I first became aware of Brian Hodge in the early 1990s, when I was working at a B. Dalton Bookseller in Fort Collins, Colorado. The Dell Abyss line of horror novels, under the direction of Bantam editor Jeanne Cavelos, had just started blowing up the genre, infusing it with a new sense of originality, trading tired monsters and cliches for psychological horror and other disturbing explorations. A lot of the books in the Abyss line were spectacular—thought-provoking, chilling, some quiet, some splatterpunk. Particular favorites included works from Robert Devereaux (Deadweight), Kathe Koja (The Cipher), Michael Blumlein (X,Y), and, of course, Brian Hodge. His novels were dark, spiritual, genre-defying, challenging, and even beautiful. I always knew I was in for a deep read when starting a new Hodge book.
Years later, starting my own publishing venture, I was fortunate to work with Brian on the Dark Highway Press weird-western anthology Skull Full of Spurs, for which he wrote a transcendent story called Pages Stuck by a Bowie Knife to a Cheyenne Gallows. It’s one of those stories that—if you ever have the opportunity to edit an anthology of stories—you rejoice about when you receive it, because it seems to make the entire venture worthwhile. It makes the book complete. Give it a read, and tell me I’m wrong. I dare ya.
I was able to conduct an interview recently with Hodge about his publishing history. Having been around in the industry for a while, I knew he could provide some unique insight into the horror market, as well as his own experience with the exalted Dell Abyss line. So here’s the interview!
Jason Bovberg: Was Dark Advent the first novel you wrote? Can you talk a bit about its path to publication at Pinnacle, as a first-time-published novelist?
Brian Hodge: Dark Advent was actually my second novel. Oasis was the first, although it went through four major drafts before it sold. So there was a period when I was going back and forth between them. The whole process was like a self-study graduate program in learning how to write a publishable novel, because I came right out of college and this is what I went after. As I mentioned in the new Dark Advent edition’s afterword, the reason the main characters of both novels are students is because, at the time, that was all I knew anything about being.
But each novel was handled by a different agent, so there wasn’t any coordination between them. The one who sold Oasis decided we weren’t a good match—she had it in her head it was a YA novel, and I kept going “No, no, no”—so we had an amicable parting. After that, for Dark Advent, I went with the Adele Leone Agency, who at the time were handling John Skipp and Craig Spector.
Jason Bovberg: How did you end up at TOR for Oasis?
Brian Hodge: It was purely a matter of scheduling, and maybe a side-effect of having changed agents. The novels sold about three months apart, Oasis first, but Pinnacle was faster about getting Dark Advent into print, and it ended up coming out five or six months before Oasis did.
Jason Bovberg: After your stints at Pinnacle and TOR, you moved to Dell Abyss, the celebrated horror line. Any anecdotes about getting onboard there or about your time with the Dell crew? It was a fascinating time in horror fiction.
Brian Hodge: I’d written Nightlife, which came about after Pinnacle approached me through Adele Leone about doing a proposed series whose pitch was literally a one-line ripoff of A Nightmare On Elm Street. I didn’t seriously entertain the idea, because I didn’t feel good about it, and didn’t think it would be a wise move. Just getting started like that, I didn’t want to be the Nightmare On Elm Street-ripoff guy. But it did get me thinking, as a mental exercise, “Okay, if I did do this, how would I make it my own?” Which is how I started down the path of altered states of perception and rain forest hallucinogens, rather than dream realities.
And that’s how Nightlife developed. Adele started shopping it, and one of the editors she sent it to was at Dell. This one didn’t know quite what to make of it, so she took the manuscript down the hall to Jeanne Cavelos and told her, “This is good, but it’s more your kind of thing than mine.” This was in the afternoon. Jeanne looked at the title page and said, “Oh my god. I just sent this guy a letter this morning.” At the time, Jeanne was getting the Dell Abyss line underway, so she was actively looking for weird, unusual stuff. She’d seen a short story of mine in a magazine, thought I was the kind of writer she was looking for, and fired off a cold query: Did I have any new novels she could look at?
By the time her letter got delivered, the offer to help launch the Dell Abyss line was already taking shape. Total fairy-tale stuff. I absolutely adored Jeanne, and working with her. It was a great time overall, and was always a lot of fun seeing the other writers at conventions. Especially Kathe Koja and her husband, artist Rick Lieder. We got on really well. I also handed off Poppy Z. Brite’s first novel, Lost Souls, to Jeanne, which helped expedite getting that published, because it had spent a long time in limbo with another publisher that couldn’t bring themselves to say either yes or no. So that was one of my better pay-it-forward moments.
Jason Bovberg: So then you wrote Deathgrip, The Darker Saints, and Prototype for Dell? Can you talk more about that period? A component of the line seemed splatterpunky, but I enjoyed your more cerebral efforts. How did you feel about the line in general?
Brian Hodge: At first I tried to keep up and read each month’s release, but that eventually fell by the wayside. I did read a lot of them, though. Jeanne did a great job of putting together a diverse roster of authors and releases. I’ve always thought the reason she put Nightlife and Kathe Koja’s The Cipher upfront was to show the aspiring range of the line right from the first two books.
You could hardly have found two more different novels. I still remember an observation from the Locus magazine review: that The Cipher was very dark and precise, while Nightlife was imbued with sprawl, technicolor, and a feeling like prime Miami Vice. Which was exactly what I was going for. I tried to run the gamut in everything I did, from the visceral to the mental.
