frequency and volume of submissions, but focus rather on quality and polish. Some say each rejection brings one a little closer to paid publication. Wrong. A stack of rejections isn’t an indicator you’re getting closer to the Promised Land, it just means you’ve gotten a stack of rejections. Ease back on work-shop/blog critiquing of published authors and spend more time analyzing what they’re doing correctly that you aren’t. Replicate their successful stratagems through your own unique filter.

PARTRIDGE: Clint Eastwood may forever be The Man With No Name, but over on your blog you're The Man With The Lee Van Cleef icon. What is it about Van Cleef that makes him the coolest cat in the spaghetti western universe?

BARRON: Man, it was Angel Eyes, James Coburn, or Lee Marvin. I watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with my dad when I was knee high to a grasshopper. There’s something of the Devil in Van Cleef’s smile, and there must be something of the Devil in me, because even as a babe in arms, I got it. It seems a virtue to always follow one’s job through.

Like The Mummy Said...

"That's a wrap." Last week I finished up the page proof corrections for Lesser Demons and shot them over to Bill Schafer at SubPress. That means the hatches are pretty much battened down on this book. Hoo-rah -- I can't wait until a box o' Demons lands on my doorstep. Front cover to back, I'm very pleased with this collection.

Also turned in correx for another book-length project with a different press. The publisher hasn't made an announcement yet, so right now (like Kharis) my lips are stitched.

And: had news that one of my stories, "The Mojave Two-Step," has been picked up for reprint in a Joe Lansdale anthology coming from Tachyon Publications in February 2011. This one isn't up for preorder yet, but publisher Jacob Weisman tells me that Crucified Dreams will be an antho of genre-busting noir tales in the Lansdale tradition, and I'm proud to be part of it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Okay, So He Was A Little Odd..."

"One of the things which impressed me about those early horror pictures was that their heroes were almost invariably idiots or wimps -- and in some cases, both. Norman Kerry, in The Phantom of the Opera, is your typical idiot. He eavesdrops on the heroine conversing with a strange man in her dressing room, then sneaks in himself when she exits. He finds nobody else in there -- and promptly does nothing about it. As her genuine peril increases he continues to do nothing about it, until at last she tells him this weird story about her abduction by the mysterious Phantom who has terrified the opera and threatened to wreak vengeance on a cast of thousands. Does our hero go to the authorities? You know better than that. The best he can come up with is running away with the heroine, and tells her a carriage will wait for her when she finishes her performance; the show must go on. And when she's abducted, he finally goes after her, guided by a mysterious man whom he's never met and knows nothing about. But before he goes off on this dangerous mission he takes great pains not to bother informing the police or anyone else. There are many such idiots in those films, and no shortage of wimps who, like Creighton Hale in The Cat and the Canary, spend seven reels running scared and then uncharacteristically turn brave for a few moments in reel eight. This is supposed to redeem such characters in the eyes of the audience, but mine only sparkled when I watched the villains. It was the heavy who had most of the smarts in most of the horror films. Okay, so he was a little odd, perhaps, and maybe not so much in the looks department -- but he was the guy to arrest for stealing the picture. And, in such a picture he was the star. It was Chaney you went to see, not Kerry. Colin Clive created the monster, but it's Karloff who immortalized himself; there's no Colin Clive cult. Lugosi and Atwill and Lorre and Price and Rathbone can still command their rightful places in horror film history, but I doubt if you can ever expect to see many David Manners retrospectives. Having learned this, it's no wonder I decided to write about villains instead of idiots."

--Robert Bloch (interviewed by Matthew R. Bradley) in Filmfax #40

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Reading/Watching/Listening #3

READING: Desperadoes Omnibus by Jeff Mariotte, w/ art by John Cassaday, John Severin, John Lucas, Jeremy Haun, and Alberto Dose. I love weird westerns, so this series -- about a Magnificent Seven-style group that draws down on bad mojo at every turn -- is a must-have. Mariotte lives on a ranch in Arizona, so he just naturally knows his stuff when it comes to westerns, but Jeff also knows how to draw on the strong tradition in film and fiction when crafting his own dark landscapes. There's nearly 500 pages in this collection, and in them you'll encounter supernatural serial killers, tentacled Lovecraftian beasties, zombies, dark mysticism, and buffalo dreams. Plus: several fistfuls of those pages are drawn by JOHN SEVERIN, which is more than enough to make me feel like a fanboy. (And the rest of those artists aren't exactly chopped liver, either. Meaning: there's some really, really fine stuff here, amigos.)

