After reading horror novel NOTHING MEN last month, I’ve been plagued by the events which unfolded within the work of fiction. A story that seemed so real that it still unnerves me to this day. For me, this is a sure sign of an author with tremendous talent, who’s writing style captures the reader’s imagination like nothing I’ve read before.
So when I had the chance to ask the author Doug Brunell some questions about his novel Nothing Men and his approach to writing works of horror, I jumped at the chance to interview him.
Hi Doug, please can you tell us a little about yourself?
I live in Northern California with my daughter, and am an avid collector of books, music, movies, comic books and some unsavoury things. I can legally perform exorcisms and have been the subject of at least one FBI inquiry that I know about. I have an interest in everything from anarchist history to the occult. That whets the appetite, doesn’t it?
Have you always been interested in writing and how did you end up writing books?
I have always loved reading, but my interest in writing was sparked by seeing a trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining when I was nine years old. I was into horror movies, and when I saw the trailer I was fascinated by what looked to be an utterly terrifying movie. I noticed that it was based on a book and asked my parents to buy it for me. They did, though my mother later confessed that if she knew more of what it was about she would have been more hesitant to let my nine-year-old self read it. The book scared the hell out of me, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do the same thing to readers. That was when the power of the written word was really hammered home.
The idea of wanting to writing novels started then and there in early 1980. I started out writing short stories, and eventually began getting my non-fiction published by various magazines. In the meantime I kept working on various manuscripts. Then came Nothing Men.
How long did it take you to write NOTHING MEN and is the finished copy the novel what you envisioned from the beginning or were any vital plot points changed during the draft?
That is a hard question to answer. The seeds for it were planted about twenty years ago when I took a trip to Humboldt County in Northern California. I lived in Redding, California at the time, and to get to Humboldt we had to drive through the Trinity Alps. It is beautiful country, but coming back through that area at night one can’t help but imagine the horrors that fester in those woods and mountains. Twenty years or so later I had a full-blown vision in my head of what would start the story, and then I did some research, wrote it, rewrote it several times and finally had a finished manuscript to shop around.
Several plot points changed, but maybe not in the way most people would think. When I write a book or story, I have no idea how it will end or even which direction it will go. It’s always odd explaining this, as most people think you have to have an outline or general idea of a novel’s direction. I don’t. I let the characters guide me, and while that sounds pretentious, it is the truth. Of course, I thought certain parts of the story would go one way, but when writing it, it actually went another, and that surprised me. Again, that sounds insane to anyone who doesn’t write stories that way, but it really is my process. For example, the Charles character never existed in my head until she appeared in the scene. I knew nothing about her or where her character was headed. I literally had no idea who was even going to come through the door. All my stories are written that way. I start with a skeleton and a few ideas and go where it takes me. Honestly, if I knew where the story was going or how it would end, I would have no reason to write it. I write in order to learn the story.
NOTHING MEN spends a lot time developing characters and a lot of the action within the novel is character driven. Is creating characters with depth important to you when telling a story?
This is actually a discussion I get into a lot with various people. For me, characters are the story. Without them, you have nothing. If you write or read a story and realize that you can substitute any character in place of the ones already there, then you have nothing but a series of scenes strung together to an often predictable conclusion. Characters are the story. They are how we relate to events. They have to engage the reader on some level, or all is lost.
Creating characters is why I write, really. I want to know these people. I want to know what drives them, what makes them tick. I want to be in their heads, even if that is sometimes a really dark and sickening place to dwell. The characters must have depth to interest me, because if they don’t interest me, they won’t interest readers. Certainly, some characters can be secondary or even background, but any character that is essential to the story must be fleshed out in some way in order for the story to work properly. Characters drive the story.
Most of my character development is done through dialogue, as most of what we learn about people is discovered through their words. How they speak, the cadence, the words they use and how they use them tells the observer so much about them. Every region, culture and subculture has their own lexicon and grammar. As humans, we instinctually understand this, and if a writer can work that into the characters (and a writer should work that into the characters), then he or she can convey so much with so little. Am I successful at it? I’ll let others decide.
I have been told (and have had pieces rejected because of this) that I sometimes make characters who aren’t very likable. That irritates me. Not every character has to be liked by the masses. We are becoming conditioned to having all protagonists be your best friend and all antagonists be one-dimensional. It’s a sad state of affairs, and I want nothing to do with it.
What inspired you to write NOTHING MEN?
There is no “one thing” that inspired it. As I mentioned earlier, there was that trip to Humboldt County. There is also my love of ‘70s exploitation and horror films, and my interest in certain subjects I won’t mention as to keep from spoiling the book. So many things inspired it in different ways. That trip, however, really did start it.
