by Blu Gilliand
John Shirley is a multi-talented artist with a growing legacy of influential works in words and music. Recognized as a leader of not one but two literary movements – cyberpunk and splatterpunk – Shirley has entertained and influenced legions of fans and fellow artists with his progressive novels and pointed lyrics. Movies, television, tie-ins – he’s had a hand in it all. The author/musician was kind enough to spend some time recently with Horror World looking back – and ahead – at an amazing body of work.
HORROR WORLD: You've had a long and varied career. Take us back to the early days when you were leading punk bands and writing science fiction. How did the two pursuits influence each other?
JOHN SHIRLEY: Science fiction was my day job! I was in punk bands at first, then a band that was progressive funk, we called it futuristic funk – and in fact in some of the lyrics there was a science fiction element. I was influenced by Bowie and Funkadelic and Zappa at that point, and Lou Reed too. (For fun, Rucker and Sterling and I once made a game of deciding which rocker they corresponded to. I think we decided that William Gibson was Bowie, Sterling was Lou Reed, I was Iggy Pop, Rudy Rucker was Zappa. We were just kidding around--but on some level I believed it!) I was always influenced by rock, progressive rock, punk rock, rock as poetry, rock as shamanism, and tried to find ways to infuse that feel, that "energy", as they like to say here in California, into my writing. So my early proto-cyberpunk novel Transmaniacon was named after a Blue Oyster Cult rock song and had lots of lyric references and both City Come A Walkin' and my A Song Called Youth cyberpunk trilogy books had rocker characters. I had adventures in the demimonde of punk rock that influenced my writing, that sometimes spawned characters and scenes in my fiction. I was more interested in being a songwriter than anything, but probably more suited to being a writer. And I was able to sell some novels. Some advances from paperback book sales bought amplifiers and paid for rehearsal studios.
What was the immediate reaction to City Come A-Walkin'? Did you know at the time that you'd started something of a literary movement with that book?
It did get picked as one of the best books of the year by the Locus Reader's Poll, and Ian Watson, I think it was, said it was an "overlooked masterpiece," and I know that Gibson and Sterling and Rucker read it. Gibson acknowledged the influence of that book in a foreword he wrote to a new edition – here’s the foreward: http://www.darkecho.com/JohnShirley/gibson.html - but you know, cyberpunk's antecedents were Alfred Bester, Samuel Delany, John Brunner, and Cordwainer Smith. Maybe Ellison and Moorcock too. Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books had a vibe that influenced me. There were also seminal works by Spinrad like Bug Jack Barron, and Philip Dick's books.
I think one of the things that City Come A-Walkin' was a real precursor to, though, was urban fantasy. Because it really is a kind of fantasy novel – a man is possessed by the collective unconscious mind of a city, which is a supernatural or metaphysical idea – and you can't get more urban than that book. I drew on my street life in San Francisco. The hipster feel of the characterization was an influence on a lot of people, too – like Richard Kadrey.
That book got you labeled as the father of the cyberpunk movement. Later on, you were known as one of the splatterpunks. Did the labels bother you? Looking at your career, it's obvious that you won't be tied to one direction - did it feel restricting to be so closely identified with these movements?
I scarcely noticed. I was too busy evolving as a writer. I suppose I kind of helped create the splatterpunk thing but by the time it was in full swing my role in it was probably forgotten. Doesn't matter. I simply pushed out the envelopes where I found them. When I was writing horror, I tried to get more intensity into it. The whole “punk” thing in writing is really about intensity and brutal honesty. Rudy Rucker said that the band The Ramones, with a seemingly simple sound, actually had a greater density of information, through the shaping of noise into rhythm, the layering of it. And that's what came naturally to me with books like In Darkness Waiting and Cellars. Intensity as information.
I have a tendency to be polemical – well, so does lots of punk rock, look at the Dead Kennedys, or the Clash early on. They're making statements. I try to do it without being boring about it. So In Darkness Waiting is allegorically about the human capacity to suppress empathy and the horror that capacity leads to, and Cellars is a twisted horror novel with a subtext about runaway materialism. So they have these themes but they're both hyper balls-out horror novels. Ed Lee wrote a new intro for that edition of Cellars and acknowledges its influence – I think of him as a splatterpunk guy. So I guess it's there.
