Meet author John McCallum Swain, who likes to reimagine history, with a horror twist.
A resident of the San Francisco Bay area, Swain started writing as a youngster in elementary school and now edits his pieces during his work commute on BART. He tells us about his love of alternate history, who he writes for and why he thinks cats are the perfect companion.
Grey Matter Press (GMP): Your bio states that you like to write stories that deal with alternate history. What are some of your favorite historical events to weave a tale around?
John McCallum Swain (JMS): I’ve never wanted to focus on one event, mostly because you can drown in a sea of research and still have fanatics cry foul when you take one misstep with the factual foundation you must build your fantasy upon to make it believable—the Kennedy assassination is a good example of that, as I’m sure 9/11 will be years from now. Instead, I prefer screwing with the greater sweep of history.
I’m working on a novel called American Bluehearts, which is set in a world where the Great Plague of London ravaged the continent in 1666 and wiped out half the population there before spreading around the world, leading to a European power struggle that resulted in ravaged landscapes and the rise of the Empire of Christ, the head of which is an Emperor Pope who relies on the natural resources of the increasingly defiant American Colonies administered by a puppet regime in England. The United States of America does not exist, as the founding fathers we knew were wiped out by the plague, carried across the sea on ships. That’s the backstory for the tale of a 16-year-old colonial girl from the territory known as the Great Wild who will become a pawn in a political game and the spark that ignites a revolution.
Words cannot describe how fun and challenging it is to write dialogue for characters from history that is unlike anything we’ve ever heard them say before, but rings true to their personas as we know them. How can you not love writing something like that, rewriting history?
GMP: Who do you write for? In other words, how would you describe your target audience?
JMS: Damned if I know. I‘ve never been able to classify my writing, and as much as that makes it a bitch to market, I keep telling myself the fact that there are no quick and easy comparisons to my work is a good thing. For example, my first novel Made in the U.S.A. is rude and crude, and as much as I’m tempted to smooth out the rough edges with a rewrite, it is very close to my heart. It’s the perfect storm of many obsessions: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, the JFK assassination, Third Reich science run amok, cloning, government cover-ups and conspiracies, End Times mythology, and good old fashioned action yarns. My short story collections are similar grab-bags of fiction, sci-fi, classic horror, and gross-out gruesomeness, peppered with pop culture references and dark humor.
I’m not trying to write the Great American Novel. I just want to give you a good time. I’m easy that way. I’m happy if someone reads one of my stories, blinks, and asks, “What the fuck did I just read?” I’m happier still if someone reads a story and finds it disturbing or unsettling, or there is something in the tale that stays with them a while because then I’ve made my mark on their soul (insert demonic chortle here).
A lot of my stories have perverse takes on Christian mythology as well, and I have no idea why, such as one tale featuring characters wandering a hellish purgatory where God seems to have taken a holiday, or Made in the U.S.A., which features an extremely unpleasant clone of Jesus Christ. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a Christian God and His alleged son’s sacrifice, but like all religions I think we’ve gotten carried away and we’re now focusing more on the ambience than the meal, you know, like high-end restaurants that charge an arm and a leg for a few ounces of food and leave you so hungry you hit a McDonald’s on the way home. And whether or not I just equated eating a Big Mac with committing an act of sin is up to you.
There have been a select few writers who have had a strong influence on me. Richard Matheson showed me that horror could strike anywhere, anytime, and that it often does so without the usual hysteria we see in by-the-numbers horror tales. Stephen King showed me it’s okay to use the writer’s voice you are most comfortable with—your own. King writes the way he talks, and that’s what I try to do. And Robert James Baker showed me it is okay to inject the blackest kind of humor into epic tales; he wrote Boy Wonder, one the best books I’ve ever read. In short, I write the kind of stories that I like to read. Stories are vehicles that can take you places, and if any of you want to come along for the ride there are plenty of seats and a whole lot of road waiting for us. What we’ll discover along the way is anyone’s guess.
GMP: Your story “Beholder” can be found in the Grey Matter Press anthology Peel Back the Skin. It involves childhood friends who are summoned back to their hometown. What is the inspiration behind this story?
