What Screams May Come: Placerita by Lisa Morton and John Palisano

banner What Screams May Come by Rick Hipson

Placerita by Lisa Morton and John Palisano
Cemetery Dance (June 2024)

cover of PlaceritaThe Synopsis

It’s 1928, and something strange is afoot in the desert town of Placerita just north of Los Angeles. When young biologist Alexis Crawford discovers an unidentifiable specimen washed up in the wake of a devastating flood, it begins a journey that will reveal the dark conspiracies at the heart of California and the secret known only to a few: that beneath the City of Angels is an ancient world of tunnels lined in gold, a world that is home to the legendary Lizard People.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: Thanks so much to you both for doing this chat with me. And welcome back from StokerCon in San Diego! I can only imagine how freshly inspired and busy you both are. Care to summarize your recent StokerCon experience? (If summarizing something like that isn’t too cruel of a question to kick our chat off with…)

LISA MORTON: It was a wonderful experience! The late Rocky Wood and I were serving as (respectively) the Horror Writers Association’s president and vice president in 2014 when we started mulling over the idea of StokerCon, and it’s tremendously gratifying to see how far it’s come since our first one in 2016. I’m just sorry Rocky (who passed away in late 2014) didn’t get to see our dream come true.

JOHN PALISANO: There’s nothing like living inside the energy of so many wonderful creative people who share your passion. Horror has unified so many different types of folks and seeing that up close was nothing short of inspiring. San Diego was gorgeous, and we were blessed with an appropriately nice, grey overcast sky, but it wasn’t too cold or hot. There’s just never enough time and I can’t wait for next year’s convention.

Before we jump into Placerita, the upcoming novella you wrote together, how did the two of you first come to know each other?

LM: Through HWA. John volunteered to help at one of HWA’s Bram Stoker Awards Weekends (the events which eventually transmogrified into StokerCon) in Burbank, and I was instantly impressed with his willingness to jump right in. Not long after that he gave me some of his fiction to read, and it blew me away. 

JP: It was during an El Niño many years ago when I first met Lisa Morton. I sloshed my way into the original Iliad Bookshop when it was on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. I think I visited a few times before I had the nerve to introduce myself, being a new writer in Hollywood. Looking for my tribe, she mentioned there were others like us hiding in the shadows. The Iliad also had a huge map of Los Angeles under glass on their front desk. I remember her pointing out the original railroad system’s path to me … as well as the many secret tunnels burrowed under the city … rumored to be the dwelling of an underground race of lizard people.  

And what was it about each other that made you feel you would mesh so well as co-authors?

JP: We’ve worked on so many projects together over the years that this seemed like a natural fit. I’ve made book trailers for her books. We’ve worked on anthologies together. We worked side by side for ages in different capacities in the HWA, as well. I had the unenviable task of following her as President. We also share a deep passion and evangelism for historical Los Angeles and California history making Placerita something we both love.

LM: We both love going a little wild in our fiction, and at some point, we discovered we shared a mutual affection for local L.A. history and urban legends. 

Considering how well established you both you are at this point in your respective award-winning writing journey, what does having a co-pilot add to a project that you can’t get flying solo?

photo of author Ellen Datlow
Lisa Morton

LM: Well, aside from the fact that it’s a joy to work with a close friend, John brings his own unique voice to everything. I think my challenge in Placerita was to try to match and mesh with the Palisano style, and I do love a challenge!

JP: In this case, Lisa’s encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles history was vital. She brings those details as well as her excellent story and writing skills. These are things that may not be readily thought of or connected just by looking at research. You’d need to know story intimately, too, and how they could not only fit, but make the story even stronger.

Although I have enjoyed many great short stories penned by collaborative authors, it’s certainly more common to see two names attached to longer form fiction such as a novel. When the space you work in is so much more compact with not nearly as much room to develop your combined voices, how might working together on a short story compare to collaborating on a novel-length story? Any specific challenges or rewards to speak of that may differ from one over the other?

