Three desperadoes seek one last score before hanging up their guns. They’re lured by a virginal ingénue to a sleepy Mexican village by the promise of silver treasure. The gunslingers discover they’ve been tricked into rescuing the villagers from a pack of the most vicious werewolves that ever bloodied the pages of a book. Though they came for plunder, the gunmen can’t turn their backs on the doomed peasants and instead choose to fight as heroes. They plunge into a final battle that could well leave them as dog meat for the scheming and ravenous lycanthropes.
The story is a wonderful mashup between THE WILD BUNCH and THE HOWLING. What was the inspiration, I mean, why write about cowboys versus werewolves?
Westerns have a white hat versus black hat simplicity—the best ones come down to rooting for the good guys to kill the bad guys. Werewolves make effective heavies because you get two bites at the apple bad guy-wise—first as creatures then as bandits in human form. Plus having werewolves in it made a western hip and contemporary for readers. Mashup is just another term for cross-genre, an arena I’ve been working since I started.
You did a great job setting us in the place and time of the story. Lots of rich, compelling details. Is the Old West a favorite subject? How did you go about your research?
Guess I picked it up along the way. I’ve spent a lot of time on ranches around wranglers and horses in Wyoming, ride well, and am very familiar with firearms. Several years ago I wrote and produced a western in New Mexico with Mickey Rourke where we had plenty of horses, guns, and stuntwork that involved reenacting western situations in considerable realistic detail. For example, we had a quickdraw champion technical advisor who taught us stuff like gunfighters didn’t draw fast and pull the trigger—they drew and pushed the pistol and hammer under the palm of their other hand to fan and fire, often wearing a glove on the opposite hand for that purpose. But a lot of it was imagination, projection into what the moment-to-moment day-to-day details were for characters in this time and place. Research is overrated, in my opinion, and most of writing is dreaming stuff up. You fully imagine it, like John Irving says.
The book was full of over-the-top violence. Frankly, I was pleased that you didn’t hold back. Your werewolves devoured horses and kids, usually big no-nos in literature. What were your guidelines? Did your editor ever say, “Eric, you might want to dial back the gore.”
No, Samhain editor Don D’Auria never asked me to cut any of the violence—just the opposite. His one request was I make the book longer, and one scene I added with Mosca and the Borracho is probably the bloodiest in the book.
The novel is violent because the wolfmen had to be savagely enough portrayed so that the gunfighters—part bad guys themselves—become heroic by comparison when they fight and vanquish the monsters. For this story to work emotionally, the reader needs to be stirred when the gunslingers choose honor and decide not to steal the silver, protecting the villagers instead. The more edgy and flawed the gunfighters are, the more brutal the werewolves are, the more moving the cowboys’ sacrifice is. Intrinsic to this kind of piece is creating inciting incidents where the bad guys do things so terrible, the reader is sufficiently inflamed to feel a satisfying catharsis when the good guys kill the bad guys. That meant the violence had to be pretty extreme.
With the gunfighters, I wanted to explore the notion of the hero and turn it on its head, creating harsh protagonists who were anything but your typical good guys. In fact, they are almost bad guys, but the heavies they are up against are so evil that by taking them on, the cowboys are framed as good guys by default. In the end, the gunslingers achieve all the emotional heroic arcs we expect from the genre, and become noble, but in an unsentimental way. Westerns are bigger than life, about heroism. To make that theme relevant for today’s tough-minded sensibilities, I felt the gunfighters had to be a lot more badass and the book had to have a lot more blood and guts and sex than there would be back in John Ford’s or Louis L’Amour’s, even Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western era.
However, regarding the bloodshed, today’s readers are really hard-nosed—they’ve seen and read it all and it takes a lot to shock them. THE WILD BUNCH shocked the hell out of people when it came out in the 70s with its depiction of violence, but it’s pretty tame by today’s standards. In order to get that similar impact with this book, I had to take it pretty far.
And let’s face it, people who want to read a werewolf western want a bloody read. They want those scenes. In screenwriting, we call signature gore scenes in horror movies “Rippers.” Rippers are those scenes like the Finger In The French Fry Scene in THE HITCHER or the Chest Burster Scene in ALIEN that exist on a purely visceral primal shock level and are maybe what audiences most remember. GUNS is loaded with Rippers. Had to deliver the goods.
THE GUNS OF SANTA SANGRE must have been a lot of fun to write, but penning any novel is a lot of work. What’s your writing regimen like? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
My writing routine is going into the office and writing nine to five, six days a week, fifteen hundred words or five pages a day. It’s a job. I always get the five pages out. Sometimes those pages are good and sometimes not, and I start over. But if I get the pages written, inspiration usually kicks in at some point—maybe one, maybe four pages in, and the ideas start flowing and a quality scene often writes itself. But if I didn’t write those first pages, the good scene would never have happened. Because of my screenwriter background, I’m rigorous about structure, constantly doing outlines and step charts. So I’m a plotter. For me, character flows from story, not the other way around.
You’ve got impressive credentials in Hollywood. What’s been the difference for you between writing screenplays and novels? Given that you’ve already got a demanding creative outlet, what draws you to writing novels?
In a novel, I can tell the story in a lengthier, more immersive way than a screenplay, getting in the heads of the characters and going into great descriptive detail. There’s no censorship, no budgetary restriction, no production limitations and nothing between the reader and me but the prose. One of the things that’s gratifying about writing a book is that people bring their own pictures to the prose whereas in a film you give them those pictures, so readers interface in a more intimate, personal way with a book.
