Monday, October 28, 2019

An interview with author David C. Smith.


Of Swords & Scrolls 





 In 1978, before emails and the Internet, I was working on a novella and reading Dave’s excellent first novel, Oron, when I came across a plot device/character trait in his novel that bore a striking similarity to something I had already incorporated into my story. Already a fan of Dave’s, and knowing he knew Charles Saunders, to whom I had sold several short stories for his and Charles de Lint’s excellent Dragonfields, I asked Saunders for Dave’s address; he was still living in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio at the time. I wrote Dave a letter and he responded almost immediately. From 1978 until early 1996, when he and his wife Janine—who has a graphic design degree and is a very talented illustrator who did the maps for the brand-new, Wildside Press edition of Dave’s Fall of the First World trilogy—moved to Palatine, IL we kept up a steady correspondence that rivaled if not exceeded the lengthy correspondence between Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. Their move occurred during a time when Dave and I had taken vacations from writing. But during the summer of 1996, I finally persuaded him to work with me on a zombie apocalypse screenplay called Twilight of the Dead (later retitled Children of the Grave), and then we collaborated on what we consider to be a solid screenplay called Magicians, which was based on his two David Trevisan novels: The Fair Rules of Evil and The Eyes of Night. That script did exceedingly well in screenplay competitions and we still have hope that one day it will be optioned by some wise, far-sighted and talented producer or director. (By the way, it was at the late and lamented Top Shelf Books in Palatine, at the monthly author’s live-reading night in 2010, where Dave and I met John O’Neil, the Great Eye of Black Gate.)

Over the years Dave and I had this weird symmetry or whatever going on: when he was writing, I wasn’t. When I was writing, he wasn’t. However, for many years now we have both been writing at the same time, and almost continuously. A few years ago we collaborated on a sword & sorcery pirate novel, Waters of Darkness, (which was reviewed for Black Gate by William Patrick Maynard), based on an idea of Dave’s, and heavily influenced by Howard and Lovecraft. We recently collaborated on a sword & planet short story for an upcoming anthology for Jason Waltz’s Rogue Blades label. It’s interesting that Dave and I have found publishers for each other over the years, too. First, we both appeared in the only two issues of a short-lived 1980s’ fanzine called Orion’s Child, even sharing the cover of the first issue with Ray Bradbury; Dave turned me onto the people behind that publication. Then he told me about iUniverse Publishers, I told him about Airship 27 and Damnation Books, and now he’s gotten me hooked up with Pulp Hero Press, for which I’ll forever be in his debt. So besides friendship, Dave and I have shared 5 publishers. (Incidentally, remember that story I was working on when I first read Oron? Well, in 2010 it became part of my Mad Shadows series—and Dave not only edited that story, but all the other stories in the first volume.) So it’s a pleasure and an honor to be both Dave’s friend and collaborator.

Dave has always been extremely prolific. Besides his aforementioned novels, he’s also written: Mosutha’s Magic, The Valley of Ogrum and The Ghost Army, all featuring his Oron character; another sword & sorcery novel titled The Sorcerer’s Shadow; the epic heroic fantasy trilogy, The Fall of the First World; the rural thriller Seasons of the Moon; a creepy and even disturbing urban thriller called Dark Muse; and a modern-day tale of horror and sorcery, Call of Shadows. Early in his career Dave became involved with Glenn Lord and the estate of Robert E. Howard, and in the 1980s he and Richard L. Tierney wrote six great Red Sonja novels and one really fine Bran Mak Morn novel, For the Witch of the Mists. Plus Dave wrote his own fantastic pirate adventure, The Witch of the Indies, featuring Howard’s character, Terence Black Vulmea. In addition to his many novels, Dave has also published eighteen short stories (one of which appeared in a volume of Andy Offutt’s famous Swords Against Darkness anthologies), and he’s authored numerous academic and literary essays and articles, as well. He wrote an insightful article for Black Gate on Robert E. Howard’s The Pool of the Black One, which is part of Bob Byrne’s series, Hither Came Conan. Most recently Dave published a scholarly, in-depth look at Robert E. Howard’s life and body of work, Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography, for which he deservedly won the 2018 Atlantean Award from the Robert E. Howard Foundation.

I think I’ve covered it all. So now I’m going to sit back, give Dave the third degree and let him tell you more about his life and his body of work so far.

First off, Dave, tell us how you came to be involved with Glenn Lord, Rusty Burke, and the Robert E. Howard Foundation. What were the circumstances that led you to write the Red Sonja, Bran Mak Morn, and Terence Vulmea novels? That surely was an honor and a thrill, as well as a great testament to your writing skills.

The Vulmea and Bran novels came first, and they were the result of my knowing Dick Tierney, whom I’d met—at first by mail—through Dirk Mosig, the Lovecraft scholar. We were both early members of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, the Lovecraft apa, and Dirk had kindly agreed to read and comment on the manuscript of Oron, which I’d completed in 1974. Sword-and-sorcery fiction is not really something Dirk is interested in, or wasn’t at the time, but he liked Oron and mentioned it to Dick. By this time, I’d learned about Dick’s work, and he agreed to read Oron. I met Dick and Dirk and other good people in the fall of 1975, when I traveled with Roger Bryant, who was then the editor of the EOD, to St. Paul for Oktoberfest. When I met Dick, I handed him the manuscript of Oron, and he gave me an inscribed copy of The Winds of Zarr, which Harry Morris had published. I still have it.