And hey, once Josh Brolin gets done with Jonah Hex, I'd love to see him take a crack at playing Mariotte's Gideon Brood. Now that would be something.

WATCHING: Hang 'em High. If you want to know why Brad Pitt's got that hanging scar in Inglorious Basterds, check this one out. But be prepared. When you slap a movie in the DVD player that opens with a lynching, then briskly moves on to a sheriff gunning down a lunatic with a Messianic complex before galloping on to a six-man hanging, you know you're in for a sardonic ride. Eastwood's perfect as a cold coffin-nail of a lawman bent on tracking down the nine men who lynched him, and so is Pat Hingle as the calculating judge who pulls the lawman's strings. The ending may be a bit of a fizzle, but when you've piled up about six great confrontations before the ultimate showdown, it's hard to keep the rope taut...even with a pretty great twist.

LISTENING: Casting Shadows Tall as Giants... by Have Gun, Will Travel. I think I found this one by cruising cdbaby.com, putting terms like "gunfighter" and "gunslinger" into their search engine. So sue me. There are weirder ways to find good music.

And this CD is better than good. It's great. Spooky traditional music saddled up with quick-draw rock. Titles like "Pistolas at Twenty Paces," "Blessing and a Curse," and "Come All Ye Sinners." My favorite is "It's Not the Heat, It's the Humanity": "I wandered deep into the forest; I lost my way among the trees. The wolf appeared dripping crimson from his beard; He grinned and whispered, 'Come with me.' The wolf just smiled and whispered, 'Follow me...'"

Yep. That's the real hungry deal. Check 'er out.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Free Fiction: Red Right Hand

Claire held the gun in her left hand, the blood in her right.

“You ready?” Arson wanted to know.

She just sat there. Arson was always like that. Impatient. He never stopped moving. Like now. His fingers tap-tap-tapping against the steering wheel of the Ford Roadster he’d stolen up in Bakersfield, gun-oil gleaming on fingernails that danced in the af­ternoon sunlight.

Arson’s fingers were scarred. He wasn’t worried about any blood. As far as he was concerned, any blood spilled today would belong to someone else.

And that seemed more than a likely possibility. They’d stopped to talk about the job one last time before they pulled it. There was a little town up ahead called Fiddler, and in that town was a bank that Arson had cased a couple days ago. He said it would be easy pickings, because the town didn’t have any law worth worrying about.

But Claire wasn’t worried about the law.

She was worried about something else.

Something that was worth worrying about. Something red, and wet, and hot. Something she couldn’t seem to stop, no matter how many times she snaked the needle through her flesh, no mat­ter how tight she drew the stitches...

To read the rest of "Red Right Hand," click here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Mummy's (Real) Curse

"[Kharis claws] his way through the swamp, dragging a bad case of athlete's foot in his right pedal, at the speed of a guy pushing a Cadillac up a hill."

-- The Hollywood Reporter flays The Mummy's Curse, December 20, 1944

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day...

...to one and to all. First off, I've got some proofreading to finish up, and (if the kidlet cooperates) hopefully I'll kick out 1,000 words before the afternoon is through. After that, The Bride is cooking up some Irish stew for dinner. Tia's vegetarian, which (to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction) means I am mostly vegetarian, too. But I am tossing some corned beef in that sucker, and there are a couple bottles of Harp in the fridge. Plus: biscuits. And real Irish butter.

While we're at it, we'll be watching The Secret of Roan Inish, which for my $ is one of the best quiet fantasies of all time. Finally broke down and bought that one. I wish John Sayles had made a dozen other movies like it. Just a marvelous movie, completely free of hotshot FX, but there's magic in there all the same.

Now I'm going to go toss some David Kincaid on the CD player. Nothing like some American Civil War music courtesy of the Irish Brigade to get your heart pumpin' in the mornin'....

Monday, March 15, 2010

First Blood: Duane Swierczynski

Welcome to First Blood, the continuing feature here at American Frankenstein where we’ll talk to writers, editors, and other creative folks about how they got their starts in the business. The subject of this week’s special origin issue is: crime thriller writer and ace Marvel Comics scribe, Duane Swierczynski.

