Axel Howerton fully inhabits the creative worlds on both sides between reality and fantasy.
Connecting with like-minded writers online saves me the trouble of physically networking, whether attending conventions or hosting live readings (which I do anyway).
Axel Howerton is another of those writers that was spawned from the same pop cultural gene pool as I was, meaning we share a wide range of influences across several mediums. So it was a natural fit when he asked me to contribute to an anthology of holiday horror tales he edited called Weird Winter Wonderland, which came out in the fall of 2017.
Since then I’ve become much more acquainted with Axel’s work, amazed at both his skills as a wordsmith and his vast knowledge of everything from grindhouse cinema to pulp magazines to everything noir — again, all subjects in which we share a passionate, creative investment.
Since he lives in Canada and I hate leaving my house in Seattle, we have yet to meet in person, though once we do, we’ll hit the ground running, conversation-wise, given our many mutual interests.
I have a feeling the conversation will go something like this, though much more improvisational, riffing off each other’s B movie-addled brains. For your benefit, here’s the formal version:
Your work is incredibly eclectic, ranging in genre from classic noir to urban/gothic fantasy to horror/zombies to a P.I. on the trail of a stolen Sinatra record. In your uniquely talented mind, what’s the common link between all of these seemingly disparate subjects?
Humanity. I like to think that all of my work explores the deeper humanity - the flaws and failures as well as the triumphs - of desperate characters in extreme situations. Whether they're running from the undead, trying to outwit mob killers, reconciling the fact that they may have been born monsters... whatever the external stressors are, they usually pale in comparison with the torture we inflict upon ourselves in our own minds. I know that's true for me. No one could possibly abuse me any more than I abuse myself on a regular basis. So what causes that? What makes us tick? What makes us huddle up in a little ball and beg for mercy? More importantly, what makes us fight back? This are the things that interest me, much more than just following a square-jawed hero who never fails. I know who that guy is after five pages, and I know how every one of his stories is going to end. I want to use fiction to explore and understand my own humanity and my own psychology. It's cheaper than paying a shrink.
Your interest in and knowledge of U.S. pop/pulp culture is comprehensive, yet you have a distinctly Canadian perspective. How do you think that distinguishes your work from your peers South of the Border, if at all?
I'm not sure. I've been compared to everyone from Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy to Chandler, Hammet and Westlake. I've had people compare me to you because we obviously have thematic influences in common. If anything, I think the Canadian comes out in the self-effacing nature of most of my protagonists. My first novel, HOT SINATRA, featured a highly talented Mary Sue of a P.I., but he was constantly downplaying his talents and wallowing in mediocrity, just skating by and hoping to be left alone, while everyone around him excels.
My other three novels are set in, or around, my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, but I think they have that same mix of American style with a Canadian rationale. It's a hard thing to avoid. We're steeped in American culture up here, and I've been immersed in film, TV and music from your side of the border since birth. In many ways I'm much more familiar with your culture than some aspects of my own.
Tell us a bit about your own imprint, Coffin Hop Press, from initial inception to ongoing agenda.
I had been working as an entertainment journalist for about a decade when I decided to get back into writing fiction, somewhere around 2007. I was tired of talking about all the things other people were creating, when I wasn't really making my own stories anymore. When I got back into fiction, I naturally gravitated towards horror and ended up working as an editor for a quarterly called Dark Moon Digest. That led to me making a lot of friends in the indie horror community. There was a lot of discussion amongst those friends about how best to market ourselves in the emerging Wild West of self publishing - Amazon and blogging and podcasting and all - which led to me spearheading an online event. There weren't a lot of organized outlets for promotion for horror authors, but the romance writers were all doing these "blog hops", so we set up a week long blog hop leading up to Halloween, which we called "The Coffin Hop.”
The first year there was fifteen or twenty of us involved. The second year that tripled. The third year we had hundreds and hundreds of people trying to get in on it. By the fourth year it had gone out like the Death Star, exploding at the seams and becoming completely unmanageable. In the second year, several people suggested that the collective put out an anthology to help promote the writers. Since I was the guy running the hop, I was elected to be the guy running the book. Coffin Hop Press was born.