When we were traveling back through the Trinity Alps that night, we had to pull over as my then girlfriend was car sick. As she was puking on the side of the road, I looked over the mountain into the valley below and saw a smattering of lights. These people were so isolated out there that my mind went to all sorts of dark places imaging what they could get away with. If you have ever been this far north in California, you know that things happen out here that really kind of exist outside the norm. I’m not just talking about the marijuana growing culture or meth manufacturing or anything like that. That is actually the norm here. I’m talking about bestiality, strange occult practices, odd subcultures living off the grid … all of that and more. It really is a place where Nothing Men could happen. I have had people who live here read the novel and tell me they could definitely see that, and I have had others read it who don’t live here and will never visit because of what they read in my novel. I guess I’ve done my bit to destroy tourism in Northern California.
When reading NOTHING MEN, I could quite easily visualise the small town of Valley Bottom. Is it actually inspired by or based on an existing location?
Yes and no. As I mentioned earlier, the idea started when I looked down into that valley. The village itself is based on a place in the Poconos, which is in Pennsylvania.
My teen years were spent in the Poconos, which is, in some respects, a lot like the far north of California, where I live now and where the book is set. One day, my friends and I got stranded in this small “town.” We were kind of screwed, as we were punks and looked the role. The stares we were getting were not good. We ended up walking to this store to use the phone, as there were no payphones anywhere, and I had to use the bathroom. The clerk, this rather large woman who looked as if she married her brother (and may have), pointed to a door and told me it was through there. Well, that door led to an actual bar that was, oddly enough, connected to the store.
I entered this bar, which had about 8 redneck guys nursing their Schlitz and watching some random sporting event. Every head turned to look at me, the guy with the strange hair, ripped jeans and offensive t-shirt. I made my way to the bathroom, which had two stalls and a large metal trough that acted as a urinal. I am not kidding. The thing had water that ran at one end to “eliminate” the smell of urine, which hung thick in the summer air regardless. As I stood by this rusted hulk of metal, another man came in and emptied his bladder into it, looking at me and chuckling. It was so freakin’ creepy. Decades later when I started Nothing Men, this memory came back to me and I realized this was the place I needed to be Valley Bottom. A place where an outsider would never feel quite right. A place where the normal laws and culture were gone and what had replaced them was something very wicked, yet totally functioning.
NOTHING MEN is rather bleak at times, which is part of its charm. As a reader, is this something you rather enjoy seeing in other authors’ works?
I enjoy seeing the story progress naturally. It should progress naturally. If it is bleak, so be it. I do, however, tend to be drawn toward art that is bleak in nature as I believe it offers more opportunity for a good story. Where is the conflict if everything is roses and wine?
The bleakness of Nothing Men is why publishers didn’t want to touch it. They universally loved it until its conclusion. That ending caused me more problems than anything else in the novel. They wanted a “happy” ending. I won’t give away what happens for those who haven’t read it, but my response to all of them was that if I changed the ending to what they wanted, it would make the entire story up until that point moot. It would ruin all that came before it, and I could not see how they could not get that. It was frustrating, to say the least.
I think people, for the most part, are conditioned to want and expect uplifting endings. They want the hero to ride off into the sunset with the girl. That is fine for some stories, but not all. When writing this particular tale, I knew it wasn’t going to end in any sort of way that was good, but I wasn’t sure of its ending. I knew I couldn’t be delving into this subject matter and have it be a joyous time for readers. As a reader, I appreciate that in a story. I want something that doesn’t hold back its punches. Ironically, I may have done this a bit too well.
I have had several readers tell me that there is a point they get to (and it is almost always the same moment in the novel – where the teen boy is being chased through the woods) and they can’t go any further. They won’t go any further. It makes them nervous. It makes them upset. It makes them fearful. It’s a horror story. It should do those things! I love hearing that they can’t finish it, though. I know that sounds strange, as one would think I want them to finish the story, but I take it as a compliment. I did my job. As a reader, when I get to that point, I respect that … and I push on. I will say, however, if a reader gets to that point in the story and really doesn’t think she or he can handle it, the book should be shelved as it gets worse. You have been warned.
What’s your opinion on supernatural beings such as vampires and Bigfoot?
Bigfoot, of course, is something that Northern California is known for. I have had plenty of people, people whom I trust, tell me of their experiences with seeing it. I have also had some experiences (not Bigfoot related) when I was younger, with things that had a definite supernatural feel to them. I do believe there are things we can’t yet explain or haven’t discovered. Today’s magic is tomorrow’s science, so to speak. That said, I do try to take a skeptical look all of these things.
The whole vampire culture, however, bothers me. I hate sexy, safe vampires. Give me the bestial 30 Days of Night vampires over that Twilight crap any day. Why should horror be safe? Why should our monsters be defanged?
The world is a better place when there is mystery and fear. Fear makes us cautious. It not only keeps us alive, but reminds us of what it feels like to live. You can’t fully appreciate life until you’ve understood death. We have horror stories to remind us of that. We have an interest in the supernatural to remind us that when life has mystery it is infinitely more enjoyable. I like living in a world where people hunt ghosts and get grainy photos of hairy beasts. I like the mystery and the aura of fear associated with the unknown. These things serve multiple purposes, but the end result is that they make the world we live in more interesting.
Looking at the titles and blurbs of your previous books, Melinda and A Dead Friend, is horror a genre that you’re comfortable with and will continue to write about?
