When I first started this column more than a year ago I immediately wanted to talk about Repairman Jack, a series by author F. Paul Wilson about a resourceful, sometimes brutal, and yet extremely personable “urban mercenary” living in Manhattan who does fix-it jobs that the legal channels of officialdom can’t solve. Not merely mystery or thriller books, these books are true speculative fiction because Jack’s stories include an overarching supernatural threat.
If you’ve never heard of Repairman Jack, you really ought to head to the horror section of your local bookstore pronto and pick up a copy of The Tomb, first in the series. Yes, it’s a long-running saga—and yes, it’s very worth it—but it’s about to reach an exciting and epic conclusion.
The penultimate book in the series, Fatal Error, just hit stores! Author F. Paul Wilson himself was kind enough to talk with me about the series, its imminent end, and his sources of inspiration.
Jeff: Paul, Fatal Error is the fourteenth book in the Repairman Jack series. You said in a Dragon Page podcast interview that you always wanted Jack’s story arc to be finite, that you didn’t want to run him into the ground or prolong the series merely to keep producing more books. So the series will end on your own terms with the next book. Your reasons aside, what do you feel about this closure? Relieved? Excited? Morose?
Paul: Relief, certainly. The major arc—the cosmic conflict between the Ally and the Otherness—has accrued critical mass and it’s time to pay off on everything I’ve been building toward. Drawing it out further will add nothing but excess verbiage to the series. The Dark at the End will leave him down and desperate and pretty near the end of his rope. From there he’ll segue into the ensemble cast of Nightworld, which ends the Secret History. I will set no stories after Nightworld.
In response to the cries of agony from the readers, I’ll probably do 2 or 3 more shorter, noirish novels from the period between his arrival in NYC and The Tomb, just to fill in those gaps. But they’ll be asides, showing how he gets to know Abe and Julio, and how he became the guy you meet in The Tomb. After those books, you’ll know all I know about Jack and there’ll be nothing left to say. I need to move on.
Jeff: We’ll get over it . . . eventually. And those flashback novels will no doubt help us cope.
Repairman Jack seems like quintessential speculative fiction—neither pure horror nor all-out sci-fi, but it’s got a liberal helping of both, along with fair amounts of suspense, action, and mystery. Yet the premise of the Adversary Cycle—which overlaps with Jack’s saga and concludes with Nightworld—has some pretty strong fantasy elements: mystic bonds, ancient enemies, powerful swords, “chosen” champions, and plenty of monsters. Are you very conscious about genre in your books or do you simply tell the story that’s in your head and let people worry how to classify it? (I know some people who enjoy science fiction or even supernatural horror but balk when there’s too much “magic” going on.) Do you have a feel for what sort of readers are drawn to your books (which are typically shelved in Horror)?
Paul: I have never written a book that I wouldn’t want to read. The trouble is, I love to read horror, sf, fantasy, mysteries, hero pulps—romantic fiction, in the original, traditional meaning of that term, as opposed to mimetic fiction. But most of all, I love thrillers. I define a thriller as a big-stakes, multiple-viewpoint novel involving suspense, action, and mystery, in which the reader doesn’t know everything but usually knows more than any single character. I was a big Ludlum fan in the 70s. I’d been a longtime H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard fan. So, in 1980 when I started work on my first horror novel, those 3 writers were looking over my shoulder. I wasn’t thinking about genre blending, then, I simply didn’t want to write another small-town horror novel. I wanted BIG stakes and a BIG canvas and a sense of historical depth. The result was The Keep.
My genre-hopping has caused problems with marketing and sales departments over the years, because they need to know where to position a book with the booksellers. That stopped when I got into the Repairman Jack series. I still genre hop within the series, but the series has sort of become its own genre. Marketing and sales simply push each new title as the next Repairman Jack novel.
Because of The Keep, I’ll always be stocked with horror in stores that have a horror section. Even my medical thrillers and The Fifth Harmonic were shelved in Horror.
