DarkEcho Horror
Blowgun by Rick Berry
JOHN SHIRLEY: Seeking Redemption
by Paula Guran
May, 1998

"I call attention to the dark side maybe a little bit for mutual catharsis but also to try to paint the universe as it is -- both sides of it. A painter like Goya, say, who paints things dark: does that mean his paintings are not beautiful? Art...transcends dark or light, it just paints truth and in its gemlike objectivity makes any truth gorgeous, even the nightmarish ones. Even ...using supernatural events as allegory, I was portraying the truth by analogy, to the best of my limited abilities." -- John Shirley

John Shirley is the most interesting bunch of people I know. The publication of his latest book, Black Butterflies, a collection of dark stories, gave me a chance to interview him for DarkEcho OMNI Horror. OMNI, of course, died and never published the piece, but it is still the last of the "official" OMNI interviews. Considering all the facets of Shirley's life and work -- it's almost the last several OMNI interviews.

John Shirley's the original cyberpunk: "...cyberpunks' Patient Zero, first locus of the virus, certifiably virulent," according to William Gibson. His City Come-Walkin' provided Gibson with the precursors "both of sentient cyberspace and of the AIs in Neuromancer" not to mention mirrorshades and a "post-punk milieu...cp to the max, neatly pre-dating Bladerunner."

It wasn't just his writing that influenced the likes of Gibson, Rudy Rucker, and Bruce Sterling. For all the weird ideas warping around in their nice middle-class white brains, they were typical scifi types -- pretty normal in a rumpled, but button-down way. But not Shirley. As Sterling puts it, "John Shirley was a total bottle-of-dirt screaming dogcollar yahoo."

Shirley's day job back then was writing science fiction, at night he was fronting punk bands in clubs. Rock music wasn't just a juvenile foray, either. He's still at it with Red Star, a CD he recorded that came out last year and lyrics for eight of the eleven songs on the new Blue Öyster Cult album, Heaven Forbid, to his credit. And a live Shirley performance -- even with a pick up band like the one he did last fall at Death Equinox '97 -- is something not to be missed.

ShirleyAnd science fiction? His latest novel, Silicon Embrace, is "the best novel of his career. mature yet youthfully indignant, spiritually insightful yet carnally streetwise...aboil with ideas and action, full of keen-eyed speculations for the future and daring revisions of history," according to Paul Di Fillippo.

All the time he was writing SF novels like Transmaniacon, City Come A-Walkin', Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona he was writing books like the suspense thriller The Brigade, the surrealistic A Splendid Chaos and magic realism like Three-Ring Psychus; he was also writing "action-thrillers" under a pen name or two; and he was writing horror like Dracula in Love, Cellars, In Darkness Waiting, and Wetbones.

Meanwhile he was careening through what would serve as several lifetimes and probably several deaths for most of us. There were drug binges -- mostly cocaine --that fucked him up in a major way. He'd get clean and manage to white knuckle it for awhile -- then something in his life would trigger a relapse and he'd come close to destroying himself again. The drugs crippled the natural growth of maturity, sucked up energy, and wasted money. As he himself tells it, between the drug problems and his own arrogance, he screwed up several relationships, several marriages, blew a multitude of chances, and insulted or ignored most anyone who could beneficially influence his career.

He survived, because along with the wild-eyed poet, the addict, the dreamer, the out-of-control outraged and outrageous punk -- there was always the writer. In the middle of the chaos he always found the pure white paper ready to hold the stories that he was compelled to tell. And there was the man who finally confronted himself and got clean, built a lot of character in the process, and eventually came out mature and responsible.

He became a screenwriter, bringing a comic book hero called The Crow to first cinematic life, doing television episodes for shows like Poltergeist, VR5, and Deep Space Nine.

Along with the screen work and the novels he produced uncompromisingly unique short stories. A variety of them from a twenty-four year span were collected in 1996 in The Exploded Heart along with self-revelatory autobiographical bridges. His earlier collections -- Heatseeker and New Noir -- had respectively gathered some of his edgier SF and literate noir. But the stories that most readers ran across in numerous anthologies in the 90s were dark -- sometimes bleak, but often wickedly humorous -- a new kind of horror. Stories based in the very real world with indelible characters facing moral dilemma or dealing with their obsessions. Other stories -- surreal, supernatural, coming from some strange nightmare reality that we hope is safely beyond our own. Stories that are explicit, raw, lyrical, intense, and sometimes exquisite -- stories that you feel.

Some of these stories have been collected in Black Butterflies: A Flock on the Darkside just out from Mark V. Ziesing. I wrote the introduction. I'm not a disinterested party when it comes to the work of John Shirley. I'm a True Believer, hell-bent or heaven-sent to convert you.

