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Brian Hodge: Coming Back Stronger

By Paula Guran

January 2003

I've always been fascinated by all the many ways things can go wrong and break down, so maybe that's how it's emerging. I'm a lot more cynical about our social and cultural fabric than the human heart. -- Brian Hodge

*DarkEcho* last officially checked in with Brian Hodge, one of the most talented dark fiction writers around, about four years ago. Scores of stories, a couple of collections, six novels, critical acclaim, and numerous award nominations had been followed by a rough period in his career, but that was over. His crime/road novel WILD HORSES -- a work in which he combined lyrical prose, gut-wrenching brutality, and considerable compassion for a book that proved both raucously entertaining and quietly thought-provoking -- was a good bet for considerable crossover success. He was at work on another "hyper-Cuisinart crime/suspense novel," MAD DOGS, as a follow-up.

The resulting interview, Brian Hodge: Vital Tenacity, is probably one of the best now re-published on the DarkEcho Horror site. The credit doesn't belong to the interviewer, of course, but to the subject. Hodge is honest, open, and intelligent, and he's also, well, damned inspiring at times. "Inspiring" -- there's a word that will make him blush, but his fortitude and determination is equal to his talent. As Hodge said then, "Nobody sustains any kind of longevity without accumulating contusions, but if you're smart you'll turn them into lessons while you're hanging in there waiting for your turn. It's the tenacity that's vital. Whenever I've been down, I've always eventually come back stronger."

In 2002, Night Shade Books published LIES & UGLINESS (See the review), a terrific compilation of some of Hodge's short fiction -- and certainly one of the best collections of the year. But --

Brian Hodge Before LIES & UGLINESS, Hodge suffered another career contusion or two. WILD HORSES was well received, but, like most books, was not a bestseller. MAD DOGS was never published. WILD HORSES was a one-book deal with William Morrow, with MAD DOGS as their option book. "Unfortunately," Hodge explains, "by the time Morrow got first look, it wasn't even the same company. They'd been gobbled up by Rupert Murdoch's empire (may he roast in Hell), and in a total bloodbath they cleaned house with the efficiency of Nazis. There was like one lone surviving editor, I think. All the rest, and everyone else I'd dealt with in various departments, got fired. So my beloved editor there, Paul Bresnick, with whom I'd hoped to have a long association, ended up getting drummed out of publishing altogether."

After that, his agent had no luck finding another house for MAD DOGS. It was a "big blow to us both. There were individual editors who loved it, but they weren't able to push through a deal. The general consensus was that I'd made two major mistakes: First, I'd done another crime novel with wild mood swings, and New York [publishing] has decided they really don't like those any more because they feel they don't sell enough copies. Someone even told my agent that he'd be shocked if he knew how low Elmore Leonard's sales figures are. Anymore, if a major publisher doesn't feel assured of moving at least 25,000 hardcovers, they aren't interested. Second, whereas a woman was at the center of WILD HORSES, in MAD DOGS the prime mover is a guy. Again, an unwitting blunder, because the New York publishing industry is now largely controlled and run by women who buy first and foremost for female readers. It's one thing if you're a long-established novelist; you can do pretty much what you want, because you already have the audience. But in practical terms, with WILD HORSES, I was really just getting started in hardcover. The six paperback novels before that didn't actually count."

"In the end," he feels, "I ignorantly spent a year and a half on a big novel that a few years earlier would've been welcomed with open arms, but in the current climate was doomed. The other consensus, from nearly every editor, because they loved the writing and characterization, was that they would really like to work with me on another novel ... just not this kind of novel. If you're going to get rejected, I suppose that takes a bit of the sting out of it, but at the time, it wasn't much."

A lot of authors these days would like to be granted the magic power to re-vamp publishing. Given the chance (but with no allowance for outrageousness) Brian Hodge has some thoughts about the situation.

Book Cover "So, not getting outrageous, that precludes the use of hot pokers, napalm, things like that?" Picture Hodge with an evil grin. The seriously, he continues saying that, above all, what he'd do is restore a long-term outlook to the industry. "I think they used to have it in New York," he says, "I really do. Editors used to think in terms of writers' careers. I remember reading about the enormous amount of work that Hemingway's editors put in on his early books -- or maybe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald's - and thinking, 'Jesus, that would never happen today.' I came along at a time when that had pretty well died out in favor of grabbing as much short-term profit as possible. Really, I've never gotten a sense of them thinking much more than a year ahead, to a release date and that's it. But a long-term outlook, that would restore so much more. Editors would really edit instead of just acquiring. Publishers wouldn't squander millions on these ill-advised 'celebrity' books that tank. Newt Gingrich's World War II novel comes to mind, which by all accounts was wretched. I read an excerpt and thought I'd seen better prose out of junior high students." He'd additionally like to see marketing departments that wouldn't "expect to somehow sell more books by printing fewer of them. And, dare I hope, that the distribution of funds might be a bit more equitable across the board."

