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Thrills, Chills, and General Silliness (with Weldon Burge)

Meet Bram Stoker Winner L.L. Soares

The horror fiction of L.L. Soares has appeared in many magazines, including Cemetery Dance, Horror Garage, Bare Bone, and Shroud, as well as anthologies such as The Best of Horrorfind 2, “Right House on the Left, Traps, and both Zippered Flesh anthologies from Smart Rhino Publications. His first story collection, In Sickness(written with wife Laura Cooney), was published in the fall of 2010 by Skullvines Press. He recently won a Bram Stoker Award for his first novel, Life Rage, which was released from Nightscape Press in 2012.

Soares is an incredibly talented and versatile man, working not only as a writer but as an editor, publisher, and frequent film critic. He took some time away from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

Weldon Burge (WB): Your novel, Life Rage, won the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for “Superior Achievement in a First Novel.” Aside from the obvious ego massage, how has the award benefited your writing career?

L.L. Soares (LLS): To be honest, I think it’s too early to tell. I’m actually still in shock – it all seemed kind of unreal at the time. I’m hoping it will make it easier to sell future books, and that hopefully more people will read my work. But I guess only time will tell.

I am proud of the fact that I can put “Bram Stoker Award-Winning Author” on my book covers now, though. That’s very cool.

WB: Your second novel, Rock ‘N’ Roll, was published earlier this year. It seems to be more of an erotic thriller than Life Rage, but still laced with violence and horror. Which novel did you have the most fun writing, and why?

LLS: Even though they are different in a lot of ways, both books do share a love of characters. My stuff is very character-driven, and I think that is what links the books. Life Rage just deals with more characters, whose stories intertwine. For the most part, Rock ‘N’ Roll is focused on one main character, Lash. Also, where “Life Rage” is more obviously a horror novel, Rock ‘N’ Roll was harder for me to categorize. It’s almost more surreal than horrific at times. I hesitate to say it falls in the “bizarro fiction” category, because, despite rather odd elements, it is rooted in a real, recognizable world, so I don’t think it’s strange enough to be bizarro.

But the truth is, they’re all fun, and I am comfortable in several genres. The first stuff I wrote as a kid in manuscript format—the first stories I sent out to magazines and publishers when I was still in high school—was mostly science fiction, and some fantasy. I am also really into noir fiction—Jim Thompson is one of my heroes. So I incorporate all kinds of things in my writing. I do notice that horror is one of the more universal elements in my fiction, though. There’s always some horrific element in most of what I write. I just have that sensibility, I guess. I think of all genres, horror is the one I am most in tune with.

WB: You’ve written a collection of short stories, In Sickness in collaboration with your wife, Laura Cooney. How did that come about? And will you be doing it again?

LLS: In Sickness just came to me as a fully formed idea. Laura and I are both writers, and we’re in the unique situation of being married and both writing mostly in the horror genre. It also gave me a chance to spotlight some of Laura’s fiction, as well as my own. I think she’s an awesome writer. The idea was that the book would include stories by her, stories by me, and then a novella (also called “In Sickness”) that we wrote together. It was a pretty easy concept to pitch to publishers—kind of pre-packaged and ready to go. I had the title and the basic idea. Even the cover was something we had beforehand. We had been visiting our friends Steve and Valerie Dorato and I saw the painting Val had done that would become the cover of “In Sickness”. It was so somber, so emotionally resonant, that I knew immediately that I wanted to use it for the book. It just all kind of fell into place. I think Skullvines Press did a wonderful job with it.

As for doing it again, Laura and I were asked to write another novella together for a new publisher a little while ago. We wrote it, and they liked it, but the publisher folded before they could put it out, so we’re in the process of finding a new home for it. It’s called Green Tsunami, and it is a different kind of take on the apocalypse. No radioactive wastelands or zombies or anything like that, but something completely different. I hope to get that one placed somewhere soon. The only rules we had when it was requested of us were that it takes place during an apocalypse and that it be written as either letters or emails back and forth between two characters. I’m really happy with how that one turned out, and hopefully it will be placed somewhere soon.

We’ve also been kicking around some other ideas for future projects.

WB: Aside from your wife, which author would you love to collaborate with? And what would you write?

LLS: I have actually done a LOT of collaboration. I wrote a short story and a novella with Kurt Newton (the novella is Breaking Eggs, available from Sideshow Press), which came out quite well. A story I did with Daniel G. Keohane, “Mermaids”, was published in Cemetery Dance. And I have stories I wrote with Peter N. Dudar and John Dixon that turned out really well. Aside from that, I write a movie review column with Michael Arruda called “Cinema Knife Fight” which is a collaboration I do just about every week. So I’ve had a lot of experience “playing well with others.”

As far as someone I would love to collaborate with but haven’t, I would love to work with someone like Clive Barker. I just think he’s so rich with wonderful, dark ideas. As for what we would write—it would be more interesting to leave that to the imagination.

