November 23, 2012 by Thomas Pluck
Chad Eagleton is a two-time finalist of Watery Grave International, and his story “Ghostman on Third” was nominated for a Spinetingler Award. His work has appeared in Discount Noir, Crime Factory: The First Shift, and Beat to a Pulp, and he wrote the excellent heist tale “Go Away” for Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT. He’s also very likely the most knowledgeable authority on author Shane Stevens, best known for By Reason of Insanity.
CE: I don’t really drink that much. When I do I tend to stick to beer. I’m partial to Franziskaner, Peroni, or Red Stripe. Though there’s a local brewery that makes a wheat beer that’s pretty fantastic on tap and served with a fresh slice of orange. Hard alcohol and I had a falling out years ago during my misspent youth. We’ve never gotten along since, except for a brief fling at a friend’s wedding.
TP: Good taste in beer, sir. You work at a university, don’t you? No better reason to drink. It’s almost a given, that anyone involved in higher education will have a drink after work, like journalists and theater people. What is it like seeing fresh-faced students leave home for the first time, and how does it inform your writing?
CE: It’s both wonderful and terrible. Working in The Dean of Students Office, I see young adults at their best and at their worst. I see students come to campus and flourish. They open up their entire world to new people, new ideas, and new experiences. They travel abroad for the first time. They start clubs and put on events. They initiate great acts of widespread charity.
I also see the students who flounder. They get lost on such a large campus. They get caught up in partying and drinking. They have a mental breakdown from the stress and the loneliness. They lose a parent while trying to prepare for finals. They go to a party and a stranger sexually assaults them.
It’s the best job I’ve ever had and it’s the worst.
TP: I’ve always felt that the transition from high school to college, employment or vocational training is rather abrupt. In school, you may or may not be nurtured, but you are punished for self-destructive behavior, like skipping class. Then suddenly you’re free, and there are consequences. You’re expected to have been taught life skills, when that is becoming increasingly rare. It’s incredibly fatalistic, for a country that when polled, doesn’t believe in evolution, but does believe in “survival of the fittest,” or at least in blaming you for how you were raised. We sacrifice our children on the altar of this self-sufficient ideology, this myth we’ve created. It’s kind of like bullying, or the cycle of corporal punishment- Hell was good enough for me, now it’s your turn. Andrew Vachss made us aware of the cycle of child abuse creating violent criminals; do you think crime writers like us can do the same for emotional abuse and bullying?
CE: In general, a lot of people tend to be myopic when it comes to others. That makes emotional abuse and bullying tough to tackle. Those scars are scars on the inside, so they’re not readily visibly to the naked eye. And it’s part and parcel to that ridiculous self-sufficient ideology that’s so prevalent in our society. Too often emotional abuse is dismissed as just toughening the person up, preparing them for the harsh world out there. Some have the foolish idea that the responsibilities of a parent extend only to food, clothing, and shelter. So they neglect emotional growth when that’s what determines how we interact and treat each other. Then there’s my all-time favorite response, just get over it. Yeah, just get over it has worked for no one ever. The people who say just get over it? They’re really just speaking from their own hurt place. What they’re saying is, “No one helped me, why should anyone help you?” And they haven’t even gotten over it themselves. They’ve just buried it better.
I mean, think about it like swimming. How many people do you know who actually learned to swim by being tossed in the deep end? I can’t think of any. The ones I know are terrified of swimming and the ones who say they ain’t, well, I’ve never actually seen them swim.
And when it comes to bullying, a lot of people have trouble understanding that it’s harder for the bullied now. In my high school, there was one particular hallway I avoided and I especially loathed riding the bus. I mean, the bus was hell. Absolute hell. Even after I finally had enough, punched one of my bullies in the face and tried to choke him out, I still hated to see that yellow monster top the hill. But I had the luxury of escape. I could avoid the hallway. I could not ride the bus. I could go home and not suffer the same torments I suffered at school. Kids now don’t have that same luxury. Their lives are different. They’re on Facebook and Twitter; they have e-mail accounts and cell phones. Bullies have 24-7 access to their headspace. That’s fucking rough. I don’t know if I could have taken that.
As writers though, we can dig in to those places, show that headspace, and what’s going on behind closed doors. I think it’s our responsibility, not just as artists, but as human beings. We are all in this life thing together, man. That doesn’t mean we need to meet regularly and hold hands and sing kumbaya. But your wellbeing impacts my wellbeing. And that guy over there? His wellbeing affects my wellbeing and your wellbeing. I mean, you know what, man, fuck getting kicked into the Spartan pit. You know what happened to the Spartiate class? They don’t exist anymore.
