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Mike Carey on the Haunted World of Felix Castor

June 24, 2010 3 comments

Fans of British writer Mike Carey’s comic book work know that he’s got a knack for spinning powerful, poignant, and gripping tales. Currently he’s chronicling the four color exploits of some very interesting characters like the veteran X-Men member Rogue, who Carey writes every month in Marvel Comics’ “X-Men: Legacy” series. Or Tom Taylor and his friends who are locked in a battle with a secret sinister power for control of the world’s stories . Their adventures unfold every month in Carey’s creator owned series “The Unwritten” from DC Comics Vertigo imprint. Carey doesn’t just tell interesting four color stories though. He’s also the author of several exciting and highly acclaimed supernatural noir thriller prose novels featuring the character of Felix Castor. I spoke with him about those novels.

Like most good noir protagonists Felix Castor is haunted by the ghosts of his past, but the nature of the world he lives in means he’s haunted in a literal sense not a metaphorical one. “In Castor’s world the dead have risen. The existence of ghosts, zombies and a host of other supernatural entities isn’t even debated any more,” Carey explained. “Almost everyone has seen a ghost except for a handful of people whose personal dispositions make them sort of psychic insensitive and incapable of seeing ghosts.

“In the Castor books, we’ve got a wide supernatural bestiary which includes ghosts, zombies, demons and werewolves, but there’s just one mechanism operating throughout,” Carey continued. “If a ghost comes back in its own flesh that’s a zombie. Similarly if you have a human ghost invading an animal body and reshaping it you’ve got a werewolf. There’s even a connection between humans and demons. So instead of having all these different monsters we have this one kind of rationale for all these different creatures.”

The restless dead didn’t always play a role in Castor’s world. In fact it was a world that was almost identical to our own, but something mysterious happened that made that made the dead very interested in the world of the living. “There had always been a trickle of ghosts coming through, but some time around the year 2000 the trickle became a flood. You began to get ghosts rising in unprecedented numbers especially in cities because cities have very large populations and histories that go back centuries. So in cities, the dead outnumber the living by a pretty steep ratio, which means like Castor, if you have this skill to banish the dead and send ghosts away then you’re very much in demand,” Carey said. “Exorcists are able to charge for their services. In the Castor books it’s not an activity carried out primarily by people of faith or religion. These are people who offer a service and do it for 100 quid a day plus expenses.”

What makes Castor and the other freelance exorcists even more invaluable is that their ghost busting ability is not something which can be learned. “The nature of the exorcists’ abilities isn’t exactly explained. Castor tells us early on that it’s something that was probably always there. It’s like some people have perfect pitch or have good aim, or whatever. They have a genetic predisposition towards a particular thing,” Carey remarked. “So the exorcism gene was probably always there as part of human potentiality, but before the ghosts started to rise they had nothing to work on. Then suddenly you get these people who are aware that they’re particularly sensitive to ghosts in a way that allows them to manipulate the spirit world. That talent expresses itself in terms of other things that you’re familiar with.

“So since Castor knows how to play the tin whistle he exorcises through music,” Carey continued. “Then you’ve got other characters who perform exorcisms through playing cards or with things like drawings, words, or even string. Whatever is important or interesting to you becomes a conduit for your power.”

While the presence of things like ghosts and demons makes for some harrowing moments much of the danger Felix Castor faces comes from the mortal world. As a freelance exorcist working the mean streets of London, Castor often finds himself the target of the people responsible for creating the ghosts he’s hired to get rid of, or worse yet, living people who want to manipulate the dead to further their own sinister agendas.

“First and foremost these are noir thrillers with supernatural overtones. If there’s one big inspiration behind the books it’s the works of Raymond Chandler, but that’s not immediately obvious because it’s not done in LA and there are strong horror overtones as well. I love the way Chandler uses setting and the narrative voice Marlowe has,” Carey remarked. “Nobody seems quite sure where to classify the Castor books on the shelves. You’ll see them in horror, you’ll see them in crime and you’ll see them in fantasy. They’re all of that. They’re supernatural crime thrillers.”

In many private eye stories the protagonist gets by with the help of a morally, murky “muscle” type character. Robert B Parker’s Spenser has Hawk. Robert Crasis’s Elvis Cole has Joe Pike and Felix Castor has Juliet. “ I created Juliet for the first book and I got very interested in her and decided to keep her around. She’s raised from Hell in order to kill Castor, but then decides as long as she never completes that assignment she never has to go home. And as you say she is the muscle,” Carey stated. “She’s pretty much indestructible and she has this interesting power to seduce any man or woman she wants. Sexually she’s completely irresistible and yet she ends up in a very unlikely and unusual relationship. And it’s not with Castor, much to his chagrin. She’s great fun to write and I keep discovering new aspects of her nature as we go on.”

Carey has rounded out the rest of the supporting cast of the Castor novels with an eclectic bunch that includes an undead informant, a landlady, and the physical embodiment of Castor’s greatest mistake. “Nicky Heath is a zombie that Castor uses for information,” the writer said. “Being a zombie he doesn’t have much use for the physical world, but what Castor does is give him things like old music on 78 records or wax cylinders. Especially early Jazz recordings. He also gives him red wine, which Nicky isn’t able to drink but likes to smell. Nicky is a great character to write as well. I did a Nicky Heath short story in an anthology called ‘The New Dead.’”

“Then there’s Rafi Ditko who was Castor’s best friend at college and who is now – partly due to Castor’s actions – the host for the demon Asmodeus. He can’t get ride of the demon and he’s locked up in a lunatic asylum as a result,” Carey continued. “Penn Bruckner is Castor’s land lady and another important supporting character. She is in love with Rafi and at one point in her life she might have become Castor’s girl friend but that never came to fruition.”

London may be the setting of the Castor books, but Carey also views the city as another member of his supporting cast. “I’ve been told that you can do noir in country settings and so on, and I’ve read some noir novels that don’t use the city as an element. I love the Los Angeles of Chandler though,” Carey stated. “So Castor’s London is meant to be like that, it’s meant to be both a setting and a very important story element. I’ve used areas of London that I know very well. You can map out Castor’s London and it’s much more north of the river than south of the river. There are areas around Brixton and Finsbury Park. I think London is an incredible patchwork city. It’s a city with lots of different personalities. Every area of London has its own unique flavor and I do try to convey some of the sense of those places into these stories.”

The action Castor sees on the streets of London isn’t just about doing what’s right. It’s also about righting the things he’s done wrong. “He’s made some very serious mistakes in his life. The very first exorcism he carried out, long before he knew he could do it, was his own sister. Her ghost came back to him after she had been killed in an accident. And he essentially banished her, but he doesn’t know where to or what happened to her as a result,” Carey explained. “Then in college he screws up spectacularly with Rafi by wielding this demon on to his soul. So in everything Castor does there’s a certain sense of trying to play catch up. Trying to make amends for the awful things he’s done in his past and can’t undo”

Castor’s quest to make amends has taken him on a very interesting emotional journey. “The first novel took him to this big point where he had to choose whether or not he’s going to carry on living his life this way or redefine what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Then from the second book onward he becomes more and more interested in the bigger mystery of why all this is happening. And what’s really going on in his world,” Carey remarked. “So he’s examining all of these weird phenomena and that’s going to be the big reveal for book six. That’s what we’re heading towards; a solution to that mystery. And each novel also has a self contained mystery that usually involves a murder that needs to be solved. Castor changes a lot over the course of the books and there’s a big catalyst for change that comes right at the start.”

That catalyst for change in the first Castor novel, “The Devil You Know”, comes when Castor visits a public archive. “That’s very much a self contained mystery. Castor is called to a public archive, a library essentially, which is haunted by a female ghost. Castor is hired to get rid of the ghost, but while he’s there he becomes curious about why she’s even there at all,” Carey explained. “Why is this dead woman haunting a library, where no one has ever actually died? What’s the connection between her and the building? So he investigates her death and ends up getting on the wrong side of a group of human gangsters who have no scruples about raising demons.”

In Castor’s second adventure, “Vicious Circle”, the freelance exorcist is asked to employ his unique talent in a different way. “’Vicious Circle’ was sort of a quantum leap in terms of complexity because although it’s still a self contained mystery we begin to fill in more of the details of Castor’s world. We learn a lot more about the infrastructure and how it’s changed to accommodate the living dead,” Carey said. “In ‘Vicious Circle’ Castor is hired to find a missing person, but that missing person is already dead. He has to find the ghost of a girl. This time out his enemies are bigger and more organized – like the Satanist Church of the Americas, which is a very scary organization.”

In the third Castor novel, “Dead Man’s Boots”, Carey pits his protagonist against a horde of vicious and angry ghosts. “In ‘Dead Man’s Boots’ we have a conspiracy that seems to involve dead criminals from past eras coming back to life,” Carey stated. “An American serial killer from the 1950s and a whole bunch of East End gangsters from London all seem to be rising from the grave in inexplicable ways.”

