by Tim Janson
In a few short years Joe Schreiber has become one of the most provocative and exciting horror writers in the business. His debut novel, Chasing the Dead was one of the best horror novels of 2006 and was quickly followed up by 2007’s equally terrifying Eat the Dark and 2009’s No Doors, No Windows. Also in 2009, Schreiber wrote the first horror novel set in the Star Wars Universe combining Stormtroopers with zombies in Death Troopers. His latest novel, Unholy Cause is based on the TV show Supernatural. Joe sat down with Hellnotes to talk about his latest novel, future projects, and much more.
Hellnotes: Joe, thanks for joining Hellnotes. Tell us a little bit about The Unholy Cause.
Schreiber: The boys find themselves down south, in the middle of a Civil War re-enactment, where a certain creepy religious artifact has been unearthed, and suddenly every replica sword and musket is possessed with otherworldly lethal power. It’s got classic southern rock soundtrack, a runaway train and a hot female sheriff named Jackie Daniels. And a colossal demon infestation.
Hellnotes: Is the story set during any particular timeframe of Supernatural’s continuity or is it a stand-alone story?
Schreiber: I think we ended up setting it somewhere in the early middle of this current season, after the fellas have had their rapprochement.
Hellnotes: What attracted you to writing a novel about these characters?
Schreiber: What I’ve found is that you can write horror – or anything – if the relationship between the characters is familiar and compelling enough. Sam and Dean definitely have that kind of relationship where it allows you to push certain buttons-suspense, comedy, terror-because the people are sympathetic and hugely fun.
Hellnotes: With whom do you identify more with … Sam or Dean?
Hellnotes: What challenges did you encounter in writing a story about characters that are well known to fans of the show? They are certainly going to be the harshest critics.
Schreiber: Chris Cerasi at DC Comics and the production company out in LA was a huge help when it came to getting the tone right. A lot of the time, though, having established characters with familiar voices makes the heavy lifting easier. It definitely did with Han and Chewie in Death Troopers, and it did here as well.
Hellnotes: Unholy Cause is set partly during the Civil War. Are you a Civil War buff or did it just fit with what you wanted to do with the plot?
Schreiber: Not at all. I submitted a half-dozen different ideas for the consideration of the Supernatural creative team, and when everybody picked this one, I knew I had to start doing some pants-crappingly serious homework in a very short period of time. Fortunately we live pretty close to Gettysburg and we took a research trip, walked the battlefields and talked to some historians. I hope I got at least some of it right.
Hellnotes: Any thoughts on how this season of the show is going to end?
Schreiber: I already know far too much to speculate publicly.
Hellnotes: Do you have a favorite episode of the show?
Schreiber: I loved “Swap Meat” this season. I like all the episodes that Ben Edlund writes, especially “Ghostfacers” and “Monster Movie.”
Hellnotes: Oh yeah … “Monster Movie” was a great episode, especially for fans of classic horror films. Chasing the Dead was one of my favorite novels of 2007. I particularly liked the way you used the New England area as a backdrop as Susan Young took her “road trip to Hell.” What was the inspiration for that story?
Schreiber: I was thirty-four years old and in some pretty desperate circumstances, personally and financially – parenting a young child with another on the way, going back to school, commuting long distances early in the morning and late at night … having a living corpse sit up in the back of my Oldsmobile just seemed like a natural extension of my current milieu.
Hellnotes: I thought that Chasing the Dead had a distinct Lovecraftian feel to it with its old New England horror elements. I know I’ve heard you say you never read much Lovecraft so did the atmosphere come from more personal experiences?
Schreiber: I’m not sure, really. All my favorite scary stories seem to have some New England connection, from Shirley Jackson’s Hill House to ‘Salem’s Lot and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I just gravitate toward East Coast winters, I guess.
Hellnotes: Your second book, Eat the Dark took place in a near-empty hospital as it was just about to be shut down. What makes hospitals inherently creepy settings for horror novels and films?
Schreiber: I think it’s partly the same thing that makes the Overlook Hotel creepy – long desolate hallways, vacant chambers, quiet interchangeable rooms that aren’t quite empty. And of course there’s the underlying notion of death and suffering, the beeping monitors and quiet-shoed nurses escorting in that final darkness that waits for us all.
Hellnotes: Part of Eat the Dark came from your own experiences in working at a hospital, correct?
Schreiber: Absolutely. And after it was published, I ended up working the midnight shift, and we actually did lose the power in the middle of the night. I was like, wait a second … I wrote this.
Hellnotes: You did something most people would not have thought impossible when you crossed Star Wars with horror and introduced zombies to the Star Wars universe in Death Troopers. How did that come about? Were you approached to write the book or did you have to sell the idea?
Schreiber: My editor at Del Rey was involved in the Star Wars Expanded Universe books, and I think there was probably a conversation at a hotel bar at one of the conventions, about how cool a Star Wars horror novel might be. Eventually they called my agent … hey, you think Joe would be interested in a Star Wars zombie book? And I said, are you kidding?
Hellnotes: Were you a Star Wars fan as a kid? Have the Kenner action figures and all that good stuff?
Schreiber: I did – and now I’m buying them all again. Thanks, eBay!
Hellnotes: Was it difficult working under the watchful eyes of Random House and LucasBooks? How much creative freedom did you have?
Schreiber: They were a dream to work with, frankly. They told me they wanted a George Romero story in a George Lucas universe, and they were really excited about what I was coming up with. As much as I pushed the envelope, I never got the feeling that they were particularly possessive about their intellectual property.
Hellnotes: I would think that one of the most difficult things in writing a Star Wars book is getting all the background information correct regarding time periods, space vessels, weapons. How did you approach that process?
Schreiber: After the initial round of contracts were signed, FedEx started delivering boxes of research materials my way courtesy of Skywalker Ranch. I sat in my basement office with a two-foot stack of reference guides, filling in blasters, aliens, spacecraft and planets as I went. It’s a big sandbox, and a lot of fun to play in.
Hellnotes: Hardcore Star Wars fans seem to have been pretty pleased with the book. That has to make you feel good.
Schreiber: Oh yeah, definitely. The 501st came along on the book tour, so I had Stormtroopers at all my signings from California to Philly – the fan support was just tremendous. They took the whole thing to the next level. It was astonishing.
Hellnotes: You’ve tackled Supernatural and Star Wars. Is there another licensed property you might want to take on some day, horror or non-horror?
Schreiber: I want to write a Batman book – a really dark Bruce Wayne cold case thing with him going out of Gotham to investigate some long-closed disappearance of a girl under just really horrible circumstances. It would mainly just be Bruce Wayne, obsessive and unstable, just the way we like him … the Batman persona would be all in the background. Also, I want to do a Glee slasher book, with songs.
Hellnotes: Ha Ha … Now THAT would be terrifying. What projects do you have coming up?
Schreiber: I’ve got another Star Wars horror novel coming out from Del Rey next February – I think we’re calling it Red Harvest. And I’ve actually got a young adult novel making the rounds at publishers … a John Hughes/Luc Besson mashup about a foreign exchange student who turns out to be an international assassin … it’s called Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick.
Hellnotes: As a fellow Michigander do you have a chance to get here back to visit at all?
Schreiber: Oh yeah, I come back for every book. I was back in October to read and sign in my hometown library, and up north in Petoskey. I’ve got family there, and I love Michigan in the fall especially.
Hellnotes: Joe, thank your spending some time with Hellnotes today.
Schreiber: My pleasure.