A couple of weeks ago, after receiving a curious note from the good people at DarkFuse publishing urging me to meet this exciting new writer, I sat down with author Keith Deininger to talk about his debut novel, THE NEW FLESH. But let me be frank, right from the beginning: it was a strange encounter. There was something odd about him, something not quite right. It is as if he knows something, some sort of burdening secret that he carries with him wherever he goes.
The evening before the interview, from the window of my upper-story hotel room, I swear I saw him stalking through the parking lot, scribbling in a tiny notebook, ducking into a small cluster of bushes, lurking, turning his head up to watch me. I closed the shades, shivered, and went to bed.
The next day he was already waiting for me in the coffee shop where we’d agreed to meet, even though I was twenty minutes early. He was slumped back in his chair, as if he’d been waiting a long time, his hair long and tangled, his jeans worn and ripped. When he saw me, he sprung to his feet, stepping forward to shake my hand. We ordered our drinks and found a quiet table in a corner of the shop. He seemed nervous, full of anxious movement.
I began with the standard questions:
“What is your novel, ‘The New Flesh,’ about, and where did you come up with the idea?”
For a second, he only stared at me, and I swear I saw something swimming in his eyes, a dark spot, like a bruise. Then he seemed to relax, and laughed lightly. “Really?” he said. “You’re going to open with that: where do you get your ideas?” He dropped his eyes for a moment, thinking.
When he lifted his head, his eyes were bright and alive. “‘The New Flesh’ is about Jake, a shy fourth-grader who has this strange fascination with fire. While his divorced parents are preoccupied with their own demons, he’s collecting lighters and books of matches he finds on his walks to and from school. You see, when he was little, he started a fire and almost burned his school down so now he’s scared of doing it again, but when he sees someone’s discarded lighter on the street, he can’t just leave it there. He has to collect it. He’s preparing for something. He’s preparing to meet the mysterious creature he calls the Melting Man--hairless and pale, with flesh that droops and morphs--who visits him in his dreams. ‘Come with me, Jake,’ the Melting Man says. ‘Come and see.’ And as his dreams of the Melting Man become more and more vivid, drawing towards an inevitable confrontation, Jake is forced to discover the mystery surrounding his dreams and visions, which he somehow knows have something to do with his father’s enigmatic movie: The New Flesh.
“As far as the ideas are concerned, they came from a lot of places. In some ways this is a very personal novel for me. It is set in the neighborhood I grew up in in Colorado Springs, Colorado and is sprinkled with all sorts of, what I’d call personal insights. But, on the other hand, it also contains themes that are important to me, like the strength of the imagination to dictate and influence what we feel is reality. That, and my general distrust of television, of the seductive and sparkling, waking-dream box.”
“When you say you distrust television, does that mean you don’t watch it? Does that include movies?”
“Oh, no. Just like I continue to drink alcohol even though I know it’s not good for me, I still watch TV. And I love a good horror movie, even though most of them are a big disappointment.”
“What are a couple of horror movie titles you’ve seen in the past couple of years that you would recommend?”
“The two that come to mind at the moment are “Anti-Christ” and “Martyrs.” Both are disturbing, surreal, and on a higher level than the Hollywood excrement that is common these days.”
“Good choices. But, getting back on track, I have to say there are some very creepy moments in ‘The New Flesh,’ as well as some extreme scenes of violence and disturbing sexual imagery. Was there any point while writing ‘The New Flesh’ where you censored yourself or cut a scene because it was too graphic?”
He gave me a wicked smile, and I swear I saw that dark flickering in his eyes again. He cleared his throat, then answered: “Of course not. The world is full of cruelty and sex. I don’t believe in censoring things, as long as you stay true to the story you’re trying to tell. I don’t believe we should hide from the darkness within.”
I had an uneasy feeling. “What do you mean by ‘the darkness within’?”
“I mean the wickedness that is in us all, that most believe should be repressed. I don’t think it should be repressed. I think is should be embraced, controlled, understood. I don’t believe in fundamentalist ideals like ‘good’ and 'evil,’ but I do believe there is a horrible potential within us all, that drives certain individuals to commit despicable acts.”
“Is that why you write the sort of fiction you do?”
He chuckled. “Who said anything about fiction?”
I gave him an incredulous look and he actually laughed then. The sort of laugh I could picture a hungry jackal making over a fortuitous midnight snack.
“Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’m only kidding, of course. The answer to your question is: yes. I write what I write because I embrace the darkness. To suppress it, to pretend it’s not there, is what gets people into trouble. Plus, why would you want to deny yourself the full human experience? Our lives are pathetically short as it is.”
I swallowed, didn’t press the issue further, and, glancing at my notes, continued with the questions I had prepared. “In ‘Fevered Hills,’ you wrote about war and human struggle. ‘The New Flesh,’ you already mentioned, is a more personal novel. Tell me; are you anything like your young character Jake?”
