The Scariest Part: Nick Mamatas Talks About THE LAST WEEKEND

Last Weekend cover

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Scariest Part, a recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. (Remember, if you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, check out the guidelines here.)

I’ve known this week’s featured author for more years than I care to say. I was a big proponent of his first novel, the Lovecraft-meets-Kerouac road trip Move Under Ground. His latest novel, The Last Weekend, has just been released by PS Publishing. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Meet Vasilis “Billy” Kostopolos: Bay Area Rust Belt refugee, failed sci-fi writer, successful barfly and, since an exceptionally American zombie apocalypse, accomplished “driller” of reanimated corpses. Now that all the sane, well-adjusted human beings are hunted to extinction, he’s found his vocation trepanning zombies, peddling his one and only published short story and drinking himself to death — that is, until both his girlfriends turn out to be homicidal revolutionaries, he collides with a gang of Berkeley scientists gone berserker, the long-awaited “Big One” finally strikes San Francisco, and what’s left of local government can no longer hide the awful secret lurking deep in the basement of City Hall. Can Bill unearth the truth about America’s demise and San Francisco’s survival — and will he destroy what little’s left of it in the process? Is he legend, the last man, or just another sucker on the vine? Nick Mamatas’ The Last Weekend takes a high-powered drill to the lurching, groaning conventions of zombie dystopias and conspiracy thrillers, sparing no cliché about tortured artists, alcoholic “genius,” noir action heroes, survivalist dogma, or starry-eyed California dreaming. Starting in booze-soaked but very clear-eyed cynicism and ending in gloriously uncozy catastrophe, this tale of a man and his city’s last living days is merciless, uncomfortably perceptive, and bleakly hilarious.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Nick Mamatas (warning: contains, um, adult language):

Asking a writer about the scariest part of their book is like asking a stage magician what the most magical part of his or her act is. The magician already knows the trick to sawing a lady in half—really, the lady’s flexibility is what makes the trick. The magician is just a bit of spectacle and handwaving, really.

There are antecedents to this. Kafka thought he was writing humorous short stories, and was reportedly bemused to hear that his friends thought his work to be grotesque and unsettling. (And Kafka’s work does have a subtle humor about it. “Because I couldn’t find the food that I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else,” the Hunger Artist explained, as he finally starved to death.) Some of the best writers hardly have any idea of what they’re writing.

I’ve rarely called my work horror, except for commercial—ha-ha!, there I go being funny again—reasons. I don’t terrify myself writing this stuff, or worry (or exult!) when I think of something that’s transgressive or taboo and put it in a story. Even when I’m writing a zombie novel.

The Last Weekend was a hard sell. Apparently zombie novels are so popular that nobody buys them anymore. My zombies weren’t even different; they’re slow, shambling Romero types. The real difference between The Last Weekend and the other ninety zombie novels being published every month is that it is not secretly about reveling in killing marginalized minorities focused on the sort of people who don’t normally get themselves involved in apocalypses: bohemians, drunks, and loners.

Every zombie fan knows that the heroes really get into trouble when a loved one becomes a zombie. No loved ones, no problem. In the book, protagonist Vasilis “Billy” Kostopolous calls the effect “anti-social Darwinism.” All that’s left in San Francisco, a town with lots of hills and almost no graveyards, are the awkward and isolated. The gung-ho heroes and the loving families were the first to die. Yay!

To write about marginalized characters requires being a bit marginalized. A couple of years ago, before the book was sold, I read part of it at the Science Fiction in San Francisco reading series. Billy has gotten a job with what’s left of the city government as a “driller.” If you have a relative who is about to die, you call 911 and a driller will be right over to put a hole in Uncle Ted’s head before he zombifies. In this scene, Billy was a little late to the gig and had to actually destroy the zombie-wife of the man who made the call. It didn’t go well:

“Okay,” I said, but the man, on his knees now, didn’t answer. I wiped my hand on some old magazine, but the paper flaked off and stuck to my palm in clumps. “Well, okay,” I said again. He started weeping. “WHAT?” I finally demanded. “What did you expect to actually happen here? I blow some air up her cunt and she comes back to life? Slice open the cuts, find her heart, and put it in a store window mannequin? Jesus Christ, you make me sick.” There was something in my hair; it felt like when I was a child and my father would shout “Eat it or wear it!” and turn a bowl full of pasta with the wrong brand of sauce upside-down on top of me.

