Trash: Junk – or a trove? Why not both? In today’s Big Idea, Richard Kadrey digs through the subject of trash and how it applies to his Sandman Slim series of novels, of which the second, Kill the Dead, has just hit the stores. The Sandman Slim books are in fact the best kind of trash — rough and dirty and full of surprising things — And Kadrey explains why that has value.
Kill The Dead (and the first book in the series, Sandman Slim) is about a hitman from Hell named James Stark. The book is also about magicians, zombies, witches, vampires, killer angels, necromancers, ultra-secret magic societies, an immortal alchemist, Lucifer, God and a talking head that gets around on a sort of magical skateboard. But where the book comes from has less to do with fantasy than politics.
When George Bush and his gang rode into Washington they bought their own complex religious myth system with them, one I didn’t understand. So, I started reading about the origins of the Christian church, its concepts of good and evil and the development of Lucifer, Satan, the Devil, whatever it is you want to call him. I learned that over the last 2000 years accounts of the relationship between God and Lucifer is a lot more complex and interesting than we were taught in the Cliff Notes version of the Bible we got in Church.
The questions of what are God? Who is Lucifer? And what is truly good or evil forms the deep background of Kill The Dead and Sandman Slim, but the truth is you don’t need to know any of that to read the books. For all the high-minded and possibly pretentious theorizing I just laid out, Kill The Dead is mostly about people punching each other, getting punched, throwing around inappropriate magic in inappropriate situations, stealing cars and drinking and smoking too much. Which leads to the second inspiration for the books.
James Stark didn’t come from memories of Tolkein or the Brothers Grimm. He was inspired by American crime writers such as Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Joe Gores, Ross MacDonald and, of course, Hammett and Chandler. But the one writer who inspired me the most was Richard Stark.
Stark (One of Donald Westlake’s pseudonyms) wrote a series of hardboiled novels about a professional thief named Parker. The books are terse and brutal. The bad guys are the stars. We watch them plot and carry out their crimes. What grabbed me about Richard Stark’s work was the tone and mood. I’d never read so much conveyed in so few words. I immediately wondered if you could write SF and fantasy the same way (A lot of other people must have wondered that too because these days we’re nipple-deep in books about vampire hunters, ghost whisperers, werewolf crossing guards and, for all I know, poltergeist gumshoes). When I wrote Sandman Slim I wanted to acknowledge the inspiration. That’s why my protagonist is named Stark. It’s also why one of the villains is named Parker. I admire those pulpy writers and the pulpy novels they wrote, books that mostly ended up in drug stores and bus stations but always kept readers satisfied.
It all comes down to this: I’m not an artist. I know artists. I have friends who are artists and I’m not one of them. Mickey Spillane said it best, “I’m not an author. I’m a writer. That’s all I am.” Occasionally I wonder if I even write novels. I write long shaggy dog stories. Messy, kind of odd and noisy. I love the graceful sloppiness of early punk and the garage rock you find on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets record series. I feel like my books and stories are similar to the way Iggy Pop describes The Stooges music, “It’s dumb. But it’s smart dumb.” My books are basically Raw Power with commas.
Don’t misunderstand me. I take what I do very seriously. I work hard to hit every beat, to be entertaining and to make you want to come back for more. If I say that I’m not an artist and that there a funny angles and out of tune guitars in my work it’s partly because I admire the workman-like approach of pulp writers who knew they weren’t James Joyce and also because I respect the power of trash.
Art terrifies. Trash seduces. The Clash has made more teenyboppers think about politics than all the Noam Chomsky books ever printed. That’s not a bad thing to aspire to. Which brings me back to the God and Lucifer stuff.
Kill The Dead and Sandman Slim are, at their core, about questioning our place in the universe, wondering about the nature of good and evil and if God and Lucifer are our enemies, on our side or if they even remember we’re down here. But the books are also about driving too fast, drinking too much, beating people up with magic or, if that doesn’t work, shooting them in the back.
Yes, I wonder about the nature of our existence, but I don’t get all Tolstoy about it. If you like action, noise and think The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a thousand times better than Forrest Gump you’re who I wrote the book for. Kill The Dead isn’t American Gods or Zero History. It’s Mickey Spillane with monsters.
I’m not an author. I’m a writer. That’s all I am.