A few years ago, Duane happened to drop me a nice email about Dark Harvest just about the same time I was hearing great things about a heist novel called The Wheelman by some guy with an unpronounceable last name. Next thing I knew we were talking about trading some books through the mail. Couple days later -- thump! A package from Philadelphia hit my doorstep. I devoured The Wheelman and chewed my way through The Blonde, too. Conclusion? This guy Swierczynski was the real deal. I loved the way Duane kicked his stories into gear, loved too the hard way they charged to the finish line. In short, it was my considered opinion that Mr. S’s work kicked ass in a multitude of ways.

Since then Duane’s written a couple more books, including Expiration Date and Severance Package (St. Martin's Press). Most of his novels have been optioned for TV and film. His work for Marvel includes tales featuring the Punisher, Cable, the Immortal Iron Fist, Werewolf By Night and Deadpool, and he is collaborating with CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker on a series of "digi-novel" thrillers called Level 26. You can visit him at wwww.duaneswierczynski.com or twitter.com/swierczy.

PARTRIDGE: First off, I love the fact that you named your son “Parker” in honor of a couple of fictional characters. So here's the big question: who'd win in a throwdown between Richard Stark's hard-boiled badass and Marvel's Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man?

SWIERCZYNSKI: Spidey might win the first round, but Parker would up with a revenge plan that would most likely leave the Webhead in traction.

PARTRIDGE: You started off by writing a few nonfiction books. How did you get involved in that, and was your ultimate goal always to move into fiction?

SWIERCZYNSKI: My first nonfiction book proposal came out of a failed magazine story pitch. I had been an editor at Details Magazine, and I suggested a service piece called “The Perfect Drink for Every Occasion” where we'd suggest cocktails for particular situations. My editor didn't go for it; I kept the idea in my back pocket anyway.

A few years later, after my first novel (Secret Dead Men) failed to find a home, my agent suggested I try a nonfiction book, considering my journalism background. So I dug out “Perfect Drink,” worked it up into a book proposal. My agent sold it to Quirk Books, and then I spent about year doing heavy boozing. I mean, researching.

My main goal, though, was to write novels.

PARTRIDGE: Your first published novel was Secret Dead Men. What do you remember about writing that book, and what were some of the upsides and downsides of the experience?

SWIERCZYNSKI: I remember it vividly. After years of starting then abandoning novels, I decided to finish one -- no matter what. Even if it sucked. Even if I could tell it was a flaming wreck 5,000 words in. I just needed to finish. So during summer 1998, I came home every day from work (at Details) and cranked out at least 1,000 words.

By summer's end, I had a novel. And that's when I learned the trick to keeping your mind in a novel: work on it every day until it's habit. The longer you keep it up, the easier it is to slip back into that world.

PARTRIDGE: What piece of work established you -- creatively, critically, commercially (or all three) -- in the marketplace, and what changed after you published it?

SWIERCZYNSKI: I think it was The Wheelman, which was my first pro sale -- to St. Martin's Press. (Secret Dead Men appeared a few months before it, but I didn't receive an advance for it.) I wrote it for fun, never thinking in a million years that it would sell -- like the world needs another heist novel? But that was the trick, I realized. Write to entertain yourself, and act like nobody's looking over your shoulder.

PARTRIDGE: You've done quite a bit of work for Marvel. How'd you get involved in the comics field?

SWIERCZYNSKI: I'd written a fan letter to Ed Brubaker (gushing about Criminal, still my favorite comic) around the same time he'd picked up a copy of The Wheelman. He recommended me to one of his editors at Marvel, Warren Simons, who in turn mentioned my name to Axel Alonso. The whole time I'm thinking: God, I'd remove my spleen with a pair of rusty nail scissors for the chance to write even an 8-page backup story. I mean, this was Marvel! I'd grown up gorging on Marvel Comics.

Happily, we hit it off, and I ended up doing not just a one-shot or two, but a few series. And they didn't even ask for any internal organs.

PARTRIDGE: I grew up reading Marvel stuff, too. Loved Mike Ploog, and I used to buy his Ghost Rider and Werewolf By Night off the rack as a kid. What's it like to work with iconic characters you remember from your youth, and how do you approach those projects?

SWIERCYZNSKI: Writing Werewolf By Night was a dream come true. My father gave me a Werewolf By Night book and record set for Christmas back in the 1970s, so you could read the comic as you listened to it being read (with sound effects and all) on 45 rpm. It scared the living crap out of me...but I loved it. That one gift probably kick-started both my love of horror and comics.

