Douglas Wynne is a horror and dark fantasy fiction writer. He is also a musician and martial artist. His latest novel, Steel Breeze, was released in July 2013.
Douglas met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about Samurai Culture and gun Culture.
Tell us about your new book.
Steel Breeze is a high-tension crime thriller about Desmond Carmichael, a novelist and single father who lost his wife to a brutal murder in a small New England town. One year later he has reason to believe that the wrong man was convicted of the crime and that someone is stalking him and his four-year-old son. He receives cryptic messages in the form of origami and haiku, which point toward a serial killer obsessed with samurai culture. But not only is Desmond up against a killer, he’s also struggling to maintain custody of his son. His in-laws and a local police detective think he’s delusional at best, and possibly even guilty of his wife’s murder.
How have you used Samurai culture in the novel?
The idea for the book grew out of my interest in martial arts and in particular my study of Iaido, the Japanese sword art. I thought it would be cool to write a villain who’s essentially a modern day samurai serial killer with a lethal skill set and a highly refined level of perception. That premise led to questions about his origins and backstory and ultimately brought some Zen philosophical elements into the story, as well as some World War II history. There are a lot of details about the ceremonial aspects of samurai sword culture woven into the plot, and I even ended up learning how to fold origami butterflies for the bookstore events, so that was fun.
To what extent do you think the ritualistic behaviour of the serial killer in Steel Breeze is prevalent in serial killers generally?
That’s a good question. My understanding is that it’s not as common as most fiction and film would suggest. But one interesting thing I found in my research was that there is a subset of mass murderers who identify themselves with a certain ideology, and then use the trappings of that ideology to create an identity that makes them feel like heroes in their own narrative. Elliot Leyton’s book Hunting Humans touches on this, and he suggests that these killers are kidding themselves, that their motives are ultimately more personal than political. The D.C. Snipers are a good example, where both Islam and a regimen of Taoist sexual and dietary rules figured into the killers’ missionary lifestyle. I took that case as one model for my bad guys, who are also a young apprentice and his manipulative mentor.
If conditioning may be a clue to the serial killer’s identity in your novel and his honour as a Samurai may be twisted by his pathology in either an alien culture or within itself, what do you make of the great Japanese author Yukio Mishima’s legacy? His work displayed a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death, and political change. He is also remembered for his ritual suicide by seppuku after a failed coup d’etat and he famously said “We live in an age where there is no heroic death.”
I haven’t read Mishima yet, but it seems like he was a uniquely Japanese kind of Renaissance man: actor, poet, novelist, martial artist, dissident, all-around hardcore motherfucker. Since I can’t speak to his work in an informed way, I’ll just mention that when I found out about him during the research for Steel Breeze I was horrified to learn how his ritual suicide went wrong. The assistant who was supposed to decapitate him repeatedly failed to make a clean cut and had to call in a third man to finish the both of them. Yeesh!
As for there being no heroic death in our age, I’ll have to get the context, but I disagree. I think any self-sacrificing death for the sake of another is heroic. But it seems like he was lamenting the fact that you could no longer die for an emperor or lord, and in demilitarized Japan you couldn’t even die for your country. Mishima had some of the same impulses as my villain, but he also had plenty of artistic outlets and ended up only doing violence to himself. Serial killers, on the other hand, are usually frustrated and taking it out on a social group that they feel has done them wrong. Hitler was a failed painter, right? Mishima also wrote, “Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.” And that could easily be an epigram for my killer.
Oh, also, he and I have the same birthday on January 14th!
Do you think serial killers should be given the death penalty or incarcerated and studied?
I’m a Buddhist, so I’m against the death penalty. I do believe in trying to learn from even the most monstrous people in order to better understand the causes and conditions that bring about evil.
In the US, pro-lifers have argued against government funding for clinics that provide abortions because it makes all tax payers complicit in something that violates the ethics of many. I can understand that because I feel the same way about the death penalty and drone strikes against civilians. At least capital punishment is decided on a state-by-state basis in the US. I think when the message you send society is that we all need to get blood on our hands to battle evil, you just perpetuate cycles of violence and learn nothing. But it’s hard to not be emotional about these things. A few weeks ago we saw the arrest of a man in Florida who had been planning to kill and eat a child. My first reaction as a father was, “Put him down.” And that’s someone who hasn’t even acted on his sick impulses. Of course, lawmakers are supposed to rise above mob impulses.
What are your views on gun culture in the US?
Gun culture, huh? I get the feeling I’m about to loose a few Facebook followers. In Steel Breeze the murders are committed with swords and the guns don’t make much difference but that’s fiction. I own a few swords for martial arts training, and I suppose they could be defined as “arms” protected by the 2nd Amendment, but my feelings about the sword are summed up by Obi-Wan Kenobi: Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
I think it’s telling that in our culture it’s taboo to show sex on TV, but not murder. It says something about our values, and about what we really fear. We wouldn’t dream of letting kids have dildo toys (and my God, I’m not suggesting it!) but gun toys are everywhere. That which gives life must be hidden, but that which takes it away is fetishized.