Both Cellars and In Darkness Waiting are in print in new editions through InfraPress. Probably my most extreme, most punk-influenced, most hardcore novel, and one strongly embedded in point of view, is the horror novel Wetbones, which is out in a new Ereads edition--it has a sequel story in the same volume, too. That book is about addiction itself--addiction as a monster. And it's about how that monster thrives in Hollywood decadence. All stuff drawn from real life, except for the supernatural part – I'm an ex drug addict, a screenwriter, and I've got strong feelings about how we cultivate addiction, how powerful it is, how little we understand it.
Anyway I know for a fact that Wetbones influenced some of the new "bizarro" writers, like David Agranoff, who said it's his favorite horror novel. With Demons, which is still in print from Del Rey, I think I kind of made my mark in a bigger way. That book is another envelope pusher. And its story is embedded in meaning. It's about human beings dehumanizing others, and the spiritual consequences of environmental monstrousness--it's about how humanity becomes demonic. I run a risk with a book like that--if you make political, or metaphysical statements--and Demons does both--you sometimes get attacked for it, by some people. Conservatives hate that novel.
Let's talk about that diversity that's so evident in your career. You've written novels in various genres, you've written and performed music, you've written for television and movies - is there anything left that you haven't tackled that you'd like to take on?
I made a documentary film, too! The Spiritual Journey. I wrote it and did the interviews. It explores various outre, unusual forms of spirituality. Esoteric stuff. It was in some film festivals and it's up on Vimeo.
One thing I dream of – I'd like to write a script my way, totally, for once. I did the first four drafts of The Crow and Dave Schow did a great job revising it and despite the tragedy of Brandon's death it's an undoubtedly cool movie. But when I've written scripts for television, with the exception of one or two individual episodes, or low budget films (I won't even mention the names), I've never been happy with the result. I have a great script of my novel Crawlers, co-written with Katt Shea, who directed Poison Ivy and other films, and I'd love to see that made, with her directing – so what I'd like to do is really guide, produce, just be hands on, with getting a script I wrote made right. I'd like to be a producer, in short. My urban fantasy novel Bleak History is going out to be considered as the basis of some television series – an agent is taking it out with a proposal, it' s not sold yet – and I'd love to be involved from the ground-up with developing a television series, having a say on casting and showrunners. Those things can go wrong so easily.
If you had to choose one direction - say, writer or musician - which would it be? Could you choose?
I once had the chance to have John Hammond Sr. produce me, as a recording artist, for a division of CBS records and, in my punky arrogance, I lost that chance and I've never quite recovered from that. I didn't know who the old gent sitting behind the desk at CBS was, really. I didn't know he'd discovered Dylan and Springsteen. So I feel like, after that, it's my "karma," my fate, to let go of music as a performer. I mean, if I could go back in time and change that…no, I couldn't do it. Because then I wouldn't meet the same people and my sons wouldn't exist! I wouldn't want my three boys to not exist! But it's true that what makes me feel best is music. And I do still write songs – I wrote most of the lyrics on the last two Blue Oyster Cult albums, Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror, and I have recorded some recent songs with Michael Layne Heath, some of which you can hear at http://www.reverbnation.com/JOHNSHIRLEY . The first song there is my old punk rock classic, "Johnny Paranoid", a song about embracing death.
Did your genre-hopping make it difficult to build an audience, or did it help?
Probably didn't help, at least at first. Publishers get confused if they don't have a clear category for you. "Metaphysical science fiction? Urban Horror? Science fantasy surrealism? What the hell?" But over time I've developed a growing audience that appreciates an original voice.
You’ve been a creative influence to so many artists - who inspires and influences you?
