All posts for the month December, 2010
Posted by joemckinney on December 30, 2010
This was one of the best years for books in a long time. There were no huge standouts, like Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, or Dan Simmons’ 2008 novel The Terror, but even still, of the 108 books I read this year, a surprisingly large number were of outstanding quality…so much so that winnowing this list down to just ten required a lot of purely subjective hair-splitting.
My list is made up entirely of books released during 2010. That meant that some of the 108 books I read this year weren’t eligible, even if they would have otherwise earned a spot here. Jeffrey Eugenides’ serio-comic epic novel Middlesex and John M. Barry’s haunting history of the 1927 Mississippi flood, Rising Tide, are just two examples of books not included for that reason. But beyond date of release, I was fairly open-ended on format, length and genre. Novellas released as a single work, such as Norman Prentiss’ Invisible Fences and Brian James Freeman’s The Painted Darkness got equal consideration with huge epic-sized novels, multi-author anthologies, short story collections, histories and biographies. Some of the books on this list I read in PDF as advance reader’s copies, or listened to on CD, or enjoyed as just plain old dead tree editions, and in most cases I explain that in each entry.
So, here they are, in no certain order…my favorite reads for 2010. Enjoy the list!
Horns by Joe Hill
Both a very funny book and at the same time a well-crafted one, Horns is far better than Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Heart-Shaped Box was a good book, mind you, and his debut collection, Twentieth Century Ghosts, was a great book, but Horns is a cut above either of those. Part Kafka, part Kurt Cobain, part Gallagher, Joe Hill is rapidly becoming one of America’s best novelists, and Horns will show you why. I listened to this one on CD, which helped the humor a lot, I think.
The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman
Like Horns, an extremely funny book. Zeltserman has made a name for himself as a writer of intense psychologically-driven crime fiction, making this rural horror story a bit of a departure…but I’m so glad he made it. I hadn’t gone twenty pages into this book before I knew it was going to make this list. Good old fashioned hardcover for this one, and worth every penny.
Pariah by Bob Fingerman
Zombies are big business, so it takes a lot of talent to rise above the crowd. Between James Roy Daley’s Best New Zombie Tales #1 and 2, Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, Ben Tripp’s Rise Again, Greg Lamberson’s Desperate Souls, Patrick D’Orazio’s Comes the Dark, Craig DiLouie’s Tooth and Nail, Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Zombie Apocalypse, Chris Golden’s The New Dead and John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2, 2010 brought out some of the best zombie stuff I’ve ever read. So the competition was extra tough. But my favorite zombie release of the year was Bob Fingerman’s novel Pariah. In addition to being a great zombie book, it was also a beautiful meditation on isolation and the stark, horrifying beauty of post-apocalyptic landscapes. Another good old fashioned dead tree read here, which helped a lot. I generally listen to audio books while driving to and from work, which makes it impossible to give a narrative your full and undivided attention. Inevitably, the idiot cutting you off is going to usurp some of your mental energy, regardless of how good the book is. Bob Fingerman’s description of his characters’ complex emotional states is so finely developed though it really merits the extra attention you have to give a printed book. Listening on CD would have frustrated me here.
Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett
Mr. Shivers is one of three debut novels on this year’s list. I was on a panel with the author at ArmadilloCon in Austin earlier this year, and I was so impressed with his comments on researching that I stopped off at the Barnes & Noble on the way home and bought his book. His story of hobos looking for revenge during the Great Depression was a delicious mix of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Stephen King’s first Gunslinger novel. I flew through the mass market paperback in a single afternoon, and I can’t wait for his next novel, The Company Man.
Invisible Fences by Norman Prentiss
Besides being a genuinely classy guy, Norman Prentiss can write horror stories of such subtlety that you will find yourself going over the work three and four times just to see how he managed to do so much with so few words. He’s made a name for himself as a short story writer whose work more closely resembles the fiction found in the New Yorker than in the bulk of horror’s blood-soaked anthologies, but with his debut novel, Invisible Fences, Prentiss has written a short, but moving story that, to be honest, transcends any sort of attempt to pigeonhole it in a genre. I read this one in a limited edition trade paperback, and getting your own copy may prove difficult. Just don’t come looking for mine. You’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.
In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay
This was a great year for single author short story collections. I loved Michael Louis Calvillo’s Blood and Gristle, Jeremy Shipp’s Fungus of the Heart, John Little’s Little Things, Laird Barron’s Occultation, Scott Edelman’s What Will Come After, Harry Shannon’s A Host of Shadows and Lisa Mannetti’s Deathwatch, but Tremblay’s In the Mean Time just left me breathless. Calvillo’s work had more energy than Tremblay’s. Shannon’s collection had far better action and variety. Edelman’s had zombies. Mannetti’s had beautifully handled historical fiction. Each of those collections did something better than Tremblay did in his book, but the overall feel of In the Mean Time sold me on this work. It reminded me of a Pink Floyd album, the way it just fit together. I read this one as an ebook and found his apocalyptic visions to be so gut-wrenching that at times I had to go hug my kids just to remind myself that things were going to be okay. A tough read, but ultimately, one you’ll be glad you made.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
This is one of three non-horror books to make this year’s list. Marlantes’ debut was thirty years in the making, but it was worth the wait. I listened to this book on CD, and was simply blown away. I have a feeling Matterhorn will go up on the shelf next to O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as one of the best war novels ever written. Just be prepared for a very gritty, true to life description of war and all its horrors.
