So at midnight tonight it will be my birthday. I will be 48 years old. I mean, godDAMN, right? Where does all this fucking time go?
I believe that I belong to a special generation, though—a generation that saw many important changes in the world and the beloved mediums of entertainment we honor and aspire to be a part of. Sometimes it seems as if oceans of time have passed. And they have. Just a few years can be an ocean. But, often, I feel as if I am just starting my journey and that so much of my “youth” was spent in training, honing craft, and preparing for what will come next. Looking back on the years, it’s difficult to even imagine the boy I was in the 90s or the early oughts, because he’s kind of an alien creature in many ways.
I watched WESTWORLD on Blu-ray last night as part of my birthday weekend celebration—and I mean the entire television series created by Christopher Nolan’s brother, an even younger contemporary of mine, one of the guys out there who is truly changing the face of entertainment with dice rolling stuff. I bought myself WESTWORLD SEASON ONE: THE MAZE on physical media for my birthday because it is the kind of media I love best and the sort of show that speaks to me. My dreams last night were filled with the mystical darkness of what that show is. But I’m talking about it here because (SPOILERS) there is a message in there about the young version of you rushing to confront the world… and the old version of you that looks back thirty years later in some kind of wise, stoic horror at what he used to be and what he has become. I don’t think that message was any accident. The older version of you will always reflect on the many adventures that separate now from then… and you’ll either shake your head or you’ll beam in pride. But you’re never too old to learn something new. During the making of WEB CAM GIRLS earlier this year—which was my first feature length film—the producer told me how much he respected me, how he admired my work ethic and my worldview. “You’re not a kid,” he said. “You’re a real pro.” (And that came from a guy who’s paid every imaginable due in Hollywood.) Sometimes when someone tells you something like that, you’re not even sure who they’re talking about. Because life is surreal and we live in our own skins and the changes we go through are always one day at a time.
What all this kind of means on one level is that I believe you have to really live before you can be a true artist. You have energy and drive when you are young, but you don’t have the surest aim. You can hold a gun and fire on target… but you may shooting in the dark to some extent. That same energy and drive becomes something very different when you are older. And you evolve. Everything I went through as a human being helped define this also—all the things I did, all the people I met, the sex and drugs and rock and roll and so much more besides. All that was part of the journey too. These things define us. They make us what we are. They make us the artists we are.
I thought I would take a few minutes on the eve of my birthday to look back on some of my work down though the ages of my artistic life and let you know what a lot of it means to me now. This will be informative, for those among you unfamiliar with my career… and for everyone else (all five of you), there will be some amusing takes on some old chestnuts. I don’t have much time here, so I will try to be brief. Gonna have super expensive sushi with the girlfriend later. Oh BOY, RAW FISH!
Raw fish, by the way, was something I never cared for as a young man. I hadn’t evolved into that yet. I didn’t ever eat at sushi bars, for example, when I wrote my first novel, which was called:
INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS.
I actually regurgitated a fairly lengthy piece about this book at another website which you can read HERE. But on my birthday, I’m looking back on a young lad of 18, who had just received his first computer for Christmas. And I’m smelling the autumn leaves of wintertime. I’m experiencing a raw whipcrack of urgency at the edge of my breath, like adrenaline focused through a calm breeze, blowing through my eyes. I’m remembering how the world felt during that brief, exciting, youthful time in my life. Do you know what I mean when I say, ‘the way the world felt?’ It’s something most people never speak of and which writers very rarely communicate effectively in even the best books. I tried t do it at the start of this paragraph, but it never comes close, really, because what I am speaking of is totally undefinable by words. Our lives move in phases, which are defined by certain smells, certain sensations, certain tactile feelings—all of which combine into a very specific human memory essence that marks the period and brands it forever in your mind. A lot of it is smell. Like the way certain people or certain houses smell. But a lot of it is—well, magic. It brackets the times of our lives and we can bring it back later, but only in a very abstract way, like dimly remembered dreams. Sometimes I call it memory pheromones. The time in which I first conceived INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS is defined by a very unique series of memory pheromones. Adrenaline in a calm breeze blowing through my eyes.