Once Dick read Oron, he asked if he could recommend it to his friend Kirby McCauley, who had just moved to Manhattan to start his career as a literary agent. Of course, I said yes; you couldn’t ask for a luckier break. Kirby had no luck initially in placing Oron, but he did convince Roberta Grossman at Zebra Books, which had the rights to some of the Howard characters other than Conan, to let me try my hand at a Bran Mak Morn novel. This was because they were uncertain whether Karl Wagner, whom Kirby also represented, would turn in his second Bran novel for Zebra, Queen of the Night. I submitted the first chapter and outline of For the Witch of the Mists—standard procedure—but when it looked as though Karl was going to turn in his Bran novel after all, Kirby asked me about writing a novel featuring Terence Vulmea. I’d always wanted to write a pirate novel and had an abandoned one in my files. Roberta accepted my initial chapter and outline, and I spent the winter of 1976-1977 in my little apartment in Erie, Pennsylvania, during one of the worst blizzards of the century, writing about pirates and witches in the Caribbean. It turned out that Karl never did turn in his Bran novel, so Kirby asked me to complete the one I’d outlined and to collaborate with Dick on it. He was representing us both, and I was more than happy to work with Dick. I finished the first draft according to the outline I’d done, and Dick then revised that draft. Good thing—he knows far more about the history of Rome and the Roman Empire than I do, so he was able to correct a number of details that I’d been sketchy about.

Our success in collaborating on the Bran novel led to our working together on the Sonjas. Kirby had negotiated a deal with Ace for four Red Sonja novels, based on the Marvel Comics character that Roy Thomas had essentially created. By the time we signed the contract, the number had been upped to six. We spent the next few years turning in those scripts, doing about two a year. By that time, Kirby had dropped me as a client; he’d signed Stephen King, so he had much bigger fish to fry. Horror was booming then and has never really let up, whereas sword-and-sorcery has always had a limited audience. In the mid-1980s, S&S was being replaced by Tolkienesque fantasies, which had a much wider reach in the popular media, and I had no interest in going in that direction. It’s not me. I considered working on some horror story ideas—I started out in the fanzines writing both horror stories and adventure-fantasies—but I was burned out after writing three Oron books and my fantasy trilogy simultaneously. I’d dropped my agent and was pretty depressed. So in 1984, I stopped writing. I felt that I’d had my moment.

Glenn was integral to the Vulmea, Bran, and Sonja books—he signed the royalty checks! I’d made his acquaintance briefly in the pages of the Robert E. Howard apa I’d joined in 1975 or thereabouts—The Hyborian League, I think, or maybe it was REHupa. I’d have to check. Within a few years, he was sending me royalty checks for the Howard pastiches I’d written, and this turned into a long correspondence with him. Anyone reading this who knew Glenn knows why I think the world of him. He was one the most generous men ever, and the man who truly started us all on the literary appreciation of Howard, no one else.

The Howard biography led to my interacting with the Robert E. Howard Foundation, which was founded in 2006. The idea for the biography began with Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press. This was in the summer of 2017. We agreed on an approach, and I spent nearly every evening for nine, ten months working on it, going through the Ballantine editions of the approved texts of the stories and using every other Howard reference I have, going back to the early 1970s, plus lots of material I’ve downloaded over the years from the Web, pieces on literature and writers. It all came in handy. Once I started on it, I contacted Rusty, Mark Finn, Patrice Louinet, and Rob Roehm to ask if I could shoot questions past them, just to keep things squared with what they know about Howard and his work and life. They’re the experts; I was coming at it from the perspective of a sympathetic fellow writer who has also been through the grind. Rusty I knew from REHupa, which I had joined in the mid-1990s for a couple of years before moving to Chicago. I’d met him later at an event in Chicago. Patrice, of course, was working on his PhD at the Sorbonne, so clearly he didn’t have any free time; still, I relied on the important essays he’d contributed to the Ballantine Conan volumes. Rusty, Mark, and Rob patiently answered my questions, and Rusty wrote the foreword and even heroically read through the whole Word doc and kept me honest on a few points where it was needed. Their assistance was invaluable. I asked Donald Sidney-Fryer and Charles Saunders for comments, too—Don for his insights into Howard’s poetry, which I wanted to devote a chapter to, and Charles for his generous insights into Howard’s racism and his views on race as reflected in his fictional universe.

Doing the biography let me formalize in one place the many ideas and intuitions I’d had about Howard’s work over the years. The dismissive attitude toward his work promoted by de Camp and Carter and other unsympathetic people—it’s time to put a stake through that and bury it. I don’t know how people who should know better look at the man’s work and miss what to me is obvious, that there are layers in that fiction that effectively place Howard’s best work on the top shelf. Clearly the poetry—poetry in all of its dimensions—and the care with the language and the vision and sheer invention in the man’s work eluded them. I think it’s a case of seeing what you expect to see: if all you want see is something one-dimensional and obvious, then that’s as far as you go with it. When I was in junior high school and first read Howard’s stories, that’s all I saw, too. But widen your experience, get an education, get some perspective, and read his work with informed awareness, not just casually, and the excellence becomes evident. 

Other than Robert E. Howard, tell us about some of the other authors who influenced and inspired you and started you down the path of being an author yourself.

Jack London, certainly. I have a full shelf of his work in old used hardcovers I bought back in the days when we had honest-to-God used-book stores that were stacked to the ceiling with stuff going back a hundred years. And authors I read during study hall when I was in junior high school and high school, such as Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark novels. After that, I was also influenced a lot by drama, stage drama, believe it or not. I’d attended plays in college, and among those used books I’d bought were old editions of Ibsen and other playwrights. Plus I’d studied Shakespeare, of course, and other Elizabethan and Jacobean authors.

Aside from reading as widely as I could, though, I’ve been influenced a great deal by the movies. I started out with intention of majoring in cinema, and I’ve been a movie nut for as far back as I can remember. I read tons of books on film history and technique in the late sixties and early seventies. The early seventies was a gold mine in the publication of histories and texts on the cinema. So I read Robert E. Howard and those paperback anthologies of horror stories that were everywhere in the early seventies while I was also reading books on film theory written by Pudovkin and Eisenstein and reading about other early filmmakers, especially of the silent era, when cinematic storytelling was developed—Griffith, particularly. I still think that if you read my books with the idea that each paragraph is a new shot and each section is a set-up, it works. The opening of The Shadow of Sorcery is one long tracking shot through Kabai, the city where the novel opens. The middle section of The Eyes of Night, with David Trevisan and the sorcerer’s daughter driving all the way across Ohio to evade the bad guy, is right out of Hitchcock.

What inspired you to start writing, and how long have you been writing?

