I met Robert Devereaux in 1994 or 1995, not long after the publication of his breakthrough novel Deadweight, one of the more visceral, standout efforts in the Dell Abyss line of horror novels, and before the publication of his follow-up, Walking Wounded, a gentler tale, this one set in our shared, adopted home town of Fort Collins, Colorado. I was a bookseller at B. Dalton Bookseller, and he was an up-and-coming novelist, but a friendship grew from there—and eventually a professional partnership. Together, in 1998, we would produce a limited-edition hardcover of his wonderful (and controversial) novel Santa Steps Out, which does things to holiday characters and archetypes that are best read to be believed. It’s a hell of a yarn.
Those Dark Highway Press days proved career-changing for both of us. Robert found his way to a larger audience, and I published one more book—Skull Full of Spurs: A Roundup of Weird Westerns—before starting a family and eventually starting my own writing career. My friendship with Robert is one that I treasure, and I’m always happy to catch up with what he’s been up to. This time, I wanted to dig deeper, get at some history that I’d never asked him about before. So without further ado, here’s my interview with the great Robert Devereaux!
Jason: When did you “become” a writer? Talk about your early scribblings.
Robert: Roughly 1957, my fourth-grade teacher Thomas Haley read two horror stories to the class: one, a ghost story, the other, “The Monkey’s Paw.” Probably in response to them, I wrote “The Monstery, Monstery, Monster Story” and read it aloud to the class. It was a one shot, though at home about that time I did write a few short prose pieces, making up words like twirtsbum, goopy, and klopglog in a tale about Bloop the Bloggy. It took a good long while after that to get serious about writing fiction for possible publication.
Jason: What was it like selling that first piece?
Robert: For no pay, I had a story published in a Canadian magazine while living in Montreal (1971-73), something about a gun shop, bullets that spoke to the insane protagonist, and a death or two. Dave Hinchberger, again for no pay, published my werewolf story “Running with a New Pack” in his newsprint catalogue for The Overlook Connection Books in 1989. That story brought me for the first time before a dedicated horror readership.
The first piece I sold was “Fructus in Eden” to Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith at Pulphouse for issue 9 of their hardcover magazine. That was quite thrilling. It was my first inkling that I might be able to drum up some sort of audience for my dreams. When I drove to Seattle from California for the Clarion West Writers Workshop, summer of 1990, I even took the opportunity on the way back to stop in at the Pulphouse headquarters in Eugene, Oregon for a quick visit.
Jason: Ah, Clarion West. I know you have many formative moments there. Care to share an anecdote or two?
Robert: It was the practice of each Clarion West instructor to read over the stories workshopped prior to his or her arrival. My main reason for wanting to attend the 1990 workshop was to meet David Hartwell, who had considered and rejected Santa Steps Out.
I have two anecdotes about David: After his arrival on Sunday and his late afternoon meeting with the group, I waited my turn to talk to him individually. He started to praise Santa Steps Out and suggested we have dinner at a nearby restaurant. This pleasantly floored me. Turned out we had much to talk about. Jump ahead a week. My story for that week had been “Ridi Bobo.” David had also read “Bucky Goes to Church,” my first-week story for Karen Joy Fowler. Near the end of his stay, he took me aside and said, “Now that I’ve seen your range, I want to see Santa Steps Out again.” So I sent it to him, he did his best to get Tor Books onboard, and had the green light until the head of the Marketing Department told the CEO that there was no way agents visiting bookstores could possibly sell this book to them.
Jason: When did you first try your hand at novel-length fiction? Was it Santa? Thoughts about early influences for that?
Robert: My first completed novel, as yet unpublished, was Oedipus Aroused: Homer’s Long-Lost Erotic Epic. It attracted my first agent, Max Gartenberg, who was unable to place it. I came up with the idea for the novel at the University of Iowa around 1980 while working on my doctoral dissertation.
