Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Black Centipede Is...

The Black Centipede and related characters are part of a grand concept I came up with myself and started writing and publishing on the web.

They had actually been festering in my skull for more than 20 years-- a proposed comic book that never made it off the ground-- and it seemed about time to let them out.

I realized I wasn't getting any younger. So I started cranking out prose like a man possessed. Well, the Black Centipede Press web project caught the eye of Tommy Hancock at Pro Se Press, and they have now published the first Black Centipede novel, "Creeping Dawn: The Rise of the Black Centipede."
(Order it now from Amazon:
The Black Centipede is a traditional pulp action hero who refuses to behave like one. He casually breaks every rule in the book. Then he writes new rules. Then he breaks those. He is the world's greatest action hero. He is a dangerous madman. He is both criminal and crimefighter, pursuing an agenda that he himself has yet to fully define.

His career has spanned 80 years (so far), and he has become involved with some of the most famous and infamous individuals of the 20th and 21st centuries. "Creeping Dawn" takes up his story in the pivotal period between 1927 and 1933.
In his fictional world, the Centipede is both a real-life crime fighter and the star of a successful pulp adventure magazine, which presents highly-fictionalized accounts of his adventures. The series explores, among other things, the disparity between the public image and the man himself. We also learn the "shocking truth" about several well-known historical people and events. In the world of the Black Centipede, absolutely nothing is what it seems to be.
THE CITY OF ZENITH, home of the Black Centipede, is a living example of the uncertainty principle. It is on the East or West Coast, or one of the Great Lakes, or the Mississippi River. Everyone has lived there at one time or another, including you.

Zenith is one of the most versatile cities in the United States. It is as large or as small as it needs to be for whatever story I happen to be writing at a given time. I did not, however, discover it myself. The city was founded by Sinclair Lewis. According to WIKIPEDIA, "Winnemac is a fictional U.S. state invented by the writer Sinclair Lewis. His novel Babbitt takes place in Zenith, its largest city (population 361,000, according to a sketch-map Lewis made to guide his writing). Winnemac is also the setting for ‘Gideon Planish,’ ‘Arrowsmith,’ ‘Elmer Gantry,’ and ‘Dodsworth.’"

Inspired by the work of the late Philip Jose Farmer, I have developed the habit of treating fictional characters as though they actually lived, and people who actually lived as though they were fictional characters. The Centipede has an elaborate history, for which I have created artifacts. Amelia Earhart, Frank Nitti, and William Randolph Hearst have prominent roles in the saga.
Farmer's biography of Doc Savage, along with his "Riverworld" novels, started wheels turning in my head that are still grinding today. Farmer's influence on my own work cannot be overstated.

The Black Centipede himself began to take shape many years ago, when I read Farmer's essay,
"The Fourfold Vision," in "Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life," which discusses the work of Lester Dent, E.E. Smith, Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs. Now you know who to blame for the connection I made between Burroughs and pulp heroes! Farmer pointed the way.

The Centipede was originally conceived as a cross between Burroughs and the Shadow, with a dash of Doc Savage. (Black centipedes are a loathsome centerpiece of Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch.") Like Doc, he makes his home/headquarters in the top floors of the tallest skyscraper in the city; he is addicted to the use of clever gadgets of his own invention; and he performs brain operations on criminals. Of course, these operations involve the application of hot lead to the troublesome organ. (Though the survival rate is zero, so is the rate of recidivism.)
The Centipede shares Burroughs' enthusiasm for orgone accumulators, the cut-up method, and quoting Shakespeare, as well as a certain unfortunate vice they both have in common with Sherlock Holmes. I have three other series, aside from "Tales of the Black Centipede." All of them sprang from my first novel, "The Optimist Book One: You Don't Know Jack," as did the Centipede himself. All of my "stars" started life as supporting characters in this novel. Here is a mercifully brief synopsis:
JACK CHRISTIAN ("THE OPTIMIST") is the grown-up former kid sidekick of deceased superhero Captain Mercury. After 12 years away from his home city of Zenith, Jack is lured back by the promise of a substantial trust fund. When he gets there, he meets one oddball after another, starting with Vionna Valis, a strange young woman with a startling secret that nobody-- herself included-- knows. An encounter with what purports to be the ghost of Captain Mercury puts Jack and Vionna on the trail of the Black Centipede. Along the way, they run afoul of the ghost of Jack the Ripper, and seek the help of Doctor Unknown Junior.

