American Carnage: An interview with contributing author John E. Meredith

Welcome to Day 3 of interviews with the American Carnage crew! My review of the anthology is here. This is our last day of interviews (there will be another two interviews going up today). The first of the two is with author John E. Meredith, who wrote the story “What Kind of Monster Are You?” Again, please note: discussion is welcomed, but keep it respectful. I know that the anthology’s theme has the potential for controversy, so comments will be monitored.

Note: answers are unedited/uncensored/unwhathaveyou. All answers, thoughts, and opinions are from the authors.

Also note: this interview is on the long side.

First, tell us a bit about yourself. Any fun and interesting factoids?

I’m an aging neurotic, coming up on 50 . . . well, okay, not until 2019, but that’s still too close . . .close enough that at least half the time I’m convinced that I’m dying. Lung cancer, maybe. Possibly a brain tumor. I’m just waiting for that moment the doctor walks back in the room, her eyes a practiced kind of sad, and tells me what I already know. No joke, part of me completely believes this . . . so, obviously, the only doctor I really need to see is psychiatric.

But here’s the thing about thinking the end is near . . . it makes most of your smaller problems kinda fade into the background. Seriously. I mean, who cares about those looming student loan payments, or the fact that you can barely afford to live, when you might not live that much longer? You start to notice the beauty of little things, like . . . I dunno, leaves scampering across the road in the breeze, or that some movie you always wanted to see is somehow on the rabbit-ears antenna TV, the only thing you can afford these days. It's not exactly magic, and there’s no poignant music soaring behind me as I step out of bed to start the day, but you’ve gotta take your positive feelings wherever they come from, you know?

And it’s really pushed me to focus on my writing. I mean, it’s my only real marketable skill in life. I’m not a terrible-looking guy, but I’m not handsome or young enough to suddenly become a gigolo, so that just leaves this gig of putting words down on paper. Not that it really pays anything either, but it makes me feel better . . . and sometimes I can do it well enough to make someone laugh or cry or maybe even get pissed off.

Might as well keep following it to the end.

Oh yeah . . . I’m divorced, two kids (who live with their mother and stepfather in the Detroit area), currently ready to send my own stepdaughter off to college in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Though I went back to school in my late thirties, early forties – and have an almost-Bachelor’s Degree – I work overnight in a hardware store, opening boxes and putting shit on shelves. I’ve been there far too long, doing a basically brainless job, but at least I’ve escaped having to deal with retail shoppers . . . and I can blast my headphones all night while I work, getting lost in all the music I love . . . you know, while there’s still time.

Tell us a bit about your writing. Are you usually a fiction writer, or did you make an exception for this anthology?

If I had any money, they would call me an eccentric writer. But, since I have a shitty stocking job and I’m still always one step away from total financial ruin, everyone pretty much just considers me a weirdo. But sometimes I’m kinda funny . . . and those who have talked to me a bit eventually want to check out what I write. I suppose they think I'm interesting. Or they just wanna have a better idea when I might snap and take everyone out, it’s hard to say.

I’ve been writing since I was a child. It was cheaper than therapy, and I seemed to be okay at doing it, so my parents encouraged me. I read a lotta Stephen King – and the print versions of movies I’d seen . . . The Omen, Amityville Horror, Jaws – all of it probably at too young an age. Warped a mind that might have already been genetically predisposed toward going bonzo. Threw some Judy Blume and Peanuts in there, too . . . and, eventually, some “real” books . . .Frankenstein, Steinbeck, poetry by Pablo Neruda . . . just to make an even stranger mix. Honestly, it’s a good thing that I do write, or I’d be a helluva lot weirder than I am.

It’s an outlet, you know? A place to put all the crazy, both in journals and in the stories I write.

The first ones were, like, Lassie stories. Then I was doing comic strips . . . because every little boy loves superheroes and stuff, as do some little girls . . . and I could actually draw rather well when I was younger. I did a mean Ronald Reagan. Then I saw, like, CARRIE or something, wanted to read the book, and it kinda took off from there. My first real stories, when I was in the early teens, were probably all King rip-offs.

There was one where this old man runs a puppet shop – it was up the stairs on the second floor of his house, so it was called The Pedestal Puppet Shop – clever, huh? . . . because I had a lotta puppets as a kid, and figured there must be a shop somewhere that just sold puppets . . . and he was so devoted to his puppets, talking to them, spending most of the day with them. But his wife was a total evil bitch – cheating on him with his brother, constantly yelling at him. Well, she finally kills him . . . for the insurance money . . . but then, when she climbs those stairs to get some important papers or something . . . the puppets are waiting for her. They’re waiting, and they’re not very happy, and they’ve got sharp teeth and little shimmering button eyes . . .

I was, maybe, twelve when I wrote that.

