You recently released a new novel that has received favorable reviews. Tell the readers about this novel, when it was released and the storyline.
The new edition of Blood Related was released a year ago. It is essentially a serial-killer/crime novel told in a first-person narrative style from the killer's point-of-view. Guy N Smith described it as a "thought provoking thriller," Mark Edward Hall called it a "terrifying psychological thriller," so I guess it is primarily a thriller novel although a few of my readers describe it as Horror fiction.
Blood Related takes the reader deep inside the twisted psyche of serial-killer, Caleb Cunningham, as his life begins to unravel. A series of violent events unfold, beginning with the suicide of his father, the murder of his girlfriend (Lucille) by his jealous twin brother, followed by the death of said brother Charlie at the hands of Ray Truman, the rogue cop hell-bent on burying the Cunningham family one way or another. Truman is tasked with identifying and apprehending the Portvale Serial Killer/s. Truman’s life is a mess, his cop-wife has been shot and killed, he’s back on the bottle and is eventually suspended from police-duties due to exhaustion. Consumed with the failed investigations into two unsolved serial–homicide inquiries, Truman struggles with his own demons, focusing all his time and energy on the investigations. As he gets closer to his prey, Truman uncovers details of his own father’s life as a police officer and his pursuit of Cunningham Snr (The Grandfather). Looking closer at the Cunningham family, namely Charlie and Caleb, Ray’s suspicions grow and he realizes even though he knows who is responsible for the brutal murders, lack of evidence means that he will either have to catch the killer single-handedly, or continue to watch the body-count climb.
Is this your first novel involving a serial killer situation? Where did the inspiration for writing it come from?
It is my first published story depicting serial killers. Blood Related combined a lifelong interest in the macabre with a lot of research into true crime and serial killers. I can trace my interest in this morbid subject to an event in my life when I was younger, whereby my best friend shot another friend of mine (his ex-girlfriend) and then killed himself. Obviously, this would leave a lasting impression on most people as it did to me. Subsequently I began to wonder why a large percentage of humans treat each other so badly and have a tendency towards self-destructive and nihilistic behavior. This led to my research about abnormal psychiatric/psychological theory, psychopathology and, ultimately, serial murder cases.
Being that your novel is penned from the killer’s point of view, how would you describe his view of the other main characters and the world around him?
The reader experiences the world through the vision and thoughts of Caleb Cunningham, a psychopathic killer. I endeavored to create as realistically as possible the viewpoint of such a person. He views the world and those around him clinically and through the lens of his psychopathology in that others are either targets or incidental. As the story progresses, his viewpoint changes as his deviant desires consume him and his mental health slips into a psychotic state (as opposed to a sociopathic/psychopathic one). It was difficult to portray such a killer realistically as well as making him interesting enough to sustain the reader’s attention throughout the novel. These guys are terribly banal and single-minded in their pursuit of pleasure and the realization of their fantasies. It’s what makes them so terrible in my view – their sheer boring normalcy and it is a reason why they get away with killing many people because they blend in so well and seem just like an ‘average Joe (or Joanne).
Are there any real-life experiences you read about that the characters or storyline is based on in part? Were you studying serial killers as research for Caleb Cunningham?
There are plenty of non-fiction and fictional books that deal with the subject of serial murder and during the research I conducted for BR, a perceptible ‘canon’ of such literature dating all the way back to Gutenberg and beyond (The Bible/Quran etc.) became apparent to me. As mentioned above, there were a few instances and plenty of true-crime books that led me to becoming interested in what drives these murderers to commit multiple homicide. Apart from being of interest for research purposes, serial killer fiction has also intrigued me as a reader and some of the first ‘adult’ books I ever read as a young teenager dealt with the subject. Probably the two biggest influences on my writing of BR were Colin Wilson’s ‘The Killer’ and James Ellroy’s brutal ‘Killer on the Road.’ I guess Caleb Cunningham is an amalgam of all the cases I have researched and the characters I have read about over the years. For a complete list of all the non-fiction books and case-studies that I read and that influenced the writing of Blood Related, see this link: http://bloodrelated.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/non-fiction-books-about-serial-killers/
Besides the books you listed above, did you refer to authors on the subjects of psychiatric/psychological theory, psychopathology and serial murders while researching your novel? Who did you read the most?