The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff
Like Bob Fingerman, I found out about Brenna Yovanoff through the table of contents of John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2. Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin would have made this a good year for YA all by itself, but Yovanoff’s modern day tale of changelings told the age old teenage drama of fitting in with such originality and beauty that The Replacement transcended its YA field. Perhaps even more impressive is that this is a debut novel. There were some great debuts this year, such as Benjamin Kane Ethridge’s Black and Orange, Lisa Morton’s Castle of Los Angeles, Gregory Hall’s At the End of Church Street, and Lucy Snyder’s Spellbent, but Yovanoff’s book connected with me personally because I have two daughters about to enter that age where they will be trying to define their place in this world. Your mileage may differ, but this one is still highly recommended for anybody in the middle teens and older.
Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowdon
I’ve been reading an awful lot about the Texas-Mexico border recently as research for an upcoming novel, and Bowdon’s book is one of the best on the subject. He doesn’t go into a great deal of depth about the political reasons behind Mexico’s drug war, but focuses instead on the personal stories of those caught up in the violence and tragedy that defines life in today’s Northern Mexico. After reading this book, I suspect that you, like me, will be furious with the U.S. government and the American media for directing so much attention on the other side of the globe, while one of the most immediate and verifiable threats to U.S. security is at a full boil right next door.
Selected Stories by William Trevor
William Trevor’s stories have been growing discernibly darker in tone over the years, and this volume, which brings together the Irish author’s last four short story collections, goes a long ways toward demonstrating that trend. But Trevor is also capable of writing intensely funny stuff, and you can still find that trademark humor here. William Trevor may very well be the best writer in English working today. His stories, which are always so full of sharp insights into love and ambition and power of major events, such as weddings or the end of an affair, to change many lives, never disappoint. This list isn’t in any sort of order, but if it was, this book would own the top rung. Well worth investing in the hardcover.
And finally, because I’m such a fan of Spinal Tap, I’m turning this list up to eleven and giving you one that almost made it.
Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue
Remember Plato’s Parable of the Cave? In the story, Socrates (pronounced So-Crates, according to Bill and Ted) relates the tale of a group of people who spend their entire lives chained to posts, facing a blank wall. There is a fire behind them that projects shadows on the wall. Because these people lack any other frame of reference, the shadows become their entire world, and their only idea of reality. If you’re familiar with the story, you must have wondered what would happen if those people suddenly got loose and joined the rest of us. Imagine the horror of that much reality crashing in on their minds at once. Well, Emma Donoghue did just that. She tells her story from the point of view of five year old Jack, who lives with his Ma in a single room, with the routine broken only by nighttime visits from a man named Old Nick. The prose is tricky, as it is meant to be that of a five year old, but nonetheless effective, and very frightening.
Posted by joemckinney on December 26, 2010
Earlier this year Michelle McCrary and I edited a charity zombie anthology for 23 House Publishing called Dead Set. It was my first ever stint as editor and I greatly enjoyed the process. And now, with the end of the year upon us and award season kicking up, all that hard work has started to get some positive critical attention. Dead Set, and several of the contributors to the anthology, have been nominated and/or recommeded for some major awards, something for which I am very excited.
First off is Dark Scribe Magazine’s Annual Black Quill Award. Dead Set has made the short list in the Best Dark Genre Fiction Collection category, which is a huge honor. Here’s the complete ballot:
And the Nominees Are…
DARK GENRE NOVEL OF THE YEAR:
Novel-length work of horror, suspense, or thriller from a mainstream publisher; awarded to the author
A Dark Matter by Peter Straub (Doubleday)
Kraken by China Miéville (Del Rey)
Sparrow Rock by Nate Kenyon (Leisure / Bad Moon Books)
The Caretaker of Lorne Field by David Zeltserman (Overlook Hardcover)
The Passage by Justin Cronin (Ballantine)
Under the Dome by Stephen King (Scribner)
BEST SMALL PRESS CHILL:
Novel or novella published by small press publisher; awarded to the author
A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files (ChiZine Publications)
Dreams in Black and White by John R. Little (Morning Star)
Invisible Fences by Norman Prentiss (Cemetery Dance)
The Castle of Los Angeles by Lisa Morton (Gray Friar Press)
The Wolf at the Door by Jameson Currier (Chelsea Street Editions)
BEST DARK GENRE FICTION COLLECTION:
Single author collection, any publisher; awarded to the author
Blood and Gristle by Michael Louis Calvillo (Bad Moon Books)
In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay (ChiZine Publications)
Little Things by John R. Little (Bad Moon Books)
Occultation by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books)
Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse by Otsuichi (VIZ Media LLC)
BEST DARK GENRE ANTHOLOGY:
Multi-author collection, any publisher; awarded to the editor
Dark Faith Edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon (Apex Publications
Dead Set: A Zombie Anthology Edited by Michelle McCrary and Joe McKinney (23 House)
Haunted Legends Edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas (Tor)
Horror Library IV Edited by RJ Cavender and Boyd E. Harris (Cutting Block Press)
When The Night Comes Down Edited by Bill Breedlove (Dark Arts Books)
BEST DARK GENRE BOOK OF NON-FICTION:
Any dark genre non-fiction subject, any publisher; awarded to the author[s] or editor[s]
Horrors: Great Stories of Fear and Their Creators by Rocky Wood (McFarland)
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of HP Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi (Hippocampus Press)
Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever by Joe Kane (Citadel)
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti (Hippocampus Press)
Thrillers: 100 Must Reads Edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner (Oceanview Publishing)
BEST DARK SCRIBBLE:
Single work, non-anthology short fiction appearing in a print or virtual magazine; awarded to the author
“Bully” by Jack Ketchum (Postscripts 22/23)
“Goblin Boy” by Rick Hautula (Cemetery Dance #63)
“Secretario” by Catherynne M. Valente (Weird Tales, Summer 2010)
“The Things” by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld, January 2010)
“We” by Bentley Little (Cemetery Dance #64)
BEST DARK GENRE BOOK TRAILER:
Book video promoting any work of fiction or non-fiction; awarded to the video producer or publisher
The following is taken directly from the Dark Scribe Magazine website and tells you a little about how the short list is established and how the voting process works. I encourage everybody to stop by and vote, even if it’s for something other than Dead Set.