That first book, DEATH BY DRIVE-IN, featured 20 of those original Coffin Hop authors, including some really great stuff from people like Jessica McHugh, a cool little special episode of the ROBOT LINCOLN VS ZOMBIE JACKSON comic, and story art by underground legend Nik Seizure. After that, I used the imprint to try out self-publishing on Amazon with a few things I had gotten rights back on, like my zombie novella LIVING DEAD AT ZIGFREIDT & ROY. In 2014, I was chatting with some of my writerly pals, like Robert E. Vardeman and Scott S. Phillips, about how we had all written weird western stories but couldn't find outlets for them. I figured, what the hell, I'd already done it once, so we started working on putting together another anthology. After falling apart two or three times, we finally turned that into TALL TALES OF THE WEIRD WEST, which came out in 2015. I'd also drifted from horror into crime with the release of my first novel, which was a crime caper. The new friends I made in the local crime writing community were looking for outlets too, so I put together a book called AB NEGATIVE, which featured 14 Alberta based authors writing Alberta based crime stories. Then Coffin Hop Press kind of sat around for a couple of years while I worked on my next couple of books. In 2017, I was checking out short stories for my friend Robert Bose (who I had featured in AB NEGATIVE) as he was trying to put together a collection of his shorter work. I liked them so much that I suggested he let me publish them. Working with Rob on FISHING WITH THE DEVIL (and other fiendish tales) opened my eyes to the possibilities of turning CHP into a bigger enterprise. Rob had a lot of great ideas and got me fired up about a lot of new projects. I suggested he come on board as a partner and together we rebuilt Coffin Hop Press as a real publishing house. In the year since Rob signed on, we've published three anthologies, three books in our "Noirvellas" series of dark crime novellas, two novels and, just this weekend, our first graphic novel called FUTILITY: ORANGE PLANET HORROR. It's been a whirlwind, but a highly rewarding one. I've learned more in the last year running Coffin Hop and putting out those ten books, than I had in the previous ten years of writing and publishing.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
Definitely the pulp writers of the thirties and forties, the Black Mask boys, like Chandler and Hammett and the later guys like Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford. I also love the more esoteric side of things, mythical, magical dark stuff like Clive Barker, and King and Neil Gaiman. Pop Culture-wise, I'm a sucker for anything dark and funny - the blacker the comedy, the deeper the tickle. Like you, I'm a mad devotee of the weird and nostalgic - from Lynchian surrealism to the sleaze and tease of Russ Meyers; from Kung Fu and Samurai flicks to spaghetti westerns and all points in-between. Comic books, monster movies, rockabilly surf guitar stuff... and everything from Poe to Pahlaniuk. I love it all.
What’s next for you?
I'm currently fighting with myself to finish the "sequel" to my modern gothic fairytale FURR (which is actually about werewolf strippers and goth magicians, and runs from dark noir crime story to Barker-esque urban fantasy) which is the epic first part of a huge mythology that I'm trying to build to sustain the series that the publisher would like me to write. After that, I'm hoping to work on a couple of new Mossimo Cole P.I. books, for when I get the rights back on HOT SINATRA, as well as a weird post-apocalyptic not-quite-steampunk novel merging WWI and H.G. Welles, and some historical satire about whiskey runners in early Alberta, and their wars with the first Mounties and the five bands of indigenous tribes that originally battled it out for control of the Canadian prairies. And, of course, more Coffin Hop stuff...
Cheers to all that!
Axel Howerton is a former entertainment journalist, and the Arthur Ellis Award nominated author of the detective caper Hot Sinatra; the modern gothic fairytale Furr; the zombie novella Living Dead at Zigfreid & Roy; and the noir fable Con Morte. His next "Wolf & Devil” urban fantasy novel, Demon Days, is due from Tyche Books in late 2018.
When he's not on-duty as a "purveyor of literary badassery" and "hometown anti-hero", Axel wanders the foothills of Southern Alberta with his two brilliant sons, and a wife that is way out of his league.
Visit Axel online at www.axelhow.com or seek him out on social media as #AxelHow