John Urbancik has kept the ink flowing across the blurred lines of dark fantasy and horror with well over twenty books to date and counting. His rich style invokes a strong sense of cautious wonder even as you fear what lurks beyond the next page. From a book of poems and stunning photography (John The Revelator) to his non-fic book on the inner workings of his craft (InkStained: On Creativity, Writing And Art) to the recent release of the apocalyptic tale of terror he co-wrote with Brian Keene (Nemesai), Urbancik’s craft is limitless in its boundaries.
Included in Urbanick’s body of work is a six volume DarkWalker series which kicked off in 2010 with DarkWalker (re-titled as DarkWalker: Hunting Grounds when re-published in 2017). The series follows the journey of Jack Harlow, a man who’s been kissed by a ghost and gifted the ability to walk among creatures of the night, untouched, absorbing the powers of each entity encountered. Barely understanding his own capabilities, Jack traverses through hell to save his soulmate before fighting every being imaginable within unimaginable realms until he encounters The DarkCrawler. The evil force is more powerful than anything Jack has faced and threatens to destroy everything he ever cared about. It’s this poignant series that brought Urbancik and I together for the conversation you’re about to read.
December 15th marked the paperback release of the sixth and final book in the series, DarkWalker: Other Realms. The series finale also caps off a particularly daunting odyssey in the author’s own life. After Urbancik’s partner of twenty years, Mary Lescher (who worked in the animation department on such iconic films as Aladdin, The Lion King and Klaus), passed away in June of 2019 after a battle with cancer. After her passing, Urbanick relocated from Madrid, Spain, and returned to the United States. There, he drove across the country with his grief in search of whichever path he was meant to travel next until being brought to a halt at the start of our global pandemic. This interview captures not only the completion of the author’s long running DarkWalker series through which the author poured his every hurt, hope and suffering into, but also captures the state of John Urbancik the writer, the photographer, and the driving force of the man himself. This is what he had to say.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: To start with John, I understand when you first sat down to pen the DarkWalker series, the intention of making it anything but a one-off novel didn’t come until after you finished the first book. Can you elaborate on this for us, please? I’d love to know at which point your DarkWalker, Jack Harlow demanded more from you (or you from him)
JOHN URBANCIK: After writing the first book, I submitted it to a couple of places without success. Then a friend of mine, author Mike Oliveri, got a deal with EvilEye Publications that involved a multi-book series. That’s what they were looking for. I re-examined what I had done with the first DarkWalker, because I’d written it in a way that a sequel was possible and realized that a follow-up was practically required.
And what was the catalyst that sparked Jack Harlow’s existence into being with the first draft of book one in 2003?
JU: Jack Harlow started as a concept — the DarkWalker — before he even had a name. My partner at the time, Mary, called me a nightwalker, which is already a thing but not what she’d intended. I had been joking about being able to walk through the night untouched. I adopted the name to something else, realized it needed to be a person, and actually put a lot of work into coming up with a name that would be perfect for the character. I can’t remember any of the other variations I tried, which suggests to me I may have gotten that right.
Considering you wrote book one in 2003, the second in 2010, three and four in 2017 with the last two in 2020, did you find the general process and experience of writing the first two to be much different compared to the last two pairs of books you wrote?
I have evolved as a writer and storyteller over time. The first book was meant to be a one-off leaving room for a sequel. The second was that sequel, and meant to kick off the series. It would have been very different if I’d continued from then. The break after book 2 gave me time to grow and develop, both as a person and as a writer. That growth, I think, is evident in the way I approached the third and fourth books. The last two were delayed when Mary died, unexpectedly, of cancer, and her death definitely colored the rest of the series. I knew how the series as a whole would end before I started writing book 2, but I did not know that books 5 and 6 would deal so intimately with death.
I really enjoyed the eb and flow of the ongoing series. Book one was all about getting introduced to Jack and had a very loose feeling to it and came across as if not even you might know what was going to happen from one passage to the next. It felt like a story of discovery in the purest sense. Book three, by contrast, felt the most focused of the series plot-wise, with a definitive goal set early on in the book. Book five was the most brutal and seemed like you had a real score to settle and Jack was the button man for the wrath and vengeance you needed to purge from your system, or at least that’s how it came across. The final book six didn’t go much easier, but certainly knew where it was headed and how it was going to wrap up the entire series.
Is it fair to say that each book was deeply affected by your own personal views and tribulations at the time you sat down to write each of them? In other words, do the unfolding events of the series correlate with how events unfolded in your own life?
I have always approached writing as an adventure and a process of discovery. I didn’t necessarily know where I was going from one chapter or even paragraph to the next, but even with the first book I knew how it would most likely end. I don’t always know how I’ll get there. Book three was the most intimate of them, in sense of setting, because unlike the broad “anywhere in the city” of book one and “any variation of hell” in book two, book three was very specifically a mine, and only that mine. I just kept finding it went deeper and deeper as we went. Book five was maybe brutal, and maybe more brutal than I originally intended — it was definitely affected by my recent life experiences, the loss of Mary, the loneliness that followed, then the isolation of the pandemic — and in some ways, it didn’t go as I expected it to. But it also ended exactly where I knew it would. So all of the books were impacted by my real life, as if it could be any other way.
Following along on social media about your own odyssey of the past year or so, I couldn’t help but draw a correlation between your journey and that of Jack’s The writing came across as if it may have held some important roads of discovery for yourself. Is that a fair statement of me to make and, if so, care to elaborate on how you might have used Jack to discover or reconcile anything of importance in your life’s journey?