WB: Which authors have had the most influence on your fiction?

LLS: Despite the fact that I write mostly horror, most of my biggest influences have been outside the genre.

The first writers I got hooked on as a kid were Poe and Lovecraft. Poe I was exposed to through school and Lovecraft I found on my own. I was obsessed and read everything I could find by Lovecraft. Then as I got older, I got into science fiction, and the writers who really stood out for me were people like Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison—the kinds of writers who defied genre boundaries a lot of the time and who weren’t afraid to take on taboo subject matter. Strangely, I don’t ever think I had a period of time where I read much YA fiction. It was just the classics and then on to the more intriguing science fiction of the day. And comic books, of course.

I was also heavily into the whole “new wave” of science fiction from the 1970s, which included writers like Thomas M. Disch, Barry Malzberg, Norman Spinrad, Joanna Russ, Michael Moorcock, and Samuel Delany, as well as Philip K. Dick (who was pre-“New Wave,” but obviously had a big effect on it) and Philip Jose Farmer.

Perhaps the biggest SF-related influence, though, was J.G. Ballard, a writer who started out writing science fiction, but whose reach went way beyond that genre. Ballard was very important to me. I remember reading his novel Crash for the first time and being totally blown away by it. I’ve re-read that one several times since, and it still amazes me.

In horror, I’m a huge fan of Jack Ketchum, Shirley Jackson, T.E.D. Klein, Clive Barker (especially his early horror output), Dennis Etchison, David J. Schow, and Poppy Z. Brite. I was a big fan of the Skipp and Spector novels, too. And there were some comic book writers, like Steve Gerber and Alan Moore who inspired me as well. And noir/crime fiction like Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

Then there are so-called “mainstream” writers like Philip Roth, Jerzy Kozinski, Harry Crews, Ian McEwan, Chuck Palahniuk, and Dan Fante, all of whom I enjoy immensely.

But most of all, the writers who I had the most connection with, were ones who kind of stood outside of genres, people like Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jr., and Hunter S. Thompson. Writers who were pretty much genres unto themselves. But I guess one overall connecting tissue among all these writers is that they were and are risk-takers. They were not satisfied to be held back by any boundaries. I can relate to that.

WB: If you could start your writing career over, what would you do differently?

LLS: I’m not really sure. I started writing at a very young age. I remember writing one-page stories based on movies I had seen on TV in a lined notebook when I was as young as six or seven. So there was always that desire. I knew very early on what I wanted to do with my life. I started sending out actual manuscripts—short stories, mostly—to magazines when I was in high school. I had this idea that I would start selling stuff early on and have a long and prolific career, but it didn’t turn out that way.

I sold my first story in college, to The Minnesotan Science Fiction Reader of all places, for all of fifteen dollars, but it folded before my story could be published. After that, it took me another 15 years before I made my next sale, which happened to also be my first professional sale (at pro rates) to Gothicnet.com. In the meantime, I was writing constantly during those years in between. It wasn’t like I had given up. But I got enough rejections over those years to wonder if I would ever actually sell anything. So much for my plans for a long writing career! I had a long period from the late 80s to the mid-90s where I was writing things that I never sent out at all. I’d just finish one thing and go on to the next one.

In a weird way, finally selling stories and novels later in life is satisfying because I’ve been working at it for so long. In another way, it feels like now I am in a race against the clock to write as much as I can in the time I have left. I guess any success I have now is bittersweet, in the sense that, if this had happened twenty years ago, I would have more time to create a much larger body of work.

So I guess my answer to your question would be, I don’t know. I did all I could think to do at the time. Beyond that, it was out of my hands.

WB: The short stories you’ve written for the Smart Rhino Zippered Flesh anthologies are so different. “Sawbones” in the first anthology was an absolute gorefest. “Seeds” in the second anthology has no gore at all, yet is in my view even creepier. When you write horror, are you more comfortable going for the gross out or the creep out?

LLS: I actually don’t have a preference. I know a lot of people who say they prefer the quiet chill to gore, but I don’t really think one is better than the other. I see both subtle horror and extreme horror as two different tools in my writer’s toolbox, to be pulled out when they’re needed. I hear people say all the time that subtle horror is better, that gore is just a crutch, and while I’m sure that is true in some cases, I don’t agree with it overall. Gore elicits a very visceral response, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want. I just don’t even think about it when I write, though. I write what fits the moment.

Another big influence on me has been movies, of course, and I’m just as happy with a subtle old Val Lewton film as I am with something like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I like both kinds of horror, and I can appreciate them for what they are.

WB: What are you reading now?

