When I found out that Mike Marano’s Stories From the Plague Years was picked up for reprint by ChiZine press, and just in time for Halloween, I threw him into the interrogation room. (According to Publisher’s Weekly, the small Canadian publisher “continues to hit the mark… [Canada is] turning out some great writers, and CZP is finding and publishing them with amazing alacrity.”) Marano is best known as the author of the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild winning Dawn Song. He also works as a film critic for the Public Radio Satellite Network show Movie Magazine International and is a teacher at Grub Street, emergent trapeze artist, and longtime PSB devotee.
What was the inspiration for Dean, the serial killer narrator in "Displacement"? [the opening novella of Stories from the Plague Years]
Dean was a collage designed to articulate a very particular kind of frustration that I was witnessing throughout the 80’s and the early 90’s.
With the economic landscape under Reagan, especially with all the factories closing because Reagan was giving tax breaks to people so they could move their factories overseas, there was this sense that kids couldn’t do as well as their parents, this anxiety haunting, in particular, the male children of what we now call the Greatest Generation. And there was another layer to this, one puzzled out by a bunch of sociologists whose work I read in The New Yorker and The New York Times—and I’ve been trying to track down a lot of these articles that I read back then and have only found a couple. But there would be these explosions of violence, particularly among Italian-Americans (and I’m Italian American) against African Americans. There was an incident in a place called Howard Beach outside of New York where a group of African Americans went into an Italian American neighborhood and were killed. This and several other explosions of violence happened around the same time, and the sociologists said that one of the contributing factors was that the sons of Italian Americans, if not first generation immigrants then second generation immigrants, knew that they couldn’t do as well as their parents had done and that this might have caused a sort of displaced anger. And I saw a lot of this growing up in Buffalo. So I was trying to articulate that particular fragrance of rage and apply it in a creative way.
Dean is a little bit of a Humbert type in that he is a product of the Western cultural machine, internalizing its ideologies and warping them in these interesting ways. Can you talk about your use of pop culture in the story?
Well, I make my living in pop culture; it’s my day job. I infused a lot of pop culture commentary into my second draft of “Displacement” because I originally wrote it in 1992. (And at the time I got a lot of good notices for it, I got really good and encouraging rejections for it, too, which I actually still have on file.)
And selling novellas is like climbing Everest, anyway, but then Seven came out and I was like, “That’s it, I’m going to put this story away and that’s it, it’s done, I can’t use this premise,” because Seven and "Displacement" share a lot of themes, if not premises. And then when I saw the ways in which Seven had been ripped off and had really infiltrated the culture I said, “Ok, I can salvage this, and repurpose it.” "Displacement" became a commentary on the ways in which Seven and things like it have permeated our consciousness. And I was riffing on something that I find really despicable in a lot of mysteries and crime dramas on TV: the offense of murder isn’t depicted as the offense against the taking of another human life, it’s against people’s assumptions of what a home or a neighborhood should be. What’s repulsive in a lot of those pop crime novels is that the offense isn’t the murder, it’s—like I say in the story—the bloody footprint on the nice carpet. That smug voyeurism in all the Law and Order type shows: “Oh look at those bad people killing each other! That offends my sensibilities, and those nice officers are going to set that straight!” It’s the same with CSI, Cold Case, which kindof riffs on Profiler, and all those shows which tidy up the actual murders, which is kindof sickening.
Given your feelings about popular crime and horror fiction, do you consider your writing genre fiction?
I consider it literary genre.
Walter Benjamin from the Frankfurt school wrote something in One Way Street about how the bourgeois anxieties of the 19th century, as articulated through murder mysteries and horror stories, actually brought the 19th century living room into existence, wrote it into existence. Just like Miami became Miami Vice after the show became a hit, and the Bull and Finch downtown, Cheers. Cheers was a neighborhood bar, but then when the show came out it became a tourist trap, and then a fake bar that tried to be Cheers became the real Cheers because all the regular patrons there couldn’t stand being around the tourists. So I’ve seen this kind of thing happen and wanted to articulate Benjamin’s stuff by doing it within genre fiction.
