My new thriller "The Pressure of Darkness" is hands down the most disturbing thing I’ve written to date; a novel that deals with bleak universal themes such as the cosmogonic cycle, the acceptance of impermanence, and the existence of evil. Working on it got me to wondering, not for the first time--just how far back does my love of dark fiction go? I remember spending my first allowance, an entire quarter if memory serves, on comic books like Batman and Tales from the Crypt. That’s a start. Still, I think the genesis of my deep and abiding love for crime fiction can be found under a bathroom sink in Nevada…
The Central Pacific Railroad created the tiny town of Wells, Nevada back in 1869, carving it out of an area known as Humboldt Wells and some land originally occupied by the Shoshone tribe. When I was a stripling, less than 800 people lived there, many on one of several ranches located near the intersection of the 1-80 and the US 93. My Grandpa, H.H. Cazier, owned a cattle ranch maybe 20 miles south and west of Wells. I spent my summers there, milking cows, scattering feed to chickens and pigs, and herding groups of cattle back and forth across the blistering blacktop of a nearby highway. (Those familiar with my Mick Callahan novels already know that the main character was born and raised near a mythical town called Dry Wells).
Grandpa also had a two-story house in town, located across the street from the school. Now, you have to realize that Wells was so quiet insects sounded like a lazy church choir. The place was safe, secure…and ultimately boring. Families opened their ground floor windows at night to cool things down, and they generally stayed that way. I was often left alone for long stretches of time to ride bareback on the ranch or wander through the house in town. Needless to say, it was a very different world circa 1959.
One afternoon I found myself in Grandpa’s upstairs bathroom, looking for something to do. I’d seen him furtively stash something under the sink the previous evening. Skin tingling with excitement at my naughtiness I decided to see what he’d been hiding there. I hunkered down in my blue jeans and opened the cabinet. Under several bars of soap, cans of shaving foam and extra toothbrushes, I found a small cardboard box containing some paperback books and a few “men’s” magazines. I remember one had photo of a woman in fishnet stockings showing her fanny with a knowing wink.
I was, of course, knocked senseless.
A different magazine had a very disturbing story about a big game hunter witnessing the death of a villager eaten alive by a Bengal tiger. I was fascinated, and read that tale twice. However, not surprisingly, I also returned to the tempting female in the photo. In fact, I’m certain this was the day my voice began to change.
Anyway, I’m not sure how long it took me to get to the mass-market books, but eventually I focused on one cover in particular. It featured a sketch of a grinning blond man named Shell Scott. We’re going back a lot of years, here, but I’m pretty sure it was a novel called “Strip for Murder,” which recent research shows was published in 1955. The back cover said something like, “I’d been hired to find a killer in a nudist camp, and I was going to look pretty damned silly wearing nothing but my gun!” Ha! In one day, I’d found Richard S. Prather, Shell Scott, the Spartan Apartments in Hollywood, Phil Samson of LAPD, adult magazines filled with beautiful, scantily clad women, some horrific articles, plus several brutal pulp tales of criminals and private detectives engaged in violence, sex and depravity.
Irrefutable evidence there was a God.
Two of my Uncles lived on the ranch at the time. I became a thief, stealthily searching their closets, night stands, bathrooms and bookshelves, looking for more crime fiction. I bummed paperback books from the men who worked the fields bailing hay and lived in the bunk house. I pirated every book I could find and at the end of that summer returned to Pomona, California a changed boy. I’d always enjoyed reading Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, or anything else I could get my hands on, but now I was a lad on a mission.
For the first time, I’d seen that real life was far darker, and more interesting, than my heretofore bucolic surroundings.
Back home, I began to live at the local library, and rapidly talked my way into being allowed to peruse anything I wished to read. Some classics found their way into the mix, but my real hunger was for crime and eventually also horror fiction. I discovered the black, early work of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, and also managed to get turned on to Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. Eventually, I found my Dad’s closeted collection of adult novels and absorbed a host of other pulp authors.
