I am beyond thrill to have an opportunity to speak with today’s guest, Patrick C. Harrison III, writer and editor-in-chief of Death’s Head press, and a cigar aficionado. What’s your favorite brand of cigar and whiskey pairing? And what’s the best location day or night to enjoy either?
Do you always start off with the tough questions? My favorite place to smoke a cigar is at home, in the War Room. I’ll probably go with a Drew Estate Liga Privada No. 9 (originally made solely for the private collections of those working for Drew Estate) and Jameson Black Barrel over one ice cube. Although, I’m more than happy to substitute that with a nice porter or stout.
You’re originally from the Lone Star State if I’m not mistaken. How do you think being raised in a place that has such a rich, diverse, and contradictory cultural and literary tradition has affected your own world view and writing style?
You can find a little of Texas in everything I write. The state is so vast in size and complexity, giving endless possibilities to the creative mind. You’ve got big cities and small towns, lakes and rivers aplenty, desert and forests, and hundreds of miles of coastline. You can write damn near anything in a Texas setting. My favorite short story to date, “From These Muddy Waters,” has as its setting Lake Tawakoni, where I grew up fishing as a kid. My mind returns to that lake frequently when searching for new ideas. There are plenty of literary influences in the state—Robert E. Howard, Joe R. Lansdale, Cormac McCarthy, to name a few—but there is one Texas author that you’ve probably never heard of that had the biggest influence on me. Her name was Zinita Fowler and she was a children’s book author. I met her at the mall in Greenville, Texas signing books when I was maybe ten. My mom bought Ghost Stories of Old Texas by Ms. Fowler, which I probably read two-dozen times over the years. (I’ve actually tossed around the idea of writing a fourth installment to her Ghost Stories of Old Texas series.) How has Texas affected my world view? I like my guns; let’s keep it at that.
Death’s Head Press was established sometime in 2018. If you don’t mind answering this question yet again. How did you and Jarod meet and decide to become a publishing team? Why did you settle on Death’s Head Press as the name and what was the second runner up?
We met through Facebook. We noticed that we were both in some of the same FB groups, which led to us talking and sparking a friendship. Our wives then became friends, which brought us closer. One day—and this is literally how it happened—Jarod messages me asking if I wanted to write for an anthology he was putting together. I said sure (no pause). A few minutes later, he messages me asking if I wanted to help put the anthology together. I said sure (slight pause). A few minutes after that, maybe an hour or so, he messages me saying if we want the anthology to be legit, we should probably be a publisher. There was a pause after that one. But here we are. In the span of a day, we’d decided to become a publisher. Jarod came up with the name. I still don’t know how he came up with it. Even though Death’s Head Press is a bit of a tongue twister, I liked it and agreed.
I make no bones about it, I’m a huge fan of DHP and especially the Splatter Western series. From the moment I saw the cover of The Magpie Coffin I had to read it. Then I was personally blown away by how well crafted WiLE E. YOUNG’s story turned out and I’ve been hooked ever since. In the cruel year of our Lord 2020, if someone asked me for a book recommendation there were three I offered no matter what: In Just the Right Light by William R. Soldan, DILLO by Max Sheridan, and DHP’s Splatter Westerns and to start with the Magpie Coffin. However, the books can be read in any order is that right? Outside of being part of the series do any of the stories cross pollinate or is each book a world unto itself?
There are some slight crossovers between Dust by Chris Miller and Hunger on the Chisolm Trail by M. Ennenbach, but only slight. And if you’re really perceptive, you can find a minor crossover between my book, A Savage Breed, and Hunger on the Chisolm Trail. Oh, and my book also mentions a character from The Magpie Coffin. But, as you stated correctly, they are stand-alone books and can be read in any order. There has been talk of having some of our characters come together, like a Marvel Universe situation, but I don’t think there has been any movement on those ideas.
You’ve mentioned previously that no one thing inspired you beyond your own idea for a story which then branched out to encompass an entire series. Was there ever a moment after getting everything together that you weren’t sure the series would take off. When you approached Jarod with your original pitch did he have any hesitation or was he onboard immediately?
Yeah, I was scared shitless (am I allowed to cuss?) on the eve of releasing The Magpie Coffin. We had signed eight authors, at that point, for eight books. If Magpie failed, we were pretty much screwed. But you got to take risks. Since we started publishing Splatter Westerns, they’ve easily been our most profitable books. And Jarod was onboard right away. Just to give a little insight into our working dynamic, I’m usually the one that says no to stuff. Jarod likes every idea ever conceived and will say yes to them all if I’m not around. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But not by much.