There are authors who have written more on the subject than others so their names often come up on more than one occasion. Authors like John Douglas, Ann Rule, Harold Schechter, Michael Newton, David Canter and Colin Wilson all have multiple titles on the subject of serial murder psychopathology and case-studies. I also read a lot of psychiatric/psychological medical textbooks that detailed the various psychopathologies of criminal offenders and different states of psychotic behaviors. These were very useful in building the psychological portrait of Caleb Cunningham, especially when he was transitioning from a psychopathic personality type to a full-blown psychotic profile of someone struggling to control their mental illness. Hopefully, by way of recourse to these texts and clinical case-studies, I made the character a little more believable and frightening as a result.
How much more believable is your main character than most others, as a result of your extensive author research?
I’m not sure really but I have had plenty of readers say that they thought it was a ‘true crime’ story, i.e. that it is a factual account. So in this respect I guess I’ve done my job as I worked hard to create as realistic a portrayal of the psychopathology of a serial killer, alongside the more fictional tropes and aspects of the novel which are completely fantastical and creatively licensed. In regards to the believability of the protagonist; as a construct, Caleb is an amalgam of non-fiction characterizations of serial killers so in this respect he is a pastiche of different aspects of these murderers. It was very hard to construct his character without him becoming a cliché. Serial killer fiction is awash with such (clichéd) representations, so I hope that readers might appreciate the efforts I have gone to in portraying a character that straddles both literary domains (i.e. fiction and non-fiction). Astute readers should be able to pick up on the inferences and traits that Caleb’s character pulls from true crime, hopefully, while still being able to read Blood Related wholly as a fictional work.
How easily do you believe characters in serial killer fiction become clichéd? How are you usually able to tell?
I’m probably guilty of doing this for the sake of placing some of my stories within the genre of serial killer fiction by the use of certain tropes. Once again, the influence of factual reporting props up a lot of the myths that become clichés within the fictional genre. Like the following long held assumptions that all serial killers are white, middle class, highly intelligent and diabolically cunning male enigmas who only kill within their own cultural realms. When in fact the majority of serial killers are rather banal, average individuals who blend in well because of their perceived normalcy. There are many instances of killers from all ethnic backgrounds and growing instances of those who murder outside of their own ethnicity and who modify their ‘signature’ styles at will. A sure sign of a clichéd serial killer is that that are ‘insane’, of ‘genius’ intellect and almost super-human in their ability to avoid capture and death. The other oft-quoted trope is to have the serial killer portrayed as someone who has a mother-fixation or an Oedipus complex ala Norman Bates.
There have been many programs and documentaries about serial killers on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. Did you likewise get a chance to watch those as part of your research?
Like the books, I’ve watched just about every serial killer film and documentary that is available on the subject. Films like Maniac (Lustig, 1980), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Silence of the Lambs etc. were all very useful in placing my novel within a visual/fictional framework but the documentaries provided the background soundtrack if you will to my textual studies on the subject. I found myself switching between film, documentaries, fictional texts and non-fiction works just to give myself a break from getting too bogged down due to the depressive nature of the subject matter. After doing so much research I found myself becoming desensitized to the material – the repetitive nature of the crimes and the deviancies, while sickening and repellant, become almost banal and clichéd after a while. The victims become numbers on the page – the sheer volume of their victims make it nearly impossible to remember their individual names after a while and so they lose their humanity and become objectified, much in the same way as they do by the perpetrators. It is very hard to watch and read these cases without becoming inured to the violence and switching off that part of the brain, that would otherwise feel sadness and sympathy for the poor victims of these killers, in order to continue reading the material. Towards the end of writing Blood Related, I realized that my interest in the subject had abated quite markedly In that my initial fascination with these freaks had been replaced with a numb disgust and feeling of ‘dirtiness’ that I found hard to get rid of. It was like I had stained my mind with the amount of things I had watched and read. While it taught me lots about how to portray serial killers in fiction, it also gave me an understanding of the darkness that lurks in most humans – especially the male of our species – and that that darkness is only an action away. It seems that before their first murder, most of these people (and yes, scarily, they are human – not monsters or supernatural entities, but flesh and blood like you or I) fought to control their thoughts and fantasies, but it was that first event or experience combined with their psychological disposition and social/cultural experience that made them decide or choose to kill their first victim. Once they made their first kill, the others followed with increasing ease and repetition. It is almost as though they had decided that because they had committed murder once, that they were damned beyond reprieve so they may as well commit more, i.e. you can only go to hell once or ‘the first cut is the deepest’ type of mentality. Most of them are sane by legal definition – they have free will, they know that what they are doing is morally wrong yet they just don’t care. It’s as though they are repeating their first murder like a mistake or an act that gets replayed over and over again in their minds and subsequently in reality. The ones that killed because of obvious psychiatric illness such as paranoid schizophrenia, were very rare and these cases were the most disturbing as everyone seemed to be victims in these cases. The victims themselves of course, but also the killers (who were often tortured and abused horribly as children and completely beyond help by the time they killed) and then all the associated people involved with the cases – the police and medical staff etc. Completely horrible.
