A Conversation with James Newman, Author of ‘The Wicked’
Interview conducted by Marc Patterson – July 2012
I first met James Newman many years ago, at some point back in 2004. We both were participants in an online horror film forum and right from the start I felt like he was a fellow compatriot in all things horror. He had recently published Midnight Rain and kindly sent me a signed copy. I put everything else aside and took to reading his thrilling story of a young boy caught up in a small town murder. The first thing I noticed about his writing was how natural the prose flows off the paper. His books are incredibly quick reads, but not superficial pulp, or even elementary grade writing. Contrary, James is quite an accomplished storyteller with a strong sense of narrative and executes his pace expertly. He also has a distinct knack of being able to quickly connect with the reader, pulling them into his universe, and not letting go until the final sentence has been written. With both Midnight Rain and The Wicked I read them through to completion in near record time. For a guy who spends most of his time watching and reviewing as many movies as possible in a week this was quite the feat. Ironically, I’ve never even thought to interview James. In many ways I’ve viewed him more as a peer, an online buddy, and a guy to chat about films with. However, with Shock Totem’s beautifully rendered release of The Wicked I shot James an email and asked, “Hey, I was curious if you might be interested in doing an interview around the new release of The Wicked?” His response was simple – “I never thought you’d ask, good buddy”. So casual is the style in which we speak. Here then is that conversation with James. Please enjoy and please make sure to read our official review and pick up a copy of The Wicked from Shock Totem Publications.
Brutal As Hell: First off – congrats on seeing The Wicked published through Shock Totem. This is their first novel that they’ve ever published. It might be an inconsequential detail to some, but I’m really curious how this came about and your choice to team up with them?
James Newman: Doesn’t the book look incredible? I couldn’t be more pleased with the way it turned out. Shock Totem really nailed my vision. As for how we hooked up, it was just a series of conversations between friends, the kind of thing that starts with someone saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…?”, and before long it snowballs into reality. I’ve been friends with one of the ST guys, John Boden — he of the mighty sideburns — for several years. A little while ago I mentioned to John my ideas for a paperback edition of The Wicked — the whole 80’s look and everything. Last year at the Horrorfind Convention, John introduced me to ST’s head honcho, Ken Wood. All weekend long we stayed up way past our old-man bedtimes, talking about rock n’ roll, horror movies and books. Ken asked me about The Wicked, ’cause John had planted a bug in his ear about it. We started brainstorming and the next thing I know, these guys made it happen. If it could always be so easy!
BAH: The novel itself – fantastic! I thought this was a nicely polished story. I knew going it that it was going to be a riff on the schlock paperback horror fiction of the 80’s, but was surprised to see that you didn’t play it two-dimensionally. Talk to us about your process as you went into this and what you were setting out to do.
JN: I just wanted to write a good supernatural horror tale. While I never intentionally set out to write a “tribute” to the books I adored when I was a teenager, that’s what came out. I realized about halfway into it that I was writing another one of those “evil in a small town” novels that had been done to death in the 80’s, and it was too late to turn back! So, while there’s nothing about The Wicked that’s “tongue in cheek” or even close to “spoof” — I’m sure you’ll agree that the tone is dead-serious and very, very dark — there’s a bit of a “self-awareness” to it, I guess. My goal, though, was to populate The Wicked with characters who live and breathe, imperfect people with real problems and real fears. Most importantly, I wanted to do it better than most of the books I read back then (’cause we all know there were plenty of bad ones to go along with those that have stood the test of time!)
That’s why I was so excited to get the paperback out there, with its obvious aesthetic nods to those old horror paperbacks of the 80s. I knew I wasn’t the only one who loved them. Folks are “getting it”, which is so cool.
BAH: Was there any particular author(s) or book(s) you leaned on for inspiration?
JN: Not really. Anything and everything. The good and the bad! Even the bottom-of-the-barrel books that were published back then were fun, weren’t they?
Okay, some were just crap. Cool covers, and that was about it. But you get what I’m saying. If nothing else, for a young wanna-be writer beginning to learn his craft, the bad ones showed you what NOT to do.
BAH: Clearly some of the stuff you write comes from personal experience. I mentioned in my review that some of the details you hit on with David are thoughts and feelings that only fathers and husbands have. Man, some of the conversations you put David and Kate in are practically verbatim conversations I’ve had with my wife. How do you approach putting this level of exposure into your writing? It obviously lends to great depth and dimension of story.
