Interview with Alex S. Johnson for FEAR Magazine. August 2016.
Alex S. Johnson is an author, poet and journalist who has been knocking around literary circles for quite some time now. Based in Sacramento, California, he is the founder of the indie publishing house Nocturnicorn Books, and his past resume makes for an impressive reading – English professor, respected music journalist and many, many published stories and poems over the years.
Specialising in the bizarro/extreme horror sub-genre, Alex and Nocturnicorn Books have published some critically acclaimed and popularly grotesque titles, such as The Doom Hippies, The Thirteen Signs, the vomit-inducing Chunks (a sequel to which is on the way), the heavy metal-themed Axes of Evil and the coulrophobia-causing Floppy Shoes Apocalypse series.
FEAR’s Trevor Kennedy attempts to get to the bottom of what makes Alex tick and his amour with pushing boundaries.
TK: Hello, Alex. Thank you for taking the time out to speak with us here at FEAR, as I know you are a busy man. How are things with yourself and Nocturnicorn Books on your side of the pond?
ASJ: First off, I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to you and FEAR for taking the time to speak with me. As you suggest, things with me and Nocturnicorn are crazy busy. Currently Chris Thompson and I are assembling Floppy Shoes Apocalypse III and IV; I’m editing Chunks: A Barfzarro Anthology Reloaded, which will appear late in the year; Nocturnicorn will be releasing Norbert Gora’s solo poetry collection Globe Bathed in Horror, as well as Dreams of Fire and Steel, a sword and sorcery anthology which is being edited by Juan Julio Gutierrez, and volume one of The Junk Merchants, a literary salute to William S. Burroughs, which Dean M. Drinkel is editing from his home in Cannes. I pretty much have no life to speak of at this point, but I’m grateful for the many opportunities that have come my way in the publishing world and the chance to work with some amazing authors.
TK: It’s apparent to me, that writing is your life, or at very least a massive part of it, and something which you could not live without. When did this love affair with the written word begin and has it always been in you?
ASJ: Truth be told, I’m addicted to storytelling. I think part of it comes from being an only child, and also as my family has a very different cultural inflection than a lot of Americans, trying hard to create a world for myself that’s comfortable and recognizable. When you grow up on Robert Crumb comics and Hindu mythology, that’s a weird and wonderful DNA. My parents are highly creative people, my dad invents satirical devices that have no functional use and has published several books featuring these crazy ideas. My mom has taught Sanskrit, among other things. It’s a unique heritage and one I wouldn’t trade for anything, but as most Americans who are religious are Christian, being born into a family where gods and goddesses like Krishna and Kali are omnipresent automatically placed me in a position where I felt like I was from outer space, in a way. So I adjusted by making my own conceptual universe; that way, I didn’t have to fit in. I’m never at a loss for ideas, because even the slightest throwaway phrase somebody says to me will suggest a story idea.
TK: You began as an English professor, before moving onto music journalism. How did those professions go for you? Were they planned vocations and what made you eventually move on from them?
ASJ: I’ve never had an official career except as a writer, although I did teach college and university English for a period of about five years. Like anybody else, I’ve gone where the opportunities were. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a horror writer like Stephen King and Peter Straub as well as a music journalist. I had a subscription to Rolling Stone back when it was the tabloid size and used to pore over the articles. It felt absolutely mythic to me, that whole arena of rock and roll and heavy metal and horror. I’ve never really left it. I started doing music journalism by accident in 1994 when I hadn’t been able to sell any fiction, so I interviewed authors I respect such as Craig Spector, Poppy Z. Brite, Lucy Taylor and Edward Lee. The Australian goth culture magazine Dark Angel asked me to interview Rozz Williams from Christian Death, because one of their writers had flaked out, and I stepped into that field as a pinch hitter. Rest in Peace, Rozz. From there I alternated trying to sell fiction, again, and became involved with Bloodsongs magazine, also in Australia. I sold my first published horror story to Bloodsongs, “Pen and Incubus,” in 1998. Flash forward to 2005, when I simultaneously began teaching college and put out an official Jason/Friday the 13th novelization from Black Flame Press in Nottingham. That was fairly mindbending. I also became a staff writer for the late, lamented Metal Maniacs and started seriously selling fiction as well. Long story short, I’ve sown many seeds and had many crazy adventures which sound glamorous now but make me cringe to recall. It’s a bit like your book Phantasmagoria—wonderful to read, painful to live.
TK: Which do you prefer writing: fiction, non-fiction or verse poetry?
