Stephen Blackmoore is the author of CITY OF THE LOST and DEAD THINGS, hard-boiled urban fantasies where demons and deadbeats commingle with necromancers and the Cosa Nostra. I enjoyed the hell out of the delightfully profane and imaginative CITY OF THE LOST, where a foul-mouthed fist for the mob finds himself blessed and cursed by a powerful artifact that denizens of the L.A. “underworld” will do anything to get. He returns with DEAD THINGS, out this month from Penguin, about a necromancer seeking answers and vengeance after his sister is murdered.
TP: Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Stephen. What are you drinking?
SB: A Manhattan. Bulleit rye, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and a couple maraschino cherries. The cherries make me question my manhood. BUT I DON’T CARE.
I might also be slightly drunk.
TP: Number one with a Bulleit. Fine drink. I will admit that I was not a fan of urban fantasy until I read City of the Lost. Just the right amount of menace, and I felt like the world was just a shadow game for the sinister goings-on of the underworld. The closest I ever liked was that HBO movie “Cast a Deadly Spell,” which brought magic to Chandler’s L.A. Tell us about your new one, DEAD THINGS.
SB: Funny thing, Cast A Deadly Spell was actually one of the inspirations for City Of The Lost. Ever since I saw it in the 90’s I’ve wanted to do something with magic and hard-boiled pulp. The gremlin scene is priceless.
DEAD THINGS is an urban fantasy about a necromancer, Eric Carter, who bailed on his friends and family fifteen years ago after he avenged his parents’ death by killing their murderer. He was given a choice. Get out of town or his sister gets it next.
Well, now his sister has turned up dead and the whole thing stinks of magic. Carter comes back to Los Angeles to find out who did it and things go rapidly downhill.
TP: I found you through your blog L.A. Noir, when you wrote about the underground lizard people conspiracy. What do you like best, and least about the city you call home?
SB: They’re actually the same thing.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine a couple years ago that went something like:
“You’re pretty hard on L.A.”
“What do you mean? I love this town. It’s so fucked up.”
“That,” he said. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
It’s true. I am hard on L.A. It’s a beautiful mess. It’s got too much sunshine and not enough rain. Plastic tits abound and starstruck hopefuls come out from the middle of bumfuck nowhere to try their hand at the illusion of being somebody. It’s got a weird history that nobody knows about that gets bulldozed daily.
I was in a coffee shop one time and overheard a woman talking with a prospective agent about representing her in her acting career. It was surreal. And sad. And more than a little cliché.
She’d come out from Kansas and was “dancing” and hadn’t been able to get any parts. He was very professional and very blunt and as kind as those two things can allow a person to be. And he had to tell her that he didn’t think working with her was going to benefit either of them.
To her credit she didn’t cry, but she was crestfallen. It was a disturbingly public display of something that should be very personal and very intimate, but out here that’s just what happens. Careers are made or lost over a latte.
It’s depressing and it’s fascinating at the same time. It’s that dichotomy of dystopia and the sense that any dream is attainable that makes me love it so much.
TP: In writing horror, the characters bleed. But with humor, it’s the writer who bleeds. It’s the toughest to write, if you ask me. But you made me laugh quite a bit in CITY OF THE LOST, especially with the demon bartender. I grew up on Mel Brooks and George Carlin when I was way too young to get the jokes. Who do go to for laughs?
SB: The thing with a joke is that sometimes it tells the truth a lot better than the truth does.
I have a pretty dark sense of humor. That’s just how I’m wired. I’ve been called cynical and a pessimist, which I am to some extent, I suppose, but some of it comes from seeing things the way they are and knowing that they could be, that they should be, better.
For me my go-to for comedy are things like The Onion. It’s funny but it’s brutal. Headlines like “Ugly Girl Killed: Nation Unshaken By Not So Tragic Death” say a hell of a lot more than they look like they’re saying. I prefer humor that pushes me to think and question my assumptions. Especially if it’s the sort of humor that makes me wonder if I should laugh.
I try to capture that same sort of humor with the L.A. Noir blog. It isn’t for everybody.
So I like guys like George Carlin, who liked to slap you upside the head with the truth as much as he tried to be funny.
But sometimes I just want some slapstick. And that’s the Marx Brothers for me. I love watching the mirror scene in DUCK SOUP or the suitcase packing routine in A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA.
TP: And on the flip side, there’s definitely a horror vibe in the first book. Now that I’m older, horror doesn’t affect me as much. The scariest movies to me as a kid were? For me, it was the trinity of Alien, The Thing, and Poltergeist. Especially the last one, with that damn tree swallowing a kid. I sneaked in to see that movie, and when I got home, there was a tree branch rattling my window. So what scared the shit out of you as a kid?
SB: A lot of horror isn’t very frightening to me. It’s gross and ridiculous and fun to watch, sure, but actually scary? Not a lot of those.
There are some obvious ones. The Shining, particularly the bathroom scene in room 237, got to me. Some of the more gore-filled ones where the scares were the kind that jumped out of the screen. But those are more startling than anything else.
But the one that really got to me was one I’ve never actually seen.
It’s a movie called BUG. Came out in the seventies. I was about six at the time. It’s about these mutant cockroaches. They cause fires, maybe eat people? I don’t know. Like I said, I’ve never seen it.
But there was my older brother who had. And he liked to fuck with my head.
Kids are assholes and if I’d been the older brother I’d have done the same thing to him. We shared a room and I remember him freaking me out about these giant fire-breathing cockroaches come to eat me, or some shit. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I just remember being terrified.