Nominations for the Black Quills are editorial-based, with both the editors and active contributing writers submitting nominations in each of the (7) categories. Once nominations are announced, the readers of DSM have an opportunity to cast their votes for their picks in each category. In a unique spin intended to celebrate both critical and popular success, two winners are announced in each category – Reader’s Choice and Editor’s Choice.
All dark genre works published between November 1st, 2009 and October 31st, 2010 are eligible. DSM does not solicit nominations, nor are there any fees associated with the Black Quills.
Please note that only one ballot per email/IP address will be accepted. Multiple ballots received from the same email/IP address will be discarded.
Reader voting closes at midnight EST on Friday, January 21st, 2011.
Winners will be announced on Tuesday, February 1st, 2011.
On behalf of myself, Michelle McCrary, Dead Set’s contributors, and everyone at 23 House Publishing, I’d just like to say that it is a huge honor to be recognized in this way by Dark Scribe Magazine.
My second piece of great news comes from the Horror Writers Association, where Dead Set has done quite well in the Bram Stoker Awards recommendations phase. The Stokers work quite differently from the Black Quill Awards. Dark Scribe’s staff and contributors nominate the shortlist for the Black Quill Awards, but in the HWA, the membership at large has an entire year to recommend various works. Each recommendation gets tallied together, and at the end of the year, the top recommended works in each category get forwarded to the Preliminary Ballot. After that, the Active Members of HWA vote on the Preliminary Ballot and the five or six works receiving the top votes go on to the Final Ballot. Right now, we are still in the recommendation phase, so Dead Set hasn’t earned the right to carry any sort of Stoker Award tags, but I thought it important to mention the attention that several of the work’s contributors have been getting.
Judy Comeau’s story “Seminar Z,” Lee Thomas’ “Inside Where It’s Warm,” and Nate Southard’s “In the Middle of Poplar Street” have all received several mentions, and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to publish their work. In addition, the book itself has received several recommendations in the anthology category, which is a reflection on the hard work of each of the contributors.
My best to everyone involved in this fantastic book. Here’s hoping 2011 brings you all great success and joy.
Posted by joemckinney on December 23, 2010
Horror fans, I found a new site you have to check out. Dead, Buried, and Back is the home of John Farris, filmmaker, writer, reviewer and all around cool guy. This page has got some great content, with a special focus on zombies. Definitely worth a look.
Posted by joemckinney on December 6, 2010
Quite a few readers have written to me with questions about my novels Dead City and Apocalypse of the Dead, so I thought it would be helpful to write a reader’s guide to the whole Dead World series. You can find it in the headings listed across the top of this webpage under “A Reader’s Guide to Dead World.”
I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, while at the same time providing some useful information. Of course, I can’t anticipate every question, so if there’s something special you want to know, just ask it in the comments section on that page. I won’t worry about spoilers in my answers back to you.
Joe McKinney’s DEAD CITY is one of those rare books that starts fast and never EVER lets up. From page one to the stunning climax this book is a rollercoaster ride of action, violence and zombie horror. McKinney understands the genre and relies on its strongest conventions while at the same time adding new twists that make this book a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended!
–Jonathan Maberry, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Ghost Road Blues and Dead Man’s Song
I enjoyed Dead City. It was a quick, fun read. I also thought McKinney did a fine job of realistically portraying the police officers and keeping their world accessible to “civilians”. Not always an easy balance, but he pulled it off.
–Brian Keene, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rising, City of the Dead, and Dead Sea
Dead City is a real thrill for the reader, jam-packed with fast driving, shooting, desperate stand-offs and lots of blood. McKinney, a San Antonio homicide detective by trade, writes with an authenticity that brings the events of “Dead City” to bloody, grasping life.
–Matt Staggs, Editor of Skullring.org
Tight writing…is what makes Dead City seem frighteningly possible. I like to have chills race up and down my spine, and I like to have to look over my shoulder to make sure I’m safe, and his writing had me feeling this way the entire time I was reading … and even after I’d finished the book!
–Phillip Tomasso III for In the Library Reviews
From the very first page of this urban thriller, Joe McKinney puts the cuffs on his readers and throws away the key. Gritty suspense, great characters, and very real cops. You’re gonna like this guy.
–Tom Monteleone, author of The Blood of the Lamb and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel
Posted by joemckinney on December 2, 2010
“Well,” I said, “my novel is about a zombie apocalypse, so if you anticipate us having one of those any time soon, then yeah, I guess we’re going to have a problem.” I trailed off with a shrug. “Otherwise…”
Of course I was just having fun with him. He knew that. But we both got the point, I think. You see, my department has some very specific rules about writing for publication. They don’t want officers compromising tactics and procedures, sure, but just as importantly, they don’t want officers writing about open cases or cases they have worked on in the past.
Why is that, you ask.
Well, there is a public trust involved. Imagine a sexual assault victim finally working up the courage to go in to police headquarters and tell her story to a detective. She bares her story, one of violation and shame and bottomless anger, to this total stranger, trusting that he’s serious about the oath he took to be professional, confidential and honest. But then, the next thing she knows, she reads some salacious version of her story in a magazine or a crime novel.
That’s unacceptable, right?
Sure, we can all agree on that.
