Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas (Pelican Press, 2000)
Those readers who know me from my work in suspense and dark fantasy may well wonder what this strange creature is. What it is, friends, is my best selling book to date.
For many years I’ve written my wife Laurie a short story every Christmas. (My friend Charles de Lint does the same for his wife, and I suspect we’re not the only ones.) Lancaster County, where we live, contains a lot of Pennsylvania Dutch folks, and my grandparents all spoke with that curious dialect (my grandfather Hershey actually wrote poetry in that regional language), and my rendition is pretty good.
When my son Colin was small, we of course read The Night Before Christmas to him, and found The Cajun Night Before Christmas, which became a tradition as well. One Christmas Laurie told me that I should write a Pennsylvania Dutch version, so I did that instead of a story. It proved such a hit that she insisted I send it to Pelican Press, which printed a number of these Night Before Christmas parodies in hardcover. So I did, along with a cover letter praising the area as a tourist trap in which such a book would sell mightily, and they bought both the argument and the book. The late James Rice did the illustrations, but being a Texan he didn’t quite grasp such regional niceties as hex signs and Amish quilts, and even though I provided a lot of reference photos, there are still a few errors in the art (check out those horns on my Holsteins!). Nevertheless, the book was and continues to be a huge regional success. At one Borders pre-Christmas signing alone we sold 800 books, and the line stretched out of the store. The book is in its sixth printing, and sells year after year, along with the coloring book and the recording that I made (complete with sound effects). Check out Pelican Publishing for the whole “product line” and an old photo and bio. I’ll be putting up an excerpt from the book on the website soon…
This is the first volume of a three-book series of paperback originals I wrote for Avon Books. An editor at Avon approached my then-agent with an idea of a trilogy about paranormal investigators, since both The X-Files and Men In Black were huge at the time, and my agent suggested me to write it. After passing the audition, so to speak, I got the job.
The good part was that it wasn’t work-for-hire. I would be the owner of the rights. Since I’d decided to stop doing work-for-hire, this seemed an intriguing way to get back into writing my own novels. Both the editor and I felt that the books should stay as far away from X-Files territory as possible, which would be easy for me. Though I often watched the show, I wasn’t obsessive about it. I decided to spice up the mix with a good dose of skepticism about the paranormal, and gave my secret team of government investigators the job of debunking supposed supernatural occurrences. In the notes at the back of every volume, I suggested that readers crack the covers of such skeptical classics as Gordon Stein’s The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, and other books by James Randi, Martin Gardner, and Michael Shermer. I also gave them CSICOP’s web address.
The story concerned an ageless being, possibly an alien, who was being guarded by the Catholic Church. The Knights Templar played a large part in the series (this was beforeThe DaVinci Code), and the three investigators, Laika Harris, Tony Luciano, and Joseph Stein start in New York City to investigate “a conspiracy that could shatter every belief about the origin of man…and God,” as the cover copy put it.
Though I’d thought Shadow Ops an evocative title for the series, the marketing department at Avon came up with The Searchers. Though I protested that there was no sign of John Wayne nor Native Americans in the book, The Searchers it became.
The editor and I agreed that the covers should be very contemporary and edgy, but again, the marketing department had different ideas. Since they wanted the books to appeal to the X-Files and Men In Black fans, what more brilliant method than making the covers look like an actual morph of those two franchises, with the three agents striking poses in front of a star field? And did it work? Well, Locus said, “The cover art and design package seem intended to attract fans of Men in Black and The X-Files. City of Iron is not a novelization of an existing film or TV show; but it does seem clearly aimed at suggesting a literary equivalent.” Science Fiction Chronicle opined, “…pretty obviously packaged to look similar to X-Files, but which contains a much better story.” Many readers (and Amazon reviewers) said that they almost didn’t pick up the book because it looked like an X-Files ripoff. And it did. It most certainly did. And so it goes.
Nevertheless, what reviews there were, were good and readers liked it. You might too. Contact me if you’d like copies — always happy to sign them for readers…
Empire of Dust was the second book in The Searchers series. I decided to set it in an location with which I’ve always been fascinated, the High Desert of the Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, that whole Four Corners area. Apparently the marketing department saw the chance to tie in The Crow and crop circles as well on the cover. Sigh…
I dedicated this one to my ole pard, Joe R. Lansdale.. It wasn’t set in his home town of Nacogdoches, Texas, but it was close. Sorta.
The third volume in The Searchers series took place in Scotland, where I’d vacationed several years earlier. I tried to leave the final volume slightly open-ended in case the publisher wanted me to continue the series. No such luck. Each subsequent volume sold less than the one before, partly due to the fact that the publisher made the print run smaller with each volume, thus creating the self-fulfilling prophecy they’d begun with the marketing department’s decision to make the covers appear as derivative as possible.
An interesting footnote: a year or so after this final volume came out I sold a book on eBay to Timothy Binga for the CSICOP (The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) library. When I sent the book, I also sent a set of the trilogy, with a letter explaining what my purpose had been with the books, to actually further CSICOP’s cause by urging readers to become more skeptical about the paranormal. Binga actually reviewed the books on CSICOP’s website, and was very complimentary about them and my effort to bring a bit of enlightenment to readers.
