Around 2001, I bumbled across the world of small-press publishing as I was looking for news on Stephen King’s newest novel, From a Buick 8. While King news was what I came for, I stayed for the new-to-me authors who were being published in small-scale limited editions. Many of these authors did not have mass-market deals, but that did not mean they weren’t excellent storytellers capable of rivaling the bigger names in the genre. In fact, I would argue the small press allowed authors more freedom to explore the horrors inherent in their writing than the bigger publishing houses, which was ultimately a win for readers who wanted a little more bite in their fiction reading.
One author that quickly earned my attention was an up-and-comer named James Newman. At that time, James was making waves with a novella entitled Holy Rollers, which asked the question, “What would happen if a couple of door-to-door evangelists wouldn’t take no for an answer?” It’s a helluva story, made all the more horrifying because *everyone* has had unwanted people come to their door before…and the possibility of a confrontation is all too real.
In the fifteen-ish years since reading Holy Rollers, James has proven himself to be a versatile writer, covering a variety of topics that range from the silly and absurd to the oh-so-serious (as evidenced by the reviews included below). While his writing is appropriately classified as “horror,” you won’t find the genre’s clichéd werewolf/vampire/zombie tropes on display very often. You see, James knew from the get-go that while those subjects can be scary, the truly horrific tales concern the darkness inside each and every one of us. The aforementioned Holy Rollers is a prime example of it, but the theme carries through much of James’ work, from his novel Animosity (a tale about an author wrongly accused of murder) to his flash-fiction story “Keeping Up With the Joneses” (a darkly humorous ditty about two neighbors in constant competition with one another) to the topical and important novella Odd Man Out (which will be reviewed in detail below). Newman knows that *all* of us are capable of both experiencing *and* creating horrors in our day-to-day lives. We may not want to look at it, but James has no problem casting a bright white light on the dark underbelly of this world, making us see and feel everything that we hoped would stay in the shadows…
The Reviews: A Tale of Two Tales
As stated above, there is no pigeonholing James’ work when it comes to tone. Perhaps the easiest way to see this is in his short-story collection, People Are Strange, in which the reader doesn’t know whether to laugh or flinch when a new tale begins. In order to showcase this dichotomy for my followers, I’ve chosen two of his books to review in this essay, with hopes of giving you an idea of just how diverse his writing can be.
Death Songs from the Naked Man: A Collection by Donn Gash and James Newman
I first read “Death Songs from the Naked Man,” a collaboration between Gash and Newman, back in the Holy Rollers days. It’s a longish tale about a group of people who are in a convenience store when a naked man walks into the place and starts shooting people at random, all while making inane comments and reciting song lyrics. I loved it back then, laughing through much of it before one of the final scenes brought it all home in a way that actually made me feel bad for the antagonist (not an easy thing to do for any writer). For whatever reason, a second reading of the titular story didn’t leave me feeling the same way I did fifteen years ago. The dark humor is still there, as is the gut punch at the end, but the writing is very raw and unpolished in spots. And, in the end, that’s probably why it didn’t age for me. I’ve been experiencing the growth of a fantastic writer for over a decade now, and James is lightyears ahead of where he was back then. All that being said, I still give the short story a 6 out of 10. Definitely worth a read if you haven’t experienced it yet.
This version of the book also includes two standalone tales by Donn Gash (“Hot August Night,” in which a trucker has a rendezvous with a beautiful woman and gets more than he bargained for, and “Gun Therapy,” in which a married couple at the end of their rope has a final counseling session for the ages; both tales are in the 7 out of 10 range) and one of the few tales by Newman that I haven’t read, entitled “Revenge Flick!”
My Lord in Heaven, I *loved* “Revenge Flick!” It’s a very tongue-in-cheek story about a guy who has tried his whole life to break into the movie business, only to finally get a call back for a role in an upcoming “Terry Quintana” movie named “Slay Ray” (astute readers will understand the references immediately). What follows is a rip-roaring ride that had me laughing out loud multiple times (something that doesn’t happen very often) and doing my best to catch all of the references to an alternate version of Hollywood. I have no problem giving this novella a 10 out of 10. Absolutely hilarious material here.
All of which puts the Death Songs collection in the 7 out of 10 range. I should note that the e-book comes with a fair amount of typographical errors (for instance, a character in Gash’s “Hot August Night” has his name change from “Bert” to “Burt” all throughout the story), but that’s on the publisher more than the authors; still, it dumps the reader from the story on more than one occasion and for some may merit another point being lost from the score. That being said, when you consider the price of the e-book is only $2.99, it’s pretty much a steal when one story is as good as it gets, and three more enjoyable tales come along for the ride. You can’t help but feel that both Newman and Gash had the time of their lives writing these stories; the free-wheeling wildness of the collection says it all.
