Monday, November 7, 2011

Slippin' Into the Seventies

My first novel, Slippin' Into Darkness, is back in print as an Cemetery Dance eBook. That's only fitting, since Slippin' was the first original novel published by Rich Chizmar's legendary little shop of horrors back in the day. To help celebrate the new edition, I thought it would be fun to dig up a little promo essay that ran in The Overlook Connection when the book was first published. So let's backtrack to the nineties and check in on yours truly reminiscing about the seventies... and, hey, that's a double dose of nostalgia all around:

Slippin' Into Darkness is possibly the first -- and probably the last -- novel of what I have come to think of as "disco noir." This is an offhand way of saying that, yes, the book is pretty dark in terms of mood, style, characterization, and nasty plot twists (that's the noir part); but besides that, Slippin' has a lot to do with the decade in which I came of age, the 1970s (that's the disco part).

While deciding what I wanted to do with my first novel, I realized that no one had written much about the days of Jimmy Carter, Donna Summer, The Six Million Dollar Man, mood rings, and the undisputed queen of jiggle television -- Farrah Fawcett-Majors. I already knew that I wanted to write about my hometown -- Vallejo, California --but I was having trouble finding my way home, so to speak. I needed something that would bring the place alive for me.

What better way to do that then revisit the past? One afternoon I got out a stack of old albums put out by K-Tel and Ronco (the same people who brought us the Veg-A-Matic) and made myself a tape of seventies hits. I hadn't heard those songs, literally, since the days when I'd cruised V-Town in a big ol' gas-guzzling '66 Dodge Monaco equipped with an 8-track player (the Dodge took twenty bucks worth of leaded and a quart of oil every week, and you had to wait in line for the privilege of filling up in the days of the energy crisis). I mean, the music on those discs wasn't that old, but it had literally disappeared from the airwaves, and that surprised me. There are oldie stations that feature the hits of the fifties and sixties, and you'll catch plenty of Eagles, Elton John, and Jim Croce on mellow rock stations, but listening to those scratchy records told me that the music of my youth had gone south in a big way.

Hey, I know what you're saying. C'mon, Norm, it was disco music, after all. Good riddance. Thank God for little miracles, right?

Well... I hate to say it, but listening to those songs stuck a chord in me. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, I realized that I had somehow stepped over one of life's little lines without noticing, the one where you suddenly discover that you're old enough for nostalgia.

Songs I'd hated when I was seventeen were making me grin ear-to-ear at thirty-four. Even the most jaded among you must admit that "Kung Fu Fighting" actually is pretty entertaining, especially when you realize that little sucker went to number one on the charts back in '74. Like Don King says, "Only in America."

But my interest was fueled by something more than just simple nostalgia -- I began to notice some recurring themes in the tunes of my youth. I was delighted to find that some of the songs on those old albums were... hot damn... pretty dark and nasty all by themselves.

Hearing War's "Slippin' Into Darkness" again not only gave me the title of the book, it sent a chill up my spine that set those creative synapses firing. Pretty soon I picked up on a theme that really started things rolling for me -- a sub-genre of songs about guys who found perfect lovers only in their dreams ("I Like Dreamin'," "Dreamweaver," "Undercover Angel," etc.). Those songs started me thinking about a guy who had never recovered from a high school infatuation, an infatuation that never amounted to much until after high school was over and the girl had become someone else entirely. Along with this, there were several songs about women you'd best be advised not to mess with ("Lady Marmalade," "Evil Woman," "Bad Blood," "Bad Girls"), so I decided to create some bad girls of my own. And if that wasn't enough, running in those worn groves was a trail of wild violence both physical and psychological (the aforementioned and admittedly goofy "Kung Fu Fighting," plus assorted bad-intentioned funky stuff such as James Brown's "The Payback," Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly," and The O'Jays' "Back Stabbers").

So, after letting all this simmer in my brain for a little while, I started writing. I wrote about the past, about a group of characters who graduated from Hogan High School in 1976, the same year I did. I wrote about what happened to them in the intervening years, how they never quite found the lives they'd been looking for when they were eighteen. I wrote about their secrets, and the bad things they did back in '76, and they good things they failed to do, and how the past returned to haunt them in a tense twenty-four hour period, from midnight to midnight on April 8, 1994.

I made use of the tools of noir and suspense fiction, lessons I'd learned from the Gold Medal writers and the dark dreamers who have followed in their wake. Along the way I discovered a few surprises I think you'll enjoy -- a game called graveyard baseball, a haunted drive-in movie theater, and a dog made from the bones of a dream. Still, I think the single thing that influenced every aspect of the book -- plot, mood, theme, characterization -- is the soundtrack.

When I finished Slippin Into Darkness, I was surprised to find that I'd written a ghost story. But it's a ghost story born in the seventies, those comparatively carefree days of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Carefree -- that's what some of my characters told themselves back then, in the days before AIDS, crack, and (horror of horrors!) rap music.

It's a ghost story you can dance to... if you remember how to do the hustle, that is.