Joe Schreiber’s kids like to listen to their dad telling them scary stories, and since Joe also has fun making them up, why not write horror novels? Joe does exactly that and by now he has three original novels (Chasing the Dead, Eat the Dark, and No Doors, No Windows) and two tie-in novels under his belt, with more to come.
Joe’s The Unholy Cause, released a few days ago, is the second Supernatural novel published this year (after Keith R.A. DeCandido’s Heart of the Dragon) and it leads the Winchesters right into the past – well, sort of. “The brothers head down south and find themselves in the middle of a good old fashioned demon-infested Civil War reenactment,” Joe explains, “complete with real working weapons, ancient occult artefacts and Southern rock. Castiel shows up, things get nasty and by the end Sam and Dean are dealing with a runaway train, a supernatural Gatling gun that runs on blood and a smoking hot female sheriff named Jackie Daniels… and not everybody makes it out alive.”
Often the villains and monsters from the series are based on old fairy tales, oral traditions or myths, so what was the basis for the Winchester’s counterparts in The Unholy Cause? “My personal brand of demons are called Collectors,” Joe reveals, “and they work for Judas Iscariot, summoned back up from the pit by the rediscovery of the actual noose that he used to hang himself. So it’s pretty Biblical, actually, which makes it all the scarier.”
While the novel loosely ties in to the current season, it’s meant to be a standalone, Joe explains. “We placed it somewhere early on in Season Five, I think, and there are a few ties to what was going on at that point in the show, but you can read it as a standalone. Personally I prefer it that way – more liberating, if you know what I mean.”
To capture the series’ tone Joe immersed himself deeply into Supernatural lore when he was tapped to write the novel. “[Before the novel] I did watch the show, but not consistently,” he admits. “So when I prepped to write the book, I started going back and swallowing whole seasons on DVD to get the tone right, while marinating in a heady soup of reference guides, demon manuals and piles of scripts for forthcoming episodes.”
When he was asked to pitch ideas for a Supernatural novel, the idea behind The Unholy Cause (which he pitched as I Don’t Need Your Civil War) was only one of several he came up with. Would he be interested in returning to the Supernatural line with one of the other ideas? “Absolutely. Sam and Dean are a blast to party with,” he enthuses. (Readers who want to learn more about how Joe end up writing the novel and want to see the other ideas he has pitched can do so at his Scary Parent blog.)
Supernatural has been renewed for another season, and despite the fact that Lucifer will be a tough act to follow as the “big bad”, Joe is confident that the writers will be able to up the ante further. He reveals that “one of my favourite aspects of the show is its absolutely fearlessness when it comes to topping whatever came before. Partly this is a function of its sense of humour – the charm that holds the main characters together – and the way the mythology never takes itself too seriously. But when it comes to raising the stakes, there’s also this psychotic gambler thing where the show’s writers will raise, then call, then raise again. I have no doubt that they’ll be able to ratchet things up another notch this fall.”
While The Unholy Cause is his latest work in the tie-in field, it is not his debut there. That distinction goes to his Star Wars novel Death Troopers, which was released in 2009. He had already penned two original horror novels by then, so what led him to writing a tie-in? “They offered it to me,” he says. “My editor at Del Rey was involved in the Expanded Universe and they’d been kicking around the general idea of a horror novel set in the Star Wars universe, and when they came knocking, they only had to ask me once. I jumped at the chance.”
“As far as the main difference between this and my original novels, believe it or not, there really isn’t much,” Joe reveals. “I mean, besides using Han and Chewie, who – as much fun as they were, let’s face it, you know nothing bad is really going to happen to them, right, because they’re Han and Chewie… so you’re in the same boat of creating original characters that people have to a) care about and b) really worry are possibly not going to survive. The challenges and the rewards are pretty much the same. You have to crawl right inside the world of that story, meet people that you want to spend time with, get your hands dirty and find a way to make it fun, otherwise it’s just words on a page. And readers can smell that right away. I know I can.”
