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Mr Punktown
Jeffrey Thomas
interviewed by Michael McCarty

Jeffrey Thomas is the author of the best-of collection Aaaiiieee!!! (iUniverrse), Terror Incognita (Delirium), and Punktown, from which a story was reprinted in St. Martin's The Year's Best Fantasy And Horror 14. His fiction has also been reprinted in Daw's The Year's Best Horror Stories XXII, The Year's Best Fantastic Fiction, and Quick Chills II: The Best Horror Fiction From The Specialty Press. He has received 26 honourable mentions in volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy And Horror and, in 2000, both Terror Incognita and Punktown appeared on the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Award (best collection). Forthcoming are a collection of his Lovecraftian short stories called Unholy Dimensions (Mythos), the Punktown-set Lovecraftian novel Monstrocity (Prime), and a Delirium collection shared with brother Scott Thomas (Cobwebs And Whispers) with a theme of erotic horror. He lives in Massachusetts.

You're a writer, editor, publisher and artist. Of all these roles, which one do you enjoy the most?

Without question, writing is what I enjoy most. Needless to say, I find all of these creative endeavours rewarding. Seeing a chapbook come back from the printer is always an exciting thing (when the printer doesn't mess it up, which is unfortunately all too common). Seeing those good reviews and orders come in for something I've edited and published is always gratifying. Watching a drawing take shape out of blankness is almost a mystical experience (though I'm seldom as happy with a finished drawing as I am with a finished bit of writing). But the process of writing is more transporting, for me; I almost feel that I've entered into the places I'm writing about. I'm in a more removed state of mind, self-hypnotised or just short of dreaming; the subconscious comes more to the fore. When it's going well, at least!

Was Punktown conceived as an episodic novel or did it just happen that way? What is the hardest thing about writing several stories and trying to tie them together?

I began writing about 'Punktown' back in 1980, and until the late 1980s all my Punktown-set works were novels (none of which have yet been transcribed from handwritten pages to a typed format). But eventually I began setting short stories there, and some of these I placed in various publications. When the Ministry of Whimsy Press expressed interest in putting together a collection of some of my Punktown stories, I gathered up what I already had and wrote a series of new ones, from which the present contents were selected. I suppose the trick of tying a series of such stories together is trying for a sense of consistency, but by the same token I didn't want the stories to be related by plot, character or even theme. Characters do not recur from one Punktown story to another. I wanted the consistency to be mainly in atmosphere, in their general setting. I wanted the reader to feel like they were floating through this strange city, from window to window, peeking into this one for a while, and then drifting to eavesdrop on the lives behind another window for a while.

Who are some of the British writers you admire?

M.R. James and E.F. Benson, notably for their classic horror tales. Of contemporary writers, A.S. Byatt and D.F. Lewis - I guess if they use two initials to begin their name, they're okay in my book. Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, China Miéville, Patrick McGrath, Dickens, Orwell, Anthony Burgess. My favourite British author is Thomas Hardy; though he's not normally associated with horror, he wrote two incredibly disturbing short stories called Barbara Of The House Of Grebe and The Withered Arm, and maybe others I haven't discovered yet. I'm very enthusiastic about a collection called I-O, from Simon Logan, put out by Prime Books. He calls it a collection of 'industrial fiction'. All I know is it's brilliant.

The Reflections Of Ghosts features clones being used as artwork. How did you come with such a unique premise?

Um, I don't know. Getting back to my writing process, more often than not my ideas are conceived on some subconscious level, which I trust to do all the work for me. In a sense it's like being possessed, and I wonder if I can take the credit for what this other me comes up with. But I'm sure the fact that I am an artist myself had more to do with the conception of that story than anything else. But the story is Frankensteinian as well, and at that time I was writing a graphic novel script for an artist friend of mine named Curtis Wilcox, based on his story concept, called 'Blackenstein'. And, it being 1994, I was also anticipating the release of Kenneth Branagh's take on Frankenstein. So I was in that frame of mind, I guess. However I developed it, I think Reflections was the first Punktown short story I was really proud of, and remains my favourite.

Your character Grey Harlequin in Precious Metal is a human in a robot bar, giving him a distance from the other characters in the story. Would you consider him the classic outsider?

As he's a member of an organised crime operation, I think of Grey more as a belonger who doesn't want to belong anymore. But in a sense, yes; because he no longer feels like he fits in with this crime family, and finds himself - almost against his will - sympathising with the robot criminals his family opposes, he does sort of become a man lost unto himself. The outsider is a favourite theme of mine, a classic theme as you point out. I think it could be applied to other stories in Punktown, Immolation especially. That one is also about cloning; a cloned slave worker who escapes his factory and gets caught up in a struggle between the company and a union - again, a man who doesn't know what side to be on, if any.

