Saturday, April 14, 2012

Chuck Miller's One Hundred Legs of Death

I'm not upset that I tied for best new writer this year with Chuck Miller. I'm really not. (Me thinks the lady doth protest too much, I know.)

The simple fact is that neither or us are really "new" writers. We've both been at it for years, and we both deserve the award. Chuck's Black Centipede series is an amazing bit of pulp styled prose that takes itself both seriously and not too seriously at the same time.

So if I had to get stuck in a tie, I couldn't think of better company.

And now it's time for you to meet him too.

Tell us a bit about your latest work.

I just finished the second Black Centipede novel, Blood of the Centipede. It picks up shortly after the first one left off. The Black Centipede is now a national hero, thanks to the machinations of William Randolph Hearst. But our hero still has some impulse control problems, and he comes perilously close to getting into hot water again over his very public use of violence against a criminal. His friend on the City of Zenith Police Department, Stan Bartowski, suggests that the Centipede might want to get out of town for a while until the whole thing blows over. As it happens, Hearst is financing a Black Centipede movie -- a quickie production to cash in on the hero's popularity -- so he travels to Hollywood to act as a consultant on the film. Things turn weird very quickly, and the Centipede soon finds himself at odds with a bizarre triumvirate of villains: Jack the Ripper, the White Centipede, and the Black Centipede Eater. The story answers a few questions about the Centipede's macabre origin, but raises even more troubling ones. The real-life guest stars include Amelia Earhart (with whom the Centipede forms a sort of partnership), Aleister Crowley, Bela Lugosi and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

What are the themes and subjects you tend to revisit in your work?

I would say it would be the grey areas between good and evil, and perception vs. reality. The Centipede is kind of a morally ambiguous character. His motivations are strange and unclear. He has very little regard for the law. Generally speaking, he is on friendlier term with the criminals he knows than he is with people in law enforcement. It seems to me that anybody who has the nerve to put on a mask and take the law into his own hands must somehow see himself as above-- or at least apart from-- the rest of humanity. And I believe a lot of people in the real world who have managed to amass great power-- financial, political, etc.-- feel the same way. William Randolph Hearst was one of those, and that's why I made him a pivotal character in the Black Centipede saga. Hearst and the Centipede despise one another, but they're also dependent on each other. When the Centipede was just starting out he wound up in some very hot water with the law. Hearst stepped in and offered his services in rehabilitation our hero's public image. Hearst took some very radical, dangerous and unethical steps to achieve this, and turned the Centipede into a national hero virtually overnight. So the dynamic that emerges is that the Centipede sells a lot of papers and magazines for Hearst, and Hearst keeps the masked man's public image as shiny as possible. Of course, the two of them are a lot more alike than either would ever admit. Hearst also publishes a monthly Black Centipede pulp adventure magazine, which features highly sanitized accounts of his adventures. Perception is one thing, reality is something else.  But the Centipede will go through a sort of moral evolution as the series progresses. We see the beginnings of that in the second book. Amelia Earhart begins to serve as a sort of moral compass.

What would be your dream project?

There is one idea I have had in my head for quite some time. It involved copyrighted characters, but I think it would be doable. One of these days I'm going to make a pitch. I've actually written a couple of chapters. One of my favorite small-screen heroes meets one of my favorite big-screen antiheroes. My rather unimaginative working title is "Carl Kolchak Meets Blacula." Of course, Moonstone has the Kolchak franchise. I don't know who owns Blacula, but I would think they'd be open to such a project.

If you have any former project to do over to make it better, which one would it be, and what would you do?

A couple years ago, I wrote a novella called The Optimist.  It was never published, but it was the genesis of everything I'm doing now with the Black Centipede and other related characters. The Optimist  was a vaguely Watchmen-like post-glory-days superhero saga. 

The protagonist is a grown-up former superhero kid sidekick named Jack Christian, who has had a pretty rough life since his superhero mentor was killed 12 years prior to the events in the story. Frankly, it wasn't very good, and was never published. I scrapped the whole thing and started doing stories about some of the more interesting supporting characters, the Black Centipede, Doctor Unknown Junior, Vionna Valis and Mary Jane Kelly. But I do think the basic premise was good, and one of these days I might drag it back out and revamp it.

What inspires you to write?

I used to sit around and imagine things I'd like to read that nobody was writing. Eventually, I got to the point where I had enough nerve to start writing them myself. I am a big fan of pulp, both old and new, but there are things I have never seen done, and I'd like to see how they would work. So I'm taking a more or less traditional masked hero setup, and pushing it as far as I dare to. I enjoy the process, and sometimes find myself in brand-new territory I had never before imagined.

What writers have influenced your style and technique?

There are quite a few of those, and I have taken at least a little something from each of them. But in terms of style and technique, the ones I learned the most from are Flannery O'Connor, Hunter S. Thompson, Rex Stout, Carson McCullers and William S. Burroughs. In terms of content and approach, Philip Jose Farmer is at the top of the list.

Where would you rank writing on the "Is it an art or it is a science continuum?" Why?

Well, it has to be an art. If it were a science, I wouldn't be capable of doing it. Really, it can't be quantified. I have always found it indistinguishable from magic.

Any other upcoming projects you would like to plug?

I have a few things coming up. I'm doing several stories for the Pulp Obscura line. The first one is an Armless O'Neil story, which I just finished. You've got one in that collection, too, which I'm looking forward to reading. The next one of those I'm working on is the Griffon. I also have something coming out from Pacific Noir Press, the first in what might become a series, The Bay Phantom Chronicles.


To learn more about Chuck's work, visit