DarkEcho Horror
Iron Fawn by Rick Berry

Still Out There on the Front Lines

December 1998 By Paula Guran

"You've seen it in all the great old World War II movies: This wild-eyed G.I. goes gonzo and charges the enemy lines like a Viking berserker, and naturally he's cut down by machine-gun fire, but he manages to fall draped across the barb wire fence, so all the rest of the guys behind him can stream up over his back and overrun the jerries.

Now. Substitute complacency for the enemy lines and stodgy publishers for the Wehrmacht, and that insane G.I. starts looking an awful lot like John Shirley. With one major difference: Shirley ripped himself loose from the fence, tucked his giblets back in, stitched himself up, sublimated the pain, and has kept on firing ever since.

Where others whose names are more broadly recognized have struck gold, John Shirley was already there. He was the one who convinced William Gibson it was a good idea to write cyberpunk. His graphic horror was out there years before anyone heard of Clive Barker, and he'd already staked out gritty, quirky noir when Quentin Tarantino was still a video clerk trying to pronounce Au Revoir, Les Enfants." -- Brian Hodge, review of John Shirley's Black Butterflies in Hellnotes

John Shirley John Shirley is now in his relatively contented mid-forties and many of the scars no longer show. The pain, anger, and righteous indignation are usually sublimated to fuel his incandescent talent for storytelling. But after more than two decades of being considered as one of the boldest, edgiest writers around, he's still out there on the front lines, the barb wire cutting edge of fiction -- sometimes ranging into frontiers the rest of us can't even sense until he guides us there.

Critical acclaim for his recent collection of dark short stories, Black Butterflies: A Flock on the Dark Side(Mark V. Ziesing) -- named one of the Best Books of 1998 by Publishers Weekly and in contention for genre awards (one story included in the book has already copped an International Horror Award for Best Short Story of 1997) -- has refueled awareness that this is one damned hot writer. A mass market edition of his cult horror classic Wetbones (Leisure) will be out next spring. A new edition of the cyberpunk sf novel, Eclipse (Alexander Publishing) is set for early next year. Yet another collection, Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories (Night Shade) will be out next spring with ten new stories and about two dozen others -- a wild and headily diverse offering of his strangest of the strange and weirdest of the weird.

For the last eight years or so, Shirley has been devoting most of his time to screenwriting, "I've always written cinematically -- that is, I was always trying to make pictures in the minds of readers. I even unconsciously wrote 'directorially' at times. My fiction was as much influenced by John Ford and John Boorman and Nicholas Roeg and Fellini as by Dashiell Hammett or Richard Stark or Edgar Allan Poe. I was conscious that the reader's mind provides the best special effects at no cost whatsoever! Also if i could get them to pay attention I could take people into areas they wouldn't normally go into -- I could take horror fans into surrealism, science fiction fans into expressionism, crime story fans into something like cinema verité."

book cover Shirley's best-known screen credit is The Crow. "I was the guy who found the comic book and realized it was a movie. I took it to Jeff Most and he and I took it to Ed Pressman and I was then attached as writer. Dave Schow is the other writer on it and he did a great job, of course." He also wrote the novel series (under a pseudonym) that the Sylvester Stallone/Sharon Stone film The Specialist was based on and has sold other scripts that are in the L.A. production limbo well-known to most screenwriters.

"I've written a fair amount of television," he adds. "Among other things I wrote episodes for Max Headroom, Poltergeist, some Star Trek, an episode of Profit... I wrote a TV movie for Showtime -- three stories in a frame -- called Primal Scream which they re-named Twists of Terror -- that aired recently."

Like his fiction, his screen work often veers away from the more traditional tropes of horror. The Hollywood Reporter noted in its review of Twists that "the three well-crafted short movies don't rely on conventional horror -- no heavily made-up monsters, aliens or even garden-variety psychos. Instead...[they] rest on fears we all know well....Each of the tales offers credible, suspenseful tension and a genuine surprise twist."

Twists can also be termed noir/suspense and Shirley is currently developing his collection New Noir as a cable series as well as adapting a British science fiction comic about rebellious future mutants,Strontium Dog, for Showtime.

But Shirley hasn't kept his literary career on complete stand-by in the 90s, "It was natural for me to jump to the screen -- but it would be unnatural for me to stop writing fiction altogether. that would be like ceasing to play music." (We'll get to the music part.) Dozens of short stories have appeared primarily in anthologies; the soon-to-be-reissued novel Wetbones first came out in late 1991; three collections -- New Noir, Exploded Heart, and the recent Black Butterflies, joined an earlier collection, Heatseeker; a new edition of what was originally the first true cyberpunk novel City Come A -Walkin' came out; and gonzo-spiritual SF novel Silicon Embrace (1996) became the fourteenth novel published under his own name. (The 80s saw another ten or so pseudonymous novels.)

In his literary work, Shirley often uses pop cultural symbols to create dark metaphors for the message he wants to deliver; to, as he has said, "trick people into thinking the unthinkable." Using narrative, humor, and social satire to draw readers into "higher questions" of the metaphysical, spiritual, sociological, and political. His stories are disquieting and entertaining at the same time.

"I think it's possible to entertain people into something like social lateral thinking," he explains, "so they think sympathetically about people they'd normally dismiss, which humanizes people who may be otherwise labeled misfits or criminals -- which opens up possibilities for compassion, communication."