A year after I wrote The Crow: City of Angels, I was asked to write an original novel using the concept of James O’Barr’s The Crow. Though I was wearying of writing work-for-hire material, I agreed. I was simpatico toward the concept, which gave me total freedom in terms of characters and setting, something that nearly all other licensed properties did not.
Clash by Night, which appeared as a large trade paperback, explored the right-wing militia underbelly of the United States while using a female lead character and telling a tragic love story, and I was pleased with the result. For better or worse, it turned out to be a Chet Williamson novel. Ed Bryant said in Locus: “The passion in Clash by Night is furnace-hot, of a degree that is virtually Biblical…Chet Williamson knows what he’s doing…the heart is engaged. Lock and load, readers — and keep that box of tissues handy. With its risky juggling of passion and politics, indignation and melodrama, longing and loss, Clash by Night stands perfectly well on its own. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the Crow from the Owl and the Pussycat, or a Raven from a Writing Desk.”
The novel was collected, along with original Crow novels by David Bischoff and Poppy Z. Brite, in the hardcover anthology, The Crow: A Murder of Crows.
I said goodbye to The Crow with a short story published in The Crow: Shattered Lives and Broken Dreams. It was called “The Blood-Red Sea,” a pacifistic Crow tale in which the protagonist, the ancient poet Homer, ultimately decides not to use violence against those who wronged him. It’s in my short story collection, Figures in Rain.
The Crow: City of Angels was the sequel to the original blockbuster starring Brandon Lee. This time around, Vincent Perez was the murder victim who returns from the dead to “make the wrong things right,” which basically consists of killing everyone who had anything to do with his death and, in this go-round, the death of his child as well. I was contracted to write a novelization of David S. Goyer’s screenplay, which was a powerful and moving piece of work. Unfortunately the film itself left most of the good stuff on the cutting room floor, if it was ever filmed at all.
I had only three weeks in which to write the novel, but for some reason I was possessed by the material and the themes of love and loss which are so much a part of my own original work, so much so that I finished the book in a white-hot two weeks, embellishing and expanding on Goyer’s fine work, filling out the backstory of the various characters, and just having a helluva lot of fun.
I used epigrams for all 24 chapters, including many quotations from James Thomson’s epic poem, “The City of Dreadful Night,” and many more from classical literature about crows. In the short time I had I put an enormous amount of energy and thought into the novel, and was hugely disappointed when I saw the film the night it opened across the country. The novel, though out of print, is available on the Collector’s Series DVD.
Andrew Vachss’ Cross was a six-issue graphic novel that I scripted from Andrew’s and Jim Colbert’s story of the same name. Geoffrey Darrow did the extraordinary covers. It was an intense and raw story about a group of mercenaries working together in the jungle of the city, and I hope my script did it justice. I also adapted another Vachss story for Dark Horse’s Hard Looks.
My friendship with Andrew Vachss has been one of the highlights of my writing life. I consider him a brilliant, fire-breathing writer, and his lifelong concern with children’s rights makes him one of the last true American heroes. I strongly encourage everyone to join Protect: National Organization to Protect Children. And visit Andrew’s website, The Zero — you’ll find it a fascinating journey…
Murder in Cormyr was the second original novel I wrote for TSR, based on their fantasy gaming world. This was a mystery in which a sedentary wizard does the brainwork while his assistant does the footwork (Nero Wolfe & Archie, anyone?). I used the old gag of supernatural fakery to cover up an all too natural series of murders. It was published in hardcover and a year later in paperback, and the target audience of Forgotten Realms gamers seemed to enjoy it.
I’d never played D&D, so I had to pore through the manuals for research for both this novel and Mordenheim, but never had to shake a pair of 27-sided dice…
My only other foray into TSR writing was a short story, “The Vanished Ones,” reprising the character of Ivan Dragonov, a werewolf I wrote about in Mordenheim. The story appeared in 1994’s Tales of Ravenloft.
Certainly one of the strangest writing projects I’ve ever done, this was a work-for-hire novel adapted from a computer game, which was pretty hot stuff (no pun intended) at the time, since it was voiced by Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones, among others. The game, which I played through before I started, was goofy fun, and dealt with a near future world in which society is divided along religious lines, and Hell is an actual place to which malefactors are condemned for going against the established religious state. All of it, of course, is virtual, and our heroes are two government agents who get on the bad side of the church and have to bring down the system to save themselves.
It was as nutty a story as it sounds, and I got a lot of help in the cybervein from my son Colin, who, though still in high school, was a staff writer for PC Gamer magazine. I namechecked him and a number of his friends in the book, and dedicated it to him as well. The folks at Prima and Take 2, the game company, were a joy to work with, and the book was featured in an article in Entertainment Weekly.
I was contracted to do another novel based on a horror board game called Atmosfear — clever, eh? — that included a videotape (talk about obsolete media…), and was supposed to take the world by storm. It didn’t, and the novel was never written, other than an unpublished 60 page novella. Believe me, it was just as well…