Brian Hodge: I’ve always loved both. As both a writer and as a reader, I like being able to get lost for a long duration in the expanse of a novel, as well as being able to get in and get out quickly with a short story. Anymore, though, I find it difficult to write at particularly short lengths, say 5,000 words or fewer. Most of the time, the kinds of ideas that can be handled at that length don’t much interest me now. I get too into the characters and the world-building and the chance to weave multiple threads. So, from a writing perspective, when it comes to shorter work, novella length feels optimal now.
Jason Bovberg: What’s your take on small presses versus the big guys?
Brian Hodge: They each have their pros and cons. I’ve done quite a bit of work with both, and had great experiences as well as those that could’ve been better. In theory, a small press should be more nimble and quicker to get things done, and the big houses more ponderous, but that’s not always the case.
Jason Bovberg: Wild Horses was your first original hardcover. How was the experience jumping to Morrow? How about the switch of genre?
Brian Hodge: I wrote Wild Horses because I felt like I had no choice but to do something very different. With the Dell Abyss titles, I’d done this sequence of four increasingly dark novels, culminating with Prototype, and after that, I thought, “I can’t carry this any further. It will kill me. It will fucking kill me.” At the time, I wasn’t able to make a distinction between the emotions in the novel and my own everyday psyche. I couldn’t separate them. I’d internalize all that stuff for months at a time and live with it. Each novel was another trip deeper into the black hole, and each one required a longer recovery period afterward.
So I had to shift laterally. I’ve been reading a lot of crime novels? OK, let’s try a crime novel. I liked the idea of doing something that, whatever gut-wrenching elements it might still have, would also open up plenty of room for humor and levity. It was the right thing to do, and ended up being the sort of thing most writers dream of: having four publishers bidding at auction for your work.
Jason Bovberg: That must have been quite gratifying. Did you have a feeling about the book, that it might be a breakthrough of sorts?
Brian Hodge: You always hold out those hopes for particular projects, and they might have that potential, but even then, other factors have to come together entirely apart from the merits of the work itself. With Wild Horses, the agent I had at the time I wrote it couldn’t do a thing with it. Or didn’t, I should say. There’s a distinction. One of his clients had warned me earlier: “You either get him or you don’t.” Which I took to mean that he would either move mountains, or not even half-ass it. I eventually left for a different agent, who made things happen in about a month. It’s all voodoo.
Jason Bovberg: I’ve read about the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Mad Dogs, specifically the bloodbath at Morrow. (Find much more about this unfortunate period in Brian’s DarkEcho interview here.) Cemetery Dance ended up publishing a beautiful hardcover, but how did the whole episode affect your psyche as a writer?
Brian Hodge: It was an enormous blow. I thought everything was over, and it felt that way for a long time. I was able to take some reassurance from what Joe R. Lansdale told me after a signing he did here in town, something like, “I’ve thought my career was over more times than I can count.” And it wasn’t true, but I did let it weigh me down for a lot longer than I should have.
Jason Bovberg: Music is obviously huge for you, but I’m most curious about how it weaves in with your writing. I love the idea that you create musical soundtracks for your fiction. Has music always gone hand-in-hand with your writing? Mood setting? More?
Brian Hodge: It’s like a Venn diagram. There’s the writing, there’s the music and soundscaping, and there’s this skinny ellipse where they overlap. That middle zone is for projects like Whom the Gods Would Destroy, when I got the urge to do an original score—the soundtrack for the movie in your mind, is how I thought of it. And things like “Extract,” where I took an existing short-short and worked up a full audio presentation: reading, background music and sound design, Foley effects. I mean to do more of those.
Most of the time, though, there’s no direct connection between them, although it may be that some of it comes from the same place. Like two different types of explorations into the aesthetics and emotions and landscapes and atmospheres of darkness, or mystery, or awe. I recently finished up an album called Primordium, of what I came to think of as epic ambient, and got the OK to demo it to my favorite label for these sort of sonics, so I’m waiting to see if anything happens with that.
Brian Hodge: It holds a bunch of stuff. I recently wrote a novel I had seven weeks to do, and it sounds like that will be out later this year. This was an instance of going over to play in someone else’s yard. I got brought on to write an original novel set in the White Wolf gaming universe, called Mummy: Dawn of Heresies. There’s also a novel I’m hundreds of pages into that’s stymied me for a long time, that I finally know what to do with. Another novel I’m going to see if I can fund via Kickstarter, because it would be more of a niche thing, but it’s a passionate niche. I’m also leaning toward growing the story I did for 2113: Stories Inspired by the Music of Rush into a novel. It was based on “Witch Hunt,” and I really fell in love with the characters and situation and the world of it.
Lots of novellas, too. I’ve just had one come out in Paula Guran’s The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, and another in the same vein coming this fall in Ellen Datlow’s Children of Lovecraft. One called The Weight of the Dead is coming right up, slated for June with Tor.com. I also did one called “The Sport of Crows,” for a Kickstartered anthology called Tales of the Lost Citadel, which is the closest I’ve ever strayed into Robert E. Howard territory.
Right now I’m finishing one up for Cemetery Dance’s next joint release with Random House. Also with CD, I’ve got this project called I’ll Bring You the Birds From Out of the Sky. The narrative has a strong focus on Appalachian folk art. I got connected with a wonderful artist named Kim Parkhurst, who’s right now working up several pieces in this highly appealing folk art style that will be tipped in as color plates, so the finished result is going to be this uniquely beautiful little book. And I’m currently working to place my fifth collection, which I’m calling The Immaculate Void.