ASJ: Poetry, fiction and nonfiction in that order. Poetry allows me to tap into the Id; I don’t have to rationalize the words and images, and that gives me great freedom. With fiction, there’s a bit of a necessity to make sense, although some of my readers might question whether I succeed! Nonfiction I enjoy, but because I strive for honesty and accuracy, I can easily get wound up trying to tell the truth in a way that’s palatable, and that’s hard work.
TK: Nocturnicorn Books specialise in extreme horror. Personally speaking, I believe writing should always be subversive and challenge the reader in all sorts of ways, so I’m with you all the way on this. However, is there anything at all that would be considered taboo for you guys and are there any subjects that are off limits?
ASJ: Well to be honest, we don’t really specialize. My aim in creating Nocturnicorn was to open up space for good speculative fiction, period. We will be putting out a fantasy anthology, a William S. Burroughs tribute, and other non-horror works. As for things that would be considered taboo, it all depends on the treatment. My two rules for material I will publish from Nocturnicorn are no sexually explicit material involving minor children and no rape porn. Other than that, it’s as Clive Barker famously said: “there are no limits.” Which may be a contradiction in terms, but I much prefer pushing the limits, as you suggest, than staying in a comfortable space. Again, it depends on how the author approaches the subject. The novels of Dennis Cooper, for example, who I absolutely love, cross all boundaries imaginable. But he’s extraordinarily good at what he does.
TK: I myself am against the censoring of any art form, so long as no-one is getting literally hurt. What’s your view on censorship, past and present? I’m assuming you wouldn’t be a fan of the likes of self-appointed moral crusaders like the UK’s Mary Whitehouse was, and this modern trend(especially on the internet) of people becoming so sensitive and offended by everything.
ASJ: I am against censorship of material that doesn’t involve illegal activities, period. Writing about a subject is at a quantum divide from doing it. One of my biggest pet peeves with relationships has been women who even when they get to know me and understand I am not a serial killer or an insane, violent person by any stretch of the imagination still believe that I have some emotional investment in the characters and situations I create. They don’t get that most of my writing is actually from the “victim’s” point of view, and the victim doesn’t stay that way for long. I was very pleased with a review of my book The Doom Hippies by our mutual friend Pippa Bailey, who recognized that I’m actively invested in creating powerful female characters. I’m actually more shocked by the negative kinds of reactions than some readers are by my work. In education and literary criticism we call those “naïve readers,” but you can’t exactly dismiss them because they’re everywhere. Artists must have the freedom to deal with disturbing, potent subjects in the way they see fit; censorship of fictional matter makes no sense to me. And some people, especially politicians, seem to think that writing about serial killers is worse than massacring thousands of people in foreign countries by remote controlled drones. The true evils in the world are not spawned by artists, but by the inability to come to terms with the horrors of the modern world. War is the real obscenity. Rape. Child molestation. The destruction of the ecosystem. I’ll stop now and get off my high horse!
TK: I had the joy of reading and reviewing your rock-inspired anthology Axes of Evil, which was great, by the way. You’re also a music journalist. How important is heavy metal and rock music to you? Has it more influence over you than horror and literature even?
ASJ: Without music, life would be pointless. Hearing all those great bands growing up such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden gave me the will to forge on. Heavy metal—music in general, by which I mean also classical music, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner; jazz, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, these people—is the biggest personal motivator I have. When I met Lemmy of Motorhead for the first time, I had to tell him how much his lyrics and music had helped me forge on through the hard times. Music is genius, it’s beauty, it’s a force that can’t be beat.
TK: What has inspired you over the years and still does today?
ASJ: My heroes are people like Mohammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus Christ. I try to express some of the energy of soul force and spirituality in whatever I do. It’s about giving, sharing, expanding your identity to encompass the whole world, not just a coterie of ass-kissers who will turn their backs on you as soon as they see a better deal elsewhere.
TK: The ethos of Nocturnicorn Books. What would it be?
ASJ: Taking ethos in its moral or philosophical sense, I’m trying to challenge the mediocrity that infests the indie horror press these days, which is all about social politics and internecine warfare over actually writing and publishing work that is distinguished and of quality. I’m only concerned with good writing; the rest is Kindergarten stuff. Nocturnicorn is open to all good writers, period. If you’ve got the chops, we’ll publish you. And in that regard, I also believe in cutting authors a fair deal. If I can’t compensate you relative to your hard work, I’m certainly not going to demand exclusive rights or first reprint rights for an anthology story. I’m also not going to push you out of the treehouse if you have different political beliefs than I do. It may sound strange to outsiders that I’m talking about these more sordid aspects of the publishing world, but it’s important to me to actively challenge the bullshit and drive it out of the scene. You can’t claim to be a professional and act like a kid when it comes to business. Well, you can, but it’s not going to fly for long. We in the indie press need to stop tolerating dirty, unethical and sometimes even illegal practices and flush out the system before it becomes toxic.
