Chuck Caruso is a 19th-century Americanist and Edgar Allan Poe Scholar. His crime and horror writing has been published in Cemetery Dance, Shroud, and Dark Discoveries. His first novel The Lawn Job won the Independent Publisher Award for Best Regional Fiction. Caruso lives in Seattle, Washington.
I’m delighted to welcome Chuck to Kendall Reviews as part of a Blog Tour promoting his brilliant new collection The Meaning Of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity. Make sure you go visit each of the other stops to find out a lot more about both the author and the book.
KR: Could you tell me a little about yourself please?
My name is Chuck Caruso. I’m a lifelong reader and writer of dark fiction.
Born in the old gold-mining town of Yuba City, California, I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and have lived in various locations up and down the American West Coast. My current home is Seattle, Washington, where I earned my Ph.D. in English Literature from University of Washington. My academic speciality is 19th-century American literature with particular emphasis on the American Gothic. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on uncanny doubles in the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe. Last year, I got to be one of the talking heads on Buried Alive, a documentary about Poe produced by PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. You can watch it here. Luckily, quite a bit of my commentary made the final cut. It was great to be able to share my enthusiasm and knowledge of Poe with a wider audience. I’m not sure the documentary made the same splash as Ken Burns’s Civil War series, but now I tell people I’m the Shelby Foote of Edgar Allan Poe.
My debut crime novel, a neo-noir called The Lawn Job, was published last year by London-based Cloud Lodge Books. This November, they’re publishing a collection of my short stories entitled The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity. As a fan of Poe, I was delighted that my editor and publisher accepted my subtitle. Poe had a special fondness for “perversity,” so I think he’d approve of the title. I write a lot of crime and suspense, but I also write supernatural horror and westerns (both weird and otherwise), so this collection gave me a chance to show off more facets of myself as an author that you can easily do in a novel. Hopefully, readers who enjoyed The Lawn Job will find stories to enjoy here – there’s still my same dark humor woven into unrelenting sex and violence. I don’t pull many punches in these tales. They’re rather bleak. But unlike the novel, these tales are definitely aimed more at readers who love horror.
KR: What do you like to do when not writing?
I’ve got a lot of interests. I’m a dog lover and spend lots of time going on outings with my best canine buddy. I enjoy golf and have focused on improving my game this year. I’m not going on tour any time soon, but it feels good not to embarrass myself as badly any more.
I’m also an avid board gamer and play every week with a group of friends. We especially love Euro-style strategy games, like Through the Ages, Feast for Odin, and Prodigals Club. Not to geek out too much about this, but I read board gaming blogs and follow board gaming podcasts. The whole works. I love the guys on Shut Up & Sit Down, and I consider Board Game Geek an indispensible resource. In the last couple years it’s gotten to the point where I can actually name favorite game designers — Vlaada Chvatil, Uwe Rosenberg, and Ryan Lauket. I have a whole shelf full of games in my house, but my collection is dwarfed by the huge wall of games my buddy Alan owns.
Playing music is another important hobby of mine. I play guitar, sing, and write songs. Other than parties and open mics, I’ve played at a number of weddings and funerals. Mostly funerals, to tell the truth. Even though the songs I write tend to be funny, the bulk of my repertoire is blues and gospel songs. I’ve never had any professional aspirations with my music. I have quite a few friends who are far superior musicians, so I have no illusions about my modest abilities. But, I have sometimes toyed with the idea of creating a series character that’s a singer-songwriter. Then I could write his songs for him and play them at author events. It could liven things up.
KR: What is your favourite childhood book?
Well, I have to say the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe. Those tales were some of the first that really fired my imagination. As an adult, I’m skeptical of how Poe has been passed off as an author of juvenile fiction. A lot of his work is definitely not suitable, or even very understandable, for young readers. But, even if it wasn’t true, claiming Poe as a writer for children proved a fairly effective way for the keepers of the American Literary Canon to cordon him off from the “serious authors.” This strategy also furthered the argument that Poe didn’t deserve scholarly attention because he was “merely popular.” He’s undeniably the most important and influential American writer from the 19th century. He’s probably the only one that most casual readers could name. But American academics have had an axe to grind against him for nearly two hundred years. Sorry, that’s a subject that gets me going. I’ll leave it there.
Other favorite childhood book include Stuart Little, The Phantom Tollbooth, The House with a Clock in its Walls, the Encyclopedia Brown books, and the series of Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators.
KR: What is your favourite album, and does music play any role in your writing?
