Usually when there’s a mysterious stranger who doesn’t talk, they’re the kind of person who kills everyone but the lone virgin girl who normally would’ve stayed home, but her friend insisted and, well, you know… But in Ty Drago’s horror novel Rags (paperback, Kindle), the titular silent but deadly character is actually more of a savior than a slayer.
To start, what is Rags about and when and where does it take place?
Rags is the story of Abby Lowell, a sixteen-year-old girl who grew up in Atlantic City’s foster care system. She lives in a crowded but loving home run by a middle-aged couple out of a dilapidated hotel half a block from the boardwalk.
One night, Abby’s life is saved from street thugs by a mysterious, savage stranger wearing dumpster divings and a heavy hood, and wielding an enormous, black-bladed knife. What follows is an uneasy alliance between Abby and her “hero,” especially after the Bernard brothers, a pair of Haitian gangsters, demand to buy the family’s hotel to turn into yet another casino. The Bernards have a seemingly endless army of hit men and crooked cops on their payroll, as well as an ancient grandmother who also happens to be a ruthless and powerful Voodoo witch.
So, as the odds mount up and the danger grows, Abby must solve the mystery of the man she calls Rags. More than that, she needs to accept the truth behind her violent avenger before she loses everything and everyone she loves.
Where did you get the idea for Rags, and how did that idea evolve as you wrote this novel?
I’ve always been drawn to places that are steeped in history. For a century before any casino went up, the jewel of Atlantic City was the great Steel Pier. It wasn’t a pier in the traditional sense, but a world-class playground and theater. Frank Sinatra played there. So did The Supremes, Chicago, and The Rolling Stones.
But time eventually took its toll. Steel Pier was closed in the early ’80s, and destroyed by fire in December of 1982.
As a boy, I visited Steel Pier on several occasions. I saw the shows, played the games, and watched that poor horse dive forty feet into a pool of water. I remember the excitement, the energy of the place. And I remember seeing it later, after it burned down, and wondering how much of that energy might remain. Such a place, it seemed to me, cried out to be haunted.
And that’s how Rags, both the book and the character, were born.
Is there a significance to Abby being a foster child?
Abby is herself something of a mystery. She was found wandering the boardwalk one summer day when she was four years old. She knew her name, her age, but nothing else. This, of course, landed her in the foster care system.
But, on a deeper level, her personal mystery mirrors that of Rags, her protector / avenger. It’s part of their connection, as is Abby’s obsession with the abandoned Steel Pier. Abby is loved in her life; she has foster parents who are kind and patient to a fault. But, like most fosters, she is, in a very real sense, alone. That was who I wanted for my heroine.
You kind of already answered this, but is there also a reason why Rags takes place in Atlantic City in 1982 as opposed to Newark in 1994 or Trenton in 2022? Or, for that matter, San Francisco in 1970?
One of the major themes in Rags deals with change. And change isn’t always good. I picked Atlantic City in 1982 because, at that time and in that place, profound change was happening. A city that had once been the pinnacle of American seaside resorts had declined badly and was, at the time, looking to the casinos to revitalize and renew it. Whether or not that ever happened is…debatable. But an undercurrent of change and uncertainty permeated the place in the early ’80s, and I wanted to reflect that in Abby’s personal struggle.
Does that make sense? It does in my head…
It sounds like Rags mixes horror and urban fantasy…
Rags is a horror story. But young adult horror is a tricky thing. When you’re writing horror for adults, you tend to take it slow, describing events in careful detail, building tension. With YA, however, there needs to be more action and a much more vibrant pace. In that spirit, Rags is a fast-paced horror novel that peppers gruesome fight scenes in with the mounting suspense and deepening mystery.
Rags is not your first novel; not by a long shot. Are there any writers, or stories, that had a big influence on Rags but not on any of your other books?