JMS: When I was young I heard rumors about a kid I knew who suffered Aubrey’s initial fate in “Beholder.” Frankly, it scared the ever-loving shit out of me. And that’s the great thing about fear and writing horror. For the most part, the things that terrified us as kids can still terrify us as adults. Of course, what I heard couldn’t possibly have been true, since no one can disseminate distorted reality like kids can. At least I hope it wasn’t true.
Kitchissippi, the setting for “Beholder,” is inspired by my life in Petawawa, up in Canada. I lived there at a very formative age, in a time when entertainment came from less than a dozen channels on TV, stacks of books and comics, the local movie theater and library, and endless woods. My friends and I didn’t have any of the diversions of the gadgets kids have today—smartphones and PlayStations and endlessly streaming music and video—and the Internet and social media and all of the informative and potentially destructive bullshit that comes with it. We had to rely on our own imaginations for most of our play, and I’ve done so ever since. Petawawa is where I wrote my first story, in the 6th grade, and where I received the first look that seemed to question my sanity (from my teacher), which meant my story made an impact.
There are few things in my life I am more grateful for than those perfect, scary, exciting years, and those years are such a deep wellspring of inspiration that “the Kitch” is becoming my Castle Rock. I’ve completed two more tales set in Kitchissippi’s past, a short story about deadly maple syrup (seriously) called “The Sweet Dark,” and a horror novella called The Unicorn Man. As I said in the afterword to The Unicorn Man, twelve is arguably one of the best ages to be in life, at least it was back then, when I was old enough to begin understanding how things really are, but still young enough to believe in magic and monsters.
GMP: Judging from your Facebook page, it can be assumed that you are more of a cat person. What is it about felines that you like, and is there a place for dogs in your heart too?
JMS: I think it was Leonardo Da Vinci who said, “Every feline is a masterpiece.” I love cats because they are living art. My own cats bring me joy every day, and they have gotten me through some very rough times. Cats are the perfect balance of good and evil, chaos and serenity. One moment they are eating bloody, twitching prey, and the next they are immersing themselves in a curious, meditative peace as they wash their faces. And they don’t rip open our throats while we sleep, even when we give them infuriatingly precocious names. How can you not appreciate an animal like that? Their paws are like pussy willows with knives in them, and their purrs have a proven beneficial effect on human beings. They are funny and comforting and endlessly entertaining. God wasn’t screwing around when He created cats. As for dogs, I’ll get a dog when I retire and need a reason to get off my ass and go for a walk.
GMP: What writing projects do you currently have in the works?
JMS: Too damned many. I believe my nearly complete novel A Different Country is worth a look, but getting it to the right publisher will be tough, so we’ll see what happens. Readers may think it’s a load of shit though, and in the end it’s their call, not mine. Sometimes I wish I could just take the easy route and write what’s hot right now, but I’ve never been able to follow trends like that. I just don’t have a zombie-killing-teenage-bustier-club series in me. I have to weave the threads my muse gives me.
I have a hell of a lot of novellas and short stories to complete, mostly variants of horror and Jesus-that-was-weird stories. The struggle is finding time to write, since I do have a day job to pay the rent. I have a half-completed book of novellas about flight and the friendly skies, including a horror story of pot-smugglers who are airborne when they realize they’ve taken on a nightmarish passenger along with a shitload of weed, and I have a half-completed book of short stories tentatively called Compound Tales that will fill in some of the gaps between novels featuring the Compound, including a rollicking horror tale called “Chain Gang Cons vs Ass-Rippers From Outer Space.”
The more I think about it, the more I realize that novellas are a hell of a lot of fun for a writer. They are long enough that you can develop likable characters and sympathetic villains, but not so long that you begin to wonder if you should just kill everyone off to finish the goddamned story. And sometimes, after 100 pages, that’s all the story there is to tell.
I have a couple of novels that I want to complete, including Hometown, the third book in what I think of as my America Trilogy. I’m doing research for a grim tale of an FBI agent who tracks down a serial killer only to discover they have dark family ties, and making notes for another book about family and writing, inspired by the Go Set a Watchman debacle, and the question of whether or not Harper Lee wanted that book published, if at all. The latter will be a horror novel, by the way.
And that is the wonderful, magical thing about writing horror tales or dark fiction: the most awful and unimaginable things are often just around the corner, or with you right now, watching you as you read these words…