The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey
It’s the end of an era: with King Bullet, New York Times Bestselling Author Richard Kadrey puts a capper on the long-running and fabulous Sandman Slim series of fantasy novels. In today’s Big Idea, Kadrey tells us how it all came to this, and how one faces the end of a thing both the author and readers have invested so much time and love in.
If things had gone a little differently, Sandman Slim would have been a one-off and not a twelve-book series. Or, more realistically, Sandman Slim would never have existed at all.
Here’s where I was when I started writing book one:
I’d published three novels and started and abandoned several more. All of my published books had received generally good reviews, but sold poorly. Basically, my career was going nowhere. I was also going through a prolonged depression. I promised myself that if Sandman Slim didn’t sell, I was going to give up on books and just write the occasional short story.
During this period, I went into therapy and finally got on the right meds for my depression, which made writing much easier. But my bargain with myself stood: if Sandman Slim didn’t get a good response, I was out of the book game.
The initial novel came from two lines, each in a different notebook. One note read “Hitman from Hell,” while the other read “character name: Sandman Slim.” For some reason, on the day I read those notes they stuck together and something clicked. What did “Hitman from Hell” mean? Was he a traditional mob hitman who was sent to Hell for his crimes? That sounded boring. What if he was a reluctant hitman? Someone who was forced into becoming a killer because of strange outside circumstances? That struck me as a lot more interesting and with that simple idea I started developing Stark and his world. It took me over a year to put enough together to begin writing, but I think that period paid off in the long run.
If anything, the Sandman Slim series has been about the rehabilitation of a monster. In my opinion, in the first novel James Stark is clinically insane. He was sent to Hell alive, the first living mortal ever to inhabit the place. There, he suffered eleven years of endless torture—first as a Hellion plaything, then as a gladiator in the local arena, and then as a hitman for one of Lucifer’s generals. Back home on Earth, Stark had been a rather ordinary guy. Sure, he had a lot of magical abilities, but he was more concerned with his girlfriend Alice and having a good time than he was with being some kind of Los Angeles Gandalf. When he was tricked into Hell, it fractured his mind in a profound way. The eleven books that followed Sandman Slim were about reintegrating him into human society, reconnecting him to people, even finding love and a new affection for the world itself.
Through all the grimness of Stark’s life, the one thing that he never lost was his sense of humor. It’s the black humor of homicide detectives and EMTs. People who’ve seen the worst of the worst and have to process it through dark levity.
A long series like this gives you a chance to tell a lot of stories, but as it nears the end, it also gives you a chance to look back over the whole arc, and that’s one of the things I wanted to do with the final book, King Bullet. It gave me the chance to tell a new story, but also go all the way back to the beginning of Stark’s adventures in book one to answer some lingering questions and reveal some new important new information.
When King Bullet starts, we find Stark at loose ends. He’s working part time as muscle at his local bar and hangout, Bamboo House of Dolls. He’s in a relationship with his new love Janet, but still secretly caries a torch for his former lover, Candy. He’s also come full circle in his life to where he’s back living in the apartment that he used to share with his long-lost love, Alice, haunted by the memories of the place and what might have been.
At the opening of the book, Los Angeles is in the grip of an epidemic that effects people in strange ways. Some turn violent and other become afflicted with autophagia. (I swear I thought of the epidemic storyline years ago, well before Covid was a common term).
A murderous criminal gang, the Shoggots, is running wild through the city, egged on by the even madder leader, King Bullet. Stark assumes that the King is just another charismatic California cult leader, but soon learns he’s much more than that. In fact, he might not even be human. If that’s true, what is he? And more, importantly, what does he want? Stark’s hunt for the answer to that question will change him forever.
What did I want to accomplish with this last book? I wanted a solid story with action and real human feelings. I also wanted to leave Stark and his friends in places that were both logical and emotionally fulfilling. But mostly, I wanted to honor both the characters and the readers who’ve made this strange journey with me. You don’t know how much it means to me to have so many of you follow Stark from the pits of despair to something resembling happiness to, well, you’ll just have to read the last book to find out.
Thank you all. I hope enjoy Stark’s last wild ride in King Bullet.