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On Rambo, Network Streaming,
and Not Looking Back

By Dawn Ius

David Morrell can’t go one week without hearing or seeing some kind of Rambo reference—whether it’s someone “going all Rambo,” a casual shout out in Season 3 of Stranger Things, or of course, most recently, speculation as to how the forthcoming Rambo movie—Last Blood—will further cement the character as a pop culture icon.

Morrell’s Rambo joins an elite handful of characters that are so ingrained in our social vernacular that even the author himself admits to now having a split-second delay before recognizing the reference to his own creation.

In reality, the word “Rambo” has become more than just a noun to describe a fictional person—it’s also used as an adjective and a verb, and perhaps most impressive, it’s a word that’s defined in the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary as “someone who uses, or threatens to use, strong and violent methods against their enemies.”

A not too shabby trickle-down effect for First Blood, Morrell’s debut novel in 1972, and the book from which the Rambo character was born.

It might seem as though the success of that character would send Morrell into a rabbit hole of trying to “recreate” that level of recognition, but the secret to Morrell’s staggering status as one of the thriller genre’s best writers is less about “looking back”—it’s always been about forward momentum.

Morrell with Sylvester “Sly” Stallone on the set of Rambo.

“My career has always been about looking ahead,” he says. “It would be hard to repeat Rambo—{spoiler alert} he’s dead in the first book—and I suppose I could have done more ‘Rambo-like’ characters…but the goal is to never look back.”

Morrell is a man true to his word. While certainly he was involved as a consultant for the first few Rambo movies, developing relationships with the producers and Sylvester “Sly” Stallone himself, Morrell continued to expand his writing resume. In the ’80s, for example, he was influenced by sophisticated spy novels—which gave birth to the Brotherhood of the Rose series. In 2013, he released Murder as a Fine Art, the first in the Thomas De Quincy series of historical thrillers. He’s dabbled in comics, writing about both Captain America and Spiderman, and in addition to more than a dozen standalone thrillers, Morrell has penned over 100 short stories, many of which have been grouped into collections.

David Morrell
Photo credit: Jennifer Esperanza

The most recent example is BEFORE I WAKE, 14 stories that encompass an impressive range of themes, settings, and approaches. One is the WWII story “My Name is Legion” about the French Foreign Legion, based on an actual event—it’s a piece he originally wrote for an anthology called Warriors, edited by George R. R. Martin. There are also stories about classic authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, and a disguised J. D. Salinger. And there are some featuring characters from Morrell’s novels, including Thomas De Quincey himself—though Rambo is missing for obvious reasons.

There’s no question BEFORE I WAKE is a collection of unique tales, but the stories themselves are only part of what makes this anthology extra special—Morrell chose to publish this book with Subterranean Press, a small publisher that specializes in more collector-style products.

“So far it’s a signed, numbered, limited edition—1,500 copies—collection that initially went to the collector’s market,” Morrell says. At the $40 price point, it sold out immediately. There will be an audio book and eventually an ebook, etc—but there are no plans for mass print production. “I chose to follow this model because in the contracting major market, NYC publishers aren’t interested in collections that aren’t themed around a character such as Jack Reacher.”

What the reader gets in this case is a treasured collector’s book—and in this business model, Morrell also hangs on to most of the rights, which in today’s marketplace of shrinking publishing contracts are important and potentially lucrative assets for an author.

Morrell isn’t the first to tap into the collector’s book market. In 2018, Stephen King and Bev Vincent edited Flight or Fright, an anthology of terrifying tales of flying, published by Cemetery Dance and sold as a collector’s item. Other publishers, such as Gauntlet Press and Borderland, are also following suit, offering authors a unique opportunity to respond to what Morrell calls the “massive threat to the publishing world—television streaming services.”

“I was recently at an event where there were a number of authors being interviewed, and I couldn’t get any of them to talk about novels,” he says. “One author talked about Downton Abbey, and another recited all of the British mystery series they were watching.”

A similar experience happened at a housewarming party.

“The average person spends 11 hours on a device—a phone, laptop, TV,” he says. “They take up a lot of time, and that means less people are reading. We need to bring those readers back. It all goes back to what I was saying about ‘looking ahead’ and trying to predict what readers need and want.”

Is the answer collector’s edition books? Maybe. Bite-sized fiction compressed into anthologies? Perhaps. Morrell isn’t sure there’s any magical formula—aside from simply writing from a place of authenticity and passion.

The ability to work with themes or ideas that “haunt the author but are maybe not commercial enough or big enough for a novel” is certainly part of the appeal for short story writers but Morrell admits it’s not an easy gig. Due to the need for brevity and the constant “cutting and rearranging” of prose, short stories require more time—and then of course, there’s the slog of finding it a home.

But as Morrell points out, in this evolving and increasingly competitive marketplace, there are no sure things—even for authors with a brand and a massive fan following. Not even for the creator of Rambo.

Morrell isn’t discouraged by that at all. In fact, it just reinforces the philosophies that have garnered him international praise, millions of copies sold, and the title as one of the genre’s master storytellers—write good stories, and always keep marching forward.


Dawn Ius
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