Award Winning Fantasy with a Twist!
Over the holidays, I read Eric Lathi’s Roadside Attractions. It’s good to read outside of your comfort zone, and this book was intriguing and a definitely different flavor of urban fantasy than I normally read or write. But while shocking and unpleasant in spots, the well-developed characters were sympathetic and the tightly-drawn world building made the disturbing both palatable and entertaining. Here’s Eric to explain how he does it:
What do you think the appeal of horror is? Why write it?
Horror is really anything we don’t want to happen to ourselves. It can range from the knife wielding maniac who kills kids for having sex to the brain-crushing terror of something like Cthulhu, but it always comes down to the stark, raving madness that comes from trying to survive under terrible odds. In true horror, no one survives. There’s rarely a happy ending in a horror story. I think it digs into our primal natures and our desire to face our own mortality, to be out of control and reduced to pure instinct, like our innate animal nature wants to come out and play. So, writing horror lets me peel away the pleasantries and let the whole, raw character come out.
Of course, like I said, in true horror, there’s rarely a happy ending. The bad guys usually win. From that point of view, I wouldn’t say I write horror since the story doesn’t come to a terrible end and the main characters usually survive. Roadside Attractions is the closest to true horror I’ve done, but even in that story there’s a sense of completion and the bad guys get their due. Well, kind of, anyway. Better Than Dead used horror elements like necromancy and vampires and general brutality to add heft to the tale of change vs status quo. I guess it could be said that Better Than Dead is closer to a traditional horror story since arguably the good guys don’t win. Although, it could also be argued that there were really no good guys in that story to begin with.
That was kind of a rambling answer. A little clearer way of answering it would be to say the appeal of horror is I think people like to feel out of control. Our society is mostly milquetoast. Get up. Drink coffee. Go to work. Sit in a fabric-covered box. Come home. Eat dinner. Sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat. Horror takes us out of that cycle and lets us experience danger. Which, let me tell you, being in danger isn’t fun, but it does help us to remember why milquetoast lives have a certain appeal. Even though I don’t write traditional horror, using horror elements ratchets up the story by putting the reader in a position where things can go disastrously, spectacularly wrong in ways that no one can control and that lets us remember we’re still alive.
You talk about erotica in horror on your blog. What other literary styles do you include – comedy, mythology, history, etc. – and why?
Erotica and horror have been intertwined for a long time. Slasher movies usually revolve around teenagers having sex and getting killed for it. There’s almost an underlying kink to the whole thing. I understand there’s even a slasher subsection of erotica that takes the whole thing a step further. Not exactly my bag, but whatever floats the goat. Personally, I like to include humor and action in my horror. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, too much horror, like too much erotica, gets tedious. Mixing it up a bit can make for a more entertaining story. Look at Ghostbusters – Funny, but with a seriously terrifying storyline. Aliens was the same way. Certainly a horror story, but the action scenes were excellent. In both cases, it was the main characters against something completely implacable, but the humor and action made for a different kind of story. Something more engaging, in my opinion.
Who are your favorite writers and why?
One of my favorites is Tim Powers. A couple of my favorites are The Anubis Gates and Last Call. Both intertwine the fantastical – time travel and gambling mythology – with the normal world. In some ways, it could be considered urban fantasy, but his work is probably more akin to magical realism. He takes deeply detailed real-world things and drops this element of wilding into the story that takes everything in a completely different direction than you’d expect. Frankly, I’d love to have his skills.
Other favorites are the more traditionals like Heinlein. I know it’s passe, but I really loved Starship Troopers. Most people look at it as a story about fascism run awry, but I always felt the underlying message was more of “Hey, you should do something with your life to help others even if it means putting your own butt on the line.”
Going way further back in time even than Heinlein, Walter Gibson and Lester Dent, authors of The Shadow and Doc Savage respectively. They were ostensibly pulp authors that followed formulas, but you have to admire their creativity. Those old 30s and 40s pulp stories were prototypes for our modern superheroes and urban fantasy stories. Not exactly high literature, but they were so much fun to read.
How much research do you do and where do you get your information?
I don’t do a whole lot of research unless there’s something I don’t know much about. Since Roadside Attractions dealt a lot with Satanism and the occult in general, I did some digging into modern Satanism. Many years ago, I read the Satanic Bible. LaVey wrote the whole book and basically conjured up modern Satanism because he saw a huge amount of hypocrisy among the religious folks in his circle and decided to respond to it. If you haven’t read the book, it’s worth a read. It had some creative elements and a few good zingers. I also researched the Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple by digging through their online resources. You’d think there would be some overlap between those two, but they’re very different groups. The Church of Satan follows LaVey and his teachings while the Satanic Temple split away completely and basically became secular humanists with a penchant for dark imagery. They’ve also got some killer T-shirts.
What inspired Roadside Attractions?