I’ve always written. When I was ten or eleven, I made my own little booklets of a series of adventures about a cave boy and his pet dinosaur. I’m sure I was inspired by the Bomba the Jungle Boy books that a neighbor gave me, the “Roy Rockwood” series. Instead of turning in essays in the eighth grade the way we were supposed to, I wrote long science-fiction stories about explorers going to the center of the earth or being shrunk to insect size by radiation from a meteorite. My teacher wrote at the top of one of these, “I didn’t expect to read a chapter from your forthcoming novel.” Prescient of her!

In high school, when I was making 8mm movies with friends of mine, I wrote all sorts of scenarios for those. But the real impetus to write stories came after reading the Conan paperbacks Lancer brought out in the late sixties. I liked those Howard stories and they fit in with the adventure stories and movies I liked—Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and midcentury historical novels written by people such as Samuel Shellabarger. The first short story I wrote then was inspired by “Black Colossus.” When I took a fiction-writing course in my sophomore year with Steve Sniderman at Youngstown State, everything clicked. I was writing for the fanzines by then, particularly Space & Time, but I felt I wanted to add as much as I could to genre fiction, which I liked. So I tried to add as much heart and soul to the characters as I could even though they were in four-thousand-word, five-thousand-word short stories. I wanted to keep improving.

So, I’ve been writing seriously since the spring of 1971, when Mrs. Summerson at Ohio State called me into her office, told me that I wrote well, and asked if I’d considered majoring in English. That was the moment. I spent that summer writing all sorts of stuff—short things, ideas for comic book stories, plays, all sorts of stuff. Almost sold a comics script to Archie Goodwin, a Lovecraft-type story called “The Unnamable Horror.” Never quite got it to click. But I kept writing horror stories and then sword-and-sorcery stories for the fanzines.

What genres and/or literary style do enjoy writing in the most?

Adventure-fantasy, as I call it, first of all. It’s about elemental characters and desperate situations, and there must always be a Gothic element to it. As far as I’m concerned, if that existential darkness isn’t there, we’re missing something. It needn’t be overbearing; it can be subtle or in the subtext. But it needs to be there.

That probably carries over into my preference for suspense stories, too. Dark Muse is an example. It’s in the David Trevisan novels, too, and in Call of Shadows. And all of those edge into horror at times. I’m now reworking “Coven House,” my short story that was in Weird Tales in 2012, into novel length. For me, this is horror. Sometime while I was taking my time out, horror became synonymous with gore-porn, which doesn’t work for me. It’s too obvious, and I don’t know how you build from that. I say this as someone who appreciates the Grand Guignol element as much as anyone. But gore for gore’s sake seems cheap me. Maybe I’m misreading this stuff, but I prefer to work on the reader’s mind and emotions during the build to the payoff. And the voice should be those of the characters and the situation, not the writer. The writer should be like the music in a movie—there, and contributing, but you’re aware of it only subconsciously.

Besides the obvious “entertainment factor,” what do you strive for in your writing?

Characterization, plain and simple. More and more, and especially since I’ve gotten back into writing seriously after the long dry spell, I want to write characters that an actor can look at and want to portray, characters where there’s something there. The other factor is what I think of as density or weight, so that there’s more to the story than there seems to be on the surface. If you think about the story after you’ve read it, it enlarges for you. There are layers that make it feel alive for you. You can reread it and still get something out of it.

Would you say your stories are more plot-driven or character-driven?

Character-driven. The plot comes from the characters and their actions and reactions to events. My early fiction was not this way, but this is how I write now. And I’m glad now that I had that long time out because it let me reconsider how I’d been doing things. There’s more thought now, less automatic reflex.

What can you tell us about your latest work(s) in progress? What’s on the horizon for you?

Right now, I’m finishing Sometime Lofty Towers, which I think of as “literary s&s” because I’m taking care with the characters and the writing. It’s interesting that I started it when I was still in that period where I was not writing much at all, but it was a reaction to my father’s death. He died in September 1997, and in October I found myself jotting down phrases and composing paragraphs that would fit into some kind of adventure-fantasy story. I was clearly working through my grief by turning to what I knew how to do, putting words on the page for that kind of story. I would up finishing about 16,000 words before letting it go. But I showed that beginning to friends, who liked it very much, so I’ve continued to work on it off and on over the years. Now it’s past 50,000 words, and I’m wrapping up the last ten or so, so it will be done soon.

After that, I’d like to finish Coven House.

And then, Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press is going to reprint the entire Attluma or Oron series, those five books, in new editions—Oron and the rest of them—so I once I scan them in and clean them up, those will be coming out. We’re already discussing a cover for the new edition of Oron.

Bob will be bringing out Tales of Attluma very soon; those are the fantasy and adventure stories I wrote way back in the fanzine days, from 1971, 1972 on. I’ve touched them up and, in fact, have rewritten some of them, so now they’re in the shape they should have been all along if I’d had the experience back in the seventies that I have now.

And Bob is also bringing out Bright Star, a project dear to my heart and something very different for me. It’s about the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful, important movie star from the period when Chicago was basically Hollywood, with the studios and movie stars on the north side, back in the 1910s. Her great-great-nephew, now a script doctor in Hollywood, begins investigating the cause of her disappearance, and it leads him down many interesting paths. This was my labor of love, letting me vicariously relive the days when the movies were new and people made things up as they went along, inventing film storytelling the way we understand it now.

In what direction do you think your work is now heading? 

Toward improving my expression, writing clearly—I love the English language—and toward continuing to learn how to construct solid, tense stories with strong characters. Bright Star and Dark Muse and Coven House point in that direction. I’ll certainly continue to write adventure-fantasy stories—I feel about them the way Leigh Brackett felt about sword-and-planet.

In what genre of fiction have you not yet written but would like to in the future? Any plans to write more horror—or even a science fiction novel?

