The Forty-Two, or How I Became a Sleazehound

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with New York City for a short while. I devoured everything I could get my hands on that had to do with the city, from the popular shows of the time to books and films. I dreamed of someday living there, when (and if) I grew up, and as I started to get the idea that the New York of the 80s wasn’t exactly the cleanest, safest, or most morally sound place in the world, my interest only grew. Then, a miracle: my old man was offered a job in NYC, and the family was relocating! It was a dream come true…until it didn’t. Arguments were had, decisions undecided, and we remained in Virginia. I didn’t even get to see the city when we went up to look at houses—the entire trip we stayed in New Jersey, and it was another decade before I ever set foot in Times Square. Forlorn, New York faded from my mind.

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Then, years later in Little Rock, I discovered a dust-coated VHS tape in a big box hidden away on the top floor of a video rental shop…and my life was changed forever. The film was Lucio Fulci’s 1979 Eurogore masterpiece Zombi 2, and I had never seen anything remotely like it. The callous violence, dripping gore, and low-budget devil-may-care style of it all enthralled and delighted me, and as I set myself to seeking out more of its kin and kith, I was reborn an exploitation junkie, just like my character Charley McCormick in The Forty-Two. Inside a year I had devoured every Italian gore film, Eurowestern, Emanuelle knock-off, and churned-out American or European horror production (usually featuring washed up second tier actors of years gone by) I could get my hands on—and I still craved more.

To this day, I still crave more. I love these films, and in time I came to love everything about their creators, their productions, and also the beautifully bizarre manner in which they were typically advertised and distributed back in the good old pre-multiplex days. Cities all across America had their crummy strips where scumbags and lowlifes peddled their wares, from Boston’s Combat Zone to Austin’s South Congress, and typically these were the places to find crumbling movie palaces playing the weirdest and wildest films being made around the world. Yet the undisputed king of them all was Manhattan’s own 42nd Street—the Deuce, the Forty-Two. The block between 7th and 8th Avenues in particular was for many, many years home to outrageous double and triple-features in an ever-changing rotation of sex, violence, and low-brow humor. Horror, kung fu, westerns, porn both soft and hardcore, bloody action flicks and a thousand cheap clones of the previous years’ blockbuster hits, the Forty-Two had it all and showed it all. And, of course, even if the movies weren’t necessarily any good, there was always plenty of alternative entertainment to be procured. Anything anybody could want, so long as legality and cost weren’t issues for the consumer.

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By the time I ever got the opportunity to lay eyes on the Deuce, it was on its way out. All of the old grindhouses were shuttered and their marquees bore strange legends put up by avant garde artist Jenny Holzer: strange, broken fragments of poetry that eulogized the old Forty-Two while simultaneously dancing on its still-fresh grave. There were still a few quarter peep shows and dirty bookstores, but even the HoJo’s was closing down in Times Square and the whole squalid legend of the thing was passing into a memory most seemed content to forget. For sleazehounds likes yours truly—especially one born in the wrong time and place—the entire experience was nothing short of heartbreaking.

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But I’ll be damned if the old Deuce didn’t live on in this Southern boy’s heart, and while I continued to expand my exploitation acumen, I became intimately familiar with the on-the-spot writing of Bill Landis (Sleazoid Express) and the tireless work of Mike Vraney (Something Weird Video), the gentlemen to whom The Forty-Two is dedicated. Through their work I not only discovered countless more obscure cinematic gems, but I also learned more and more about the scene back in the day, the Deuce in the 60s, 70s, and its decline throughout the 80s, where I would have spent every free second had I been there. So when the time came that I finally decided to memorialize that sacred and profane city block in a novel, it was almost as though I really had been there, like I owned a piece of it just by loving it so. (And when some of my native New Yorker friends and colleagues expressed their surprise and delight that an Arkansan born two years before the events in the book actually got it right—well, most of the time—I was on cloud nine.)