In a very real way, I presented Jack with all the harsh realities I was dealing with in my own life, the good and the bad, the strange and bizarre and mundane. Because Jack is, of all my characters, possibly closest to who I am — which I guess sounds like I might have a god-complex, considering how powerful he is. But as he grows, in strength and in character, so too do the challenges he faces grow to meet him. So in a way, Jack fails in a lot of the same ways I, personally, have failed. And he suffers the same kinds of losses I’ve suffered. And yet he manages to get through them all, at least until he faces something bigger than himself — which is probably the most important of all the lessons he learned.
It seems Jack Harlow, et al have been with you for such a long time that I can only imagine the mixed bag of bittersweet emotions you must be experiencing with finally putting the series behind you. Can you walk us through how it felt to wrap up this leg of your creative journey and what it meant for you to write “FIN” after the completion of the last entry?
I put END at the bottom of the sixth manuscript, called one of my closest friends, and cried. Literally. Not making it up. I didn’t realize there was so much emotion tied up in it. But it was also the emotion of losing my partner of over 20 years to cancer. She had been instrumental at the start of the first draft of the first book. She saw the publication of the first novel and even did the art on the cover for the revised versions that started coming out in 2017/18. I was overwhelmed with the lack of her presence, then, because she never got to see me reach the end of that project we began together. Jack has been with me almost as long as Mary was. Finishing the last book of this series almost broke me, but it also gave me the strength to pull myself back together.
One of the interesting aspects of the grueling nature of your DarkWalker, of which there are many, is how it seemed every new strength and abilities Jack Harlow absorbs along the way seems to come at the cost of greater vulnerability in one form or another. How aware of this element were you during the writing process, and how cathartic was it for you personally to watch Jack navigate in such a balanced, albeit ruthless, way?
The original intention was for Jack Harlow to become a god. A god of mischief, which probably even makes sense to people who have read the series. But as he learned and grew, he also discovered his own weaknesses, the worst of them being when he faces losing his own humanity — something that begins relatively early but is strongly illustrated in book 4 when he summarily executes a man who is, essentially, his prisoner. A great aspect of his vulnerability is the fact that he doesn’t want to become what he’s becoming, and in a very real way he fails to prevent it. So how do you live with becoming who you never wanted to be? How do you adapt, and how do you atone for the mistakes you’ve made? Also, the stronger he became, the most dangerous his adversaries.
I once jokingly said the stakes had to be raised in every book. In book one, we meet Jack Harlow. In book two, he goes to hell. In book three, he goes to Virginia…I should probably point out that I lived in Virginia for about a year, and that was the year I wrote books 3 and 4.
As much as you infuse a generous dose of supernatural into the dark and wondrous world of Jack Harlow, I found the more spiritual aspects of your story-telling to ramp up in the final two books. Did the spiritual content, such as the astral threads which you describe as connecting your DarkWalker to others in his world, require some extra research or has this always been a topic of fascination for you?
The spiritual and the supernatural are intricately linked in my experience, background, and knowledge. That the story evolved from the straight-forward horror of the first to something that was firmly rooted in dark fantasy by the end, is probably a result of my personal spiritual journey, wherein I see more of the things the connect us now than I could have in my 20s (when I began the first novel).
At which point did you know how it would all end for Jack Harlow, Dark Walker, assuming it hadn’t snuck up on you at the last moment?
I knew the end of books 5 and 6 somewhere early in the writing of book 2, though I didn’t know they were books 5 and 6 — then, it was just the final two books, because at the time I was planning out a 10 book series. I’m glad it escalated to something shorter, because I think that made it a stronger, more focused story. Other books in between would’ve just been Jack Harlow and the Magic Golden Arrow or some other strange sort of filler.
With so many standout characters living inside the DarkWalker books, each with their own unique strengths and abilities, did you keep any notes or outlines so you’d have something to refer to for continuity sake?
I take a lot of notes as I write. I used to be a professional Forms Designer and designed character sheets, based a lot on what might be used in Dungeons & Dragons, back in the mid-’90s. I no longer have the software to update those sheets, but I still use them, and adapt them to my needs at the time. I also have folders (currently in storage) for all my projects, including DarkWalker, and I have notepads that are project specific.
Having spent so much time in Jack’s head, and he and all his world in yours, do you think we’ll come across your DarkWalker again in your future work, or is it on to the next one for you?
I like to think Jack Harlow has earned his fate, and we are unlikely to see him again. That doesn’t mean other characters from that world won’t ever be seen. Although it’s not very obvious, there are links to at least three, maybe even five, of my other works, meaning a crossover isn’t impossible.
Do you see yourself releasing any other series in the foreseeable future?
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to reimagining the series I had intended to start with Once Upon a Time in Midnight, centered around Midnight, the City of Night.
What are you currently working on now? Any big publishing plans for the next little while?
There’s so much going on right now, I’m bound to lose track. The novella Echo will be released by Eraserhead Press sometime in the near future; Nemesai, co-written with Brian Keene, will have its limited edition released by Thunderstorm possibly before the end of 2020 and its paperback and electronic versions shortly after that; Clockwork Ravens has just been announced by Bedlam Books, an imprint of Necro Publications, for a May 2021 release; and my first Russian language novel, a translation of Stale Reality, is probably coming sometime this winter. I’m probably forgetting things, and there’s always a chance for something more to come out.
And finally, what’s the best way folks can keep tabs on the flow of your pen and any other important writing updates you have?
I have a weekly newsletter. The signup form is on my website, darkfluidity.com.