Friday, April 15, 2016

Horror binging with author John Palisano

Horror author John Palisano has written many terrific short stories and novels. Recently, I had the pleasure of reading three of them: Dust of the Dead, Ghost Heart and the forthcoming Beasts of 1,000 Nights. A “Pali-binge.” Everyone, please make John feel at home here at Twisted Tales.
SRW: John, speaking of “home (didja’ like that clever segue? Huh?),” one of your novels takes place in New York, another in Los Angeles, two very different locales. Yet, I thought you captured them both beautifully: the architecture, the people, even the weather are practically characters. First, where do you hang your hat? Second, how important is location to you in developing mood?

JP: Thanks for the nice words, and for reading so thoroughly. You have the distinction of being the first person to ever read Night Of 1,000 Beasts! I currently live in Los Angeles, although I’ve lived all over the United States. Location is very important to the story for me. Like you said: it becomes a character. It has its own obstacles and unique parts that reflect and tell the story. Very few other locales would have been able to have all the elements I needed for Dust Of The Dead to work. Same with Ghost Heart. You’re right: the weather plays a substantial part in both stories. And then taking those locations and exploring unexpected and little knows parts about them sets a mood, as well. I showed a lot of places in LA that are right next to, or under, well-known areas. Like the access tunnels to the subways right under Hollywood Boulevard. In Ghost Heart we crawled inside old passageways that once provided passage for freeing slaves, complete with large chambers and rooms. Taken over by hellish creatures, all, of course. 

SRW: One thing I’ve noticed about all three novels is your protagonists always begin with a solid support group of family and friends. Then, like a cruel god, you sweep in and wipe them away, leaving the hapless protagonist to face seemingly insurmountable odds by himself. Now, I know it’s a horror trope, but I’m strapping into my psychiatric armchair here…do you feel being alone is horrific?

JP: Personally, that feeling of abandonment has always been awful for me. I know that’s a universal fear. We like our alone time, but we all like to know we can go home again, be it with our parents, or our close friends. In these stories, it was important to isolate the protagonists. I was accused of Mike in Dust of the Dead of him not starting out heroic. Well, that was by design. I wanted him to be real and not this Perseus-like God, swinging his sword right away. I thought it’d be interesting to see him falter a bit, and make a few bad choices. We’ve all stayed home when we probably should have gone out to something! I thought it’d be neat to play with that. In the end, though? He rises. You’ve unearthed a bigger question, though, that definitely is a through line in my work. I have been exploring what it means to be alone or with someone, how do we change based on others we fall in love with or work with, and what do we do when that support system buckles? How do we survive? 

SRW: Let’s chat about Dust of the Dead, my favorite of your books so far. Believe me, I understand it’s hard to come up with an original zombie tale. I mean how many ways can you change things up (“Arrrrr!”), right? But I think you’ve done it with Dust. The clever idea behind the tale seemed rather organic, a natural. Tell us about the genesis.

JP: Hah! Cool. It began by me realizing a lot of zombie books were really fan fiction, in that they took slightly skewed versions of themselves, in their own hometowns, and pretended zombies came. Well, boring! But I got to thinking about the reality of zombies, if they were feasible. Well, corpses can be very toxic when breaking down. I thought about the biology of a body breaking down. I pictured a dead body in the hot Los Angeles environment. At the same time, it was summer, and I caught a sinus infection from the hot winds. I read that it didn’t take much in the way of pollutants to cause such a thing. So what if some of those pollutants were coming from dried up undead, their bodies turning to dust? Hence the title. And then, as diseases are happy to do, the infection changed and mutated over time so that it became something even nastier. Of course I thought about what would be done about the left behind undead? Which leads us to ...

SRW: A pretty hapless job being on the Reclamation Crew, I imagine. But the details were solid. Did you ever have a similarly awful job? Clean up crew at crime scenes?