I’d like to write more horror and more suspense, such as “Coven House” and Dark Muse and Seasons of the Moon. I’d like to write more about the situations in Seasons of the Moon, go into the history of Weyburn and its matriarchal society and bring the town into the seventies and eighties. I could probably also expand on some of the ideas I had back in the seventies. I like the idea of ancient or remote things intruding on the present and mocking or undercutting our sense of complacence, that we’re secure and have everything figured out, that we’re in control. Scratch the surface, and nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m not sure I have the vision to write sf; I tend toward mythic and Gothic material. I do, though, have ideas for a kind of cosmic horror story. Maybe it would be called Lovecraftian to a degree, although it’s more like the Quatermass movies of the fifties and sixties. Those pictures are built perfectly. On the other hand, sometimes I think I’ve had my say and have done enough. I like aiming high, but I don’t think I’m right for the times. I’ve left a few good stories behind. That sounds pessimistic, I’m sure, so we’ll see.

Name a few of your favorite literary characters and tell us why they are your favorites.

Aside from some of Howard’s heroes, Pierre Bezhukov in War and Peace. I really sympathize with him, and he was the inspiration for the character of Count Adred in The Fall of the First World. Achilles and Hector in the Iliad, of course—two sides of the same coin, being men, each representing a different aspect of manhood but still complete in themselves. Gatsby—because he’s doomed from the start, of course, but he’s so romantic in such an essentially American way. I’d have to include Arturo Bandini, the alter ego of John Fante, a great writer nobody seems to have heard about. I like Kull; maybe he’s not as fully developed as Conan or as reflexive and crafty as Conan, but he’s thoughtful and introspective, truly regal. I feel that way about Bran Mak Morn, too. And Charles Saunders’s Imaro, which is a wonderful creation, fully human; I’ve admired that character since I read my first story about him—in Space & Time, of course, back in the seventies. This is fun: I took one of these goofy online quizzes years ago to find out which great literary figure I most resemble; turns out it was Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights! Hope I don’t turn out as he did, though.

What are some of your all-time favorite films and TV shows?

The first TV shows that come to mind are Have Gun—Will Travel and Millennium. Paladin is a terrific character, all there, really well balanced. Millennium, of course, especially the first season, because of Lance Henriksen’s character struggling as well as he does with his dark gift. I’m surprised there was no theatrical movie made after it went off the air. And they’re both outsiders; for whatever reason, that aspect in characters speaks to me. Plus News Radio. I have the first three or four years on DVD. Great ensemble work, and it reminds us that comedy has drama and tension going on underneath it all the time. Many of the BBC productions—Reilly: Ace of Spies and I, Claudius, going back a ways. And any of the British mystery series. I could watch those back to back all day long.

As far as films go, there are many. Vertigo tops the list, along with Notorious for the Hitchcock pictures. Scorsese—Mean Streets and Goodfellas and Casino. Lots from the Golden Age—His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels, Captain Blood, Casablanca, The Mummy, King Kong. There’s a William S. Hart picture I watch regularly called The Toll Gate; it’s as solid as Shane and The Searchers. Recent pictures I like are Hell or High Water and Finding Neverland, Genius and Trumbo. I very much like Night of the Demon; that had an influence on The Fair Rules of Evil, that movie and Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch Queen. I watch Tombstone at least once a year. Kind of all over the place, I know. I like stories about creative people. The Whole Wide World, which I just recommended to a friend; she loved it, was riveted by the performances. And so many film noir movies, I can’t keep track of them, like Where the Sidewalk Ends—these great little desperate, dark pictures with people caught in traps of their own making. These postwar noir pictures are like the pre-Code movies in that way, although in the pre-Code movies, decent people are trying to do what they can to survive in a corrupt, rotten world; in the postwar pictures, everyone’s eyes are already open to the fact that everything is corrupt.

Tell us about your writing habits, such as: Do you outline extensively? Do you create your characters first, or your plot? Do you listen to music while writing, and if so, what kind?

When I first started out with novels, I outlined extensively. The short stories I’d just sit down and write, and if they worked out, fine; if not, I threw them away. But you just can’t do that with novels; at least, I can’t. Oron and Shadow I worked out as I wrote them with only some scenes and the endings in mind, but after that, I outlined everything—the Sonjas, the other Orons, all of them. The synopsis for The Fall of the First World was fifty pages long—single-spaced! The outline or synopsis for a third David Trevisan novel, a sequel to The Fair Rules of Evil and The Eyes of Night, was 17,000 words. Ace didn’t buy it, so I made copies of the synopsis myself, photocopied them and glued the pages together into a paperback-size book for friends to put on the shelf next to the first two books.

Since coming back to writing, though, I find that my habits have changed. I was worried when I wrote Seasons of the Moon—it had been so long since I’d attempted a novel, and I felt that I had actually killed the writer part of me, which was an awful feeling, as if I were missing part of myself. Very weird. I eventually got it back, but in the meantime, I wrote solid scenes, and those kind of told me what sort of story they would make. It’s been that way ever since. I don’t formally write down an outline the way I did for commercial publishers; I do it all in my mind and with little scribbled notes. No doubt it’s because the stories now come from the characters as they come to life and take charge.

In the seventies and early eighties, I always played background music when I wrote, and I even chose some compositions to go with a couple of my novels—Gliere’s Third Symphony, the Ilya Mourametz, for Oron, and Chausson’s Symphony in B-flat minor and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony for Shadow. I’ve loved classical music since I was a kid—go figure—so I’ve used it as a kind of soundtrack as I wrote. From the New World got played a lot, and The Isle of the Dead. Franck. Tchaikovsky. Borodin. Sibelius. The Romantic era, all of these strong, epic emotions.

What else can you tell us about your reading habits?

I do try to read as widely as possible, both fiction and nonfiction, and I seem to buy books like an addict. I read pulp, especially the books written by friends of mine. I appreciate pulp; the characters are large and the stories are large and elemental, stories down to their essence. I don’t care for much of the postmodern fiction, although I’m trying, but it seems too forced and self-aware to me, too much about the author performing, but that’s postmodernism for you. I guess I am conservative when it comes to structuring fiction, surely the only time you’ll hear the word conservative applied to me. But my approach is that the writer should be the person behind the screen. Modern writers such as Toni Morrison and Michael Chabon. And I like Chuck Palahniuk and Joe R. Landsdale, so I guess I’m all over the place. I like the early modern writers, the so-called classics we all had to read, because they seem to be more about seeing clearly and reporting. I’ve been going back to them, now that I’m retired—Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Katherine Anne Porter. I haven’t read as many contemporary women writers or international writers as I should, but I should have the time, now.