A few things directly inspired the plot. One was a small roadside museum in Arizona called The Thing. If you ever travel along I-10 through New Mexico and Arizona, there are billboards for The Thing for, like, a hundred miles in either direction of the place. It’s supposed to a mysterious mummy of a woman and child. The reality is, The Thing is probably just the work of an early Hollywood special effects guy who saw a chance to make a quick buck. I’ve also often felt it would be funny if one of those ghost hunter shows found an actual ghost, and it bit them on the ass. That singular bit became a short story called “Security System.” It was, in a lot of ways, the prototype for Roadside Attractions. That just got a lot more complicated and added in the Satanic elements as my nod to the Satanic Panic of the 80s.
Another inspiration was Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast.” It’s a widely misunderstood song, and Maiden’s imagery didn’t really help with the average person’s interpretation. Just before I started writing Roadside Attractions, I was introducing my son to classical music and Iron Maiden happened to be on the playlist for that day. So, we’re driving along, rocking out, and the whole story clicked together in my head.
Are you a pantser or a plotter? How does that impact your work?
Pantser. 100%. Every time I try to fully plot out a story, it never goes the way I intend. Even back with Henchmen, the final story was completely different from what I envisioned. My current work – a true sci-fi novel called Occultation – didn’t completely wind up where I thought it would go. It started as Lovecraft in space and wound up with aliens, virtual reality, and body swapping.
With Roadside Attractions, I didn’t even bother plotting it. I had an idea – woman gets sacrificed and winds up stuck in a roadside museum where “The Thing” was actually something terrifying – and just went with it. The Stranger was added early on. Jordan and Char were pulled from “Security System.” Hopper came along later because it’s not a Southwest story unless you have a jackalope in it.
What did you enjoy most about your story? What was your biggest challenge?
My favorite part of Roadside Attractions was getting into Jennine’s head. She’s been kicked around most of her life and everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, but she kept her chin up and kept seeing the world as basically a decent place. There are moments where glimpse some darkness in her, but she always tamps it down. I think she grows throughout the story and realizes she doesn’t always have to be perfect. Some of that comes through in her relationship with Hopper and how she goes out of her way to save his body even though it’s been stuffed and mounted for decades. Jennine’s a honest, decent person, and those kinds of people are few and far between.
Dealing with the Stranger was a different beast. While he’s not a good person – or devil, as the case may be – he’s ultimately doing something terrible out of a desire to save his lost love. She’s pretty terrible, too, come to think of it. But I think the best villains aren’t out there doing horrible things simply for the sake of doing horrible things; there’s always a motive and more often than not, that motive is at least partially relatable. So, writing this guy as a complete bastard but keeping him relatable was a juggling act. I mean, sure, he’s a vile, despicable guy, but he’s also going to destroy everything to free the love of his life.
Better Than Dead took that moral flexibility and applied it to all the characters. There really aren’t any “good guys” in that story. All the major players have a goal that’s amiable – stop a problem before it consumes the city, set people free, change the world for the better – but the ways they go about getting to those goals was oftentimes savage. Juggling those elements and keeping all the characters sympathetic was tricky, especially when you get to meet that antagonist face to face and realize she was trained and encouraged to do what she did. Someone made her a weapon and lost control.
About the author:
Eric Lahti grew up looking for UFOs and buried treasure in northwest New Mexico. Unfortunately, he never found either of them. Or maybe he did and he’s just not telling. He did find some good stories to tell at parties about lights in the skies and gold in the ground, though. When he’s not writing, he’s programming and practicing his Kenpo. He’s also an active blogger, waxing philosophical about a range of topics from writing, to martial arts, to politics and religion. Frankly, he fancies himself something of a Renaissance geek about a wide variety of things.
Eric can usually be found on:
About Roadside Attractions:
When Jeninne died, she thought her troubles were over. Then she met a handsome stranger in the afterlife and things spiraled out of control. When a pair of ghost hunters receive a mysterious message to find a ghost, they think they’ve hit the jackpot. Soon, the dead woman and the ghost hunters find themselves caught in web woven by a mysterious stranger, the hit-woman sent from Hell to stop him, and a slumbering mummy. With no one to turn to except the spirit of the last jackalope, they’ll have to delve deep into science, magic, and themselves to stop a great evil from waking up or humanity will suffer an eternity of darkness and agony. A tale of good, evil, and everything in between is unfolding at one of the world’s most mysterious ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS.
About Better Than Dead:
It started small. A still-living severed head on a mop handle, a crime spree where the criminals died immediately after the crime. Soon, Lead Slinger Ace Colton finds himself in the crosshairs and all his slick skills with a gun might not be enough to survive. In a city filled with magical drugs and a budding supernatural war, Ace and Tabitha, a vamp with her own mysterious agenda, play a game of cat and mouse with someone who can not only kill, but bring the dead back to life. As the body count rises, Ace realizes it’s more than just a magic-fueled killing spree. Someone has a plan and time is running out to stop it.
Available on Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/stores/Eric-Lahti/author/B00HUWZM2M