JN: I tried to do the same thing with The Wicked that I do with all my writing. Whether I’m writing about an entire town besieged by ancient evil, or a more intimate story about a horror writer whose neighbors turns against him after he finds the body of a murdered child, I always try to create characters that are nothing less than three-dimensional and real. If I’ve done my job, these are people the reader will recognize in his or her own next-door neighbor, a family member, maybe even themselves. My characters aren’t always perfect, and they don’t always deal with their problems the right way — but that’s real life, isn’t it? These character have their own flaws and their own problems that readers can relate to — whether it’s another argument between a husband and wife about an overdue bill (which I can relate to), an argument about suspected infidelity (which thankfully I cannot) — and hopefully after I’ve established that background the reader is willing to come along with me and suspend disbelief when I get to the down n’ dirty stuff. They’re buckled in, the roller-coaster is climbing that hill, and now it’s time to enjoy the ride.
You know, it’s funny, I hadn’t really thought about this before now, but I can remember when I was younger and just starting to think about writing professionally, I used to always find the character stuff hard to write. In the first few stories I wrote many years ago, I always wanted to rush through the world/character-building to get to “the good stuff”. Usually, that meant blood and gore. What can I say? I was just a kid. These days, I find myself having just as much fun creating these people and their everyday lives as I do when I’m writing about them being ripped apart by monsters. I think that’s the key to any successful story — as long as the writer believes in what he’s writing, no matter what it is, so will the reader. It all starts with people the reader will want to know more about.
BAH: George Heatherly, the aging tattooed ex-Marine was one of my favorite characters. Where did you get the idea for this guy from?
JN: Wasn’t he fun? I need to revisit him one day, see what ole’ George has been up to. I’m sure he’s just as ornery now as he ever was. But I like to think he’s living a very uneventful life these days, and he likes that just fine. Drinking margaritas on the beach, thinking dirty thoughts about the girls walking by in bikinis, enjoying his retirement without any pesky demons getting in the way.
George was an amalgamation of all the old folks I’ve known who don’t quite act their age. You know the type — a little bit grumpy, but still fun to be around? There’s probably a touch of my grandfather in George; he’s still going strong, puttering around on his tractor every day at 91 years young. I always thought he was the tallest man alive, growing up. As for George’s crude sense of humor, that was inspired by my wife’s grandfather, God rest his soul. He would often drop by my house and ask to borrow “a stack of scary movies” — how cool is that? He always kept me laughing, and he was a huge John Wayne fan. Although I never mentioned it in The Wicked, you know George Heatherly had to be a John Wayne buff. I’m intrigued by old men who were obviously bad-asses once upon a time, with their faded tattoos and their endless supply of war stories. That was George.
BAH: I liked that you were really respectful of the Christian faith in this book. I myself am a non-believer, but was raised in the church and I saw that you probably were too, or at least had some sort of connection, since again – some of the details you include are things only those who have spent time in a church would get. So how did we get this match up of Kate, the God-fearing Christian and David, the near atheist horror artist?
JN: Yeah, I was raised Southern Baptist, although these days I find myself annoyed — if not outright enraged — by typical “Christians”. The majority of these assholes, I don’t choose to align myself with anything they’re preaching. I do have my faith, and I’m a believer, but it’s a very personal thing. I’m the last guy who’s gonna beat you over the head with any proselytising.
I think both the good and bad sides of religion show up in my stories a lot — whether it’s the twelve-year-old protagonist of Midnight Rain pleading with God to protect his family after he witnesses a brutal murder, or through the misguided fanaticism of certain characters in The Wicked, a blind loyalty that ultimately seals their fate.
Again, I try to populate my stories with characters that are REAL. People the reader will recognize. I know a lot of really good folks who don’t believe in anything, and I know devoutly religious people who inspire me to be a better person. At the same time, I know folks who go to church every Sunday, but the closed-minded, bigoted filth that spews out of their mouths every time they speak makes me want to punch them in the face.
I haven’t really answered your question, have I? It’s a great one, though. I’m not sure how Kate and David hooked up. Opposites attract? No, I don’t think it’s anything as simple as that. Kate’s Bible would have warned against their hooking up, I do know that — “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers, for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness, and what communion hath light with darkness?” (I admit I had to look that up). Knowing Kate, she probably felt a lot of guilt early on in her relationship with David. And then there was the matter of her brother coming out of the closet.
As for David, I imagine those moments when Kate gets a little self-righteous (remember how she scolds him for the slightest bit of profanity?) have probably grated on his nerves more and more as the years pass by. He knows her heart is in the right place, though. David’s a good man, and he has his own moral code even if it’s not tied to anything Biblical. For that matter, I would argue that David does believe in a higher power, deep down inside. It’s just not the vengeful Old Testament God his wife worships.
BAH: Moloch. We can’t not talk about the arch-enemy here. This guy is pure madness. I’m aware of his existence in the realm of demonology. How did you land on him as the villain you wanted to employ, and further – what liberties did you take with him?