In nonfiction, I read history and current events, both popular stuff and scholarly. Right now I’m finishing Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization, by Robert A. Williams, Jr. The premise is that the West since the Greeks has defined its civilization in terms of superiority compared with barbarians, savages, people who are no better than animals—that’s where we’ve inherited our sense of superiority and entitlement. Fits right in with Sometime Lofty Towers, which is about an indigenous people’s holy lands being taken over by invaders—Picts versus Romans, or the Crusades, or the settling of the American West. These indigenous people have sorcery, though, and very much give as good as they get. The protagonist is a mercenary caught between both cultures since he married a kirange woman and has come to prefer their ways to those of civilization, echoing many such personal stories when cultures clash.

Tell us about your childhood and how that plays into your writing.

My childhood was wonderful up until adolescence. We were in Liberty Township in Trumbull County, Ohio, kind of semi-rural. I played in the sandbox in the side yard with plastic dinosaurs and army men and figurines from my Fort Apache set, making up stories about the men going back in time and being eaten by the dinosaurs before the volcano erupted. I was near-sighted and slightly built, so I was no good at basketball, but I enjoyed the baseball games and football games we played when I was a kid. Spent a lot of time reading comic books and paperbacks and drawing endlessly; I have a bit of talent and thought when I was older that I might become a comic artist. But in junior high school and senior high school, I was a nerd with bad skin and not particularly athletic, so I kept to myself. I did, however, in high school, start making 8mm movies with some friends, so that was great. Gave me some direction in visual storytelling and writing. I’m still in touch with friends I met in the first grade, so even though I was picked on by some jerks, in retrospect, things turned out okay. To this day, my friends still pull out those movies and watch them again. We made a version of The Mummy, and did a Western—that one turned out really well—and a psychological story about a young man who kills a bum, kind of like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. And a story set in the future after the nuclear apocalypse.

Besides Oron, your legacy character, your Tales of Attluma, your novels based on Howard’s Red Sonja, Bran Make Morn (both co-authored by Richard L. Tierney), and your solo outing with Terence Vulmea, which of your characters do you find the most fascinating?

I like David Trevisan because he’s sort of my alter ego; I wish I’d been able to write more about him. Then again, nothing’s stopping me now, so I suppose I could get on with it. And Count Adred, of course, in The Fall, and particularly Thameron and Assia, these star-crossed lovers who are both innocents at heart but become so strange to themselves, Thameron, the priest who becomes the sorcerer and the focus of evil in that world, and Assia, driven into prostitution by her father who becomes the good, fearless person who frees Eromedeus from his undying curse. They’re all real for me. So is Catherine Farr, the actress in Bright Star. That may sound strange, coming from a guy who writes bloody stories, but I’d love to go back in time and meet her. Donald Sidney-Fryer has read the manuscript; he said he fell in love with her. So have I.

Can you tell us some things about David C. Smith that your fans and readers may not know?

Well, I’m 2.3% Neanderthal! Maybe that has more influence on my taste in fiction writing than I am aware of! And my family feels I am too addicted to snacking on bags of chips, which is true.

Thank you very much for taking time out to do this interview, Dave. It’s been fun and insightful. This has been a truly great interview, and I learned so many things I never knew! All the best to you, and long may you write!

Joe, the pleasure’s been all mine. Thank you for your patience. I’ve gone on for way too long about myself! Too much information!

To all our Black Gate readers and fans, Dave and I thank you.

Joe Bonadonna

Here’s William Patrick Maynard’s great review of Dave’s and my Waters of Darkness.
You can read an excerpt of Waters of Darkness right Here.   
You can also read an excerpt of Dave’s thriller, Dark Muse.
Check out Dave’s excellent article on Robert E. Howard’s The Pool of the Black One for Bob Byrne’s Black Gate series, Hither Came Conan.
Dave’s website: http://blog.davidcsmith.net/



Thursday, October 3, 2019

ZOMBIES ON THE PROWL


9 Seasons of Hell on Earth: 

Some thoughts about The Walking Dead and George Romero's series of six "Living Dead" films.




“Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”
— George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead (original 1968)

I chose to finally write about The Walking Dead after nine seasons because of the departure of a major character, which changed the whole dynamic of the series, turning it into a different direction. For fans of the show, much of what is in this article is me stating the obvious. I know many people who have stopped watching the show after various seasons, for one reason or another. I also know people who have never watched TWD and never will, and some who have just started watching. There may be some hints and clues about certain things, but there are no real spoilers here. This article is about how the show affects me, personally.

Someone on Facebook commented that they stopped watching simply because the show is so sad, even depressing. True. This is not a comedy. There’s a lot of sorrow and sadness in almost every episode, a veritable trail of tears. Sometimes the grief on an actor’s face is enough to get to me. There are powerful emotions here: both love and hate, as well as fear and horror in the eyes of the characters; there’s also plenty of heart and soul poured into these scenes, which the cast so effectively conveys. As a relative told me when we were discussing the series over the Labor Day weekend, “My heart has been ripped out over and over again by what happens to these characters. I feel their pain, I feel their grief and I mourn with them.” I agree with her. I’ve gotten caught up in the lives and deaths of these characters. So please, bear with me.