I suppose that John Barth’s fiction was one inspiration for Oedipus Aroused, particularly The Sot-Weed Factor and Chimera. Strangely enough, the other influence was a comic book in which Batman and Robin give Superman a computer that predicts how his life would have been different if Krypton hadn’t exploded.
In my novel, Oedipus meets a cynic about oracles who talks him out of not returning home, indeed comes with him, and there ensues all manner of sexual hijinks and every variety of accidental heterosexual incest. By the end, the Oedipus story is back on its traditional track, just as Superman’s life on Krypton would have been uncannily parallel to his life on Earth.
Santa Steps Out, my second novel, was in part a reaction to all the historical research I had had to do for the Oedipus novel. And Greek mythology figures in both books. What appealed about Santa was the minimal research I needed into the characters, a chance to tap into Greek mythology again, and the extremely wide and intriguing character arc that went from the pure and generous Saint Nicholas to the lecherous, grasping king of the satyrs.
Jason: We’ll get into the details of finally publishing Santa Steps Out a bit more later, but now I have the fun task of asking about Deadweight and its inspirations. What appealed to you about splatterpunk?
Robert: I had had no success with Oedipus Aroused and Santa Steps Out. Or rather, agents had nibbled at both books, but publishers were still wary of this unknown, untested writer. So for novel three, I asked myself the oft-recommended question, “What are you reading and enjoying most, and why don’t you write that?”
Two answers came back: I was deeply into Stephen King’s work, and I had just discovered Barker, Garton, Skipp, Spector, Schow, and Rex Miller, especially in that astonishing zombie anthology, Book of the Dead. Also, Santa Steps Out had intrigued Jeanne Cavelos at Dell Abyss, and I felt it would be good to give her something she could not resist. There was such energy, such creative juice in splatterpunk that it reminded me of the best of Jacobean tragedy, out of England in the early years of the seventeenth century. Hamlet is the best known of these, but The Duchess of Malfi, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and The White Devil are some of the worthiest of these savage plays. I had played the part of Lodovico, a tool villain in the last-named play, early 1969 in Finney Chapel at Oberlin College, and English Renaissance tragedy would become the focus of my doctorate at the University of Iowa a decade later.
The specifics for Deadweight came as a result of Gene Wolfe’s assignment to the class at Clarion West 1990: “Bring in a synopsis, no more than two pages long, of a novel you will write whose theme is resurrection.” From that hint came the plot and subplot of Deadweight. The King part was the green thumb the main character had inherited from her grandmother, that special power that brings back her dead husband and eventually defeats him. The splatter part was everything else, the revived devil dog, the penile implants, the rape with a cactus, and so much more.
Later, Jeanne Cavelos confided that she had considered asking me to dial back the mayhem, the repeated murder and revival of one victim, the throat fucking of the headless corpse, the threeway with the German shepherd, the blinding with thumbs, the unrelenting delivery of so much pain. But she said it all worked in context, and she had free rein at Dell to do as she pleased.
Jeanne also accepted Walking Wounded, my second and last Dell offering. In the midst of that book’s preparation, she left Dell to teach in New England, and without her, the horror line she had birthed and carefully nurtured withered on the vine.
Jason: Talk a bit about writing Walking Wounded. You set it in Fort Collins, having recently arrived here, right? What was the thinking behind this gentler book in the wake of the extremes of Deadweight?
Robert: Deadweight had been my nod to splatterpunk and I had no desire to continue in that vein, lest folks pigeonhole my writing. In Walking Wounded, my primary interest was in telling the story of a woman who acts badly, knows she’s doing so, yet also knows that the way she is acting is right and just. How can a good person do bad things? Perhaps they can’t. But I was going through a period of time in which I acted less than nobly toward a loved one, and felt the urgency of so acting. Best to keep that vague. I set the book in my new home of Fort Collins to anchor it in a place I knew, as I had done with Rocklin, California in Deadweight.
