I first encountered Michael West in July of 2009, during my first trip to InConJunction in Indianapolis. I had already heard of him and his work, which spans a considerable number of publications and anthologies. I saw that he maintained a very active convention schedule, in addition to being a prolific writer.
When his single-author collection, Skull Full of Kisses, was announced, I was immediately interested in reading it. The publisher, Graveside Tales, is an excellent one, and I already had some of their books on my shelves. Steven L. Shrewsbury's Hawg, in fact, was one of my favorite reads of 2009. I had no doubt in my mind that this book would be very well treated in its release, and I ordered a copy direct from the publisher when it came out.
The book arrived, and, sure enough, was everything that I had hoped for. Some of my favorite book releases of all time were single-author collections, namely Clive Barker's Books of Blood volumes, and knowing that Clive Barker was an influence of Michael's, I was really intrigued to discover what kind of stories were selected for inclusion.
So, without further adieu, let's find out about Michael West from the man himself! My review of Skull Full of Kisses follows!
-Stephen Zimmer for Seventh Star Press Blogsite, August 9, 2010
SZ: When were the various stories written in this collection? Were some written specifically for the collection, are they stories that were released singly in other anthologies, or a mix of both?
MW: It spans about five years, from my first short fiction sale, "God Like Me," to last year's "For Her". Most were released in magazines like Shroud and APEX: Science Fiction and Horror Digest, but a few, like "The Bridge," were featured in themed anthologies. There are two new stories, written just for this collection: "Einstein's Slingshot," a tale of science gone horribly wrong, and the Asian inspired "Sanctuary."
SZ: In the case of a story like "Jiki," which was previously featured in an issue of City Slab Magazine, were there any major changes with the version that appears in Skull Full of Kisses?
MW: I had a wonderful editor for Skull Full of Kisses, Myrrym Davies, and she went over every story for the collection with me, even ones that had appeared previously in other works. The stories that had been edited before did not need much in the way of correction, but there were a few things that we did tweak here and there. Because of this, none of the stories are exactly as they've appeared before, but there were no major changes.
SZ: Tell us a little about the process by which this collection landed with Graveside Tales, and why you believed they would be a good home for your book?
MW: Anthologies (a collection of stories by various authors) are commonplace. Editors find big names to submit stories, to be the "anchors" that will help sell the idea to publishers. Publishers know that Stephen King and Clive Barker have fans who will buy the book simply because those writers are featured in it. Once the pitch sells, editors can invite lesser-known talents to join in the mix. A single author collection, however, by someone other than the aforementioned King or Barker, is a much tougher sell. There are few publishers willing to take a risk on new talent. Lucky for me, Dale Murphy at Graveside Tales was willing to take such a risk. I'd read their Beast Within anthology, so I knew they put out a quality product, and was familiar with their other authors, so I felt that I would be in good company.
SZ: What kinds of things were considerations or factors in determining whether a particular story of yours went into this single author collection? (How did a story "make the cut", so to speak?)
MW: I'm most proud of "Jiki", my ode to Asian Horror; "To Know How to See", my first real stab at Sci-fi Horror; and "Goodnight", which was named Best Horror Short Story of 2005 in the annual P&E Readers Poll. Those stories hold special places in my heart, so they were obviously going to be a part of it, and they really formed the tent poles for the entire work: "Jiki" opens the collection, "To Know How to See" falls right in the middle, and "Goodnight" closes is out. In between them, I placed works that were well received by my faithful readers, works that reflected my growth as a writer over the last five years.
SZ: As you mentioned, this collection spans a variety of types of horror(Lovecraftian, Asian horror, Sci-fi laced horror), is there a particular type of horror that tends to be your personal favorite? And if you do have a favorite type of horror, what about it lifts it to the top?