I had my first computer. I had my first idea for an original, epic length novel, inspired by movie monsters and Clive Barker books. (WEAVEWORLD, in particular.) I ended up writing the first three chapters in an unlined sketchbook with a bound leather cover my dad gave me for Christmas. Fuck the computer. (I sold it later at a pawn shop.) What I wrote in that book, in a scrawl that its damn near illegible to me today, was a quick sketch of an outer space gunfighter bound to earth, wrapped in mummy bandages, scorching in the Texas heat, as he walks the highway, shotgun in hand, his flesh melting away onto the pavement…
MUTANOIDS was the sort of weird experimental work you can probably only get away with when you’re 18. But, to be fair, it took me many years to complete that work. I was 27 when it was finally published. It was this weird misshapen THING I would come back to year in and year out—a sort of touchstone I had to connect with and an albatross I eventually had to get off my neck. The story was shotgun craziness—an escaped convict named Ozzy Hoffmaster goes on a shooting spree in a town full of shape shifting aliens and gets in deep shit with a galactic demigod called The Slimewire. It was equal parts NATURAL BORN KILLERS, John Carpenter’s THE THING and even THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. When I finished the “first draft,” I wrote a sequel, which was eventually folded into the first one, and the whole thing went out to publishers as this big, word-spewing monsterama freak out. And, of course, everyone who read the fucking thing in New York it turned it down. (The edition that finally did come out was self-published.) The reason it got turned down by reasonable adult editors at respectable New York publishing houses is that I was still a young artist. I hadn’t yet paid real dues. It was transparent in my writing at the time. I still think the story and the concepts in the book are rather ambitious and even good—but the lengthy writing period and the fact that I was still basically learning how to do this shit at the time shows painfully in the prose style.
Only 300 copies of that book ever existed. I still have two on my shelf. If you own one, consider yourself lucky if you paid less than a few hundred bucks for it. The thing is rare beyond belief.
What do I think of it now? Well… I’m not sure. I was totally different person. It is a totally different kind of magic. But will say this. The memory pheromone from that project is mighty damn fine. I can still bring it back if I try real hard. It’s almost like being young again. I had my whole life ahead of me and anything was possible. Anything at all.
During the writing of MUTANOIDS, I did other things, of course. I created audio books in collaboration with IMAGE COMICS, for example. I wrote and illustrated an entire unpublished original graphic novel.
And I directed my FIRST MOVIE.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I and my collaborators on that project were part of a weird cinema underground that existed in the late 80s and early 90s—an underground that got their goddamn motion pictures made, however they could, shooting from the hip on VHS tape. Yes, my first movie was one of these “lost” shot-on-video things that have become so popular with certain “retro-philles” on the internet these days. We spent almost two years making the movie, all of it taped on a series of VHS Handycams secured from the local cable access station here in Austin. I wrote an interesting blog about some of this many years ago, which you can read HERE.
What do I think about the movie today?
Today, I am so embarrassed by it that I refuse to even reveal the title in public. Yeah, one of those fucking things. I actually haven’t watched it all the way through in probably ten years. So maybe I really don’t even know what I think of it now. Some friends have been prodding me along for a while now to get to the thing out there for people to see—seeing as how there’s so much hip interest in such work these days. And I have to admit… I’m a little intrigued at how it might be received. I will say that was a horror film, and just the kind of freewheeling tribute weirdness you might expect from a kid like Stephen Romano at the time. The thing is so steeped in homages and shout-outs and callbacks that entire stretches of dialogue are cribbed from films like HELLRAISER and the main charcater is actually named… ughhh…. Sam Raimi. I mean, what the fuck was that kid thinking, right?
To be fair, for the type of home movie style genre it belongs in, we did have some relatively impressive production values. (Just gotta remember we are on the same rack with TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE.) My friend Joe says “it’s got a lot of heart.” In this category of filmmaking, it would probably be considered a mid-range to big budget production, as we did have some financial backing.
But yeah… I was still only 19 years old at the time.
To THE BEYOND.
This was my first work to be published by someone else and not by me. I was 28 at the time of it’s publication. It was an epic graphic novelization of Lucio Fulci’s film, a fully illustrated 120 page comic book retellingof the classic, fully licensed and released in 1998 as the official companion book. As with MUTANOIDS, I had editorship as well as authorship. It was a great school of comic book dos-and-don’ts. I did a lot of the don’ts on that project. Today it is also very rare and hard to find. Only 2,000 copies were printed and sold. (A lot more than MUTANOIDS—but that one was really off the radar, a vanity pressing only, with no ISBN number.) Even then, I was pretty unhappy with THE BEYOND, for many reasons, most of which centered around the rushed nature of the project. From conception to publication, we did the whole thing in, like, five months. The actual writing and creation of the pages was less than half that time. Sometimes I wonder how the hell we pulled that off.
