Saturday, April 9, 2011
“When are you going to write something nice, Ray? Something I can read? When you are you going to write a love story?”
This has been the mantra of my family for decades. None of them reads horror fiction. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that none of them reads. To hear them tell it, the main reason they don’t read is that I have not yet written something nice that they can read. Something like a love story!
The fact is, I’ve written many love stories. Nearly every one of my novels contains a love story – even my horror novels, although Loveless: A Dark Love Story isn’t one of those. Of course, they’re not the kind of love stories my family would consider nice. The kind of love story they’re talking about is the kind of thing Nicholas Sparks writes. And if they’re waiting for me to write one of those ... well, all I’ve got to say is, pack a few sandwiches and get really, really comfortable, because it’s going to be a long wait.
My novel Loveless: A Dark Love Story is the kind of love story I write. I can’t help it. It’s out of my hands. Everything I write, even if it’s meant to be funny, takes a dark turn or two or three at one point or another. If it didn’t, it would feel dishonest to me. I think fiction should be a reflection of reality, not a distortion of it. In my horror fiction, things happen that have nothing to do with reality – people turn into werewolves, vaginas have fangs, spiders the size of Volkswagen Beetles eat people. But all of these things happen in an environment that is firmly grounded in reality.
Lots of good things happen in life. Wonderful things. They happen to all of us at one time or another. But bad things happen, too. They happen to good people for no other reason than ... well, for no reason. They just do. There’s a quote I love from Lawrence Kasdan’s sadly underrated 1991 film Grand Canyon. It’s delivered by Danny Glover:
“World’s a hard place. Sometimes you just get lucky. And, of course, sometimes you don’t. One thing’s for sure is that if you’re alive, some terrible shit’s gonna happen to you, and maybe some good things, too. But you can always count on the terrible. If it doesn’t kill you, you’re gonna be around to see it come down some other way.”
Some will say that’s an awfully pessimistic attitude. I think there’s a good chance those people enjoy the work of Nicholas Sparks. I think it’s an awfully realistic attitude. And a healthy one. I guess that’s reflected in my fiction. Bad things happen to good people for no reason. What’s wrong with facing up to that fact early on so you’re not surprised by it later? What’s important is how we deal with those bad things. Dealing with them is a lot easier when you have someone you love – and someone who loves you – by your side. And for me, that’s where the love stories come in.
Loveless is a love story about two lonely people. One of them is Amy Grady. For 16 years, she’s been married to her husband Roy, a man whose unpredictable anger and violence can explode at any moment, a man who slaps, punches and kicks her, and a man she no longer loves. Their teenage son Danny has been living with this tension all his life and it has taken a toll. The other lonely person is Walter Loveless, who has just moved in next door to Amy. He has been living a life of secrecy and isolation for so long that he is almost unaware of his loneliness anymore because it has become such a part of him.
Amy watches him – handsome, rugged – but is too shy to speak to him. But when they are finally brought together, electricity crackles between them and the attraction is instantaneous and powerful. But Loveless has secrets and a past that haunts him. Someone from that past – someone deadly – is still pursuing him. When Amy decides to escape her own past, she runs headlong into his.
Loveless: A Dark Love Story was first published in 2008 with my novel Murder Was My Alibi in a single limited edition from Lonely Roads Books that has become known as the Arthur Darknell Double because it was published under a pseudonym I intended to use for crime fiction, an idea I have since abandoned. Now it is available from Open Road Media in paperback and as an ebook for Kindle and Nook, and as an audiobook from Audible. For more information about my work and to keep up with new releases, visit my website at RayGartonOnline.
Friday, April 8, 2011
Live Girls was the result of my first visit to New York City. I was spending the day with my (then) editor in his office and he suggested I visit Times Square just a couple of blocks away. He told me to have fun ... just hang onto all my receipts and don’t make eye contact with anyone on the street.
“Eye contact?” I said. “Why not?”
“Because some people will misinterpret it, or take advantage of it. And don’t smile at people. You smile too much. That’ll make you look like an easy mark.”