MW: I'm a sucker for a good monster story, but my favorite kind of horror is that which revolves around strong, believable characters. That's what makes a story stand out for me, creates something truly memorable. Slasher, Steampunk...I don't care what sub-genre you're working in, if the reader isn't emotionally invested in the people in your story, they're not going to read it. In my opinion, that's why a lot of movies made from horror novels fail. The filmmakers concentrate on the "Big Bad" alien, demon, what-have-you,and the characters get short shrift. When you really care about the people in a story, you get lost in the narrative and you feel things on a very visceral level. That's the type of connection I strive for in my own writing.
SZ: How has the response been so far to Skull Full of Kisses, both from readers and from reviewers?
MW: The response has been overwhelming. Reviewers have given it four and five stars and compared the stories to episodes of The Twilight Zone, which has been the ultimate compliment for me. I've loved the Zone since I was a child. Readers have sent me emails and gone online to talk about the stories and the collection as a whole. It always amazes me that everyone seems to have three favorite stories. "Jiki" is normally one, "Goodnight" is another (especially for those who've dealt with the loss of someone close to them), but the third story is always different. I think every story in the collection has been someone's favorite, and that's very gratifying.
SZ: Tell us a little about your upcoming novel. The plot, who's publishing it, etc.
MW: My upcoming novel is called The Wide Game. On the advice of his wife, Paul Rice is making plans to attend his 10th year High School reunion. Returning to his boyhood home of Harmony, Indiana, he finds that he is still haunted by memories of that time, memories of Deidra, his first love, and memories of the Wide Game. It was ten years ago that Paul and his friends watched their day of fun become a race for their lives, a fight for their very souls. Now, as he meets the survivors of that day once more, Paul makes a chilling discovery: the incomprehensible forces that toyed with them have yet to finish playing their own game.
The novel will be published by Graveside Tales on February 14th, 2011, and should be available for pre-order after the first of the year.
SZ: Can you give us a scoop on anything you are working on right now?
I finished a story for an upcoming anthology and am hard at work on another. I'm also mapping out a trilogy of books for a series that I'm calling The Legacy of the Gods. It's an epic story that blends elements of Horror, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction and Action Adventure. The first novel, Poseidon's Children, is done and I'm working on outlines for the next two. I also have two novels set in Indiana that I hope will be out within the next year or so. There are always more tales to tell, and I can't wait to share them with new and faithful readers alike.
SZ: As a horror author, who are some of the main horror writers that you consider to be influences? Are there any authors not in the horror genre who were major influences on you?
MW: I'm a child of the eighties, so I grew up with Stephen King and Clive Barker. I also had a steady diet of what I consider to be the "Grand Masters": Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Rod Serling, and I think their influence is clearly visible in Skull Full of Kisses. I enjoy contemporary authors like Brian Keene, J.F. Gonzales, and Tim Lebbon, but Gary A. Braunbeck is the authors I admire most right now. His work is filled with an emotional reality that, in my opinion, elevates the entire genre. I was so thrilled that he was able to write the introduction to my collection, and so honored and humbled by what he had to say.
As for authors outside the genre, I'd have to point to David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars and Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha as being major influences for me and my work.
SZ: As the horror genre is often associate with the film world, what are some of Michael West's recommendations in terms of good horror films that those who like the genre should definitely see?
MW: Oh my, too many to mention here. I had a friend recently tell me that she'd never seen Creepshow, Fright Night, or Night of the Creeps, and those are some of my favorites! I threatened to sit her down and create a film festival for her. LOL If I had to pick my top five, it would be The Exorcist, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and John Carpenter's Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. The 70s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be in there, as would Re-Animator and From Beyond...But I could sit here all day and talk about horror films. If anyone really wants a recommendation, they can certainly contact me online and we can chat about it endlessly.
SZ: How can readers connect with Michael West online? And perhaps give a link or two where they can get your books and eBooks.