ShirleyDE: To an extent you are more of a "literary" writer than a genre writer and a lot of what you write could be termed "transgressive" fiction. It seems to me, however, that you prowled the trangressives' psycho-narco-sexual frontier and terrain of dysfunctional relationships before it was slickly labeled and packaged as such. Of course, you wrote proto-cyberpunk before it had a name, too. But mostly I think you are just always pushing the edge, going to some sort of punk extreme, always looking for more...

JS: Well yes, in some sense. William Burroughs might be said to have been there first, as he mixed SF imagery with narcotic delirium and paranoiac insight, but then I was trying to write within the genre; to subvert the genre. He was probably indifferent to science fiction as such. And I prefer a linear story. Anyway I take no narcotics now; I've been in recovery for more than a decade.

I like punk intensity. I just saw two great Berkeley area punk bands -- Tilt, which has a brilliant woman lead singer and highly intense tunes and a band called The Sick (they, too, are in recovery) -- a profoundly intense hardcore band. Sort of like Pantera but even better to my mind. The Sick could be the next hot band of this sort because -- like the most intense stuff I try to do in writing -- they are structured, their music has shape to balance the "noise", it has levels of meaning; it's like metal sculpture at metal sculpture's best.

It was interesting -- when I saw this band their fans were moshing hard, doing that grotesquely overdrawn skipping sort of thing, doing that bumper cars interaction in the mosh pit, knocking each other gleefully over, deliberately bumper car-ing into one another, yet when one of them fell the others immediately picked that one up and made sure they were okay; when an eight year old child came into the mosh pit on someone's shoulders they were all exquisitely careful not to hurt the child and to smile at him as they slam-danced around him. They were at once very civilized and very primal.

DE: That might be a description of you, Shirley: "civilized but primal." Some might doubt the civilized part, though. How did you start writing anyway? You were a misfit, an outsider, the classic alienated teenager in the late 60s and early 70s. And since it was the 60s and 70s, you were also more or less political -- publishing underground papers for your Salem, Oregon high school, getting periodically kicked out of school for it and for other supposedly disruptive things. You finally took over a class, locking a teacher in a closet, so you could lecture on why everyone was going to die in a coming nuclear holocaust. Somewhere amid the weeping and wailing of your female classmates -- reacting to your vivid description of their impeding inevitable gang rapes by radiated maniacs -- and the teacher pounding on the closet door, yelling to be released -- the school principal walked. Consequently you were expelled by the school board. But you were writing even then and you kept writing. Why writing?

JS: I'm one of those people who writes compulsively; writes to stay sane. I wasn't good at a lot of things as a teenager. I was clumsy and what Harlan Ellison calls a "dreamer." A dreamer in the creative sense and the other sense, too, as my attention wandered badly. But when I wrote I stood out. So I gravitated to one of the few things I could do well. Later, I discovered some talent for onstage work of various kinds, too. Besides, we are all made with some kind of gift, if we can only just locate it, and we are called by something finer than we are to apply that gift, to explore it and utilize it. To put it at the service, I hope -- someday if not now -- of something better. "You gotta serve somebody," Dylan said.

DE: You went to the Clarion Writers Workshop in 1972 at age 19. Considering you were tripping on acid most of the time and howling like a wolf at Harlan Ellison and jumping out of trees on him and other demonstratively weird juvenile shit -- what did it do for you as a writer?

JS: Not tripping on acid most of the time -- just now and then. (I am sure acid slowed my maturation as a writer.) What Clarion did was give me objective viewpoints on my stuff, inured me (as much as I know how to be) to editorial input, kicked my whiny little writer's ego in the ass a few times which is very necessary. It exposed me to the wisdom of numerous talented fellows like Harlan and Robert Silverberg and the late Avram Davidson. Ursula LeGuin was there, too, and I'm sure I learned from her.

PunkDE: You did something I see as a little strange in the early 70s, you joined the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard?

JS: I was in the Coast Guard in Portland. I joined it like joining the Foreign Legion because my girlfriend left me for a certain corrupt, sex-addicted guru. I never did quite get over her. I found the Coast Guard to be totally unsuitable for me and me for it, BUT it was a very good, seasoning thing for me, and I totally approve of the CG, as it is a service that only does good; they kill no one, they only save lives. Unsung heroes.

DE: And in Portland you got into punk rock?