During the reading, I didn’t notice any audience reaction. Afterward, I got an earful. Did you know that “cunt” is a bad word? Bad enough that members of a San Francisco crowd gasped when they heard it, and someone muttered into her cellphone about it during intermission. Nick said cunt! I was completely surprised. Bad words, coming out of the mouth of a first-person narrator in dialogue, upsets people? Upsets modern people who do things like go to literary events? Couldn’t Billy have just said “Blow some air into her lungs” like a good boy? No, of course not. I never even thought of something like that, and though I had a couple of years to change the line before the book was finally published, never even thought to do so. Actually, I just recalled the incident when Nick Kaufmann asked me to write about the scariest part of my book for his website. (PS: buy Nick Kaufmann’s novels. I’m writing this to lure you here. Just click on something!) Let’s all march in place and chant, “Cunt, cunt cunt!”

Anyway, the whole cunt thing was momentary, and small as far as these things go, but still interesting. Kill a few hundred million people in prose just to set the scene, have a bit of close-up physical and emotional torture of characters to get the story rolling, and what really upsets some readers is a degenerate anti-hero saying a bad word in the middle of a bad situation. The scariest part? Who knows? The last time I saw a magic act the friend who was with me couldn’t stop talking about the wig the magician’s assistant was wearing.

Nick Mamatas: Blog / Twitter

The Last Weekend: Amazon / PS Publishing

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Love is the Law and The Last Weekend. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Best American Mystery Stories, and many other magazines and anthologies. As editor of the Haikasoru imprint of Japanese science fiction in translation, he is at least partially responsible for any number of books, including the essay anthology The Battle Royale Slam Book (co-edited with Masumi Washington) and All You Need Is KILL: The Official Graphic Novel Adaptation, based on the book by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and with art by Lee Ferguson.

The Return of Gabriel Hunt

Guess who’s back? Back again?

New Hunt

My author’s copies of the new re-release of Hunt at World’s End, courtesy of Titan Books, arrived this weekend! (Click on the picture to embiggen.) Long-time readers know how proud I was to be part of this project, a six-volume series about two-fisted adventurer Gabriel Hunt under the stewardship of Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai. Each standalone novel was written by a different author, and the lineup was pretty damn impressive: James Reasoner, Ardai, Christa Faust, David J. Schow, Raymond Benson, and myself. Back in 2009, this was actually my first published novel, and my name wasn’t even on the cover! Dorchester, the original publisher, published them all with only the “house name” Gabriel Hunt on the cover. I’m delighted to see Titan Books has chosen to give the authors their full due this time around and put our names on the covers for all to see.

Shortly after the original books were published, Dorchester folded and the series remained in limbo for years, until Titan Books rescued them. I’m so happy the Gabriel Hunt novels are coming back into print. So happy, in fact, that I’m giving away a copy!

From now until May 27, the official publication date of Hunt at World’s End‘s re-release, I’m running a giveaway over at Goodreads for one signed copy of this pulse-pounding adventure that Booklist called “The very best pulp style…a must read.” Want a copy? Enter the Goodreads giveaway today!

“Hardboiled Horror” Now Online

My article for the exemplary Nightmare Magazine, “The H Word: Hardboiled Horror,” is now available to read for free on their website. Here’s a snippet:

Some of the best authors of horror and dark fantasy have been utilizing noir for decades now. William Hjortsberg’s famous novel Falling Angel dates back to 1978 (and was adapted into the movie Angel Heart in 1987). It features a hardboiled private investigator, Harry Angel, who takes on a missing person case that turns into a phantasmagoria of ritual murders, voodoo, and Satanism. Peter Straub’s novels Koko and The Throat take a number of noir tropes—murder, amateur detectives, and a colossal distrust of the supposed rules of a civilized society—and mix them with a strong dose of psychological horror.

Click on through to read the whole thing. For free, even!

The Scariest Part: James Maddox & Jen Hickman Talk About THE DEAD

dead02_01

Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Scariest Part, a new, recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. I’m thrilled to have James Maddox and Jen Hickman as my first guests. Together, they’re the creators behind the ongoing digital comic The Dead. Currently, they’re also running a Kickstarter campaign to fund a graphic novel print version of the comic. Here’s a description of the series:

When Sam opens his eyes after dying, he expects to see heavenly clouds or hellfire. What he’s faced with instead is “The House” – a surreal and often-dangerous afterlife of interconnected rooms. As Sam travels deeper into this new world, he finds the strange creators of these rooms aren’t the only residents of The House. Here there be monsters, and if he isn’t careful, Sam’s stay will take a horrible turn.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest parts were for James Maddox and Jen Hickman.