But the amazing thing is… THE BEYOND led me to do ZOMBIE… and then THE GATES OF HELL. And the work got better and better with each new stab at it. And almost 20 years later, it all became the lynchpin of my current publishing enterprise. I resurrected the projects from that era that were worthwhile, rewrote them, and got them out there. Not THE BEYOND, though. That was schoolwork. We’re re-doing that one entirely, and not just the words.
So what do I think of THE BEYOND now? See above. It was all a great and necessary learning step, and led me to the ship I now currently steer. There would have been no Eibon Press without THE BEYOND. And I am grateful as all fucking hell for that. Let this also be a lesson to anyone out there who cares about such nonsense: If at first you don’t succeed… don’t just try harder next time. Keep your schoolwork close to you. Because we learn from it. And a lot of it may have been leading somewhere all along. (Hey, it worked for me.)
Starting in 2000, I also shifted my artistic self into a more critical, self aware place. I started teaching myself more about the craft. I read ON WRITING by Stephen King. Over the next couple of years I even ghostwrote three novels—as well as a really weird follow up to MUTANOIDS called DEADWARP CINEMA—which helped me to further define my art and realize what I did and did not want to continue doing. During this time, I finally learned about deadlines, word counts, page counts and developed certain work ethics that served me really well, as I wrote scripts with PHANTASM maestro Don Coscarelli and penned the first prose work of my career that, to this day, I am still very proud of. And that was:
THE RIOT ACT.
This is a book of shorts stories created over about a four year period of time that represented my true arrival into the world as a fully-formed writing creature. I never once questioned my own voice while writing these stories or reading them later. The words never felt forced or disingenuous. And the stories themselves were from the blackest heart. It was here that I stopped being a young man and became something more serious. Started feeling like that stoic gunfighter looking back at his old, callow self. Or something like that. Today, I still find the work in this book powerful and important. And there’s even some superheroes and mutant monsters in there. I still like all that stuff. Being an adult doesn’t mean you have to let go of the things you love, after all. While this book was being written, one painful little nugget at a time, I came into my own as a screenwriter… which was finally evidenced by the production of my first movie, which was:
MASTERS OF HORROR: INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD
This was a screenplay written in 2004, then made into a short film and released in 2005. It was the first episode of an R-rated Showtime anthology TV series, created by Mick Garris and directed by the darlings of horror cinema, such as John Carpenter and Takashi Miike. Mine was directed by Don Coscarelli, of course. I was his trusted right hand at the time. The script was based on Joe Lansdale, which was also an amazing honor. I was 35 years old. This film was the thing that signaled my official arrival in movies, though making the film was difficult and there still is so much badness attached to it. One particular personal tragedy that befell me during the making of INCIDENT colored the entire experience in a very negative light, and it took me the better part of ten years to recover from that. In a way, it set me back. But in another way, it evolved me. Sometimes our pain does that.
Looking back, I really like the movie now. It is filled with daring ideas and slick filmmaking. Having stood on that set during the filming of every single shot in the movie, it is still almost impossible to separate myself from it… but yes, I think it is good. It may even be scary. You tell me. I am also proud of the role we created for Angus Scrimm, my old friend, who left us last year. He spoke every word I wrote for him, exactly as I wrote it. Our work together will always be a touchstone and a gift.
After MASTERS, I reeled in certain tailspins, as I mentioned, but I kept busy. I published THE RIOT ACT to great critical acclaim. I developed film projects with Don. I wrote a novel that was never published, about my life and the death of my mother.
In 2007, I put all that aside and began SHOCK FESTIVAL.
This was a book project that consumed my every waking moment for almost two years, as I first created it independently in o7, then found a big publisher in 08 and crafted the final version that appeared in bookstores all over the country. This was the first book I ever created to be released by a major imprint. When IDW released the final product to an unsuspecting world in October of that year, I had spent thousands of hours on it… and it remains the most audacious, original and ambitious book of its kind. In fact, there are NO OTHER BOOKS like this one. I made damn sure of that.
For those of you who don’t know, SHOCK FESTIVAL is one of those oversized coffee table books filled with information and rare memorabilia artifacts from all of your favorite sleazebag exploitation movies. It contains over 600 photos, posters, lobby cards and other junk, and it goes into so much depth about the making of these movies and the shady characters behind them that you’d think I knew all these people personally… or maybe I just made it all up.
I made it all up.
