In our previous installments of "Graphic About Novels," CBR News spoke with novelists who've written comics about their prose works. This time we're switching things around and speaking with a comics-writer-turned-prose-novelist, Mike Carey, whose first novel "The Devil You Know" makes its U.S. debut this week courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.
Carey may have made his breakthrough as a published writer with comics, but his first writing attempts were in the field of prose. "I spent a lot of the '80s doing aborted novels which never got very far because I knew nothing about planning at the time," Carey told CBR News. "So I would write the first chapter and then I would sit and chew my fingernails thinking about where I might go in the second chapter and so on and so forth. I did a minimum amount of planning up front and consequently I produced these nightmarishly enormous tomes that were seven hundred to eight hundred pages long. They rambled endlessly. So, moving into comics to some extent was because I hit novels and bounced. It was also because I always loved comics and it was an ambition of mine to write them."
Carey's move to comics helped establish him as a professional writer, and it also went a long way towards remedying his biggest problem as a prose writer. "Working in comics obviously makes you plan," Carey said. "It makes you take planning very seriously because you've got no room for wasted space. You've got to make every panel count. So when I came back to novels I was better able to make a go of it."
The return to prose was prompted by an opportunity that arose. "A friend of mine, Darren Nash, became one of the commissioning editors at Orbit," Carey explained. "I had known him when he was working for Simon & Schuster and we became friends at that time. When he got the job at Orbit he said, 'Maybe you'd like to pitch something to us?' I went away and thought about it for a good long while and eventually I came up with the Felix Castor idea and I thought that would work really well as a series of novels so I pitched that to him."
The Felix Castor novels Carey pitched to Nash take place in present-day London, in a world much like our own, with one big exception. "In Castor's world, over the past five or six years, most likely even longer, the dead have started to rise but not just as ghosts," Carey said. "Although, ghosts are kind of the mechanisms that drive everything else. If a ghost comes back as a spirit than it's simply called a ghost. If it inhabits its own dead flesh we call it a zombie. If a ghost invades the flesh of an animal and reshapes it into roughly human form because that's what it remembers from its own life, we call it a were-beast. So it's one thing expressing itself in a lot of different forms but obviously the exception to that are the demons. The demons are something else and it's awhile before we find out what that something is."
Into this world of ghosts Carey placed his protagonist, freelance exorcist Felix Castor, who is haunted not just by specters but also by the ghosts of his past mistakes. "There are two mistakes in particular that have shaped him to a large extent," Carey stated. "He discovers his power when he's six years old. He exorcizes the ghost of his dead sister. At the time he doesn't think anything of it. He's just relieved that she's not there anymore because she was scaring him. Later in life he is haunted by that and sort of bedeviled by questions like: where did she go? Has he sent her on to her eternal rest? Or has he actually extinguished her spirit? Those questions ultimately change his stance on what he does and shape his career choices.
"The other big mistake Castor made was trying to exorcize the demon Asmodeus from his friend Rafi's body," Carey continued. "He instead succeeds in welding Asmodeus and Rafi together. So the demon is imprisoned in the man forevermore, which is a terrible thing to do to your best friend.
"Those two experiences are kind of life defining for Castor," Carey said. "He is someone who feels a weight of responsibility on him. He's someone who's haunted by the bad decisions and bad choices he's made in the past."
Some readers might take a look at Felix Castor, a man with some magical ability and regrets over past mistakes, and compare him to another character that Carey wrote, the iconic John Constantine of Vertigo's "Hellblazer" series. "There are obviously some parallels but oddly enough those parallels are because they both share aspects of their background with me," Carey explained. "So I've written Castor as being a guy born in Liverpool who has moved to London, to the Southeast, which is of course also John Constantine's story but it's because that's exactly what I did. It's not uncommon in the UK for people to make that move from the North to the South because London is the biggest population center and the most affluent area in the country as well as the most culturally diverse. So in giving Castor my own background and childhood I've also given him John Constantine's background and childhood.
"It's also obvious and you can draw a superficial comparison by saying they're both people who can be very ruthless, who are ingenious and will fight hard when their backs are against the wall," Carey continued. "I think all of those things are true."
One of the big differences between Castor and Constantine is the way they view and use their magical abilities. "John is a magic addict," Carey remarked. "You get a strong sense that John does what he does because he has to, because there is a dangerous thrill in it that he can't get enough of. He can't free himself from that adrenaline rush; that bug. Castor does it just because it's a job and he needs to. It's his stock in trade and he's becoming increasingly reluctant to do it. Whereas Constantine approaches magic with almost an obscene relish, Castor approaches it with horrendously mixed feelings and increasingly with actual reluctance but he still does it."
Another big difference between Castor in Constantine is in the way their magic abilities work. Castor's revolves around music; something which Carey feels makes him a difficult prospect for comics treatment. "You could do Castor as a comic but I'm not sure how well it would play because of the music which is a very important element in the books," Carey said. "It would be very hard to render visually I think. You can describe it in words but what kind of graphics would you use for it? I'm not saying it couldn't be done, but it would feel like an odd fit in some ways. What you might do of course is to give Castor a different shtick. In movies the problem wouldn't arise - the music itself would be an element, and you could accompany Castor's playing his whistle with some cool and appropriate visual effects.
"In later books of the series we meet exorcists who used different tricks and devices," Carey continued. "The power expresses itself differently in each exorcist depending on their life experiences and their own skills. At one point we meet a character who uses cards. He deals out Poker hands in order to exorcize ghosts. In the first book we meet a drummer and he becomes important later on in the series. That's a different kind of music. There's somebody else who uses automatic writing and so on. I could have done Castor as a comic and given him a different skill that would make the exorcism work in a more visual way but this is the way he sort of presented himself to me and this is the way I saw him."
Castor's musical ability isn't the only thing that can get him out of jams. He also can call on a colorful cast of supporting characters for assistance. "I think the coolest and most interesting supporting character is Juliet Salazar, who we meet in the first book as Ajulutsikael, the sister of Baphomet," Carey said. "She's a Succubus, a sex demon. Her role in life is to seduce men, work them up to a pitch of sexual passion and then devour them body and soul. She's raised from hell in the first book to do this to Castor but in the later books she has a more and more complex relationship with Castor, which again plays out over time.
"I'm also very fond of Nicky Heath," Carey continued. "He's the zombie data fence and informer who Castor goes to when he needs to find out about some topic. There's also Pen his landlady, who is a Wiccan priestess in her own right even though she had a Catholic upbringing.
"And as I mentioned before there's his old best friend Rafi, who is now in an insane asylum because medical science doesn't recognize demonic possession," Carey said. "So the closest they can get to diagnosing what's wrong with Rafi is to label him schizophrenic. Rafi will sometimes be a useful informant as far as Castor is concerned because his being possessed by a demon means he's in touch with the invisible world; the spirit world."
When it came time to pen Castor's adventures, Carey relied on the organizational skills he learned from his years writing comics. "I outline in almost obsessive detail," Carey remarked. "The plans for the third Castor novel ran to almost forty pages. This is partly a result of working with Shelly Bond of Vertigo on so many projects because before you go to script Shelly likes to see a scene by scene breakdown with each scene costed for how many pages it will contain. Many editors are much more laissez-faire than that. It's a habit I got into with Shelly and I still do it, especially when I start a new project."
"The Devil You Know" is Carey's first novel and the first appearance of Felix Castor but it's framed as a comeback story. "When we first meet Castor he's not a practicing exorcist," Carey explained. "He hasn't been for more than a year. Basically ever since he made the horrendous mistake in trying to exorcize Asmodeus from his friend Rafi he's been kind of gun shy. He doesn't want to put himself in that situation again and mess up just as badly. So he's trying out other jobs. In the first chapter he's working as a children's entertainer but he is coaxed back into accepting a client and a case because basically he needs the money and his landlady needs the money and it's the only thing he can do to get it in the short term.