Although I’ve read only a handful of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, I’ve been a fan of the television series since episode one, and still remain a fan. I’m not a mad puppy because the show’s producers and writers made some changes which aren’t part of Kirkman’s mythos. Certain characters that had been killed in the graphic novels became so popular on the TV show that the producers decided to keep them around. Other popular characters were killed off on the show and, as most writers know, characters and plot twists often demand to be heard and made.
All in all, I think Frank Darabont, Gale Anne Hurd, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and a truly outstanding ensemble cast all brings Kirkman’s vision to life. Yes, I get frustrated with the show over some plot twists, when the good guys fail to kill the bad guys when they had the chance, or when a likeable character is killed off. Yet such decisions often lead to more plot twists and turns. All that being said, the reality of TWD’s world reflects the true nature of Life: Death happens, tragically, senselessly, unexpectedly. Good people die. Bad people go on living. Even good decisions can lead to tragic and fatal results. Every decision, whether wise or foolish, has some sort of consequence. Sometimes the results are small blessings. Sometimes things go horribly wrong. Murphy’s Law rules in this world. Either you’re alive and fighting desperately to stay that way, or you’re dead — permanently or not. Everything means something. Everything ties into something else. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and mortared with bad ones, and this is the world of The Walking Dead. This is Hell.

“When there’s no more room in Hell, the Dead shall walk the Earth.”
— George A. Romero, Dawn of the Dead (original1978)

The Walking Dead is a direct and legitimate descendant of George Romero’s Living Dead films, and it often pays homage to him. For me, TWD is the penultimate “zombie apocalypse” epic, and like Romero’s films, the series is not about the zombies. Yes, the show is bloody and graphically violent, as it should be. But I see nothing gratuitous here; that’s the nature of this vicious world, and only part of the horror that has befallen it. The show is all about the people who fighting for their lives, fighting to survive in a dark and hopeless world. You can replace the walking dead with more realistic threats like nuclear holocaust, a pandemic, world-wide drought and famine — whatever. It would still be much the same: a nightmare.

In a way, the series reminds me of the post-apocalyptic novels of J.G. Ballard: The Crystal Word, The Drought, The Wind from Nowhere, and The Drowning World. Ballard used ecological global disasters to examine the human condition, to tell stories about the survivors and how these catastrophes affect them, how they change them. This is what The Walking Dead is doing in the context of a zombie apocalypse, and why it still works for me. Although the show is played out in a scenario filled with terror and horror, it is not just another tale of zombies eating the flesh of the living: this is pure human drama, filled with tension and suspense, and yet not without subtle touches of humor that come from the dialog between characters who are not there just for comedic relief, nor does the humor play out through moments of slapstick involving comical zombies. The resurrected Dead in TWD, while slow-moving, are savage, dangerous and deadly, and there are a lot of them — hordes and herds of them all over the place. But the Dead are innocents, like any jungle or forest animal. No longer human, they do what they do, driven by mindless instinct: they eat anything that lives, although their main prey is people: we’re no longer at the top of the food chain. Ah, but people can be much worse: they terrorize other people and commit atrocities that far surpass what any zombie can do. Everything in life is about people, and everything about this show revolves around people, many of whom are just as dangerous as the living Dead. Sure, the Dead pose a threat because they outnumber us, they can multiply faster than we can, they’re relentless and they never get tired. As for the Living . . . they can think and plan, organize and shoot us from a distance. The Dead aren’t the monsters here: no . . . human beings are the monsters.

In essence, The Walking Dead is about human endurance and human frailty. The show is a celebration of the human spirit, and runs the entire spectrum of the human condition: finding and losing love; family, friendship and loyalty; trust and betrayal; heroism and cowardice; salvation, redemption, forgiveness; justice versus revenge; subjugation and slavery; kindness, depravity and barbarism. It’s about the capricious malevolence of greedy and power-hungry men and women: the strong prey on the weak. Through the characters that inhabit this world, the good, the bad and the ugly sides of human nature are revealed. We’re shown how an apocalypse of any kind will affect and change us. These characters have all lost someone they love and hold near and dear in their hearts. Many have lost everything they knew and had in life. The people in this world of the Dead are orphans of an apocalyptic storm, yet they hang on to what little hope they have. The Walking Dead is an End of the World scenario: dark and grim, brutal and cruel. To put a religious spin on it all, as George Romero often did . . . this could very well be the End Times, the Tribulation. This is Armageddon. But there’s no Rapture here, only the resurrection of the dead, and in the context of this show it’s the greatest cosmic joke of all.

The television series, like the graphic novels, is also about people who would never have met, if not for this apocalyptic nightmare. These people are fighting to survive, to protect each other from the Dead as well as from other people. Against all odds they’re establishing communities and trying to rebuild civilization. They’re trying to save what’s left of the world. What this series does so well is to bring people together. Love blossoms, although lovers change, grow and move on — or are literally torn apart. There are gay, lesbian and interracial romances, and race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation no longer matter to most of these characters. They’re just trying to rebuild their lives and find some happiness in a dying world inhabited by the Walking Dead. The world also has its share of human predators in the form of various gangs of killers, thieves and marauders: the butchers of Terminus, the Grady Memorial Hospital enclave and the murderous scavengers called the Wolves, for example.

Unlike the Resident Evil series, for instance, (which also owes much to George Romero), The Walking Dead is not wall-to-wall action, although it can hold its own when those moments burst upon the scene. Action scenes are expertly choreographed, filmed and edited. The special effects by KNB EFX are excellent. Make-up, practical effects, animatronic zombies, CGI, real locations, cinematography, set design and set decoration . . . these are all done with loving care and are as good as and often better than anything done in theatrical films. Everything about TWD is epic in scope, vision, characters and plot. However, all this would be mere window dressing if not for solid, three-dimensional characters, their motives and alliances, conflicts, suspicions and betrayals. The characters, their relationships, what they do, how they react, what they choose — these drive the plot and make the show interesting to me. Yeah, producers are making a big-budget zombie epic, and they pull none of their gory punches. They do it all. What they don’t do is neglect the human element, they don’t forget character development, which is always front and center, and a well-cast ensemble of fine actors bring to vivid life the characters they portray.

“They’re us. We’re them and they’re us.”
— George Romero, Night of the Living Dead (1990 remake.)