Jason: Around the time of Walking Wounded, I really got to know you well and become a fan of your work, from the perspective of a bookseller and then a publisher. I’m proud to say I became the first publisher of Santa Steps Out! For me, it was an introduction to the publishing world. What did Santa’s publication (finally!) mean for you as a writer?
Robert: Perhaps all of us have those conjunctive moments where things fall into place in astonishing ways. Meeting you in B. Dalton and striking up a friendship, based initially upon a mutual love of dark fiction, was one of those moments in my life. This was before the days of easy self-publication, so without your desire to launch Dark Highway Press and your delight in my first venture into Santaland, Santa Steps Out might have had to wait an additional ten years to break into print.
And, oh my, the incarnation it received! Your careful editing; Darin Sanders’ talent in layout, book design, font choice; and Alan Clark’s cover and six interior illustrations made it a true gem of a book. Its appearance in 1998, besides being a signal event in and of itself, led to my entrance into Leisure Books and working with Don D’Auria there, giving it a far larger audience and leading also eventually to my being invited into Eraserhead Press and yet one more incarnation of Santa Steps Out.
Jason: An equally important event in my own life, for sure! So, Santa’s publication led to the creation of two sequels, making the Santa saga perhaps your magnum opus. What is it about that world that captivates you?
Robert: Initially what attracted me to the North Pole and its fantastical denizens was a chance to reconnect with my childhood—the rich aroma of the Christmas evergreen, gleaming ornaments, and gifts hidden in wrappings.
Less but still magical were the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, each of them giving our homes a special charge, freely bestowing gifts as we slept.
I can’t recall when I began to wonder about the perversions which might lie hidden beneath all that generosity toward children, the dangers perhaps posed by allowing these three creatures into our homes when all of us lay unconscious. But wonder I did. Suppose the Tooth Fairy, under duress in her generosity, actually loathed children. Suppose the Easter Bunny was a lonely voyeur, off-the-charts envious of Santa Claus and his far more satisfying holiday and lot in life. And suppose Santa had long ago been Pan, king of the satyrs, goatish fucker of wood nymphs, and the ultimate embodiment of Dionysian excess? When I realized that the Tooth Fairy eats teeth and shits coins, Santa Steps Out began to speed along its first-draft track.
Santa having at least partially brought his Pan side under control, I then wondered what might occur if he looked at what had happened to his beloved children on their way into adulthood. Hence, his using his powers, old and new, to patch up a flawed human race in Santa Claus Conquers the Homophobes and Santa Claus Saves the World. By the end of the latter novel, he has been elevated into a competitive position of sonship with the Christ figure. At some point, there will be a fourth novel in which God the Father pits them against each other with dueling Second Comings. The working title of that book is Santa and the Angels of Death.
Jason: The mid-2000s saw the publication of some other works—namely, A Flight of Storks and Angels and Slaughterhouse High, the former through Five Star and the latter through Deadite. I’d like to hear a bit about this period (which also includes the Santa sequels) that led to a new publisher and perhaps a sort of renaissance for you.
Robert: Five Star happened first, under the editorship of John Helfers. John was interested in novels from previously published authors, novels which had somehow fallen through the cracks at traditional publishing houses. I may have tried Ice Ghoul Daze (the original title of Slaughterhouse High) on him, but the one he took was A Flight of Storks and Angels, my small-town fantasy novel inspired by Chet Williamson’s Ash Wednesday. Five Star did hardcover books only, slated for library sale and not bookstores.
Much later, John Helfers said in an interview that “A Flight of Storks and Angels . . . [was] one of the first fantasy novels I acquired during my time overseeing the Five Star SF/Fantasy line, and the one acquisition I am the most proud of in that line. Devereaux writes rural fantasy unlike anyone else, with incisive character portraits of both adults and children, keen insight into human nature, and a plot that gradually unfolds until the reader is swept away by it. A work worthy of being reprinted by a major publisher.”