I don’t always do horror . . . I mean, there are all kinds of things I’ve written, and even more I hope to write . . . but I really gotta credit Uncle Stevie with putting that urge in me. I’m not saying my dad had a brother named Steve, I mean Mr. King, of course. You get as huge as he is and your critics will grow as much as your fans, but he reached those heights for a reason, you know? I think it’s because he talks right to his audience. His books aren't hard to read, and they kinda address you directly, like you're sitting there beside a fire while he unspools a yarn. So it was kind of a given that I’d be drawn into that and think I could do it . . .

Now I think I can do anything that involves writing, and pretty much want to do it all. I’ve got so many irons in the fire at the moment. There’s my work with PSYCHO DRIVE-IN, and I just got word that they’re running a second piece on DEN OF GEEK UK . . . which is my first paying gig, by the way. I’ve got another story for PDI press in the early stages, plus a series of short stories I’m working on that I might string together as a novel of sorts . . . about people who are terminally ill. There’s a horror novel I’ve at least plotted out in my head – a kinda throwback to all those flicks I loved in my teens – and, further off, a novel about working retail that reads like a war story. Not to mention, only about three hundred other stories I wanna tell . . . and maybe some kinda trashy sex story, in hopes of making a million easy dollars.

I’m never going to live long enough to do it all.

Speaking of the anthology, what drew you to it? Why did you decide to submit a story?

I’ve been doing work with PSYCHO DRIVE-IN since the fall of, maybe, 2015. For whatever reason – probably having a Halloween birthday – I’d decided to post these little bits about horror movies on my Facebook page each day in the month of October. Naturally, they turned into something longer, and, by the third or fourth day in, I saw a post from the site on Instagram. They were basically doing the same thing I was, but they’d been doing it for a couple years . . .and actually had an audience, compared to my hundred or so Facebook followers. I left a comment on their Insta post and then Paul Brian McCoy got hold of me, asking if they could run my stuff on the site. Well, hell yeah. This led to my own column, Popcorn Cinema . . . which is basically the snooty film snob side of me arguing with the side that just likes to see blood and boobs and stuff blowing up. This led to another column, The Flesh Is Weak – spiritually relevant films for agnostics like myself – and all this PDI activity led to the work on the book.

Basically, Paul asked if anyone wanted to write a story in protest of our president. There was no way I could turn that down. I had participated in PDI’s first compilation, NOIRLATHOTEP: Tales of Lovecraftian Crime, and was pretty damn happy to know I was in something that sold almost 300 copies. I mean, that’s not J.K. Rowling numbers or anything, but that’s more exposure than I’d ever gotten for anything before. Not to mention, having a deadline actually ensures that I’ll finish something. Because, you know . . . writers are flighty.

Plus, this man who had somehow gotten elected . . .

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a party thing, or even some kind of support or protest decision. I’m not overly political, though my beliefs tend toward liberal and democratic. That being said, I voted for Kasich in the primaries . . . out of all those folks up on that stage, he seemed to have the best temperament for a job like this. It really didn’t matter that his core beliefs as a Republican weren’t the same as mine. What did matter was that he seemed like a decent human being who might actually consider what he was doing.

Whereas now . . . we have a reality TV president, essentially elected by a studio audience who bought into his shit. The truth is that it’s highly unlikely he gives a damn about anyone, and he could just as easily have run as a Democrat (though there’s even more money with the elephants than the asses). There’s that quote we’ve seen all over, from maybe the 1990s, when he said that if he ever ran for president he would go as a Republican because they had “the dumbest voters ever.” Yet here are all of these working class Americans, sitting on their porches with their broken-down pickups in the yard, and they really believe that this guy gives a shit about them. I understand having that hope – and wanting the kind of change that Obama couldn’t give them (because studies have shown that many folks who voted Trump actually voted Obama, if only for his first term) – but how could people not see through this guy?

He might have built this “great financial empire,” sure . . . folks who start out rich have the tendency to build on that, after all . . . but he still seems barely competent to me. Even before he ran for office. He says what he thinks, which can be a good quality, but sometimes you need to have enough intelligence to keep some of that to yourself. Because when there’s someone like the Donald, whose thoughts change constantly as he sniffs out the best deal for himself, there’s not much you can depend on. I feel like he’s only in this for himself, and eventually that’s going to hurt everyone, regardless of party affiliation.

Plus, I honestly feel like he’s on the edge of senility. For real, check the signs. When my grandpa got like that, we wouldn’t let him have the TV remote, much less access to nuclear weapons.

So, yeah, I had no choice but to write something.

Tell us about your story. What inspired you to write it?

My story is basically about a poor family who lives in the same kinda small town that I currently do. They are a Trump family all the way, outside of the fourteen year old son (who cares more about old-school punk rock than politics) and the one sister who managed to get away to college. Well, the world is in turmoil, there’s all kinds of rioting and Nazis in the street, and suddenly these strange lights start showing up all over the cities of the world. Meanwhile, the kid has found something really . . . strange in the barn. It seems that all these crazy events of the world are culminating in what happens right there in a place called Pea Patch.