Barring magic power -- "Come on, though. Just one. Let me maim just one. I've even got one picked out" or mayhem -- Hodge now sees getting MAD DOGS into print as strictly a labor of love. He reminds us, "The small press is often good to those of us who find ourselves with these hapless orphans we've spawned."

The result of his experience was a realization that he could no longer tolerate the feast-or-famine cash flow of writing solely fiction. Hodge began writing columns and articles for a computer magazine and its affiliate publications. It pays well and regularly, and he's still his own boss, but there's a punch line: "I've been a Mac devotee all along, and it's primarily a PC world out there and this is a PC-publication empire. That meant I also had to spend a lot of time educating myself on the Windows side of things. In the interim, I did manage to squeeze out a few short stories, and get LIES & UGLINESS put together and into shape, but it's only now that I finally feel in a position to move along to a new novel. Between fiction, nonfiction, and music, it's like having one full-time job and two part-time jobs, but I'm never quite certain which is which."

Brian Hodge Music? Hodge has a musical project called Axis Mundi. An ep-length CD of music and soundscapes CD, INKARNATE, was included as exclusive content that comes as an "extra" with the limited edition of LIES & UGLINESS. "It's just a humble little debut, the equivalent of the first 300-pressing disc with a handful of songs that a band might sell at its club shows. Once I have, say, a full album's worth of material - and more cohesive, too, because the stuff on INKARNATE was all over the map -- then I'll start looking into a regular release with some strange indie label that goes for dark electronic music."

Hodge did INKARNATE entirely on his own. What happened to the old idea that music was somehow a collaborative effort? Axis Mundi is the result of current technology as well as musical talent and inclination. "Between multi-tracking, MIDI sequencing, samplers, and the general convenience of digital audio, you don't absolutely need anyone else. By now it's around $16,000 or so that I've put into this studio I've been piecing together, not including the computers because I'd have them anyway, but I'm able to do things that not all that long ago wouldn't have been available in any studio for any amount of money. It's insane, the level of technology that's made its way down to us Great Unwashed. Plus it's just easier, working alone ... and after years of writing, I'm used to that anyway. So far, my idea of collaboration is to take a rhythm loop or something from a sample CD, process it so it sounds different, and layer it in with everything else. Hey, drum loops don't show up late, and they don't scream when you cut 'em apart."

"A lot of the stuff I'm most influenced by, like Steve Roach and several different artists on Sweden's Cold Meat Industry label, it's the same thing -- just one person banging it out on their own," he adds. "Those first few Nine Inch Nails albums were all Trent Reznor. Even film composer Hans Zimmer often works by using sampled instruments to create these amazing orchestral mock-ups of the score, which are almost indistinguishable from the final recordings by the live orchestra in London. That said, I wouldn't mind working with one or more somebodies whose strengths I don't have, because that does generate a new synergy, but in the meantime the lack of anyone else doesn't have to be paralyzing."

Although INKARNATE was all over the musical map, there is a certain, evidently unintentional, cohesiveness to LIES & UGLINESS. The stories often have a cynical view of love, but the idea of any theme surprises the author. "It's funny," he says, "the same as you did just now, most all the reviews I've seen keep mentioning how this collection is primarily a book of weird love stories. That's something I was completely unaware of when I was putting it together. The two earlier collections, THE CONVULSION FACTORY and FALLING IDOLS, for those I'd gathered stories around deliberate themes - urban blight and religion, respectively. But for LIES, because it was going to be a lot roomier, I'd thought, "Ahhh, good, now it's time to do a nice big fat general collection." I just wanted to show as much range as possible, and thought that these were the representative best of my new and previously uncollected stories going back as far as the late 80s, excluding the crime/suspense pieces. But with a bit of grouping internally: the kinky stuff here, the childhood stuff there, over there's the British pagan stuff. Then the reviews start coming in, and bing bing bing, they're all playing up this love story theme. So I've either outsmarted myself, or these folks are content to create a theme out of the most superficial similarity, I don't know which. A lot of the stories don't fit that by any means. To be fair, though, I do gravitate a lot toward the sexual and romantic relationships of characters, but when you think how much of our lives are defined by, or even ruled by, those factors, it makes sense to me that they crop up a lot. And I'm usually impelled by the emotional resonance of a story anyway. As for where the cynicism comes from, I don't know. I've had a close, stable relationship with the same woman for the last seventeen years or so, so it's not like I'm bitching about anyone. I've always been fascinated by all the many ways things can go wrong and break down, so maybe that's how it's emerging. I'm a lot more cynical about our social and cultural fabric than the human heart."