I had had two novels published at Dell Abyss (Deadweight and Walking Wounded) and two at Leisure (Santa Steps Out and Caliban and Other Tales). Leisure then wanted a more traditional horror novel from me, which interested me not in the least. With no publisher biting on my second Santa Claus novel, I went through booklocker.com and self-published it. I also brought out a kindle edition of A Flight of Storks and Angels.
At this point, Carlton Mellick III emailed me. He’d noticed that I was self- publishing and he wondered if I might have something for Eraserhead Press. He had enjoyed Santa Steps Out immensely and when he heard that it was out of print and available, he persuaded Rose O’Keefe to bring it out under the Deadite Press imprint, with Jeff Burk as editor. This led to a meeting with the crew at their favorite beer pub and their accepting Slaughterhouse High and making plans to bring out the first two Santa Claus novels, reusing Alan M. Clark’s artwork from the Dark Highway Press edition and commissioning a cover from Alan for the second novel.
Since then, they have brought back into print nearly all of my out-of-print work and they’ve issued new work as well, Santa Claus Saves the World and Baby’s First Book of Seriously Fucked-Up Shit. It has indeed given new and exciting life to my writing career, with the likelihood of more to come.
Jason: Speaking of “likelihood of more to come,” what’s on the immediate horizon for Robert Devereaux fans? You mentioned the fourth Santa novel, but are their other books/stories in the pipeline?
Robert: Other than the eventual fourth Santa novel, I am in consultation with publishers about projects, most likely to come to fruition in 2016 and beyond. Details about these new works are best kept until the time of their appearance. I’ll also be self-publishing, via CreateSpace and Kindle, a number of works including Caliban which saw print from Leisure Books and my first completed novel Oedipus Aroused, which pretends to be Homer’s long-lost third epic in an easy-to-read and engaging prose translation. Baby swaps and bed tricks galore.
Jason: You’re about to appear in a local production of The Rainmaker. I know you have a deep love of the stage. What appeals to you about that world?
Robert: Although I had a few very early roles, in first grade as a raindrop and fourth grade as Zeus with two wives (mentioned in my afterword to Santa Steps Out), I became serious about acting in my undergraduate years at Oberlin. I have found acting invaluable in the creation of character in my fiction. It is also, in and of itself, sheer joy.
For a once-shy Robert, acting served as a mask that allowed me to bring out disallowed portions of my psyche. In my senior year, when I played the tool villain Lodovico in Webster’s The White Devil, the young woman who had stolen my virginity (I most willingly acquiescing to that theft) took in my performance and promptly said she never wanted to see me again, knowing now what vileness lurked beneath that deceptively kindhearted surface. Those were not her words. I can’t recall her words. I confine my recall of this lovely lady to matters of the bedroom. These days, we are not surprisingly Facebook friends.
Ten years ago, I had a one-day acting class from Lindsay Crouse. I adopted her outlook on acting, that day and ever since. While you are indeed engaged in presenting a shaped pack of lies, it’s your obligation to bring forth truth and authenticity in the emotions you display, to allow your vulnerability to serve as a mirror for those in attendance. Most recently, this same message came home to me in the death of my wife from ovarian cancer, the subsequent discovery of Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability, and the most fortunate appearance in my life of a practice known as Orgasmic Meditation.
Jason: What else is bringing you joy these days? Favorite films? Books? Travels?
Robert: I am nearly two years into a delightful new relationship, which brings me great joy and wonder. Since retiring from software engineering, travel has presented itself and has included a long-desired trip to France, where I find to my surprise that the French I took in junior high and high school has rusted hardly at all. I am a consumer of books (both fiction and non-fiction), CDs, and DVDs. After revisiting the film The Grifters, I’m finally dipping into Jim Thompson’s fiction, starting with The Killer Inside Me. I am also reveling in a biography of Peter Lorre, The Lost One, by Stephen D. Youngkin (2005), as I catch up with Lorre’s films, seeing many of them for the first time.
Jason: Thanks for taking the time to chat! I’ll definitely look forward to the fourth Santa novel and other future work!