I hope you enjoyed last weeks Storyteller episode with Andrew David Barker, talking about his great coming of age novel ‘Dead Leaves’. If you missed it, you can check it out here.
This week we fly across the pond to talk with Stephen Kozeniewski. Stephen has a number of novels out through various presses. His books are always very different from each other and he comes across as a writer unafraid of experimentation. Books like ‘Billy and the Clonesaurus’, ‘Braineater Jones’ and more recently ‘A Kingdom Divided’ are all part of the Kozeniewski catalog that continues to grow at a steady rate . Today, however, Stephen gives us some insight into his latest release through Sinister Grin Press called ‘Hunter of the Dead’ – a book I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this week and have reviewed here. . It’s a book about vampires – one of the genres most enduring and loved characters. But, this being a Stephen Kozeniewski book, it isn’t your average vamp book. Filled with great one liners, buckets of blood and guts and marvelous characters, this should be required reading for any fan of the horror genre. It is terrific!
I think that Vampires will always hold a special flame inside the hearts of horror fans. The Twilight novels and subsequent movies tried to turn these bloodsucking creatures of the night into emo kids, more concerned with their hair styles than the need to feed on the living. And some people like that, which is fine, different strokes for different folks. However, I like my Vamps ruthless, blood-hungry killers that show no remorse on their quest for food and I think Stephen Kozeniewski got it just right with ‘Hunter of the Dead’.
Episode 2: Stephen Kozeniewski – Hunter of the Dead
Once again, thanks to Stephen for taking the time to write this insightful piece. You can find out more about him from the links at the bottom of the page. So, without further ado, I will hand you over to Mr Kozeniewski for a great look at the story behind the story…
Hunter of the Dead
The year was 2003. Outkast’s “Hey Ya” was inescapable. “The OC” filled the hole that the end of “Dawson’s Creek” had left in all of our hearts. And a scrappy independent film called “Underworld” had capitalized on the success of the previous year’s “Queen of the Damned” to bring vampires fully into the realm of “kind of sexy but not really scary anymore.”
I like “Underworld” just fine, but seeing it for the first time made me realize that Hollywood vampires were an entirely separate species of monster from the folkloric monsters I had studied obsessively as a child. I have no doubt my epiphany was neither unique nor original. (No doubt there were diehards complaining about Bela Lugosi’s bowdlerization of the genre in 1931.) But it was still mine, and like every angry young man who’s had an epiphany, I felt the need to tell the world about it.
So I started working on a screenplay. Back in those days I loved writing screenplays. I was just convinced that I would write one so brilliant that Hollywood would call and I would become a millionaire. Unlike twenty-year-old me, you, dear reader, are probably smart enough to know that movies get made based more on merchandising marketability than the quality of the concept. But I digress.
I started writing what I thought was a terribly clever screenplay that was going to take vampires back to their Eastern European roots and revolutionize the genre, damn it. I did accomplish a little bit of that: my vampires slept in their native soil and had to have their heads cut off and stuffed with garlic and their bodies buried at a crossroads to perma-die. But mostly it was just a knockoff of “Forever Knight” and “Buffy.”
Still, it was pretty good. I sent it to my friend (and future best man) John Waxler, who has stated unequivocally that to this day it is his favorite work of mine. (He even wanted to quote it at my wedding, but couldn’t find an appropriate passage.) But as I mentioned, movies don’t really get made on spec when there are so many great “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboots and “Trolls” movies to make, so I shelved it.
In 2011 John asked me to write a story about our rebellious youths, which I did, but by the end I realized I hated writing stories someone else had suggested. My process, I realized, really involved the passion that comes from me writing what I want to write. So I swore never to do that again without a commission – and I swore it in front of John. So a few years later John told me I needed to write the novelization of “Hunter of the Dead” and that he would even pay me for it, that was how much he believed it was my best work.
In 2014 I signed a deal with a small press that included HUNTER OF THE DEAD. So I began pounding away at it, and I found myself hitting a wall again and again as I rewrote it. How were my vampires different? I wasn’t twenty anymore, and just writing about vampires wasn’t doing it for me. It felt pointless to rehash ground everyone has already been over a hundred thousand times.
So I started over. And over. And over. I made them viral vampires. I set the story in the far future where vampires had taken over the world. I even made the vampires two lampreys living in someone’s skull (which, hey, come to think of it, is actually a pretty good idea, and will be the subject of my next novel, THE HEMATOPHAGES.) But none of them could justify HUNTER OF THE DEAD for me, even with a contract, even having been commissioned.
Luckily (just trust me when I say “luckily,” I don’t want to get into all the specifics) that book deal fell through. And I stopped the grueling labor that was the unfinished HUNTER OF THE DEAD. But in the Spring of 2015 I had the extreme good fortune to be featured as a guest on “The Horror Show With Brian Keene,” where I revealed that my old book deal had fallen through and as a result I had a couple of orphaned novels.
The next day I got an e-mail from Matt Worthington at Sinister Grin Press, who wanted to scoop up not only my completed novel EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED to be the flagship of their new sci-fi line (!), but also HUNTER OF THE DEAD, which, unfortunately, was still in shambles.
The second (third? seventh?) go-around I took a deep breath and decided I didn’t need to reinvent the vampire novel. I just had to write a really solid horror novel, which I know I’m capable of. So I started from scratch, but fortunately I had a screenplay and half a dozen unfinished manuscripts to cherry-pick the best parts from. And so, ironically, the finished version of HUNTER OF THE DEAD is less a sexy Dracula and more a Frankenstein’s monster assembled from choice. But I’ll leave it to the readers to decide how they feel about it. And if the early buzz is any indication, I may have finally gotten it right.
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