Begin reading Jon Bassoff’s latest novel, THE LANTERN MAN, and you’re immediately drawn into an odd, idiosyncratic David Lynch-like world. Everything seems slightly off-kilter.
The Greiners are certainly not your typical American family. We’ve got the three kids, the two girls, Lizzy and Shannon and their brother, known as Stormy. Mom’s around, but she isn’t too much help. And Dad? Well, he went out for the proverbial pack of cigs and never came back.
Tragedy strikes early, then often. Shannon drowns right in front of her two helpless siblings. Stormy is convicted of the brutal murder of a classmate, and finally Lizzy is found dead in an abandoned mountain shack, the result of an apparent suicide by fire.
Next to Lizzy’s charred body, investigators find several of her journals stored inside a fireproof box. These journals tell the world the truth Lizzy wants them to know…and to believe. Detective Russ Buchanan is on the case and it’s his job to determine what’s true and what isn’t—not an easy task when it comes to the Greiners, especially when it comes to Lizzy’s obsession with the mysterious and murderous Lantern Man.
Bassoff spins his tale in a most inventive, creative way, through newspaper articles, encyclopedia entries, artwork, photographs, police interviews, as well as Lizzy’s journals. He describes his inventive, compelling novel this way: “It is at once a mystery, a family drama, and a ghost story.”
Bassoff, who was born in New York City and moved to Colorado when he was an infant, attended the University of Iowa, where he majored in religious studies, even though he admits he was not a “religious guy.” Then he earned his Masters at New York University.
Here, Bassoff answers questions about his life, his craft, and his new release, THE LANTERN MAN.
Your bio says you live in a ghost town in Colorado, where THE LANTERN MAN takes place.
I wish I had a better story for moving out West, like I was being chased by a bunch of marauders looking to chop off my head, shrink it, and sell it on the black market. The truth is I moved out to Colorado when I was young because that’s where my dad got a job. And when I say that I live in a ghost town, I actually live in Longmont, which has about 100,000 people although, to be fair, there are an equal number of ghosts wandering through the neighborhoods. Leadville is about two and a half hours from Longmont, and it’s my favorite mountain town. There is no ski resort, no casinos. There’s still a living downtown with beautiful old brick buildings, and the neighborhoods are filled with old Victorian houses. I go there each summer to write, and I stay in a haunted hotel called the Delaware Hotel. There are abandoned mines scattered on the outskirts of town, and you can even go to the little shack next to the Matchless Mine, where Baby Doe Tabor, once married to the richest man in the state, lived in poverty and eventually froze to death.
Tell us a little about THE LANTERN MAN.
It started with the setting. I’d spent enough time in Leadville that I knew it was the perfect place for a creepy mystery. But I also wanted to experiment a bit with the narrative. I’d been reading a lot of Nabokov and I’d also read House of Leaves, so I decided to use footnotes and interviews and artwork to create narratives within narratives within narratives. Sort of a Russian doll of a novel. Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to determine the reliability of the various narratives and determine the “truth,” if such a thing exists.
Your novels are a little hard to categorize.
Horror? Mystery? Suspense? Thriller? Literature? I don’t know. The more novels I’ve written, the harder it’s become to categorize them into a particular genre. From an artistic point of view, I don’t think the genre matters. I’m just trying to write compelling novels. But it does create challenges when trying to “pitch” my novels, whether to individual readers or publishers. People tend to like some predictability in what they’re reading, and I don’t really provide that. So, yeah, life would be easier if I could just tell people that I wrote cozy mysteries or whatever. But I don’t think I’d be satisfied as an author writing straightforward genre novels.
What’s your writing process?
I plot out everything before I write. I’ve tried writing novels without an outline, and the result has never been pretty. However, my outlines are loose enough that there is the freedom for me to surprise myself with little detours along the way. As far as the characters are concerned, I have a general idea of what kind of people they are before I write, but they always evolve during the writing. And supporting characters that I hadn’t planned for will appear as I write, sometimes with only minor roles and sometimes more crucially. Tom Waits once talked about how sometimes you have to sneak up on creative ideas like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and other times those ideas come fully intact like a dream sucked through a straw. I wish I had more of those dream straws.
What would you like the reader to take away from your novel?
I’m hopeful that THE LANTERN MAN will be a different kind of reading experience. I’m asking a lot of the reader to take all of these pieces that don’t seem to fit and shove them together, but I think a lot of people crave something else besides another generic whodunit. I’m sure some people will get frustrated and will set to burning my books, but I’m hopeful some people will really dig it.
My first love was music, and that’s what I’m still moved the most by. Guys like Springsteen and Waits and Leonard Cohen who were able to create emotional landscapes have been very influential on my own writing. And, yes, I do aim for my books to have a cinematic feel. I love all those old film noirs that create moods through setting and lighting and shadows. Night of the Hunter and The Third Man are big influences for me, and then later films like Badlands, The Shining, and Angel Heart not only for plot, but for the haunting visuals.
What’s with tequila, hot sauces, psychobilly music, and flea bag motels?
I can’t help myself. I love me a good sipping tequila. I don’t have much of a palate, so I’m kind of a sucker. If you tell me the tequila is good, I’ll probably believe you. And then hot sauces—I’m addicted. Give me habanero. Give me chipotle. We’ve got this local hot sauce called Harry’s Habanero. A little bit of heaven, I tell you. If you can get your hands on a bottle, your life will be forever changed. As far as psychobilly bands, I’m into Demented Are Go, The Reverend Horton Heat, The Cramps, and Koffin Kats, to name a few. Finally, my love for flea-bag motels must be kept under wraps.
What are your other novels like?
Almost all my novels are written from the point of view of deranged and damaged protagonists. They include a slaughterhouse worker, a war veteran, a lobotomist, and an amnesiac artist. Although the plots and narrative styles are all different from THE LANTERN MAN, I think I’ve always grappled with the same themes—namely, mental illness, violence, identity, and the unreliability of memory.
My dream is that I can leave everybody behind, move to Hollywood, get involved with some unsavory characters, develop a crippling addiction of some sort, and eventually be destroyed by my own delusions of grandeur.
Jon Bassoff was born in 1974 in New York City and currently lives with his family in a ghost town somewhere in Colorado. His mountain gothic novel, Corrosion, has been translated into French and German and was nominated for the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, France’s biggest crime fiction award. For his day job, Bassoff teaches high school English, where he is known by students and faculty alike as the deranged writer guy. He is a connoisseur of tequila, hot sauces, psychobilly music, and flea-bag motels. THE LANTERN MAN is his seventh novel.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.