Oh yes. I love horror, and have since I’ve been a little boy. Even when I write in other genres (like crime), there are elements of horror in there. When I write horror, which is most of what I write when it comes to fiction, I’m exploring things I want to read about. I’m delving into characters I want to know. I like pushing the envelope in unexpected ways, and based on reactions I’ve gotten, I think I succeed most of the time. Sometimes too well.
I once had an editor ask me for a dark piece for his magazine. I provided what he wanted, and he rejected it for being “too dark.” I found that to be an amazing reaction and asked what he would do if I was asked to write a comedic piece. Would he reject it for being too funny? Of course he wouldn’t. Other genres don’t have the same constrictions as horror. Horror is the one place where you can really push forth ideas and scenarios that will get under someone’s skin in such a way that they will reject it even if they are a fan of it. It’s a genre that often loses for succeeding. That makes it the most dangerous of all the genres, and that is something I will always want to explore. What is the point of writing if you can’t push those buttons or make people think about those things?
If someone wants their art or entertainment to be safe, then there is plenty out there from which to choose. I’m not interested in reading safe stories, and I am definitely not interested in writing them, which is why I shall always work with horror in one way or another.
I believe there’s interest into adapting NOTHING MEN into a film. Can you tell us anything about that?
There is interest from a couple of different directors. There is nothing solid yet, though, and I’m not holding my breath. At first the idea was kind of exciting, but then I started to look at it much the same way James Ellroy looks at the movies of his books: they are separate entities.
I really wanted Shane Ryan to do the film, but he has declined for a number of reasons. He is the one director I thought could really capture all the points of the novel quite well, as he has proven himself able to do everything from comedy to horror. I thought he could bring a real menace to an adaptation, while still utilizing his own vision. There are other directors who have very interesting takes on how they’d want to do it, though, which intrigues me. We shall see what happens. If it never gets made, my life won’t end.
In your opinion, what’s vital to writing a good horror novel?
Besides the aforementioned characters? A good sense of horror and story. You have to know what works for disturbing scenes, for horrific scenes, for terror scenes and so on. At the same time, you have to be a slave to the story. If you have a scene you are dying to do, and the story isn’t dictating that it be in there, you have to be brave enough to lose that scene no matter how much you love it. Too many writers keep that stuff in there despite the fact that it disrupts the story. And too many writers confuse “shock” with “scare.”
I have been accused of going for pure shock value, but if you look at what I write, you see that just isn’t the case. Now, what I write can be shocking and it can also shock people when I didn’t mean it to, but I try to never do anything for pure shock value. Everything I write is paced in such a way that the scares come when I want them, and I don’t force them on a reader simply because I love a scene or think he or she needs a jolt.
Going back to character, if you don’t have good characters in a story, you really have nothing. There is nothing for the audience to relate to. Unfortunately, I think good characters are taking a backseat to set pieces, and audiences are getting used to that. These days, a series of scenes is sometimes more important to audiences than the characters in those scenes. I find this disheartening, and I blame editors. Those same editors who told me the ending of Nothing Men was too “depressing” were wrong. How do I know this? The end has been cited several times as being readers’ favorite part of the book. Reviews have called it out. I’ve gotten e-mails about it. These same editors who hated that ending are dictating a lot of what the public reads, and they are simply getting it wrong, which leads to the audience conditioning I mentioned earlier.
At the very basic level, the things that make for a good horror story are the same things that make for a good story of any genre.
What’s your favourite book?
That is an unfair question. It is really so mood dependent, isn’t it? The Shining would be the one that was most influential to me becoming a writer. Selfish, Little caused me nightmares and blew my mind. Necessary Illusions changed the way I look at media. Anything by Lovecraft causes me to feel inferior and makes me write better. I love books far too much to pick a favorite.
What’s your favourite book-to-film adaptation?
This is also a tough one, but for different reasons. I really don’t like films based on books. I try to avoid them when possible because there are a lot of filmmakers out there with original ideas who can’t get their work made because studios want to go with a sure bet. I understand that. Hollywood is a business, after all. There is one movie, however, that stands out as being an adaptation that not only has its own vision but also captures the story and the feel of the original work in such a way that it pays tribute to it in the most spectacular fashion.
Requiem for a Dream.
The film is simply amazing. I know a lot of people have a hard time watching it. They should have a hard time with it, as it is about people caught in a downward spiral of drug addiction. Why should that be something entertaining or easy to stomach?
What can we expect to see next from Doug Brunell?
I have quite a bit I am working on right now. On the writing front, I have two manuscripts in the first draft and rewrite stage (one of which is going to bother a lot of people), a book of short stories I’m putting together, and a film review book that is taking forever to complete. I have a few completed manuscripts I’m shopping around, too.
My daughter and I may also be hosting a horror show soon, which I will keep people posted on through the usual social media venues.
Thank you for the interview! I appreciate the questions and am quite honored by the experience.
Thanks very much Doug!
NOTHING MEN is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon