Readers seeking a particularly singular take on the end of the world would do well to seek out Jeremy Robert Johnson‘s new novel Skullcrack City. Featuring a plotline involving body modification, brain-devouring genetic experiments, sinister demonic gods, and an eye-exploding drug, Skullcrack City is a particularly manic entry in its field, irreverently finding new ways to riff on familiar concepts. I talked with Johnson about the creation of his new book, his fondness for apocalyptic literature, and more.
Skullcrack City opens with a prelude to the end of the world. Extinction Journals was set after the end of the world. What attracts you to the apocalyptic? And as a writer, how do you make it feel fresh as a setting?
I’d describe the attraction as a fearful fascination. Same thing that makes me write about parasites, or sharks, or human relationships. Also, it’s an environment in which high conflict is the default and the mundane has, to some degree, been eliminated and replaced by the unpredictable. So it’s a cool sandbox in which to bury all your other literary toys.
I thinks it’s as unlimited as any other setting in its scope, though it’s easy to default to the standard post-apocalyptic mode, with the wandering group trying to survive in a world where most humans have become amoral predators, and I think avoiding that is the first best step to keeping it fresh. Cormac McCarthy added a Biblical tone and barbecued babies to nice effect. Crossed made everything a total animal nightmare. I added pudding and insect telepathy and silly gods. The variations are endless.
I felt like I’d already got the “wandering the wastelands” thing out of my system with Extinction Journals, so with Skullcrack I wanted to tell a story that was much more about an uncanny lead-up to the apocalypse, and then trust the reader extrapolate the end times from there.
Your new novel brings together a host of elements, from the evolution of consciousness to bizarre otherdimensional entities. How did you settle on this specific combination of ingredients?
I rose to the challenge of my own craziness. Which is to say that I’d had a novel idea pent up inside my head across a nine year stretch, and the longer it sat in there, the more things fermented and mutated, emerging in outlines and notes and little pieces and dreams, and then the book really started rolling and as each different chance to restrain myself popped up, I decided instead to roll with the addition of each element I’d wanted to put in the novel and to try to figure a way for all of it coalesce in a manner that’d be worth a damn.
The cosmic horror elements confounded me for a while during outlining, until I realized that emotionally they were the peanut butter to noir’s chocolate, and that both held a similar “dangling over the maw of obliteration” aesthetic. That helped.
Also, credit where credit is due: Both Todd Grimson’s Brand New Cherry Flavor and David Wong’s John Dies at the End worked like gangbusters as exercises in genre-jumping weirdness, and in both cases the centers held because of the strength of the voice and the writing. So I had a couple of case studies where this mode had produced lovely books, and that gave me courage.
In the end I’m pretty happy with how things mashed together, and I hope Doyle pulls people through the madness as a sort of lifeline. On the marketing end, it’s been challenging. I had a very kind friend in New York read it and give their counsel and they told me, “We sell circles and squares here. You sent me an octagon. New York won’t know what to do with this.” At first I was kind of proud of that—it’s tough to shake the artiste affectations of your youth—but then I realized my friend had a point. What is this thing? And how do we find the people who love octagons?
Skullcrack City‘s narrator S.P. Doyle goes from reluctant banker to reluctant revolutionary; how important was it that he not only be working a crappy job, but an actively terrible one?
Part of that was catharsis—somehow I ended up working in banking for over a decade, and obviously I have some strong feelings about that time. I did everything from drive-up teller to special compliance analyst, and even a three year stint in agricultural lending where I learned a lot of disgusting things about radical mastitis and manure ponds and semen tanks. And every day I went into the office a little nauseous. Felling really compromised I guess, booking mortgage loans and then reading AdBusters at the Burger King during my lunch break and then heading back to process advances for mink farms. Weird time.
Aside from that aspect, I also wanted Doyle’s story to begin in a world that gave him reason to act as a detective in some way, and his analyst job functioned as an analog. And since “The Bank” has long worked (with good reason) as a default bad guy, I knew I could open in that world and offer a reasonable entry point for readers before everything exploded into chaos.
Also, regarding Doyle’s “reluctant” demeanor throughout most of the book, that stemmed from an absurd idea I had: How does the plot of Chinatown play out if you put The Dude from The Big Lebowski at its center?
There’s also an element of satire of celebrities in Skullcrack City, with a number of characters whose extreme body modifications have veered into the science fictional. Where did this aspect of the novel come from?
That aspect of the novel was actually the initial kernel that started the whole thing. My first short story collection Angel Dust Apocalypse opens with a story called “The League of Zeroes” which is a sort of origin story for Buddy the Brain. It was a very short, simple story, but I liked the world of it and the tone enough to want to revisit it, especially Buddy and the underground surgeons he worked with. So I came up with the original idea for Skullcrack City, which was much more an overt noir where Doyle was actually a PI and Dara was going to be an ex-porn star femme fatale…I know. Thankfully, it took me a decade to finally finish the thing and I grew out of a few of the clichés at its foundation (and found brand new ones!).
Shortly after “The League of Zeroes” was published there was a short-lived television show called The Swan which was a beauty contest in which all the participants underwent radical plastic surgery. All I can really remember about it was that it was repulsive and everyone got free porcelain veneers.
Your bio mentions that you’re also working on a novel called Tuning Fork. How does that fit in with your work to date?
Alas, poor Tuning Fork. I’ve cannibalized that thing with such gusto that even the bones are dust. Most of its ideas and concepts are spread across Extinction Journals and We Live Inside You and Skullcrack City, and I don’t think I have it in me to ever revive the thing. It was going to be a post-apocalyptic road trip novel, where one day a sort of switch gets flipped, and however the eldest member of a family dies, the entire clan goes the same way. So grandma has a heart attack, so does everyone in her bloodline after her, down to the fetus. And it was going to be about love and meaning in the face of inevitable death, and have not only a mad scientist, but a diminutive one shrunk by drinking the parasite-riddled blood of a deer which he’d killed as a child. It had an adoption clinic meet cute and dark secrets and human mutation and all that. And my feeling now is that I’ve done that sort of thing to death and now my goal is to create work that doesn’t fit in with my work to date, but expands its scope. So up next I’ve got two very intimate character-based novels. There will be parasites and technological alienation and South American river sharks, of course, because I can’t ever shake my fascinations, but the stories are being told from very different angles and I’m excited about that.