April 28, 2016

A Rude Awakening for Readers: an interview with Adam Howe, author of "Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet"

From Adam Howe, winner of Stephen King’s “On Writing” short story contest, comes three original novellas of hardboiled crime, graphic horror and pitch-black gallows humor.

DAMN DIRTY APES - Washed-up prizefighter Reggie Levine is eking a living as a strip club bouncer when he’s offered an unlikely shot at redemption. The Bigelow Skunk Ape – a mythical creature said to haunt the local woods – has kidnapped the high school football mascot, Boogaloo Baboon. Now it’s up to Reggie to lead a misfit posse including a plucky stripper, the town drunk, and legend-in-his-own-mind skunk ape hunter Jameson T. Salisbury. Their mission: Slay the beast and rescue their friend. But not everything is as it seems, and as our heroes venture deeper into the heart of darkness, they will discover worse things waiting in the woods than just the Bigelow Skunk Ape. The story the Society for the Preservation of the North American Skunk Ape tried to ban; Damn Dirty Apes mixes Roadhouse with Jaws with Sons of Anarchy, to create a rollicking romp of 80s-style action/adventure, creature horror and pitch-black comedy.

DIE DOG OR EAT THE HATCHET - Escaped mental patient Terrence Hingle, the butcher of five sorority sisters at the Kappa Pi Massacre, kidnaps timid diner waitress Tilly Mulvehill and bolts for the border. Forcing his hostage to drive him out of town, it’s just a question of time before Tilly becomes the next victim in Hingle’s latest killing spree. But when they stop for gas at a rural filling station operated by deranged twin brothers, Dwayne and Dwight Ritter, the tables are turned on Hingle, and for Tilly the night becomes a hellish cat-and-mouse ordeal of terror and depravity. The meat in a maniac sandwich, Tilly is forced against her nature to make a stand and fight for survival. Because sometimes the only choice you have is to do or die…to Die Dog Or Eat The Hatchet.

GATOR BAIT - Prohibition-era 1930s… After an affair with the wrong man’s wife, seedy piano player Smitty Three Fingers flees the city and finds himself tinkling the ivories at a Louisiana honky-tonk owned by vicious bootlegger Horace Croker and his trophy wife, Grace. Folks come to The Grinnin’ Gator for the liquor and burlesque girls, but they keep coming back for Big George, the giant alligator Croker keeps in the pond out back. Croker is rumored to have fed ex-wives and enemies to his pet, so when Smitty and Grace embark on a torrid affair…what could possibly go wrong? Inspired by true events, Gator Bait mixes hardboiled crime (James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice) with creature horror (Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive) to create a riveting tale of suspense.

Gef: What got the ball rolling on this collection coming together?

Adam: My debut collection, Black Cat Mojo, was promoted as being written by ‘the winner of Stephen King’s On Writing contest.’ Hey, you’ve got Steve King’s seal of approval, you’ve gotta use it, right? I’m not sure how many readers came to Black Cat Mojo expecting King-type stories, but I imagine those that did got a rude awakening. Of Badgers & Porn Dwarfs ain’t exactly The Shining. So my initial plan was to follow Black Cat Mojo with a more ‘traditional’ horror/crime story. Which seems funny in retrospect, considering how crazy the novella Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet turned out. By the time I’d finished Die Dog, I really didn’t know what I had, or if it even worked – I wasn’t hiding behind my humour so much, and it seemed so relentlessly dark. (Readers seem to like it, so it all worked out.) I thought I’d better cover my ass with a solid B-side story: Gator Bait. By this time, Black Cat Mojo had been released, and the readers who’d found it seemed to dig the offbeat humour. On the one hand, that was a huge relief. But now I started worrying Black Cat Mojo readers would expect more of the same. So I wrote Damn Dirty Apes for them… In other words, this collection came about due to my own insecurities and self-doubt. I figured if I threw enough shit at the wall, something had to stick.

Gef: You had previously released Gator Bait on its own as an e-book exclusive. Was that as an appetizer in the lead up to this collection's release?

