Alan Baxter interview by Matt Redmon
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian multi-award-winning author of horror, supernatural thrillers, and dark fantasy. He’s also a martial arts expert, a whisky-soaked swear monkey, and dog lover. He creates dark, weird stories among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, where he lives with his wife, son, hound and other creatures. He is the author of the dark fantasy thriller trilogy, Bound, Obsidian and Abduction (The Alex Caine Series), the supernatural duology, RealmShift and MageSign (The Balance 1 and 2), the horror noir novel, Hidden City, the cosmic horror novella, The Book Club, and the supernatural noir novella, Manifest Recall, and the wildly popular gonzo horror novella, The Roo. His latest novel is Devouring Dark, an urban horror thriller. Alan has had around 80 short fiction publications in journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK, France, Germany and Japan, including The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and many others, and around thirty anthologies. Alan has two volumes of collected short fiction, Crow Shine and Served Cold. At times, Alan collaborates with US action/adventure bestselling author, David Wood. Together they have co-authored the short horror novel, Dark Rite, four action thrillers in The Jake Crowley Adventures, and the Sam Aston Investigations giant monster thrillers Primordial and Overlord. Alan has been an eight-time finalist in the Aurealis Awards, a eight-time finalist in the Australian Shadows Awards and a seven-time finalist in the Ditmar Awards. From those shortlistings he won the 2014 Australian Shadows Award for Best Short Story (“Shadows of the Lonely Dead”), the 2015 Australian Shadows Paul Haines Award For Long Fiction (“In Vaulted Halls Entombed”), the 2016 Australian Shadows Award for Best Collection (Crow Shine), and the 2019 Australian Shadows Award for Best Collection (Served Cold). He is also a past winner of the AHWA Short Story Competition (“It’s Always the Children Who Suffer”). Alan’s first collection, Crow Shine, also made the preliminary ballot for the 2016 Bram Stoker Award (TM) for Best Collection. Read extracts from his novels and novellas, and find free short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.
Matt Redmon for Night Worms: Hey, Alan. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
Alan Baxter: Hey Matt, good to talk to you.
MR: I've enjoyed reading your books and most recently finished Recall Night, which is the second book in the Eli Carver series. Can you tell me what your inspirations for Eli were?
AB: The inspiration was more in the situation at first. I love that noir style of storytelling, that southern gothic vibe, and I wanted to write a classic "cult of the hard man" character for that sort of setting. Like a Spenser or Jack Reacher, but with a more up to date sensibility. So I tried to find that balance of tough guy mobster, but ethically and morally aware, more socially aware, so he's not just some misogynist or bigot. I've had fun developing that character and Eli has really started to grow on me. Which is interesting, because he's really not a good guy. But he is trying to be!
MR: How much of your own fighting experience is part of Eli?
AB: I train and teach a very traditional Chinese style of kung fu, but our style is very much application-based. No flowery moves for no reason. If I can't explain what a technique is used for, I won't teach it. So I've always had a strongly fighting-oriented approach to martial arts and did a lot of competition fighting back in the day. Lots of other fighting too, but my lawyers tell me not to talk about that. So my own fighting experience is front and centre of all the fight scenes I write. In the Alex Caine Series, Alex was a fighter with a history of traditional training more like mine, and all the martial philosophy that goes with it. Eli is a street-fighter, a badass, so he goes with what works and what gives maximum damage. His training and style reflect that. It's fun to put him in ever-increasing danger and watch him fight his way out. I've just started work on book 3 and he's already had a couple of short and brutal dust-ups, so I'm having fun.
MR: I think that experience comes through in the writing. They really capture that feeling of the chaos of the fight without being chaotic to read. Does that make sense? Like a lot of literary fight scenes, it can get difficult to keep things straight or they become bogged down in detail so much the action slows down.
AB: Absolutely. This is such a big deal for me that I wrote a short book about it and I've run a writing fight scenes workshop dozens of times, at everything from local libraries to Worldcon! A fight scene needs to be the most intense, visceral part of a book, like a fight itself, and too much description destroys that. The trick is to trust your reader's intelligence, and give them enough to fill in the blanks. Obviously, understanding how fights actually feel is a great advantage there.
MR: You mentioned a third book, which is very exciting. I look forward to hearing details about it. Feel free to share any details but I understand it may be too early.
AB: There is a third Eli Carver book under way. The publisher and I are keen to make this an ongoing series. It's interesting that early reviews of book two are often saying "NOT ENOUGH GHOSTS!" which I totally understand, but that's sort of the point. In Manifest Recall, Eli gets his ghosts and struggles with everything to do with his "rebirth". In Recall Night, he's trying to build a new path, trying to find his own way, and he does his best to ignore the ghosts the whole time. But people wanting more from the ghosts will be happy with book three, because this is where Eli says, "Right, you're all still here. What the fuck is really going on?" In book three he turns to face his ghosts and the whole messed up relationship evolves to a new level. I can't really say more about it than that right now, but there will be surprises.
MR: I love hearing that the Eli Carver series will continue and evolve. I'm really excited to see where it goes from here.
AB: Me too. I'm having a lot of fun with the start of book three. I hope to write several more, and maybe they'll get a bit longer too.
MR: Let's talk about Eli's ghosts. Eli is haunted by some people from his past that often taunt him from the sidelines. It's something that makes Eli feel unique in the world of, as you put it, "the cult of the hard man" so what made you want to make Eli literally haunted by ghosts?
AB: Why did I want him literally haunted by ghosts? It's metaphorical in many ways, which is always the beauty of story. We all have our ghosts - our regrets or personal shame or wishful thinking, and so on. I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan and I think The Final Cut is one of their best albums. There's a song on it called "Your Possible Pasts" and the opening line has always resonated with me so strongly: "They flutter behind you, your possible pasts / Some bright-eyed and crazy, some frightened and lost." So with Eli Carver, what if those possible pasts, or some of them, were literally embodied and literally followed him around? That's the seed of his character.
