Some time ago, I conducted an interview with Adam Howe on the late, much-missed horror site The Slaughtered Bird. I’m honored to have an Adam Howe short story in the upcoming anthology Appalling Stories 4: Even More Appalling Tales of Social Injustice; Adam generously gave me the inspiration for tales throughout the Appalling Stories series. He’s the funniest writer I personally know, and one of the most skilled. What follows is an interview with Adam, focusing on his books Black Cat Mojo and Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, his screenwriting past, action movies past and present, and what he likes to read.
Dubrow: The stories in your collections Black Cat Mojo and Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet are set in the American South. Why did you pick that area as a setting?
Howe: My South was never intended to be an accurate depiction of life below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s a pop culture South. A Brit’s interpretation of junk ‘Murricana. I’ve never visited the South – wouldn’t want to visit MY South – in fact, I’ve visited the States for all of a weekend, when I met Stephen King in NYC after winning his On Writing contest. When it comes to location, I’m less interested in specifics, than I am in mood and atmosphere, and the American South has that in spades. To me, the South has a mythic quality that suits my hyperreal style. I can write the most outlandish shit, set it in the South, and it becomes borderline plausible. I recently read a ‘weird news’ headline about a meth-head who fought fifteen cops while masturbating. (Presumably he was resisting arrest one-handed.) Now I just read the headline, so I don’t have all the details – but tell me that doesn’t sound like a Southern crime? And that I shouldn’t write about it? And that you wouldn’t read it? I also love the rhythm of the Southern accent, and the Southerner’s colorful turn of phrase. For some reason – too many movies, I guess – this cracker raconteur is the loudest of the voices I hear when I’m writing. It’s getting to the point where I’m losing my British accent.
Dubrow: You’ve spent years writing screenplays and script doctoring. Tell us about that experience and how it relates to your writing as a whole.
Howe: In my early teens, I wrote screenplay reviews for a mail-order company that sold screenplays to colleges, budding screenwriters and the like. Back in the pre-digital age, this was about the only way to obtain produced screenplays in the UK. I learned the craft by reading a shit-ton of screenplays – particularly dug Shane Black’s stuff – I seemed to have a knack for writing visually and decided screenwriting was how I wanted to waste my life.
In my twenties, I landed a screenwriting agent at a not-great agency where I ‘enjoyed’ middling success. I had a few original screenplays optioned and scraped a few bucks doctoring other writers’ work. But nothing I wrote ever made it to the screen, and so much work was left to just gather dust, that finally it all became too disheartening, and I made the decision to return to writing prose fiction.
The best I can say is that my years as a screenwriter taught me a lot in terms of story structure, gave me my cinematic style, and left me with a healthy cynicism for the film industry. I’d still love to see my work adapted for the screen, but I won’t chase it anymore. I’m more than satisfied that my work is finally reaching readers. And better yet, that people seem to dig it.
Dubrow: I’ve noticed that your style embraces a kind of hyperrealism where the bizarre becomes natural and the story grows out of that strangeness, like magical realism without the magic. Have you considered working with supernatural themes, and if so, which ones grab you?
Howe: I’d agree that my work’s hyperreal – in the mould of (say) Tarantino and the Coens – where everything’s plausible within the world of the story. One of my readers, referring to the scene in Damn Dirty Apes in which the gonzo pornographers are shooting their skunk ape porno, said I have a knack for making the extraordinary seem ordinary. I think that was a compliment.
I find myself moving further away from the horror genre and more towards crime fiction, in my reading as much as my writing. I prefer human monsters and real-world horrors. For me, the best of both worlds is the supernatural noir of John Connelly – would love to write his kinda stuff, but I don’t think that’s where my talent lies…
I do have a few traditional (ish) ‘supernatural’ projects in the pipeline. It’ll be interesting to see how those stories are received. I can’t give away many details right now. All I’ll say is that I’m an old wine / new bottle kinda writer. I enjoy subverting tropes. It lures the reader into a false sense of security.
Dubrow: Aside from yourself, are there any other writers out there who you can’t believe aren’t on the NYT bestseller list?