I'm inspired by filmmakers and painters and musicians as much as writers. Hitchcock, Peckinpah, Fellini, John Ford, Nicholas Roeg, Max Ernst, Paul Mavrides, Jimi Hendrix, Zappa, the Sex Pistols, the Stooges, Velvet Underground, the Sisters of Mercy, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I listen to music when I write – it becomes part of the atmosphere of the writing. But of course I'm influenced by writers, I've got Harlan Ellison "damage," I was influenced by Michael Moorcock and by writers like David Lindsay and Poe and by CS Lewis's Space Trilogy. I had the usual Lovecraft period and still sometimes write Lovecraftian pieces – I just did one for Black Wings 2, a tale which is actually about Lovecraft himself. I'm also very much influenced by non genre writers like Thomas Hardy and Charles Baudelaire and by the great detective writers like Hammett and Cain. My favorite fiction reading is Patrick O'Brian's historical novels. I admire Tim Powers a lot – he and Jack Vance are among the few writers of the fantastic I still read.
There's a good bit of tie-in work - movie novelizations, novels based on video games, etc. - sprinkled throughout your bibliography. How different is it working on those projects versus working on your own creations?
Very different – it's a different state of mind. It's a lot like writing for a television series. You didn't create that franchise, that's their house and you have to play nice in it and do things their way. My Bioshock: Rapture novel is a best seller, and I hope it'll bring fresh readers to my purely original works, but I'm only allowed to bring a degree of myself to something like that. Nevertheless I do my best when I write one of those tie-in books to bring something distinctive, within the rules of that world, and to be really creative with it without going astray from the franchise. I seem to have pleased most fans of Bioshock but, going back, I pissed off some fans of the Predator comic books because I didn't include their canon into my Predator novel, Predator: Forever Midnight – my story took off from the two Predator movies and I made up what I wanted from that point. The movie studio approved the book! But some of these fans of this other Predator canon – of which I was not even aware – got mad I didn't use their teminology and that Predator background as much, and they went after me on Amazon. It's a risk you run. It can be very political, in a sense, when the fans of a franchise are out there watching. I stuck really close to canon on Bioshock.
What attracts you to an existing property like Constantine or the Bioshock universe and makes you want to play in that world?
I'm hired to do it, they come to me, so the money attracts me to a tie-in novel first – let's be frank, I'm a professional writer, that's all I do, is write. But they choose me because there's something about my writing that dovetails with the style of those worlds. I haven't done one that wasn't enjoyable for me on some level. I did already like the Hellblazer comics which loosely inspired the movie Constantine. I did two John Constantine, Hellblazer novels for Pocket Books, War Lord and Subterranean – not exactly the same character as Keanu Reaves "Constantine" in the movie and novelization. The two Hellblazer novels were based on the comics and except for the difficulty of getting Constantine's particular style of British dialogue right, I loved doing those because there was such a lot of inventiveness possible. I just kind of went wild with 'em.
Bioshock was difficult, because it was a prequel taking place over 14 years – hard to structure – but it was also fun because I'd played the game and loved it and the splicers are a blast to play with, insane characters like Sander Cohen are right up my alley, and the wonderful Jules-Verne-meets-Hearst setting, Rapture, the city under the sea, is very evocative and inspiring.
Tell us about In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley, which has just been released by Underland. That title makes some big promises - was it difficult to pick the entries for this book?
Yes. I've written lots of stories that are extremes, and it could have been twice as long. I also didn't want to have one long keening note through it; didn't want it to be like one endless guitar solo of mad brutal intensity. It needed to be paced and textured yet still throbbing with extremes. So I had to pick stories that could be paced--some stories are extreme in a more conceptual way and they give the reader a chance to breathe. But the most hard-core stuff is there. The Booklist reviewer said it was one of the most frightening books the reader will ever encounter. It's not just shock--it's about breaking down barriers between the inner world of the writer, and the reader. It's about making emotional connections you don't usually get to make with the reader. Some of the stories are excruciatingly violent, but never meaninglessly – there's always a theme that brings its meaning home. Some are also my personal existential protest against the world we live in. Others reflect things I saw in my time, like when I was a drug addict. There are several stories involving prostitutes, and that doesn't go back to any use of prostitutes I had, but to my encounters with them when I was struggling with drug addiction. (I'm many years clean from drugs now.) You wanted a short cut to drugs, you went and hung with prostitutes. Plus I was just on the scene in various ways. I'm glad to be free of it but I have a lot of compassion for people trapped in prostitution and addiction and the despair of "the life."