JS: I was in the punk band SadoNation in Portland, as lead singer, and then went to New York City and started Obsession. Basically punk saved my ass, it gave me an alternative identity to the tortured and unacceptable one I'd sewn raggedly together; it gave me a forum for reacting to things like the My Lai massacre and the industrialization of America, the "minimalling" of America, the tract housing of America.

New York was both glorious and depressing. I'd have done much better there if I hadn't got side tracked into drugs. The needle, later the glass pipe. Drugs leach away the energy of life-direction. But the East village was a place of inspiring ferment. People like Basquiat and the early Beastie Boys and Karen Finlay and Nick Cave were around. Inspiring people.

DE: All this time you were writing. Getting published in magazines like Amazing and Fantastic and anthologies edited by people like Terry Carr and Robert Silverberg?

JS: They tried to give me direction, give me outlets. They bought stories, tried to hammer my spiky manner and undisciplined style into something more artful and crafted, God bless them for trying. Ted White and Silverberg and Carr and Jim Frenkel and Ellen Datlow especially helped.

Other writers would throw a really good, cunningly aimed fastball at the editorial catchers; I'd fire a roman candle at the editors and usually they'd duck and swear at me. Roman candles are bombastically pretty and make a great noise, but they fly crookedly, after a moment, and they burn out quickly. Still, since I was prolific, some of it came out, more or less satisfactorily. Some of it had some power; stories like "The Almost Empty Rooms" were, at least, almost psychotically original.

But I had no understanding of professionalism. I had no social graces, was a compulsive womanizer -- which didn't help me make friends; but then my wife at the time liked women, too. We were strange people. I was childishly manipulative -- and, worse, clumsy at trying to manipulate people -- people winced at my swaggering; but I wasn't a cowardly, colorless nerd either. The thing is I really did come from the streets, so where I came from it was right and natural to say anything to try to hustle something up. Truth or lies, it was all the same because you were trying to hustle the squareheads. I had punk damage, too, and thought that doing things professionally was selling out or something. The same attitude screwed my chances with John Hammond at Columbia records.

DE: Yes, I understand you took one look at John Hammond, Sr. -- with his flat top and a bowtie, the guy who, unknown to you at the time, had discovered Dylan and Springsteen and others -- and decided he was uncool. He offered you a chance, but you wouldn't play ball when he wanted you to work with musicians he'd picked out: Shirley shot down by his own arrogance and alienation from standard culture...again. True?

JS: Yes, you basically got it nailed. I still kick myself.

DE: Since you blew your one chance to become a rock god, that left writing...again. Your first novels Transmaniacon and Dracula in Love both came out in 1979, City Come A-Walkin' and Three-Ring Psychus followed in 1980...and in the early 80s you met up with these SF writers: William Gibson, who you met at a convention in Vancouver and recommended to Terry Carr and Robert Sheckley; Rudy Rucker, Lew Shiner, Richard Kadrey, Bruce Sterling. Sterling edited a samizdat -- a one page newsletter -- called Cheap Truth, in which you guys (self-named "the Movement") attacked mainstream science fiction and pushed your own version of SF. This "movement" was later dubbed "cyberpunk," of course. What was your role in this?

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JS: I only contributed a little to Bruce's brilliant broadsheet, but in public, at conventions, on panels, I was, quite often, the point man; or flailing away at Bruce's side. I'd say ANYFUCKINGTHING. We wanted a science fiction that was open to other cultural influences, like, yes, punk, like modern art, like surrealism, like the more artful noir films and fiction, and people like William Burroughs; and we wanted to dilate the iris of SF so that it took in more sheer FUTURE. I think Bruce felt that most SF was cowardly in its vision of the future. It was coy, winsome, mild mannered, or when it had energy it was oriented toward the kind of guys who took fencing lessons (I love you, Tim Powers, I don't mean you) and dressed up like the characters in the original book Starship Troopers and what have you. Pathetic beer hoisting pot-bellied fannish "macho."

DE: Part of being the "real punk" in cyberpunk was being obnoxious. There are all these stories about you from SF cons: tossing over panel tables, assaulting editors verbally and sometimes physically, Harlan Ellison challenging you to a duel...

JS: Whoa, wait -- he didn't challenge me to that kind of duel. He thought I'd dissed his writing and he challenged me to a writing duel! Best short story to be decided by whomever...probably whomever HE picked. I laughed it off. I've got exactly NOTHING against Harlan. He was and is important to the field.

DE: But the other hijinx you were up to didn't do a lot to endear you to people who could help your career.