Hey, what do want from me? I was six-years-old.
But that’s still an impressive feat. And I think it shows, to me at least, that sometimes the most effective scares are the ones you don’t see. The ones where it’s just your own imagination filling in the blanks and you end up scaring yourself.
The best horror stories are the ones that let our brains do all the heavy lifting.
Blair Witch Project did it surprisingly well. At its core it’s just a bunch of morons who get lost in the woods. But it’s done in such a claustrophobic way and through such a tight view, that it pokes at your mind and lets it do all the work.
TP: As you noted on your blog, violent crime is way down across the nation. But it seems to me that fear is at an all time high. Gun sales are through the roof, zombie apocalypse is mainstream and doomsday preppers have their own reality shows. What do you think we’re afraid of?
SB: I think we’re afraid of losing control. Not that much different from our fears at any other time, though years ago, at least here in the U.S., it had the face of the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, to put on to that fear. Despite some people’s best efforts to use [Insert Ethnic Group Of Choice]. They’re our friends and co-workers. Husbands and wives. They’re *gasp* real people! Makes it hard to see them as Objects Of Evil.
I think it’s actually pretty hard to dehumanize people in the internet era. Not that a lot of assholes don’t do a bang up job of it, of course. There’s simply too much information showing people at their best and their worst. If you can easily dehumanize another human being in this day and edge it’s willful ignorance and you’re a dick. You really have to work at it.
I think it’s that lack of a face to assign our fears that has given rise to zombie apocalypse horror. Zombies are dread writ large, our anxieties made manifest. They’re the inexorable procession of doom that will consume you and you’re powerless to do anything about it. They the stand-in for rapid change, advanced technology, the invasion of languages you can’t speak and new foods from other cultures. They’re all the things that are changing faster than we can keep up with.
You can’t really humanize a zombie without turning it into something else.
Kind of like with Frankenstein. In Shelley’s novel he’s intelligent and educated and you side with him. In the Karloff movies he’s a mute beast. The minute you give the monster a voice it ceases to be a monster and starts to become a person.
I think this kind of faceless anxiety gives rise to the hoarders, and doomsday preppers and people freaking out that Obama will take away their guns. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to anxiety, only couched in the disguise that we’re doing something. We’re not, really. We’re letting our anxieties rule us. Not the other way around.
If you’d asked me the same question 20 years ago I think I’d have had the same answer. Or at least something similar. Instead of zombies it would be, going back to your earlier question about horror, the loss of identity and paranoia inherent in The Thing, loss of self in Cronenberg’s body horror, losing yourself to the overwhelming appetite of vampires and Barker’s Cenobites.
It’s all loss of control, isn’t it? Even death pales in comparison to paralysis. Who is the more tragic figure? The child dying of cancer or the father who can do nothing to stop it?
TP: You’ve written about Chandler. The classics still speak to us. I think Crumley echoed Chandler with The Last Good Kiss and updated it to the post-Vietnam era. What’s your favorite book or author from the old days, and how does it matter today?
SB: I respect Chandler, though I don’t always like him. I like his voice. Most of the time. His plots are a meandering mess. He can’t even keep track of his murder victims.
But I think he and Hammett, Caine, Goodis, Thompson and all the old pulp novelists who jumped into the noir pool show us something about the way people work that literature didn’t dig into much before they showed up.
It’s been said that Hammett pulled murder out of the drawing room and stuck it into the gutter where it belonged.
Same is true of the rest of these authors. They took the most visceral experiences of humanity and let them be visceral. They fight and swear and fuck and kill and they only shied away from something because their editors insisted. And even then they got some things through.
Their influences, obvious and subtle, have invaded the landscape. To me they’re important because I don’t think I’d be able to write the way I want to if they hadn’t shown me how.
TP: Death row, Stephen. They’ll give you a movie to watch, an album to spin and of course, the last meal. What are yours?
SB: Movie: The Lion In Winter. It might help me think of something snappy to say as they lead me to the chair.
Album: Anything that isn’t Jethro Tull. I’ll be fine as long as I don’t have to go into the afterlife with “Bungle In The Jungle” stuck in my head.
Meal: A big old, fart inducing meal of Mexican food. Those fuckers want to kill me then the least I can do is make it messy for ’em.
TP: I love Lion in Winter. Emotionally brutal. And I can’t find a good clip of it, but Terence Hill did exactly did the electric chair bean-bomb in Super Fuzz. A ridiculous Italian superhero cop comedy with Ernest Borgnine. I highly recommend it. Thanks for coming by, Stephen. I look forward to reading DEAD THINGS. What’s next for you?
SB: Well, I’ve got another novel coming out as part of Evil Hat Productions’ SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY Kickstarter from last year, KHAN OF MARS. It’s gone out to the backers of the Kickstarter over the weekend, so we’ll see what they think of it. So far signs are good.
I’ve also got two more books that will continue to chronicle Eric Carter’s unfortunate life choices, BROKEN SOULS and HUNGRY GHOSTS, coming out in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
After that, who knows?
Stephen Blackmoore is the author of the novels CITY OF THE LOST and DEAD THINGS and his short stories have appeared in the magazines NEEDLE, PLOTS WITH GUNS, SPINETINGLER, THRILLING DETECTIVE, and SHOTS as well as the anthologies DEADLY TREATS, DON’T READ THIS BOOK and UNCAGE ME. He also writes about true crime in Los Angeles at the LA Noir blog (http://la-noir.blogspot.com) and co-hosts the bi-monthly reading event Noir At The Bar L.A. (https://www.facebook.com/NoirAtTheBarLa).