David Morrell wrote a wonderful thriller called Creepers that’s about a group of people who break into abandoned places, not to vandalize but to explore. That’s what inspired Abby’s love of the derelict Steel Pier and her frequent clandestine visits there. Joe Hill’s NOS4ATU and Stephen King’s IT both deal with children at risk and offered a lot of fuel for the fire of Abby’s courage and purpose. Basically, writers draw inspiration from pretty much anything and everything we can. Stories abound. They surround us, all the time. Add to this the fact that I’m a Jersey boy, born and raised, and I guess you could say Rags is the bastard offspring of my own childhood crossed with my love of horror novels.
How about non-literary influences; was Rags influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not really. I love movies and good horror shows, and I’m a pretty avid gamer. But, in my case, the written word drinks more or less exclusively from the wellspring of other written words. It’s funny; I’ve never really considered how much I compartmentalize that, but I do.
The character of Rags reminds me of Jason from the Friday The 13th movies and Michael Myers from the Halloween films, only in reverse. Were those kinds of characters, and those movies, an inspiration for how Rags would behave?
Jason and Michael are bad guys. They basically kill anyone and everyone who crosses their path. Rags, in way of contrast, has a mission. He exists to protect Abby and, by extension, the people Abby loves. He’s more of an anti-hero, a demon who wants to be an angel. I think he has a lot more depth and, hopefully, a broader appeal than your typical slasher.
And I have to ask: What had a bigger influence on Rags, your dog or your two chickens?
Much as I love my Pitbull, Rosie, I don’t think she offered much in the way of inspiration for this particular novel. Of course, I’m sure she’d disagree. And the chickens? Well, Pippin and Merry are relatively new members of the Drago household, a pair of goofy hens who make good company when I sit in the backyard with my laptop. But influence the story? I don’t think so. Then again, I rarely write well on an empty stomach, and I do love the fresh eggs.
Rosie, Pippin, Merry
Stories with mysterious silent protagonists and antagonists are sometimes just the first of many adventures for the character. Are you planning on writing more stories about Rags?
I’ve already written a companion short story called “Her Hero,” which I believe is going to appear in the Rags limited edition hardcover. I’ve also been asked to write a second tie-in story with the character. So, I guess Rags lives on, though whether or not a novel-length sequel ever develops remains uncertain in the extreme. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see whether my knife-wielding anti-hero has more to tell me.
Now, in the previous interview we did about your novel Dragons, you said, “there’s been a movie ‘in the works’ based on the first book in my Undertakers series for quite some time now.” Has anything changed since we did that interview?
I honestly don’t know where that effort stands at this point. It’s been a while. But the film industry takes its time. We have a great script that was penned by Jeffery Reddick of Final Destination fame. So, my fingers remain firmly crossed. It would be amazing to see the Undertakers on the silver screen.
Do you think Rags could work as a movie as well? Or would it work better as a TV show or game?
Honestly, I think a movie would work best. A video game is an interesting notion. Unfortunately, I can’t elaborate on why I think so without giving away spoilers.
And if someone wanted to make that adaptation, who would you want them to cast as Abby and, well, Rags?
Oh, boy. Let me see. I really like Pirah Nicole Ferguson, who played Erica in Stranger Things. The role of Abby would be a little bit more mature, of course, but I think she has the chops and, perhaps more importantly, the gravitas to make it her own.
As for who should play Rags…no comment.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Rags?
It’s fun, scary, suspenseful, and a quick read. Get ready to root for the dude with the big knife.
Finally, if someone enjoys Rags, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
I recently signed a publishing contract for a two-volume novel called The New Americans. This one is quite a departure for me. It’s a saga of three Sicilian brothers who are forced to emigrate to the U.S. back in 1915, and follows their efforts, successful or otherwise, to assimilate. It’s based on a series of cassette tapes that my father, himself the son of a Sicilian immigrant, recorded shortly before his death in 1992. My wife, Helene, and I did a podcast on the subject. It’s called “Legacy: The Novel Writing Experience.” It’s kind of a novel writing tutorial told through the lens of my father’s book. I invite anyone who’s interested in penning their own fiction to give it a listen.