Was I visiting Times Square or an institution for the criminally insane? I certainly wasn’t visiting the Times Square that exists today. This was early in 1986, before Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned up Times Square and moved Disney in, preparing the way for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to turn it into a family-friendly tourist destination. This was the old Times Square: dirty, gritty and a little dangerous.
I was 23 at the time and had led a pretty sheltered existence for most of my life. I’d grown up in a small town in a very protective religious family and had attended religious schools from grade one into my freshman year in college. My editor's warning made me nervous. For me, Times Square was an eye-opening experience.
As I strolled by the adult book stores and peep-show parlors and winos and hookers and guys selling drugs openly, I was often overcome, not unlike Davey Owen in Live Girls, with the irrational fear that one of my former bible teachers might spot me slowing down to get a better look at one of the posters outside an adult movie theater. It took a while, but I finally mustered the courage to go inside one of those dens of iniquity.
The establishment I entered is described, almost to the letter, in Live Girls. It was a dark little hole-in-the-wall peep-show with no posters or barkers out front like most of the others. There was only a single sign made up of three red neon words: LIVE NUDE GIRLS. The “I” in LIVE and the “DE” in NUDE flickered and buzzed. I purchased the minimum number of tokens and walked down a long, narrow corridor that turned to the right. There were doors on each side, some with men standing outside, waiting their turn.
I found an empty booth, went inside, closed the door and locked it. It was dark, humid and smelly in there. My heart was thundering. Although I’d never been inside such a place, I’d heard and read of them and knew that once I dropped my tokens in the slot beneath the red light, a panel would open and there would be a naked woman on the other side of the glass – a LIVE NUDE GIRL, just as the sputtering sign outside had promised.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a small opening beneath the vague outline of the rectangular panel. Pale, gray light came through the opening, falling on the black, glistening, sticky floor beneath my feet and faintly illuminating a small plastic plaque next to the token slot that read: INSERT TIP THROUGH SLOT. I realized the opening below the window had indeed been a slot at one time, but the center of it had been expanded into a crude circular opening. Well ... perhaps “expanded” isn’t the right word. There were rough grooves in the edges of the wood, as if someone had used a makeshift tool to widen the slot, something like a pocket knife or a sharp-edged piece of metal. Or ... teeth? Yes, it looked almost as if it had been chewed open. That thought gave me a brief, enjoyable chill ... and then another that wasn’t so enjoyable when I noticed the opening was level with my crotch. But the real chills didn’t come until I dropped my tokens and the panel slid open.
The girl on the other side was nude ... but I had some doubt as to whether she was “live.”
She was the color of chalk and so horribly thin that I winced involuntarily when I saw her. Her dark hair was greasy and fell in limp strands past her shoulders. Her face was little more than a skull with yellowish-brown half-moons beneath her dead, sunken eyes. Her lips parted only once, briefly, during my short-lived stay in that booth, but when they did, I saw that her tiny, snaggled teeth were a dark gray color. There was an angry sore on her lower lip. Her neck appeared much too thin and frail to hold up her head. Her chest was a sharply-etched ribcage with two thin flaps of flesh hanging over it, mere ghosts of breasts. The flesh around her nipples was puckered, like skin left too long in a tepid bath. The left nipple was pierced, sported a small ring and was swollen and inflamed. Her arms and legs were jointed sticks that wore bruises the color of over-ripe bananas.
I stopped breathing, just held my breath for a long time, thinking that she should be in a hospital, not on the other side of that window exposing herself for tips. I was at once repulsed and fascinated as she closed her eyes and began to perform.
Her performance consisted of a zombie-like gynecological self-examination. Her movements were stilted and she leaned her head back limply, as if in a stupor. When she lay back on one elbow and spread her legs, I gasped. Her shaved pubis and inner thighs were covered with an oozing rash.
I left. As I passed the men in the corridor, I wondered why they were waiting. There were other unoccupied booths. Were they waiting for their favorite LIVE NUDE GIRLS? Or had they chosen to wait because they knew what they’d find in those unoccupied booths ... like the one from which I’d just made a quick exit? My imagination raced with possibilities.