That’s what made the project special and unique—it’s actually a very carefully designed illustrated novel, and every piece of memorabilia is manufactured to sell the illusion. That’s the reason you’ve never seen anything like this before and may never again. Just the art requirement alone on this project would have been prohibitively expensive to anyone else because it deals with more than 100 imaginary films—which is why I had to teach myself how to be an illustrator to do it.
This makes SHOCK FESTIVAL the most deeply meaningful project I have ever done in certain ways, because I used it to pull myself up from personal tragedy, invented a whole new “genre” of “mockumentary” book, and learned how to do difficult new things in order to pull it off. I read through most of the book last week… and I have to tell you, guys, it’s a thing that makes me very, very happy. It is one of the great—if not THE great—works of my entire career.
In the 10 years since then, I’ve kept busy, of course. I’ve written a number of novels, such as SAFE IN THE WOODS, RESURRECTION EXPRESS, BLACK LIGHT and METRO. Of these, I’m probably most proud of RESURRECTION EXPRESS, and it brought great new things into my life on many levels.
RESURRECTION EXPRESS is a fast action thriller about a superhero hacker named Elroy Coffin, written in a kinetic first person prose style, which starts claustrophobic and ends epic. It represents every trick I ever learned as a writer—how to create memorable characters, build story, create mystery, make electric action sequences that thrill the reader. It’s also the most driven book I’ve ever written—in that I wrote it in two frantic marathon sessions in 2010, each lasting about one month, in which I never once doubted the ground under my feet. NOT. ONCE. Every word of that one was on sure footing, my path was totally clear—I mean, the damn thing practically wrote itself in a nonstop pounding of keys—and when I finished the last chapter, I was certain I’d have my first best-seller.
Well, I did and I didn’t. RES EX sold almost six thousand copies in hardback and paperback through Gallery Books at Simon and Schuster—which is a damn good showing from a guy with no following in thrillers. That might have even put me on the best seller list on a good week. But the mojo was bad and the numbers didn’t come in at the right times. STILL AND ALL, I am damn proud of that book. It has a certain street-raw vibe that reminds me of THE RIOT ACT. It is rough and uncompromising while being “big” also. And with any luck, you’ll be seeing it as a movie someday. That was one of the great ironies of RES EX. Because of that book, I was pulled back into the film business in a very real and substantial way.
This happened, as I mentioned in my last blog, when a couple of very famous film producers optioned the book and we developed it as a feature. They didn’t care that it wasn’t technically a best seller. They just thought it was a killer story. They wanted to see my boy Elroy on the big screen. We’re still working on it. We still believe in it. Meanwhile, I’m working with them on other projects. Such as the new Lifetime films I wrote, which are coming out in December.
That’s YOU KILLED MY MOTHER and WEB CAM GIRLS.
Then, of course, there’s BOTTOMFEEDER.
This one, ironically, started life as a movie and became something else. I actually wrote the screenplay a few months before I began developing RES EX as a novel. I wrote it fast and dirty as a way to get some very extreme thoughts down on paper, and I was sure the producers would come back horrified and tell me I had done everything wrong. That did not happen, to say the least. In 2014, just before I was run down by a truck and almost killed, I was hired to make the script into a comic book series. I worked on it all throughout my recovery, along with the RES EX screenplay adaptation—which is now called ELROY COFFIN—and it all kinda saved my life.
BOTTOMFEEDER will finally come out in print next month, at abut the same time my Lifetime movies premiere. Incredible Irony.
A further irony is that BF is coming out through that publishing company I started myself with Shawn Lewis, who was my old Fulci comics partner back in the day. So in a way, I’ve come full circle, from the maverick self-pubbing days of MUTANOIDS. Only the work we do now is good, self-assured, and we actually have a business model. And readers who buy our stuff. And fans. And great reviews.
And so how do I look at all this? What was the great lesson I learned? What does the world feel like now? How can I describe the pheromones that will define my memory of all this in a few years. How did your 48th birthday, feel, Stephen?
I think it feels pretty interesting. I feel a coolness in the air—a sharp, tangible energy buzzing just beneath my perception of everything. There’s something sweet about it and something anxious, too. I have love in my life and good work in front of me. I have cold comforts and warmth of a sort, all of it rushing together in a high electric backdraft. It’s something indefinable. It’s the magic of life. It’s always been there. But now, I have this funny feeling the magic has mutated. In a good way. I’m an old gunfighter now, looking back on what he is and where he was before. I see a kid who aspired to greatness… who evolved… and I see life itself, and the people he met there. Some who loved him and some who hated him. Some who stayed and some who had to leave. All of it was important. All of it led him here.
To this moment.
Time to move forward.