Straight westerns are currently one of the toughest sales on the marketplace. Only a few publishers continue to do it and their products tend to be rehashes of old standards. The readership for those tends to lean hard towards older readers. Splatter Westerns by nature tend to invert and toy with the genre conventions. What specifically about the DHP Splatter Westerns do you think are connecting the most with readers?
Hmm. That’s hard to say. I think the term itself—Splatter Western—is alluring, and the fact that we brought together multiple authors to do a series. It wasn’t something people had seen in indie horror before, that I’m aware of. And I think combining the popularity of horror fiction with the nostalgia of western fiction creates a perfect blend. It doesn’t hurt that all the book covers look damn good. They catch the eye.
Justin Coons artwork is incredibly compelling stuff and really gives off a schlocky old pulp vibe mixed with the sights and sounds a kid would find in ye olden video store. Do you believe the old adage about judging books by cover is complete BS in the 21st century?. Had Justin ever worked with DHP before, or was he a lucky new find?
Whether the adage is advice that should be followed or not, people do judge a book by its cover. Sure, if Stephen King put something out with a shitty cover people would still buy it. But—and I know from experience—you sell a lot more books with a good cover versus a bad one. The original cover for my first novel, Inferno Bound and the Hell Hounds, was laughably bad. It’s horrifying to think that three or four people in this world have that book on their bookshelves right now. Horrifying. But yeah, we went out and got Justin because he’s the best, hands down.
SPLATTER WESTERNS combine multiple horror elements with a western setting. This is by no means an original concept as Texas native Joe R Lansdale and others have been mining this territory for decades with various amounts of success. Most recently the film BONE TOMAHAWK could easily be classified as part of the genre. In your opinion is finding a balance between Western and Horror elements the key to a successful story? Or can authors go extreme in their fancies without regards to taste or decorum?
A good story is a good story. At the outset of this project, I wanted all the authors to have that balance, and I wanted historical accuracy in regards to weaponry and wanted everything in the late 1800s and so on. But all the restrictions have pretty much fallen away. What matters is story. If you can write a good story—in this case having it be compelling and violent in a western style setting—then that’s what we’re looking for. We may have a Splatter Western coming up that takes place in a very different time period than the rest.
The Western as a straight genre has many tropes. Scenes of Mysterious Drifters, posse roundups, saloon shootouts, dark campfires, rugged landscapes, tough talking independent women who can shoot a rifle like a frontier man, etc. Which ones are your favorite and can always appear in a western no matter what? And which ones are tired and need to be either deconstructed or forgotten entirely?
A good storyteller can make an old trope seem new. As someone who didn’t grow up reading many westerns, it’s hard for me to say which ones have grown tired. If I had to guess, it’s probably not as common as it once was to portray Native Americans as villains, as was frequently the case in old John Wayne flicks. Given the passage of time and the changing perception of how Native Americans should be depicted, does this make it an overused or underused trope? (Probably still overused; there’s like a billion Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, and Max Brand books out there.) The drifter and saloon shootouts and wealthy villainous landowner tropes are all probably overused, but readers expect certain things when they open up a western.
Across the series there are some very striking moments. I’m reminded of the scene in MAGPIE where Salem does his first conjuring bit and summons a vision from hell, as well as in your own entry into the series, SAVAGE BREED. There’s a very touching moment towards the end where the maligned and abused squaw, Whispering Winds, cares for a wounded man despite everything that has happened up to that point. What are some of your favorite moments over the first part of the series or that are upcoming that readers should be on the look out for in particular?
I love twist endings. There is a twist at the end of Red Station by Kenzie Jennings that really caught me off guard. The book is great up to that point, but the twist pushed it over the edge. Similarly, there is a twist near the end of A Savage Breed that multiple people have messaged me about. To my knowledge, no one has seen it coming. Starving Zoe and The Night Silver River Run Red both have scenes that will make your jaw drop. Forthcoming in Regina Garza Mitchell’s novella Shadow of the Vulture, there is a gut-wrenching scene involving a vulture that I think everyone will love. Or hate.
While most of the feedback you’ve received has been mainly positive, one can’t help but notice a trend across some of the more negative reviews. With the treatment of women and indigenous peoples being sighted as a particular turn off, with the extreme nature of the violence coming in close at second. While I and several other readers have expressed their enthusiasm for the DHP SW product, how do you address those in the public who have yet to drink the red eye and find the material objectionable?