So the chance to go back and tell a Jack Russell story for Marvel? It just doesn't get any better. My approach was to take what I loved about the original (the fusion of horror and crime and mystery) and recast it in the present. What I ended up doing is a weird kind of locked room mystery...which was a lot of fun.

PARTRIDGE: What's your best advice for writers starting out today?

SWIERCZYNSKI: It's the same piece of advice I keep telling myself: It's the work that matters. Don't get caught up in the rest of the nonsense -- the business and marketing and trend-watching and all of that. Sure, it's important. But the work comes first. Sit your butt in a chair and keep writing. When you're not writing, read your eyeballs out.

Good News/Bad News

THE GOOD NEWS: SubPress honcho Bill Schafer sent on a great advance review of Lesser Demons that'll appear in one of the major review markets.

THE BAD NEWS: I have to keep my mouth shut about it until April 1st.

Damn. This is hard.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Reading/Watching/Listening #2

READING: Great Irish Tales of Horror edited and introduced by Peter Haining. I grew up reading Haining's marvelous horror anthologies, which were easily found at the library and were always prized scores in second-hand shops. Since St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner, I've been dipping into this antho for some dark fortification. And that's appropriate, because the rainy weather we've had of late has been off-and-on Irish dreary -- just the kind of thing to set the mood for tales by Le Fanu, Stoker, Shiel, Hearn, and Maturin. Besides: cool whispers like Vincent O'Sullivan's "Will" and Fitz-James O'Brien's "The Child Who Loved a Grave" creep me out in a way that modern slice 'n' dice horror never can. Sometimes the quiet stuff really is the best...and most unnerving.

WATCHING: Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Yeah. So sue me. I never get tired of this one. Not only do you get to hear Sean Connery sing, you get that lush Disney fifties look where every color is notched way past full vigor. The real world never looks like this, and maybe it shouldn't, but each March when I watch this one I love the hour-and-a-half when it does.

Plus: that banshee scared the hell out of me when I saw Darby at the movies as a kid. This was in the middle sixties, so it must have been a revival. Still, the theater was so packed that I had to sit on the balcony stairs. And when grand old Albert Sharpe climbed into that phantom Death Coach to trade his life for his daughter's, I cried like a baby. Right in my popcorn. Most years, I still do. Such emotional displays make me want to shake my fist at ol' Walt Disney in his cryogenic tomb beneath the Matterhorn (of course, these days I'm easy -- I cry at the end of Gladiator, too).

LISTENING: Live in Dublin: Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band. I am late to the dance on this one, but -- just amazing. Classic American folk music. Channeled thru New Orleans. Served up in Ireland by a guy who must have rigged up a Ouija board and plugged into the energy of all three Clancy Brothers (and Tommy Makem!) that night. If you can listen to The Boss sing "Old Dan Tucker," "Erie Canal," and "Jesse James" and not smile, you must be dead, pardner. (And great to see Springsteen record "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live." Nice tip o' the hat to the Del Lords, one of the greatest unsung bands ever.)

Great Openings #1

“In the Arctic, when the long nights come and the cold grows colder and the big winds whip snowdust across the everlasting reach of the snow dunes and life grows less, then the wolves prowl, looking for food. Their hunger is a terrible thing. And anything that moves and is warm, in all that coldness, is their food. Hunger sharpens their sense of smell; they can catch the scent of blood carrying on the long wind, for miles around.

“But the Eskimos understand the wolves, and they have found a way to deal with them. They melt small patches of ice, then set the handles of their hunting knives down into the water, which quickly hardens to ice again around the handles, until they are set as firmly as if they were placed in concrete. The blade of the knife is all that is visible, its double edge honed to a razor sharpness. All about the ice fields, the Eskimos place their knives and tip them with the blood of seal or walrus or even, for want of that, some of their own. And then they go home and wait. And the wolf packs, roaming miles away, catch the scent of this blood. They gather around these blades and as they ravenously lick at the blood, their jowls drooling, it seems to them that they are lapping at a delicious, everlasting fountain. Faster and faster their tongues work, and the supply of blood grows, and greedily they gulp it down. Until, finally, they are exsanguinated, and the blood that has been so delicious is in their own bellies, and it is their own blood, and they have eaten themselves.”