“Thicker Than Water”, the fourth Castor novel, is currently available in the UK and hits stores in the US on October 1st. “’Thicker Than Water’ is in a lot of ways a very personal story for Castor,” Carey told me. “He’s called on to help his brother who seems to be guilty of murder and Castor’s investigation uncovers a lot of disconcerting and unpleasant skeletons in the family closet.”

The fifth Castor novel “The Naming of the Beasts” is also currently available in the UK. It arrives in US stores on January 5 2011. “The Naming of the Beasts’ is a big resolution to the story involving Castor’s friend Rafi,” Carey explained. “Castor tries to finally put right the terrible thing that he did to his best friend. And we get a revelation there about the nature of demons; the connection between demons and the other supernatural elements of Castor’s world, which will play into a bigger revelation in book six.”

Carey is hard at work on the sixth Castor novel and it’s a story that promises to wrap up many of the big stories in the freelance exorcist’s world. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the final book in the series though. “It pays off everything we’ve done so far, so it is a finale in that sense, but we can continue to tell stories that take place in Castor’s world,” the writer revealed. “I do have some ideas for a seventh book in the series, which I would love to write. It would either be a Nicky story or a Juliet story. Castor would take a back seat to some of his supporting cast.”

As a series of prose novels progresses many writers struggle to keep their stories fresh, but Carey hasn’t had that problem with the Castor books. That’s partly because the Castor novels are told in first person narrative and the writer always has a great time seeing the the world from the freelance exorcist’s point of view. “When I started out I didn’t know at all what I was doing. I used to write novels in my late teens and early 20s. They were awful, structureless things and when I was writing ‘ The Devil You Know’ I really didn’t know what I was doing and I chose to do it as a first person narrative because that’s part of the genre for noir,” Carey explained. “Castor’s voice came together over the course of that novel and I really ended up with a strong sense of who this guy was, how he talked, and where he was coming from. That’s become a big part of the pleasure of writing these books; using that voice and slipping back into that persona.”

Categories: Author Interviews

Victor Gischler on The Deputy

Fans of Victor Gischler’s writing get transported to some pretty fascinating places. In the current story line of his Marvel Comics’ series “Deadpool: Merc With a Mouth” Gischler had taken readers to an alternate dimension that’s infested by flesh hungry, super powered zombies. And next month in the spin-off series “Deadpool Corps”, the writer takes readers out into the depths of space and to several alien worlds.

Gischler’s recent prose novels have also had some pretty interesting settings. “Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse” unfolded in a post apocalyptic world, where strip clubs were the last bastions of the civilization. “Vampire A Go-Go” took place in the city of Prague, where a young college student got embroiled in a centuries old supernatural conspiracy. On April 1st, “Gischler’s new prose novel “The Deputy” hits stores, and in it, the writer spins a story that unfolds in a mundane, but equally compelling world, a small town in rural Oklahoma with a big crime and corruption problem. I spoke with Gischler about the book.

His two most recent novels feature science fiction and fantasy elements, but Gischler started off writing gritty crime novels and “The Deputy” marks his return to the genre. “It actually felt really good to leave crime fiction and go do some of the science fiction and fantasy, because when I started writing that’s what I wanted to write. I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy stories in some form. So in a way I felt like that was going home to do that,” Gischler said. “Now after being away from crime for awhile, I realized that I want to be there too. I don’t consider my crime writing a second choice or second place. So I feel very good to have something coming out to reconnect with those crime fiction readers.

“A lot of those readers are just great. They came with me from my crime fiction to my post apocalyptic and vampire novels,” Gischler continued. “That was great of them, but I think a lot of them have expressed that they’re very happy I’m coming back to a crime book. So I don’t want to call one particular genre my home. As long as I like a story, the characters, and what I’m doing that’s the main thing. Regardless of genre .”

The idea for “The Deputy” first came to Gischler several years ago. “About five years ago I tried to do the idea as a short story. So I’m writing and it’s about 20 pages, then 25 pages, and then 30. It was becoming a very long short story. I didn’t think it would be that long. So it didn’t come together for me as a short story. Then I thought, ‘Maybe it will be a screen play?’ I didn’t want it to be a screenplay though because it’s a first person narration from the protagonist’s point of view and that doesn’t really work for me in a screenplay,” the writer explained. “Then I finally decided I could turn it into a short novel like the old pulp paperbacks. Once I started on it as a novel and I got a few chapters in to it I realized that was the right decision.”

