[Columnist Alan Kelly checks in with a new edition of Hell’s Shelves.]
Monster Kids with a soft spot for B-grade, creature-packed pulp tales should have a copy of Apocalypse Now Now (Century) on their bookshelves. The debut novel by South African writer Charlie Human (pictured above) is a seriocomic supernatural odyssey that would be perfectly at home sandwiched somewhere between David Wong’s John Dies at the End and the most dangerous adventures of Doc Savage.
Baxter Zevcenko is a snarky, bespeckled, criminally overachieving 16-year-old who thinks he’s seen (and done) it all. He rules Westridge High with his posse of demented hipster teens by distributing creature feature-themed porn, keeps rival gun-happy gang-bangers in line and routinely canoodles with his teenage sweetheart – and Baxter’s inadvertent empathy-trigger – Esme. That is, until Esme is snatched by the Mountain Killer, a sadist with a penchant for carving ritualistic symbols onto dead girls.
With the help of a crass, cross, grizzled bounty hunter and monster-slayer named Jackson “Jackie” Ronin, Baxter must confront a gallery of grotesque creatures including a man-eating plant that poses as a sultry siren; giant, universe-hopping, Cthulhu-like robots; Queen Anansie, a spider-demon who runs a zombie-infested fetish hell-pit; shady government agents and even megalomaniacal crows…
No, definitely the right tree. That kind of pulp influence is definitely a big part of the book. B-movies, pulp fiction, video games and comics are all part of Baxter’s teenage world and kinda bleed out into the supernatural world he confronts.
Both the book itself and Joey Hi-Fi’s cover art seems heavily affiliated with monster-centric pulp classics. Can you talk to us about the genesis of/influences behind Apocalypse Now Now?
Local tabloids provided the initial idea. We have two major tabloids that often have monster-centric stories; tokoloshes [evil entities from Zulu mythology], demons, and other creatures from African mythology make regular appearances. It’s a running joke that the tabloids are the biggest sci-fi publications in South Africa.
Joey Hi-Fi is big into pulp of all kinds (he does an occasional podcast with Sam Wilson called Fresh Hell where they watch a seriously B-grade movie and then talk about it) so he was totally on board with the concept.
Was there a lot of nocturnal brainstorming when developing plot/character arcs and your “supernatural ecosystem”?
Yes! I have a day job so most of my brainstorming was nocturnal. The ecosystem grew organically – I knew I wanted to include South African mythology but I wasn’t sure what or how.
You’ve steered clear of the traditional beasties – werewolves, vampires, gillmen, etc. – who populate the horror genre. Why?
I thought it was time we added a little bit of diversity to the monster mix. African mythology has SUCH great monsters and it’s ridiculous that they’re not used more.
Joey Hi-Fi’s cover artwork is awesome and the imagery works as a powerful entry point into the story for the reader. How did the collaboration work?
I love both his covers [for the book’s UK and South African editions] so much. I was insistent that he was the one who would do them.
Basically Joey read the book and then came back to me with a concept – that pulpy, B-grade movie poster idea. Jack Fogg, my UK editor, had pretty much the same idea so the whole thing fit together perfectly.
I gave Joey some reference images for characters and places and he absolutely NAILED it with the first draft.
There are parallels with David Wong’s John Dies at the End: both stories have monster-slaying, universe-hopping, potty-mouthed protagonists. Have you read the book or seen Don Coscarelli’s adaptation?
I’ve only just bought the book because a few people have pointed out the similarities. Loving it so far. I think David Wong and I could have a great chat about the art of the ridiculous in storytelling. He also makes some great, wry observations about growing up in small-town America, which has parallels with the way Baxter talks about Cape Town.
Were you a horror-loving Monster Kid growing up?
Totally, and the late ’80s and early ’90s were great times for horror. Children of the Corn, Necronomicon, The Evil Dead, Child’s Play, A Nightmare on Elm Street… those were good times.
You’ve worked as a lifestyle columnist. How did that prepare you for a storytelling career in The Twilight Zone of the Nightmarishly Epic?
Well, once you’ve looked into the soulless abyss of consumer magazines, you’re completely equipped to write about hell. Seriously though, working as a columnist teaches you to be edited, to not be precious about your work and to realise that the deadline is your friend – all valuable lessons for a writer.
Apocalypse Now Now is episodic in nature. Can you see it translate to the screen?
I’d love that, if only to see how they’d portray Ronin. When I think about a screen version I mostly think of all the great local musicians who could do the soundtrack.
What monstrosities will Baxter and Jackson be tailing in the sequel? Will we see more new creatures?
New creatures indeed! My favourite are the Obayifo – a cabal of illusionists who have built a media empire. Plenty of the old crew return too though.
Photo by Deni Archer.