Gef: Pete Kahle and Bloodshot Books have republished your 1992 novel, Vyrmin, this fall. How did that relationship come about?
Gene: From my perspective, the relationship with Pete Kahle came right out of the blue, or maybe the more appropriate reference would be straight out of the black. Pete tracked me down through the magic of the Internet and sent an email asking if I had retained the rights to Vyrmin. If I did, he wanted to know if I would be interested in having his specialty press re-release it. Not being a particularly trusting soul by nature, my first reaction was, “Yeah, sure. I’m sure you would be happy to print up copies of my book for a fee.” But after speaking to him on the phone that night I quickly realized that he was the real deal—a guy with a passion for the horror genre, and a really excellent writer in his own right. I was, and remain, very flattered that he included Vyrmin among the first of the books he wanted to re-introduce to a new generation of horror readers, and I really appreciate and admire his enthusiasm for the work.
Gef: Finding a new approach to old monsters can always be tricky. What was your mindset when you decided to create a story involving the werewolf myth in some fashion?
Gene: For me, the werewolf concept is probably the purest “monster,” psychologically, that you imagine. The idea that there is this rage, this wildness that just expresses itself as fury and fangs, triggered by something, like a full moon, or whatever, is just straight up bad-ass…not to mention a direct reflection of the reality of the human condition, to one extent or another, for us all. But somehow, the werewolves I encountered in most horror fiction and movies missed the mark for me a bit. They usually got the savagery, the fur and fire, down pretty well, but there were two things that always left me wanting…something…more.
The first was the why of it all. Why did it happen? I know that the affliction was usually the result of a curse, or an inherited family trait, or an infection inflicted by a bite...but those were sort of mechanical, and didn’t really get to the heart of the matter. I believe we all have the angels of our better nature, and the demons prepared to lash out if given half-a-chance, roiling around in our hearts pretty much all our lives. So why did it happen that one person became consumed by that whirlwind of blind aggression, and the rest of us didn’t? I wanted to introduce a catalyst to the mix that would basically separate out the members of society that had that killer instinct, that destructive force that is every bit as much a part of nature as is the sunshine and flowers of a peaceful day on the farm, from those of us who don’t…those of us who are just not inherently predators. The predators always outnumber the prey species in any ecosystem. And that’s how I imagined it would work for the Wild and the Flock. So that was the first thing: I wanted to create an underlying logic to it all, a reason that served to demonstrate, quite physically, that there are just some very bad people in the world, and all it takes is the right trigger to bring that evil out into the open.
The second thing I wanted to address was the human aspect of the werewolf. The classic werewolf has long hair and fangs, claws and red, angry eyes, but he or she still retains an essentially human frame. Two arms, two legs, bipedal, walking upright. That, to me, always pointed directly to the fact that the beast was not all beast. That there was still a human being deep in there somewhere. And, if we are nothing else, human beings are clever. We are, in fact, more clever than any other species on the planet, and we have therefore come to dominate this globe, for good or ill. The werewolf, having that spark of humanity retained as part of his essential nature, to me, needs to be far more than just a savage explosion of flashing teeth and claws…the werewolf should be directing that savagery to a purpose! That’s what scares me: the idea that a hurricane could have an intent, that it isn’t a random act, that it’s part of some kind of plan…and in that plan I, and everyone else like me, my family, the people I love, the good people, are targets—we’re prey. It’s kind of like terrorism, or genocide, or any of a range of uniquely human atrocities that are fundamentally appalling specifically because, to someone, not to us all, but to someone, they make perfect sense.
Gef: How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?
Gene: Place is the palette, the tableau, the air that breathes life into a story. It is as much a character as anything alive or dead in the narrative. Think of the Overlook Hotel, the Titanic, Hamburger Hill, Jack the Ripper’s East End…think of the snow, or the black-water sea, the jungle leaves dripping with oily humidity, and chilled fingers of fog slowly describing eddies in the invisible currents beneath a gaslight’s flickering glow…and you are already anticipating the events, believing that yes, no matter how unusual or unique, no matter how horrific or amazing, those thing could happen here…those things must happen here, exactly here. In Vyrmin, the Killibrook Valley is the stage. It’s the place where the moon physically reaches down and touches the Earth—and where the Earth and moon touch, anything can happen.
Gef: What do you consider to be the saving grace of the horror genre?
Gene: This is where I might run into a little trouble, since I’m a bit old school in my thinking around horror and its value as a way of expressing various perspectives on life and living. I’m not a nihilist. I don’t advocate the virtues of Grand-Guignol, violence for the sake of violence, horrors that happen and leave nothing but emptiness and despair. I’m not criticizing that kind of work, I’m just saying that I don’t consume it, I don’t seek it out, and really, to be brutally honest, I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s because I’m a little older now. At 57, I know enough about life to understand that bad things are going to happen. And they are going to happen to good people. It’s how you deal with them, and create support systems between people that makes life bearable, and the challenges meaningful. The saving grace of horror, I think, is its ability to engage the audience intellectually, spiritually, and physically…you can get that rush of adrenaline, that jolt, that sense of peril experienced in what is in fact a place of safety, that is so transportative.
For me, it all goes back to my grandmother. She was Slovak, from the old country, and she used to tell me stories when I was very young, four, five years old, that came from the folk tales her grandmother told her, who got them from her grandmother, going all the way back to God-knows where. She literally would scare me out of my wits…I mean it. There was no mercy. And then, at the end, when my eyes were as big as saucers and my heart was pounding, she would finish and say, “Wasn’t that a good one? Wasn’t that fun?” She taught me that a great story is a scary story, and that experiencing a tale told can be intense. And I do mean intense. But it needed to resolve. There needed to be a point, a lesson, a purpose and meaning. That was all part of it…it needed to build to something that you could hang onto. That you could take away and cherish as one of the things that could get you through even something as scary as the story it took to teach it to you.
So to me, horror’s saving grace, is that, when done really well, it can actually make you feel as if you, yourself, were saved.
Gef: When it comes to the world building involved in Vyrmin, was it made up from whole cloth or were there some bits of local folklore that you found to include?
Gene: The world of Vymin came about very organically, almost of its own volition, to be honest. I had a pretty thorough background in old Eastern European folk tales that started in my childhood, I was a classic horror obsessive, and I am fascinated by the psychology of crime, which includes the purported “wild men” of the forests that stretch back for hundreds of years in popular legend. But I never consciously lined up bits and pieces of different stories with the thought of “weaving” something new. Each attribute just felt right, and it never felt so much like I was creating something new as I was revealing something that had always been there. If that makes any sense.
Gef: What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?
Gene: The worst piece of writing advice I ever personally received, and I’m sure many, many other writers have gotten it, and I am equally sure that it is always given with the very best of intentions is, “Write what you know.” I understand what that is supposed to mean: don’t try to write a first person account of flying an airplane if you have never even flown somewhere on vacation. The inauthenticity will kill you. But it can be stifling too. If you only write what you “know,” then how can you ever write fiction? Fiction, by definition isn’t known…it doesn’t exist before you imagine it. If you write a novel, the word “novel” means unique and new. It’s not that writing what you “know” is bad advice in itself, it’s also about when you usually first get it, which is traditionally at an impressionable time, when you’re first taking a creative writing class and first stretching your imaginative legs. It can thunder down at you so hard, and it seems to make a kind of intuitive sense. But the declarative aspect of it, like “stop on red,” feels like a command that you must obey…when I think it really isn’t saying what it sounds like it says anyway.
I think this particular piece of advice would be much better stated as “Weave what you know into something that only you could write.” Build your writing on a solid foundation of references, perspectives and descriptions that feel real because you have first-hand experience with them, then embellish that skeleton, that framework, with the imaginative expanse of your vision.
So weave what you know into something that only you could write…that’s my advice to anyone who wants advice about writing, every time I am asked.
Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?
Gene: This will sound crazy, I’m sure, but I have gotten to the point in my fiction now that I don’t really do any traditional research. It started when I was doing the “Bill Hawley Undertakings,” which was a series of murder mysteries about a funeral director who winds up solving murders. I was an undertaker in a family business for 13 years…and no, I am not making that up. To save time, and help me concentrate on the story and not the setting, and simply to help keep all the characters straight, I started basically writing about myself. Bill Hawley looked and acted like me, his wife was a mirror of my wife, the place he worked looked like the place I worked, and everything took place in Cleveland, where I was born and raised. I thought of those books as my diary of things that never actually happened to me. It started as a kind of thought experiment, but it turned into something kind of cool in that when I’m writing, it feels a little other-wordly…like what I’m documenting is just a hair’s breadth away from being a fact. It’s fun…and it is very much a technique I’ve incorporated into my writing, all my writing, ever since. So, sure, I do some research, everyone does. But I don’t let the research become the fabric of the story. The story needs to feel like it is reality captured on the page, and transmitted into the mind’s eye of the reader. And nothing feels like real life, than real life…even if it is twisted up a little and presented in a way that never actually happened—which is about the best definition of “fiction” I have ever encountered.
Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?
Gene: The project I’m working on now goes back directly to Pete Kahle. When he resurrected Vyrmin, I revisited it after having been away from it for almost 25 years, which made me remember that Vyrmin was really supposed to be the first in a series of books about the Wild. It is a violent, bloody birth that was supposed to then play out in a much larger story with some pretty dark observations on mankind and the direction of our history. At the time that it first came out, I my first murder mystery-type book, “Forget Me Not,” which led to the Bill Hawley mysteries, which I wrote as Leo Axler, and the next thing I knew, years had gone by, I started down a new path that took me into healthcare, and I just never returned to the Wild.
When Pete brought Vyrmin back it reminded me that there is a lot more to this story than what happens in the first book. Actually, the first book is a tiny slice of where the story will eventually go…and, as frightening as it is, especially after all these years, I’m going back and picking the story up where I left it over two decades ago. What’s really amazing is that the story I had in my head, in many respects, has actually been happening in the world since the year 2000. I think readers will see it too, as the logic of the story unfolds. I’m very grateful to Pete for bringing this part of my life back for me, and I actually think that the final events that will move the Vyrmin through the years will be much more powerful because I’ve been away so long.
I love this story. I know that, as a book, it may not be for everyone. It’s strange, and harsh and, in places, deranged. But it comes from a very deep place in my memory, and it feels right to be walking through those shadowed trees once again.
As far as keeping up with me, Pete Kahle has also introduced me to Facebook. Which is new for me. I’m just getting acclimated to it, but I have a Gene.Lazuta page. I’m going to start putting stuff on it, too. I promise. You’ll see. So anyone with any interest in Vyrmin, the next book in the series which is tentatively titled, “Dark Times,” or the outstanding group of writer and other horror-obsessed friends I’ve made through Pete’s gentle remonstrations, should check it out. Apparently, the Book of Face is all the rage now a days.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Gene Lazuta was introduced to dark stories of fear and the supernatural by his grandmother, who cultivated his taste for fright and fascination with a never-ending stream of folk tales from her native Slovakia. Following college, where he studied literature and psychology, he worked as an undertaker for nearly thirteen years before finding a professional home as a communication specialist at one of the nation’s most recognized and respected healthcare organizations. He is the author of ten novels (six horror-based and four murder mysteries), numerous journal and trade publication articles, and a new non-fiction collaboration. Following the release of the Bloodshot Books edition of Vyrmin, he is returning to the supernatural genre by starting work on a story that carries the mythology that Vyrmin introduces in a wider, more ominous direction. Gene lives in Berea, Ohio, with his wife of over thirty years, Sue, his inspiration, his motivation, and the woman to whom every book he has ever written and will ever write is dedicated.