There were some comparisons of your work to Ray Bradbury. How does that make you feel?

Proud, because Bradbury was one of the main reasons I even began writing short stories. I read The Martian Chronicles in my teens and it remains one of my favourite books. I'm sure it had an influence on my Punktown stories - again, in that sense that they're all set on this other world, but without having recurring characters or a single plotline stringing them all together. Of course, the respective worlds we developed are extremely different. But the poetry in Bradbury's work has also inspired me, and I like that his work doesn't focus on technology, however far in the future he sets it; the focus is squarely on the people.

Is characterisation in the sci-fi and horror genres an empathy problem?

Probably a problem on the part of the individual author, as characters in science fiction and horror needn't be cookie-cutter stereotypes, and in good SF and horror they're not. One should be able to make a person feel at home in the scaly skin of an alien, the metal skin of a robot, the ectoplasm of a ghost. It can be done, and it is done. Because horror and SF readers are already predisposed toward suspending their belief, they'll feel that they can truly relate to these characters if they're rendered as more than just pretty video game characters. A non-fan of these genres would find it hard to empathise with the more exotic characters they have to offer, but a skilful enough author can sway even them. It's all in the execution, the ability to find some common ground between the reader and the alien - some emotion, yearning, or objective. But it has to be conveyed in an organic way, so as not to feel clichéd, like the just-add-water personal crises and past history of characters like the tough cop with the former alcohol problem, whose partner was killed in the line of duty, and whose divorced wife is now being stalked by the serial killer who was abused as a kid. Poor characterisation knows no genre.

How much did you know about publishing when you first broke in? What are some of the changes in the markets you noticed?

A lot more than I knew when I first tried to break in. When I first began submitting and was trying to place novels with agents and big publishers, I learned that mixing genres like horror and SF was frowned upon, notwithstanding that Mary Shelley did it a long time before I did, and not unsuccessfully. I learned how to handle rejection (for the most part), disappointment, and to single out the markets/individuals who would be most receptive to my work. I discovered the independent press, and that finally opened the doors to me. From that foundation, I've been able to see my work printed by the big corporate publishers on occasion. And since I first discovered the independent press, I've seen its technology grow in huge bounds... from dot matrix photocopied 'zines to e-books, CD-ROM collections, online magazines, and print-on-demand books with beautiful production values. Despite the death of a lot of the cool magazines I used to see print in, such as Deathrealm, Lore, and Terminal Fright, (largely due to increases in conventional printing methods) there are still a lot of indie markets out there if one seeks them out. The web is a great tool for that.

Is it more difficult these days to build a reputation writing short stories?

I think it will always be harder; novels get more attention, seem to generate more prestige, and more money. Though I'd rather read a great short story than a mediocre novel any day; and I think that the horror story, at least, is generally better served by the short story, anyway. But I don't think it's any easier or harder right now to get your name out there if you're primarily a short story writer.

Did the high praise for Punktown attract any interest from mass-market or trade publishers - any thoughts of publishing it in England?

Well, it caused Ellen Datlow to ask for one of its stories, The Flaying Season, for inclusion in St. Martin's The Year's Best Fantasy And Horror 14. Great big hulking publishing companies aren't chasing me around to publish my work, but hopefully the generous reception Punktown received from reviewers will make it easier for me when approaching those publishers. I haven't tried selling rights to a British publisher, as I know of numerous British readers who have already ordered it from its American publisher. It isn't for sale right now on Amazon, but at least my horror collection Aaaiiieee!!! is readily available there to British readers.

How did Necropolitan Press get started? What's scheduled to be published this year?

When I discovered the indie press, I was so enthused that I developed the desire to produce some publication or other of my own. As kids, my brother Scott and I loved to make our own comic books and movie magazines (usually about imaginary movies we invented just for the magazines!). So my first project was a magazine called The End, and I produced an issue of this once every year starting in 1993 and finishing with issue five before I turned my focus entirely toward the production of chapbooks such as the very nicely reviewed Tales Of Sesqua Valley by W.H. Pugmire and The Early History Of Ambergris by Jeff VanderMeer (now reprinted as a section of his book City Of Saints And Madmen). Unfortunately, I have no plans for any other Necropolitan Press projects for the foreseeable future, due to time and financial constraints, though I still have some projects for sale at my website.

You were working on a script called Into My Sickness. Did it get turned into a movie or video?

