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Chris F'ing Holm: Golden Era Pulp Ninja!

CHRIS F. HOLM IS a scientist in real life. This I know for a fact. In his basement he stands, head shaved, using a medical pencil to draw a dashed line around the circumference of his head. Stares at himself in a mirror, a slew of machinery whirls and blips around us.


           “I had to design most of this myself,” he says, stabbing at the air with his pencil. The machinery whirls and blips in acknowledgement. “None of the gear companies out there would help out. That’s fine. When I finally achieve this—here in the next few minutes—I want it to be without anyone else’s help. You know, all by myself.”
             He looks to me, smiles. “Well, of course, you’re going to cover it. So you’ll get that credit.”
             “Hey, it’s cool.” I eyeball a giant thing lying on a table behind us. Draped in a canvass sheet. A big wet spot at one end. From this angle, under the sheet, it looks like spare tank parts and a corpse-
             “Ryan, hold this.” Holm gives me a buzz saw. A sticker on it reads ‘just click and point’.
              “My blood work came back last week,” he says, tapping a manila folder thick with papers. “DNA, the whole nine. Everything lined up genetically. That’s how I know today is the day.”
              “What exactly are we doing here?” I ask, looking a map of the United States on the wall. Several key cities are circled in red, heavy Xs drawn through them. Dates are written on them. The first is the day after tomorrow.
               “Ryan, have you ever fired a hand-held rail gun?”
               “Do those exist?”
               “One does. Now. Like I said, I built most of this.”
               “You built a hand-held rail gun? I know the Navy has a huge one, the size of a deck turret, but-”
               “Yup. Built a hand-held one. Also, a perpetual motion engine, caseless ammunition, a compact, transportable system for regeneration and life support for previous necrotic tissue. Bunch of other stuff too.”
                “Are you Dr. Frankenstein?”
                “In three weeks, Dr. Frankenstein will look like he played with Tinker Toys.”
                The last date circled in red on Holm’s map is in three weeks.
                Holm, satisfied with the halo of medical pencil wrapping around his skull, takes off his shirt and we walk over to the canvass sheet. In a flourish he swings it back. What lies on the table is simultaneously horrifying and awe-inspiring.
                “Behold.” He says. He can barely contain his smile. “Like I said, I built most of the gear in here. But this, this miracle… can you imagine?”
                I’m starting to imagine, and I want to run. But every step I take, I just hear the crinkling of the plastic drop cloth he and I are standing on and wonder what kind of mess Holm plans on making here.
                The thing on the table has a flip-top head. It’s open, and empty. Holm takes the buzz saw from me and lines it up to the mark along his skull.
                “And I said, let there be life…” He says, turns it on.
The sound of the buzz saw running around Chris’s head is like mosquitos in a night terror. But the burning smell...metal on bone and the coppery highlights…that scent fills my nostrils, vice-grips my brain.
                How he does this I can’t fathom, but as his brain goes inside the flip-top head I drop my stuff and run. Three stairs up and I hear two all the lines and wires pop off the body, a hiss of electrical sparks. Booms crash behind me, maybe footsteps if that tank was real and this wasn’t a hallucination.
                But it follows, hammering up the steps and the taste of adrenaline on my tongue tells me this might be more lucid than a bad trip. I reach the surface of his house and something booms behind me. Searing pain through my back, into my chest. I look down and there is a bloom of blood soaking my shirt, the business end of a grappling hook coming through my ribs and pulling me backwards.
                I fall. The world swirls and flashes in and out. Goes black. Comes back to life in smears of agony. The thing that used to be Chris F. Holm looms above like the angel of death, says, “Wait. What about my interview?”

***

Define noir for the people, please.

Ask five crime writers to define noir, and you'll wind up with six or seven definitions, and maybe a dead body or two. But for my money, noir boils down to bleak humanism. I'm talking shit options. Bad decisions. Dire consequences. And no one to blame for it but ourselves.

I remember you stating in earlier interviews you would read a treasure trove of old pulp and crime books handed down by your cop family and that is what got you writing. Where did the fantastic elements come from?

My mom's side of the family's all about mysteries, but my dad—and, come to think of it, his whole family—always tended toward the fantastical side of the spectrum. Twin Peaks was appointment television in our house, much to my mom's chagrin, and Dad never saw a cheesy sci-fi flick on the video-store shelves he didn't rent.

Also, I was pretty horror-obsessed as a kid, which led me to Stephen King, who smuggles no shortage of weird into his fiction. King was my gateway drug. He led me to McDowell and Matheson and Lovecraft, Gaiman and Powers. They led me to dozens of others.

Since you are a scientist in real life, have you ever tried to make yourself some kind of body suit/weapons system or maybe a formula that mutates you into something awesome? Be truthful. I'm not a scientist and I have done that. Successfully.

Can't say as I have. But once, as a kid, my best friend Dave and I decided to become Batman-style crime fighters. We hollowed out a spot under his house to use as our lair, and set about designing weaponry. We were working on a flamethrower when his mom came home. Can of Raid, box of matches. For some reason, Dave swore the best surface to strike the matches on was a zipper, so when his mom walked in, I had a pair of her son's jeans one hand, a lit match in the other, and Dave was spraying seven feet of toxic flame across her kitchen. That was one of many times I was banned from coming over.

What parts of Chris wind up in your stuff?

Great question. My phobias, for sure: dolls, needles, bugs. My more philosophical obsessions, like the malleability of identity or what it means to live a decent life. A boatload of dumbass jokes. And I'm pretty sure Sam smokes like a chimney because I gave it up a decade back, and to this day I miss it.