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I didn’t have to think twice before crafting a major supporting character on Andy Milligan (New York’s own Bizarro Warhol), nor include a plot twist based on one of the more sordid rumors of Linda Lovelace’s early days before Deep Throat; these are just part and parcel of the sleazehound’s repertoire. But more than just all of that, I wanted to craft a sort of twisted love story, a triangle between a lonely young man, a woman who isn’t what he needs her to be, and someone else still that happens to be the only person the young man can ever trust, but whom he can never fully permit himself to love. I hope I was successful in this way, and that The Forty-Two is a fitting homage to a wondrously filthy bygone era as well as a moving and thrilling crime tale. If not, then I’ll just have to give it another shot—I’m fairly certain I’ve got a Combat Zone novel percolating in my gray cells, anyway.

The Forty-Two is out now in paperback and e-book from New Pulp Press.

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Why Do I Write About Race?

A question I get exactly none of the time, except frequently from myself, is why the hell do I write so much about racism, and so many racist characters? A recent story of mine, “Pegleg” (Thuglit No. Seven), opens thusly: “Poke was the craziest spook I knew, so I told him that.” In the first draft, I went all out with the (rightfully) dreaded N-word, but changed it in revision. Conversely, another story I published last year, which takes place during the American Civil War, had an instance of “negro” downgraded to its uglier cousin by editorial request. Many of my characters are homophobes, misogynists, xenophobes, you name it—but none of those make up for half the near thematic quality of so many goddamned racists littering my books and stories. So again: why the hell do I do that? Does the world really need a privileged white male author taking this on?

An easy answer, I suppose, would be that I’m a crime/noir/horror writer, an author of “dark” literature (vaguely), and one who generally adheres to the naturalist school of storytelling. I am tremendously influenced by Émile Zola, and in particular the way he so often conveyed some of our species’ basest qualities and tendencies without authorial judgment; just laying it out for us all to see in all its naked malice. (And if you haven’t read La Bête humaine, get on that. I’ll wait.) Further, the characters I tend to deal with belong to the working class or below; poor and generally uneducated, often with chips on their shoulders and little to nothing to lose. I’ve never been particularly interested in writing about golden heroes, so even my “heroes,” such as they are, are by design deeply imperfect—and occasionally just plain lousy—people. As such, my characters are, as it happens, occasionally to some degree volubly racist. That’s one theory, anyway. And none of it necessarily untrue.

I also tend to write a great deal of historical material. A Wind of Knives, The Forty-Two, and a lot of my short work are all period pieces, most of them dealing with America’s past which is, let’s face it, positively dripping with the still-felt horrors of institutionalized racism. From my perspective, you usually cannot discuss the history of this nation without discussing racism, even when racism isn’t necessarily the main topic at hand. This too is an attempt at both realism and naturalism, however successful it may be, when handling less enlightened times than our own in my fiction.

I’m not trying to fix anything or make anyone feel guilty, it’s not anti-American nor does it condone the points of view some of my characters espouse any more than my crime fiction espouses murder. As a Southerner it’s an unpleasant facet of human interaction that I’ve been well aware of since I was a kid, and it’s crept into the periphery of my life from time to time, hurting people I cared about and generally holding entire communities of people back from achieving everything our extraordinary species could otherwise be doing. It creeps me out and makes me angry, though more than that it saddens me to the point of impotent sorrow. And I still—still!—encounter it today, in 2014, in what’s supposedly one of the nation’s most progressive cities. But here’s the thing, friends—you don’t mind if I get a little personal here, do you?—that’s just the point. I encounter it. It occurs in my periphery. I’m a white male, ya’ll. Like Louis C. K. once said about us white dudes, “You can’t even hurt our feelings.” Which is really kind of true.