When people purchase a book, that transfer of money for product gives them the right to review the product however they please. But if you’re buying a book with the term Splatter Western printed on the cover, it’s probably safe to assume there will be some shocking, even offensive, content within, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Regarding my book—of which there has been a bit of controversy, wink, wink—Whispering Wind, a Comanche woman, is victimized multiple times, but she’s also the only decent soul of the bunch. She is good at heart, making her experiences all the more tragic, which I think added a level of horror that some readers weren’t prepared for. That being said, I appreciate all reviews. Except that one that said A Savage Breed contains bestiality; no, it does not.
Congratulations on your recent 2021 Splatterpunk Awards nominations. DHP received a total of eight noms across all the categories, with you yourself being nominated for three including best short story. Do you find it difficult to focus on your personal writing while continuing to increase the quality of DHP with every new release? And if not how do you find balance between work, family, and writing? How would you describe your creative process?
Thank you! Yes, I often have trouble finding time to focus on one or the other. Typically, work for DHP takes priority, unless what I’m writing has a deadline attached. I’m also a family man, have a “regular job,” have a website I try to update frequently, and occasionally edit manuscripts for friends. So, finding time can be problematic. My process is chaotic, I guess. Lacking consistency. Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a story and have it completed in a day. Other times, it’s a long grueling process. For the book Cerberus Rising (with M. Ennenbach and Chris Miller), I wrote a 11k word story called “Taking the Loop,” which took me two days to finish. In the same book, I wrote a story called “Blame Jonathan Swift,” which was about 8k words and took me two months to complete. When you read the stories, you can probably see why. I do my best writing, I think, when I get up early, get the kids off to school, get dressed with my hat and tie, and take a mug of coffee and a cigar out to the War Room (my version of a Man Cave), and sit there at my computer with ambient music playing on low. I don’t usually use outlines, though I’m not opposed to them. And getting on social media while writing is a sure-fire way to decrease my word count and increase my frustration.
I believe on the Bizzong Podcast Mr. Frank asked you about your first Killercon experience. Something about how you and Jarod hunkered down at your booth and created your business plan for DHP. How important do you believe conventions are for anyone wanting to do this professionally?
To be successful in the indie market, you have to either do conventions or have a strong social media presence. And even if you do both, it’s still an uphill battle. But cons, especially small cons like KillerCon, are gold for networking. You meet publishers, editors, other authors, fans, filmmakers, and all sorts of people that could help further your career. You attach a name and a face to that publisher you’ve wanted to send your manuscript to. And when they receive your submission, they remember you. Sometimes, it is who you know. So, go out and meet people. (For more on this topic, I suggest reading Jeff Strand’s The Writing Life; there is a chapter in which he covers this extensively, including an anecdote about a DHP author.)
Rumors are swirling that DHP is planning a second round in the series. Have you or Jarod made plans for a big announcement or would you rather each new entry suddenly appear on the scene like a mysterious drifter riding in town à la Clint Eastwood 1964-1980?
There is another Splatter Western series coming. Once the current run starts winding down, we’ll start planning how we want to release the next round. Don’t worry, readers, you’ve got plenty more splattery goodness coming.
DHP shot off like a rocket with the first collection …And Hell Followed, the SW series continues that upward trend for the publisher. What do you believe is the next step? Are there plans for expansion, say Maybe Death’s Head films or Death’s Head Television Productions? What do you and Jarod see as the next logical step for the company?
Film or television are cool ideas, but they’re not something we’ve discussed. I wouldn’t put either out of the realm of possibility, though. We are currently working on publishing our first comic book/graphic novel, which should be out late summer or early fall. We’re also starting to get our books into bookstores and horror-themed businesses, like Frightmare Collectibles in the Dallas area. Where we go next…it’s anyone’s guess.
PATRICK thank you for taking the time to sit down and answer my questions. I ask all my interviewees the following question last. Do you have a book by another author that you would recommend?
Thanks for having me! If you want to be scared, try The Deep by Nick Cutter. If you want a flawless story, go with The Pearl by John Steinbeck. If you want impeccable prose, check out White Noise by Don DeLillo. If you want them all rolled into one, read The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.
THERE YOU HAVE IT FOLKS! A straight shooting conversation with the one, the only Patrick C. Harrison III.