Exclusive Interview: “Hellhounds” Co-Authors David Sandner & Jacob Weisman
As a fan of the music, I often find jazz to be rather magical. But while they do as well, writers David Sandner and Jacob Weisman take things even further in their magical ghost story Hellhounds (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, they discuss what inspired and influenced this novella, and how it connects to their previous collaboration, Mingus Fingers.
Photo Credit: David Sandner, Jacob Weisman
For people who didn’t read it, what was Mingus Fingers about, and when and where did it take place?
David: Mingus Fingers takes place in 1953, in the Jazz clubs of San Francisco. Kenny, a young boy in this story, is a musical prodigy noticed by the great Jazz bassist Charles Mingus. There is a powerful magic rising in Kenny, connected to the music.
But Kenny’s Uncle is really the protagonist of Mingus Fingers. He’s a hardworking jazz musician and boxer who is just getting by, taking care of his nephew for a time, and worried about having to bring a kid into to the rough club scene. And Kenny’s Uncle is shaken, though, by the power he, too, sees in the young boy.
Jacob: Kenny first appeared in an earlier story we published in Realms Of Fantasy. That story takes place in the early 1990s, and follows Kenny, now known as The Prophet, on an ill-fated comeback tour. So Mingus Fingers is Kenny’s origin story, but as David says it’s much more concerned with his uncle and how talented people aren’t always cut out for the limelight.
And then what is Hellhounds about, and how is it connected to Mingus Fingers, both narratively and chronologically?
David: Hellhounds takes place in 1960, and Kenny has become a pre-teen. He’s with his older brother, Lamond, and the two of them are reunited and living with an aunt in rural California. Lamond is telling the story from an older perspective as someone who is integral to Kenny’s music career. Lamond wants to be a musician, too, and recognizes in Kenny’s talent and power, his ticket to fame. Kenny is a dreamy kid, strange and impractical, so Lamond’s drive is important for Kenny to succeed. However, here in Hellhounds is the moment when Lamond learns that Kenny’s magic has a dark side and is more dangerous than even Kenny knows.
Jacob: When we wrote Mingus Fingers, we wrote Kenny’s brother out of the story by sending him off to live with another relative. But we knew Kenny had a brother because he’s mentioned in the earlier story (though he was written out of that story, too). But we knew that the two of them would have a close relationship, both musically and personally. So Hellhounds is Lamond’s origin story, and Kenny is once again an integral part of another character’s development.
When in relation to writing Mingus Fingers did you get the idea for Hellhounds, and what inspired this second story?
David: As Jacob says, in Mingus and Hellhounds we’re returning to a character we’d already written about who has wizardly powers to move through dimensions and change reality. Now, in these new works, we are telling the backstory of that remarkable musician.
It sounds like Hellhounds is an urban fantasy story. Is that how you see it?
David: The magic is leaking into what seems like our world in both stories, and that’s what some people mean by “urban fantasy,” in which case, sure, that’s one way to classify it. However, Hellhounds is in a rural setting, so that would be a bit ironic. I prefer to just call them fantastic. Mingus Fingers is more easily classified as “urban fantasy,” as Kenny’s magic emerges. Hellhounds is darker, with elements of horror, and might be called “Gothic” or a “ghost story.” They are both bound to their time and the music of their places, so they are importantly a kind of “historical fantasy,” too.
Jacob: I agree that Hellhounds is primarily a ghost story.
So, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on Hellhounds but not on Mingus Fingers?
David: More important than writers or stories are musical styles that influence the funk musician that Kenny will become. Mingus Fingers is the jazz story or improvisation and self-invention. Hellhounds is a blues piece, moody and dark, taking place at the crossroads.
Jacob: I think that’s right. There might be a few hints of some old noir tropes in Mingus Fingers, particularly in choosing boxing as Kenny’s uncle’s second occupation. He’s not down and out. If anything, he’s pretty successful on his own terms, but he’s also possessed by the knowledge that he’s no longer sure what those terms are. Hellhounds, meanwhile, takes place at a time when blues aficionados where tracking down some of the earliest recording artists and cutting new records by them. The Blues Rediscovery movement resuscitated the careers of artists like Bukka White, Blind Gary Davis, and Son House. Mississippi John Hurt recorded a handful of classic blues recordings in 1928. When the recordings failed commercially, Hurt returned to sharecropping to live out the rest of his life.
And how about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games?
David: What jumped into my head is Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. We are close to the mood and feeling of that classic weirdness.
Now David, when not writing stories, you’re a professor at Cal State, Fullerton. How, if at all, do you think working with young people influenced what you did in Hellhounds?
David: Um, they kept handing me things to grade and expecting me to teach them something, so they mainly effected my time to write. I love them, and greatly value being a teacher, but I’m not sure it helped me write. It’s something I enjoy doing that pays better than being a writer. Those young people are part of me not starving.
Well, that’s good. How about you, Jacob; your day job is running Tachyon Publications, as both founder and publisher. How, if at all, do you think working with other writers influenced what you did in Hellhounds?
Jacob: These stories were fun to write because I didn’t see anything else like them being written. Which is not to say that I was looking for stories just like them as an editor and not finding them. But there seemed to be really interesting ground to explore. I’m a little bit of an amateur musical historian, and so these stories allowed me use those talents.
As we’ve been discussing, Hellhounds is the follow-up to Mingus Fingers. Are you planning to write any more stories about Kenny?
David: Oh, yes. We have more stories that come together in what we hope is a novel. Kenny is at the center of it all, but we proceed by telling the stories of those who interact with him and are profoundly changed. He is the mystery at the heart of the series of interconnected tales that make up the whole.
Earlier I asked if Hellhounds had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Hellhounds could work as a movie, show, or game?
David: The music would be great to hear with the story. The stories we are telling would make for a good limited series, sort of like Gaiman’s Sandman, as ours, too, has a main magical figure and an episodic nature to the way the stories are told.
Jacob: The soundtrack would be awesome. I think it would make a great atmospheric movie. The whole cycle would make a marvelous television series, something like Lovecraft Country or Rome, but with a distinct soundtrack for each episode.
And if someone wanted to adapt Hellhounds into a movie or show, who would you want them to cast as Kenny and the other main characters?
David: The characters are young. You’d have to find new actors to play the roles, I think.
Finally, if someone enjoys Hellhounds, what novella of someone else’s would you each suggest they read next?
David: The Screwfly Solution by James Tiptree, Jr. Because it is great and terrifying.
Jacob: Pork Pie Hat is a chilling novella by Peter Straub. It’s a tale told by a jazz legend to a fan he meets in a bar. Straub asked me once who I thought the character was based on, and I suggested piano player Thelonious Monk, which Straub allowed was a good guess. But the answer was obviously Charles Mingus. The answer is right in the title. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is Mingus’ tribute to saxophonist Lester Young, who wore the old-fashioned wide brim hats. Mingus recorded the song on his classic album Mingus Ah Um, which he recorded in 1959, a couple of months after Young’s passing. So yeah, I’d recommend Straub’s story, but also the song and the album by Charles Mingus.