An Exorcism of Genre

The summer before I entered fifth grade, my mother penned a handwritten note giving her permission for me to check-out adult books from the library. The public library was a recent addition to our small town and constructed inside the new middle school consolidating the county’s disbanded junior highs. Mom wasn’t sure what protocols these unfamiliar teachers might follow but wasn’t about to let rules keep her son from all those laminated Stephen King hardcovers. The letter eventually caused trouble when I got caught reading The Gunslinger in class instead of the assigned Gary Paulsen or whatever. I couldn’t be blamed for this. Who could care about kids’ books while Roland tracked The Man in Black across the desert? I was eager to bypass what felt like steppingstone adolescent genres.

Horror was my first love, but an obsession with crime fiction set in after I found tattered copies of Lawrence Block’s A Dance at the Slaughterhouse and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes at a used bookstore on vacation. I tore through both on the beach without even noticing my coming sunburn. There were traces of horror snaking through those novels: the snuff film in Slaughterhouse and the specter of Scudder’s alcoholism that threatens his hard-won sobriety in Ginmill, but a separation, however artificial and weak, remained between the genres.

As a reader, I never thought much about genre and considered it nothing more than the placeholder bookstores needed when shelfing products. As I started to publish, I found the divide more concrete. Publishers preferred fiction neatly defined into a single category, but I couldn’t shake the desire to take those fearful moments found in the best crime fiction and blend it with supernatural horror. This seemed to be present in other media, particularly the comics that filled my college years like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing runand his working-class mage John Constantine who really grabbed my attention. The original Hellblazer titles were a revelation. Here was a gritty, compromised character who’d be at home in the darkest Noir, but who moved through a world of magic and religious dread. Constantine might encounter gangsters reminiscent of Get Carter era Michael Caine or a succubus in the same issue without breaking the narrative spell. I wanted that freedom in my stories.

Growing up in Appalachia removes some of the abstractions from our metaphors. My coal miner grandfather used to tell ghost stories without a hint of farce. At six, his blind monster Raw Eyes crawling from the depths of an abandoned mine to devour stray cats seemed completely plausible. My second novel, The Poison Flood involves a chemical spill with contaminants producing horrific sores and a death that might not be too far from the disease in Poe’s “The Masquerade of Red Death.” The novel also features a band who perform in ghoul make-up like the punk kid progenies of Alice Cooper and The Misfits. Still, these remained distant reflections on the horror works by writers like Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum or William Martin, who previously published under the name Poppy Z. Brite. I still wanted it both ways. I wasn’t satisfied with the haunted men and women in my hardboiled stories. I desired their ghosts.

Head Full of Lies, the second novel in the series, continues with Harlan haunted by a ghost from his past and plunged into a new case after a pair of teenagers steal a grimoire from his private collection. The thieves plan on selling the book to a dangerous practitioner of magic, setting off a chase that leaves several bodies in their wake. It’s a propulsive road novel where we follow our protagonists toward an apocalyptic conclusion. It has all the things I wanted in a traditional crime novel. A reclusive, tarnished private investigator, murderous young lovers on the road, double crosses and deception, but also a coven of witches and a man rumored to have the ability to steal his enemies’ souls. Philip Marlowe only had to worry about losing his soul in a metaphorical sense.     

While writing both novels, my grandfather’s ghost stories kept leaking in. The more I considered Harlan as a man carrying the guilt of adolescent sins, the more I knew he inhabited a ghost story. Not just the notions of the protagonist metaphorically hounded by the events of a troubled past, but a character facing an apparition the way Banquo visited Macbeth’s banquet. By the end of my fist draft, I’d written something directly inspired by my horror idols, yet remaining deeply rooted in the thriller and crime traditions I’d previously mined.

In a way, these books were an exorcism. I finally put ghosts on the page.

jordan-farmer

Jordan Farmer is the author of Head Full of Lies, Lighthouse Burning, The Poison Flood, and The Pallbearer. He was born and raised in a small West Virginia town, population approximately two thousand. He earned his MA from Marshall University and his PhD at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. For more information, visit jordanfarmerauthor.com or follow @JordanFarmerPhD on X (formerly Twitter).