And that’s why I’ve always been careful to respect that confidentiality in my fiction. I have never, nor will I ever, write about real life cases in which I have personally taken part. There are far too many great ideas floating around in my head for me to justify parading a real person’s misery across the page. Don’t misunderstand me, now. There is nothing wrong with honest journalism. I’m not saying that. Far from it. Honest, objective journalism compels us to ask questions about our society and what people do within it. That is a good and necessary thing. The ethical issue I’m talking about here is the use of my official position as a police officer to uncover material for my fiction. Imagine a cop coming to your door, under the full color of his office, and asking you a lot of hard questions about the worst thing that ever happened to you so that he could have fodder for a novel. You’d be horrified, right? That is why so many of my articles at In Cold Blog involve historical crimes or contemporary crimes that take place outside of my jurisdiction. I don’t ever intend to violate the trust I’ve been given.
Still, people inevitably ask if my police work doesn’t occasionally bleed over into my fiction…even just a little.
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. While I don’t ever write in detail about my cases, whether past or present, I have seen a huge amount of freaky stuff as a cop, and sometimes it gives me ideas…
Sex, Drugs and Police Procedure
What I’m about to tell you happened about ten years ago. I was a patrolman back then, working the evening shift on San Antonio’s West Side. At the time, there were a lot of hole in the wall bars up and down Old Highway 90 West, and most of them were hotspots for prostitution and heroin.
Young patrolmen tend to be aggressive; they’re looking to make a name for themselves. As a result, they’re great for directed patrol assignments – give them an objective, such as disrupt prostitution or make drug busts in a certain area, and set them loose.
Those were my instructions on this particular summer night ten years ago.
My partner and I were cruising Old Highway 90 West, looking for heroin dealers. They weren’t especially difficult to spot. We saw plenty, in fact. Plenty of prostitutes, too. You didn’t need any sort of special training. There were so many of them that they had little fear of us. You know how schools of fish swim placidly by great white sharks? The same thing described our situation. We might be able to get one or two, but there was no way we were going to be able to get them all.
Why is that? Well, believe it or not, dumb as most street dealers and hookers are, making a case against them is actually pretty difficult. For the drug dealer, you have to first identify them, then work up probable cause to connect them to the possession and sale of illegal narcotics, and then stop them while they’re in possession of the illegal narcotics. And for hookers, it’s even harder, because there you have to actually witness the offer of sex for money. It’s not enough to see her lean in the window of a car, glance around furtively, then climb in. You have to actually hear the transaction take place for there to be a prosecutable offense.
Of course those cases can be made. They’re made every day, in fact. But they are almost always done by undercover officers. It’s pretty darn hard to do while you’re in full uniform and driving around in a marked patrol car.
And it’s doubly difficult when most of the hookers and the dealers are working inside the bars I told you about earlier. Your best efforts usually amount to little more than entertainment for the nightcrawlers.
So what’s an eager, aggressive, well-intentioned rookie to do?
Yeah, I had no idea either. And neither did my partner.
Frustrated, we stopped a hooker for jaywalking. Sure it was a futile gesture, kind of like shoveling snow in a blizzard, but we did find out she had eleven unpaid traffic tickets – for, you guessed it, jaywalking.
We hooked her up, and as soon as she realized she was going to be arrested, she became extremely eager to cooperate. Not because she was scared of jail, you understand, but because being in jail meant she couldn’t work for the rest of the night, which in turn meant she wouldn’t have money for heroin.
But we weren’t interested in her motivation. What we were interested in was her offer to help us catch a heroin dealer in one of our problem bars nearby. In all likelihood she wanted to help bust that dealer because he’d ripped her off recently, but that didn’t matter a bit to us. We called the Narcotics Unit and told them what we had. They joined us a few blocks away, interviewed the hooker, and confirmed that she had good information.
The detectives talked with a judge, and together they arranged for her unpaid tickets to go away. In exchange, she agreed to go into the bar with a specially marked $20 bill and buy us some heroin. When she came out, she gave us the layout of the bar and a full description of where the dealer kept his dope.
Texas law entitles police to do warrantless bar checks to ensure that liquor laws are followed. Seeing as most of the bars in the area were either Mexican Mafia-owned or controlled, and therefore joined at the hip with the drugs and prostitution going on their premises, a bar check seemed the perfect companion to our move on the drug dealer.
We assembled a team of officers and detectives, and in we went.
A few of us went right for the dealer – he worked out of the hallway that ran in front of the bathrooms in the back and he kept his dope in the gap where the walls almost reached the ceiling – and hooked him up. Others went for the bartender and started checking for liquor law compliance. Everyone else secured the exits and the patrons who tried to scramble out the doors, windows, over the back fence, you name it.
At the time, I remember thinking we had hit the jackpot. According to my old patrol notebooks, we arrested not one, but two, dealers. And their lookout. We seized just shy of 500 grams of Mexican brown tar heroin, all of it individually packaged for sale, and $33,000 in cash – $20 of which was the specially marked bill our hooker used to set the process in motion.
Our bar check turned up more than 60 liquor law violations, enough to have the establishment’s license pulled.
And identifying the bar “patrons” turned up just under a pound of marijuana, a little bit of cocaine, a lot more heroin, some felons in possession of illegal handguns, and enough active warrants to keep us knee-deep in paperwork for the rest of the night.
Not bad for a couple of clueless rookies, right?
Well, yeah, we did do some good. The thing is, though, with experience comes perspective.
I know now that the drugs we got off the street that night amounted to less than one-one thousandth of one percent of the heroin that goes through South Texas every single day.
The cash? An insignificant loss.
