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DD: Thanks for plugging in, Fox! Tell us about your most recent projects.
TFD: October has me on the move every hour of the day, and I’m always struggling to promote horror and just enjoy it. My show, What Are You Afraid Of? Horror & Paranormal Show has just reached episode 100. +100 hours of interviews, paranormal investigators, horror authors, horror fiction, ghost stories, banter, music and sketches. You can imagine this is a busy time for us, so we provide extra content and more shows right through Halloween. You can find the shows at www.whatareyouafraidofpodcast.com.
So right now it’s mostly promotion, social media. I organized and hosted a horror reading at Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia, one of America’s oldest haunted sites, my Ravenloft D&D sessions, and I’m busy working on a crime short story for a high profile project. I also did an article on writing the modern ghost story based on the work I’ve done interviewing both paranormal authors and studying ghostlore over the last three years.
DD: Your novel MERCY was an incredibly emotional and visceral tale. What's the backstory?
TFD: I thank you for writing a blurb for the back.
I wrote Mercy as a catharsis for the suffering I have endured. And here goes the story again. At 18, I was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma, two types actually growing in the same malignancies: large cell (non-hodgkins) and hodgkins disease. I’m the 10th documented person in the world to have this rare cancer, and no one had survived before. My doctors told me that the treatment would be intense and would probably kill me, and even if I survived, I would be crippled for the rest of my life. They offered me a choice. I wanted to see if Doctor Who ever came back, so I gave it a go. I had three intense bouts of chemotherapy and daily radiation for six months at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, going down every day to be burned on my head, neck and chest. I dropped down to 90 pounds. I nearly didn’t survive, in fact, I died right before Samhain while in hospital. Once I got through it, I began to improve, getting out on Halloween. As you can imagine, Samhain is a special time for me.
I wrote Mercy to help me deal with the violation and pain of invasive medical treatment. They butchered me, burned me, sucked marrow out of my hips, fluid from my spine, placed me naked on freezing steel tables covered in lead, forced wax blocks into my mouth, drew countless vials of blood from shriveled veins, swelled my throat, hurt my memory, my ability to concentrate, speak, damaged my spine, my legs and left me in constant pain. I don’t remember what it feels like to be normal, and I’ve been living a half-life every since. It destroyed my teeth and jaw, and now, when I’m not dealing with the other malignancies that pop up because of the radiation, I am fighting to repair my jaw before sepsis kills me or infection damages my heart. I am traumatized. I suffer PTSD from the experience, and Mercy turns that trauma into a metaphor for that trauma. I don’t remember doctors in white coats trying to heal me. I remember demons lost to a dark God trying to suck out my vitality and eat it. The process of treatment de-conditioned me, prepared me in some way to face the beating heart. It prepared me the way we prepare meat to be roasted. All the time, I was preparing to die, hanging in a fog, and the past haunted me. I didn’t die quickly. Layer by layer, I melted, burned away by the great white gamma face, evaporating until only my raw primal lifeforce remained. The world looks quite different to me, and I’ve never lost that vision, never quite returned to human state.
My protagonist, Willie Saint, is going through the same process. He’s dying and is brought to Mercy Hospital—a decayed place, left to rot in a distant field, far away from civilization. The doctors feed on him, and he begins a journey, haunted by the people in his past, the lost loves. Eventually, he uncovers the secrets to the hospital, discovering an inner world. Old gods manifest in fungus, growing from the heart below the hospital, and he must resolve his life before finding peace in death.
DD: What does your writing space look like?
TFD: My writing space is in me. I’m in a lot of pain and suffer neurological dysfunction from the aforementioned radiation and chemotherapy. And I’m living with my in-laws while my wife finishes grad school through UNC (2 months to go) so my office travels with me. I have a nice laptop, a bookbag, portable mouse, headphones, a pillow for my back and Malcolm the plush fox (often X2 Malcolm, the stunt double or as my wife calls him, the false Malcolm as the original has gotten threadbare. So really, it’s me, my bed or a comfortable chair when I am strong enough to spend the day out of the house. That’s my favorite though: a comfortable chair, the smell of books everywhere, a venti latte with half-and-half, vanilla syrup and extra shot of espresso. I put the headphones in, start Napster and I’m working on the project of the day. It is meager, but I love being among the world when I write. It takes me out of myself.
DD: It being Halloween, let me ask: have you ever had a paranormal experience?
TFD: I think everyone has, if they choose to recognize them. Most just brush it off or ignore it. When I was young, a man’s yelling woke me from a deep sleep. I was terrified to move then finally ran for the other side of the house. While staying in an old hotel in Dublin, Ireland on my honeymoon with Allison, in the night, I heard footsteps coming down the hall then into our room. Something pushed my side of the bed down, but there was nothing there. My wife, being her usual unflappable self, asked it to let us get some sleep since we were jetlagged. I also nearly boarded the Philadelphia Ghost Bus of Despair while walking around Philadelphia after the first of several oral surgeries I’ve had done to correct some nasty post-radiation damage. The bus stops on occasion to pick up the lost and rides around for years in a fog. You can find references to all these supernatural smatterings at www.whatareyouafraidofpodcast.com.
DD: On the zombie front, is there anything you'd like to see more (or less) of in the genre?
TFD: I would like to see more zombie anthologies again. They’ve ‘died’ out. I had so much fun writing for them, and I miss it. I am watching a volley of new zombie movies lobbed at Amazon Prime. I’d like to see zombies retake their mantle of political satire, as mediums of expression for our social ills. George Romero always wrote with a theme in mind, and our best horror always shared a viewpoint about our humanity. Zombies exposed darkness in the living, showing us at our basest natures and how foolish, petty, gluttonous and mindless we can be.
“Zombies of Mass Destruction” is one of the newer zombie movies that actually continues this tradition. We interviewed the director and co-writer, Kevin Hamedani. As an American of Persian heritage, Kevin’s world changed as a teen after 9-11 and the Iraq War. Exposed to this subtle racism in America, he channeled his disenfranchisement into a script, selecting zombies as the best antagonists. In the movie, zombies are the opposition, but the real issue is the prejudice of the small town that suffers the outbreak. One Iranian girl and a homosexual couple must endure the insane persecution of some of the townspeople who choose the night of the zombie apocalypse to hunt down those who are different and blame them for the attack on their security. Kevin himself plays the iconic terrorist who unleashed the virus. We interviewed Kevin on episode 100: Zombies Strike Back at www.whatareyouafraidofpodcast.com
I thank you for the interview, David. You can find Mercy online at Amazon:
Posted by Dave Dunwoody at 9:28 AM