JS: Yessssss, er, I only wish those stories were exaggerated rather than under-reported. I don't know, I have regrets about some of it, but on the other hand the whole SF and publishing scene was so DEADLY BORING then and mostly still is now. Hey, just trying to be helpful, ease the boredom! But it was not strategically wise, no. I think to this day I don't get certain writing jobs because of fall-out from that sort of horseplay. And sometimes people take shit too seriously. I was goofing on people on alt.cyberpunk a few years ago and was denounced as a loose cannon and "irresponsible" online. Get ovah yourself, boys and girls. Get a fucking sense of humor. Christ. So I put on a persona, so I took the piss out of the whole thing with a few vulgarities. OOOOOOH, how villainous.

coverDE: So maybe you aren't as loose a cannon as some cast you as, but there's still some serious darkness to deal with here. Cyberpunk itself is dark, with morally ambiguous anti-system outsiders as heroes. Transmaniacon was pre-cp. With Dracula in Love you trod on Bram Stoker's turf with a decided psycho-sexual twist. I guess you could call Three Ring Psychus dark magic realism. The Brigade (1981) has a semi-punk hero and is graphically violent. Cellars (1982) is visceral horror -- one of the first novels to push the reader right into the terror. And about the time these books were coming out you started fucking up royally with drugs. Dark stuff, Shirley, in your life and in your work. What was up with that?

JS: I switched from abusing psychedelics (which I NEVER wrote on, however; never wrote while on any drug) to abusing harder narcotics -- and the depression that punished me for doing that put some pretty dark glasses on me. I saw the dark side, more and more. But then that side is real: It's a dark goddamn world. I am a believer in a real spiritual reality, and a loving (but not all-powerful) intelligence underlying it, but anyone who says that God plans every thing that happens is slandering God. That's a childish, immature concept of God. Did the "loving" God plan things for that poor girl who was kidnapped and had her hands hacked off with an ax off by that son of a bitch Singleton? I sure as hell hope not. What was God's concept in arranging for children to be thrown into the ovens alive during the Holocaust, or the Holocaust in general? God thought that rabies would be useful? Oh, you say God ordained evil so as to make free choice possible, and allows "the devil" to do all this? Not much better: it's still slandering Him (or Her).

coverI call attention to the dark side maybe a little bit for mutual catharsis but also to try to paint the universe as it is -- both sides of it. A painter like Goya, say, who paints things dark: does that mean his paintings are not beautiful? Art (not saying I'm a real artist, only want to be) transcends dark or light, it just paints truth and in its gemlike objectivity makes any truth gorgeous, even the nightmarish ones. Even writing something like Cellars or In Darkness Waiting, using supernatural events as allegory, I was portraying the truth by analogy, to the best of my limited abilities.

DE: There was some other personal shit, too, at that time in your life -- you moved to Paris where you did some pseudonymous work as D.B. Drumm: the Traveller series?

JS:I wrote some of those Traveller series ripoff-of-Road-Warrior books. I didn't originate the series. There are some imaginative bits in them. I had twin boys to feed by then and later I had child support to pay.

DE: While in France you got the European background for what was to become the Song Called Youth trilogy: Eclipse (1985), Eclipse Penumbra (1988), and Eclipse Corona (1990). I think you recorded with your band Obsession then?

ObssessionJS: Yes, on Celluloid Records. An uneven "futuristic funk" album.

DE: How did living in Europe shape your thinking?

JS: I saw an incipient fascism that may well rear its ugly head in the 21st century in the dark political corners in Europe. You see, there WILL be a world government whether we like it or not -- it's going to have to happen because there will soon be 12 BILLION people on Earth and, no, 12 billion people cannot keep it together. And -- because we're becoming more global, less parochial by the split-second, and because of the increasing power of terrorists -- world government is inevitable. The next generation of terrorists will be able to kill millions of people...unless we stop them in advance. The ONLY way to do that is through some sort of very organized one-world system. If those of us who love freedom don't struggle to institute a freedom-loving, environmentally responsible world government -- this does NOT have to be a contradiction in terms --then we will get what we deserve: the New World Order; Big Brother; world Fascism. That will come to us if we don't give humanity an alternative world government. The alternative world government could be very hands-off. It could enforce only the minimum rules necessary to keep the world from frying in its own juices. It would be balanced by a Congress of a sort of United States of the Earth and by total media freedom, informational freedom, Internet freedom; utter intolerance for any restriction on human rights. It would thus be constantly kept in check.

The alternative to that is what I describe in Eclipse: fascist world government.

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DE: The second Eclipse book as well as In Darkness Waiting (more horror) and the amazingly inventive A Splendid Chaos all came out in 1988. What was your intent with them?