The dealers? Their crimes were non-violent in nature, so their bail was chickenfeed. And because they were in the country illegally, it was easy for them to disappear. They spent a little over a day in jail, and unless they’ve been arrested since then for some other crime, have yet to serve any sort of punishment whatsoever.
How about the hooker? Well, she was back on the street that very night.
Oh, and the bar? Well, the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission slapped the owner with a hefty fine and pulled his license, so the owner changed the name of the bar, put the business in his sister’s name, and got a new liquor license the next working day.
So, did any good at all come of this?
Well, yes, in a way.
See, I never forgot how engaged that operation made me feel. Not only was it the kind of early success that builds police careers, but it also served as the key plot point in my first crime novel.
Yeah, that’s right. I write mainly horror fiction. Some crime stories, some science fiction, even some of that socially acceptable stuff the lit snobs call mainstream fiction – but mainly horror fiction. Certainly all of my novel length works have been along those lines.
My monthly columns at In Cold Blog are sort of my treat to myself. As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, I don’t usually let my writing mix with my police work, but I was hoping you Trusted Readers would indulge me just this once and let me tell you about my new crime novel, Dodging Bullets.
Out of the Gutter
A few years back, I published a story called “The Millstone” in a new digest-style crime fiction magazine called Out of the Gutter, edited by Matthew Louis. At the time, I was on a short story craze, cranking out one story after another, and sometimes doing as many as three a week. I was still perfecting my craft at the time – actually, I’m still perfecting my craft even now, and hopefully always will be, but I was kind of rough back then – and the original draft of the story Matt culled from the slush pile was admittedly not my best effort. Matt sent the story back to me with editorial suggestions, and after reading what he wrote, I was shocked. He saw through a lot of the rubble and debris that had blocked my view of what the story was supposed to be, and after making the changes he recommended, the finished product turned into one of my personal favorites.
But something else besides a story sale happened. Matt and I continued to trade correspondence, and over the course of the next few years, became good friends. We knew from the beginning that we both loved crime fiction. But beyond that, we learned that we shared a passion for the great American pulp fiction era, when a dime could get you a hundred pages or so of great reading. I’m talking the pulp magazines of the 30s, 40s and 50s, rags like Black Mask and Spicy Detective Stories and Adventure and Argosy. This was the era that gave birth to such names as Cornell Woolrich and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Ray Bradbury and James M. Cain and hundreds of others. Not enough people know how wonderful the pulps really were, but Matt does. He gets it.
And then, about two years ago, Matt told me that he wanted to found his own publishing company. I said, “Yeah, sure – you and everybody else.”
“No, I can do this,” Matt said. “I’ve learned a lot with Out of the Gutter Magazine. And nobody else is doing modern pulp. Not the way it needs to be done, anyway. There’s this huge need, and nobody to fill it. I can really make something good happen here.”
He went on to tell me about his vision for a publishing company called Gutter Books. It would specialize in hardcore hardboiled thrillers – violent, fast-paced novels that reflect the 21st Century experience.
I was intrigued, and after seeing what he had done with Out of the Gutter Magazine, I began to think that, just maybe, he could pull it off. I asked him what his overall vision was. What would Gutter Books bring to the world of crime literature?
“Well,” he said, “I hope as it plays out people will look at our books as both reliable and unpredictable. Reliable in terms of quality and readability. The pedal is down to the floor at all times but nobody’s intelligence is being insulted. The story is plausible, at least according to its internal logic, well-paced, neatly-told, and not cheapened by clichés. And unpredictable in terms of attitude and subject matter. I like the idea of shaking things up. But the trick is, you can’t shake things up unless you do things intelligently.”
Matt is a smart, well-read guy, but he’s just as likely to pull allusions from a Gore Vidal novel as he is a 70s punk band.
“If you’re a fan of old school punk rock,” he said, “you know that a whole lot of it isn’t very listenable. They’re pissed off and have a lot to say, their attitude and general ideas are valid, but they have nearly zero talent, horrible production values, no forethought brought to the whole endeavor. And then you have something like The Record by FEAR, where the artist’s message is as provocative and crass as any punk bands, but the quality is such that it slaps you in the face and makes you pay attention. It’s maybe an odd comparison, but that balance is what I’d like to bring to crime fiction.”
I didn’t think it was odd at all. One of Matt’s co-workers at Out of the Gutter once said that Matt was groping toward a democratization of literature with his editorial vision. I think that’s a great way to describe him. He pulls all these wildly different literary elements together and makes them fit together like an organic whole. “So,” I asked, “would Gutter Books would try to do for novels what Out of the Gutter did for the short story?”
“That would be the starting point,” he said, “but I have no intention of stopping there. Personally, I like to read about things that are rooted in reality as I understand it, and I like it when the author gives me a story, straight up, doesn’t put on airs and jerk me around trying to convince me he (or she) is a genius. This happens most often with crime fiction, but a good story can go way outside of what people tend to think of as crime fiction. It’s a big variable – the idea that anything can happen – that I find exciting, more than a style or an era. I’m not interested in recreating the classic detective novel. I love the classics, but I wasn’t there and I’d feel stupid pretending I was. I’m interested in the raw power, the recklessness and verve, that characterized the best pulp writing. This might be throwing a curve-ball into the discussion, but the pulp tradition I’m interested in really begins, for me at least, with Jack London. Here was this lower class guy, this drifter and hard laborer who, once he infiltrated so-called literature, showed everyone else’s writing to be watered-down crap. Why? Because he took storytelling in directions nobody had thought to, or was able to, before; it was all about violence and survival struggles, and he had the experience to put it in context and the intelligence to sell it. The best writers in the hardboiled school did (and do) more or less the same thing, except with different players and settings. That’s as close as I can come to an answer, because I don’t have a formula in mind. Pulp fiction, as I see it, is the idea that there are no rules except do your best to capture people’s attention and leave them satisfied.”