JP: I’ve worked a lot of jobs people wouldn’t expect. Growing up my family owned an autobody shop and a towing company. I worked there on and off with my uncles and cousins. At one point my brother wanted to be a funerary tech. We spoke a lot about it. Learned a lot about it. So all that blue collar stuff was in there already. Working in towing, well, there are a lot of stories about what’s left behind. I didn’t personally see a lot of that, thank God, but I heard a good deal. I was always fascinated with even being able to clean up some of that. It seemed unrecoverable.

SRW: Okay, John, now about that ending. (Possible spoiler alert!) Um, those were aliens, right? Right? And level with me…did you grow bored with the book, wanting to end it quickly? It seemed a bit rushed with a major plotline left dangling. Or are you bucking for a sequel?

JP: Right. Sure. Aliens. Heh-heh. Little Green Men. Seriously? The idea was always to do another book or two in the series. I thought it’d be out by now, but the editor at the time didn’t want me to get stuck just being a zombie author. I think that was the right choice. Smart. But the story will continue in a second book, a third written, called VOICES OF THE DEAD, which begins exactly where Dust leaves off. 

SRW: Moving on to Ghost Heart. The book captures the sorta narcissistic nightclub scene of New York well, I think. These characters don’t really have much going on outside of nightly bar excursions, casual sex, partying (sigh…takes me back) and having a dead-end job to finance said outings. But the protagonist, Rick, rises above the pack, falling in love with a mysterious girl. Now, I gotta ask, are you truly behind the love story? Or is it just a means to the horror?

JP: That was a very difficult mindset to return to: when that was all that mattered. As I’ve grown older and now am a parent, priorities have shifted. So going back to that first painful love that seemed like the best thing in the world? That was tough. I’m so jaded and cynical! But I wanted to recapture those feelings. The truth of being young and in love with the worst possible person while a much better fit for you is just cast away. The truth of putting so much into these things, only to have someone profoundly betray you. Rick grows up as he grows a little colder by the end. He realizes he has to. All the death. All the horrible things he sees. Love is not enough. Love leads him to the most dangerous places. Is it worth it? That’s the question, for me, that Ghost Heart asks: is living life at a thousand miles and hour worth it if it’s all going to crash and burn? Or is it better to take it easy and live a long, fruitful, if not boring, life? Looking back, it seems nearly every horrible thing is a metaphor of a different aspect of his youth being taken away. It’s a real feel good book! 

SRW: Again, I think you’re trying something different with the played out vampire story (and thanks for leaving all sparkles at home). There’s even a Lovecraftian beast in the tale. Every author tries to write something different, it’s in our blood. Do you think it’s possible to write a good book utilizing the ol’ clichés? Or do you prefer to stake out new territory?

JP: Art is supposed to be a reflection, right? So if people can guess the ending and all the plot points in between, then what is it? A way to kill time? Are they just waiting on the one liners in between? I think story is changing. Millions of people know what three acts are. They can predict the twists and turns of so many movies and books. So the art needs to change. The art needs to surprise and intrigue. If it doesn’t, then it’s not being honest. I don’t agree with the popcorn film mentality. It’s just fun. Turn off your brain. Well. No. Even in a tent-pole movie, people have a much better experience if they’re trying. 

SRW: The highlight for me was the scene where Rick sees (hallucinates, he wonders?) Minarette lurking outside his uncle’s body shop during a late night blizzard. Scene made me feel cold inside and out. Well done. Do you prefer writing the subtly chilling scenes like that? Or do you like the big “pop outs (as my wife calls them)”?

JP: Thank you. That was a scary scene to write for me, too. And it was a major turning point in the story. Minarette goes from the Miss America-Blonde goddess and changes into a dark, pale Gothic force. She’s still sexy and gorgeous, but the switch is disturbing more for what it’s implying. We’ve all known people who we’ve loved who seemingly change into new people, and have been betrayed by them. That’s what that moment symbolizes. I definitely prefer the character driven and spookier scenes. That being said, I think the jump scare and action scenes can be equally great to write. I think the goal is to always reach past your comfort zone and try something you haven’t previously. Those moments are my favorites, overall, when a scene comes together like magic, yet isn’t a cliche. 