--The Death-Makers by Glen Sire, 1960

Friday, March 12, 2010

Free Fiction: The Hollow Man

We’ll be updating the Free Fiction section over at my website shortly. If you haven’t had a chance to read the current story, “The Hollow Man,” you’ll want to do that soon.

“The Hollow Man” most recently appeared in S. T. Joshi’s fine anthology from Penguin Classics, American Supernatural Tales. As I mentioned on the website, this story was written during a time when I was just beginning to find my way as a writer. Fact is, I think it may be the first really solid piece of work I turned out. I was in college when I wrote it –- and (as a reader) still making my first trip through the strongest tales from the Lovecraft/Howard era of weird fictioneers. And I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t mention that Jack London had a little bit to do with it, too -- I’ve always loved “To Build a Fire,” not to mention some of London’s own weird tales. Anyway, put all that on the boil, and “The Hollow Man” is what cooked up in my brainpan.

While I’m at it: I hope you’ll enjoy the accompanying illustration as much as I do. It’s the work of a talented young gun, Kevin Nordstrom, who did a great illo of the October Boy for the website a couple years ago at Halloween. Kevin’s done covers for Marvel’s Epic Comics line and concept art for Wildstorm Comics, not to mention graphic art work for newspapers and custom design companies. In the coming months, he’ll be illustrating some other Norm Partridge stories over at the website. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The PSYCHO In My Mailbox

My Canadian buddy Brent Crosson is the guitarist for the Brenda Vaqueros (think Lee Hazelwood meets Hawkwind). Anyway, a while back Brent cranked up his Chevy Beaumont and made it across the border into Montana. Somehow he managed to avoid the Sip-N-Dip Lounge long enough to hit a few secondhand shops. And in one of them he hit the jackpot.

Literally. Right there on the shelf with the Danielle Steele romances and well-thumbed Louis L’Amour paperbacks, Brent put the snatch on a first edition hardcover of Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Yeah. The novel that was adapted for the screen by some guy named Alfred Hitchcock. Price tag on that sucker? Less than you’d pay for an Egg McMuffin, buddy.

Any way you slice it, that’s an A-1 score. Brent knows that Bloch is one of my favorite writers. Generous guy that he is, he sent the book to me. I am sending him a bucketful of ice-cold gracias, and next time I’m in Canada I’ll buy him a case of beer. You know the kind, Brent -- that brand with the bunnies hiding on the label. Maybe I’ll even be able to spot a few of those critters this time.

Now, this particular copy of Psycho is an ex-library edition. For me, that just makes it a little cooler. Remnants of the “New Book” sticker still cling to the plastic cover. Even better, it’s still got the original circulation card tucked in the back. Between that and the due dates stamped in the book itself, it looks like a whole lot of folks out on the windswept plains read Mr. Bloch’s classic novel in the early sixties. Even better, the signatures on the checkout card tell me that the last five people who borrowed Psycho were all women…which goes to show that publishing folks who used to claim that old pulpsters like Bloch couldn’t reach a female audience were wrong.

So thanks again, Brent. And while I’m at it -- Lorraine Simpson, Betty Jean Dair, Peggy Weems, Mrs. Clyde Clemons, and Elayne Stephens -- if you’re out there in internetland, did you get any sleep after reading Psycho on a black Montana night all those years ago? Shoot me an email. Enquiring minds want to know.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

"There's nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight."

--Lon Chaney

First Blood: Joe R. Lansdale

Welcome to First Blood, a continuing feature here at American Frankenstein. In the weeks and months to come, I’ll be talking to writers, editors, and other creative folks about how they got their start in the business. First up is that man from Nacogdoches, Texas: Joe R. Lansdale.

When I started publishing in the early nineties, Stephen King was definitely cemented at the top of the heap in horror, but Lansdale was the guy who most young horror writers wanted to emulate. He stories were exciting—both in content and execution and just plain adrenaline-pumping energy—and they were coming at readers fast and furious through an unmistakable voice that was as addictive as anything you’d find in a crackhouse.

By then Joe had done his time pounding a typewriter while working in the rose fields down in Texas (Lansdale once told me: “It’s the job they give the sinners in hell.”). He was just starting to make his mark, driving hard for slots in both the small press and the mainstream markets. In fact, some of the first small press magazines and books I bought were purchased specifically because they included Lansdale stories (remember Pulphouse, Dark Regions, and Space & Time, anyone?).