Adam: Gator Bait was released in advance of the collection, at a reduced price, to lure readers to the rest of my work, particularly crime fiction readers, who might be otherwise leery of the horror stuff. (I find that a lot of crime fiction readers are ex- horror hounds who feel they’ve ‘outgrown’ the genre.) Gator Bait has some graphic horror/monster moments, but it is, at heart, a hardboiled crime piece. I envisioned it as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice meets Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive.

The experiment seemed to work. Gator Bait reached a lot of new readers. For a limited time, it was available to download as a freebie, and charted at #1, making me one of those dubious ‘bestselling’ authors we see so many of on social media.

Gef: Parents swear they don't have a favorite child, but authors can't usually get away with that sentiment towards their stories. So which of the three stories is your favorite?

Adam: Thanks for the Sophie’s Choice, Gef… I’m proud of my work on Gator Bait, and dig that 30s pulp tone, which I’d like to revisit in future works. But the story I’m most fond of is Damn Dirty Apes. That was a lot of fun to write, and I think it shows on the page. I can reread that one and still get a kick out of it – which is rare for me; usually all I see are the glaring errors. (And oh, but they’re still there…) I enjoy the characters, especially my hapless hero, boxer turned strip club bouncer turned monster hunter, Reggie Levine. In fact, I liked Reggie enough that I’ve written a sequel, Tijuana Donkey Showdown. Depending on how readers like that one, I may even prolong Reggie’s misery to a third misadventure. We’ll see how it goes.

Gef: With Gator Bait, you had a fast-paced story, but is a faster pace necessarily inherent with novella-length fiction?

Adam: Depends on the tone of the story. A traditional ghost story, for instance, might call for a slower, more insidious pace. Personally, I like a fast pace, especially when reading on my Kindle, and for indie writers like myself, eBooks are mostly where it’s at. My pacing comes from my experience as a screenwriter, when you have enter scenes late, and leave ‘em as early as possible; there’s no time for filler in a feature film screenplay. I apply the same discipline to fiction, novellas especially, which makes for an intense, cinematic reading experience. My novellas aren’t screenplays adapted to prose, or movie treatments, but I want the reader to experience them as they would a movie. I’m a visual storyteller, at heart.

Gef: Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet has that psycho slasher vibe. Where did the influences for this one come from?

Adam: For sure, this one reads like a down n’ dirty retro slasher flick. If it existed as a film, it would have been banned during the UK’s video nasty craze of the 80s.

Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw is the biggest influence on Die Dog. Hooper, despite catching lightning in a bottle with Texas Chainsaw, is not a great filmmaker. But in his early pictures, he was unusual in allowing his camera to linger on and humanize his monsters, most effectively with the demented family dynamic of Texas Chainsaw’s cannibal clan. There are similar, albeit lesser moments in Eaten Alive and The Funhouse, where we see Hooper’s maniacs shambling around their decrepit environments, muttering crazily to themselves. That was something I tried to replicate with Die Dog’s Ritter brothers.

Hitchcock’s Psycho was another influence. In particular, I wanted to use The Psycho Switch as a plot device, shifting point of view from one character to another. So the character of escaped serial killer Terrence Hingle was my Marion Crane, running afoul of a pair of Norman Bateses in the Ritter brothers.

I was interested in pitting ‘urban’ versus ‘rural’ psychos. Ted Bundy vs. Texas Chainsaw’s Sawyer clan. Then I threw an innocent female victim into the mix, as the meat in the maniac sandwich, and stood back to watch the sparks fly… As I’ve said, when I wrote Die Dog, I didn’t have the collection in mind. This one written with an eye towards the ‘extreme’ horror market. It’s not gore for gore’s sake, but it is very graphic at times, and reader discretion is advised.

Gef: Damn Dirty Apes goes the cryptozoological route, and a skunk ape runs a different vibe than the giant gator in Gator Bait. Were you lookin' to write something from the deep south's folklore and this jumped out at ya?