Music, as he mentioned, would also be impossible for him to abandon completely and it is also a cultural element essential to his writing. William Gibson once wrote, "Sometimes reading Shirley, I can hear the guitars, like there's some monstrous subliminal wall-o'-sound chewing at the edges of the text." The author fronted punk rock bands in the 80s and still performs and records (as he did with The Panther Moderns on his CD Red Star) when possible. Occasionally his characters are musicians themselves, he often mentions songs or quotes lyrics (including his own written for his bands and for songs recorded by Blue Öyster Cult). In The Exploded Heart he provided not only relentlessly frank autobiographical links to the stories, but detailed what he was listening to at the time he wrote them. His preface to the upcoming ...Really Weird Stories includes a list of the music he listened to as he compiled the volume.

Shirley sees writing as musical in itself, "Prose is musical, dialogue is musical, story pacing is rhythmic. they mutate into each other, inspire one another. But also the contemporary music scene expresses so much more honestly than television and movies do (usually) what troubles people, what they feel, what they long for. so in sort of reflecting that scene in fiction you also reflect its insights and honesty."

Shirley's novels have ranged from science fiction to horror to magic realism to surrealism to action and back again. Many of Shirley's earlier short stories were science fictional, whereas in the 90s he has written primarily darker stories, sometimes with elements of the supernatural and surreal, but often are reality-based.

"At this point, I suppose I prefer to write primarily in "real" world as that is strange enough in itself, horrifying enough if one is looking for horrifying, and also carries its own innate freight of symbolism. Supernatural stories are generally symbolic of something -- Dracula, for example, of suppressed sexuality, Victorian frustrations, class issues. Mystics see symbolism in every moment of real life, as if each given moment of choice and encounter is framed in its own ad hoc Tarot card. I am not a postmodernist, in the sense of those intellectuals who challenge the ability of writing to convey truth; I like writing that rings true, like Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy. But it may indeed resonate on levels below the surface 'realism.' I like to call these stories 'supernatural surrealism,' but it may give the impression that the stories are not coherent, which isn't true at all."

Shirley's noted as a writer of intensity, sometimes writing extremely enough "so that story wouldn't fit into the usual categories and so it would reach people attracted to the fertileness of the cultural fringe and would resonant with what was going on in the underground where the freshest inspiration always is."

No matter how dark the stories and intense Shirley's work is, there is also a consistent spiritual slant to it. ."How far can a writer take a reader down and still show them that there's 'a power underneath despair,' that there's a way out of the most hopeless places? And even if there isn't a way out there's some kind of redemption. Some characters are people I've known and seen and other characters represent dark sides of myself. There are lots of selves in us until we grow into some sort of internal unity -- which is the best state to be in. and getting there requires self examination, self knowledge, 'know thyself'."

The need for self-knowledge as well as much of the "street credibility" of Shirley's work comes from a life he frankly admits was not one of pristine restraint. "What one generation calls weird another calls originality," he says. "It is possible to reveal the bizarre in the mundane, the earthy in the supposedly weird. I don't take drugs; I never needed them for inspiration and never wrote on them, but I went through periods of using drugs -- to my personal detriment -- and later often write about things I saw in those periods for the simple reason that what is normally hidden is revealed, exposed, in people who are loaded -- at least sometimes. They can be deceptive too, especially when they make it a lifestyle. (How do you know an addict is lying? His lips are moving.) But extreme situations of all kinds shatter the armatures of deception. Writers are after truth."

Shirley's search for the truth has led him to a relatively quiet life in the Bay Area of San Francisco. "I have always been drawn to peace at the center of chaos; like an eye in the hurricane. I've always cultivated that 'eye'. I do not assume that the values of an artistic personality are 'righter' than those of a church-going Methodist mowing his suburban lawn. Not at all. I'm interested in seeing across the spectrum, and I have a profound respect for the wisdom of simple people who, of course, are not simple at all."

It's obvious that John Shirley is not easy to slip into a convenient niche as a human being, let alone as an author. Publishing realities these days usually require authors to have easy-to-market labels. They are commodities to sell in a blaring, crowded emporium of entertainment that offers a myriad of choices to the consumer. Shirley was labeled primarily as a science fiction writer in the 80s, even though he was also publishing horror novels. Now, at the end of the 90s, even with Black Butterflies gaining notice as modern horror and a gig as a Guest of Honor at the World Horror Convention next March, the horror label doesn't fit well either. Shirley's work is usually dark, but certainly indefinable.

"Labels only confuse people," he feels. "The smarter people recognize artists who transcend categories. But I always try to entertain. It's in my nature; writers are born to entertain. If that means working ostensibly within a genre, fine.

With both his writing and his life, Shirley seeks to "open a few eyes including my own."

John Shirley's still out there trying not to wonder where the crosshairs are centered, climbing from the rancid, moldering trenches into the sloppy, sweltering heat of life, writing and getting his words out to the public. Sometimes wounded, nowadays occasionally lauded for bravery in combat and meritorious service, he's still ripping himself loose from the barb wire, tucking his guts back in, stitching himself up, sublimating the pain, and firing straight into the face of complacency.

The Official John Shirley Web Site

NOTE: There is a another interview with John Shirley from April of 1998 on this site as well. The original DarkEcho interview (December 1995) can be found on the Shirley Web site as well as periodic updates.

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