Howe: Nah, just me, fuck ‘em… I’m kidding, of course. To be honest, I don’t follow the bestseller lists so I couldn’t tell you who is and isn’t there. Naturally all the great writers who have blurbed my books belong there. And I’ll tip my hat to Adam Cesare. Here’s an exclusive for you: Cesare and I are currently collaborating on a crime/horror project. Details remain top secret at the moment, but we’re excited about what we’re cooking up. Or cocking up. Remains to be seen, I guess. If we fuck it up, I’ll blame Cesare and go back to what I know, write that guaranteed bestseller about the masturbating cop-fighter.
Dubrow: You’ve already described how you won Stephen King’s On Writing contest some time ago; what do you think the horror genre would look like today if the King of Horror hadn’t taken up the craft?
Howe: These things are cyclical. Not to devalue King’s work – talent like his will always out – but no doubt another writer would have filled the void left by King’s major influences: Matheson, Bradbury, Bloch. And today we’d probably still be enduring shitty rip-offs of that guy’s work! A more interesting question – I’ll just pose my own Q’s, thanks – is to wonder how King would fare as an emerging writer in today’s market. A slim book like Carrie would be considered a novella. It’s hard to imagine it would’ve found a home with the majors. So he makes his bones with the indie press. Which book promotes him to the majors? Salem’s Lot? The Dead Zone? The Shining? It cannot be underestimated how fortunate King was to have DePalma direct Carrie. The huge success of the movie brought King to mainstream attention and had the knock-on effect of boosting his book sales. Of course, it didn’t hurt that King followed Carrie with classic after classic after classic. But as great a writer as King is, he’s intrinsically linked to the movie adaptations of his work. We see Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance and even King himself posts social media pictures of Tim Curry’s Pennywise. That film industry just doesn’t exist anymore and it’s hard to imagine another horror writer enjoying the same success today. Great question… Mine, I mean.
Dubrow: Name the last three movies that moved you to tears. Tears of laughter don’t count.
Howe: Only three, huh? Jesus, Dubrow – what the hell do you take me for?
Honestly: I was recently prescribed medication that’s left me with the emotional range of a Chuck Norris performance, so this one’s harder to answer than it used to be, when I’d find myself welling up at saccharine TV commercials… Alright, here we go:
Sly Stallone’s “Nothing is over!” monologue at the end of First Blood.
The death of Hooch in Turner & Hooch.
Steven Seagal’s stirring environmental lecture at the end of On Deadly Ground.
Dubrow: Speaking of laughter, you use comedy to great effect in the stories Of Badgers & Porn Dwarfs and Damn Dirty Apes. Horror comedy is a notoriously difficult thing to pull off. Are you more comfortable trying to get laughs than elicit scares? Why?
Howe: I enjoy reading dark fiction, the darker the better, but I like a few laughs along the way, ditto. Discovering Joe Lansdale was a revelation for me: Not only did I appreciate the way he danced so deftly between light and darkness, I felt I could do a similar thing in my work… Of course, comedy’s subjective. When I wrote Of Badgers & Porn Dwarfs, it was very different from my ‘straighter’ early work. I had no idea how it would be received. In retrospect, it could have gone horribly wrong, and I might’ve chosen a subtler story to kick-off my first collection. All I knew was that I found it funny. Fortunately others seem to share my sick sense of humour, so at least I’ll have company in hell.
My novella Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet contains fewer laughs. That was a deliberate decision. I wanted to show readers I’ve got a little more game than just donkey-dicked porn dwarfs. I found Die Dog much harder and far less enjoyable to write than Damn Dirty Apes. It’s a grueling story, and I wasn’t sure it even worked at first. In fact, I was so unsure about Die Dog that I wrote the other two stories in the collection just to hedge my bets. So yeah, I guess you could say I’m more comfortable writing humour than ‘straight’ horror. The immediacy of a laugh is reassuring. There’s less room for doubt. Funny’s funny.
Dubrow: Let’s talk about action movies. The 1980s through the early-mid 1990s were very much the Golden Age of action films. Why is that, and why do you think today’s action films lack punch, despite their massive budgets?
