Adam Howe is an author I'm glad I believed the buzz about. I picked up his collection of novellas, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, based on the good things I'd heard about it and because I'd enjoyed reading some blog pieces he wrote for Jed Ayres' Hardboiled Wonderland site. It was obvious from his writing there that he has a funny, incisive sensibility, a view of the world that comes from a sharp, sometimes threatening, angle. All of this is on full display in the three novellas in Die Dog, a collection that mixes horror with satire with noir with pulp with a complete lack of narrative inhibition. I had a great time reading the book and raced through it. What's clear is that Howe, with only Die Dog and an earlier novella collection called Black Cat Mojo under his belt, is an accomplished storyteller and quite a craftsman - a writer in total command of his extreme material.
I had the chance to talk with Adam about his books and the films and writing that have influenced him.
SCOTT ADLERBERG: When did you start writing, and did you start out writing the kinds of
stories you write now?
ADAM HOWE: started writing at an early age, even dictating stories to grownups
before I could write myself. My mum
recently sent me one of my earliest efforts, about a bulletproof werewolf. Illustrated, no less. According to my scrawled signature (maybe
it’s an autograph, I was an ambitious kid), I was six-years old when I wrote
this masterpiece. So yeah, it seems I
was writing much the same shit, just without the sleazier elements of my
current work – that’d be worrying, a six-year old writing about dwarf porn
stars and sodomite orangutans. As a kid,
I was drawn to horror. I’d haunt the
horror section at my local video store, soaking up the lurid box art, and write
stories based on what I imagined the films to be. My parents divorced when I was very young,
and I moved with my mum to her home country of Australia, while my dad stayed
in England – so maybe I was filtering my anxieties through horror. More likely I was just hardwired for
horror. Most young boys like blood and
guts and nasty shit. I just never really
grew out of it.
It’s apparent that movies, B-movies, horror movies, are something you
love and that you draw upon them perhaps as much as fiction as an
influence? What kind of movies did you
like growing up, when you were 12, 13, a teenager?
man, I like good stuff too! But yeah,
busted, I’ve got a soft spot for schlock. As a kid, the movie that made the biggest impact on me was Jaws, after
which I was fiend for killer animal flicks, most of them Jaws knock-offs, and
monster movies. At a way-too-young age,
my mum innocently rented me a video double-bill of An American Werewolf in
London and John Carpenter’s The Thing, which I watched alone. She monitored the first five minutes of
American Werewolf to check it was suitable for an impressionable young
child. The opening scene in The
Slaughtered Lamb seemed harmless enough, so she left me to it. Moments later, I was traumatized by the sight
of a werewolf savaging David Naughton and Griffin Dunne on the moors. In terms of graphic content, American
Werewolf and The Thing are a considerable step-up from Jaws, and it’s fair to
say they blew my tiny mind. But after
that, I couldn’t get enough.
I subscribed to Fangoria magazine, pinning the pullout posters to my
bedroom wall. During the UK’s ‘video
nasty’ hysteria, many of the movies described in Fango were either slashed to
ribbons by the censors, or banned outright, and it was hard to track down a lot
of this stuff. Again, I used my
imagination, writing my own versions.
Wish I’d kept those stories. It’d
be interesting to see how my bootlegs measure up to the real McCoy versions.
Around age eleven, I moved back to England, where under my dad’s
tutelage, I received a crash course in action movies, and was fortunate to be
around for the Golden Era of 80s action – what a time to be alive! I particularly enjoyed producer Joel Silver’s
oeuvre, and the early work of Steven Seagal.
I pity the kids of today for their lack of potbellied, ponytailed
Each novella in Die Dog has, in some way, to do with animals. Or creatures anyway, that may or may not
exist. In each case, having an animal in
the story adds a great element of unpredictably. You never know what an animal, or skunk ape,
will do. Any idea where this interest,
engagement, with animals comes from? Is
it an interest that extends outside fiction, like to pets or an interest in
wildlife? Did you want to be a biologist
when you were a kid?