James Maddox, Story and Writing

The Dead is the story of what happens after you die. And before you ask, it’s not a zombie comic. Rather, our story drops readers into an afterlife made up of rooms that are customized by its individual residents. These rooms have the ability to encompass the entirety of any imagination, so as you may have guessed, the settings for this book can get dark and surreal at times. Some of the horror concepts that emerge in The Dead are graphic in their violence, but the scariest parts for me are more subtle and cerebral than simple gore.

In issue two, I decided to show these two particular approaches side-by-side (i.e. human versus natural horror). Here we find a gang of zealots, the Seraphim, who have banded together to kill one of our main characters, Velouria. Though V and her hatchet bloody the ground with viscera and gore at the beginning of the scene, the advantage quickly turns against her. Soon the strength of the Seraphim’s numbers overcome Velouria and the gang of bastards prepare to deliver her to a gruesome and painful death.

Just before the violence against Velouria kicks into high gear, a monster to which I allude in issue one is finally revealed. Called “the Frail”, it takes the ghostly appearance of a beautiful and gentle woman. In our story, the Frail are creatures that look inviting, but cause mental instability in the nearby population. In this example, the Seraphim begin to attack each other and themselves, allowing for Velouria’s escape from danger. One man tears out his eyes, while another is stabbed through his stomach, a victim of a crazed ally. While at first glance this may seem to be supernatural as opposed to natural, there is no real reason for the Frail’s effects. They are a natural and elemental force in this world.

Unlike a human act of violence, the Frail doesn’t cause horror because it hates or covets. As the scene unfolds, we don’t see her become angered or upset. In fact, she seems concerned for the people who are tearing each other apart thanks to her presence. It’s like a tornado: from a distance it is awe-inspiring and beautiful in its enormity; but, up close a tornado is one of the most horrific and terrifying things you could experience. And whether you are a bystander seeing it from a mile away or unfortunate enough to find yourself in the thick of its fury, the tornado doesn’t care in the slightest.

Violence inflicted on one person by another who holds different beliefs is something we can understand on some level. Wars are fought over differences in belief and (mis)understandings. Even if our understanding is that something is sick and demented, it’s still able to be put it into a framework most of us can fathom. Because I am able to wrap my mind around it, this approach to horror is made more real and visceral, but has less of an overall hold on my imagination.

Perhaps this is why I tend to lean more toward the natural force when I read horror and why the Frail are the scariest part of my own work. I get people’s reasons for violence, as dark and disturbing as they may be, but a force such as the Frail (or a tornado, or a sandworm, or a werewolf, or an earthquake,) can’t ever have reasons that can be understood by a human mind. It is the human mind that fills in the blank spots, and with our speculation we make these things more frightening. Is there anything more terrifying than the stories and details that swell in our minds to explain the things bigger and more strange than us? For me, there’s nothing scarier.

Jen Hickman, Illustrations and Colors

For me, fear in storytelling arrives at the moment when we remember just how vulnerable a character (and by proxy we ourselves) is. It’s that moment before anything happens, when your protagonist is standing in his PJs while a lumbering monstrosity chases after him, when all you can think is, “Oh god! He’s just a pile of delicate biological systems that almost anything could destroy!”

In The Dead our protagonist runs into a bunch of these situations, teetering on the edge of safety and danger. What’s fun about the story is that James doesn’t stick with just one type of peril– there’s a little bit of everything. Fear of heights, ineffable Frail, beastly Wretched, backstabbing, and good old-fashioned well-armed zealots. For me, the scariest part is that there are many, many opportunities to remember just how easy it is to die.

The Dead: Website / ComiXology / Amazon / Kickstarter (As of this writing, there are only 9 days left to support their project, so if you’re interested, hop to it!)

James Maddox
After completing titles like the critically acclaimed The Horror Show and Nightmare Unknown, Maddox has continued his comic career with stories like The DeadClown, and the wildly anticipated Blue Nemesis. A versatile and prolific writer/creator, Maddox has only just begun to find and impress his audience. He can be found online at jamesmaddox.net and on Twitter as @jamescmaddox.

Jen Hickman
Jen Hickman is a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Sequential Art program. Her credits in the comic industry include the successfully crowdfunded publications The Playlist Anthology and the digital sketchbook Tip Jar. She can be found online at umicorms.com and @umicorms.

Remember, if you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, you can read the guidelines here.

 

 

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