Of course, since those days Joe’s become a real force in mystery and suspense as well as his old stomping grounds of horror and the fantastic. Comics and film, too, with stints on Jonah Hex and the Don Coscarelli feature Bubba Ho-Tep. In fact, Lansdale’s done well in just about every field he’s chosen, winning the Edgar and multiple Bram Stoker Awards. Plus, the Italians flatout love this Texan. Go figure.

As usual, Joe currently has several projects on the go. Out now is The Best of Joe Lansdale from Tachyon Press, and coming this May is an illustrated compendium of his Drive-In novels, The Complete Drive-In, from Underland Press. He’ll have a new Hap & Leonard novel, Devil Red, out next year, and Subterranean Press has just announced a collection of weird westerns, Dead Man’s Road, featuring one of Lansdale’s signature characters (and a personal favorite) the gunslinging Reverend Jedidiah Mercer.

So, let’s batten down the hatches on this intro and get the word on Joe’s early career from the man himself:

PARTRIDGE: Tell us a little bit about your first fiction sale. How long had you been writing when it happened, and how did it come about?

LANSDALE: I had been writing nonfiction, selling articles, but I was writing stories all along. I once had three months off from my job working in the rose fields, and because I didn’t know better I wrote a story a day. I marketed them for a long time, as there were a lot more magazines then, and I sent them to magazines that didn’t buy that kind of fiction. I got in time, about a thousand rejections. I learned a lot doing that, began to write more carefully, studied the markets. I didn’t know anyone who wrote, didn’t ask advice because there was no one to ask, no creative writing courses. I just wrote. Finally, I wrote a story for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and the editor, an old pulpster, Sam Merwin, thought it was pretty good but overdone. I rewrote it, and he sent it back with some other suggestions. I rewrote it again. He wrote back that he hated the story more every time he saw it. Write something new. I did. About the same character, Ray Slater. It was called “The Full Count,” and it sold. This was in the middle to late seventies, I don’t remember exactly when.

PARTRIDGE: Your first published novel was Act of Love. What do you remember about writing that book, and what were some of the upsides and downsides of the experience?

LANSDALE: I spent about six months on it, and then got hung up. I quit working on it, or anything for about a month. I was a janitor at the university here, so I just went to work and read. And one day, a weekend, I was lying on the couch, reading, and it hit me as to how to finish it. It was late in the evening, and I started writing. At three in the morning I finished. I had written seventy pages in one sitting. It may not have been the world’s greatest novel, but it was sort of interesting for the time, and predated a lot of the Silence of the Lambs-type books. I’m not saying I was the only one doing that sort of thing, just that over the years a lot of writers have told me how much the book influenced them. That’s neat. It’s overdone, but that was pretty much on purpose. A bunch of us were trying to push the boundaries then, to see how far we could go and make it work.

PARTRIDGE: What piece of work established you—critically or commercially (or both)—in the marketplace, and what changed after you published it?

LANSDALE: I had a three-fold hit. “Tight Little Stitches In A Dead Man’s Back” wasn’t my first story, but it was the first one to get serious attention. It was a sort of “literary” apocalyptic story. It got great reviews and really opened some doors. It stays in print. Dead in the West, a zombie western sort of established my small press credentials and I’ve continued to write regularly for small presses. The Magic Wagon opened the gate to New York publishing. All of these got tremendous response, and each was way different in its own way. These all came out in 1986.

PARTRIDGE: What’s your best advice for writers starting out today?

LANSDALE: Put your ass in a chair and write.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Too Much Pork For Just One Fork

That man from Subter- ranean Press weighs in on American Frank- enstein right here. And yes, everything Bill Schafer says is true. Plus, he knows how cool Snake Plissken is. Completely. Absolutely. Forevermore.

But there’s one deep, dark secret Bill didn’t mention. Something I discovered when we hit a local diner together. Here it is, folks: the publisher who brings you those marvelous books by the likes of Ray Bradbury, Joe R. Lansdale, and Robert McCammon orders pastrami sandwiches with extra bacon. Remember, you read it here first.

Anyway: gracias, Bill. Your double-order of lovastatin is on its way from a Canadian pharmacy, and a side of bacon is headed your way direct from Jimmy Dean. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 7, 2010


READING: Joe Schreiber’s No Doors, No Windows starts off with a slower, more measured pace than Schreiber’s other novels, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to put down. In fact, this one has the kind of elements that make classic ghost stories compulsively readable—an abandoned house where the shadows hang heavy, an uncompleted manuscript falling into the hands of a writer who’s hit a dead end, and ghosts of the supernatural and mortal varieties. No Doors, No Windows reminds me of some of Stephen King’s more character-driven novels—Cujo in particular—and Schreiber here reads just as much like Stephen King’s son as Stephen King’s son does. Good stuff.