And on the opposite end of the spectrum…
Odd Man Out by James Newman
Newman’s most recent novella, entitled Odd Man Out, is arguably his boldest and most important project to date. The story opens on a man named Dennis Munce as he recalls a time during his youth when he spent a week at the Black Mountain Camp for Boys. While at camp he was reunited with Wesley Westmore, a boy he had been close friends with during his early childhood. Newman’s early use of a dream sequence foreshadows that something is not only “wrong” with Wesley, but that something awful happened to him while he was at camp in the summer of 1989.
(MINOR SPOILER AHEAD! Nothing that will affect your enjoyment of the story – the early allusions put readers on the scent almost immediately – but just in case you don’t want to know a thing about this book…)
I don’t think it will take readers long to figure out that Wesley’s secret is that he is a homosexual male at a time in our history when it wasn’t as accepted as it is today. Just shy of the midway point Wesley’s fellow campers find something that they think proves he’s gay, and the ensuing harassment by the other boys grows to a fevered pitch. My first thought was that the story had a Lord of the Flies vibe to it – an isolated camp with almost no adult supervision, in which the boys grow more and more aggressive as the days go on. What happens to Wesley by the end of the book is just as disturbing and shocking to read as the finale of Lord of the Flies. Indeed, queasy stomachs need not apply.
At a time in our country when revolutionary changes have been made to give the LGBT community the same rights as everyone else (and rightfully so), this is a topical story that not only shows how far we’ve come in the last couple decades, but also showcases how far we need to keep going in order to make this a non-issue in America. In truth, it astounds me that we aren’t further along than we already are; then again, when we see all of the other minority groups that still struggle to carve out an existence in the “Land of the Free,” perhaps it’s naïve to think things would be any different than they are. Sad, isn’t it?
My only gripe with the tale is that it felt like the first half of the book was trying too hard to get its point across. I suppose my youth could have been different from the kids in this story, but with the exception of playing a game called “Smear the Queer” (not even knowing how ass-backwards that was at the time), our epithets of choice weren’t “gay,” “queer,” “fag,” etc. Am I saying I never heard those words? No. But the kids in this story use them all the time in every circumstance, and this is before the one boy is outed for his sexuality. While I think the slurs made all the sense in the world after the boy was being targeted, it just seemed like too much before that point.
In the end, I would give Odd Man Out an 8 out of 10. It’s a difficult book to read, both because of the vile words and actions that the campers partake in, but also because it challenges people to think differently, act appropriately, and cast their gaze inward to see how they view an underprivileged and underappreciated slice of our population. Simply put, this book forces introspection, which is never a bad thing.
Much Ado About Nothing: Welcome to the blog, James! I appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions.
After rereading “Death Songs” this month, it reminded me that you’ve been a very successful collaborator with your writing. I’m generally wary of such tales because the storylines rarely come together for me (e.g. The Talisman by King and Straub, which I’ve tried and failed to finish on three separate occasions), yet somehow you’ve done this multiple times with numerous authors, and the results have been entertaining each time. Two-part question: first, what is it about collaborating that draws you back for more, and second, do you have more of these projects in the pipeline?
James Newman: Thanks so much for having me, Andy. Been too long since we caught up, old friend…
First of all, it’s refreshing to hear someone else admit that he couldn’t get into THE TALISMAN. I’ve tried to read it several times too, but never succeeded. I can’t put a finger on why. It just never hooked me, for some reason.
I love collaborating with other writers, and I’m blessed to have been involved in several such projects, all of them quite successful judging from reader feedback. I think the thing that makes collaboration work, first and foremost, is a friendship with your writing partner. Before you ever write a single sentence, the two of you need to know that you CAN work together. Of course I mean that your styles should mesh nicely, but additionally it goes without saying that I wouldn’t want to work with some prick I couldn’t stand! That’s true whether we’re talking about writing a book or moving furniture. All joking aside, though, like I said…I have been very fortunate to have worked with guys who are not only pals of mine but they’re incredible writers as well. Folks like Donn Gash, with whom I wrote DEATH SONGS FROM THE NAKED MAN — he might just be my oldest friend in the world. We met in junior high, formed a quick friendship based on a love of horror movies and comic books, and the rest is history. Readers will see more from us in the future, I’m pretty sure. I’ve also collaborated with my good friends Jason Brannon (THE CHURCH OF DEAD LANGUAGES) and James Futch (NIGHT OF THE LOVING DEAD).