JS: Yeah, prolific to a fault. All those books tried to make the reader see things cinematically in their minds as they read. A Splendid Chaos was an attempt to write surrealism that nevertheless made sense. In Darkness Waiting was a metaphor about the "insect inside", the purely mechanical, reactive, dehumanizing side of humanity; the part of us that makes racism and torture possible. Just exactly what we are called to transcend.

DE: Heatseeker, a pretty powerful collection of short fiction came out in 1989. What was up with that book?

coverJS: Heatseeker wasn't all entirely mature writing, but people who like the sort of charge it hopefully supplies get a kick, I'm told, that does not cause a hangover (in any physical sense), and I do think I pushed out some envelopes in terms of original approach. John Clute pointed out that too many of the earlier stories climaxed with revenge comeuppances, and such; some were heavy handed. But he didn't talk about conceptual originality and that is one of the book's strongpoints. It went all the way from "paranoid critical" semi-surreal fiction to gritty cyberpunk. Most of my story collections show lots of contrast. Maybe I should be stuck in one kind of writing so I can master it. But I write from inspiration, not from a career plan.

DE: Shirley you live life from "inspiration," not a plan. But even if there is no plan, there is a pattern to your work. The prototypical Shirley protagonist is a flawed hero seeking redemption: Cole in City, Rickenharp in Eclipse, Prentice in Wetbones, Quinn in Silicon Embrace. Trying to save themselves, the world, someone they love; paying the price, trying to buy back that which is lost -- atoning for their sins. They are never completely successful, but neither do they completely fail. Are they you, Shirley? Is everything you write essentially amplified autobiography?

JS: Most writers will tell you the same thing: yes and no. Protagonists and other characters will reflect aspects of oneself, or ideal selves; but people are not so simple. Still, I do struggle for self-mastery, for redemption, for transcendence -- and for acceptance. There's a part of me that identifies with the criminals in the movie Heat, with Richard Stark's criminal hero Parker; there's a part of me that would like to be a cop! The object, for me, as a human being, is to develop a unified person, underlying fragmentary personality responses. Sometimes I satirize some elements of myself in some books, assuming other people have analogous absurdities in themselves.

DE: I mentioned Prentice, the central figure in the novel Wetbones that came out in 1991. Are you aware that it is also considered by some to be one of the best modern horror novels written?

coverJS: Wetbones? Ummmm...Wetbones was a novel about addictiveness in general, narcotics and other kinds, kind of melded with the decadent Hollywood scene and even some Lovecraftian imagery. It came out of a lot of pain and caustic remorse. I remember, when I was on the streets using drugs, there was a little girl crying, begging her mother not to put her in child protection services custody but this Mom had to because Mom needed to cop a rock. Crack. The Mom even probably loved the kid, in some buried part of herself; but that part of herself was asleep; the compulsion programmed her personal nightmare. I'll tell you something, the government of this country doesn't give a shit about the lost American citizens they call drug addicts. As far as the government is concerned they can all die, so drug addicts and alcoholics have to help one another -- and do, in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous (which are findable online and in the phonebook). I do not think of my past drug use romantically; only tragically, and to some degree instructively. It's another case of what doesn't kill you...well, you know...Some people consider Wetbones one of the best? Do they think of it that way?

DE: A lot of writers I talk to think so; I do; Fiona Webster has it as one of the best since 1980 on her list.

<JS: I know that some editors wanted to buy the book for mass market and were turned down by the guys who really run publishing now, the marketing department, because the book was insufficiently classifiable or because, in some cases, they felt the characters were not sympathetic enough, the imagery too grisly. I know of cases where books by various writers were not bought because they were not the exact right length so they could fit a certain number of them -- not too many, not too few -- into paperback racks in accordance with the marketing theories of these spindoctoring scumbags. There is "an ideal book length" having to do with display logistics, that is: manipulation of the public. Not having to do with public preference. I don't know if that has been my problem -- I cite it to show just how ludicrous things are now. Basically, offbeat books have a harder time getting published because all the publishers are owned by, like, Mobil Oil or something, so it's all about the bottom line and maximizing profits. Publishing is a business, but there's business and then there's Big Business.

The Crow logoDE: Then came The Crow.

JS: Then went The Crow. Flapping away with Brandon Lee in its talons. Brandon who was killed by haste and incompetence. Still, I think it's a good movie, an artistic rendering of a touching adolescent fantasy; a wistful denial of the power of death. I just want to say that Dave Schow did a great job working on that film. Some of the comic it was based on, I suspect, was borrowed from the movie Darkman. But James O'Barr (the writer/artist who created the comic book it was based on) took it to other levels. Maudlin (but delicious) poetry; a celebration of the dark glory that so many of us, the Damaged, hanker after. James O'Barr is the real artist behind The Crow.

