This year, Chris F. Holm released his debut Dead Harvest, introducing his hard boiled hero Sam Thorton, a man who sold his soul and ended up a collector of other souls. The book earned praise from crime fiction and supernatural fans alike. This month, the second Thorton book, The Wrong Goodbye, took us further into Sam’s world. Since our next Hard Word Book Club will be on Halloween, we decided to discuss Dead Harvest with Chris calling in to the discussion. He was also kind enough to answer some questions for us in advance.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the character of Sam Thornton come about?
CHRIS F. HOLM: Corny as it sounds, he popped into my head more or less fully formed as I was drifting off to sleep one night. I was in that strange space between wakefulness and dreaming, and a scene was unfolding in my mind. It was of a man — surly, American — watching through the window of an Oxford pub at the jollity inside. When the pub closed down, the American fell in behind one of the drunken patrons — a noted British man of letters — and tailed him until the guy ducked into an alley to take a leak. They struggle, the Brit’s eyes wide with fear. Then the American plunged his hand into the Brit’s chest and tore out his soul. As the man’s dead body hit the ground, the American said, “Sorry — it’s nothing personal.”
I have no idea where any of that came from, but once I saw it, I shook off all thoughts of sleep and ran down the stairs to my office, where I wrote down as much of it as I could remember. That scene wound up the opening chapter of Dead Harvest. As for how the character developed from there, I suppose I filled in the wheres and whys by drawing on my pet obsessions: classic detective novels, religious conspiracy stories, cheesy horror flicks, Lovecraft, philosophy, folklore, Greek myth. But the truth is, after that first scene everything fell into place so easily, Sam still feels more discovered than created to me.
MP: What makes him a character worth returning to as a writer?
CH: George Orwell once said, “On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.” Well, Sam’s not a bad man by any means, but he sure ain’t too good. To me, Sam’s appeal is that he’s not simply a tarnished man of honor in the vein of Hammett’s Continental Op or Chandler’s Marlowe; he’s a deeply flawed guy who’s made some truly poor — if not outright immoral — decisions in the course of his existence. I mean, the poor guy’s damned to hell, and not on any technicality, either. But despite that, he holds on to the hope of redemption, if only in his own mind. There’s something to that struggle — to finding some meager shred of hope and faith in the face of a foregone conclusion — that I find tremendously compelling. I’m as curious as anybody to see where fate takes Sam… and what he has to say about it when it does.
MP: While the books deal with spirituality, you’ve deftly avoided the characters and backdrop from being attributed to any one religion. How difficult has that been to do?
CH Actually, in some ways, I think it’s been easier than if I tied myself to any one religion. One of the goals I had when I sat down to write this series was to write something people of any faith — or none at all — could enjoy. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as telling a specific kind of story. And anyway, it seems to me that wrestling with questions of faith, morality, and mortality is universal to the human experience.
To that end, I had this notion of all the world’s religions, folklore, and mythology as a vast, multigenerational game of telephone — the result of centuries of folks catching different glimpses of the greater world around us, but never quite enough to make any sense of it. And the beauty of that idea is, I’m not tied to any one cosmology or cast of characters; I can steal whatever I like from wherever I like without fear of running afoul of any rulebook. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of writing the Collector novels, it’s that nothing I cook up can hold a candle to the giant piles of weird that comprise our species’ many and varied belief systems.
MP: You established your world and hero with Dead Harvest. What was the goal with The Wrong Goodbye?
CH: Dead Harvest was an experiment: I wanted to see if I could write fantasy that read like crime. Taut, propulsive, and with as little world building as I could manage while still telling the story I wanted to tell. Whether I was successful in that regard is for the audience to decide.
When the time came to write The Wrong Goodbye, I realized I wasn’t interested in going the case-of-the-week route. So I decided to take a big step back, and really expand the scope of Sam’s world. The result, I hope, is bigger, richer, funnier, and more character-driven than was Dead Harvest.
Then again, there’s always a chance some readers would prefer a case-of-the-week.
MP: What’s the best thing about creating your own world?
CH: The best thing? The sense of discovery around every corner. Writing Sam’s world is an act of exploration. What’s a demon drug look, taste, and feel like? If a character can’t be killed, what would he or she fear most in this world? What would my own worst hell look like? What would yours?
Sam’s is a fertile world to explore all my personal obsessions, and hopefully have some fun along the way. My only limits are those of my own imagination. Which is writer-code for “I’m just happy none of this has to make real-world sense.”
MP: What’s the most challenging about it?
CH: Uh, same answer. Because the flip-side of that coin is, every detail has to hang together, or the whole illusion comes crashing down. Which, frankly, could happen at any time. So fingers crossed Sam and company keep whispering in my ear.
MP: Just by the titles in the series, it’s obvious you’re a hard boiled crime fiction fan. Who are some of your favorite writers in the genre?
CH: Well, Chandler and Hammett are gimmes, since it’s from they I cribbed my titles. But I’m also a huge fan of James Cain, Ross Macdonald, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith. Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake are twin pillars of literary godhood, as far as I’m concerned; Westlake’s Parker novels in particular are probably my all-time favorite series. Charles Ardai’s devastating Songs of Innocence and Domenic Stansberry’s The Confession can hang with anything I’ve ever read. And if you ask me, Megan Abbott is pushing the genre in brave new directions.
MP: You’re more of a crime writer who took on an urban fantasy series where most of the authors come the the subgenre from fantasy, do you think that gives you a different take?
CH: I think so, although I think the difference is evidenced more in tone and rhythm than in content. Plenty of folks writing urban fantasy or whatever you wanna call it have the chops to pull off the grittier subject matter, and I’d likewise like to think my fantastical elements are up to snuff. But style of prose lends as much flavor to any tale as does the story, and I think, prose-wise, all my herbs and spices are calibrated to a crime-fic palette. Not that I’m the only crime writer sneaking across that border; Charlie Huston and Stephen Blackmoore, just to name a couple, have done the same to great effect.