TK: Do you think yourself and Nocturnicorn Books might ever branch into other genres – rom-coms perhaps, haha? Joking aside, how about serious science fiction, for example?
ASJ: Serious science fiction is something I would love to publish. Everything depends on the level of interest, support from readers and the indie publishing community at large, and money. Nocturnicorn is actually an imprint of Darkest Wine Media, which I created as a platform for all kinds of vehicles, including film, audiobooks, any and all forms of portable entertainment.
TK: Who are some of the best writers and artists you have worked with over the years?
ASJ: I was extremely fortunate to have the amazing Lucy Taylor on board Axes of Evil; and if that wasn’t enough, I had Sephera Giron, John Claude Smith and some others who are world-class. I’m still shocked that Ramsey Campbell allowed me to reprint a chapter from his novel Grin of the Dark in Floppy Shoes Apocalypse 2. That’s not simply a masterpiece of clown horror, it’s in my opinion a masterpiece of fiction. If you’re talking about up and coming authors, then my close friend and collaborator Mary Genevieve Fortier comes quickly to mind. I’ve also felt gratified to see Chris Ropes ascend quickly into the empyrean heights of weird fiction. Jordan Krall, although I haven’t published him, I worked with on the original chapbook versions of The Doom Hippies and Doctor Flesh, which he put out through Dynatox Ministries. He’s another very serious author who has earned the respect he’s attained in horror and what could loosely be called transgressive fiction. There are simply too many state of the art authors I’ve been blessed to work with in some capacity for me to list, and instead of leaving anybody out who deserves to be recognized, I’ll stop here.
TK: How do you view the current state of the horror genre? Who are the ones to watch in the future? I think that guy Russell Holbrook, whom you collaborate often with, is of a very high literary talent.
ASJ: Chris Thompson and I are publishing Russell’s novel The Water Babies through SlashHouse Fiction, and Russell’s stories have appeared in Axes of Evil and Floppy Shoes Apocalypse as well. I expect that sooner than later, Russell will be able to dictate his own terms as an author and outgrow these extremely modest enterprises, but I hope he will drop in from time to time with one of his stories.
TK: As a writer and journalist, what are some of your proudest moments over the years?
ASJ: Jason X: Death Moon; Axes of Evil; flying to Norway for an interview with the legendary black metal band Emperor—these have been some of the highlights. But I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve hung in there for this long despite the extraordinary lengths some have gone to, in the words of my most virulent attacker, “destroy Alex S. Johnson.” It’s a testament to my tenacity and stubbornness that I will not say die. And the fact that I’m telling this to a journalist from a British Fantasy Award-winning magazine attests to this attitude.
TK: What are currently working on at the moment, Alex, and which titles are available at present from Nocturnicorn Books? I hear there are new volumes of Floppy Shoes Armageddon and a follow-up to Chunks on the way.
ASJ: Nocturnicorn Books has published a number of my books, including The Doom Hippies and Doctor Flesh, but I have plans to make NB distinct from my solo projects so I don’t look ridiculous to myself, and to focus attention on the authors in the NB “stable,” if you will. I’ve got the ongoing monthly series of Fucked Up Fairy Tales I’m doing with Berti Walker through her Insolitus Publishing, as well as some projects with Jaded Books Publishing such as my dark poetry collection, Skeleton Kiss. I’m also involved with this year’s Ladies and Gentlemen of Horror cancer charity anthology, which I’m very proud of. A follow-up to Chunks and the clown horror anthology are in progress; Chunks Reloaded will be released in the Winter. I feel like a centipede sometimes; if I thought about impossible spinning all these plates actually is, I would probably just freeze up and huddle in a corner somewhere.
TK: What does the future hold for Alex S. Johnson and Nocturnicorn Books? What plans do you have?
ASJ: I want to expand NB beyond horror fiction. I want to do good work that I’m proud of. I want to be a better human being. And I want to make some money. For a lot of people, the material comes first; having the opposite approach can be taxing and frustrating in the extreme.
Thank you so much for the interview and your stimulating questions, Trevor!