When Paul originally asked for our pitches, I had maybe three different ideas. Two of them were pretty solid, and might still end up being written, but none of them were really what he was looking for. So he put the influences he wanted to see out there: John Waters, REPO MAN, Troma movies, and punk rock. He said it would also be nice if there was a severed Trump head somewhere in the story, Kathy Griffith having just stirred up a bunch of controversy with her own
Trump-head trick.

I went back to work on my piece then, with all of this in mind. It was a much different approach to the way I normally write, which is kinda organic, just letting everything flow where it wants to. This was more like patching elements together and hoping like hell that it all worked. I’m not actually sure it did for me, to be honest, but I got a few really good scenes out of it. The scene with the Sleater-Kinney song “Modern Girl” worked really well for me, and the part where Iggy jumps up at the dinner table and finally says what he thinks . . . yeah, those were totally the author’s political views.

Basically, Big Mama is the drag queen Divine. Some of her lines are actually lifted directly from John Waters movies. There are lines from REPO MAN as well. There’s a bunch of b-movie horror stuff in there, with (one of my favorites) THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE even making a prominent appearance. Not to mention, how that movie influenced the talking head that’s in my story. And the punk rock references . . . well, they’re just too many to even mention, so have fun trying to pick them all out.

Oh, and every word spoken by the President in the story . . . though he’s never given a name, every damn ignorant word comes right out of the mouth or Twitter feed of our own president. (Editor’s note: that was freaking brilliant. In my head, every line of dialogue was said in Trump’s voice.)

The anthology is about a Dystopian world (with or without aliens). Do you think that we’re closer to an apocalypse or a Dystopian society now than we have been in the past? Or are we already on our way there, without even realizing it?

There have been folks in damn-near every point in history telling us that the end is near. It’s hard to say, isn’t it? I mean, the facts aren’t really on our side . . . all evidence says we’ve reached the tipping point, that there’s no way back to a safe place. The icecaps are melting, the population is too high to sustain life. But maybe our science is just good enough now to detect the evidence that’s been here for hundreds of years. You know, something is eventually going to collide with the planet, or the sun is going to call it quits and leave a bunch of popsicles floating on a dead rock in space. Might as well choke to death on our own pollution or go up in a hundred mushroom clouds instead.

See, here’s the thing . . . major catastrophes are the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have, or who you know. If there’s a fireball headed toward your house, you’re toast, plain and simple. Granted, the worst of humanity might come crawling out from under the rocks, but the greatest disasters have also brought out the best in us. Most people tend to demonstrate unforeseen sympathy toward others when some really bad shit goes down. Just look at how we react to the endless string of shootings and terrorist attacks over the past few years. Maybe we need something huge to remind us of what petty assholes we’ve been . . . and of how great we can be.

But if the end is soon, then I’d better be here to see it. I’m gonna be pissed off if I miss it by just a couple years. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want it to end . . . but if the meteor is on its way, or the alien invasion . . . even the zombie apocalypse . . . can you imagine how batshit crazy tha’s going to be? I mean, what a thing to see in your final moments. Kinda makes lung cancer and brain tumors seem a little less scary.

Things have gotten a little…heated in recent times, especially when it comes to politics. Have you gotten any pushback or criticism because of the anthology’s theme?

I’m not going to criticize other people’s decisions about who they voted for. I can honestly understand what anyone might have seen in either candidate who made that final race, and why they might not have wanted to vote for the other one. Sadly, I think too much of this election came down to “I can’t stand him” or “I don’t trust her,” rather than choosing someone who might actually do some good for this country. That’s apparently the age we’re living in now, where a few soundbites substitute for any real consideration.

But most of my family voted for Trump.

With the first book we did, NOIRLATHOTEP, I was talking it up to everyone. You couldn’t go to a family get-together without me giving some kind of update, or at least mentioning that it was out. Only a few of them got it anyway, but I was nonetheless very grateful.

But this one . . .

I’ve not even mentioned it to them. If they still look at my posts on social media, they know it’s out there and what it’s about.

As far as real pushback, I’ve not really gotten any. There was a adverse comment or two on PSYCHO DRIVE-IN’s Instagram announcement . . . to which Paul graciously responded, “Hope you enjoy the book.” I had actually hoped there would be more of a ruckus, like someone protesting the artwork or the content . . . because controversy breeds interest, of course. So, please, someone ban this shit and help us sell a million copies. But so far, there’s not been that much noise.

Maybe it’s time to stir the pot.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself or your writing?

Follow your passion at all costs, even if you’re not sure you’re any good. With enough practice you will be, and who cares if you’re not, as long as it makes you happy? Life is far too pointless (and over far too soon) to do anything but what sets the heart on fire.

And play music, lots and lots of music.

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