Yes, the director Jason Torrey (whose initial story idea it was) put the movie out direct to video, and while it's hard to find, I have seen it in a video store and in a local chain of comic book stores, and for sale online. A bit embarrassed to relate that I starred in the movie as well. Torrey's next movie, still in the works, is called God Is Alone, and the production values are quite a step up from his first effort. Thankfully, I have a smaller role in that one! Torrey's site is www.micromanpictures.com

Collapsed Roof is one of your more autobiographical works. Was it easier or harder to write because it was based loosely on events in your life?

I'm used to taking at least a roughly autobiographical approach in a lot of my work, so it comes pretty easily, although that one was a bit more blatantly autobiographical than most... dealing with problems I was having a work, and a sort of overpowering sense of helplessness I was going through at the time, with my job and my house almost literally falling apart around my ears. Writing out my problems is a nice release valve for me. Therapeutic, I guess.

Would you consider Mrs Weekes a vampire character?

Argh! You said that word! No, Mike; if I churned out vampire stories I'd be famous like Laurell K. Hamilton. Well, yeah, okay... the character in Mrs Weekes is parasitic, but not a literal blood-drinker. Not to say I haven't written or read vampire stories.

How many short stories have you written so far? How many published?

Wow, I really have never counted the number I've created. I've placed many more than have actually appeared, because so many indie magazines and publishers disappear before they can present the story they accepted from you. But at this writing, and excluding the three collections and four chapbooks devoted entirely to my work, I've seen about 100 of my stories published.

On the same line, how do you still keep your writing fresh? Any fear you'd run out of ideas?

I've definitely had my dry spells, and that's frustrating, even depressing. But I try not to stagnate, I try to jump around to different genres, to blend them, and I skip from short stories to novels and back again. Right now I'm working on the first fantasy novel I've ever attempted as an adult, though it has strong horror and SF elements in the mix. I keep my interests fresh by not reading entirely within one genre, either. The three writers I've read the most from recently were Albert Camus, Vladimir Nabokov and Edgar Rice Burroughs. An unlikely group!

Are you planning any novels for the future?

In the near future, in fact! Necro Publications, through their Bedlam Press imprint, will be releasing my novel Letters From Hades, which will be profusely illustrated by Erik Wilson, who's already done an absolutely gorgeous cover for it. He loved the story so much that he plans on doing 30 interior illustrations for it! And Prime will be releasing my novel Monstrocity, which takes place in Punktown and has Lovecraftian elements... and contains an element reminiscent of From Hell involving the geometric placement of corpses throughout the city, though for the record I wasn't then familiar with the graphic novel or the movie. I hate when that happens!

What was the first horror or sci-fi story that had impact on you?

Hmm, not sure of a very first in either genre, though stuff that hit me early on (as a teenager) would again be The Martian Chronicles and 1984, for SF, and the novels I Am Legend and The Exorcist. Those all had a tremendous effect on me, and my respect for them hasn't diminished.

Have you any advice for beginning writers?

Don't expect to become rich! Whenever people I work with find out I'm a writer, they ask how much money I make, why am I still punching a time clock, do I think I'll be the next Stephen King (I hate that one; I wish I had a story sale for every time I've heard it). Being a writer is one of the top ten most respected professions. But it's also in the ten worst paying professions. So you have to write because if you don't you'll go mad, because you'll shrivel up and die, because your soul will starve to death. If you make a little or a lot of money, great! But the common person assumes all writers live in mansions, travel to Europe and so on. Publishers dump truckloads of cash on a few high profile authors, but the fact is I've never known any writer amongst my many friends and acquaintances who lived off writing, unless he or she was also a journalist, technical writer or professor. No to crush dreams; dreams can come true, for the lucky few. But going in with more realistic expectations can ease up on the inevitable heartaches in advance.

Last words..?

I'd just like to give a head's up to people who've enjoyed my work about what's coming up in the future, besides Letters From Hades and Monstrocity. My out-of-print hardcover collection Terror Incognita will soon be available as a trade paperback from Delirium. In addition, Delirium will be releasing a collection of erotic horror stories shared with my brother Scott Thomas, called Nether. And I signed a three-book deal with Delirium, which calls for me to give them a book in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Mythos Books will be releasing Unholy Dimensions, a gathering of my Lovecraftian stories. And collections I've sold individual stories to, which have recently appeared and are available at places like Amazon include: Leviathan 3, Whispers And Shadows, and Strangewood Tales. Also available there is my current book, Aaaiiieee!!!, which I subtitled 'the Best Horror Stories Of Jeffrey Thomas', which may or may not be true but they're amongst my best non-Punktown stories and it sounded like a good subtitle at the time! Because, of course, my best horror story is always the next one I'm going to write. At least, that's my aim.