As for what I’ve got in the pipeline, there are two more collaborations on the way, each with a fellow I became fast friends with during the last few years. Mark Allan Gunnells was a fan of my work before we became pals, and that’s turned into a great friendship made even stronger by the fact that Mark and I have been able to hang out in person now and then because we only live about 45 minutes apart from one another. Our short novel DOG DAYS O’ SUMMER should be out this year. I like to describe it as “sorta what you’d get if a werewolf walked into my novel MIDNIGHT RAIN.” Unfortunately, it’s not been officially announced by the publisher so I’m unable to share more details at the moment.
And then there’s SCAPEGOAT, a collaboration I’m finishing up now with Adam Howe. I fell in love with Adam’s work after my wife gave me copies of his collections BLACK CAT MOJO and DIE DOG OR EAT THE HATCHET for Christmas a couple of years ago. Adam subsequently asked me to write a Foreword for his latest, TIJUANA DONKEY SHOWDOWN. Now we’re on the homestretch of an occult horror novel that’s an insane cross between RACE WITH THE DEVIL, THE WICKER MAN, and John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS…with a touch of Wrestlemania and ’80s cock rock just for shits and giggles. It’s been a blast to write. We’re expecting to get this one in readers’ hands by the end of 2017 if everything continues to go as planned.
MAAN: I believe it was Mark Sieber at the Horror Drive-In who told me Harlan Ellison didn’t like The Talisman either. If Uncle Harlan is in agreement, then we *have* to be right!
I’m sure there’s no set way to write a collaboration, but do you have a preferred method? I would think a round-robin format would be too choppy, but I’ve seen it work. Do you work together to build an outline? Do you turn it over to your partner when you’re stuck in a spot? I’m fascinated by the process…
JN: It’s sorta round-robin. That’s probably the best way to describe it. Usually each writer will take a certain scene or chapter and then send it off for the other guy to add his two cents to, making it a true collaboration, before hitting the ground running with his next scene(s). Sometimes you’ll just write until you run out of steam — or, as you said, get stuck — and then you’ll hand it back over to your co-writer: “Your turn.” For the most part, that’s how Adam and I have been working with SCAPEGOAT.
We usually do build a very rough outline before we jump into it — that’s the case when I work solo too, if only so I don’t paint myself into a corner somewhere along the way. I hesitate to use the word “outline,” though, as that sounds a bit too concrete. It’s best defined as a list of scenes — sometimes with snippets of dialogue, etc. — that could change order at any point in the process or might even get trashed altogether once things get rolling. Where SCAPEGOAT is concerned, I have to admit that 90% of the structure/specifics on this particular novel has been thanks to Adam. It was his baby to begin with, he’s been in the captain’s seat for most of the drive, and I’m just grateful that he allowed me to hitch a ride onto this particular motorhome (I promise that will all make sense when folks read the book).
MAAN: Moving on to solo projects, your last novel, entitled Ugly As Sin, came out a few years ago and garnered a lot of praise. [For those who don’t know, Ugly As Sin focuses on Nick “Widowmaker” Bullman, a professional wrestler who becomes horribly disfigured when a couple of fans jump him after a show. Life in shambles, not having much to live for, he receives a call from his daughter, begging him to help her find Nick’s kidnapped granddaughter.] It’s a book that’s been dubbed “white-trash noir,” which, while apropos, made me hope people wouldn’t stay away from it, because Ugly As Sin is an excellent book.
Another two-parter: Any chance you’ve started work on the sequel, and did you ever decide on a title after opening it up to your fan base?
JN: I have started on the sequel, but put it on the backburner for a little while. I might try to jump into that after I finish the thing with Adam, as it just so happens I’m contracted for a Nick Bullman story that I’ll be writing this summer. So I’ll already be hangin’ with him, so to speak.
I will tell you this: What I’ve got planned for the next Nick Bullman novel makes the first one look light-n’-breezy. The next one is gonna be sooooo dark. The bad guys Nick faced in UGLY AS SIN are pretty friendly folks compared to the monsters he’ll encounter in the follow-up.
Oh, yeah…and I did decide on a title. I believe Pete Kahle, head honcho of Bloodshot Books, came up with it: UGLY TO THE BONE. Cool, huh?
MAAN: Cool title and much darker material? Pfft, I’m all in, brother. I *loved* the Bullman character. Doesn’t get more gritty and noirish than him.
Stepping away from fiction for a bit, in this world of social media and trollish behavior that all-but-demands conformity to the masses, you’ve always struck me as a man who isn’t afraid to be who you are and stand firm in your beliefs. For instance, you’ve made it no secret that while you write about horrific things, you’re a devout Christian. Also, in recent years you’ve been a firm supporter of equal rights for the LGBT community (a topic that is touched on to some degree in Odd Man Out). Do you ever get flak for that from fans (or, more likely, non-fans)? And, how hard has it been to marry Christian beliefs and LGBT support together when finding a church? The two, sadly, almost never go hand-in-hand.