WATCHING: Last week I unearthed a box of VHS tapes in my office closet—boxing matches from the 80s and 90s. And, yes, I am a dinosaur. I still have a VHS player. Anyway, I’ve been having a lot of fun watching some old favorites—Hearns and Leonard, Tyson and Razor Ruddock, Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, and Marvin Hagler and almost anyone.

Hagler was my guy, a lone-wolf champion. He usually trained in the middle of nowhere, didn’t have an entourage. Was ignored by the powers-that-be for years before he finally got a shot at the title. I watched him work out at Caesar’s Palace before his fight with Roberto Duran. Guy was a 160-pound monster, nothing but muscle and skin. It’s been a lot of fun seeing him in the ring again. And great to rediscover a whole bunch of boxers who (unfortunately) are mostly forgotten today—Matthew Saad Muhammad, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Iran Barkley, Yaqui Lopez…man, they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

LISTENING: One to the Heart, One to the Head by Gretchen Peters with Tom Russell. One of the best CDs I’ve bought in ages. A portrait of the American West by two of the best in the business. Mournful, spooky, beautiful…and “Billy 4”? Man, that’s the reason they put replay buttons on CD players. Bob Dylan (and Sam Peckinpah) would approve.

Now if we could only get Russell to record another album of cowboy songs, I’d be happy. Some of those old sixties gunslinger tunes, like the ones Marty Robbins used to make into hits. I’d love to hear Russell cover Lorne Greene’s “Shadow of the Cactus.” That would be something, amigo.

Friday, March 5, 2010

News of the Amazing Colossal Variety

One month ago today, my wife and I had a baby girl. Yes. You read that right. Of course, Tia did the hard part. Mostly, I just stood around and looked amazed. I’ve been doing that for about four weeks now. It’s getting to be a habit.

Because Neve Rose is amazing. Truly. Definitely. Just take a look at that little gal. And while I’m at it, we’re pronouncing her name “Neeve.” We stole it from the Irish, but we're not spelling it their way. I don’t think I could remember how to spell “Niamh”…especially in my sleep-deprived condition.

I’m getting used to that, too. Sleep-deprivation, I mean. Thanks to the Great State of California and a bucketful of sick leave and vacation time, I’m on paternity leave. This means I have extra time to learn how to function without sleep. Makes for some odd moments, too. Like yesterday. Around 6 a.m., I was in my office giving the kidlet her morning bottle while mom caught some uninterrupted shuteye. Suddenly, I thought: Man, I’d better water the Christmas Tree. I haven’t done that in a while.

Of course, there was no Christmas tree in the living room. No incidents of time-displacement going on while I wasn’t paying attention. I was pleased to discover that my life hadn’t turned into the a Twilight Zone episode where I’d be reliving two of the more stressful months of my life. Because Rod Serling wasn’t out there stringing lights and hanging garlands by the fireplace. If he had been, I probably would have fixed him up with some eggnog, told him to watch the baby, and gone back to bed.

That’s what lack of sleep does to you. I remember reading an interview with a writer who discussed sleep-deprivation as a creative tool. Can’t remember who it was, but the guy was recalling his days as a new dad. He’d put the baby down after her morning feeding, then get to work. Half-asleep. Awake, but lingering in dreamtime. And it was his opinion that (creatively speaking) this condition worked for him—fingers rattling the keyboard, he found that he was moving in his fiction the same way he’d move in a dream.

Me? I think I know what the guy meant, because that’s the way it’s been working for me. To tell the truth, I really didn’t expect to get much writing done in February or March. All I wanted to do was clean up my office, then get through the page proofs for Lesser Demons and another book project that’s slated for publication later this year. Maybe catch up on the emails that have lingered in my inbox for embarrassing amounts of time. But the truth is that I’ve been doing all right. Here I am, close to typing “The End” on a new novella and a new short story…with a kidlet on my lap who’s been sweet enough not to put up too much of a fuss while her dad’s been at it.

Hey, even half-asleep, that feels pretty good…and as long as those stories don’t turn into phantom Christmas trees next time I try to open the files, I’ll be doing just fine.