As a teenager in Arkansas, I experienced a lot of racist attitudes. I came across a lot of people who did not want anything to do with me because I was white. Hell, the foxiest girl in school told me she couldn’t go out with me because she wasn’t allowed to see white boys. (Okay, she also knew I was kind of a jerk.) That kind of shit. But I’m on the winning side of history, here, and I know it. All I could do was scratch my head and walk away, knowing in my heart that the worst of that kind of bullshit wasn’t ever directed at me. Homophobia, though? Different beast altogether. Up until A Wind of Knives I did not tackle that one much at all. Snippets, flashes. But, for me, largely a verboten subject. Why? Too personal.

Other people’s issues? Okie dokie. Things that hit home? To quote good old Bartleby, “I would prefer not to.”

It is my general focus in my work to concentrate on the bad things people do to one another and how we deal with it when it happens, either positively or negatively (or some shade of gray in between). But as I come into my own as a professional yarn-spinner, I’m starting to allow myself to bleed a lot more on the page, to put more of myself, even the stuff I find difficult to look at, into what I’m doing. I am finding myself wanting to explore the “bad things” I’ve experienced, or even caused, in my fiction, and to leap feet first into the fire if I have to in order to get it down and get it right. I think I’ve done some genuinely good work and there really isn’t all that much I’d go back and change, and I will continue to write about the same sorts of people who have so far cropped up in my novels and stories, replete with all their failings and shortsightedness and sundry peccadilloes. But if I’ve learned anything from a wonderful person and terrific writer who came into my life this year—and I’ve learned much—it is this: even us lowly genre writers have something to say. And you can say it about what you’ve seen, which is okay, but you can say it about where you’ve been, too. Which is maybe better. For the work, for the reader. For the writer.

If I was to be entirely forthright about it, I might say the reason I write so much about race and racism is because I don’t have to bleed to do it, but can still elicit strong reactions. But folks: I’m starting to think it’s time I bled some more.

(Stay tuned.)

Ed Kurtz Signs 3-Year/3-Book Deal with DarkFuse

DarkFuse-logoMy novel Angel of the Abyss may not be due out until December, but I’m enormously pleased to announce the fine purveyors of dark literature at DarkFuse have offered me an additional 3 book/3 year contract. I couldn’t be happier to have landed such a great deal with so marvelous a publisher, and I look forward to getting these – and more! – tales in front of readers’ eyes over the course of the next few years.

The official announcement:

“DarkFuse’s roster of the best dark fiction writers has added another key member today.  We’re happy to announce that DarkFuse has signed Ed Kurtz to a 3-year deal which will include 3 new novels.  This deal includes mutual options on other Kurtz titles as well.  Kurtz’s novel, Angel of the Abyss, is due out from DarkFuse in December 2014 and is in addition to the 3-book deal.

Ed Kurtz is the author of A Wind of Knives and The Forty-Two. His short fiction has appeared in ThuglitNeedle: A Magazine of NoirShotgun HoneyBeat to a Pulp, and numerous anthologies. Ed lives in Texas, where he is at work on his next project. Visit Ed Kurtz online at www.edkurtz.net.

More about this first DarkFuse novel Angel of the Abyss:

When Graham Woodard is hired to restore part of a previously lost silent horror film—Angel of the Abyss—the last thing he expects is the first in a series of murders clearly meant to keep it lost.

With one-time friend Jake Maitland in tow, the two must now navigate the treacherous enigma that is the lost film, while piecing together the story of the film’s ill-fated starlet, Grace Baron, who vanished in 1926. The closer they get to the truth, the more blood is spilled, and it soon becomes apparent that there is much more to the lost film than anyone expected, as there are still forces that will stop at nothing to keep it and its star buried. The darkness the strange film conjured all those years ago has come alive again with its discovery, and now everyone from Graham’s own estranged ex-wife to the LAPD is getting involved.

And the body count is growing.

From the burgeoning film studios of 1920s Hollywood to the perilous streets and dark underbelly of modern-day Los Angeles, Angel of the Abyss is a dangerous tapestry of cinema, history and murder, at the center of which stand two men with everything to lose.”

Short Story News!