The animal motif in my work came about after I wrote the story "Of
Badgers & Porn Dwarfs" for the Black Cat Mojo collection. The story was inspired by a hoax news
article, which claimed that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s dwarf porn star
lookalike had been discovered partially devoured in a badger sett. The image of a dwarf versus badger battle
royale was too good NOT to write. I
envisioned it as a scale version of the David Mamet-scripted killer bear flick,
The Edge, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins and F.A.G. President Alec Baldwin fight
a grizzly bear to the death. After that,
the floodgates opened, and a menagerie began stampeding from my brain.
As for where it really started? I
guess I never grew out of that boyhood phase of dinosaurs and predatory
beasties; a rite of passage, I suppose, in which boys tentatively tests the boundaries
of danger and fear. Growing up in the
Australian countryside, there was never any shortage of exotic critters. I’d embark on backyard safaris, trapping
venomous creepy crawlies in jars to keep in my bedroom (to my mum’s delight),
or take to school for ‘show and tell.’
Today my interest in wildlife is much more casual. I have a Jack Russell terrier called Gino,
named after Steven Seagal’s character in Out for Justice. I watch the odd nature documentary here and
there. YouTube clips of animals going
berserk on live TV are always good for a laugh.
The interaction between man and beast is a constant source of
As I’ve said, Jaws made a huge impression on me as a kid. So initially I planned to be a shark hunter,
like Quint. I sang a mean Spanish
Ladies, and even affected Quint’s habit of nibbling crackers and crushing beer
(OK, soda) cans. When it was pointed out
to me that this profession didn’t end well for Quint – visions of Robert Shaw
gargling blood as ol’ Bruce chomps his guts – I decided instead to become a
marine biologist, like Hooper.
had also implanted in me a mortal terror of the
ocean, so that was a non-starter.
Somewhere along the way, I cottoned on that Jaws
was fiction, that
someone had written it, and so I chose the safest course of action and decided
I’d become a writer.
The three tales in Die Dog all delve into a particular slice of
low-down pulp Americana, if you will.
You capture each particular milieu so well. When did you start to develop a fascination
with these strands of American culture?
More through books or movies or a combination of both?
I spent my formative years living in small-town rural Australia, which I
imagine isn’t a million miles removed from the American South. I’m a city-suburbs boy now – to be honest, I
was never really a country boy, I just lived there – but I still feel an
affinity for the country, and the no-bullshit attitude of country folks.
For good or bad, Americana dominates pop culture worldwide, and the
ludicrousness of redneck ‘Murricana appeals to my sense of humour – which you
may have noticed, is a little warped.
There’s a mythic quality to the South and her people that suits the
hyper-real worlds of my stories. I’m not
interested in realism so much as I am in subverting tropes and stereotypes,
while telling an entertaining story.
My inspirations are more consciously drawn from movies than books. That’s where my ear for the language comes
from. American Southern noir and
hick-lit fiction is a relatively new discovery for me, but a sub-genre I feel
at home in.
Who are the writers who’ve made the biggest impression on you?
The writer whose voice I first really connected with was Stephen
King. As a kid, I went to King for the
blood and guts, the vampires and werewolves and killer clowns; but over the
years, I stayed for the characterization.
These days, I much prefer his non-supernatural work, such as his
superlative noir "1922" from the Full Dark, No Stars collection. My first break as a writer came when King
chose my short story Jumper as the winner of his On Writing contest, which was
open to unpublished writers outside the States.
My winning story was published in the paperback and Kindle versions of
King’s On Writing, and I even got to meet the man himself. As you can imagine, it’s proving hard for me
to top the achievement of that first published story.
In my teens, I started writing screenplays. The best way to learn the craft is by
studying produced screenplays. In the
pre-digital days, this was much harder to do than now. Screenplays were difficult to obtain in the
UK, not to mention pricey. But I lucked
out, snagged a job writing copy for a mail-order company supplying scripts to
universities, writers and film geeks.
