MysteryPeople Q&A with Chris F. Holm: THE BIG REAP

chris f holm

If you read Chris F. Holm’s Collector series, you know he is one of the most talented writers out there. His latest featuring Sam Thorton, a soul collector for Hell, The Big Reap, has him going up against several former collectors who have turned into creatures who have been living off of humans for centuries. Once again he weaves a great mix of horror and hardboiled into a tale about humanity. As this interview we did with him shows, he’s also one of the smartest writers out there.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: The Big Reap has Sam learning something that could change his life or at least his view of it. Did you think it was necessary to have this discovery early in the series?

CHRIS F. HOLM: I think the timing of that discovery — in which (cough spoilers cough cough) I dangle the possibility of redemption — was vitally important. If I’d done it in books one or two, it might have felt cheap, unearned. If I’d waited until ten books in, it might have felt like a deus ex machina. But three books in, the audience is comfortably settled into the rules that govern Sam’s existence, so it seemed like the perfect time to upend those rules.

MP: Because of the nature of the book, Sam fights several different creatures and it never seems repetitive. How did you approaches these passages so it wasn’t just another monster battle?

CFH: The Big Reap has a classic revenge-tale structure in the vein of Kill Bill or Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, and like those works, it was important that each of the characters Sam squares off against was unique, and entertaining enough to justify their time on-screen. And further, because his prey are former Collectors warped by the ritual that freed them from hell’s bonds, I felt that they should each represent a potential dark fate for Sam himself. To do that, I turned to an unlikely source: the movie monsters that shaped my childhood. I riffed on a little bit of everything, from Dracula and Frankenstein to Alien and Poltergeist, and in so doing, I was able to create what I hope were some memorable characters that manage to reflect poor Sam’s deepest anxieties back at him. I’m glad to hear, for you at least, the work paid off.

MP: In Dead Harvest, Sam is caught between two warring factions; The Wrong Goodbye has him betrayed by a friend; and The Big Reap has a scene reminiscent of Marlowe’s meeting with Major Sternwood. Do you like to have an echo of the book whose title you’re recreating for the one you’re writing?

CFH: Absolutely. Early on in the series, I realized if I were to hew too closely to the plot of the book from which I take my title, it’d suck the air out of my own story and lend it an air of predictability. But I’m a huge pulp nerd, so I can’t help but leave an easter egg or two for people like you who know enough to spot them.

MP: In the series and some of your short work, you have part of the characters’ back story slamming into their present. What meaning do you think a person;’s past has?

CFH: Phil Dick once wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And that, to me, is how I view a person’s history. It’s no surprise to anyone who’s read my work that I’m fascinated by the elasticity of self. People adopt so many personae — and wear so many masks — throughout their lives, the question of what’s essential, what’s immutable, interests me to no end. But one thing that can’t be changed, nor ever truly escaped, is our past. It shapes us in countless ways, and colors every aspect of who we are. And yet two people with similar personal histories can make very different choices, lead wildly disparate lives. That friction between fate and free will is, to me, the essence of what it means to be alive.

MP: What makes Sam Thornton worth coming back to?

CFH: Well, for one, I just like spending time with the guy. Profession aside, he seems like he’d be a good dude to grab a beer with. That’s handy whether you’re a writer spending a few years with him, or a reader spending a few hours. But I also think some of his appeal is in the fact that his tale externalizes and makes literal the internal struggle we all face, trying to make sense of a brutal and beautiful world that resists sense-making.

MP: Can you tell us what you have in store for him next?

CFH: At present, I’m not contracted to write another Collector book, but that could change at any time. I will say Sam’s role will shift considerably thanks to the events of The Big Reap, and the temptations he faces in the next book, should there be one, will be of a different sort entirely. He’s proven himself over the course of the first three books to be a man of good intentions… but then again, I hear the road to hell is paved with them.

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Copies of all of Chris F. Holm’s books are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

THE BIG REAP: Heaven & Hell Aren’t Black & White

When reading The Big Reap, I couldn’t help but think of a recent discussion I had with the author Chris F. Holm when he called into our History Of Mystery class on Lawrence Block. Chris talked in great detail about Block’s Matthew Scudder series and the craftsmanship used in conveying those ideas. This latest in Holm’s Sam Thorton series proves he has taken what he’s learned from one of the masters to heart.

For the uninitiated, Sam Thorton is a man who sold his soul to the devil. His hard boiled Hell is is to collect the souls from those who have done the same, like a supernatural loan shark. In The Big Reap, his handler, Lilith, the ultimate femme fatale, gives him a different kind of job. She asks him to take out The Brethren, a group of former collectors who have escaped the bonds of Hell. Not only have many of them influenced the legends of many classic monsters, they feed off humans. The hunt for each one takes him across the globe, feeling more and more like a pawn as fights for his life against them. It also triggers memories of his first collection and encounter with Lilith.

Holm has amazing skill when it comes to emotion and theme. The book’s meaning creeps up on the reader, without one fully grasping it until the last sentence. The emotions build as Sam’s well earned cynicism gives way to a slight sense of hope, if not trust. To Holm, even Heaven and Hell aren’t black and white.

I’d love to delve more into The Big Reap, but what is so good about it is tied to it’s impacting reveals that serve as more than just plot twists. Holm weaves the ideas he wants to explore with his story like a master craftsman. He uses the subtext of hard boiled novels, making the text through urban fantasy a starting point to venture in less charted territory. It would be no surprise if there is a class discussion about him someday.

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Copies of The Big Reap are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.