Skull Full of Kisses is a Collection Full of Gems-reviewed by Stephen Zimmer for Seventh Star Press Blogsite, August 9, 2010
Skull Full of Kisses (Graveside Tales, ISBN: 978-0980133882) is a real showcase of Michael West's horror writing. Containing 10 short stories, the book begins with a foreword by no less than Gary A. Braunbeck, something that will catch the eyes of any reader of the genre.
As this is a single-author collection of short stories, it is probably best to arrange this review into some thoughts and notes regarding each of the tales included in this collection:
“Jiki”, which is the first story in the collection, is a real gem, taking the reader into the shadowy underworld of Asian crime, and placing a very fearsome creature at the midst of the tale. While disturbing (in a good way), the end of the story really packs a punch, leaving you with a potent sense of dread. It is an excellent kickoff to the collection, drawing off the sub-genre of Asian horror, and giving the reader a good introduction into the kinds of tones and twists that are inherent to Michael West stories.
Another story in this collection bringing in an Asian-horror tone is “Sanctuary”, which has a brooding atmosphere and one heck of a twist at the end of the story. Michael sets it so well that I almost had to put a coat on, as you can really “feel” the bitter cold being endured by the main characters, a couple of Chinese soldiers working their way through a blizzard as they are being pursued by monstrous creatures that have killed the rest of their comrades. The story also involves a great application of mythological elements.
“Dogs of War” is very psychological in nature, and can be read in a few different ways, making it a very nice addition to this collection. Involving Gulf War veterans being haunted and oppressed by demonic creatures, is also a story that subtly invites a reader to become a bit more reflective on some of the horrors of our own reality, such as what soldiers undergoing PTSD and other similar ordeals have to endure.
“Einstein’s Slingshot” was one of my favorites, a tale that readers who enjoyed Stephen King’s The Mist will definitely find to their liking. It has flavors of the heroic, the apocalyptic, and a few dabs of science fiction blended very nicely.
“The Bridge” is, as Michael references in his notes in the back of the book, the substance of a great campfire tale. I can also see this one becoming the kickstarter scene for a very good horror-ghost movie with a primarily teenaged cast (and certainly much better than the teen horror fare gushed out by Hollywood nowadays.)
The story “Trolling” clearly brings out the Lovecraftian influence in Michael West. Visceral, and putting the erotic with the horrific in an effective association, it also finishes on an unexpected note. It is strongly recommended that readers are not eating when reading this particular tale.
Speaking of associating the erotic and horrific, “For Her” takes the reader into yet another part of the horror spectrum, as West draws upon the lore of South America to create something truly stomach churning. Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis" has nothing on this tale!
“God Like Me” is a very different kind of story, and is quite a sojourn into the realm of megalomania. This is a story that I also found to be laced with some good humor, showing yet another side to Michael's writing. The tale has a sweet, satisfying conclusion!
“To Know How to See” shows off Michael’s ability to tell a dark Sci-Fi tale. This one keeps you on edge throughout, and you really don’t know which way it is going to tilt. Is the main character’s experience rooted in delusion, and psychological in nature, or is he dealing with a real, existing threat? Michael does a very good job of keeping the answer hanging in the balance, all the way to the very end.
“Goodnight” is a story that brings Michael’s range to a level that is not so common in the world of horror writers. Horror, by its nature, tends to tilt towards darker themes, but every once in a while it serves as a great foundation for showing contrasts; the maw of the abyss contrasted with the beckoning lights of a a different horizon, one marking the boundary of something far greater. "Goodnight" is one of those kinds of stories. While not abandoning the horroric at all, it infuses a gentle compassion, wisdom, and a few rays of light to pierce the darkness. In this genre, this is a bold step to take, of a kind that carries some risks with it, but one that, when it is successful, delivers something particularly special. This story was a great note to end this horror symphony on.
As a whole, “Skull Full of Kisses” is testimony to the presence of a very imaginative and skilled writer, one who is well underway on what promises to be a very outstanding career, in whatever genre his imagination carries him to.