The screenwriters I most admired were Shane Black, David Webb Peoples,
and Quentin Tarantino. Black, in
particular. Really dug his smartass
buddy repartee, and his action writing.
It’s great to see Black enjoying a renaissance right now. Can’t wait for The Nice Guys.
In my twenties, I landed an agent and embarked on a ‘career’ as a
screenwriter. Had a few feature film
screenplays optioned, doctored other writers’ work. But nothing I wrote every made it to the
screen. In the end, it became too
dispiriting seeing piles of work left to gather dust, and I made the jump back
to writing fiction. But those years as a
screenwriter taught me much of what I know about traditional story structure,
and gave me my ‘cinematic’ prose style.
Also around this time, I was working for crime writer Maxim Jakubowski
at his Murder One bookstore in London.
There I discovered some great crime writers – Chandler, Hammett, Elmore
Leonard, Jim Thompson, Lawrence Block.
But I was still a punk kid back then, mostly grooving on true-crime and
horror, and I took for granted what should have been my education in crime
I’m making up for lost time now.
Crime fiction scholars like Kent Gowran and Jedidiah Ayres are a boon
for relative noobs like me. Through
Jed’s Hardboiled Wonderland blog, I’ve discovered some great writers.
Most recently, the writer who’s made the biggest impression, with his
genre bending, and use of humour to move between light and darkness, is the
Champion Mojo Storyteller, Joe R. Lansdale, whose work re-energized my own. Even before I read him, I felt like I’d been
hearing his voice, or one like it, in my mind for years. Joe’s also a solid guy. ‘Die dog or eat the hatchet’ is a phrase I’d
noticed him use in his work, meaning ‘do or die.’ I contacted Joe, asked if he’d mind if I used
it as a title, and he gave me his blessing.
He could have just used it himself.
“You’re right, it IS a good title.
Thanks, kid.” Man, it would’ve
killed me if the next Hap and Leonard book was called Die Dog or Eat the
Talk a little about your process?
I know – it’s obvious from the writing – that you put a lot of effort
into crafting your sentences and stories.
The events in the narratives may be wild and extreme and gory but the
writing is lucid and tight. The plots
are well wrought and have a definite beginning, middle, and end. There’s even restraint in how language is
used – very little profanity, no straining to be ‘disturbing’ or edgy. Nothing seems forced or excessive for mere
shock value. Do you wing it as you write
or outline a lot? Go through many
drafts? Proceed slowly, correcting and
editing as you go?
It’s easy to dismiss pulp fiction as superficial and disposable, but I
put as much time and effort into the work as any other writer you care to name,
so I appreciate the compliment, thanks for noticing. I’d disagree with you that there’s little
profanity in the work, but that it doesn’t draw attention to itself is great,
means it isn’t gratuitous.
I’m self-taught from reading and trial-and-error writing, and I find it
hard to discuss the mechanics of the craft; I work from the gut, write from the
heart, I know what I’m looking for, and when it’s right. My MO comes mostly from screenwriting, which
is all about structure; solid beginning, middle, and ends.
from an outline, but the outline is flexible.
My first draft tends to be a first act, setting the scene, establishing
character; I’m feeling my way into the story.
As the story is slowly revealed to me, I rework my outline, refine those
second/third acts, start shaping the plot; sometimes I’ll start from scratch
and rewrite that first act to reflect later changes. So quite often, my first draft is a solid
first act and second/third act outline, where I’ve figured out various story
beats, including the climax. As a
result, my second draft is usually structurally sound and remains the spine for
I’ll write at least three drafts, page one rewrites, with further
polishes and revisions as necessary.
Before subbing to publishers, I hand the manuscript to my #1 beta reader
and editor, Bill Chaney, for final revisions before the ‘house’ edit. Bill’s not a pro, just a friend whose opinion
I value. His tastes in genre fiction are
very different than mine – he’s ‘outgrown’ pulp, and prefers more literary work
– which I think makes for an intriguing clash of influences and styles. I have Bill to thank for tipping me off to
Joe Lansdale; he spotted similarities in our work, and suggested I might like
Joe, which proved to be an understatement.