We’ve always fetishized objects that make us feel powerful: fast cars, loud guitars, motorcycles, and certainly guns. But guns are different because they’re designed for the sole purpose of killing, and yet the subculture surrounding gun ownership has become a form of entertainment unto itself in addition to all the fake guns that pervade movies, TV, and video games. Meanwhile guns have become industrialized. More sold per year, more shots per second. And as long as you have easily obtainable mass produced weapons of mass murder being flashed at the public in sexy media from all sides, it’s naive to think you won’t continue to see pervasive gun violence in America that exceeds all other countries, including many war zones.
Does it make me a radical liberal if I don’t like the fact that I’m no better off sending my kid to school in a suburban American neighbourhood than I would be shipping him off to Somalia for an education?
My views on this are as moderate as those of most Americans. I support the 2nd Amendment. I support the right to self-defense. I don’t think we need to take all of the guns away. But assault weapons have no place in civil society. They empower any psycho with no training whatsoever to snuff out dozens of innocent lives in a matter of seconds before anything can be done about it. No civilian needs that kind of firepower.
The only quasi-rational argument I’ve heard for it is that the founders wanted to ensure that the people could stand against a tyrannical government in a second revolution. I understand the concern that our government could go totalitarian, but the Military Industrial Complex Eisenhower warned us about is now so pumped up on steroids that it’s way too late to outgun the government. That ship has sailed. And yet it seems like the same people who always want the United States to have the world’s biggest military budget are ironically the ones who also want to prepare for their own little Alamo against the government. They want to “support the troops” while also stockpiling weapons for a showdown against the troops? Well, I’ve got news for you: Your AR-15 won’t help you in that scenario because they’ll target your house with a Hellfire missile from a drone five miles out. Your money is better spent on books about Gandhi. There are other ways to take down empires.
So if the reason I need to accept machine guns in my neighborhood is because some tea bagger has the paranoid fantasy that he’s going to need them for the apocalypse, then you know what? Fuck that guy. Not good enough. If your highest concern is being armed to the teeth when civilization falls, then you are not part of the conversation about preserving a civilized society.
Do you think the technologised age we live in creates paranoia?
Technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to paranoia (haha, I’m determined to mention swords in every answer). On the one side you have exposure to every spectacular tragedy within minutes, which gives us all a sense that the world is a more dangerous place. When I was a kid, we didn’t have 24-hour news networks, and you didn’t hear about every child abduction in the country. These days parents are afraid to let kids walk to the school bus. On the other side you have more information about other cultures and a heightened awareness of the basic humanity of people who are different from you, which seems to be eroding racism, nationalism, and homophobia, and creating a greater sense of interconnectivity, a sense that we’re all in this together. Whether or not immersion in technology makes you paranoid probably has more to do with your personality going in. Oddly, we don’t seem to be paranoid enough about all of the data mining and surveillance because we keep on voluntarily sharing our info. We seem to be addicted to connection, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
How hard to you think it is for the Western mind to understand the concept of Buddhist dualism?
If we’re talking about how Zen techniques are supposed to result in a kind of direct perception that transcends dualistic subject/object experience, then I think that’s difficult to grasp for anyone, regardless of culture, because it’s an experiential thing cultivated through a practice that goes beyond concepts. They express it as “not one, not two,” and it contradicts your everyday view of the world no matter who you are. But I’m just a student of these ideas, and I sure haven’t attained it…except maybe once on acid. Maybe.
Or are you talking about mind/body dualism and where Buddhist philosophy differs from, say, Descartes? I’m not that well read on the western version of the problem and I’m not sure if I understand all the terms, but it seems like Descartes arrived at something similar to Buddhist thinkers when he decided that mind and body are of two entirely different natures. For him this was a sort of proof that the mind could exist without the body, but he had trouble explaining their interface. I guess he was trying to prove that an afterlife must exist if the mind (soul) doesn’t arise from the body and is independent of it.
In Buddhism there’s a similar argument, but they don’t bring God into it. Instead they posit a beginningless cosmos and argue that a moment of consciousness can only arise from a previous moment of consciousness and therefore a continuity of consciousness must exist that precedes your birth and can be traced back to previous incarnations.
I think both are hard to understand! And I think consciousness research is a frontier that science is about to have a lot of fun with.
Does your killer know what the sound of one hand clapping is?
No. He’s very unenlightened.
What are you working on now?
Well my first book dabbled in supernatural horror, and my second is a straight up crime thriller, so now I’m doing full-on cosmic horror with a Lovecraft influenced book. But I think what you don’t do in a book is at least as important as what you do, so I have a list of Lovecraftian tropes that I’m determined to avoid at all costs. So far I’m having fun with it.
Thank you Douglas for an insightful and great interview.
Steel Breeze trailer direct link