For our first interview here on Dark Futures, we’re pleased to welcome Alex S. Johnson. Alex edited the recently released anthology Axes of Evil, a heavy metal themed horror anthology. He is also a writer himself.
First of all, could you tell our readers a bit about yourself?
Hi, David, and thank you so much for the interview. Let’s see. I’m a 47-year-old man of Norwegian/Scottish heritage, a second-generation Californian. I attended U.C. Davis for my B.A. in Comparative Literature and have a Master’s degree in English Literature from California State University, Dominguez Hills. I live in Sacramento, California, in a small suburb where I spend most of my time writing and networking with people who share my interests and enthusiasms. My partner, Charie D. La Marr, lives in Long Island. I lived in Los Angeles for two decades, have taught English at the college and university levels, have worked as a music journalist, editor and writer. That should be good to start things out with.
What do you think it is that draws you to horror fiction?
That is a really good question that I’ve been pondering a good part of my life. I think I’ve always been attracted to the darker aspects of reality because they seem to hold the keys, in a way, to understanding the entire picture. The cliché of not being able to really understand the light until you’ve explored the dark. I was raised in a household that follows Vedanta, which is the philosophical school derived from ancient Hindu scripture, so from a very young age I was exposed to myths and legends of cosmic cycles, huge forces, gods and demons and multiple levels of consciousness. That is kind of an unusual background for a middle class Caucasian living in a primarily Christian country, and partly as a consequence of that difference—trying to explain my parents’ beliefs to myself and other people—I’ve become extremely sensitive to the different lenses through which various cultures perceive questions of good and evil.
Most Western horror fiction is informed by the dominant paradigm of Christianity. So if your religion or spiritual tradition tells you that good and evil are only apparent and that the true reality is transcendent of the pairs of opposites, it becomes a very intriguing and appealing life’s work to interrogate the majority standard. That may be why I’m more drawn to a writer like Clive Barker, say, than Stephen King. Barker once said that there is something fascinating about extremes, on both sides. I love that ambiguity and tension.
On a more basic level, I love horror fiction because it addresses the emotional life of human beings, the fundamental desires, fears, temptations, dreams sacred, mysterious, profound and terrific, that move us and motivate us. More than any other genre, horror cuts to the bone, and deals with the ultimate fear—death, the beyond, and how it defines the significance or perhaps tragedy of what we do as individuals and as a society. Death, like sex, is a limit experience. A wall. What’s on the other side? What happens when you transcend the barrier? There’s a lifetime of stories to be had if you seriously ask those kinds of questions.
What about heavy metal?
Heavy metal music has been a solid friend to me from when I first discovered it around the age of 12 or 13. I love the sexual drive of it, the energy, that martial sense of power. It’s a great mood elevator and I’ve actually re-discovered that aspect of it since I gave up substances a few years ago. Metal is energy moving in a forward direction, and it helps to surmount the walls I mentioned earlier.
Why do you think those two things go together so well?
I wish I could address that question from a more informed place, but I think I’ll answer you this way. The Reaper is coming for all of us, rich or poor, smart or stupid, and there’s nothing any one of us can do about it. The only difference comes with our attitude towards that fact. Heavy metal is the soundtrack of defiance to the horror comedy that is life. When I go out, I want to be rocking, throwing the horns, or as they say in the UK, the sign of the goat (just learned this!) Going bravely into certain oblivion with Ozzy on one shoulder and Lemmy on the other. Heavy metal and horror map that place in the nervous system that makes us feel alive by confronting us with the immutable terms we’re given.
Axes of Evil is published by Chupa Cabra House. Was the anthology your idea or did they come to you?
Axes of Evil Volume One was published by Chupa Cabra House, yes. I had developed the idea over about a year’s time and pitched it to several publishers before Chupa took it on.
How long did it take to, from start to finish, to put Axes of Evil together?
Axes took approximately five months to put together, which includes soliciting authors, selecting the stories, working back and forth with the authors in some cases to develop the stories further, and finally, copy-reading and proofing and compiling the manuscript. My partner, Charie D. La Marr, was responsible for the vast majority of the line-editing that became the finished product.
Axes of Evil is quite long for a short fiction anthology. According to the Amazon listing, it contains 34 stories and is 576 pages long. Was it being a large book the plan from the start or did it just turn out that way?
I think that the length is partially due to the lengthy incubation period of the project, the fact that it went through three distinct stages—the first version of the book was as a benefit anthology titled Gore Beyond Bizarro—and the enthusiasm and interest of our contributors. I wanted to showcase not only well-established pros like Lucy Taylor but also put on display the extraordinary talent of up-and-coming writers I’ve discovered mainly through online networking. Another factor was the reach of the book. Axes reflects as best as I was able the global sweep of heavy metal and horror. We have stories from writers in the UK, Australia, India, Europe, the entire continental U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. So yeah, it’s a big book, but big with talent. Bulging, even.
How would you say Axes of Evil has been received?
We have had a great deal of support, acknowledgement and response from media outlets, bands and fans. It’s selling fairly well—I don’t have the complete figures, but Kindle and print sales combined have been much better than expected. The first week it appeared, the book went straight to Number 7 on Amazon’s list of bestselling horror anthologies, and it’s still in the Top 100.
Is this better than you expected, worse than you expected, or is everything proceeding exactly as the demon who collected your soul promised?
If you see that little imp, I have a few things I’d like to get off my chest! I’m not sure what I expected. Just having the book out there is an achievement, as far as I’m concerned. Our contributors have been very enthusiastic, for the most part, in getting the word out and letting us know how happy they are to be involved.
I understand there is to be an Axes of Evil II. I think I’ve even seen a possible Axes of Evil III mentioned. Are these follow ups going to differ from the first in some way or be generally very similar?
There will indeed be an Axes II. Axes II will be pretty much in the same vein as the first volume, with an eclectic array of tones and voices, from comedy-horror and satire to full-blown, no holds barred Splatterpunk, with some quiet and atmospheric pieces as well. The plan for Axes III was originally to create a shared-world high fantasy anthology that would be engineered by myself and a handful of other authors. If it does happen, it will still be located within the fantasy realm rather than pure horror. That being said, there have been some personnel changes that have affected the nature of the shared-world concept, and at any rate, we’re already talking more than a year from now before an Axes III sees the light, if it does.
Since many of our followers are writers, could you give any insight into what you’d like to see in submissions for Axes of Evil II?
My basic philosophy as a composition instructor and as an editor is that passion counts. If you don’t have passion for heavy metal music and horror fiction, don’t submit. I want the stories to be deeply informed by love, awareness and knowledge of the ambience, sights, smells, tastes, language and, most important, sound of metal. Heavy metal is in many respects the hero of the books. And of course I want tight, well-constructed, scary stories. They may be humorous as well, but in any case they need to be well-made stories that will satisfy the reader. I’m willing to and have worked with writers who submitted a draft that needed massaging, but I expect that the draft you submit is the one you would like to see published. It’s a good idea to have someone else beta-read your story before you send it in.
That’s probably enough about that for now. Let’s move on to you.
The second part of this interview focuses more on Alex S. Johnson as a writer. It will be published in this site next week.