TP: I had my share of bullying back then, and I used the Internet to escape. Now it’s a deathtrap. But I agree that writers should have some sort of motive in regards to the rest of humanity, even if it means making people happy from a good read. One writer you introduced me to was Shane Stevens, who is best known for writing the first serial killer novel, By Reason of Insanity. You’re a scholar of his work. I’m fascinated by your research into his career. He began with the pulps, wrote social novels set in Harlem, P.I. novels set in New Jersey… his prolific and varied output is an inspiration. Give us a portrait of the man and his work, and why you chose to research it.
CE: My obsession with Shane Stevens started when I got The Dark Half for Christmas. King’s novel is a supernatural thriller, but he included these excerpts from protagonist Thad Beaumont’s pseudonymous crime novels. My experience with crime fiction was pretty limited then, so those really jumped out at me. I liked reading King’s book, but I wanted more Alexis Machine.
In his afterward, King reveals his intentional nod to Shane Stevens’ novel Dead City. He praises Stevens’ books, writing: “These works, where the so-called ‘criminal mind’ and a condition of irredeemable psychosis interweave to create their own closed system of perfect evil, are three of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American Dream.”
Whoa. That was some heavy shit for a 13-year-old, but, man, I wanted to read those.
While I didn’t have much luck then—you have to remember this was before everyone had an internet connection and Amazon didn’t exist—I never forgot Alexis Machine and I never forgot Shane Stevens. Over time, I tracked down the six novels he wrote under his own name: Go Down Dead, Way Uptown In Another World, Dead City, The Rat Pack, By Reason of Insanity, and The Anvil Chorus. Later I put together that he wrote two P.I. novels under a pseudonym, found them and read them. All of Stevens’ work floored me. Here was the sort of crime fiction I wanted to write: a good story with a social conscience; work that’s gritty and dark, but not squalor porn; fiction that shines a light in the darkness, instead of breaking the few bulbs still burning—too many writers revel in writing about aberrant behavior as if that proves they’re some sort of hard ass.
Then a couple years ago, I sat down to write about his work for Forgotten Books and realized I knew virtually nothing about Shane Stevens the man. Hell, I didn’t even know what he looked like. I tried Googling him and came up with squat. What you see in his Wikipedia entry is the extent of info that’s readily available. That intrigued me. So, I started researching and began piecing together a portrait of one of the most mysterious men in crime fiction. The most Stevens every talked about himself was in his Contemporary Authors entry when he wrote, “I never give interviews, stay in shadow, travel by night. I don’t associate with writers, don’t do book reviews, don’t play politics or give advice. I try not to hurt anyone. I go where I want and write what I want.”
TP: I’ve picked up two of Stevens’ books, Anvil Chorus and By Reason of Insanity. Almost all his work is out of print, sadly. Like another author I know we both admire, Manly Wade Wellman. He’s easily described as Weird Appalachia. I’d compare him to Lovecraft, but despite writing about a region expected to be racist, he manages to avoid Lovecraft’s sickening xenophobia, intentionally or not. I just finished John the Balladeer, and found some of the Silver John novels, about the troubadour with the silver-strung guitar encountering human evil and the pre-human unknown, and what impresses me most is his writing, not just his fabulous imagination. You can’t skim him, and there’s no point- he wastes nary a word. What brought you to him, and what can you say that might lure him some more readers?
CE: I discovered Wellman through Karl Edward Wagner, who was best known for his sword and sorcery tales featuring the immortal Kane. After Wellman’s death, Wagner served as agent for his literary estate. I read a collection he edited that included a number of Wellman’s Hok The Mighty stories. Hok is a Cro-Magnon caveman adventuring at the dawn of human civilization. The stories were a lot of fun to read and, along with the overview of Wellman’s career, piqued my interest.
So I sought out Wellman’s other work. The man wrote a ton of stuff, across a variety of genres and did it all well (he beat Faulkner out for an award given by Ellery Queen’s readers). Two of his standouts for me are: John Thunstone, an occult detective with a sword-cane forged by a saint, and John the Balladeer/Silver John. Wellman’s work is very imaginative, he has a cleaner prose style than a lot of the old guard so he’s aged much better, and he managed to avoid the racist under/overtones that ruin so much pulp. Seriously, if someone ever released the Complete Manly Wade Wellman (which I’d gladly buy), everyone could find at least one thing in there they’d enjoy reading.