JN: I just try to treat other people the way I want to be treated, ya know? Everybody deserves to be happy, even if they’re different from me — it’s so simple, right? It really has nothing to do with religion. But if we wanna bring religion into it . . . same answer. Christ told us to love one another.
I’m a Christian, but I very strongly believe in the importance of the separation between church and state. Not everyone believes the way I do. And what if it were the other way around? What if Christians weren’t the majority in this country, and someone whose beliefs differed from my own held the upper hand, legislating matters that made me a second-class citizen or — worse yet — a criminal? It’s wrong. And that’s why I will never agree with religion dictating law. Especially a religion based on a book that, after centuries of translation influenced by church politics and human prejudice, I’m not even entirely sure most of us “Christians” get right.
I won’t belabor the point here, as I’ve already discussed it in other recent interviews, but the stuff that happens in the Prologue of ODD MAN OUT — the church vote, I mean — is 100% true, with the exception of the way the narrator’s wife voted. That really happened to me and my family. It’s why we left the Baptist denomination about 3 years ago and never looked back. My wife and I decided we couldn’t raise our sons like that.
I skipped over your question about getting crap from folks who don’t get what I’m doing — no, I’m happy to say that hasn’t been a problem for me yet. I mean, it’s not like I wear a shirt to church that says “I’M A HORROR WRITER,” advertising the fact, but I’m Facebook friends with a lot of the folks I go to church with. They’re well aware that my tastes in books and movies leans toward the dark side. On the other hand, neither do I throw the fact that I’m a believer into the faces of those who aren’t. People know where I stand, but it’s not from any proselytizing on my part. That’s just not me and it never will be.
MAAN: I’m in complete agreement with you. I recently did a post on the blog’s Facebook page in which I talked about kindness, citing famous quotes from both secular and non-secular sources. It would appear to be a universal ideology no matter the belief system, but for whatever reason, one that is ignored all too often.
For years I’ve heard you talk about an activity you like to share with your wife: reading together. Tell me about it.
JN: Heh, heh…isn’t that the dorkiest thing? I admit it. Yeah, it’s something we’ve always enjoyed doing — literally reading a book together. It probably started with me reading my work aloud to her, getting Glenda’s input before I finished up that final draft and put it out there for the rest of the world. I can even remember what the very first book we ever read together was: Robert McCammon’s MYSTERY WALK. These days, with two kids (one of them a teenager and one of them a seven-year-old!) it goes without saying that it’s a lot harder to find time to do this than it used to be. Usually it happens when Glenda is cooking, because otherwise I’m useless in the kitchen. But we still try to do it now and then, especially when a new Joe Lansdale or Bentley Little book comes along. Those are our go-to guys for reading together. We used to read Robert Deveroux’s SANTA STEPS OUT every year around Christmas, while she was hard at work making fudge, brownies, etc. for the holiday. Of course, the kids had to be out of earshot for that one.
Gee, if someone came into this conversation halfway through it might sound like “reading together” is a metaphor for something else. Except for the part where McCammon, Lansdale, Little, and Santa Claus are involved.
MAAN: I don’t think it’s dorky at all. I’ve wanted to do that with my wife for ages, but it hasn’t happened. I’m guessing it’s a combination of having a too-busy house as well as a monotone voice that would put her to sleep before I’d finished the first paragraph.
I think we last did a formal interview about a decade ago. I’m 99.9% sure that when we conducted it, the UNC Tarheels had just won the NCAA basketball tournament. And, here we are, all these years later with the Tarheels doing it again. I’m thinking we should do this more often?! In all seriousness, has your household come down from the victory yet?
JN: Sounds good to me! We should do this more often. Seriously, man…you wouldn’t believe how superstitious I really am, like that. For example, if I don’t watch a game, and my team loses, it’s my fault because I didn’t care enough to tune in. Ridiculous, I know. But I really think there’s something there. LOL
The Newmans are still flying high on this championship, no doubt about it. Donn Gash came over to my place to watch the game with us, the first time we got to hang out in a while, and it was the most fun I’ve had in recent memory. This win wasn’t necessarily a pretty one if you look at the game overall — the same could be said for much of our run through the tournament, really — but everyone came together in the end to get it done. Go HEELS!!!
MAAN: Last question: you wake up Saturday morning after a brutal week of work and go to your favorite diner for breakfast. When the server comes back with your meal, what’s on the plate?
JN: Biscuits and gravy all day long! With a big mug on the side overflowing with Splenda and French Vanilla creamer, add coffee.
MAAN: Thanks for your time, James. I appreciate your thoughtful and candid answers!
JN: My pleasure. I always enjoy talking to you, old friend. Thanks for all of your support through the years!
Until we meet again…