What I like are the quiet moments between the characters, revealing moments of reflection and discussion, when we learn more about them and come to understand them. Almost every major character has a back story, often told through flashback or dialog. Good guys or bad guys, we come to see this grave new world through their eyes. Each character is unique, although there are characters that serve as nothing more than “red shirts” — zombie fodder. The cast is superb, creating deep and complex characters: there are few clich├ęs or stereotypes here. Characters have story arcs, and those with the most interesting and surprising arcs are my favorites. For instance: Morgan (Lennie James) — deeply troubled and conflicted, but heroic and honorable; he is the first character to save the life of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the star of the series. Glenn (Steven Yuen) — likeable, young, brave, and who grows into a true leader: he is truly the one who sets the ball into play when he saves Rick from a herd of Walking Dead. That simple act of kindness takes them on a journey of friendship and a quest to build a safe haven for their group of survivors. I have many favorites: Herschel (the late Scott Wilson), Carol (Melissa McBride), Darryl (Norman Reedus), Michone (Danai Gurira), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Tyrese (Chad Coleman), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), Rosita ‎(Christian Serratos), Tara (Alanna Masterson), Maggie ‎(Lauren Cohan), and Father Gabriel ‎(Seth Gilliam.) It’s a huge cast, and the actors always get some memorable screen time in which their talent and acting skills allow them to shine. The cast is run through the mill and put through the whole gamut of human emotions and conflicts. Now I must mention the three villains who often steal the show, each one interesting, complicated, unique, and each quite different from the others.

First we have the Governor of Woodbury, played with charming, disarming, creepy and ultimately deadly perfection by David Morrissey. A charismatic leader with a nasty agenda and a violent way of dealing with his enemies and traitors, for him there was no redemption. Then there’s Negan, leader of the self-styled Saviors of Sanctuary, expertly portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He’s a likeable bad ass, but truly cruel; he commits acts of murder and mayhem that would make Satan cry out in horror. He’s my favorite, and his arc has taken an unexpected turn. Negan has to pay for his crimes, but I hope he dies saving the lives of others, thus winning some redemption for himself. MINOR SPOILER ALERT: he’s already risked his life to save someone, and that act of unselfish heroism could be a new beginning for him. (As I stated above, I’ve read only a handful of the graphic novels, so I have no idea what becomes of Negan and, of course, what the show’s producers and writers might do with him.) Now we have an eerie, sinister and disturbing villainess: Alpha — played to wicked perfection by Samantha Morton. She’s leader of the Whisperers, a community of people who prefer to live in the wild and have come up with a clever but grisly way to survive and walk among the Dead. They are, in my opinion, the most dangerous threat to the communities of Alexandria, the Kingdom, Hilltop and Oceanside because not only are there a lot of them, and they just come out of nowhere, they’re using the Dead, whom they call their Guardians, as their own private army.

What I also like about the show is that there are few pop-culture references. No one yells out, “Shoot ‘em in the head, like in the movies!” There’s no mention of other cinematic genres, either. In episode one policeman Rick Grimes tells his partner Shane that his brother was once stuck in a blizzard with only cake or snacks, and the audio tapes of Lord of the Rings, and later someone calls him Clint Eastwood. Another character mentions the arrival of Maggie during a crucial scene, “like Zorro on a horse,” and one little girl is told to read Tom Sawyer. That’s pretty much it. These are timeless references, not references to current artists, films, musicians, actors, politicians and celebrities. The excellent soundtrack by Bear McCreary, while using an original score, also includes a few known and popular songs, which works for me because it adds an element of realism to the series.

I finished writing this article on September 8, 2019, and The Walking Dead won’t be entering its tenth season until October. I have avoided all fan pages, websites and even the official Facebook page because I don’t want to know what may or may not happen next. I have, however, heard that Robert Kirkman’s final novel in the series is on its way. I have not seen even one episode of Fear the Walking Dead, and I don’t know if I ever will. I’ve also heard that another spin-off is in the works, as well as a theatrical film starring one of the actors who left TWD, but not because he or she was killed off. Perhaps this is now getting out of hand and too much is a little too much. But I suppose as long as people keep watching and the cash cow can still be milked, the Dead will continue to walk. I’d like to see TWD end before it grows stale for me, as it already has for so many others. I can see the show taking two or three more seasons at most to reach a satisfactory conclusion, although it may take longer, depending on how closely the producers stick to Kirkman’s novels, how he ends his series, and how well the ratings hold up. As much as I love the characters, the plot twists and turns, I hope The Walking Dead doesn’t end up with worn out feet and finish with an “and they all lived happily ever after” finale.

Maybe bringing in Alice (Milla Jovovich) from Resident Evil and Selene (Kate Beckinsdale) from the Underworld series would be a good way to end the show. They'd get rid of those Walkers, although Selene might want to make some new vampires. 




Oh, How Those Zombies Have Evolved, Devolved and Decayed!


 I have yet to hear the word zombie used in The Walking Dead. According to what I heard, the “Bible” the writers use states that the word not be used. I can’t remember if Kirkman ever used zombie in his graphic novels, but it seems to me that the series’ producers and writers don’t want to use a term that has been incorrectly used and overused in films and TV. It’s almost as if zombie is a word unknown to the characters of TWD’s world, and they have no zombie myths and legends, no zombie films. Thus, the Dead are commonly referred to as Walkers, although different communities have their own words for them: Biters and Skineaters, for example. I applaud that decision by all involved. Now, let me conclude by giving my thoughts on how a new definition of zombie crept into the lexicon and vocabulary of pop culture.

To my knowledge, George A Romero invented the flesh-eating zombie genre. Before him there were films like White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Zombies of Mora Tau — films I saw as a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, and all of them deal with more traditional, Haitian-voodoo zombies. After the original Night of the Living Dead, filmmakers such as Dario Argento (producer and Romero's collaborator), and Lucio Fulci jumped into the zombie arena. Then came a host of spin-offs, take-offs, remakes, reboots and rip-offs.