Hmmm...Is there a rock band called The Damaged? Maybe I'll start one.

DE: Well, if you do, you have its anthem already. You wrote lyrics to a new Blue Öyster Cult song and the chorus goes:

I'm damaged and I like it
It made me what I am
I'm damaged and I like it
The rest is just a sham...
I'm damaged, and I like it
...but you just told me you didn't romanticize your addictions and excess, yet you use all this in your work. Isn't that having it both ways?

JS: It's there, but not romantically. If you're talking about those lyrics in particular, they are about a character who feels that way -- that he must accept his damage, who he is: he's trying to bluff his way through things, to crow about his dissonance with society, which is central to rock and roll. But he's just a character -- and the next song on that new Blue Öyster Cult album, Heaven Forbid, "Cold Grey Light of Dawn," is all about the remorse of some guy lying to his wife, lying about drugs and sex; about seeing himself as he really is in that cold grey light. About self knowledge. First there's arrogance, then there's the suffering it brings: two songs. It comes in stages.

A lot of my life was fairly chaotic. Living with sometimes two women at once; drugs; performance art and punk performance; bisexual experimentations; marriages and divorces; moving here and there, forming bands and breaking them up, struggling to emerge as someone real through the strangling constraints of my own vanity, my own neurotic trips, and other people's screening fears. Chaos...I should say, so-called chaos, because chaos is just order seen from too close in...but as I went through overdoses and shattered marriages and remorse and recognition of my own selfishness, at times, my willingness to hurt people, my compulsiveness, I began to yearn more and more for a centered kind of life. For steadier relationships, for a sober mind and an authentic chance to be a real caretaker for my children. I've finally gotten somewhere like that, but I can't exclude all the Raw Power, all the so-called chaos, from my life. I now keep a balance between so called chaos and so called order (which is what good cyberpunk does, and good rock). And I stay sober.

DE: In a lot of ways you've been an influence -- both directly and indirectly -- on science fiction, modern horror, even, with The Crow, modern culture. People react to your name in several ways. There's some awareness of you in the horror community, to a lesser extent than SF. There are people who connect you with The Crow, but maybe only that. Overall, I'd say your status right now is murky, yet history would hardly be the same without you.

JS: What a depressing evaluation and what a left-handed compliment.

DE: You're welcome.

JS: Well, I do think I've influenced a lot of people who are only just now beginning to acknowledge it. I suspect I may have influenced Quentin Tarantino, too. And I think I have a bigger following than you give me credit for, but, hey, it's okay, because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me! -- or whatever Stuart Smalley said.

DE: Sometimes your writing is seen as too over-the-top, too visceral, even bombastic.

JS: Sometimes my writing is too over the top, too visceral, too bombastic. Where would culture be without grand guignol to kick around; without the excesses of Baudelaire and Dali and Alfred Jarry and Genet and Francis Bacon; without the ranting vision of Celine; without Iggy Pop and the Sex Pistols and Little Richard? I'm not always over the top, not at all. But if I am sometimes, that doesn't mean I'm Spinal Tap; I don't imagine that the volume knob should go to 11.

coverDE: With the exception of New Noir (1993), a slim collection of dark short fiction published by a literary alternative press, there were no new books for five years after Wetbones. Why?

JS: Science fiction and fantasy did not pay me well most of the time; scripting paid better and I've got two ex-wives and three kids to support. I wrote screenplays, some of which were bought and never produced -- but that still paid the bills and fueled my illusions -- and TV stuff. (Primal Scream, a three-stories-in-one TV movie I wrote for Showtime, is coming out this year, although I heard they changed the title to -- ugh -- Twists of Terror. So people will think it's about Chubby Checker as a zombie or something. It's actually short Hitchcockian sort of stories, pretty extreme.)

And I love film makers, I'm more influenced by Nicholas Roeg and Fellini and Orson Welles and the noir artists than by Heinlein or whomever. But I'm a ways from realizing anything that powerful in my scripting or incipient film making. I have plans, perhaps pipedreams, for producing and writing (NOT directing) a sort of contemporary noir film set in San Francisco, real low budget, a few hundred grand, but haven't gotten around to looking for financing yet. The cinematic art is, in one way, sort of like religion: it's capable of both sublimity and subhumanity. Cinema, especially in this country, is so interfered with it rarely achieves what is possible for it; but I'm hoping my chance will come.

cover DE:In 1996 Eyeball Books came out with a reprint of City Come A-Walkin' and The Exploded Heart. The idea was to make City available again as well as provide a "trajectory" of the life and work of you as an SF punk. The collection included stories from as early as 1975, song lyrics, and frank autobiographical introductions to each story. Why the autobiography bits?