Jeffrey Thomas

book reviews by
Michael McCarty

Punktown
Punktown
Jeffrey Thomas
Ministry Of Whimsy
paperback $11.99

On a distant planet in a distant
time, Paxton - the 'town of
peace', better known to its
denizens as 'Punktown',
is a place of wonderment and
dread. Punktown is where an
artist clones himself in the
name of art, or a rape victim
erases her memory and is
plagued but not remembering
the void anymore, or a robot
gets revenge on the mob for
the death of a mechanical
band.

Jeffrey Thomas has a highly
imaginative and dazzling
collection of short stories
with Punktown. Nine stories,
all tied together with Punktown
being the setting. I love each
one of these stories equally,
it's hard to choose a favourite,
but the best of the best would
have to be The Flaying Season,
Wakizashi, and Precious Metal,
with The Reflections Of Ghosts
and Immolation close behind.

Think of Ray Bradbury's
The Illustrated Man and The
Martian Chronicles
where each
tale is separate but combined
tell the complete story - they
call this episodic writing,
I call it simply brilliant.
Punktown lives up to
its high praise.



Aaaiiieee!!!
Aaaiiieee!!!
Jeffrey Thomas
iUniverse paperback
$14.95 / �12

This collection is 'the Best Horror
Stories Of Jeffrey Thomas,' - 20
terror tales with a dread or dark
fantasy bent to them. There
are a number of imaginative
and frightful stories, and
the best include: Chapel,
about a lady who lost her baby
on Christmas. To seek comfort,
she watches the hospital's own
channel that broadcasts inside
the chapel. What she discovers is
just as dreadful as losing her
child. The Yellow House breaks
genre boundaries. It has shades
of sci-fi (a mad scientist is one
of the leading characters) and
is set on Halloween night. The
legend of the strange coloured
house is creepy. Lost Alley is
set in a dark city similar to
Punktown. Here is a place that
drunks, junkies and the insane
can find. It is also a place
the disenfranchised end up
battling for survival. The Red
Spectacles
is about a priest
at a potter's field, who sees
the world differently with
his glasses made from the
stained-glass of his church
that burned to the ground.

Family Members is about dead
family values from a dead
family. Rat King is about a
British officer and a former SS
guard at a concentration camp.
The story offers some history
and commentary. Like Stephen
King's Apt Pupil it's a battle
of wills and that deals with
the nature of evil and
underlying horror in true
events of World War II.
The best story in this
collection is Fallen, in
which a disfigured female
college student's life is
forever changed when an
angel crashes in through
her apartment's window.
It is sexy, sad, stirring
and beautifully written.

Aaaiiieee!!! is highly
recommended for those who
enjoy fantastical frightful
fiction. Pleasant nightmares.

Terror Incognita
Terror Incognita
Jeffrey Thomas
Delirium hardcover $25

One might ask if Thomas'
collection of horror short
stories is worth the hefty
cover price of 25 bucks?
The answer is yes -
yes-abso-freakin'-lutely
yes! Deluxe leather bound
and featuring creepy art
by Jamie Oberschlake (my
favourite, a green demon
growling on the inside
cover). This limited print
run book is destined to
become a red-hot
collector's edition.

With an entertaining and
insightful introduction
by Mark McLaughlin and
story notes by Thomas,
this is the making of a
first class horror collectible.
Not to mention autographs
by Thomas, McLaughlin
and Oberschlake - you
have permission to
die with envy now.

Some of the highlights of
this spectacular spooky
collection include: Coffee
Break
, the story of Hell,
where the damned get a
one-hour break from their
punishment and suffering
each year. Set in a coffee
shop diner of the netherworld,
the nature of hell, the Bible
and Christianity are all
explored, and it's masterfully
written. Elizabeth Rising,
a dark tale about a lonely
man who roams cemeteries
because his face is disfigured.
He stumbles across the local
legend of Elizabeth Rising,
aka 'Pretty Betty' or the
Green Ghost, a young lady
who escaped from the nearby
mental hospital and was
brutally raped and murdered.
It's a great ghost story.
Collapsed Roof has a metaphor
rich narrative. Ned Corben's
garage roof and life both are
collapsing, decaying wood
and a decaying mind make
for suspenseful reading.

One of my favourite tales is
T-Shirts Of The Damned. The
protagonist is a merchant of
sleazy and gruesome t-shirts.
He learns, too late, not to
profit from the misfortunes
of others. Terror Incognita
is full of blood and thunder,
pain and wonder, horror and
elegance, all written in the
graceful way that is Jeffrey
Thomas' style. In short, this
short story collection is
sophisticated and spooky
and splendid.

visit Jeffrey Thomas'
Necropolitan Press

Buy books at:
Amazon.co.uk Amazon.com

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