I always thought George Romero never used the word zombie in his Living Dead films. But after binge-watching all six of his living dead films, I learned a few things. In Night of the Living Dead, the Dead are referred to as cannibals and ghouls. In Dawn of the Dead, the character of Peter (Ken Foree) calls them zombies; the end credits list four actors under the heading, LEAD ZOMBIES. The characters in Day of the Dead call the Dead everything but zombies. By the time Romero got around to filming Land of the Dead, the zombie genre had exploded like a Walker’s head after being hit by a shotgun blast. In this film the Dead are called Stenches, although one character refers to them as Walkers. Dennis Hopper calls them zombies in one scene. In Diary of the Dead, which I consider Romero’s best, and was basically a reboot of the series, no one knows what’s going on, and the Living Dead are referred to as “the Dead.” In his final film, Survival of the Dead, the word zombie is used a couple of times. Tom Savini’s fairly decent 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, with a new screenplay by George Romero, went back to the basics and did not use zombie as a term for the Living Dead.

It’s interesting to note the changes in the appearance and behavior of the Living Dead throughout the six films, how they started to evolve while physically turning more and more “rotten.” In Night of the Living Dead, the Dead look fresh, almost alive. The first one we see in the cemetery remembered how to open a car door when he attacked Barbra, and even picked up a rick to smash the car’s window. The living-dead girl in the farmhouse basement used a garden tool to kill her mother. While the Dead in Dawn of the Dead showed more signs of rot and decay, there was one that picked up a tire iron to use as a weapon; another remembered how to play hockey. There was a lot of humor and comical zombies in this film, and they displayed some sort of memory of visiting a shopping mall. By Day of the Dead, when the tone of the series grew darker and more hopeless, the Dead have decayed even more, and they became “dumb fucks,” as one character called them. But then there was Bub (wonderfully played by Sherman Howard), who had become Doctor Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan’s (Richard Liberty) pet project. Bub had pretty much been tamed and domesticated, and displayed not only memory but some feelings of kindness and even friendship for the doctor. Bub also listened to cassette tapes, tried to shave, remembered what a telephone is, saluted Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) and later aimed an empty .45 at him. In the film’s climax, Bub found a loaded gun and shot the Captain.

The fourth film, Land of the Dead, showed the Stenches to be still rotting away as they begin to evolve: the Dead musicians trying to play their instruments, for instance, and of course Big Daddy (interestingly played by Eugene Clarke), the gas station zombie who appears to be almost human, is filled with anger and rage — and remembers the job he had in life; he also learns how to use a machine gun and a jackhammer, and eventually organizes, teaches and becomes the leader of the Stenches. However, as I mentioned above, Diary of the Dead was basically a series reboot, and the living dead had reverted back to being mindless animals. But then, in the final film, Survival of the Dead, our world has pretty much ended and the Dead now rule. This is a film based on the Gregory Peck western, The Big Country, which Romero admitted was an influence. Only here, the rivalry and feud is between one Irish clan leader who believes the Dead can be taught to eat something other than people, and another clan leader who thinks they should all be put down like rabid dogs. It’s interesting to note that for the first time Romero used the same actor in both films: Alan van Sprang as Sergeant “Nicotine” Crockett, who had one scene in Diary, went on to star in Survival. Here again, we see the zombies evolving, especially in the character of the horse-riding Janet O’Flynn, twin sister to Jane; both roles played by Kathleen Munroe. In the end, the Dead do learn to eat something other than people.

The Walking Dead has pretty much returned to basics with their mindless and much more decayed Walkers, although they’re no less dangerous and savage. I’ve yet to see any signs that they’re evolving, becoming something else, as in the Resident Evil series. Again, I don’t know if “zombie evolution” is part of the graphic novels, and I have no idea if it will play a role in the television version. However, where Romero’s Living Dead were more often than not afraid of fire, the TV show’s Walkers are drawn to it like moths to a flame. In Land of the Dead, the Stenches are fascinated by “sky flowers” — fireworks used to distract them, until they lose interest and just keep shambling along. While I don’t find any “scares” in the Walking or Living Dead resurrected corpses, when I stop to think about it, they’re frightening because being dead, they have no fear; they’re relentless and cannot be stopped until their brains are turned to mush, sliced in half or filled with bullet holes.

Lastly, I’d like to briefly touch on the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. While I like this film, like the changes it made in an attempt to do something different, and think it’s a well-made film, I find it empty of theme, devoid of meaning. Sure, survival is the heart of it all, but this is basically an action film. I saw no social commentary, no message or statement being made.

Now, in 1968 there were few black actors starring in major motion pictures, and I can’t think of one horror film that featured a black hero. So Romero broke new ground when he cast Duane Jones to star as Ben, the hero. I don’t know if this was his vision all along or if he revised his script at some point because of the assassination of Martin Luther King. King was murdered on April 4, 1968, and Night of the Living Dead premiered on October 1, 1968. Thus, to me, an underlying theme or social commentary of the first film is racism. (Romero flipped things around in his script for the 1990 remake. In this one Ben (Tony Todd), still a hero, comes to a much different but just as tragic of an end, while the character arc for Barbra (Patricia Tallman) takes her from a frightened and screaming girl to a warrior woman who takes no shit. This film, for me, is a commentary on feminism, equal rights for women, and puts their strength and resilience in the forefront.)

As so many fans and film critics have remarked, the original Dawn of the Dead was all about the influence of consumerism in our lives. I see Day of the Dead as a return to the old “military versus the scientists” theme so often portrayed in 1950s’ science fiction films; it may even be a commentary on the military-industrial complex. Land of the Dead, in my opinion, is a commentary on capitalism and a two-class system: the rich and powerful live in the Fiddler’s Green Tower, while the poor and the destitute basically live on the streets. Mainstream media, the internet, bloggers, fake and altered news is at the heart of Diary of the Dead. Over the course of these six films the actual cause of the Dead being resurrected is never explained, and sometimes not even discussed. In Night of the Living Dead, there was mention of possible “radiation from the Venus probe” being the cause. In the next two films characters discussed a religious explanation — like a plague sent by God to punish Mankind. In The Walking Dead, we know it’s some sort of virus that we’re all infected with, and even if we die in our sleep, we’ll rise again. But what’s the cause of this virus? Is it natural, extraterrestrial in origin or man-made — some scientific or medical experiment gone horribly wrong? Is there or will there be a cure? Perhaps we’ll find out, perhaps we’ll never know.