"So he takes on what seems to be a very simple and straight forward exorcism; just binding and banishing a ghost from a London Archive/library but it turns out to be not so simple at all," Carey continued. "The more he looks into it the more he feels that there are questions to be answered before he can get rid of the ghost. Questions about what she's doing there in the first place and the motives of the people who want to get rid of her. So it becomes among other things a murder mystery."
"The Devil You Know" is an amalgam of the horror and the crime/noir genres, two genre types that Carey found fit together quite nicely. "I've always loved noir as a style although I have to admit that some of the modern pastiches of noir set my teeth on edge," Carey stated. "I think if it's done badly it becomes very silly, superficial and distracting but if you look at something like say Alex Proyas's film 'Dark City,' that's a beautiful use of the noir palette, visuals and style in the service of a very different kind of narrative and it's very, very cool. I think noir and horror go together like a horse and carriage, it's a natural marriage."
Carey's second prose marriage of noir and horror, "Vicious Circle" is already out in the UK and Carey expects it will hit the U.S. either next spring or summer. In that novel Felix Castor is very busy. "'Vicious Circle takes place about six months after 'The Devil You Know,'" Carey said. "In a way it's a more ambitious and bigger novel. 'The Devil You Know' is focused on just one case, the case of the Bonnington Archive ghost. In 'Vicious Circle we're presented with two investigations for Castor to deal with; one of which concerns a church in London, which appears to have a demonic presence within it. The church has been closed to the public because you can't stay in it for very long. You find your flesh starts to get colder and colder and your head starts to ache and pound. Then you lose consciousness and then you die. So it's become a dangerous and shunned place.
"The other case is a case of a missing girl," Carey continued. "Castor is hired by a married couple to find their daughter who has gone missing from their home. When they approach him his reply is, 'I only deal with the dead.' Their reply is, 'Our daughter is dead. She died a year ago. It's her ghost that's been kidnapped.' So Castor is trying to find how you'd go about stealing a ghost. Then he's trying to find out who did it and why.
"In 'Vicious Circle' Castor has become something other than a straight exorcist," Carey said. "He's almost an anti-exorcist; someone who champions the dead against the living."
Carey's third Felix Castor novel, "Dead Man's Boots," hits UK stores this fall. "'Dead Man's Boots' is even bigger than 'Vicious Circle,'" he remarked. "It's kind of like Chinese boxes - each one opens into something bigger than itself. In 'Dead Man's Boots,' what we seem to have is an American serial killer, who although she was executed in the late 1960s is still killing people in the present day. As Nicky says to Castor, 'She's the worst kind of repeat offender, the kind that doesn't stop even when you put 12,000 volts through her.'
"There also seems to be a big and complicated plot, which one of Castor's friends uncovers. It involves East End gangsters but it also seems to involve people coming back from the dead, more than once," Carey continued. "John Gittings, who is the drummer from the first novel, stumbles upon what's going on and tries to warn Castor but dies before he can actually get word to him. So Castor is investigating John's death and trying to discover what John had found out."
Books like "Vicious Circle" and "Dead Man's Boots" build upon the big ongoing mystery in Felix Castor's world and Carey plans for that plot thread to lead to a big payoff. "I don't have an ending in mind for the series but I do have a big climax in mind which would come at the end of the sixth book," Carey explained. "So we're kind of building to a huge revelation and a huge climax which could be an end point but wouldn't have to be. We could continue the story after that. The big revelation is why the dead are returning - why Castor's world is the way it is."
Carey is uncertain of his plans for Felix Castor beyond a sixth novel but he definitely wants to continue writing prose, especially books in other genres. "I would love to write some teen fiction," Carey said. "One of the things that I've enjoyed most over the past couple of years is writing for a teenage audience, things like 'My Faith in Frankie,' 'Regifters, and 'Confessions of a Blabbermouth.' I'd love to try that in prose at some stage. I would also love to write a flat-out comedy. Also I'd be curious to try my hand at a totally mainstream novel with no fantastic elements at all; although it would have to be a theme that captured my imagination in a big way."
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