Adam: With a story as bizarre as Damn Dirty Apes, it’s hard for me to claim any real method behind the madness. I’d learned about the ‘furry’ subculture – people cosplaying as animals – and the inevitable sub-subculture of ‘furry’ porn. Each to their own, I guess. From that I had image of a Bigfoot-type creature abducting a porn star during a backwoods porn shoot. I chose to use the skunk ape, rather than Bigfoot, because it fit the story’s hick-lit tone, and I felt that skunk apes had been woefully underused in creature fiction. I was soon to discover why.

During my research, I stumbled across an article in the Fortean Times about legendary skunk ape hunter Gerard Hauser, and his doomed final expedition in the Arkansan backwoods, in which an amateur cryptozoologist tragically lost his life in a hominid snare. Hauser became the basis for my fictional skunk ape hunter, the Ahab-like Jameson T. Salisbury. I then made the mistake of requesting an endorsement from Lambert Pogue, General Secretary of the Society for the Preservation of the North American Skunk Ape; I thought it might make for an unusual blurb, than the typical gushing praise by other writers.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pogue objected to my Salisbury character, recognizing him as a caricature of Hauser, and threatened legal action against me. My publisher’s Facebook page was besieged by angry hominologists, and I personally received death threats. It was an extraordinary situation. I’m convinced that the scarcity of skunk ape fiction is a direct result of the vigilance of the S.P.N.A.S.A. Rumor has it that they even picketed the offices of Hanna-Barbera, and prevented the skunk ape appearing on a first-season episode of Scooby Doo, Where are You!

Frankly, for all the aggravation caused, if I could do it all again, the creature of Damn Dirty Apes would be a plain old ‘squatch or Bigfoot, and not a skunk ape.

Gef: Is southern gothic something you see as a home base as far as your writing goes? Any other genres you're keen on diving into?

Adam: I do keep coming back to the South. As a reader, I enjoy Southern gothic/noir. I like the swampy locale, and the rhythms of the accent. As a British writer, for some reason, the Southern voice is one I can passably mimic. It’s not intended to be 100% accurate, just good enough to fool the ear and serve the story. Like a British singer adopting a twang to sing rock n’ roll. My stories exist in a kind of heightened reality that perhaps wouldn’t work if I was setting my stuff in recognizable big cities. In terms of genre, for the foreseeable future I see myself staying in the crime/horror wheelhouse. But I’ll take the band on the road eventually. I’ve got a ‘Nam story I’d like to write. And my long-delayed novel-in-progress One Tough Bastard is set in Hollywood. To be honest, I’m at the mercy of my muse, telling me: “Git r dun, git r dun!” These crazy Southern stories are the ones demanding to be written right now.

Gef: What else do you have up your sleeve heading through 2016?

Adam: My partner and I are expecting our first child in July – wish me luck – so all plans are on hold while we make the adjustment, or in my case, fall apart completely. But as I’ve said, I’m putting the finishing touches to Tijuana Donkey Showdown, the follow-up to Damn Dirty Apes. I’m hoping to have that one out by the end of the year. I’ll also have an original story in the upcoming Necro Press anthology, Chopping Block Party; a charming tale about the gentlemen’s pastime of ‘gerbilling.’ (If you’re unfamiliar with gerbilling – liar! – I assure you it’s perfectly safe to research on a public computer.) And Adam Cesare and I are collaborating on a crime/horror project we’re pitching as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies meets John Carpenter’s The Thing. But due to other work commitments, we’re behind schedule on that, so chances are it won’t see the light of day until next year.

Adam Howe writes the twisted fiction your mother warned you about. A British writer of fiction and screenplays, he lives in Greater London with his partner and their hellhound, Gino. Writing as Garrett Addams, his short story Jumper was chosen by Stephen King as the winner of the On Writing contest, and published in the paperback/Kindle editions of SK’s book; he was also granted an audience with The King, where they mostly discussed slow vs. fast zombies. His fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Thuglit, The Horror Library, Mythic Delirium, Plan B Magazine, and One Buck Horror. He is the author of two collections, Black Cat Mojo and Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, plus the eBook single, Gator Bait. Future works include Tijuana Donkey Showdown, One Tough Bastard, and a crime/horror collaboration with Adam Tribesmen Cesare.
Find him on Twitter at @Adam_G_Howe.
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