JN: I honestly don’t remember where I came up with the idea of Moloch specifically, although I do recall wanting to create a bad guy who really existed. Of course, by “really existed”, I mean an ancient god or demon that was worshipped at one time, had its own documented rituals/lore/etc. In this case, it was an entity worshipped in in Canaan, long before Christianity.
I thought it would be fun to do the research, fill the story with stuff that really happened once upon a time (yep, you read that right — I just used “fun” and “research” in the same sentence! I’m sure it will never happen again). And it was. Everything in the book is true, from the numbers, colors, and month that represented Moloch, to the grisly sacrifices made to the bull-demon by those who worshipped him. It’s pretty fascinating stuff.
BAH: Gore. Just because this a “mature supernatural thriller” doesn’t mean it’s without gore. There are some fucked up moments in this book. Heads getting blown off, penis mutilation, mutated insects with the faces of children, a drunken mall Santa that puts all other drunken mall-Santa’s to shame with his antics. How do you push the envelope without feeling like you’ve gone too far into the realm of the bizarro?
JN: Again, by rooting it all in reality. The Littles have their own real-world problems long before they encounter Moloch and his minions. By the time we get to the demonic goings-on in Morganville, we’re already invested in these characters. They’ve lived through one horror story. We want to see everything turn out well for them.
I’ve never been a fan of the bizarro stuff at all. I know it has its place, and many of my friends are really into it, but it’s just not my thing. When all was said and done, l still wanted to keep it down-to-earth. Or, at least, rooted in a sort of insane “hyper-reality.” As over-the-top as things get in The Wicked, folks can still relate to bee-stings, mall Santas, and blowjobs. Hopefully for most people, though, only the first one’s a bad thing.
BAH: You wrote this novel back in 2007. So what’s the project you’re working on now that’s keeping you up late at night? You also have a new book just released in limited edition (sorry I can’t remember the name). What’s the scoop on those – and do you anticipate releasing your new work in a more mass market paperback?
JN: As a matter of fact, I have been hard at work lately pursuing that next mass-market release. It’s been a long time since Midnight Rain! I do have a possible “in” with an agent, but we’ll see how that goes. I don’t want to get my hopes up until I’ve actually signed the paperwork, ya know.
Animosity was the last novel. That one was released a little over a year ago in a limited hardcover edition from Necessary Evil Press. It’s gotten a lot of great reviews, but I need to get the book out there in a more accessible, less costly edition. I want to be read, not collected! Animosity is my most personal novel yet; it’s a story that says a lot about how the “normal people” view those of us who can’t get enough of the “things that go bump in the night.” What if one day your obsession with scary books and movies placed your life — and the lives of your loved ones — in danger?
As for what I’m currently working on: Oh, man, I can’t wait for folks to read this one. I’m currently on the home stretch, and I think everybody’s gonna dig the hell out of it. It’s called Ugly As Sin, and while it’s not quite horror it has some very, very dark moments. I’m calling it “white trash noir”. Ugly As Sin is about a former professional wrestler, Nick “The Widowmaker” Bullman. Nick was horribly disfigured by two psychotic wrestling fans who kidnapped and tortured him because they thought his lifelong heel character was real. As if his life hadn’t spiralled downward enough, not long after his ordeal Nick gets a phone call from his estranged daughter. She has a shocking revelation for our hero, and then tells him about her problem. It’s a big one; the cops are no help, and she’s reaching out to her father as a last resort. This one’s been so much fun to write. If readers get half as much enjoyment out of reading Ugly as Sin as I had writing it, then I’ll consider it a success.
BAH: On the topic of what you’re reading. I’m always looking for good recommendations. Are there certain authors that are rising to the top of the pile in the world of horror lit these days? Anyone you care to comment on?
JN: Hmmm… She’s not horror, but I recommend Gillian Flynn to anyone and everyone who will listen. I’d classify her stuff as “Southern Gothic,” I guess, or maybe Midwestern Gothic. Flynn is the kind of writer who just makes me insanely jealous. She’s so damn good. Her first book, Sharp Objects, was the best debut novel I’ve read the last 10 or 15 years. Dark Places followed that one, and then I’d highly recommended her new one, Gone Girl.
I honestly haven’t read a lot of new horror lately. With the exception of Bentley Little’s latest — and, on the nonfiction side of things, Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value — I’ve mostly been reading stuff that leans more toward the crime/suspense genres. I’m ready for something new to come along in the horror genre that really kicks my ass. I just got word that Lee Thomas’s Torn is on its way to me from Cemetery Dance Publications as we speak — I’m looking forward to tearing into that one. I’ve heard nothing but great things about it.
BAH: Thanks again James for being such a good sport and waiting all of these years for a proper interview. I’m sure we’ll be speaking again soon!
The Wicked is currently available for purchase in paperback or Kindle version through Shock Totem Publications.