Fortunately the difference is that you are writing fiction as opposed to actually “doing it” so to speak. Having done all that research do you think that fiction can influence people negatively, or does art imitate life?
I think that any type of art that depicts and expresses forms of human violence and aberration is just that – an expression or commentary on such things. Whether or not it influences people to run out and murder people is beside the point – art does not cause life, it is created from life (and death). It is the same as asking whether cars can cause people to have road accidents, or blaming alcohol for people’s drunken behavior – a line can always be drawn from one thing to another. It is human nature to try and connect the dots, especially in relation to tragic events and hard-to-explain human behaviors. For example, Mark Chapman the man who killed John Lennon tried to cite JD Salinger’s ‘Catcher In The Rye’ as his ‘statement’ on the murder. Whether or not he believed it, it is an excuse for his actions. If indeed it was so influential and did contribute to people killing others, the millions of other impressionable readers around the world would be participating in blood baths as we speak. People commit atrocious murders in the name of religion every day and probably always will. If anything I believe that these types of works can provide a vent for people who might otherwise express themselves in action, rather than living vicariously through the words on the page. Of course, people who are the type who go on to become serial killers, terrorists, and murderers etc. will always be attracted to representations of the type of violence they would fantasize about committing themselves. Like all forms of art, it is there for people to be entertained as much as it can be interpreted as literal instruction by a person who is mentally unbalanced or looking for triggers for their behavior. Personally speaking, as a writer, if I did not write these types of stories then I do feel that my life could have taken a darker turn if I couldn’t express myself with words and/or art. Emotions will always be affected by sensory input – i.e. if it is scary, a person will feel scared; if it is sad, they could become upset; if it is violent, they might possibly get violent ideas. Whether someone acts on these outside influences or not, determines how influential anything that triggers an emotional response is to the self. Ultimately, the decision to be cajoled into committing any act of violence or action, is a subjective one and comes down to personal decision making. For example, a guard at a prison camp can refuse to execute a prisoner, even though he may be shot himself. If he goes through with it (shooting the prisoner), even if he is pushed with the threat of death, it is his decision as hard as it may be. Under such circumstances, the law would dictate he was culpable of manslaughter perhaps because the decision he made was not an involuntary one, in that he had free-will to say no. In this respect, I guess the ethical question comes down to a semantic and philosophical conceit that has no answer that will ever really suffice the two sides to the debate. Simply put, I believe that art is more likely to imitate life in the form of expression (‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’) than life ever truly representing art but who can really say – think ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario.
Your point about Mark Chapman and Catcher In The Rye can also be said about people blaming heavy metal for suicide. One interviewee said long ago that if a band’s fans all committed suicide there would be no one to buy their albums or see them on tour. How do you view that controversy?
Same as above really – there will always be damaged people who identify and latch onto works (fictional and otherwise) that they feel epitomize their own experience. As long as there are horrible violent acts, people will always look for external sources of blame. It directly relates to the often used point of debate – the nature versus nurture argument. In this respect, nurture being the aspect people cite as the source of blame for criminal action. Funny how the media (tabloid journalism) is usually the loudest proponent of this debate – obviously there is a lot more mileage and sensationalism in drawing lines between people’s behavior and sordid aspects of their past or circumstance that can be emphasized to push political agendas (especially around election times). In my opinion, rather than looking directly at the individual and blaming their stupidity or selfishness as the root cause for their actions, the media tends to propagate the myth that external sources are responsible (common reasons include child abuse, poverty, addiction, and social status) due largely to political and cultural biases. That is, of the associations and affiliations of the different medias/publication – they all have their own mandates. Whether or not these factors influence these people’s actions become irrelevant when compared to others with the same upbringings and influences who never commit crimes or acts like the ones the media focusses on.
At least two of the books on your list are about serial killer Ted Bundy. What about him do you find intriguing enough to study indepth?
