SRW: Give a big ol’ Tornado Alley howdy-do to talented fantasy and horror writer Jeff Chapman. Today we’re yonderin’ back into the Wild West to discuss cowpoke Chapman’s chaps and new novel, The Black Blade. And it’s a hoot and a holler, folks. Traditionally a short story writer, Jeff has spread his wings and written some kind of novel that’ll have the folks at Gulch Holler cryin’ in their beers and spit-takin’ their sarsaparilla.
Welcome Jeff! Tell everyone about your new book, The Black Blade.
JC: Thanks for talking with me, Stuart. The Black Blade Is the first novel in The Huckster Tales series. Other works in the series include a short story and a novelette. In The Black Blade, Orville and Jimmy again find themselves over their heads in supernatural trouble. They have a habit of finding trouble. Marzby, an old man with evil intent and magical powers, imprisons Orville and a farmer’s wife and then sends Jimmy and the farmer on a quest to retrieve an enchanted knife from inside Skull Hill. But there’s an evil catch to this quest. The one who hands the blade over to Marzby selects which prisoner to release. One knife for one prisoner. It’s not long before the farmer aims his shotgun at Jimmy. But the trigger-happy farmer may be the least of Jimmy’s worries. The sun is on the move and there’s a host of strange creatures between Jimmy and the final showdown with Marzby.
SRW: Where’d the term “huckster” come from? What exactly does it mean? And where can readers find other tales of your huckster duo, Orville and Jimmy?
JC: A huckster is someone who travels around the country selling stuff. Usually the value of the “stuff” is questionable. Think snake-oil salesmen. Orville hasn’t sold snake-oil in any of the stories yet, but if he finds he can make money from it, he most likely will. Orville’s primary gig is operating as the turbaned soothsayer Orville the Oracular. Jimmy provides behind-the-curtain support and looks after Maggie, their horse. Jimmy also operates the moral compass which Orville ignores to their peril.
So far, there are three stories in The Huckster Tales series. “The Wand” is a short story you can have for free with a newsletter signup. “The Flaming Emerald” is a novelette available in the anthology Ghosts of Fire. And then there’s the novel, The Black Blade. I have more novels percolating, including an origin story explaining how Jimmy and Orville met and a sequel to The Black Blade.
SRW: I’ve been a fan of your colorful prose for some time, Jeff. No one can turn a purtier metaphor. But I always thought your writing sprang forth from the past, a "Weird Tales" vibe if not older. A writer out of time. I think you’ve hit your stride with the Huckster series set in the old West. The perfect synthesis of place and prose. Why did you choose the old West as your background?
JC: I didn’t intend to write a western when I wrote “The Wand.” I thought of it as fantasy, but the characters pulled me in the western direction. That’s where they wanted to be, so I went with it. The characters are always right.
SRW: We’ve gotta’ talk about research. Everything about the book, from the dialect, the dialogue, the setting, the props rings true. Jeff, did you base this off of years watching sage dramas on the TV? Or did you actually, you know, open a book and dig into true research (ew…what’s that?)? Come on, just between us, there’s nobody else around…spill.
JC: I grew up watching reruns of The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. My parents loved westerns, so I saw a lot of them: the classic films and the B-grade ones. We watched Gunsmoke. We watched F-Troop. The films and TV shows give you a sense of the myths and feel of the genre. For the details of daily life, I researched online and read some books. For example, I learned that the ubiquitous cowboy hat was not the primary headgear in the Old West. Many men wore bowlers (like Bat Masterson) or straw hats. Orville wears a bowler while Jimmy makes do with a well-worn straw hat. I also discovered that saloon owners sold or gave away cheap snack foods. The saltier the better. In The Black Blade, Isobel brings food for her uncle to sell at his saloon and claims her uncle spices it with extra salt.
SRW: Jimmy’s grandmother--although I assume long dead--is almost a Greek Chorus character throughout the book, constantly spouting wise adages, maxims, proverbs, down home remedies, you name it. Where in the world did you come up with all of Grandma’s sayings? Did you just wing it? Watch a lot of Oprah? Or is Grandma based on a relative of yours?