Han and Chewie are only one element of the plot, which Joe summarises as follows: “An Imperial prison barge comes across what looks like an abandoned Star Destroyer floating out in space. The barge has broken down and needs parts, so the Warden sends a team about the Destroyer to scavenge whatever they can find…except what they find isn’t human. There’s a virus onboard, and it quickly spreads back through the barge, killing ninety-nine percent of all the inmates. The survivors – good, bad and ugly – have to contend with what happens afterward, an army of bloodthirsty corpses in trooper buckets.”
Given the aforementioned concerns with writing Han and Chewie in the horror setting, did Joe ever play with the idea to leave them out of the novel? “No, I pretty much wanted those two in there from the beginning. I thought, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s too good to pass up, like playing with life-sized Kenner action figures that walk, talk and shoot zombies. I mean, c’mon!” he laughs.
Beside Han and Chewie’s immunity by canon, there are also a few other characters immune to the virus. Was that a creative choice, or a practical necessity? “That,” he admits, “I pretty much stole right out of The Stand’s playbook. It’s one of my favourite Stephen King books, and the idea that the virus kind of randomly leaves some people alone, regardless of whether they’re good guys or bad guys, was one of the cooler things about the book’s first half.”
Later in the novel we learn that some of the survivors from the Star Destroyer turned into cannibals, and are pretty much no better than the zombies. Did Joe include that to show that, in reality, no virus is necessary to turn humans into monsters? “Yeah, that’s my Rod Serling The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street shout-out,” he acknowledges. “Actually I don’t even think you need famine and starvation to turn people into monsters. All you need to do is mess with the price of gas or knock out the cable for a week. Like the song says, ‘Ignorance is bliss till they take your bliss away’.”
Death Troopers is one of only a few horror-themed Star Wars stories. Why does Joe think that genre hasn’t been used more often in Star Wars literature? “To tell you the truth, I really don’t know,” he confesses. “In the beginning I took a few lumps for trying a Star Wars/horror mashup, people saying that Lucas is squeezing every dime out of the franchise and blah-blah-blah, but frankly some of my earliest and most indelible memories of A New Hope on the big screen were very scary images – the first time you see Vader through the blaster smoke, the sound of his respirator, the sense that you always get as a child that something is very wrong with this guy but you can’t explain just what it is. He’s Jason Vorhees, basically. He’s bad. We’ve neutered Vader by making him such an icon over the last 30 years – he shows up in Night at the Museum 2, for crying out loud – and people forget how freakin’ scary he was back in 1977, throwing Force chokes and staring out of that black skull at you. And that’s not even covering the thing swimming around in the garbage compactor.”
In Death Troopers, the story of the virus’s origins remains mostly untold – a fact that will be redeemed in Joe’s next Star Wars novel. Naturally, he can’t talk much about the specifics of the novel right now, but he reveals that the novel is “a prequel dealing with the origins of the Blackwing virus”, that he hopes “it’ll be scary”, and that “like Death Troopers, it will have a blistering soundtrack that will probably get me in trouble with somebody, somewhere”.
Up until recently the book was listed as Black Orchid, but in late April Lucas Licensing representative Sue Rostoni announced on the StarWars.com message board that the title would be changed because to some people it sounded too much like a romance novel… “Romance? Well, why not?” jokes Joe. “I did horror the first time. Next maybe we’ll do a locked-room mystery.” Despite being the author, Joe doesn’t know what title the book will finally be published under. “Honestly, I’ll probably find out after you do,” he smiles. “That’s what happened with Death Troopers…I read about it on the internet first.”
After his trips into Star Wars and Supernatural fiction, another media property he would like to write a (horror) novel based on would be Batman, but for the time being writing will take the backseat. “I’ve got nothing pending,” Joe reveals when asked about upcoming projects. “I’ve deliberately left my summer open to work on my Halloween costume – I’m going as Bearsharktopus.”
So for now, his kids are the only people able to hear new stories by Joe Schreiber, but his fans can look forward to the release of the novel formerly known as Star Wars: Black Orchid in February 2011…
Death Troopers was released by Del Rey in October 2008. The Unholy Cause was released by Titan in April 2010.