What is it about the crime/noir/hardboiled/pulp community that keeps you here? I understand you've also generated a few straight forward crime/thriller books as well. I figure at some point, if for nothing else your background, we'll see some Sci Fi pop up out of you.

For one, I just love mysteries. Have since I was a kid. And no matter how weird my stories get, they're always mysteries at their core, because I don't know how to build any other kind of frame to hang them on. I mean, seriously—how do literary folks know where their story begins or ends?

For two, the people are fantastic. I had no idea when I started writing there was a vibrant community of folks who dug the same stuff I did, so much so that they throw crazy-ass conventions to celebrate it. After being the odd person out most of my life for my obsessions, it was pretty awesome to find my tribe.

I will say this, though: I've been noodling at a sci-fi tale for years now, and one of these days I'll actually write it. It's more scientific thriller than space opera, though, and you can be damn sure there's a mystery at its core.

 Describe your perfect day with me.

With you or to you? Because if you think we're gonna Lady and the Tramp over some spaghetti, well... I'm not giving you a firm no.

I meant with me, and you can think a firm no right now. But please, go ahead.

My perfect day in general? Kickass song on the alarm clock getting me out of bed. Strong coffee in my mug. Write till noon—cat on lap, wife clacking away on her keyboard at the other end of the couch. A hard run on a cool, clear day. Sushi at Miyake, and then off to cavort around Portland Architectural Salvage. The place is like three stories of writing prompts. Barbecue for dinner. An hour or so with my nose buried in a Parker novel. Then a bottle of wine split with the missus in front of some good TV on DVD, or maybe sitting by a campfire. Honestly, I could do that every day and never tire of it.

Pimp your stuff, please.

Well, my Collector series recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. If you dig cops and robbers and angels and demons, it might just be your cuppa tea. The first in the series is DEAD HARVEST. It's about an undead guy named Sam, who collects the souls of the damned and ensures they find their way to hell, only he comes to believe the girl he's been sent to collect is innocent of the crime for which she's been condemned. He defies hell to prove that she's been framed, and bad shit ensues.

The second in the series, THE WRONG GOODBYE, finds Sam barreling headlong into the demon drug-trade -- a sort of black market for stolen human memories -- when the soul he's sent to collect goes missing. It features an ancient, pissed-off bug monster, a violent cross-country road trip, a human-doll-making nutjob, and a blind, transgendered fortune-teller with a shotgun. Your visceral response to that last sentence should give you a pretty good idea whether you'll love it or hate it.

Did you notice in the interview with Joe Clifford he called me 'son'? He does that elsewhere as well. Do you think he's my dad?

Beats me, cuz.

I’m scared he is. Wait. Are you my cousin? I read that you explained the opening scene from Dead Harvest was a dream you had and you explored it from there. How did you settle on the war between heaven and hell? Why not aliens or some super-powered guy?

One of my all-time favorite authors, Tim Powers, once said something to the effect he never set out to write about ghosts and goblins, he just tried to tell a decent yarn, and that's where his brain alway took him. As he put it, his knobs and dials were set that way since childhood.

Me, I love religious conspiracies, questions of faith, and stories with apocalyptic stakes. So once my wheels started turning, that's what I ended up with.

Will you be happy when you die and God says, "Between you and me, you nailed this." Or will it bother you that your stuff is really how it works?

I think I'd be psyched and terrified in equal measure. But I'd settle for, "Well, you weren't any wronger than anybody else." (Side-note: if God's infallible, then "wronger" would be, from the moment of his/her/its utterance onward, an actual, for-serious word. So when I die, check your dictionary to see if it's been retconned in.)

If you woke up one morning and there was a bunch of ninjas eating breakfast in your kitchen, what do you think the conversation would be like?

Dude, ninjas are both silent and invisible. The only reason I'm pretty sure they weren't in my kitchen this morning is the fact that I'm still alive to type this. Only maybe letting me live was part of their plan, because now that you mention it, I did hear some stealthy snaps, crackles, and pops coming from the space above the cupboards...

If the world could only have one Chris F. Holm story, what would it be and why?

Honestly, I don't think I've written it yet. If I did, I might be inclined to pull a Harper Lee and stop. THE WRONG GOODBYE is as close as I've come so far to recreating the perfect version of it I carry in my head, but it still, of course, falls short. And I'm gonna do my damndest from here on out to top it. If and when I do, that book will become my new competition. Then it's rinse, repeat until I kick.

Thanks for playing along.

***

And just like that, Holm leaves me to die. So, loyal fans, let’s try some discussion points again.

1. I’m not going to claim I’m an encyclopedia of Golden Era pulp, but I’ve read enough to think that the biggest difference between it and our resurgence today might be how we are much more included to use the F bomb. I never read Chandler, Hammett or Spillane use it—but again, I haven’t poured through their whole catalogs either. Maybe to a lesser degree, another difference is all the intense blood and guts. Am I way of base? What do you all think are the biggest differences?

2. Who should play Sam Thorton (Holm’s character in Dead Harvest, The Wrong Goodbye and whatever else he churns out) in a movie?

3. Somebody give some props to Holm for his work. I’ll start. I read an interview with Holm on Shotgun Honey here (you can see my comment at the bottom, so you know I’ve been in it for the long haul). I thought it was badass and so I got the book. Consumed it. Stalked him on Facebook. And here we are today.

Next week—Richard Thomas. Yup, that Richard Thomas. Another guy I stalked. But he’s glad for it. I just know it.
 

Chris F. Holm. Pulp writer. Ne'er-do-well. Author of DEAD HARVEST and THE WRONG GOODBYE, supernatural thrillers that recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp.