Horror Author Russell James Talks About His New Novel DEMON DAGGER, Evil Theme Park Mascots, and Places That Give Him The Creeps
Heath: Thanks so much for taking some time out of your writing schedule to talk about your work! To say that you're prolific feels like an understatement; you've published over 20 novels and consistently release multiple books within a year. Your latest novel, Demon Dagger--a supernatural thriller in which the predator becomes the prey--is your third release of 2022. Also, while you frequently work in the horror genre, you also write adventure tales featuring paleontologist Grant Coleman and park ranger Kathy West. Where do you draw inspiration for your stories, which all seem to draw upon monsters, demons, the supernatural, and science gone wrong?
Russell James: Every story has a different spark that lights its fire. It frequently comes from something I've experienced or an article I've read. For some reason Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic are great for horror story inspirations, though I'm certain the editors there don't intend that at all. I am a seat-of-the-pants writer, so once the idea settles into my brain, I just start from the beginning and see where the story goes. Demon Dagger was the first novel where the idea made me begin writing the story in the middle.
I live in Florida and love to visit the theme parks here. One of the myths is that the person in the Mickey Mouse costume is usually female because the character is short. I don't know if that is true or not. But it got me thinking that we never really know what kind of person is inside that big, smiling head. Then the horror writer in me, of course, had to make it twisted. What if that was an evil person in there who wanted to leverage this opportunity, where people's guard was down in a place everyone felt safe? My twisted muse ended up with a demon hiding in that theme park costume, ready to exact revenge on a demon hunter.
That scenario turned into a pivotal scene in the middle of the book, where the family of the protagonist, Drew, is placed in serious danger. So for the first time, I had to write the story outward from the middle in both directions to find out how everyone got to that point and then what happened afterwards. It was more of a challenge than usual, but I'm very proud of how it turned out.
Heath: I'm a big Disney parks fan and the scene you're referencing in the book really worked for me! I'm also fascinated to learn that you constructed this story by starting in the middle and then working outward. Given that this was the first time you've written that way, I'm curious how your narratives normally form. Do you start with a premise and characters that interest you and then let them lead you, finding it as you go, or do you have a pretty good idea of the structure as soon as you begin?
Russell James: The Grant Coleman adventure series are stories of a paleontologist who keeps ending on on expeditions that find giant monsters. In those stories, the inspiration comes from the monster. The monsters are always based on an extinct creature or a scaled up version of an animal that exists today. There are a lot of animals out there with some pretty scary attributes, so that well won't be running dry anytime soon. Once the creature is set, then I have to create a suitable environment, then the plot and the characters come together as I write.
The more conventional horror novels come from an inspiration that sparks the story. Black Magic is a great example. Walking through St. Augustine, Florida, I saw an empty storefront that had one thing in the window, white pieces of paper taped to the window with one hand-written letter on each spelling out MAGIC SHOP. That creeped me out. Questions arose. Who would open a magic shop? What would really go on there? What kind of magic are we talking about? My wife came out of a store to find me sitting on a bench scribbling notes on the paper bag from the coffee shop we'd visited.
In all cases, I have no idea where the story is going until I start it. But while I'm writing I will make notes for myself about future scenes and plot points that come to me. So by the halfway point, I have a pretty good idea how to get to the end.
Heath: In Demon Dagger, the character of Lincoln, a demon hunter, explains to his student Drew that the world has bad places. Specific cities are named, such as Chicago and its history of crime, Vegas for gambling and prostitution, and New Orleans with its history of the slave trade. Now you're telling us about a Magic Shop in St. Augustine. Did your own experiences inform Lincoln's explanation of "bad places" and that ominous feeling some places possess?
Russell James: My deepest personal experience with a location with bad mojo happened when I was in New Orleans years ago for World Horror Con. (Sorry, New Orleans.) I went out for pre-dawn exercise in the touristy downtown area. The place was deserted save for a few folks scrubbing sidewalks and such. But there was a very bad vibe the entire time I was walking the streets. It wasn't the same feeling you might get in a sketchy neighborhood when you felt physically unsafe. It felt like there was some lurking malevolence living under the pavement and between each building's bricks. I was relieved to get back to the hotel. The city did not feel that way during the day.
I've also visited Jerusalem and there are locations there where I felt powerful energy, both good and bad. There definitely is something about that city that is special. What are the odds that one location would be a holy place for three different religions?
I have heard a lot of people describe a sensation of that same kind of darkness visiting Auschwitz in Poland, although whether that was a dark place that attracted a concentration camp or a place made dark by a concentration camp I could not say.
If this answer makes me sound like I'm into a lot of New Age-energy-and-crystals stuff, I am definitely not. These were just experiences I had and worked into the background of the novel.
Heath: Speaking of experiences, I notice your experience working with vehicles and machines consistently appears in your writing. In Demon Dagger, your love of cars is apparent. You have characters working on cars, explaining how the parts work, and even describing automotive repair. Your monthly "James Town Newsletter" features an "In The Garage" section where you talk about maintenance and auto adventures, such as a recent trip with Olivia the Challenger. Can you tell me more about your love of cars? When did it begin?
Russell James: My fascination with cars began with Hot Wheels as a kid. I collected a whole bunch of them. It's kind of the same thing now, except the cars are bigger and all the doors really open.
I bought my first car before I could drive. My parents were going to trade a 1968 VW Beetle in on a new Beetle convertible. They offered my father $100 for the trade-in. I said I'd pay that and use my lawn cutting money to buy the car. Of course I was only 15, so this was an investment in the future. For a year I drove it up and down the driveway to keep the seals fresh and the tires from getting flat spots. But when it came time for a license, I was ready.
The character Lincoln in the novel is restoring a 1970 Chevelle named Gabriella. The inspiration there came from my 1970 SS 454 Chevelle convertible named Valerie. I've had her for over thirty years. It is a much simpler car to take care of than a newer car, but much less efficient. Olivia gets twice the miles per gallon Valerie does, but the smiles per gallon driving a convertible on a nice day make up for it.
Heath: As we wrap up, I know you also have been very active as a mentor for other writers who might just be getting started. Your website--https://www.russellrjames.com--has an entire section dedicated to practical advice on topics that include getting started as a writer, how to make a profit at fan conventions, and even the importance of accurate details in fiction. What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer but isn't sure how to begin?
Russell James: If someone is just embarking on their journey as a writer, I say congratulations. Many never take that first step and start putting words on a page.
Any job you want to have (and you'd better be treating writing as a job, because it is) requires training to get good at it. Even if you think you have the necessary training (like a literature degree) it is very likely you do not. Do you need an MFA to learn about writing? Since most bestselling authors do not have one, that answer is no. I've even heard authors in interviews say the MFA hurt them because the instruction so belittled the genre writing they longed to do.
Online or local community college classes on creative writing are a good start. There are also many self-help writing books that really gave me a leg up. Whatever route you take, make certain that you apply what you are learning to what you are writing.
And then you need to write. Every day. Olympic athletes practice every day, and so should you. Set yourself up some time that works and then use it. Even writing only a page a day means that in 365 days you will have finished a novel. So get cracking, and finish that first effort. The sense of accomplishment really builds self-confidence.
Heath: Great advice! Can you tell us about what's coming next?
Russell James: The first book in the Rick and Rose Sinclair Adventure series just came out. Quest for the Queen's Temple is the story of a couple who run an antique store in 1938. They find a journal from an explorer who discovered the legendary Queen of Sheba's lost treasury, but couldn't get to it. They decide to follow his notes and find that temple themselves. On the way, they need to get ahead of other treasure hunters and avoid the creatures that guard the outside of the temple and the supernatural forces at work within.
The sixth in the Grant Coleman Adventures series will be out the end of this year. Grant is a paleontologist who keeps getting roped into expeditions that end up finding giant monsters. In this story, he is recruited to evaluate fossils found at a billionaire's new South Pacific resort. But when he and others are shipwrecked on an uncharted atoll, they discover some dangerous creatures that should be long extinct.
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Heath: Wonderful! This has been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.
Russell James: Thanks for this opportunity, Heath. Great chatting with you!