In Gator Bait, you explore some racially charged stuff, albeit stuff
based on historical fact, in the US South.
It’s all organic to the story and after all, these things described may
have actually happened, but did you have any worries about what reader
reactions would be? More generally, what
has been the reaction to this collection and your brand of uninhibited, “yes, I
went there” fiction in general?
As far as I can tell, readers and reviewers have taken to the ‘edgier’
elements of my work in the spirit I wrote it.
A quick look at my story synopses should let you know if my work’s for
you. As writers, it’s hard enough to
silence our own inner critics, without worrying about the opinions of others,
especially the self-appointed moral guardians who seem to exist solely to be
‘offended’ by things. Of course, I
considered the racial elements in Gator Bait.
But in the end, I felt the language was in keeping with the period and
place – 30s Louisiana – and so I went with my gut and trusted the intelligence
of the reader to contextualize those elements.
I am, by and large, a pulp writer.
Even as a reader, I prefer subtext to be, you know, sub-textual. I want to enjoy a good story – even a ‘tough’
story like Gator Bait – without being moralized to. So when it comes to writing period pieces
like Gator Bait, I prefer the reader brings their own experience to the mix,
rather than writing revisionist history.
I want the reader to feel uncomfortable.
Gator Bait, though a period piece, was written during the Ferguson riots,
and the Black Lives Matter protests, and that tension bled subconsciously into
the work. It was only in later drafts,
while searching to see if the title Gator Bait had been previously used – it
had, but I figured what the hell – that I stumbled across the historical
practice of ‘gator bait.’ This refers to
Southern alligator hunters using slave children as ‘gator bait’ to lure their
prey. It’s hard to imagine this was a
widespread practice, but that it happened even once is quite horrifying
enough. When I wove this history into my
narrative, it created even greater tension.
Does it make for an unpleasant, uncomfortable reading experience? You bet, and I’d hope so; Gator Bait is a
suspense story, after all. Is the
subject matter inappropriate, or is it inappropriate for a white male writer to
write about such subject matters? Well,
that’s more subjective. All I can tell
you is that my intentions were honorable, and that I wasn’t thinking much
further than just telling a good story.
With these stories, especially what happens in the middle novella, Die
Dog or Eat the Hatchet, you’ve set a high bar in terms of outrageousness, gore,
and brutality. How do you approach a
follow up to this? Do you want to top
yourself by getting even more outrageous and bloody, or do you change
direction, even if writing horror, to try to entertain through different
means? There’s always the balance
between giving your audience what they might expect from you and pushing so
hard readers can see you’re only trying to surpass how far you went last time.
Die Dog was written as a standalone novella, to capitalize on my Stephen
King connection. My first book, Black
Cat Mojo, is an offbeat crime/horror collection. When I was pimping that book, you bet your
ass I marketed myself as ‘the winner of Stephen King’s On Writing contest,’ but
I imagine readers who came to Black Cat Mojo expecting King-type stories got a
shock with titles like "Of Badgers and Porn Dwarfs and Jesus in a Dog’s Ass" –
not exactly The Shining, right? So with
Die Dog, I tried to write a more ‘traditional’ crime/horror story, which is
kinda funny considering how fucked-up the story turned out. I was leaning towards the extreme end of the
dark fiction market, so I knew I could push boundaries, but even I worried I’d
crossed the line in certain scenes.
In movies and books, I like graphic content, and I seem to have a
dubious flair for writing violent action scenes, so I might as well play to my
strengths. What stops graphic content
from becoming gratuitous is character; without strong characterization, all the
reader’s left with is gore for gore’s sake, which really doesn’t interest
me. So I don’t intend to try and
out-gross-out myself. That’d be hackwork. I’ll write graphic scenes as and when the
story demands it. I’ve got many other
stories I’d like to tell, even in the horror genre, which won’t require a
fisting-by-disembodied-limb scene. Time
and a place for everything!