The book demonstrated your impressive command of storytelling. The narrative raced along and the plot developed with sufficient details and backstory to keep us caring about the characters. How did you hone your craft? Who are your influences?
The four best western novels I’ve read are THE SEARCHERS, by Alan LeMay, THE COWBOY AND THE COSSACK by Clair Huffaker, THE SHOOTIST by Glendon Swarthout and BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormack McCarthy. I find most western novels kind of stale, but those books are classic vital examples of the genre, and were all on my mind in one way or another writing GUNS. It’s impossible to write a western novel without being influenced by movies, of course. Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH was a big influence in terms of its gritty, dusty, bloody, and unsentimental view of the west and old Mexico—particularly how the brutal, hard, unsympathetic killer protagonists become heroic because of their friendship, code and honor. That informed my approach to the characters of the three gunfighters. And the movies THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE SEVEN SAMURAI and THE ROAD WARRIOR were useful influences as classic demonstrations of the central heroic theme of GUNS.
I honed my craft from twenty-five years of writing screenplays, basically. Scripts are good writing in the sense that it’s a spare, terse, less-is-more format that breaks a story down to its basic moving parts. Every scene propels the story forwards, everything is about keeping people wanting to find out what happens next. In a script, you are always revealing who a character is with action, by what he does, using as little dialogue as possible. Screenplays are the ultimate example of Action is Character. That skill set is useful in writing novels.
What I had to learn about book-writing mostly was prose crafting. A screenplay is a terse, spare mechanical format where you use the simplest prose possible and white space on the page can be as important as the words. My novelist friend Jack Ketchum told me that with book readers, the experience of the prose is as important as the story, and that was sage advice for a transitioning screenwriter like myself! GUNS gave me the opportunity the write in multiple voices, through the points of views of many characters, their internal monologues, the omnipotent narrative voice, first person, second person, third person, flashbacks, etc. I tried to make the prose itself fun and various, besides the story framework it covered, if that makes any sense.
Beginnings are critical. It was key to open the book in the first chapter with a bang, so that’s why it begins with the werewolf attack on the stagecoach. It’s the same as having the first ten pages of a screenplay hook the reader. You have a very short window of attention from readers where they want you to grab them at the beginning–if you don’t, you lose their attention right away and don’t get them back. Once you have the reader hooked, then you can kick back and get into the backstory of the characters, etc. People need to find their feet before you can take them somewhere in a story, so setup is important. It’s all about playing with expectations. Immediately in a story about three gunfighters taking a mission for silver to rid a town of werewolves, the reader has a load of expectations—everybody knows the book is going to end it a big showdown, for instance. The fun is playing around with those expectations. For instance, it’s good to kill off at least one character the reader likes and is sure is going to make it, in order to generate suspense about who else will survive.
THE GUNS OF SANTA SANGRE was published by Samhain, a publishing house better known for romance and erotica. How did you get hooked up with them? What was the editorial process like?
Samhain recently started a horror line. I knew and respected the editor, Don D’Auria, from when he was the editor at Leisure. I sent him the finished GUNS manuscript last year and six months later, when I’d forgotten about it, he dropped me a line saying Samhain wanted to publish it.
Don wanted me to make the book longer, so I added the subplot of the Borracho and wrote a few other new scenes that made it a better book. Samhain requested no significant changes to the existing material, and didn’t ask me to tone down anything. When we went to the publishers edits, they pointed out a number of technical and logistic issues I fixed as well. It’s been a great experience with Don D’Auria and Samhain—they are smart, totally supportive and genuinely care that the authors are happy. Don is a tremendously professional and super nice editor to deal with on every level.
Who are your favorite authors and what books are on your To-Be-Read pile?
My favorite authors are great storytellers. In no order, they include John MacDonald, Richard Laymon, Richard Price, Jim Harrison, Hubert Selby Jr. Thomas Harris, William Goldman, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, John Irving, Don Winslow, Lee Child, and Donald Westlake.
Next on my reading list are THE ABOMINABLE by Dan Simmons, THE DEMANDS by Mark Billingham, and AMERICAN PASTORAL by Phillip Roth.
Care to share your new projects?
I just completed my fourth novel, WHITE KNUCKLE, a thriller about a female FBI Special Agent on the cross-country trail of an interstate trucker serial killer with a horrific and unique modus operandi. It involved considerable research with the Bureau and the US long hauling industry. It’s my best book so far, and a return to THE HITCHER territory. My book agent Richard Curtis has just begun showing it to major publishers.
Also, I’ve signed to write and direct the film version of NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Jonathan Maberry’s bestselling and absolutely terrifying zombie novel, DEAD OF NIGHT. The script’s finished and hopefully we’ll be shooting that sometime next year.
Thanks again to THE BIG THRILL for this article, and I hope people enjoy THE GUNS OF SANTA SANGRE!
Eric Red is a Los Angeles based motion picture screenwriter, director and author. His original scripts include THE HITCHER for Tri Star, NEAR DARK for DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group, BLUE STEEL for MGM and the western THE LAST OUTLAW for HBO. He directed and wrote the crime film COHEN AND TATE for Hemdale, BODY PARTS for Paramount, UNDERTOW for Showtime, BAD MOON for Warner Bros. and the ghost story 100 FEET for Grand Illusions Entertainment.
His first novel, a dark coming-of-age tale about teenagers called DON’T STAND SO CLOSE, was published in 2012. His second novel, a werewolf western called THE GUNS OF SANTA SANGRE, will be published by Samhain Publishing in November 2013.
To learn more about Eric, please visit his website.