LLS: I try to read outside the horror genre as much as possible. Not because I have anything against horror—I love it—but if that’s all you read, it becomes tiresome. At the same time, I have a lot of friends in the genre and I want to read their new books when they come out. So right now I’m kind of reading several things at once: I just finished a collection of interviews with musician/spoken word artist Lydia Lunch who I love, put out by Re/Search Books; I read Nick Cato’s latest novella, “The Last Porno Theater”, which I really enjoyed; I’ve been reading a biography of Aleister Crowley by Richard Kaczynski a little at a time, and, every so often I read a book in the 33 1/3 series about classic albums. My “To Be Read” pile includes The Evolutionist by Rena Mason, Mountain Home by Bracken McLeod, and autobiographies by directors William Friedkin and Elia Kazan, to name just a few. So, yeah, I’m all over the place.

WB: You’ve been a film critic for the film review column “Cinema Knife Fight” for a decade or so, focusing largely on horror/suspense films. What do you think are the three best “unknown” horror movies—incredible movies that almost no one has seen?

LLS: There are so many great movies that are underappreciated. If I had to pick three off the top of my head, they would be:

Possession (1981) by director Andrzej Zulawski is starting to get more attention lately, but it still deserves to be discovered by more people. It’s a story about a guy (Sam Neill) whose wife (Isabelle Adjani) is having an affair. But the more we learn, the more surreal it all is, going in some really Lovecraftian directions by the end. Just an amazing, unusual film.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) by Richard Blackburn, is kind of a mix between a dream/nightmare and a fairy tale. It has that kind of feel to it. About a girl who goes back to her hometown and finds witches and vampires. It’s so different and original that it’s refreshing.

Sugar Hill (1974) by Paul Maslansky is probably my favorite movie from the whole “Blaxploitation” movement in the 1970s. It’s about zombies, but the old school kind, that are raised up by voodoo. A woman (Marki Bey) whose boyfriend is killed by gangsters, gets revenge using zombies. With a scene-stealing performance by Don Pedro Colley as Baron Samedi, who is the zombie master. Really terrific little flick. Also featuring Robert Quarry (from the underrated Count Yorgamovies) as a gangster. With all the fuss about flesh-eating zombies these days, it’s nice to just submerge yourself in a well-made movie about traditional voodoo zombies once in a while.

WB: How much does your love of cinema influence your own writing style?

LLS: I’m sure cinema has influenced me a lot. I was a fan of horror movies before I was a fan of anything in other mediums. I am a very visual writer—I picture these characters and situations in my mind’s eye as I’m writing—and I’m sure that’s a cinematic influence.I’m sure things like pacing and drama come from that, too.

For horror, and movies in general, I think there were two big periods. First, there were the 1930s—the time of the classic Universal horror films and the peak of screwball comedies by directors like Preston Sturgess and Howard Hawks—which was a true golden age for cinema. There just seemed to be so many great movies made during that decade and so many kinds of movies. One thing I had as a kid that isn’t really as prevalent now was the whole Saturday Morning Creature Features, where they would show a lot of classic horror and sf films. That’s how I was exposed to a lot of this stuff, and kids today just don’t have that kind of access. Or maybe they’re just not interested. Sure there’s video, but there’s also this idea that black and white movies are for old fogies, which is really sad. It’s like there’s a whole world of movies out there that is being unjustly ignored.

I remember seeing the original James Whale Frankenstein (1931) when I was about six, and that’s the movie that really did me in. That made me a horror fan for life. It just had such a huge impression on me at the time, and it’s what led me to seek out all things horror throughout my life.

The other major cinema period for me is the 1970s. This was after the whole studio system in Hollywood came to an end, and suddenly all of the strict rules that governed movies were gone. So many directors pushed the envelope then. It didn’t always work, but it was a time of experimentation and extremes. I think the 70s is my favorite movie decade. It’s when we got everything from Easy Rider to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Midnight Cowboy. Everything seemed new and exciting—depictions of sex and violence, the emphasis on characters even more than plot—and the decade taken as a whole is so exhilarating.

But I’ve just watched so many movies throughout my life—and many, many more to come—that I’m sure they’ve had some kind of effect on me.

WB: So, what’s your next writing project?

LLS: Coming up this fall is my first mainstream novel, Hard. It’s coming out from a small press, but it’s not horror. I am really curious to see what kind of reception it gets, because it’s different from what people might be expecting from me. Although it does deal with subject matter that isn’t that much of a stretch, the porn industry during the 1980s, and a character who is a torturer. So I’m sure fans of my horror fiction will be able to get into it pretty easily.

In the meantime, I have several projects I’m working on, including a crime fiction/noir novel called Binge, and a novel that takes place in my fictional city of Blue Clay, Massachusetts, that really opens up some of the mysteries I’ve created around that place in some of my short stories, called Buried in Blue Clay. Plus I’ve been working on a few new short stories and novellas. So I’m plenty busy these days.

WB: Thanks, L.L, for a great interview! We look forward to reading more of your work in the coming years. Good luck with your future writing endeavors!

Read more about L.L. Soares and his work at his website, www.llsoares.com.

(A version of this review was also published in the Sept/Oct. 2013 issue of Suspense Magazine.)

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