Your first two books, Die Dog and before that, Black Cat Mojo, were
published by an indie press. What’s your
view of the whole indie press boom? Is
this a good time to be an author with all the publishing choices around or a
maddening one with the glut of books being published whether by large presses,
small ones, or authors themselves?
This ‘boom,’ it’ll translate to megabuck sales soon, right? To be honest, I don’t follow the markets very
closely, so I don’t feel qualified to answer.
I lucked out with my publisher, Comet Press. I’d enjoyed their dark fiction anthologies,
and put them high on my wish list when I started seeking publishers for Black
Cat Mojo. Fortunately, they dug the
work, and were among the first publishers to get back to me. My experience with Comet so far has been only
positive, and I can’t recommend them highly enough to other writers. Good people.
With the ease of digital publishing, there’s a ton of shit out there,
written by self-proclaimed ‘Amazon #1 bestselling’ authors. I don’t know how other readers navigate it
all; for me, I rely on the recommendations of my friends in the crime/horror
fiction communities. From what I can
see, many small presses are publishing infinitely more interesting works than
the majors, by writers who deserve to be bestsellers.
I intend to take a crack at the majors myself, once I progress from
writing novella-length fiction to novels; I’m still adapting to the shift from
screenwriting to prose, and I’ve found that a 30k word novella roughly equates
to a feature film screenplay. To have
any chance of success, I guess I’ll have to tone down my more lurid elements –
if I can – but I’ve got a lot of more ‘mainstream’ stories I’d like to tell.
I think I read somewhere that you are actually working on a novel now. If that’s true, anything you can give away
about it? And are there any more Reggie
Levine stories in the future? I think
your ex-boxer turned bar bouncer turned (for one story at least) skunk ape
hunter is quite an engaging and idiosyncratic character and I’d love to read
more about him.
My white whale of a novel remains elusive. I haven’t been satisfied with early drafts,
but I’m determined to finish the fucking thing.
It’s called One Tough Bastard, and it’s an offbeat crime/thriller, and
my ode to 80s action flicks. It concerns
washed-up action star Shane Moxie, who’s like a combo of Jack Burton and Kenny
Powers. Shane’s biggest hit was a buddy
action/comedy in which he co-starred with a hyper-intelligent Nim
Chimpsky-style chimpanzee called Duke.
Duke went on to the A-list, and became the most celebrated animal actor
since Lassie. Shane flushed his career
down the toilet. When the two are
reunited for the anniversary screening of their cult movie, they soon find
themselves embroiled in a criminal conspiracy involving an Arnold
Schwarzenegger-style action icon… A lot of what I’ve written really works, the
characters are fun, and I’m sure readers will dig it. But it’s just not quite ready yet.
As for Reggie Levine, he’ll be back in action later this year, or early
next, in Tijuana Donkey Showdown. I
really put the poor bastard through the wringer this time. It’s the first sequel I’ve written, so it’ll
be interesting to see how readers feel it measures up to Damn Dirty Apes. It’s certainly crazier.
When sleazy used-car salesman (is there any other kind?) Harry Muffet
recruits Reggie to retrieve his wife’s Chinese crested terrier, which is being
exhibited as a chupacabra at a rundown roadside zoo, our hapless hero is
dragged into an epic clusterfuck involved neo-Nazi drug smugglers, a donkey
porn star named Enrique, and in a hairpiece-raising cameo, Oscar-winner Nicolas
I’m also collaborating with horror writer Adam Cesare on a period
crime/horror project we’re pitching as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies
Carpenter’s The Thing
. No title as yet,
and we’re a little behind schedule due to other work commitments, but hopefully
we’ll have this one ready for next year… So, lots to look forward to – and
hopefully much more to come!
Black Cat Mojo
can be found here.
Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet
can be found here.
From May 17 through May 21, you can get Gator Bait
as a standalone novella for your Kindle free right here.