So I have a novel coming out this week that I spent the last few months writing. But in another way, it’s taken forty years to really FINISH. Here’s how it happened.
I’d always wanted to write, since I was in grade school. But the ambition crystallized into a real thing when I was in high school, and from about 1976 on, I was churning out stories and articles and even just really long letters with an energy that I can only look back on and sigh ruefully over today. POUNDS of the stuff, on my mother’s old Royal typewriter. Some of it even saw print, in zines and whatnot.
Most of it was warmed-over remixes of the things I loved at the time, comics and TV and whatever book I was obsessed with at the moment. Stuff like Robert E. Howard, particularly the darker work like Solomon Kane and The People of the Black Circle….
….and Doctor Strange, especially the Steve Englehart run. When he left, I kept buying the title for YEARS hoping it would get that good again.
(Never really did, though Roger Stern got close a couple of times.)
There was also Star Trek. Now, this was the seventies, so all we had were reruns. But I was plugged in enough to the fan scene through magazines like Starlog and Mediascene, and David Gerrold’s wonderful books on the making of the show, to be aware that there were other Roddenberry pilots in the works.
In particular, there was one called Spectre that I was hugely excited about… mostly because in The World of Star Trek, Roddenberry had described it as, “I always hated the horror movie thing where at the end the monster is unmasked as someone trying to scare Aunt Agatha out of her inheritance, or whatever. In my version, the monster is real.” That’s a rough paraphrase, anyway (my copy of the book is buried here in the office somewhere and I can’t seem to lay my hands on it at the moment.) But it was something like that.
You had to be there, I suppose, but when I read this in the early 1970s, it caused me to just about levitate with delight. You have to remember that I had grown up with things like The Hardy Boys and Scooby-Doo and God only knows how many other stories wherein the terrifying supernatural thing turns out to be some guy jerking everyone around with sheets and luminous paint. I hated that. What I wanted was real demon-fighting, like Solomon Kane and Dr. Strange.
Spectre was broadcast on NBC in 1977, once, and I caught the last two thirds of it.
I fell swooningly in love with what I saw and was bitterly disappointed that it did not go to series. And it never seemed to rerun. My memory of it faded, but I remembered the Holmes-and-Watson vibe of its protagonists, and the villain, the lizard-god Asmodeus.
As it happened, there was this horror writer guy that exploded on to the scene around that same time. Fellow named Stephen King.
He was a child of the fifties, not the sixties and seventies like I was, but he was very clearly working the same turf I longed to be doing myself. Again, you kind of had to be there, but it was really a wake-up call to everyone that it was possible to GO THERE, to do classic horror stories and be successful.
In particular, the TV movie of Salem’s Lot was something that just blew me out of my chair when I was a teenager. I immediately sought out the novel and it was even better. I was a King fan forever after.
More, though, it cemented my ambitions. I wanted to do stuff like this, modern horror pulp fiction set firmly in the here and now, but riffing on the classic Victorian-era things I loved like Dracula and Sherlock Holmes and so on.
By this time, I was a freshman in college and I was seriously trying to write for real, collecting encouraging-but-still-no rejection slips from various fiction digests like Amazing and Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen. One of the things that stuck with me from reading interviews and so on with King was that the short story market, he said, had dwindled to almost nothing, but it was much easier to sell a novel, because lots of people were publishing novels.
Well, that made sense. But what should the novel be? I had devoured King’s book Danse Macabre, basically his how-I-do-it book on horror fiction.
A throwaway remark from that book stuck with me. Talking about how horror fiction was a reflection of the social anxiety of the time, but turned up to eleven, he cited the exploitation film Horror of Party Beach, adding that it should really have been called Beach Blanket Armageddon.
That title just tickled me. I immediately began to wonder what that story would actually BE. As it happened, another of my writing heroes, Steve Englehart, had been doing a lot of interviews about his new novel, The Point Man. I hadn’t read it and wouldn’t get to it for a couple more years– this was before the internet, you had to find books out in the wild. But in Comics Feature, I’d read Englehart explaining that the book was riffing on the idea that the KGB was obsessed with the occult and the paranormal, Russia had spent as much money and time trying to weaponize psychic ability as they had on their space program.
I had no idea if that was true and didn’t care. I loved that. At the time my roommate in college was a fellow named West, who looked vaguely Satanic and had an eerie knack of knowing things he had no business knowing. He would make a perfect Holmes-like figure for the hero, and his Watson-esque roommate would be a jittery wisecracking writer guy like King’s Ben Mears…. or, well, me, really. (You can always tell a young writer by the fact that his hero is probably a young writer. The better ones manage to scrub off the Mary Sue stench but it’s still a thing.)
All these different ideas swirled around and coalesced into a plot and suddenly I had it. Collegiate Holmes and Watson versus KGB Baron Mordo, on the Oregon coast, a great place to set a gothic. Somewhere around Otter Crest.
And that’s what I would do, a supernatural spy gothic. That was what would be Beach Blanket Armageddon. Equal parts Ian Fleming and Dr. Strange, and as a tribute to my vague memories of Spectre, the climax would take place in a hell-pit fighting the demon Asmodeus. In a town possessed by evil; a small town modeled on somewhere like, say, Depoe Bay… but taken over by a Satanist cult.
I took a swing at it in the eighties and ended up with a novelette that no one wanted, but I still hung on to the idea. In the early 1990s I tried again and got a full novel this time.
An agent expressed interest in this one and had it for about a year, but she never got any traction on it. I went on to other things. Magazine work, the regular column gig at CBR, stuff like that.