As for Grandpa’s bathroom, the following summer there were some new magazines in that magic box. It contained another Prather jaunt or two, some Mickey Spillane, an Earl Stanley Gardner, and the first Matt Helm novel, “The Wrecking Crew” by Donald Hamilton. Helm knocked me out. His ruthlessness, cynicism and absolute devotion to a mission made my skin crawl. As years passed, I got my hands on each new novel and became a collector. I loved Lancer Books and the Fawcett Gold Medal stuff. Hell, after a time I’d buy a book as much for the name of the publisher as the author.
As the years passed, I occasionally went on SF binges too; Robert Heinlein, A.E. Van Vogt, Issac Asimov, Murray Leinster, Andre Norton. I also read a lot of westerns, especially the novels of Louis L’Amour, but it was always crime fiction that really rolled my socks up and down. Then someone put the final nail in the proverbial coffin.
John D. MacDonald.
I first found him in a used bookstore in North Hollywood, California called “The Paperback Shack” in the late 1960’s. This remarkably prolific author of over 70 novels had created an indelible “new man” in laconic Travis McGee, and that character soon became an obsession. I seem to remember reading “Darker than Amber” first, then going backwards, but I’m not certain. I still have nearly all of MacDonald’s books, although very few paperbacks in first edition. Sadly, I lost most of those to cat urine over thirty years ago.
Anyway, this was escapist fare but with real, satisfying meat on its bones. Don’t believe me? Here’s Travis McGee on love: “Either you lie, and stain the relationship with your own sense of guile, or you accept the involvement, the emotional responsibility, the permanence she must by nature crave. ‘I love you’ can only be said in two ways.”
Or how about McGee’s pal Meyer, economist and realist, on the subject of ecology: “It is man’s primal urge to decimate himself down to numbers which can exist on a worn out planet.” A caution from the Florida coast, forty years before Al Gore.
John D. MacDonald taught me that crime fiction could do several things at once; thrill, educate, enlighten, amuse and entertain, all within the confines of a morality tale that was virtually devoid of treacle. Once I’d discovered and devoured John D’s work, standard pulp fare seemed a fun escape, but no better than junk food. MacDonald understood that the real world can be ugly, yet he also had a sense of duty, a love of the natural world, a hatred for thieves and con men, a healthy mistrust of politicians and government, a dislike for the gratuitous overkill of modern combat, a bleak view of human nature, the heart of a reluctant hero, and a ‘knight in rusty armor’ adoration of the feminine. Not surprisingly, all of those attributes ended up expressed via the incomparable Travis McGee.
He also wrote whopping good yarns, all banged out on one old Royal typewriter.
And as for darkness? The “color” series featured terrifying antagonists who were relentless sociopaths with an atavistic pursuit of riches, a hideous propensity for violence and the casual abuse of women. Those bad guys can still hold their own against more contemporary fiction. Some of the language feels dated (the term “darling” is way over-used) and Travis’ world is a bit sexist, but times have changed. Still, John D. was the man. Travis always fought back. He tried to stand tall and come to terms with himself within what he perceived to be an amoral, often bleak universe. In fact, the world-weariness of “The Green Ripper” and “The Lonely Silver Rain” still break my heart.
My love of literary darkness began under Grandpa’s bathroom sink and came to a head in a long-defunct book store called “The Paperback Shack.” Except for a brief diversion, a sordid affair with early Stephen King books, crime fiction has dominated my reading and writing ever since. (By the way, Mr. King once wrote of MacDonald, “He was the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.”)
I gathered a number of my interests together to write my new thriller; a morbid curiosity about doomsday cults, an appreciation for Eastern religion and its view of the cosmogonic cycle, a taste for world politics and a fear of the threat of biological weapons. I also called on some tough, broken-down heroes like Travis McGee, Mike Hammer, Matt Helm and the burned-out men who paved the way. Because to this day I love crime stories about people who struggle to make sense of things, push back against a life that is often ‘nasty, brutish and short,’ and somehow manage to find a bit of dignity in a world filled with temptation and suffering. In short folks who are ultimately, in their own shopworn way, quite moral. Clive Barker once wrote that “horror is just another way of writing about the divine.” I would argue that statement applies to our field as well.
I read and write crime fiction because, as Victor Hugo once said, “There is such a thing as the pressure of darkness.”