And then he dropped the bomb on me. He asked me if I’d be interested in writing the first novel for the Gutter Books line. “I like your story ‘Dodging Bullets,’” he said. “That’s the kind of tale I can see becoming a fast-paced, hard-hitting crime novel. What do you think? Do you want to do it?”
He had me hooked.
I said, “You bet your ass I do.”
And that brings me to my first crime novel.
“Dodging Bullets,” the short story, originally started out as a crime story called “The King in Ruins.” It told the story of two homicide detectives who have been friends and partners for many years. The two detectives end up pulling a case involving two dead hookers who have been murdered with shotguns and dumped in the bed of a pickup, which has in turn been left running in the middle of a seedy neighborhood. The case should be a piece of cake. Unfortunately, the partnership is breaking up…as is the friendship. One of the detectives is getting promoted, and has started politicking for his new job in the Department. The investigation holds little interest for him compared to his new prospects, and this leaves the other detective to drudge his way through the investigation all by himself. Routine investigative procedures are mishandled, or skipped altogether, and soon a routine investigation becomes an ugly millstone around the necks of both detectives.
Despite the solid murder mystery frame, and despite the excellent dynamic between the detectives, the story felt crude and generally uninteresting. “The King in Ruins” was a product of my whirlwind short story period, and as such, it was written with more enthusiasm than craftsmanship. But even with all its faults, the story continued to resonant with me. I wanted to rework it, to make it right somehow, but couldn’t find the perfect angle.
And then, finally, it came to me. “The King in Ruins,” I realized, was burdened down by too much police procedure. All the great storytelling elements were getting lost under the details. It was at that point that I realized I needed to tell the story from the standpoint of the bad guys. What had started out as a buddy cop story gone wrong was now the tale of a maniacal midlevel drug dealer named Fernando Laza and his hapless employee Peter “Peto” Hurst. Peto decides he wants out of the business, and it seems to him that ripping off $80,000 from Laza is the way to do it. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and soon the bodies are piling up.
“The King in Ruins” was long and not terribly fun to write. “Dodging Bullets,” on the other hand, was a blast. The new story literally erupted onto the page. I think I finished the first 5,000 word draft in an afternoon. In the new version, the cops all but disappeared, while these two new characters took on a vibrancy that really, and finally, worked. I put the story through another rewrite and sent it off to Matt. He gave one or two minor editorial suggestions, and the next thing you know, it was the cover story for the fourth installment of Out of the Gutter. You can read “Dodging Bullets,” the short story, here.
But then came the challenge of turning a short story into a novel, something I had never done before. In order to make it work, I knew I was going to have give both Peto and Laza deeper struggles, and to do that, I took my cue from one of the greats of crime fiction, John D. MacDonald.
I started with Peto. In the short story, he had only one foe. That made sense, given the length restrictions of the short story. But for a novel, he needed to be pulled in more directions than that. MacDonald always gave us a girl. Throw a leggy beauty into a crime, and suddenly everything else goes out the window. So, Peto got a girlfriend. In walks Shannon Dupree, the wealthy daughter of a Mexican Mafia attorney. After that, things started clicking.
Shannon’s father, you see, has been stealing from the Mexican Mafia for years. He’s built up quite a fortune in the process. Unfortunately for everybody involved, one of his clients, a midlevel Mexican Mafia dealer named Fernando Laza, has somehow gotten his hands on the ledgers that tie Shannon’s father to the missing millions.
Shannon and Peto hatch a simple plan to steal the ledgers back. Things go well, but when they get the bag with the ledgers to Shannon’s apartment, they find not only the missing books, but a large haul of dope and cash to go along with it. Soon Peto is caught between his girlfriend and her father, his dealer, Fernando Laza, and Laza’s supplier in the Mexican Mafia, who will stop at nothing to get the dope back.
But that isn’t all. Peto, you see, has to keep up appearances if he wants to remain alive. And that means selling Fernando Laza’s heroin in a little Mexican Mafia-controlled bar on Old Highway 90 West.
Do you see where this is going?
That’s right. Peto gets busted by a hooker looking to work off eleven unpaid traffic tickets. Next thing you know, Peto is being interviewed by a veteran Narcotics detective. He gives Peto a choice: work off the possession charge by giving us somebody bigger, or go to jail for a very long time.
Peto can’t do either one, so he does what he does best. He presents a third option.
What is it? Well, I won’t tell you that. You’ll have to check out Dodging Bullets, the novel, to learn what happens next.
The book comes out in July, 2010. It will be joined by three other releases – a Best Of anthology from the first six issues of Out of the Gutter called The Baddest of the Bad; On the Make by John D. MacDonald, featuring an introductory essay by Matthew Louis; and The Wrong Man by William Inglsey.
Check them out, won’t you? I think you’ll have a blast with them.
Posted by joemckinney on December 2, 2010
By Joe McKinney
If they’d come a few minutes earlier the dogs would have surprised him in the bedroom, kneeling next to the bed, muttering his goodbyes to his dead wife. They’d have found a middle-aged man in shabby clothes, dirty gray hair hanging in curtains over his face, his expression ashen with grief. He would have been unarmed. They could have torn him to pieces. But they came too late, and when they broke out of the treeline and into his weed patch backyard Mark Vogler was already on his feet and headed for the kitchen, where he had moved most of his tools.