The events of “The Deputy” take place over the course of one night in the small town of Coyote Crossing. “It’s this very rural middle of nowhere town in western Oklahoma. I used to live in Oklahoma and if you get far enough west it starts becoming prairie and wilderness. So that’s where I set the novel,” Gischler remarked. “The town is out of cell phone range and away from everything. It’s this little town that grew up at a crossroads. There’s almost no reason for it to even be there.”

Helping to keep the peace in Coyote Crossing is the titular character, a 25 year old part time deputy named Toby Sawyer. “He lives in a crappy little trailer on the edge of town. His ambition is a very modest ambition, and that’s to get put on as a full time deputy so he can get better pay and health benefits. He’s got a wife that he’s not a hundred percent crazy about, but they’re together and they have an 18 month old toddler. So he’s kind of stuck in this family situation and he’s trying to make the best of it,” Gischler revealed. “He starts the book as this sort of callow youth and then sort of becomes a man. Just in the span of the book he grows up and realizes, ‘I can’t be a snot nose kid anymore. I’ve got to be a man.’ In that way it’s sort of a hard-boiled modern western. There’s very much the sentiment of, ‘A man’s gotta do, what man’s gotta do. That sort of cowboy sentiment comes to the surface as the novel progresses.”

The main action in “The Deputy” begins when Toby Sawyer receives a midnight call from his boss, the Sheriff. “He’s told to come babysit a body in the middle of the street until they can send somebody with a body bag to wrap it up. When you’re the part time deputy you get the crap jobs, like babysitting dead bodies. So he stumbles out of bed, puts on a sweatshirt, his Weezer t-shirt, and his high tops and goes down and sits with the body,” Gischler revealed. “He then decides that it’s the middle of the night and nobody is going to come take this body. He’ll just go sneak off for a little bit to visit his girlfriend and when he comes back the body is gone. He knows he’s in trouble because you’re not going to get a full time job with the department if you loose a body.”

Toby’s quest to recover the body unfolds between the hours of midnight and 7 A.M. And during that time, he meets an eclectic cast of supporting characters. “One of the main sources of conflict is the corruption in the town and because it all takes place in the wee hours of the night we really don’t meet the rank and file townspeople,” Gischler explained. “The normal good citizens are mostly all in bed. So the people we meet during that long night are the people who for some reason or another have business at 2 or 3 or 4 A.M. Since they’re up at that time doing those things, they’re probably not representative of the good people of the town, but rather the corrupt elements.

“It’s a first person book so Toby really is the star of the book and I think the people you meet along the way are very interesting supporting characters,” Gischler continued, “They are more believable, real people though than the supporting characters you might meet in ‘Vampire A Go-Go’ or ‘Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse’. There’s a less over the top quality to the characters in ‘The Deputy.’”

Toby Sawyer’s after hours adventure in “The Deputy” is a brutal one, but it’s not entirely bleak. “I think I like the term hard-boiled more than noir for this story. I think there are elements and a flavor of noir, but ultimately noir is just about bleak hopelessness and it doesn’t quite go that far,” Gischler said. “It’s definitely hard-boiled though. I think it’s not humorous in the way that ‘Vampire A Go-Go’ is humorous, but there are bits of humor in the story. Toby doesn’t have the best life, but it’s not outright bleak and grim.”

“The Deputy” hits stores April 1st and once Gischler’s fans complete the novel they won’t have to wait long for his next story. His comic series “Deadpool: Merc with a Mouth” wraps up it’s run in June , but his new Deadpool series “The Deadpool Corps” kicks off April 7th. Plus, the writer has lined up another Marvel Comics assignment he can’t talk about yet.

Gischler is also developing his next prose project. “I have what I consider to be a very good premise for a novel, but I’ve had a couple of false starts with it. It’s going back to a more fantasy, sci-fi genre. I’m trying to get comfortable with the tone and who the protagonist is,” Gischler said. “So there’s been a slow start on this new novel, but I believe in the premise enough that I’m going to stick with it until I feel comfortable with it. Then once I feel comfortable with the main character and the tone, I can sort of launch into writing and try to get some chapters under my belt.

Since he started writing comics Gischler’s fan base has grown, and the writer feels that “The Deputy” has something to offer both fans of his prose and four color work. “Not everybody who reads novels reads comic books. And not everybody who reads comics reads novels, but I do think there is some good over lap there,” Gischler stated. “So I’m always hoping that my novel fans give my comic work a try and my comic fans give my novel work a try and maybe they’ll find a new way to appreciate what I do.”

Categories: Author Interviews