Out of all the cases I studied, his proved the most interesting. As a serial murderer he is somewhat of an enigma in his place in the history of serial homicide. Aside from his prolificacy, he was extremely mobile and managed to elude authorities for a long while, leaving behind him an almost mythological trail of beautiful victims, violence and tragedy in his wake. The way he carried out his crimes and the methods he employed have been well documented and detailed in many case-studies and books. The fact that he was such a normal looking person, but yet was so twisted and deviant internally is what intrigues me most about his character. Despite having movie-star good lucks and charisma that helped him attract victims and elude suspicion, he practiced necrophilia, BDSM, fetishism, mutilation, etc. – a complete walking contradiction in terms. Most people have been led to believe, mistakenly, that serial killers are all highly intelligent, white, and capable of almost super-human feats of cunning and cruelty – most aren’t, they are physically ugly, boringly mediocre individuals who lead very mundane and pathetic lives, but Bundy seemed to encapsulate all those stereotypical sensationalized aspects that the media have perpetuated and mythologized repeatedly. Indeed, it is probably largely due to his looming presence in the timeline history of serial murder, that this myth of stereotype has been perpetuated for so long on an unsuspecting public. The other factor in Bundy’s mystique and allure as a figure of interest that stands out from the countless cases and killers, is that the accounts of his crimes have been written about comprehensively and perhaps provide the most complete portrait of a serial killer. Ann Rule’s fascinating semi-autobiographical account of her friendship with Bundy when they worked together on a crisis hotline, proved the starting point for my research into these killers. It was such an interesting work in that it posited many questions and answers as to why he did what he did and how he came to be one of the world’s most notorious serial killers, that it led me to expand my research into these deviants. In this respect, I guess the Bundy case has been my gateway into the bizarre world of serial killers. Damn him to hell!
I noticed there was one book you credited about the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez who I have read interviews with and saw some documentaries about. Describe the book on your list and how much information it has?
The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo is a fantastic true-crime expose on one of the most notorious serial killers, Richard Ramirez. It is fascinating in the revelations about the central figure and his bizarre life and upbringing. He was somewhat of an enigma as a serial killer in that he didn’t have a distinctive M.O. (modus operandi) or signature style to his murders apart from the brutality and savage violence he inflicted on a range of different victims. It has a wealth of information about Ramirez and is well-written as is another of Carlo’s biographical true-crime books – The Ice Man about hit-man serial killer Richard Kuklinski. Carlo uses interviews with these killers and delves deep into their childhoods, crimes and psychology to paint a picture of serial murder that, in my opinion, are some of the best works on the subject in terms of their information and coverage of different aspects.
Tell the readers about the book you recently published about the poems of Jim Morrison (The Doors), Gaze Into The Abyss.
I first heard The Doors when I was about thirteen years old and the power and imagery of Morrison’s lyrics blew me away, After seeing Apocalypse Now with the over-dubbed version of The End I knew that I had to delve deeper into the music and lyrics which led me to the poetry of Jim Morrison. The first book of his I read was The Lords & New Creatures. After that I was hooked as I am a big poetry fan, especially of the poetry of the sixties and seventies around the beat generation era of which Morrison might be included. I found his poetry to be interesting and some of his better works reminiscent of celebrated poets like Jerome Rothenberg and Allen Ginsburg. The book actually started out as a Bachelor of Arts honors thesis but evolved over time as I added new material and analysis to it. What led me to write the thesis and, eventually, the book, was after reading Wallace Fowlie’s book ‘Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet,’ I was disappointed that he had written a work that glossed over Morrison’s poetry and didn’t really give it a close reading at all. Instead, his book seemed to dwell on the myth surrounding Morrison and making rather feeble attempts to compare him with the French symbolist poet, Rimbaud. Seeing the potential in a book that looked closely at Morrison’s poetry rather than the myth of the man, I set about writing and researching his work, the result of which is ‘Gaze Into the Abyss: The Poetry of Jim Morrison.’ I was lucky enough to get some fantastic endorsements from the likes of Doors photographer and confidante, Paul Ferrara and Doors biographer, James Riordan. The book was published by small American boutique press, New Street Communications.
You edited a recently released anthology of horror fiction entitled Fresh Fear: An Anthology of Macabre Horror. Are you in touch with all the writers involved? Explain how this anthology was compiled and published.
Most of the contributors were sourced through Facebook and the writing and genre-interest groups that I’m involved with. It took a lot of networking and detective work to track down contact details for some of the bigger names I wanted to include in the anthology. I have been a fan of Ramsey Campbell’s for a long time and consider him the premier U.K. writer of horror, so it was important for me to try and secure one of his stories for the publication. Thankfully he agreed to sell me the rights to one of his stories (Wonderland’) and it was one that I had read before and felt was a good fit for the anthology. Most of the bigger names were approachable; some more generous than others but most willing to part with stories (mainly reprints) for pro-rates if they didn’t feel the contributor rates were applicable. Jack Dann allowed me the use of his wonderfully frightening story ‘Camps’ and is one of the nicest and most generous authors I’ve met. I feel very honored to have communicated with some of my favorite authors (albeit via electronic/virtual means) with this anthology and for that reason alone I feel it was worth the cost overall; it also proved a real boost to some of the up-and-coming authors to appear in an anthology alongside the likes of Campbell, Dann, Gonzalez, Mosiman, Dunbar et al.