As a music lover with rather eclectic tastes, I can’t limit myself to just one favorite. So much depends on my mood. My favorite Beatles album is Abbey Road. My favorite Rolling Stones album is Some Girls even though I know I’d be cooler if I said it were Exile on Main Street. My favorite Bob Dylan album is Blood on the Tracks, but I also love the newer acoustic stuff he did in the 90’s, like World Gone Wrong and Time Out of Mind. I also think Richard Thompson is brilliant. His album Rumor and Sigh never gets old. My all-time favorite band is Talking Heads, so I could comfortably claim More Songs About Buildings and Food as my favorite album, if I had to choose just one.
Of current active musicians, I probably most love Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I listen to them a lot. Time (the Revelator) is a legitimate masterpiece, and their work continues to amaze me. I never miss a chance to see one of their shows.
I’m also a big fan of Wilco. Summerteeth is a brilliant album. Definitely one of my top ten.
I do listen to music while I write. It gives me good energy and it can really help to set a strong mood or tone that I’m trying to capture in my writing. For example, I tend to listen to a lot of Dylan while I write my “western noir” tales.
Readers of The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity will appreciate the powerful influence of music on my work when the see stories with titles like “Meet the Beetles” and “Get Off My Cloud.”
KR: Do you have a favourite horror movie/director?
I’m not sure if he technically counts as a horror director, but I love David Lynch. Films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway really stretch the limits. I’m also a fan of John Carpenter. The Thing has long been a favorite of mine. I also appreciate the body horror of David Cronenberg.
KR: What are you reading now?
At the moment I’m reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I’m not sure why, but I never got around to reading that series before I’ve been an avid reader of fantasy ever since I discovered the Narnia Chronicles and then The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings back as an adolescent. Of course I read lots of other things these days, but escaping into epic fantasy has been particularly appealing to me lately given the state of the world.
KR: Who were the authors that inspired you to write?
The first writers who made me want to join the fun and make up my own stories were Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury. They both create such immersive stories that manage to become worlds unto themselves in the span of just a few pages. I remember that Bradbury’s story “Usher II” (from The Martian Chronicles) was a huge revelation to me as a young reader. It was the first time I recognized that I was witnessing two authors having a conversation across the generations in their work. Literary allusions and intertextuality are all part of the literary game, of course, but I recall being startled by this approach when I was eleven or twelve. It made me realize that writers are also readers and that books are artifacts of an ongoing discussion across the ages.
KR: Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
Oh, I’m definitely a plotter. I outline everything I write. Even short stories benefit from being boiled down to their essential ingredients. The process helps me achieve what Poe referred to as “unity of effect” in my tales. Poe correctly observed that stories work best when the author strips out everything that’s not essential to achieving that desired single effect.
KR: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
As an academic, I’m prone to falling into the research rabbit hole. You don’t get through graduate school or write a dissertation without learning to love research. I’m constantly aware of how much I don’t know and wish I did know. However, as a fiction writer, I try to focus on the writing and avoid research as much as possible. Having the whole of human knowledge at our fingertips via the internet can be deadly to the creative process. When I’m writing a first draft, I don’t allow myself to stray into research. Instead I use placeholders, often in ALL CAPS, for things I need to look up or verify.
KR: Describe your usual writing day?
I’m a daily writer and I like to work early in the morning. After I see my wife off to work, I usually take our dog to the park for a romp. While she’s chasing the ball and wrestling with her buddies, I’m starting to gear up for my writing day. Back home, I feed the dog, tuck her in, and head to my friendly neighborhood coffee shop where I’ll write for three or four hours. The daily habit is very important to me. I find that if I take even a day or two off from writing, the words don’t flow as easily when I get back to it.
KR: Do you have a favourite story/short that you’ve written (published or not)?
My stories are like my children. They’re all favorites. Of course, you tend to be partial to whatever you’ve written most recently, but in putting together this collection of tales, I was reminded of how proud I am of things I wrote years ago. All that said, I’ll honor your question and give you a straight answer. In the current collection, my favorite story is probably “The Confession of Jeremiah Heath.” It’s the first story in the book, and it might come as a shot across the bow to some readers, but I like how it picks at the scabs of some ancient philosophical questions about faith and the individual’s relationship with God. I should say, I also had a lot of fun writing “Savage Smile,” “Snapshots from a Family Album,” and “Adrift on a Sea of Hunger.” All of those stories contain some knowing winks at some of my favorite authors and stories.
KR: Do you read your book reviews?
I do. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a lot of good reviews. Of course, every author misses the mark with some readers, so I’ve gotten some rotten tomatoes too. That said, even if a review isn’t entirely positive, I really appreciate the sense that a reviewer “gets it” and understands what I’m trying to accomplish in a given work. At the end of the day, you can’t let reviews affect you too much one way or the other. Pats on the back are nice, but an author needs to keep at the work and trust their own instincts.
KR: Any advice for a fledgling author?
Read as much as you can and don’t limit yourself to reading authors who write in your own genres. Read broadly and read constantly. When you’re not reading, write. If you want to be a published author, I think you need to develop a writing routine. Write every day, rain or shine. You’re never going to get much done if you only write when inspiration strikes.
KR: What scares you?
Like most horror writers, I’ve got loads of personal demons and things that scare the daylights out of me. One of my first fears was of dolls that come to life. That old Trilogy of Terror where the Zuni fetish doll attacks the woman. The clown in Poltergeist. The Stephen King story about the army men.
There’s lots of great horror where inanimate objects take on a life of their own. For me, that’s one of the scariest things. Thinking about my new collection of horror tales, I realize that I touch on this fear a bit in my story about the sex robot, but I think I may need to write a new story or maybe a novel that really works at this particular fear. Thanks for asking that question. It’s got my imagination starting to work.
KR: E-Book, Paperback or Hardback?
I love the luxury of reading a big hardback, but I mostly read paperbacks. They’re cheaper and easier to carry around. I do read some things electronically, but mostly when I travel. It’s a lot easier carry around a bunch of books on a tablet.
KR: Can you tell me about your latest release please?
THE MEANING OF BLOOD AND OTHER TALES OF PERVERSITY is a collection that shows off my range of story telling. I love to explore and to try my hand at different styles and voices. There’s plenty of gore and violence but there are also quieter and creepier pieces as well. All the stories are essentially character-driven, but the genres range from grotesque horror to old school westerns to pulse-pounding thrillers to pirate zombies to near future sci fi. There’s something for everybody here, as long as you like your fiction dark and a little weird.
KR: What are you working on now?
I’ve got several irons in the first right now. I always do. But the thing that’s occupying most of my attention is a western novel. Of course it has plenty weird and violent elements, but at core it’s a western. Aside from that, I’m outlining another contemporary crime novel, this one set against the opioid epidemic happening in small town America. I’m also tinkering with the idea of introducing a series character, but I’m not quite committed to that yet. I like the freedom of writing stand-alone works. Of course, that said, I know that readers love series characters and I’m starting to recognize some of the creative benefits of recurring characters and consistent settings.
KR: You find yourself on a desert island, which three people would you wish to be deserted with you and why?
You can choose…
- One fictional character from your writing.
My own characters are way too troublesome for me to wish I were stranded with any of them. Wow, that’s weird to realize that I don’t really have any good, heroic characters. I wonder what that says about me. I suppose if I had to take someone, I’d take Whistlin’ Pete. He seems like a nice young man.
- One fictional character from any other book.
John Carter of Mars seems like the type of figure that one could really use on a deserted island. And he’d never run out of stories to tell.
- One real life person that is not a family member or friend.
If we could have guitars with us, I’d take Richard Thompson and make him teach me how to play and write songs like he does. He’s such a phenomenal musician and such an amazing storyteller within the context of short popular music.
KR: Thank you very much Chuck.
You can find out more about Chuck by visiting his official website www.chuckcaruso.com
Follow Chuck on Twitter @jcdarkly
Chuck’s author page can be found here
In a near-future Pacific Northwest, a made-to-order sex robot tests a married couple’s concept of fidelity; in the Tennessee hills of 19th-century America, an itinerant preacher forces others to prove their devotion to God – at gunpoint; and in a settlement town of the Old West, a former outlaw seeking to rescue his deceased brother’s family from a life of poverty discovers to his horror the true meaning of blood. In The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity, Edgar Allan Poe scholar Chuck Caruso combines his deep roots in the American Gothic with his own contemporary sense of macabre humour. These sixteen stories of dark fiction range from crime thrillers to western noir to grotesque horror. Each twisted tale displays Caruso’s unique blend of wry prose, feverish storytelling, and tragically-flawed characters discovering that even the most innocent encounter can lead to death. Or sex. Or both.
WINNER OF THE INDEPENDENT PUBLISHER BOOK AWARD FOR BEST REGIONAL FICTION
Edgy crime thriller for fans of Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane and Chuck Palahniuk.
When ex-con Craig Collins began his new job mowing lawns, he was ready to leave his former life of crime where it belonged—in the past. But everything changes when Craig suddenly loses one of his contracts after staring a little too hard at the aging trophy wife of his pizzeria mogul client, Big Gino Pasarelli. Soon, Craig begins to hatch a plan for revenge—along with his transgender sort-of-girlfriend, Juana.
Since Big Gino seems to enjoy cheating on his wife, Craig and Juana decide to blackmail him with a sex tape. Their plan goes horribly wrong, and Craig finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble. It might be up to Big Gino’s wife, Sheila, to bail him out, but can she be trusted?
The Lawn Job is as suspenseful as it is entertaining, a true thriller written with heart and humor.