In the beginning, Jack Christian was going to be my star. That was how I had it planned. The Centipede, Vionna, Mary Kelly and Dana Unknown were to be his supporting cast.
Well, John Lennon once said that life is "what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." I can now confirm that the same is true of fiction. The supporting cast staged a coup, leaving poor Jack behind. I now regard the Optimist as an artistic failure, but one that still has considerable merit. I don't plan to continue the series in its original form. Jack Christian has been co-opted by Doctor Unknown Junior to serve as her "Watson."

Vionna and Mary's first adventure,
"CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF A KIND WE'D RATHER NOT THINK ABOUT," may be read in its modest entirety by clicking HERE.
You will find a nifty preview of Doctor Unknown Junior's first solo outing, "The Return of Little Precious" by clicking HERE.

Philip Jose Farmer's inspiration came to me not only through his own novels and stories, but also by way of two lengthy conversations he was gracious enough to endure with the young fan that I was some 20-odd years ago. (Very odd years, for the most part.) I will always treasure those memories, and hope that I can do them justice now. I only wish Farmer were here to see this offspring of his vision come to fruition. It is to him-- and to the Original Centipede, William S. Burroughs-- that I dedicate the Black Centipede's maiden voyage.
William Burroughs 1960
William S. Burroughs, 1960. Photo by Brian Duffy. (Authorized for use with attribution.)

An Older Interview with ALL PULP:
January 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011

NINE FOR THE NEW (New Creator Spotlight)


AP: Chuck, welcome to ALL PULP! First, can you tell us about yourself, some personal background?

CM: I’m a lifelong fan of comics, pulps, detective stories, horror movies, and so forth. I’ve got a BA in creative writing from the University of South Alabama, and have worked as a journalist and a paralegal, among other things.

AP: As a writer, what influences have affected your style and interests the most over the years? Do you have a particular genre/type of story you prefer to write?

CM: In terms of writing style, the craft of writing itself, my four biggest influences, or role models, are Flannery O’Connor, William S. Burroughs, Carson McCullers and Hunter S. Thompson. Each of them had things—and this is more in terms of style than content—that I admire and have tried to cultivate in myself.

I should also mention Rex Stout and the Nero Wolfe novels and stories. There are some pretty strong echoes of Archie Goodwin in my first-person protagonists, I think.

Another big influence on me was the AP Stylebook. Working as a journalist, I learned to practice a certain economy of words, and how to get the most out of a limited number of them. Though I do tend to get long-winded when I’m not working under any restraints.

AP: What about genres that make you uncomfortable? What areas within pulp are a little bit intimidating for you as an author?

CM: Going into it, I didn’t have a lot of experience doing pure action scenes. I was kind of intimidated by that, and wasn’t sure I could pull it off. But I’ve gotten my feet wet, and it’s getting easier to do them, and they seem to flow better as time goes on. It’s one of those things that you don’t want to overdo, but you really can’t have a piece of pulp fiction without it. I’m learning new ways to handle it, and ways in which I can make it more unique to the characters I write. Vionna Valis is going to have a much different approach to a fight or a chase scene than the Black Centipede will.

AP: Are you a pulp fan? If so, how has that affected you as a writer of pulps. If you aren’t a longtime fan, then why pulp?

CM: Well, I’m a comic book fan literally as far back as I can remember. And, of course, there’s been a lot of cross-pollination between comics and pulps. I first encountered the Shadow and Doc Savage in their early-70s comic book incarnations, from DC and Marvel, respectively. Not long after that I got into the paperback reprints of the pulp magazine tales, and realized that these particular characters worked better in this format than they did in comics. Now, I had been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a few years, the Conan Doyle stories, and was also into H.G. Wells and a few other things. And I saw all of that as something completely different from comic books, though not inconsistent with them, if you see what I mean. But characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage seemed like sort of a “missing link.”

At this point, I can see how everything connects, and have no trouble moving from one genre or medium or era to another. You can have Sherlock Holmes in a comic book and Batman in a novel, and the two can interact anywhere—books, comics, movies, whatever.

AP: What do you think you bring to pulp fiction as a writer?

CM: I have a pretty good imagination, and I also have a head full of comic books and pulp magazines and detective stories and monster movies. I bring a lot of different elements into my stories. I mine a lot of sources. You’ll find bits and pieces from all over the place. And I think I combine them in unique ways, and draw from them things that have not been seen before. And I use a lot of humor. I guess one of my main influences there would be the old “Kolchak: the Night Stalker” TV show, of which I have been a devoted fan since the night the first episode aired. The show was a great mixture of pulp detective and classic horror sensibilities—like Sam Spade got his wires crossed with a Universal Studios monster movie. Darren McGavin held it all together as Kolchak, who was a very funny guy, very accessible character. Not anybody’s idea of a superman. But, at the same time, you took him seriously as a monster hunter. He wasn’t an idiot. Most of the people he dealt with thought he was, but the viewer was in on the secret and could relate. Kolchak was an ordinary guy who kept running up against extraordinary threats—and he always won! That really worked its way into my blood, and I think I have that kind of sensibility in mind with any character I write.
AP: You have an extensive website already chock full of your work. Just Who is The BLACK CENTIPEDE?

CM: The Black Centipede started out as a very peripheral character in a comic book series I wanted to do twenty or so years ago. As originally conceived, he was a sort of cross between the Shadow and William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is an author I find fascinating in terms of his personal life and things he has said and done, though much of his work is unreadable. Not all of it. He did some fine work. His first novel, “Junkie,” was a big influence on my own writing style. It was the only one of his works that I would cite as an influence, but it was a pretty profound one. It was a very low-key, matter-of-fact, reportorial style he used, which I’ve always found to be the best way to present sensational material. I never got into his more experimental stuff, like “The Ticket That Exploded.” And there’s a pulp connection there, because I first got interested in Burroughs through Philip Jose Farmer’s Doc Savage biography. In the chapter called “The Fourfold Vision,” he discusses E.E. Smith, Lester Dent, Henry Miller and Burroughs.

Anyhow, as I say, the Centipede was just this little grain of an idea in my head for a long time. The comic book thing never happened back then, and I forgot about it in the press of other things. Then, a couple years ago, I decided wanted to get serious with my writing, and start producing some original material. It always helps if you actually HAVE some, and so I went back to those old comic book characters I’d never done anything with. That turned into “The Optimist Book One: You Don’t Know Jack,” which focused on Jack Christian, a 20-something guy who had, when he was much younger been the kid sidekick of a superhero called Captain Mercury. Mercury had died years before under very dodgy circumstances, and Jack’s life had pretty much gone to hell. The novel deals with his return to the city of Zenith and his involvement with an assortment of oddball characters, including the Black Centipede.

As I was writing it, the Centipede evidently decided he wasn’t happy with his relatively minor role, and started demanding more “screen time.” I started to see the potential in this character whose very long life—he had been active since the late 20s-- was a question mark, and I had alluded to past adventures—rather like Conan Doyle did in the Sherlock Holmes stories, when he mentioned things like “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” and “The Politician, the Lighthouse, and the Trained Cormorant.”

So, once I had finished the novel, which I posted and promoted myself, online—I realized that, with the internet, I could do more than just submit manuscripts to publishers and sit around waiting for a response—I decided the next step would be to produce some short stories featuring some of the supporting cast from “The Optimist.”

The Black Centipede was the obvious choice for the first of these, and I wrote “Wisconsin Death Trip.” Set in 1957, it tells the story of the Centipede’s involvement in the strange case of the notorious Ed Gein. Since the Centipede’s career spans about 80 years (so far), I thought it would be a nice touch to have him meet and interact with genuine historical personages. In “Forty Whacks: the Secret origin of the Black Centipede,” he has a fateful encounter with Lizzie Borden, and in “Gasp, Choke, Good Lord,” an homage to the old EC horror comics of the 50s, he meets Dr. Fredric Wertham, William M. Gaines, and Albert Fish.

AP: The Centipede’s universe is peopled with other characters who also appear in stories on your site. Tell us a bit about each of them if you would?

CM: The other character from “The Optimist” that I’ve really taken and run with is Vionna Valis. I’ve started a series about her and her friend, Mary Kelly, and the detective agency they operate in Zenith. Mary is an interesting character, because she is also a real person—Mary Jane Kelly, who was the last known victim of Jack the Ripper back in 1888. Much of the action in “The Optimist Book One” centers around the activities of what appears to be the malevolent ghost of the Ripper, and the efforts of Jack and his friends to contain him. The Black Centipede comes up with the idea of summoning the spirits of the Ripper’s original victims to lend a hand. Well, the whole thing gets a bit out of hand, and the five victims end up manifesting, not as ghosts, but as living, breathing women.
Vionna is a rather troubled young woman. Most of her past is a complete blank to her. She has somehow lost almost all of her memories, and she shares space in her head with something she calls her “roommate.” This is an entity of unknown origin and nature that communicates information to her—sometimes helpful, sometimes just puzzling. This whole thing was going to be a major part of the storyline in the continuing “Optimist” series, but since I have put that on the back burner to concentrate on these individual adventures, the solution to this mystery will have to wait a while, and I downplay it somewhat in Vionna’s current adventures. There have been two of these so far: “Close Encounters of a Kind We’d Rather Not Think About,” in which Vionna and Mary learn some disturbing truths about the phenomenon of alien abduction, and “Vionna and the Vampires,” in which the girls meet the ghost of Sherlock Holmes, and learn how Professor James Moriarty came to supplant Dracula as Lord of the Vampires.

AP: What is your creative process as far as developing a character? What techniques or steps do you take?

CM: I will come up with a basic concept, then just start writing. The characters usually flesh themselves out during that process if they’re any good at all. Everything I do is first-person narrative, and so far I have three primary narrators: Jack Christian, the Black Centipede and Vionna Valis. So, whichever one I’m writing as, I “get into character,” so to speak, and then just take it wherever it goes. The characters then develop through these extended glimpses into their minds, or, for characters that are important but do not narrate, through their interactions with the characters that do.

AP: What’s coming from Chuck Miller? Any projects you want to discuss? Publications?

CM: Right now, I’m working on something for Pro Se. “Pulp Friction” is a story about the Black Centipede’s earliest days as a crimefighter in Zenith, and deals with some of the trials and tribulations he experienced while establishing himself. It’s set in 1933, six years after the events in “Forty Whacks,” and the “real world” guest-stars include William Randolph Hearst, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Frank Nitti, among others. We also get some insight into three of the Black Centipede’s arch-enemies, “Bloody” Mary Jane Gallows, Doctor Almanac, and the Stiff. Hearst takes on the job of polishing up the Centipede’s public image, which our hero has tarnished through the use of excessive violence. The Centipede has a sort of troubling amorality at this stage of his career. One thing I want to explore with the series is the way in which his character develops between 1933 and 2011.

And just on my own, for Black Centipede Press, I’m working on the first Doctor Unknown Junior story. Doctor Dana Unknown is the daughter of the original superhero/sorcerer Doctor Unknown. The original Doctor has retired after a traumatic incident in which he accidentally destroyed the planet Earth. He and Dana were able to monkey with the time stream and erase the incident from history. Which was good, it had a happy ending, but the whole thing really took its toll on him, as you can imagine. Dana appeared in “The Optimist Book One,” and I thought she ought to have some adventures of her own. So I have teamed her up with Jack Christian (as her “Watson”), and we will soon learn the harrowing tale of “The Return of Little Precious.”

I’m also doing “The Journal of Bloody Mary Jane", the inside scoop on the Black Centipede’s arch-enemy.

AP: Chuck, you’ve been awesome! Thanks!

CM: Thank you! I enjoyed it!

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