At first there were only two of them, both mangy and feral, but there were almost certainly more moving around in the dense cedar thicket that lined the yard. The dogs were part of the pack that had been trying to get at him for the last week, chewing holes in the boards he had nailed over his windows and doors, baying in the night, melting into the cedar thicket that surrounded his house like ghosts when he got drunk enough to stagger onto the back deck and take pot shots at them with his pistol.
Now, numb with grief, but not as numb as he thought he’d be, he leaned his forehead against a gap in the boards and watched the dogs charging the house. He wasn’t afraid, and he found that funny. He tried to tell himself that he should be afraid, that this time the dogs would smell death inside the house and keep at it till they got inside, but instead all he could think about was how long it had been since he’d slept last. What was it, two nights? Three?
He coughed. Yeah, he thought, it’s mutated all right. I’ve got a day left, maybe two.
“You need to do it if you’re gonna do it,” he said.
He grabbed an old Ruger pistol he kept on the counter and ran his finger over the trigger. The gun was a .357 with a blued barrel and walnut grips, nothing fancy, but solid and reliable.
Probably the last solid and reliable thing left in this world.
His eyes snapped to a loose corner of the plywood board he’d nailed over the back door. A Doberman, its muzzle streaked with blood, one eye clouded to a pale milky pink from a recent fight, was forcing its head and shoulders inside.
“Aren’t you the smart one?” Vogler said. “I didn’t see you.”
Ropes of saliva and flecks of foam flew from the dog’s bloody mouth. There was a stuttering growl rising in its throat, and its one remaining eye rolled in its socket with a feral intensity that only hunger could create.
He put the business end of the Ruger against the side of the dog’s head and, doing his best Dirty Harry, said, “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?”
He fired, and then everything the animal had ever known and experienced sprayed out across the rainwater-sodden floor.
He stood there looking at the mostly headless corpse of the dog and he thought about what an animal knows, what its memory is like. This one looked four, maybe five years old. That meant it might have started its life as someone’s pet, though that phase of its life would have ended quickly. It might not even remember what life as someone’s pet was like, the regular meals, the occasional belly scratch. Most of its life had been spent feral, roaming the ruins of San Antonio with the packs, feeding on the detritus of a gone world.
The clicking of claws on the terracotta tiles of the back patio pulled his attention away. Both of the dogs he had seen earlier were there now, their sinewy bodies weaving through the rusted remains of his lawn furniture.
Vogler moved fast. He kicked the boards off the back door. They tumbled away easily with the Doberman’s weight to pull them down. The next moment he was through the door, his weapon trained on the lead dog. Vogler fired, turned, then fired again at the second animal. The first collapsed instantly from a solid head shot. The second fell back with a whimper, veined bubbles forming and popping at the hole in the side of its chest.
He kept the weapon trained on the second animal, waiting for it get back up, but it didn’t. It stared at him, panting, and he stared back at it, waiting for that exact moment when the dog’s life left its body.
He was looking at the dog, but he was thinking of Margaret, his dead wife. His grief was real, that much he knew, but he felt like he was too shallow to grieve her the way she deserved to be grieved. She had loved him honestly, despite all his years of self-absorption and putting his career before her, despite his ability to convince himself that providing for her was the same thing as loving her, and that made him wonder if his grief was for her passing, or for himself having to live without her.
He thought, Oh Jesus, am I that shallow? I am, aren’t I?
Vogler looked up at the tree line. The rest of the pack had come out of the trees. They were standing inside what had once been his yard, the fur bristling down their backs. None of them barked. The feral ones didn’t do that.
“Get out of here!” he yelled.
They didn’t move. They didn’t even flinch.
He ran down the steps and into the yard, screaming at them and waving his arms in the air like some mad prophet coming down from the hills to announce the end of days.
All but one of the dogs ran. It was a short-haired lab with a scar down the left side of its muzzle and the dirt and blood on its flanks was so thick that Vogler couldn’t tell what color it had once been.
“You better run, you son of a bitch,” he said.
But the dog just stared at him. Vogler raised the pistol and closed one eye and put the front sight square on the dog’s head and pulled the trigger.
The gun blast echoed through the surrounding hills, and when the noise was gone, Vogler wondered at how quiet it was here at the end of the world. Like a graveyard on a Sunday morning.
He couldn’t catch his breath as he remounted the stairs and went back inside. In the darkened kitchen he stood with one hand over his heart, trying to will himself to breathe. And then he coughed. He coughed hard, again and again, and each hack felt like something was inside him, trying to claw its way out. When the coughing finally subsided he steadied himself against a granite counter top that had been the finest money could buy not so many years ago, before the San Antonio flu and the military quarantine and all the useless madness that had come with those times. He stared at the light fixture above the empty floor where their dining room table had once stood. The room seemed to swell and contract, swell and contract, like he was standing inside a giant lung, and he thought he was going to vomit. Vogler had been a surgeon in the early days of the flu, and he’d heard patients describe this exact feeling, the same nausea-inducing hallucinations, the shortness of breath, and he knew what was coming. Another six or eight hours and his lips would start to take on the blueberry stain of cyanosis as his lungs filled with fluid and he drowned to death in his own blood and snot.
And then he remembered the pistol in his hand. Vogler looked down at it then and was surprised to see it was still there.
“Just make sure you save yourself a bullet,” he said, and was mildly amused at how easy the decision to use the gun on himself was to make.
He wondered what it was going to taste like, the soot-stained metal.
Vogler stepped outside again to see if the pack had returned, but the yard was empty. He leaned against the porch railing and let his mind drift. Behind him stood an eight thousand square foot monstrosity, a moldering Mediterranean-style villa that had been his dream home ten years ago when he built it for Margaret. It stood on top of a low, domed hill, commanding a view of other hills, other mansions. They were all wrecks now–all that remained of what had once been the Dominion, San Antonio’s wealthiest neighborhood. Looking to the south, he saw the city skyline and the yellowish, hazy dust that rose from it. Those streets were crowded with the mummified corpses of the victims of H2N2, the San Antonio Flu.