JC: I made them up as I wrote. Grandma provides comic relief and an entertaining way to get at Jimmy’s thoughts. She’s not based on anyone in particular. Whenever I needed something from Grandma, I tried to imagine what an opinionated, old farm woman would say. I suppose my rural Kansas upbringing is paying off here. I hope readers get a good laugh out of her sayings. I had fun writing them.
SRW: I was a little disappointed Orville dropped out relatively early in the book as he and Jimmy make a cute comical team, right up there with Martin and Lewis, Starsky and Hutch, and Trump and Pence. A lot of the humor derives from their prickly relationship and Orville’s less than scrupulous moral code. I’m curious, did you set out to instill humor in the Huckster series? Or did it organically rise from Orville and Jimmy’s characters?
JC: I didn’t set out to write humorous stories, but when you have two characters trying to move events in opposite directions, humor is often the result. The Huckster Tales are all written in the first person, from Jimmy’s perspective. His voice has much to do with the humorous tone.
SRW: There are enough fantastical critters and varmints running through The Black Blade to give Ray Harryhausen nightmares. List a few. Then ‘fess up to inspirations…
JC: The first strange critter is Marzby’s pindigo. Marzby claims he forced the spirit of a wendigo into a pig. The result is a ferocious half-pig half-human monstrosity. A wendigo is a cannibalistic horror from Native American folklore. Jimmy also comes across a shape-shifting opossum and a shape-shifting coyote. Coyotes are common in Native American folklore, especially as tricksters. I don’t think many people give opossum’s much thought. I added the opossum as something unexpected.
In the final chapters, we meet Marzby’s servants, a pair of oafish but incredibly strong men, at least they appear to be men. Their skeletons are a mixture of human and cattle bones.
SRW: The tone of The Black Blade is a little schizophrenic, but I mean that in a good way! On the one hand, it’s a weird western. On the other hand, it’s a fantasy adventure. On yet another hand (where are all these hands coming from?), there’s humor, yet some violent and gruesome incidents. How would you categorize the book?
JC: What you say in your question. I had no idea how hard it would be to categorize the book until I finished it. I followed the story where it led. How about a weird western fantasy adventure salted with humor?
SRW: Jeff, I’ve been after you for a long time to write a full-length novel. You’ve written many fine novellas and short stories, but haven’t taken the big plunge. Until now. Why? And how was your experience as opposed to writing shorter fiction?
JC: I’ve started many novels but always bogged down in the middle of them. With The Blake Blade, I determined to keep moving forward and not stop. The strategy worked. Eventually I reached the end. Now that I’ve written one novel, I’m anxious to finish another one. I see now that a novel is like any other story, only longer, and to finish, you have to focus on scenes, knocking off one after another.
SRW: Truth time. I’ve given this a lot of thought, Jeff… Seems to me it’s more than coincidence. Okay, your name’s Jeff Chapman. You write about horse-riding cowboys in the weird west. Do you wear chaps? The readers want the truth. And photos.
JC: Good one. No, I’ve never worn chaps, though I remember there was a cologne called Chaps that I may have used when I was in high school. I don’t even wear cowboy boots.
SRW: What’s up next for Jeff? (And I hope the Hucksters?)
JC: I’m writing a couple fantasy stories for anthologies. The stories are linked by their protagonist, a cat inhabited by a human spirit. I like cats. After I finish those stories, I’m going to finish another novel, a fantasy story about a mermaid and a fisherman’s daughter. The cat from the stories figures in the novel, too. After the mermaid novel, I’m hoping to be ready for another Huckster novel.
SRW: Alright, time to rustle up the cattle and toss some steaks on the open-fire and zip up for the night, padnuhs. Jeff, why don’t you sing us out—Roy Rogers style—by tellin’ the good folk on the prairie where they might find yore pistol-packin’ work.
JC: To find store links for The Huckster Tales, go to http://www.jeffchapmanbooks.com/huckster-tales. For my other titles, go to http://www.jeffchapmanbooks.com/books. To join my mailing list, go to http://www.jeffchapmanbooks.com. A paperback version of The Black Blade is in the final stages of development (waiting for the proof copy to do the final review). I will be offering some Goodreads giveaways for signed copies. Add The Black Blade to your to-read list (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33898829-the-black-blade ) to receive a notice for the giveaways.
SRW: Read Jeff Chapman’s The Black Blade, folks. Highly recommended and more fun than a pistol-packin’ bandolero.