Jeff: I recall Jack himself thinking he didn’t care for fantasy books, but you’re saying you do. Beyond Robert E. Howard, what sort of fantasy books do you like to read? Any high fantasy?
Paul: I had a thing against fantasy as a kid. I read horror on the rare times I could find it, but mainly I was a sci-fi guy. Then I forgot to send back my response card to the SF Book club, which means they ship you both choices. One was Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. About a knight in a fantasy land with trolls and ogres…were they kidding? I tossed it aside but finally picked it up when I had nothing else to read. And I loved it. I found the genre was called sword and sorcery or heroic fantasy and I hunted down all the Conan books, plus the imitators, and subscribed to Amra—the whole package. I even wrote a s&s story of my own called “Demonsong” with these two guys, Glaeken and Rasalom. Even then I was turning genres on their heads: I decided to make it a s&s story in which the hero never draws his sword.
I can recall reading The Lord of the Rings and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line, but I found myself skimming a lot. I read enough to be able to place a seafood restaurant named Memison’s in my fictional town of Monroe, and make other references like that, but much of HF is too overwritten for my taste. Every so often I do enjoy an occasional urban fantasy. (Joe Konrath contends I invented the genre in 1984 with The Tomb, but I don’t know if that book fits the accepted description of an urban fantasy. Frankly, I don’t care enough to research the possibility.)
Jeff: I often wonder about sources of inspiration—they seem to vary greatly from write to writer. For some, it’s other books, movies, people . . . or music. Does music ever fuel any ideas for you? How about when you’re actually writing? Most writers either do prefer to play music while working, or require silence. How about you?
Paul: I survived a number of garage bands during my teens and early twenties, both as drummer and guitarist. It’s nigh impossible for me to listen to music without parsing it. What’s the bass drum doing? Is that a major seventh? Wait—did they just jump in and out of 5/4 there? I keep 2 guitars next to my desk and a keyboard over by the window. If I don’t already know a song’s chord progression, I’ll stop writing and try to figure it out. I can occasionally listen to unstructured, amelodic ambient music, but I prefer no music. I don’t need silence—I can write just about anywhere—but music is a major distraction.
Jeff: Ahh, you kind of talk like a prog rocker. Was Rush, Yes, Genesis, or the like lurking in your periphery when you were growing up? When you do listen to music these days, what’s at the top of the list?
Paul: Anything but prog. Blues and folk and folk-rock all the way. The less production, the better. Compare “Let It Be” to “Let It Be…Naked” and you’ll see what I mean. The blues is real—Muddy and Willie and Little Walter and the Wolf used to plug into the Chess studio amps and what they played was what you heard. I’m also a fan of harmony. I grew up with doo-wop on the radio, which is why I have a soft spot for groups like The Beatles, The Byrds, CSN, and even the much-maligned Eagles.
Jeff: Not everyone snubs the Eagles! And really, the musically inclined ought to reserve some affection for the Beatles!
Now, one last question that I have to ask: The Lilitongue of Gefreda, from Infernal [the ninth book in the Repairman Jack series]: will we ever learn more about that, or the fate of Tom, before the very end?
Paul: Even I don’t know where Tom is. (Just like I don’t know Jack’s last name.) But let me say this: Lilitongue and Gefreda are two anagrams that refer to the inspiration for the novel. When people get it they usually do that V8 forehead smack. (I’ve done this throughout the series—more for my own amusement than anything else. E.g.: In Hosts Jack munches a carrot and says, “Of course, you realize this means war.” Now that I’ve laid it out, of course you get it, but only my son-in-law has brought it up to me.)
Jeff: Well…that’ll have some folks Googling anagram finders . . . Thanks for your time, Paul!
For more info: Check out repairmanjack.com or just pick up a copy of The Tomb or The Keep. Both books can start you down the sagas that will end with Nightworld. Wilson has a few dozen novels and short stories already behind him, running the spectrum between fantasy, horror, and medical thrillers. I haven’t read one I didn’t enjoy immensely.
And of course, I’ll be talking more about Repairman Jack in days to come!