I returned to my editor’s office and began to write. I already had my title, that was easy. And I had my premise; after seeing that pale, corpse-like girl in the booth, that was easy, too. Live Girls began as a short story about vampires that ran a peep-show in Times Square. But the story became a novel, which was published in January of 1987 by Pocket Books.
Live Girls received some very good reviews. Some critics were kind enough to give me more credit than I deserved. The idea of vampires in a sex-for-sale setting was seen by some as a metaphor for AIDS. To be honest, that had never crossed my mind. But, hey, if they wanted to credit me with some depth, who the hell was I to get in their way?
After the book was published, I received some mail and even a couple of phone calls (I have no idea how they got my number) from people who wanted to know how I’d found out about them, about their secret, nocturnal, bloodsucking activities. Vampires were contacting li’l ol’ me!
Live Girls made a couple of chain book store bestseller lists and was very popular in the UK. The New York Times called it “artful” and one veteran, award-winning writer of quiet horror (now deceased) claimed it marked the end of intelligent writing in horror fiction. Dean Koontz called it "gripping, original and sly," and Ramsey Campbell called it "The most nightmarish vampire story I have ever read." It was published in several different languages and has found readers all over the world. A few years after it went out of print, I learned that mint-condition copies of the Pocket paperback were selling for outrageous prices, and the UK hardcover was selling for twice that! It became collectible and garnered some respect. And you know what? That shocked the hell out of me.
In the years since its initial release, there have been a number of movie options. Some of the people who’ve optioned the book have had some rather unusual ideas about what to do with it. One wanted to set it in a Blade Runner-like future. Another wanted to turn it into a rap/hip-hop musical. My favorite was the genius plan to cast it with a Brat Pack reunion – Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, that whole crowd. Kind of a John Hughes movie with titties and fangs. Fortunately, none of those ideas ever came to fruition.
Since the original publication of Live Girls, I’ve written about 60 books. I’ve encountered a lot of people who’ve never heard of any of them – but they know Live Girls. The novel has been reborn in reprints and has been kept alive by used book stores, flea markets, garage sales and eBay. I’m very grateful to the many readers it’s had over the decades, especially to those who’ve been kind enough to write me flattering letters and emails.
Two years ago, I got an email from a young woman who told me the story of how she was named. While her mother was pregnant with her, she’d read Live Girls. Not only had she enjoyed the book, she'd fallen in love with the names of two of the vampires – Anya and Shideh. So she named her daughter Anya Shideh. Anya told me that people frequently complimented her on her names and she’d always appreciated them. She wanted to thank me for them. Frankly, that made me a little misty-eyed.
Now Live Girls is available as an ebook for Kindle and Nook. For more information and to keep up on new releases, please visit my website.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
By 1990, I had kind of developed a reputation for writing erotic horror. I would say this was entirely unintentional ... but it wasn’t. I use sex in my writing for a reason. I’ve always felt that one of the things that makes horror fiction work is familiarity. Take a familiar situation, characters the readers can identify with, make your readers comfortable with those things and then throw in a supernatural or twisted threat that turns all of that upside down. How many of us have been to a beach in our lives, whether it was the ocean or a lake? How many of us have gotten into the water not knowing what else was swimming around in there? That is why Jaws was such a blockbuster success. After the release of the movie in 1975, people were terrified of getting into the water. I knew people who didn’t even want to get into the bathtub! Suddenly, something safe and familiar had become dangerous and frightening. That’s what the horror genre does when it works.
Things like vampires and werewolves and the other creatures that populate the horror genre don’t really exist (there are people who will argue that point – some quite vehemently – but I tend to avoid those people) and we never have to deal with those creatures in our daily lives. So in order to make them work in a story, I think it’s vital that they be surrounded by characters and situations that are familiar to all of us. We may not deal with vampires in our daily lives, but we all know what unemployment is like. Werewolves may not be a common problem, but relationship trouble is. We may never have to shoot a zombie in the head, but we may have to watch a loved one die a slow, agonizing death of cancer. The monsters are stand-ins for these horrors and others – real-life horrors. They are an entertaining way to release the tensions and anxieties created by these real horrors in our lives. But those monsters have no effect unless they are placed in a world we know that is populated by people like us, who have experiences, anxieties and feelings in common with us. What is the one thing we all have in common? Sex.