JS: I'm sure there was some personal perversity in the autobiographical self exposure wagging itself at the reader in between stories in The Exploded Heart (although I kept some of the darkest, most intense events back). But then I also am grimly dedicated to the belief that self knowledge, ruthlessly objective self knowledge, is the key to greatness, to freedom, to transcendence. Writing those things freed me, forced me to see myself a little more. Just a little. City Come A Walkin', Exploded Heart, that whole corpus, was an attempt to write at the crest of the wave of inspiration in the way that, say, Coltrane played sax and Zappa played guitar solos, riffing it out and yet weaving it into real structure; trying to reflect present day life through the instrument of "futuristic" writing; trying to bring the better part of the punk sensibility to science fiction. Its coarse honesty, its freedom, its energy. Trying, trying, trying. Trying.

coverDE:You came out with Red Star, a CD you'd made with the Panther Moderns in 1997. In a lot of ways it reflects your dark side, too, just using music to convey it instead of print. But you aren't a kid anymore and rock 'n' roll is supposedly the purview of the young -- isn't it?

JS: Hey, whatya mean not a kid -- I'm boyish! That's it, boyish, eternally boyish! "Pathetic, these aging hipsters," as Dr. Evil says in Austin Powers. I don't accept rock 'n' roll being the purview of the young. Neither does Mick Jagger or David Bowie or Lou Reed or Iggy Pop or John Cale or Henry Rollins or Jello Biafra or John Lydon. The CD was uneven, but it's a strong, solid statement and John Karr's guitar playing on it alone makes it worth getting. He inherits Frank Zappa's guitar mantle, I believe.

Red Star CDDE: During the same period, you also finished a science fiction novel, Silicon Embrace, that came out in late 1996. It's a strange puppy. Entertaining, humorous, action-packed cyberpunk, but also philosophical, even mystical: aliens, militias, media and government conspiracy, alluding to all sorts of classic SF, satirizing New Age mentality and Ufology -- all as sort of a bizarre framework for your reflections on God and the universe. Isn't all that a pretty bizarre mix?

JS: Sure, a strange amalgam, that book; an attempt, again, to bring chaos and order into one workable context. And an attempt to use pop imagery (grey aliens, some 'new age' concepts, angels) to create a synthesis that was fresh, that was a metaphor for something truer, deeper than any pop idea of spirituality or the paranormal. I try, is all. The reviewer in The San Francisco Chronicle got it; the reviewer in The Washington Post didn't get it. Is anyone surprised? The volume knob was turned up to...9.

coverAlso, regardless of the quirky digression into Forteana and modern myth and allegory I played with in the novel Silicon Embrace...I was, in recent years, waiting for a certain penny to drop, in my own skull. (You may, if you like, conclude that there's lots of room in my skull for a penny to be dropping through). That is, a sort of new artistic level to come online inside me...I think it'll happen, I think this new maturation finds adumbration in stories like "Jody And Annie On TV," "Barbara," stories set in the so-called real-world, as found in -- plugola here -- the first section of the new story collection Black Butterflies.

DE: Yeah, the new collection Black Butterflies: A Flock on the Darksideis just out. It focuses on your darker writing, stories you've written in the 90s. What about it?

coverJS: The Dark Side of the Dark Side...but always about the real world, always seeking redemption...Of course, the book is divided into two sections: "This World", stories as real as I can make them, without science fiction or fantasy elements, and "That World", stories that use supernatural or science fiction imagery. The second one brings metaphor more into relief, more exposed. The book contains my best recent stories, all previously uncollected. I wrote two new stories, previously unpublished, just for the collection.

DE:What about science fiction? Are you planning a new SF novel?

JS: I've planned one for a long time now --- it's called Glass Globe and it's in the outlining, scene sketching and massive-research stages. It's about the labor-pains of a formative world government in the 21st century; the pros and the cons of something like that; the suffering that would prompt it; the drama of finding solutions; the people, the individuals, shaping and being shaped by world events.

DE: And you've written lyrics for eight of eleven songs on the new Blue Öyster Cult album, Heaven Forbid. How did this come about?