Some of the stories are noir/crime stories, of a sort, set in the real world, others are in a world of the fantastic, one or two are near-future science-fiction/horror, but they're all about the extremes of the human condition. Some of the horror has a deliberate absurdist, satirical quality, as in “Just Like Suzie,” others are as grittily real as they come.
You know, there are bad stories written in an extreme fashion. But good extreme art always has something to say. Extremes are revealing. Extremes strip us naked. Extremes are revelatory.
There are two new stories in the collection - what can you tell us about those?
Many of them are new, but if you mean never-before-published, there's just one. Originally there were going to be two, but the publisher was uncomfortable with one of them, a story called “Bitters” – you can now find it in the archives at Flurb.net. She couldn't deal with that one. Several of the stories, being extreme, were previously published somewhat obscurely. But the one that's written specifically for the book is "The Gun As An Aid To Poetry." As you might suppose, it's a somewhat literary but it's also about a guy who forces a poet he's obsessed with to compose poetry at gunpoint. "Write or I'm going to blow your brains out." Obviously that's a powerfully tense situation. It's about death as a fire that lights life for us – and the poet becomes addicted to having a gun to his head. Writers will appreciate it.
Is this the final word on extreme horror from John Shirley, or do you have more to say in that particular genre?
I look around at the world and I get angry, and I write things that reflect that anger, stories that I hope wake people up, both in the literal sense of being more awake in the world, and in the sense of being aware of suffering around us. So that's what I'm really looking for, extremes or not – a place where I can express my outrage, entertain people, and have an effect on consciousness. I try, anyhow. And I'll come up with new stories of that kind because the world inspires them. The people lost in the shadows don't get their stories told enough...
Do you find that there's a bigger place for this kind of fiction in today's world, where violent images are just a click away on the Internet and people are maybe more desensitized to it, or is the desire for it shrinking because of overexposure to the real thing?
It's important to bring meaning to the horror in the world so we can work our way through it. That's the bigger place. Philosophical context. It's cathartic, too – but only if the story is meaningful, if it has a moral context. There's so much violent entertainment out there and some of it is just sadistic. Stories that are meaningful, where you feel, "these are real people, and they matter" – you don't get that from "torture porn" movies.
Tell us a little about your forthcoming novel Everything is Broken. What's it about and when will we be seeing it?
Everything is Broken (original title was Welcome to Freedom), will be shipping in December from Prime Books. The title is obviously from the Bob Dylan song. It's a strange combination of things, another genre busting book. It's a disaster novel, a near future science fiction novel, a crime novel, a coming of age novel: I think of it as a kind of 21st century Red Badge of Courage on one level. It's also a political allegory about how American values are being distorted, America is being hijacked by hyper conservatives and anti-government Tea Party types, and what can happen if there's an emergency, a truly horrible disaster that overwhelms a small isolated town in this case, and you have no services, no infrastructure, you've stripped the town down to nothing but competitiveness, without any structured cooperation. It's a pretty violent novel – the criminal aftermath of a disaster in that kind of political context. It also involves some speculation about global warming's possible connection to earthquakes. But it's all fused seamlessly into one novel. Perhaps there's a William Golding style metaphor here. But ultimately it's a thriller.
Finally, are there any other projects in the works that you'd like readers to be aware of?
This is as good a time as any to announce that Prime Books will be bringing out an omnibus volume of my A Song Called Youth cyberpunk trilogy, all three books in one, this coming year.
And I have a novel called The Other End – out in an eReads edition at the moment – that's about a "designer apocalypse." If you could make your own Judgement Day, what would it be? Now it has its horrific sides, this book, and billions die and the world is transformed in a way that is a stark, purposeful contrast to the Left Behind sort of Judgment Day fantasies, and it attempts to offer some sense of the incredible potential of human consciousness. There is a certain take on gnosticism informing The Other End. That book – well, I never wrote a more important one. It's just a metaphor, but it's one close to my heart. It's about coming face to face with the human condition and the possibilities of real, waking consciousness.
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