They say sex sells. And that’s true, of course. But it sells because sex is something we all want, need and participate in at one time or another. It is during sex that we are the most vulnerable – literally naked and defenseless. When I was writing my first novel, Seductions, which is a very sexual book, I thought to myself, Wouldn’t it be fun if I could do to sex what Jaws did to swimming? Obviously, I didn’t succeed, and I doubt anyone could – even the threat of AIDS didn’t do that, and that was pretty damned scary. But I keep trying. Hey ... a guy’s gotta have some goals.
When I wrote The New Neighbor in 1990, I wanted to inject more than a supernatural threat into a typical small-town neighborhood. I wanted to take a Leave it to Beaver neighborhood and turn it into a black orgy of lust, adultery and incest. I wanted to write a horror novel that was a porn novel -- a porn novel that was a horror novel. While I was working on the book, whenever anyone asked me what I was writing, I’d respond, “Penthouse Forum from hell.” But in 1990, nobody was interested in that. It was too graphic, too dark – just too much. Reading the book now, that seems odd, because all these years later, it doesn't seem quite that extreme. But in 1990, it was too extreme for the publishers who read it. Then I met Joe Stefko of Charnel House. Joe is a fascinating guy. An successful musician, he toured with John Cale of the Velvet Underground for two years in the 1970s until Cale chopped the head off a live chicken on stage in London. Joe, a vegetarian and animal-lover, had told him in advance that he would walk off if it happened, but Cale did it anyway. And Joe walked off. He was Meat Loaf’s drummer during the three years that Bat Out of Hell was such a raging success. But decades of Joe’s life have been spent with The Turtles, where he remains on the drums, quite happy. “I have played with a lot of other acts during these Turtle years but none have been as much fun,” Joe says in his bio on the band’s website. “I even turned Meat Loaf down to stay with them. Life is short and fun is at a premium.”
But Joe is also a publisher. He started Charnel House in 1989 with the idea that book craftsmanship was an art form, and he turned it into the country’s foremost publisher of finely bound and printed limited edition books in the horror and science fiction genres. The New Neighbor was the company’s second title. It was published in two extremely limited, expensive, drop-dead gorgeous editions. There were 500 copies of the numbered edition, 26 copies of the lettered edition. The illustrations are by JK Potter and they are stunning. It was an enormous honor to have my work illustrated by such a brilliant artist. Potter is the best, and his work in this book is, I think, among his best.
The lettered edition was hand-sewn, bound in crimson Morocco leather with a strip of lace stocking embedded down the front cover and a black silk garter strap and clip for a bookmark. Because of the graphic sex and violence in the book, the publisher’s lawyers advised that each customer state in writing that he or she was at least 21 years old. You might find a one of the Charnel House editions available for sale now and then, but they ain’t cheap. I’ve seen the lettered edition sell for as much as $1,500. I will always be extremely proud of the Charnel House editions of The New Neighbor, but it was so limited that very few people read the book.
The novel languished in obscurity for 14 years until it was reprinted by Cemetery Dance Publications in 2005. Once again, a beautiful edition was published (CD link) with a gorgeous cover by Caniglia. It was limited to 1,000 signed copies, 52 lettered. My only complaint was that the book was inaccurately called a “vampire novel” on the publisher’s website.
Now, more than 20 years after its original publication, The New Neighbor is available to a much wider audience. It’s not limited this time – in fact, it’s unlimited as a paperback and ebook.
The Pritchard family is living a life of familial contentment on Deerfield Avenue, a street where the neighbors are friendly and the yards are neat. Then Lorelle Dupree moves in across the street. She is uncommonly beautiful, warm and friendly ... and powerfully seductive. One by one, the Pritchard family succumbs to her advances. But they aren’t the only ones. Lorelle gets to know everyone on the street. The residents of Deerfield Avenue slowly become ill, exhibiting flu-like symptoms, and the better they get to know Lorelle, the sicker they get. And then ... the killings start.
The New Neighbor is available as an ebook for Kindle and Nook. To see my entire bibliography and keep up with new releases, please visit my website, RayGartonOnline.