Book Cover Although the author hadn't heard of the theory, we mentioned that according to some, the warping of our cultural and social fabric since 9/11 has supposedly left a public that now wants supernatural "horror" rather than "horror" that deals with those social and cultural concerns or even the human heart. "If it's true," Hodge muses, "maybe it's just one more manifestation of the inclination toward entertainment escapism that's been much-discussed by the TV commentators. Or maybe the timing is just coincidental, and it's emerging from a desire for stories that are more overtly imaginative. Something like a fictive serial killer streak, that has to run its course eventually. Look at what happened in the time between THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and HANNIBAL. Lecter went from being this genuinely frightening character to a campy joke ... some of which falls on Anthony Hopkins' portrayal (he even parodied it himself in TITUS), but a lot falls on Thomas Harris, for writing such a piss-poor novel and seemingly struggling to maintain interest in his own material. Even Ridley Scott said he approached directing the film version like a romantic comedy. That's got to sound the death knell for something.

"Now, I did just come across a 'Time' magazine article making the case that the public has largely thrown over science fiction for fantasy. Maybe there's something to that. I was totally into the first three Star Wars films. They came out when I was going to school and I just couldn't see them enough. The new ones look better, of course, and I know they've done solid business, but I haven't spent one dime or expended any effort to see them. I just don't care. I flipped on 'Episode 1' (see, I don't even remember its actual title) on Fox, and it seemed manufactured and soulless. And I've heard several people make similar comments. However, I've turned into a complete geek for the LORD OF THE RINGS films. They've engaged me on all levels, it's like being a kid again."

Hodge offers an admittedly simplistic analysis: "Overall, the decades of the 80s and the 90s were very good to us as a society. Bumps in the road, sure, but in general they were economic boom years and any large-scale nasty business politely stayed confined to other parts of the globe. But now the stock market indices have been lurching about like drunken frat boys on an uncommonly long binge, the membranes between good and evil have proven permeable, borders don't mean much, and the world doesn't seem nearly so safe. Now, I've held this kind of view for a long time, and I imagine a lot of writers and other creators do too, so nothing's very different for me. It's just the general public who's being confronted with it to a degree that it hasn't had to face in a generation or two, and traditionally the general public has a short memory. So right now it makes perfect sense that a higher premium is placed on stories that are going to take you out of this particular world for a time. Although I would take exception to the implication that supernatural horror and social concerns/the human heart are mutually exclusive ... but then that's one of the luxuries of horror: Because it's metaphorical, you can read as much into it as you're prepared to handle."

As unsafe as the world is, Hodge has plans for his next novel? "I have a couple of things in mind, very different from each other, that have both passed the six-month test. You know, you live with it for a while, give yourself ample time to realize it's stupid or has no legs, and if after six months you still think you have something there, you probably do," he says. "It's way too premature to say much of anything about either one, though, beyond the most general terms. One's another foray in the crime/suspense direction, although with quite a different approach than the previous two. The other, well, for ages I've wanted to do something set in a medieval timeframe, and a solid idea has been gnawing at me now for several months. I didn't really have a marked preference for either, but the other day I conferred with my agent on several things, one of them being which he thinks would be the better one to proceed with at this point. While he quite liked them both, he actually thinks the medieval one would be the more commercial of the two. Then again, since then, I even had an idea for a quasi-literary smut novel, but of course I have to live with that idea for another five months and twenty-four days."

Hodge also has stories that will be appearing here and there and several other projects that are still in the "talking" stage. "Night Shade Books and I have informally discussed another collection," says Hodge. "We're both really pleased with the way LIES & UGLINESS turned out and the reception it's been receiving. They've also mentioned some serious interest in MAD DOGS, in the event that the worst-case scenario came to pass... as it has. So they're looking at it now. A pair of limited edition things have been talked about too, with a couple other publishers I like .. a novella for one, a chapbook with the other. I also have several pieces in a poetry anthology that Tom Piccirilli has put together, which is something totally new for me."

Hodge is, as ever, coming back stronger -- again.


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Copyright © 2003 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.