Then, about five years ago, I heard about this small press New Pulp thing. I thought to myself, you know, I bet one of those places would be a nice home for Armageddon. I pitched it to a couple of publishers and Ron Fortier at Airship 27 liked what he heard, but cautioned me that a novel wasn’t going to get looked at until I’d earned my spurs on the anthologies.
So I’ve been selling to the A27 anthologies pretty regularly since then… seven in print and three more on deck.
No one’s getting rich here, but we’re having an awful lot of fun. But always, in the back of my mind, was the thought of getting Armageddon out of the trunk and rewriting it– taking that awful amateur-night Mary Sue stuff out, cleaning up the prose, you know, I’ve learned some things in the intervening decades. I had a tentative commitment from Ron if I could get it to A27 specs.
The biggest problem would be cutting it. A27 likes books to come in at around 60,000 words, and Ron had told me the absolute maximum was seventy thousand. Basically it’s a production thing– beyond that, it gets prohibitively costly just to print the things, we’d have to charge thirty dollars a book just to break even, considerably more than the market will bear for a niche outfit like us. Beach Blanket Armageddon was somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 words. So a third of the book was going to have to go overboard. Between the cutting and the rewriting, I was practically starting from scratch.
This doesn’t take that long to tell, but it took a long time to happen. There was a lot of real life stuff taking place in and around all this, and one of those things was the death of one of my dearest friends, Anne-Marie. It was a bad death, a waste, and the needlessness of the tragedy pained all of us who knew her.
In college we had all been “promising,” honors students with loads of potential, right on the cusp of success. We also were drunk a lot and did a lot of drugs, and some of us never came all the way back from it. It missed killing me by what felt like inches. And it did kill Anne-Marie.
She tried hard, there were years at a time when she was clean, but she never quite got to the part where you rebuild your life afterwards and so she always slipped back, and each time crawling up from that diminished her a little more. Heroin finally got her.
Those of us who were there always maintained that this had started in college, in that snake pit of an honors program where we all thought we were being so artsy, so lofty and noble… and in reality were all so screwed up.
The news of her death and the sick sad feeling over it all got woven together in my head with the novel I was working on, because I had done the first draft of it on the Selectric in the Honors study hall, afternoons of that fall quarter of 1981, and Anne-Marie used to come get me in the evening for beers after I’d done my wordage for the day.
Then this happened. From a letter to another friend of that time….
I woke up shaking a couple of nights ago from this crazy dream where Anne-Marie was actually going to sacrifice herself to open a Hellmouth in central Oregon and a bunch of us from the Program had to stop her except it was 1867 and we were all ninjas. Broken, ex-ninjas. In middle age. Like we are now really, except some of us have sort of mended… and the ninja part. Now, I don’t claim divine inspiration or anything. This is because of watching Dr. Strange and then a bunch of episodes of The Magnificent Seven TV show (the one with Michael Biehn) and trying to figure out the rewrite on the novel, and also because we had dinner with an old friend from those days, who is another one like Anne-Marie that can’t get sober but refuses to ever hit the problem head-on…
So I had all that in my head, wondering what it was about us that made so many of us such bad risks back in 1981. In particular thinking about Anne-Marie and what a waste her death and most of her adult life was, constantly trying to hang on to that one time when it was all working and she was the belle of the ball. And then this crazy remix mashup dream. Other people, smarter people, would roll over and go back to sleep.
Me? I have been thinking this is the prequel to the novel and I should write this book first, and then thinking I should really write it, somehow tell the story of all of us that got broken or burned back then with addiction and desperation and sex and stupid, looking for something, anything, that would fix us. Find a way to do it in my wheelhouse, tell something that’s an adventure, something Ron would publish. But still a story with real teeth, that’s about something. About Anne-Marie, especially…. and I’m just going to frigging call the character Anne-Marie because I’d keep typing it by mistake anyway.
That letter was to my friend Anne, another survivor of those days and a working writer herself. She and I had been kidding each other for years about how one of us was going to write the novel about that time, and now that I was genuinely thinking of doing it, she was completely on board and even agreed to let me model a character after her, “Doctor Lisbet.”
And, well… I did it. The book is out as of yesterday.
Here’s the blurb: “SIX-GUNS AND SORCERY! In 1868, six people sought refuge at a hidden enclave in the high desert country of eastern Oregon: A brilliant female doctor dying of a rare disease. A Confederate deserter. Two refugees from a lynch mob. A former slave. A womanizing shootist. These were the first acolytes of Stonegarden Abbey, learning the secrets of Hermetic magic under the tutelage of the mysterious prophet Ezekiel Reardon. But Ezekiel had an agenda of his own, and their time at Stonegarden ended in fire and tragedy. Those left alive thought the tragedy was behind them. But the dark power they believed was gone and buried with Ezekiel only slept, and it is awakening now, ten years later. The survivors of Stonegarden must return to the ruined Abbey when they are called to rescue one of their own, a woman they had thought long dead. With the help of a teenage half-breed Native girl, these broken people must reclaim their old skills and find the strength within themselves to save their fallen sister Anne-Marie from an ancient evil… and the fate of the Earth itself might well hang in the balance.”
It’s probably bad form to say this but I’m thrilled with how it turned out. The work Chris and Adam did, especially, raises the whole enterprise to a new level. Almost always, when something of mine appears in print, I have things I wish had been done differently or better. Not this time. Chris, especially, really dug in; he used photo reference I gave him of Anne and Anne-Marie and of the eastern Oregon country where it’s set, and and on his own he scrupulously researched the clothing and architecture of the 1870s setting. It’s extraordinary and some of the best work I’ve seen from him.
I hope you’ll check us out.
And the revised Beach Blanket Armageddon is still coming, too. After all these years, I’m hoping to have it out within the next year. If you like this one, there’s one more coming.
So I guess I better get back to work on it.
Back next week with something cool.