“Jake is a little like me, I have to admit. He’s shy, just like I was, especially at that age. He is enwrapped in his own world, just like I was and still am. And he’s, some might say, an overly-imaginative kid. Am I a firebug? No, of course not. I mean, I did collect lighters and matches for a while when I was just a kid, and I may have started a fire at one point, but everything was okay; my dad caught it in time and put it out. I was grounded and never did anything like that ever again. Never. Of course not.”
“You mentioned the title—‘The New Flesh’—Is the name of a movie Jake’s father is involved with. Why did you choose that title for the book and what does it mean?”
“It’s a play on the melding of physical reality with televised and metaphysical reality. It’s also a nod to Cronenberg’s film Videodrome.”
I looked at my notes. “When did you start writing and how long have you known you wanted to be a writer?”
“To be honest, it was never really something I thought about until right near the end of high school. Before that, I wanted to be a video game designer, or what I thought being a video designer was. I did, however, write a lot of stories growing up. One of the first stories I remember writing was one about a werewolf that chases a kid up a tree and ends up biting the kid in the ass and ripping his underpants. I remember laughing and laughing at that one. Another story I wrote, I think it was in fourth or fifth grade, was a story about this kid waking up one day and everyone in the world had disappeared (I know, some serious Twilight Zone shit, right?), until he goes down into the basement and finds his dead father. I remember that one really well because my teacher in school at the time really liked a quote from it and posted it on the bulletin board: ‘He was there alright, but dead.’ I’ll never forget that. I was really proud of myself after that, but I didn’t really think about becoming a writer until high school, when I began to write stories that were overly influenced by Stephen King.
“Then, my senior year, I found out Ray Bradbury was coming to give a talk in my town and that he was going to be one of the judges for a statewide short story writing contest. At that point I was living in Los Alamos, New Mexico and I knew next to nothing about Bradbury, but my dad was a big fan of ‘The Martian Chronicles’ and he urged me to send something in. A couple of months later, I found out I’d won first place. When the night of Bradbury’s talk came, the winners were announced and I was called up to the stage. I staggered up there, approaching this stranger I’d heard wrote about Martians, and rockets, and creepy carnivals. He took my hand in his, looked into my eyes, and said, ‘I really enjoyed your story. Congratulations.’ To this day, I swear his eyes sparkled like a child’s, that in that brief moment our eyes met, he passed something to me, the desire to live a life by the imagination. Ray Bradbury handed me an envelope with a check for one hundred dollars, my first publishing credit, and a serious desire to become a professional writer.
“After that, I went off to college with wildly unrealistic delusions of grandeur and a stack of Ray Bradbury books. Those books did more for my education in the writing craft than anything I ever learned in college.
“In college I began to write poetry, won some awards for my poems, and...” His face sunk into itself. His eyes twitched and he bit his lip convulsively. “Do you see that over there?”
He was staring over my shoulder out the window at my back. Startled, I turned. “I don’t—”
“Never mind. Never mind. It’s probably nothing. Don’t worry about it. What’s the next question?”
I turned back, looking into his expectant face. I shook my head, confused, losing my train of thought. “Well, okay, last question.” I looked down at my notes. “I hear you’re working on another book. What, if anything, can you tell us about it?”
“I’m working on a couple of things. My next novel involves a brother and sister sent to live with their uncle, whom they’ve never met, in Los Alamos for the summer under mysterious circumstances. Once there, their uncle begins to teach them the secrets of an ancient science, but his motives may be dangerous, and deadly. That’s all I can tell you right now.” He flashed me a wicked smirk.
After that, I stood, thanked him for his time, and left him sitting there in the coffee shop. He watched me closely as I left, his eyes tracking my every movement. When I was near the door, I glanced over my shoulder and he raised his hand and said, “Thank you, sir.” Then I was outside inhaling the fresh air. I was relieved to be away, but I felt as if he was thanking me for more than just the interview, smiling because he knew something I didn’t.
That night, my last in Albuquerque, I swear I saw him outside my hotel window again. But it was late and it was hard to make him out in the fading light. Was it him? What was he doing stalking around at night? Research for another book?
Now the DarkFuse staff are telling me they never sent a note, that they’re thrilled I actually flew out there to meet with Keith Deininger and speak with him, but that it certainly wasn’t them that told me to. It gives me the creeps.
I keep thinking about that moment he asked me if I could see anything out the window while his face twitched and his lip bled. I can’t get his face out of my head. I’ve had dreams about him, where he smirks at me, and his eyes go cloudy and dark...
-- H. S.
(Okay, so this interview/article was actually up on HorrorNews.net originally, but only for a week or so before they took it down and now the page no longer exists. So here it is. Perhaps more for my own records than anything else, but I worked hard on it. How's this for narcissism? I wrote my own interview involving a pseudonym interviewing some weird version of myself and posted it on my own website along with shameless pics of the hardcover edition of my own book?)
(If you're curious, H. S. stands for Hector Straffe, an unpublished writer alter-ego of mine from my inebriated twenties.I guess my cataracts was acting up that day... ;))