JS: I'm an old time Blue Öyster Cult fan. Here's a band that always had a connection to science fiction and fantasy and horror...and humor, at times. "Don't Fear the Reaper" is a kind of ghost story. Michael Moorcock wrote lyrics for them, songs about Elric.... Also Patti Smith...Talk about unrecognized influence! This band CREATED contemporary speed metal. Metallica and Megadeth, et al. would not exist without BÖC's On Your Feet Or On Your Knees and other BÖC LPs -- but BÖC is also very complex and subtle, influenced by 19th century Romantic classical music; lots of range. One of the greatest rock guitar players in the western world in that band: Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser.

Heaven ForbidI wrote a novel, Transmaniacon, the title was taken from one of BOC's songs, and was dedicated to them, and they noticed. Mutual friends then told me they were looking for a new lyricist and they introduced us...and it's just a thrill for me to hear them sing my words on CD and now I'm hearing "See You in Black" and "Live for Me" on the radio.

DE: I left out a lot of the people you are in all this...but maybe the most important one I left out in the context of your writing is "the Seeker." You touched on some of it already. You're deeply spiritual, more so in the last ten years, and I think it shows in your work.

JS: I wish I could say I was "deeply" spiritual. I'm too inconsistent, too impatient and these are the hobgoblins of anyone struggling with spiritual work. I am like one of those people (Iggy Pop did this once, among others) who deliberately swims out to sea as far as he can go, till he's exhausted, on purpose, just to force himself to get back to shore while exhausted. Again the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" principle. If I were spiritually deep I'd swim out figuratively into the sea of spirit and let myself drown. To be reborn you must first die, in a certain sense. I have every intention of learning to die to myself. To swim to the deeps. But so far, my instincts carry me back to the shallows. I'm often exhausted...and barely make it. If you don't struggle (intelligently) to become more conscious, more mindful, more connected to the substratum -- what the Buddhists call The Nature Mind -- if you don't do that, if you don't work at it, it isn't real spirituality in my opinion.

Hence I find most New Age spirituality to be counterfeit: just people comforting themselves, going with the flow -- and misquoting Lao Tzu. Deeply spiritual is more like the guy who wrote Awakening to the Buddha Within, this guy went on three separate three-year retreats in the Himalayas. Can you imagine doing even one three year retreat in the Himalayas? But three! That now, is deeply spiritual; is serious. Not this buy some incense, meditate for five minutes on visualizing yourself as a flower while listening to John Tesh music; not this New Age horseshit.

Spiritual work, the real thing (to me), is like a man who, one night, leaves the warmth of an oasis campfire in some northerly desert, and walks to the edge of the oasis, stripping off his clothes on the way, then takes a deep breath and strides into the desert, naked and barefoot onto frost-crusted sands, plunging out into a cold, northern-desert night, utterly exposed, utterly vulnerable. And he doesn't look back; he keeps marching into the darkness, towards, perhaps, that distant, very distant, shadowy peak that one writer called Mount Analogue. Not a very New Age feel there. I'll say this: I have always had a strong spiritual pull in myself, a hunger, from early childhood.

DE: And, even though we touched a little on it, we didn't really talk to Shirley-the-Socio-Political Beast. That's in your writing, too: there's often a Dickensian social consciousness and/or a Swiftian satiric edge to your writing.

JS: This may have as much to do with my self-righteous, busybody personality as with social consciousness. I wish I was more use to people than mouthing-off a lot. But I have always been unable to ignore the striking contradictions in our society between what is apparently offered and what is actually offered; between actual justice and society's justice. It just seems so starkly clear to me. I maintain that it has nothing to do with "rightwing" or "leftwing", liberal or conservative; it has to do with the deep currents of conscience that we all share if we sink our wells deeply enough. It's beyond politics. You know, if a man works fulltime at his job, and is receiving minimum wage, he cannot support a family of four on it. But here he is, working his can off -- although the Rush Limbaughs of the world claim that if a humble working-class man works hard enough all will be well.

DE:Shirley, you don't like birthdays. You told me on your last one that people of our generation imagine they weren't meant for mortality. Like Iggy Pop you always want to "live just a little bit longer." Plus you seem to live and write slightly ahead of most everyone else anyway. Since you're determined to keep on keeping on, can you predict where you'll be in five years? Ten?

JS: Or thirty? Burying the inconsequential cocksuckers who shrug off my work now...Partying (clean and sober people party HARDER than dope users and boozers) with the people Who Knew All Along...and starting yet another doomed band.

DE: Turn the volume knob up the rest of the way and hit that open chord, Shirley.

|The Official John Shirley Web Site can be found at
NOTE: There is a HORRORONLINE interview with John Shirley from December of 1998 on this site as well. I've been interviewing John Shirley since December of 1995. You can find that original interview (Part One)on the Shirley Web site as well as periodic updates that make up a sort of hypertextual serial biography:

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