Putting together the anthology was a very time-consuming affair. It took the better-part of eight months to read, review, select and edit the stories once contracted with the respective authors. I kept the submission call brief and in retrospect probably should’ve been more specific to narrow the amount of submissions and the focus but ultimately I think that it is as strong anthology with a good cross-section of new and established talent represented. The only real criterion I had in mind when selecting the stories for Fresh Fear was that they had to contain the element of fear somehow. I leant slightly towards ‘quiet’ horror when and if it was of a high enough standard but the end result was a really diverse range of stories, ranging from quite hard-core horror to more subtle narratives. One commonality that emerged from the huge pile of submissions was the amount of stories set in post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds; so I did become aware that the influx of these kind of stories had to be whittled down to give the reader a more diverse reading experience, as was my original intention.
The first edition of Fresh Fear was published by small indie press James Ward Kirk Fiction who did a good job and helped get it out into the world. When the contract lapsed I realized I had the opportunity to reinvigorate the collection with some amazing photography supplied by talented French photographer, Louis Blanc. I had also made new contacts at that stage who would help me restructure the interior with new formatting and graphics layout etcetera. Cyrus from Cyrusfiction Productions did a great job with the print and digital lay-out and formatting (as he does for all my books), and I would have no hesitation in recommending him for similar work. So, overall, I am very pleased with the new edition and I hope that it will provide maximum exposure for the newer talents and honor the stories from all the contributors including the more established authors. Fresh Fear is the first anthology I’ve edited. I always wanted to create my own horror anthology as I’m a big fan of them, having falling in love early on with the Pan (Herbert Van Thal ed.) and Fontana collections of the late 70s and early 80s. It is how I, and I suspect, most other readers of horror have discovered new talents and writers of the genre and continue to do so. My interest stems from my love and fascination with the genre and I hope that I get the chance to edit more over the following years. I have always wanted to put together a very eclectic classical horror anthology with the best illustrations to accompany the selection of my favorite stories. My dream illustrator would have to be either Les Edwards, Michael Whelan, or Dave Kendall. One day.
How much of your published material have you distributed through James Ward Kirk Fiction altogether?
I have not published much lately with James Ward Kirk Fiction as my focus has shifted to other markets. In the past, however, I have had a lot of short fiction and two collections published by James. James Kirk has been an inspirational and motivational figure in indie genre fiction publishing for a few years now, with a particular interest in horror fiction. Like many other indie authors, I got some of my first publishing breaks via James and his significant anthology series so for this I am grateful. I also used to design book covers for JWK titles.
Is there anything in particular the readers of this zine would be interested in about your past publications, such as Creep, Death Quartet, Burnt Offering et cetera? Feel free to mention any fiction piece you want.
Well, my collection ‘Dreams of Thanatos: Collected Macabre Tales’ could be of interest to some of your readers. This book is a selection of some of my best work up until 2015 and comprises fifteen short stories including ‘Dead and Buried’ (a novelette). I am currently giving away free kindle copies to my website visitors who take a moment to subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter. http://www.williamcookwriter.com/p/subscribe-now.html
Do you have plans to write new novels for future publication? Any new ideas in mind at the time of this writing?
I am hoping to finish the sequel to Blood Related by the year’s end. It has been over two years in the making and should hopefully tie-up the end-story nicely. I also have nearly finished the second volume of my non-fiction book series – ‘Secrets of Best-Selling Self-Published Authors,’ which should be available by the end of August all going well. As soon as these two books are published I will be writing new novels in a range of genres. I am also a quarter of the way into a new fiction novel titled ‘A Life Deferred’ which I guess is what might be called a literary fiction work. I’m quite pleased with the way it is going and finding it challenging to step outside my preferred genre of horror. As to the future, my plan is to publish a new novel at least once yearly from this point on. While I enjoy writing short fiction I love the scope of a novel-length works with a particular interest in crime/thriller fiction and supernatural (quiet) horror. For interested readers, please subscribe to my newsletter to stay in touch (and download your free copy of my collection, ‘Dreams of Thanatos’) and check out my books on Amazon. Thanks for the interview, Dave – it’s been fun.