I am tremendously pleased to announce two of my stories, previously published in 2013, have been picked up for inclusion in a pair of important collections this year. First up, my crime/noir tale “The Trick,” which appeared in Needle no. 8, will be in Best Gay Stories 2014 from Lethe Press (ed. by Steve Berman). This collection will be available in June and is up for pre-order now.

Also I’ve learned that my story “A Good Marriage,” originally in Thuglit no. 5, has been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2014 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and series editor Otto Penzler (ed. by NYT bestselling author Laura Lippman, no less!). This is of course an astounding honor and I couldn’t be happier to share the news. BAMS will be out in the Fall and available everywhere.

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CONTROL gets reissued!

controlcoverNightscape Press has released my sci-fi/horror novel CONTROL with a brand new cover by artist George C. Contronis. Now in ebook for the first time (with paperback just around the corner), this novel was previously issued in a limited edition hardcover by Thunderstorm Books. That edition sold out very quickly, so I’m over the moon that CONTROL is now available to a wider audience. I hope you’ll check it out, and I hope even more that you enjoy it.

Leon Weissmann is an introverted loner with no control over his life. His only joy is the menagerie of insects, spiders, and scorpions he tends to in his garage. When he acquires an illegally poached rainforest spider, he unknowingly contracts a rare strain of fungus that enables him to control people, to make them do anything he wants. As his power grows, Leon begins to abuse it until there are bodies in his wake and a coterie of brainwashed disciples under his influence. But soon Leon suspects that the thing growing inside his head may be the one with the power…

It wants to come out. To reproduce. It wants to control everyone.

Get CONTROL at Amazon for $4.99.

A Wind of Knives

Available now from Snubnose Press!

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“For A Wind of Knives, Kurtz will garner well-deserved attention for addressing homosexuality in a hetero-centric genre. He tackles the issue with a deft hand and deep empathy for his characters but beyond the social issues inherent in A Wind of Knives, people should also take note of his exciting prose, his well-developed characters, attention to historic accuracy, his perfect ear for dialogue, and inexorable pacing. Kurtz is a tremendous talent. Highly recommended.” —John Hornor Jacobs, author of Southern Gods and The Twelve-Fingered Boy

A Wind of Knives dusts off the classic western’s most enduring motifs and gives them a shine. With no lack of gunplay and bloodshed, the book also has heart and intelligence. In short, Kurtz delivers an intense, gritty, and moving story that takes a new look at the Old West.” —Lee Thomas, Bram Stoker Award and Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The German and Ash Street

“Many Westerns have explored the theme of revenge, but few have done so as provocatively as Ed Kurtz’s A Wind of Knives. And certainly none have approached it in quite the same way. On its surface, this is a familiar story: after his lover is brutally murdered, farmer Daniel Hays seeks revenge. The difference, from the start, is Daniel’s lover is… was… a man. And in Texas during the Civil War, justice for the slaying of a ‘sodomite’ is not a priority for the law.

“But if switching up gender roles in an otherwise traditional Western was all A Wind of Knives offered, it would be thin gruel. Kurtz gives us much more than that—sympathetic characters skillful plotting, and most notably a moving and insightful meditation on love and loyalty.” —Heath Lowrance, author of City of Heretics

“A western must be gritty and raw. The story must embrace not only the manifest destiny of the frontier but the loneliness of the land. Ed Kurtz does all this and more with A Wind of Knives. His rancher possesses a spirit for vengeance (if not justice) that drag readers deeper into the tale while the pages smell of gunsmoke.” —Steve Berman, editor of the Wilde Stories annual series

“Daniel Hays is one of the most interesting characters to cross the western terrain.” —Edward A. Grainger, author of Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles 

“Simply put, Ed Kurtz is a master storyteller. I’ve now read his work in three genres: Crime, Horror, and now Western. And each time, he ranks at the absolute top of the class. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not reading him. Right. Now.” —Todd Robinson, editor of Thuglit and author of The Hard Bounce

Coming in August: DEAD TRASH!

NOW AVAILABLE:

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