SRW: Beast of 1,000 Nights is your most unusual book yet. I detected a Jack Ketchum influence, a little of the old schlocky “beasts attack” horror films from the ‘70’s vibe, and a “Most Dangerous Game” nod. Close? Jumping to ludicrous conclusions?

JP: Certainly there’s a massive Jack Ketchum influence to the book, although this one goes way into the supernatural where Jack doesn’t really explore those places. His stuff is more real and visceral, which I find very hard to read and not be completely affected from! Mostly, the influence came from a winter trip to Colorado with Fawn and my son. We were riding up the side of Pike’s Peak on an incline train and it was so amazing and gorgeous, and I thought about how small we are, and about how if that train broke down and no one could get to us, that any number of animals or environmental elements would be severe threats to our cushy selves! I also work in Animal Rights and Rescue and thought about how neat it would be if the animals did to us what people did to them. So there’s a lot of what I think are very funny scenes. I mean, the helicopter pilots are boiled alive in a huge pot by lobster creatures in the middle of a snow-packed mountain. Absurd and hilarious, but at the same time, illustrates just how brutal we are to them. So those were really the two influences that converged. 

SRW: Near the end of the book (MILD SPOILER ALERT!), there’s a frankly bizarre scene where you’ve taken the human equation out of the picture (who we’ve been following throughout the entire novel) and turn the tale over to the titular beasts for a mega-battle. I just gotta ask…what’s up with that, John?

JP: That scene is vital. It illustrates that even when animals serve us well and do our bidding, they are ultimately still disposable. Estella sets them up because, well, what the hell is she going to do with a thousand walking, talking beasts until the next longest night of the century? Buy them ski passes? Pay for their condos? She’d rather take her inner circle and have the rest kill each other. Totally selfish and horrible of her, but she’s a bit of an arrogant jerk, isn’t she? 

SRW: Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the identity of the “final girl.”  Without spoiling it for everyone, I applaud your choice. There you go again, fighting the cliché. While I read, I wondered if this had been your intent from the beginning. Or if you’d changed your mind as the finale neared.

JP: I always knew. Because life rewards horrible people left and right, doesn’t it? Look at all these absolutely abysmal people who are celebrities. We make them rich. We make them famous. We hang on their mental flatulence. Meanwhile, the noble, the true, the folks who teach our children, the people that make our food and our clothes and our shelter, are often treated like hell. I wanted to show that. There’s a line where one character, a vegan, pleads for mercy. She is told that her people showed no mercy to an animal for being pregnant or good, and is slaughtered anyway. That’s a big theme in the book: that the good guys don’t always come out ahead in real life, and doing the right thing can sometimes cost you more than being a conniving jerk. It may sound bitter, but I’m not. I just thought it was pretty funny and illuminating to explore that sort of story: where the hero’s journey is interrupted and hijacked by a no-good, selfish asshole. Kind of like people bullying cute girls for winning Grammys. 

SRW: What’s up next from the prolific keyboard of John Palisano?

JP: A small collection of Halloween stories, “Starlight Drive” has just been released, as well as my first short fiction collection, “All That Withers” which is coming from Cycatrix Press in May. There will be more novels soon! I’d like to say that the titles I have with Samhain are and will be available into the foreseeable future, despite the changeover. We’re all waiting to see precisely what that will be, but one way or another, the books will be out there. So please check them out, and for the love of all that is good, leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, people. And not just for my stuff: for every author you read. Even a line or two. It helps tremendously and only takes a moment. Thanks, Stuart! 

SRW: There you have it, folks. If you have any interest in horror, I’d recommend John’s books. You can find them and John at:

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations, John. The stories sound nicely horrifying!
    Great interview Stuart, as always!
    How's life treating you?