He turned away.
There was an obligation waiting for him inside. Margaret, in the dying moment of clarity that had penetrated her fever, had asked him to bury her next to their son in the soft dirt beneath the old oak in the front lawn.
He had promised her he would.
“Promise me you will,” she’d said, trying to sit up, trying to grab his arm, but unable to do either. “Tell me you will. Promise me.”
At first he thought she repeated herself because of the fever. Maybe she wasn’t thinking clearly. But then he saw the look on her face and he knew different. He knew her mind was as sharp as ever.
Twenty-five years earlier, right after completing his residency, his head swollen with pride at his accomplishment, there had been a nurse, a sexy brunette with brown eyes and small breasts and graceful hips. A short, white hot affair had followed. He ended it when Margaret found them out. And then, as she made him promise to bury her body next to their son’s, he had seen an echo of the doubt and mistrust that had plagued their marriage during the decade after that affair. He felt its sudden return now like a knife in the gut.
He went to the bedroom, and with a great deal of difficulty, for the coughing had returned, he shouldered her shrouded corpse and a shovel and headed for the old oak tree in the front yard to do his widower’s duty.
He dug for two hours, listening by turns to the slice and crunch of the shovel cutting into the earth and the snarls and yaps of the pack that was circling around him.
He touched the pistol in the waistband of his jeans and felt reassured by it. When he was done, he was going to lie down on the other side of his son’s grave and eat the gun.
“It’ll be like it used to be,” he said to the simple cedar post marker at the head of his son’s grave. The boy had been twenty years old when he died, but at that moment, Vogler thought of him as he had been many years earlier, a four year old child coming downstairs in the middle of the night to climb in bed between his parents.
Vogler wiped the sweat out of his eyes and went back to digging. Despite the coughing, despite the knowledge that there wouldn’t be anybody to throw earth on top of him when he was done, he had a sense that the labor was a good thing, that he was making good on the most important promise he had ever made. It felt good to sweat. The stiffness in his lower back felt good. The pain was honest, and Margaret deserved that. After all the years and all the troubles, she deserved something honest from him.
Later, when the hole was finished and the body was put inside and he had said all he could say in words to a woman who had shared his life with him and given so much of herself to him, he began to shovel the dirt back in.
So absorbed was he with his work, so overheated by the unaccustomed exertion, that he failed to hear the big black dog loping through the grass towards him.
He didn’t so much as hear the dog as feel the weight of its stare on his back. And when he did finally feel that weight he spun around on his heels and let out a startled cry at the charging black mass of fur and teeth.
The dog leapt at his face and knocked him down and tore into him. Vogler put his hands up to keep the dog’s teeth away from his throat and they fought, not as man and dog, but as two wild things whose only weapons were the muscles and the fists and the teeth they were born with.
Vogler managed to get one hand in the dog’s mouth and grabbed onto its lower jaw. The dog’s teeth shredded the palm of his hand, but Vogler wouldn’t let go. He twisted the jaw and the dog went down. But even then, even with the dog on the ground, whining in pain, Vogler refused to let go. He pushed the dog’s head up and away, exposing the throat. Vogler threw punch after punch into the soft flesh of the dog’s throat. “You go to hell, you son of a bitch!” he roared, screaming the words with the rage of one who has seen the world around him die and has been unable to do a damned thing about it, even for all the wealth and power that had once been his to command.
The dog convulsed under the blows, raking at Vogler’s belly with his back claws in a futile attempt to save himself. But there was no stopping Vogler’s attack. As a civilized man, he had farther to fall to reach that savage state where only survival mattered, and when he did finally make that fall, when the protective veneer of reason and humanity fell away and there was nothing left but the bright burning spark of primal rage inside him, he proved to be the stronger. He sank his teeth into the dog’s throat and tasted the fur and then the blood as the dog’s life leaked from its veins and down to the corners of Vogler’s mouth.
The dog kicked once, twice more before it died, and with that last kick snagged the trigger guard of the Ruger and pulled it from Vogler’s waistband. Vogler was bent over forward so that he couldn’t feel the gun leave its seat. But he did hear it go off, and he did feel the bullet punch into his belly and go tearing through his organs like a boy with a stick who has rammed the pointed end down into a fire ant mound and stirred it till nothing but an angry mess remains. That was what his belly felt like. That was what the pain of being shot in the gut felt like.
Vogler coughed in disbelief, then pitched over, face down in the soft black dirt beneath the oak tree. He lay there, trying to catch his failing breath, his eyes growing darker by the second and his skin crawling with sudden cold till it seemed he was the only being left alive on the barren, bald tip of the world, the blackness of space all around him. The thought passed through his mind that in the time before the world died of the flu he had been a surgeon, the head of a hospital…a wealthy man…a married man…a father. And now, he was a dying man, and none of it counted anymore because now he was none of those things. Now, he was merely a tree falling in the woods, unseen. Unheard.
The dogs closed in on him. He could hear them, he could hear their excited panting and their slobbering jowls slopping together, and he knew what was coming. Though he couldn’t see, he could still feel, and he could feel hot breath and wet teeth on his fingertips, the teeth pulling at the skin, almost gingerly but for their sharpness, taking a hesitant first taste of the flesh.
“Plague Dogs” originally appeared in Potter’s Field 3, published by Sam’s Dot Publishing, 2009. The anthology was edited by Cathy Buburuz.
Posted by joemckinney on December 2, 2010