TP: Hell, I’d buy that book. I hope someone collects it, like they did to Paul Cain’s stories recently. Let’s get the trinity of influences out of the way: books, movies, music. I know you’re a big rockabilly fan- what do you love about it?
CE: There are so many books that have meant a lot to me, but if we stick with crime fiction, number one would be Shane Stevens. His Way Uptown In Another World is a big messy book, but it’s simply beautiful. Every now and again, I’ll grab my copy, open it and start reading. There are passages that still get me. If I owned a small press or won the lottery, I’d buy the rights and reprint it in a heartbeat.
Richard Stark’s The Hunter is a perfect crime novel. The series went on far too long, but The Hunter is just stunning.
Andrew Vachss is another big influence too. He hits those same notes that Stevens does, and his work outside writing is untouchable.
James Lee Burke always gets me. He writes some stunningly beautiful prose and the humanity present in his work is unrivaled.
Movies are the same. When I was a child we lived out in the middle of nowhere. There weren’t a lot of other kids near us and my parents worked a lot, so I was mostly on my own. I watched a ton of films. I wouldn’t even know where to begin talking about those influences. If I were forced to name a couple of crime films, I’d say: Way of The Gun, Get Carter, Hard Boiled, Le Haine, Le Samourai, 25th Hour, Brick, and Memento.
Music? I listen to music constantly and listen to just about everything except for jazz. Old standbys are Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, The Ramones, Joy Division, Howling Wolf, and Bruce Springsteen. And a lot of rockabilly.
You know, my father and I have never been particularly close. Rockabilly is one of the few things we’ve ever been able to connect on. I love both the simplicity and the energy of the style. It has that same sense of exuberant rebellion most people look to punk for. And that classic greaser look was the first time I ever remember seeing something and thinking, now that’s cool.
TP: I’m looking forward to your anthology, Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats. I played a couple early rock and rockabilly collections continuously when I wrote my story for it. The ’50s were a time of turbulent change in America, but everyone thinks it was Ozzy & Harriet. The war vets came home, and how could you keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen the world? Why did you choose to put this anthology together?
CE: America loves to mythologize its past and the ‘50s are no exception. That’s definitely part of it. Wanting to dispel the Leave It To Beaver idea of the decade. I’m also sick of period crime fiction populated with guys in suits and fedoras who are on their way to a jazz club. I mean, Jesus Christ, does anyone really think that describes all of America from 1930 through 1960?
But also, it’s something I’d like to read. That’s what really excites me about the changes in publishing. It’s now possible to do projects that don’t fit into those narrowly defined and lowest-common-denominator levels of appeal. Will HHH sell a million copies? No, but who cares? It’ll rock anyway.
CE: A lot of people say a writer’s job is to be a professional liar. I disagree. Stories are how we convey information and make sense of tough things. I think a writer’s job is to tell the truth. The truth can be wrapped up in fantasy and make-believe, but it should still be the truth. That’s what I think the old writing adage “write what you know” means. What you know is the truth about your world, about your society, and about being human. That’s what I want to do—tell the truth. If I can do that while not starving, I’ll be happy.
TP: Yes, the canard about hiding the truth in a lie, or rather, a made-up story. I think that’s important. There has to be something in there that’s true, even if it’s childish. Aren’t escapist fantasies true? Some of us wish we could be Conan, or a sorceress, or in crime fiction, the big bad-ass. My guilty pleasure is Robert E. Howard. I know the pulps are glorified now, but having read all of Howard’s Conan stories, I appreciate the imagination, but acknowledge their indulgence as well. I don’t care if the President reads Conan comics, it is still a guilty pleasure. So that’s mine, what’s yours?
CE: Absolutely. Escape is necessary. I don’t want anyone to think I do nothing but immerse myself in slit-your-wrists realism. I have tons of guilty pleasures. I mean, I play video games, tabletop role-playing games, and watch way way too much Anime. Then there’s my big soft spot for sword and sorcery fiction. Especially the ones written just after the baby boomers discovered psychedelics. That’s when you get the really weird stuff, like: “Only Kragzan, the lone Atlantean warrior with the glass eye carved from a meteorite that bestows the ability to see into the 5th Dimension, can tame the savage army of sex-starved Amazons and turn their fury against humanity’s cruel Lizard Overlords in post-apocalyptic Manhattan!”
I’m also a sucker for kung-fu films. I mean there’s always been great cinema from the east, but I’ll gladly watch the crap with the terrible sound effects and the awful dubbing. Oh, man, and I’ll kill hours watching those direct to videocassette B-movies from the late 80s and early 90s. Crap like Trancers or Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys. I love those.