Howe: Shit, where to start? The best of the Golden Age – the likes of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Robocop; non-superhero male fantasy films – were well-crafted genre flicks, scripted by solid writers like Shane Black and Steven DeSouza. Even the lesser films – Roadhouse, Cobra, Stone Cold – remain guilty pleasures due to their unapologetic dick-swinging, iffy politics and mullet hairstyles. Today’s action movies – blockbusters in general – are written by committee. That’s always been true to an extent, but you can feel it today more than ever. There’s too much box ticking, too much pandering to demographics and market trends. In trying to please everybody, no one’s left satisfied…least of all we Children of the Golden Age, who remember a better, manlier time.
CGI has all but killed the modern action movie. The Golden Age flicks were at least borderline believable, with the genuine spectacle of in-camera action that risked, and sometimes cost stuntmen their lives – a maimed stuntman is the very least I ask of an action movie. Today’s action movies? Explosions, car chases and even muzzle flash in shootouts is computer-generated. Can you imagine how the shootout in Heat, or a Peckinpah gunfight would look today? If it’s gonna look like a video game, I’d prefer just to play a video game – at least Grand Theft Auto doesn’t skimp on the violence. I feel sorry for the kids being served this watered-down, ball-less bullshit. The hard-R violence of Golden Age action movies used to be a boy’s rite of passage into manhood. It didn’t do ME any harm, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Today’s viewer – according to Hollywood, at least – is too cynical to accept the action stars and tough guy actors of the past. Where have the tough guys gone? Jason Statham? Wake up, America! When one of ‘your’ biggest action stars is a Brit, you’ve shit the bed. The Rock? Could’ve/should’ve been the new Schwarzenegger, churning out 80s-era Arnie-style films. Instead he played it PG13 and pandered to the rassling fans… Today we get Oscar winners boot-camping for a role, or wearing a fucking cape; we get Old Man Neeson making Seagal flicks in everything but name; we get Hollywood trying to mold one of the Twilight punks into an androgynous ass-kicker… Today’s audience is also too quick to offend, and Hollywood shit-scared of demonizing certain ticket-buying demographics. This has created a lack of clearly defined villains. We’re not allowed to boo the bad guy anymore! Big problem right there, folks. No heroes and villains…
I’m being slightly facetious in my answers here, of course. But it’s hard to imagine the ‘yoot’ of today will be waxing nostalgic about their entertainment as we do ours. Everything’s so cookie-cutter and forgettable – what’s to remember?
I’ll be addressing a lot of this stuff in my eagerly-awaited, long-gestating, white whale of a novel, One Tough Bastard, concerning the misadventures of faded 80s action star, Shane Moxie.
Dubrow: Other than horror and crime, are there other genres you like to read?
Howe: I read some non-fiction. A little history, biographies, film/literary criticism. Juggs magazine for the articles. But everything I read is usually related in some way to the crime/horror genres. If I read outside the genres, it’s often for research. What can I say? I like what I like.
Dubrow: In a bare-knuckle brawl, who would win: Martin Riggs, Max Cady, or Casey Ryback? Think carefully.
Howe: Think carefully, he says. Dubrow, I’ve been preparing for this question my whole life. Now without being unkind to Mr. Seagal, I think it’s fair to say Casey Ryback holds a significant weight advantage over Riggs and Cady. And Max Cady? Seriously? A rapist versus a loose cannon cop or a Navy SEAL? So that leaves us Riggs vs. Ryback. Riggs apparently forgot his martial arts training between the Joshua and Vordstedt fights of Lethal Weapons 1 and 2 respectively. And what was Riggs’s style, anyway? If memory serves, Murtaugh refers to it only as ‘that kung fu shit.’ Whatever it is, this fight is a total mismatch. Ryback fucks up Riggs BAD.
(INTERVIEWER’S NOTE: I must express my strong disagreement with the quality of Mr. Howe’s answer in the final question. Clearly, Max Cady would come out on top in any brawl on sheer toughness alone. While he may not have Ryback or Riggs’s size, he has the brutal, hard-core experience of having spent the last several years in a maximum-security prison. Neither Ryback nor Riggs have had to survive as many day-to-day sharpened bedspring shankings, cafeteria tray bludgeonings, and unwanted amorous advances in an all-male shower room as Max Cady, and as such their fighting skills wouldn’t hold up.)