Can you tell me about the second story in the collection, “Little Round Head”? It seems like a pretty straightforward story up to a point, and then, suddenly, it’s not.
“Little Round Head” refers to a very, very specific world of magic, which I go way out of my way not to address directly. And I feel like if I actually talk about to which world of magic it belongs, I’m going to completely ruin all the mystery. Only one person has come up to me and said “Oh, I know what that is!”
And that seems to be part of the idea, that there is a crucial detail the reader is missing.
Which is what happens when you’re a kid [like the narrator]. You don’t know all the angles. And also, the whole mythological notion of a changeling, a non-human agency raising a human child is so primordial that I wanted to go out of my way to let it speak for itself.
Did you study mythology at any point?
I was a history major with a minor in Medieval Studies, and from there I studied Kabbalah and alchemy and various traditions of magic. I was studying that because, like every teenager, I really wanted to write a big fat sprawling fantasy novel. But I wanted the magic to feel right. The two great creators of my imagination are Lovecraft and Tolkien, and both of their worlds are so deeply rooted in a history, it feels like you’ll find some truth if you dig deep enough. And even though I didn’t really think it intellectually, emotionally it feels like Tolkien must have found a manuscript in a monastery somewhere.
That’s actually his take on it. Middle Earth is not supposed to be another dimension.
If you change the level of the oceans, withdrawing them and draining the Mediterranean a bit, Middle-earth is Europe. People have done it.
I recently read a book review claiming that people read to identify with the protagonists of a story. I’m interested in how you address that, given your proclivity for very strange and sometimes terrifying characters.
Ok… so I hate overly sympathetic protagonists. And my mission statement as a writer in this capacity is, in the words of Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein…um, actually that might not be a good thing to say out loud... But anyway, I was raised on 70s movies: Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, Electra Glide in Blue, and all these anti-hero epics, Easy Rider, all these movies in which it was a moral obligation to address, as a culture, as Americans, our own not very sympathetic tendencies. And it really felt like, seeing those downer films, none of which had a happy ending (you don’t walk out of Straw Dogs feeling good about yourself) it felt like you were taking responsibility for something moral, or at least respecting that reality isn’t always tidy.
And then in the 80s… well, the original ending of Risky Business was that Tom Cruise fails. But that didn’t test well, so this monster of a spoiled suburban brat gets away with it and becomes a success by being a pimp. Isn’t that cute? The original ending of Pretty Woman was that Julia Roberts dies of an overdose. But the audiences didn’t want that, so she goes with the corporate raider and lives a Cinderella existence even though he got his money in not very nice ways. There were all these despicable happy endings which felt to me like an abdication of moral responsibility. So I feel it’s moral to present anti-heroes.
And call me a kook, but I think it makes for good stories. In Dawn Song, the protagonist is a fiend from hell. You brought up Humbert Humbert. And is Stephen Dedalus a particularly sympathetic character? He’s not sympathetic, he just is. And I think a lack of complexity in narratives—also in books, not just Hollywood and TV—this mollycoddling of bourgeois sensibilities without any moral or aesthetic responsibility being applied reduces writers to being court jesters for people who just want to be entertained. (And that’s not an entirely accurate description of what court jesters did, but you get the idea.)
The review that brought this up was actually about JK Rowling’s new book. The reviewer found the characters vile.
And yet people love Snape!
By the way, can I just say, the real hero of Harry Potter is totally Neville Longbottom. He’s the more stand-up guy, he goes up to bat. I’m a big Neville fan. One of the online rumors leading up to the final book was that Neville was the chosen one and Harry Potter was a carefully orchestrated diversionary tactic, and I like that a lot.
Do you have a favorite story in Plague Years?