TP: Please write about Kragzan. A lot of good grit is coming out of your part of the country, the Midwest, of late. Frank Bill in Indiana, Donald Ray Pollock in Ohio. What used to be dismissed as regional fiction. What was it like growing up in Indiana, and what kind of soul does your part of the country have?
CE: Honestly, like anywhere else it was good and bad. Mix “Small Town” by John Mellencamp with Springsteen’s “My Hometown” and you’ve got what it was like to grow up in Indiana. It’s all that stuff you see in right-wing political ads: cornfields and farmers, hard work and family values, a strong sense of community. But it’s also: acres and acres of Wal-Marts that have devoured local business, poverty and close-minded ignorance, and what-the-fuck-are-you-to-me. Indiana is like the rest of the country. Conflicted. Confused.
TP: I think America believes its own mythology. I think American Gods by Neil Gaiman was a good book, but he barely touched the surface, because he got tied up with actual pantheons. We believe in the cowboy, the lone killer who comes to town, and our monsters are stereotypes from movies and the news. The welfare queen, the crackhead, and maybe the terrorist. Terrorists exist, but not as we imagine them. Any thoughts on that, or have I had too many beers?
CE: Mythology was created to give comfort. Early man squatted in the caves and huddled together near the fire because they were afraid of the darkness and the beast noises in the night, the thunder crack and the lightning strike. They created gods and monsters and demons to explain their fears and all the things they didn’t understand.
As human beings we hunger for continuity. To fulfill that desire, we tell ourselves the world is purposeful, that our lives can be directed by a well-thought-out plan.
The problem is too many think the alternative is to accept life as meaningless. So, instead of facing the hard truths and rising to the challenge, we choose to death-grip the easy make-believe bullshit. It’s a human thing, sure, but it’s 100% an American thing. Mythology reigns as king here and it’s to our detriment.
It’s sad because there’s another strain to the American psyche that has the potential to lead us all to a better place. We just have to give up our fantasies: 9-11 was not a global conspiracy by our government or the Bilderbergs or the Illuminati or Satanists. The past was not wonderful, the future is always better. Poor is not a choice. You will probably never be rich. You will not get that raise just because you worked hard—nothing in this world is a meritocracy. And, if there is a God, that higher being doesn’t care who you vote for.
TP: I’m not sure the future is always better, I think Progress is another of our myths, but we certainly treat people better. I was stunned to read that the bloody 20th century was the least violent on record. Holocaust and all. That’s terrifying. Speaking of death, what’s your last meal?
CE: Sushi. Really really good sushi. Not the kind you buy in the grocery store or get at a buffet. The kind you don’t get to order. The kind the chef prepares for you. He sets it in front of you, you take it, you eat it and you don’t use soy sauce.
TP: Omakase. Go ahead, say “Gesundheit.” I would. Thanks for dropping by, Chad. I enjoyed chatting with you. If you come to New York, we’ll go to Masa and have a master make us sushi. But one last thing. Other than Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hell Cats, what are you working on?
CE: There’s a lot coming down the pipe: In The Clear, Black Fields of Night for Beat To A Pulp, “The Girl With The David Bowie Eyes” for Paul Brazil’s next Drunk on the Moon collection, “Blood on the Milky Way” for Andrez Bergen’s Tobacco-Stained Sky.
More immediately, and more personally, however, is Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats. The project’s proven to be a lot tougher to finalize than I thought it would be, though everyone involved has been incredibly patient. I think people will be pleased with the final book. The cover is phenomenal with artwork by Skott Kilander and layout by Brian Roe of RSquared Comics. The stories are topnotch. There’s an introduction by someone I’m a big fan of. And it’s been fact-checked to avoid period goofs.
Then, my main focus will be the Stevens book. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been researching him for a while. I do, honestly, probably know more about Shane Stevens than anyone else, except for Shane Stevens. I’ve got a pretty detailed timeline of his life. I’ve spoken to friends, exes, and colleges. I’ve got a number of his letters, and I’ve tracked down about 15 photographs. I’ve got an evolving bibliography of everything he’s written that goes far beyond the 8 novels—I’ve probably read more of his work than anyone else, except for his mother. I don’t know if a publisher will ever touch it, but if not I’ll put that out myself too. If nothing else, I hope it leads to a widespread reprinting of his catalogue. And, assuming people are actually interested, I’ve tracked down his personal papers, so…
Other than that, I just want to say thanks for having me, man. You’re one of the good ones, Thomas Pluck. It’s been an honor.