MR: Let's talk about your next book. You've teased on social media recently a collection of novellas called The Gulp. What can you tell us about that?
AB: With The Gulp I've been having a lot of fun. Despite seven novels, two short story collections, and several novellas, it seems that a lot of people only know me for The Roo, my gonzo creature feature novella. I'm so stunned by how well received that book has been, it's an absolute joy to watch. And it showed me there's an audience out there for weird Australian horror. Now I'm a huge fan of small town horror, and cosmic horror, and I love the Innsmouth-type setting where sea and land meet. So I've had this idea in mind for a long time to write a bunch of weird, old school horror stories set in a fictional remote Australian harbour town. But I'd never got into it because I thought it was maybe a little too niche! But The Roo has shown me that maybe there is an audience no matter how niche the subject, so I thought fuck it, I want to write these stories. So I did. The result, so far, is The Gulp - five novellas, all loosely interconnected, set in the fictional town of Gulpepper, that the locals call The Gulp, because it has a habit of swallowing people. I'll be leaking more teasers about each story over the next few weeks. If the book does well enough, I'm keen to set more stories and maybe even a novel there, so fingers crossed people get behind it. But that's about all I can say at the moment.
MR: I'm glad you're deciding to write the stories you want regardless of niche because The Gulp sounds incredible! I love the idea of an Outback Innsmouth. What's your process like for writing connected novellas like that? Are you the “planning it all out ahead of time” sort, or a “let the story write itself” sort?
AB: Not so much outback, as that's the remote inland of Aus. The Gulp is remote New South Wales south coast. Australia is a big place, with not too many people, so lots of scope for weird little towns! As for the process, I had ideas for several stories, without being too sure where they were each going to go, but I did have a kind of ending in mind. To connect the stories, it's mostly characters returning here and there, events overlapping slightly, stuff like that. I tend to have a few key points in mind when I start to write and then let the story go where it will. I love that process of discovery.
MR: You mentioned The Roo, a creature feature of a murderous kangaroo. Were you to write another creature feature book, what monster would you want to write about? Any local cryptids besides freaking jacked kangaroos?
AB: It's a good question. People keep telling me what to write next - do drop bears! do wombats! do a killer emu book! - but I don't know, man. I had a lot of fun with The Roo and it's doing really well. I might do another creature feature one day if I get the inspiration. It can't be just the monster, of course. I need a good story to go around the mayhem. But never say never. We'll see what happens.
MR: I want to take a bit of time to hit on the Jake Crowley series that you co-write with David Wood. The second book in that series, Anubis Key, is one of the most fun reading experiences I've had in years. I found myself laughing from joy several times. For those that don't know, the series follows adventurers Jake Crowley and Rose Black as they race around the world to solve a mystery. It reminds me of a dark version of the Indiana Jones but without the whip. Can you talk about this series? Will it continue? What's the research like to put together such a history heavy book? My apologies for gushing over this series but are they just so much fun to write?
AB: Those books, and the Sam Aston books that I also write with David Wood, are a heap of fun. The whole idea with the Jake Crowley series was to make books that are a little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Da Vinci Code kind of mystery, but also a bit darker and more occult in places. A shitload of research does go into writing them, as everything we draw on has roots in the real world. Some of it, like the airport in Denver, for example, seems too crazy to be real, but it's not. It's surprising sometimes how little fiction we need to bring to these settings and macguffins! Dave and I work well together because he's an excellent plotter. Different to my own process, like I described with The Gulp, Dave and I plan these books out in detail first. We talk a lot about the story, the key beats, the stuff we want to do, then Dave writes up a chapter by chapter outline, that we call Draft 0.5, then I write the entire first draft. After that we bat it back and forth until we're happy with it. It's great fun. It will definitely continue, lots of people seem to be fans of Jake Crowley. And of Sam Aston for that matter. We're currently working on book 3 of the Aston series, then we'll start into book 5 for Crowley.
MR: It seems like you pull from lots of genres and themes when you write. You've written cosmic horror, mystery, crime noir, supernatural, dark fantasy, adventures, and creature features. Is there a particular sub-genre that's your favorite or do you just know what fits the story? Is there a type of story that you haven't written yet that you're keen to try?
AB: I've said it often before - I never met a genre I didn't like! I love stories that mash genre and blur genre lines. If I have a favourite, I guess it's the blend of horror and fantasy, that dark fantastique Clive Barker does so well. He's always been the biggest influence on me. But I love to throw crime and noir and whatever else into that mix. A genre I haven't written yet? I'd really like to write a full novel-length weird western. I dipped my toe in with a short story, which I really enjoyed. For me, westerns are a sub-genre of fantasy - I could debate all day about that - and I'd love to explore that with a truly dark, weird western.
Questions from other Night Worms:
NW: Have you ever railed a line of Vegemite?
AB: That was Glenn Parker, right? And you can't call yourself a real Aussie until you have.
NW: I've seen you talk about after "lockdown" people reading books about pandemics/apocalypse. Do you have any plans to give a go at something like that?
AB: I don't think so. Publishers will be inundated with pandemic books about now, I think, and likely for years to come. I don't mind a good apocalypse story, but I don't have an urge to write one right now. Maybe one day I will. People like Paul Tremblay with Survivor Song and Chuck Wendig with Wanderers are doing amazing work in that field at the moment anyway. Who knows? Given that we're currently living through what feels like an apocalypse, I'm keen to write about something else!
MR: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Alan. I really enjoyed it and you've given me a lot to look forward to, especially more from Eli Carver.
AB: Thanks for having me, it's been cool to chat.