Some have a lot more of me in them, and as an avowed narcissist I would obviously like those better. “Shibboleth” was extremely painful to write … I mean, it’s a post-apocalyptic dystopian story based on watching my hometown fall to ruin. I remember being a teenager sitting on a slag heap behind a bowling alley on the railroad tracks breaking bottles with friends. Now if that was the opening of a William Gibson story everyone would say “Oh, that’s so evocative,” or if it began a Bruce Sterling story everyone would say “Wow, that’s gritty science fiction.” But for me that’s just what it was to be 14. A lot of that terror of watching a city die made its way into “Shibboleth,” which is actually just a chapter of a larger science fiction novel. I’m not big on this whole zombie apocalypse thing because being in the ruins of a city being menaced by chemically and/or biologically altered bipedal threats—dealing with pill fiends and junkies when you’re just walking around minding your own business—that’s real. Why would I find that to be fun in a first-person shooter, Resident Evil kind of game?
Why do you think that’s so big right now? Vampires are beginning to die off, but zombies are still managing to hold out.
I think it’s a reiteration of many of the anxieties that I find myself writing about, and I actually wrote an essay about this with regard to The Hunger Games. I think a lot of younger people who are fixated on zombie apocalypse have been to college and have minimum wage jobs and really don’t see a future, and there might be a little bit of wish fulfillment, too. “Wouldn’t it be cool if it all were wiped away and we could just blast our way out of it?” So, I think that’s part of it. What’s it, like 55% of college graduates are still living at home? I mean, that’s a world of suck.
When I got out of college there was a demographic bubble of baby boomers right ahead of me and they weren’t going anywhere. There were no jobs. It was bleak and dystopian in its own way. And I think that was colored by fear about impending nuclear apocalypse, and that’s where we got all those Terminator anxieties.
So you think that current trends in fiction are directly related to the current political state?
Maybe. But I also think marketing people have found one thing that works and are now flogging it to death. There are now small presses dedicated only to zombie apocalypse stories. You know, it sells, and I think that’s an outgrowth of our blessed corporate masters telling us what to buy. They have found something that works for the time being and are just going with it. For example, why does almost everyone in genre fiction series need to have magic powers? Buffy was good, Buffy wannabes, not as much.
Where have the Buffys and Xenas gone?
Katniss. She’s a stand-up character. She does what’s right, and she’s other-directed. But I wasn’t crazy about the last book. I don’t think many people were.
You write dark stories, but they’re also humorous.
I honestly think that comes out of a particular psychosis of mine: the fact that I am the youngest son in a large family. I would watch scary movies with my older sisters, who definitely put me through my paces by picking on me constantly. It’s in the job description of an older sister, of course. My sisters, while we watched scary movies, would be really upset when I would say that the character that they really liked was probably going to die. I’d feel like I just got a little bit of power. A little bit of psychological leverage. I relate to traditional and mythic tricksters like Loki, because the only way you can really hold your own when you’re that low on the proverbial food chain as a youngest son is to use your wits.
What do you teach at Grub Street?
I teach classes on how to write literary popular fiction, in the form of three "Smart Page-Turner" classes called "Writing the Smart Page-Turner" and "The Smart Page-Turner Strikes Back!" and "Revenge of the Smart Page-Turner!", and I also teach something called "Screen and Stage…to the Page!" which is a class specifically geared toward teaching prose writers how to steal from film writers and playwrights. When I read current fiction, I feel like a lot of prose writers don’t know how to construct a scene, and then when I read a play, I’ll see something so dynamic and emotionally effective. “Displacement” was written using dramatic structures. My approach with Dean and the Doctor was to create a compelling narrative with two people talking in a room talking and make it scary. The template for that was William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III, which is a really underrated movie with absolutely terrifying scenes where it’s just Brad C. Scott and Brad Dourif talking in a room.
Do you comment mainly on horror films?
Primarily, because that’s my niche. Wes Craven really didn’t want to be known as a horror director, but he found his niche, and hey, the checks clear.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to seeing?
Skyfall. I did deal with Sony to cover the movie for a magazine, but I asked for it because I’m actually really psyched to see it. So I feel like I can say that.
What are you working on now?
I am working on the sequel to Dawn Song. It’s called The Diaspora, and it expands upon Dawn Song but is a stand-alone novel, one of three books using the same mythological background, not a series per se, but with one or two of the same characters.
Mike's collection of dark fiction, Stories From the Plague Years, is available as a trade paperback from ChiZine Publications of Toronto.