LM: First off, Placerita actually started as a short story (albeit a long one) that John and I decided to try for an anthology of collaborative fiction. Even in that shorter form, I don’t think we had any real challenges writing together — our styles and goals came together surprisingly well. The editor for that book liked the story very much and wanted to hold it for a later volume, but then this thing called the pandemic set in, and while I was stuck in lockdown looking for things to write, I thought about extending the piece out to a novella. When I asked John about that, he agreed and we had fun expanding it. The expansion allowed us to dig a little more into L.A.’s history, and it was really interesting to research people like William Mulholland, Aimee Semple McPherson, and notorious cult leader May Otis Blackburn. John and I would alternate chunks while writing the longer version, and then go back in and rewrite each other’s sections to bring it all together. 

JP: When we were writing Placerita, I don’t think we had a length in mind. In fact, there’s a lot more story after the novella ends if we ever choose to return there. We didn’t hit any speedbumps along the way. We passed drafts back and forth until we got to the end. It was easy in that regard. I’ve collaborated with others were it was much more of a process. Sometimes it doesn’t work. We were lucky here that it did pretty painlessly.

Being a sucker for totally judging a book by its cover, Lynne Hansen, whom I am a huge fan of, knocked it out of the park again for this one. Whose good idea was it to bring Lynne onboard, and what directions was she given in order to come up with this awesome cover?

JP: All due credit to Lisa! She mentioned Lynne and I freaked out. I didn’t think she’d be available or want to do it. I’m delighted she has.  I agree she delivered a perfect cover that feels like the story. The cover direction and inspiration was Lisa’s.

LISA: Who isn’t a Lynne Hansen fan? She’s amazing, and I think when Kevin Lucia (our first editor) asked us about cover artists, we both blurted out, “Lynne Hansen!” Placerita is set around the (real life) St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928, which sent a massive wall of water washing through the hills and canyons just north of Los Angeles and killed hundreds of people; in our story, not all of the remains found in the wake of the catastrophe are human, and a massive dark secret underlying Los Angeles is revealed. I think we found a few photos of the flood’s aftermath and sent those as reference, and Lynne took it from there. Here’s a funny thing that happened with that cover: after the cover was finished, John and I took a tour of the area where the dam had once stood (there’s nothing left of it now), and the surrounding landscape bore an uncanny resemblance to Lynne’s cover. She really nailed it!

As we dive deeper into Placerita, what can you tell us about this Californian town in your ’20s era creature feature noir and why your story had to be told there?

LISA: Well, there is technically no real town called Placerita, although there is a Placerita Canyon near where the St. Francis Dam was. I think John was the one who suggested that name for both the town and the story. The town in our novella is destroyed after the dam fails and the flood comes, so it sounded right to borrow a real place name and just apply it instead to a town.

JP: I fell in love with the word while driving back and forth through the area several years ago. There is a kind of nature reserve there, but no town. I’m sure it will be developed as one at some point. It served as a perfect setting because we could imagine the town as we needed. One big factor was not treading on the area and people who perished in the St. Francis Dam flood. We wanted to honor their resting place while also telling a story that could have taken place there. Placerita is also the town in my Try Not To Die In The Wild West book. It’s just set about 75 years before this story.

I love how you kept the story in the ’20s even though creative liberty would have let you off the hook with whichever timeline you chose. Can you talk about the idea of maintaining the 20’s timeline?

JP: That’s when the St. Francis Dam tragedy happened. We wanted to maintain the freshness of that event and what it unburied … before it became buried again.

LM: Let me just add this: I think it’s remarkable how forgotten the St. Francis Dam disaster is now. It’s technically one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, but somehow it’s been buried. Resurrecting its horrors was certainly a goal with our piece.

It’s interesting to consider why this terrible disaster has been buried all these years. Did your research offer any surprises or indicate why folks would want to just push such a disaster beneath the surface? Do you think you might ever revisit the St. Francis Dam disaster as a non-fiction project?

LM: I’ve also wondered why it seems so forgotten. I’m a lifelong Californian, and I’d never heard of it until a few years ago (whereas we’ve all heard of the San Francisco earthquake and fire). I can only guess that it’s because it happened in an area that, at the time, was still relatively rural and agricultural; it’s perhaps worth noting that around a third of the reported 431 deaths from the disaster were either those who worked in a nearby powerhouse or a work crew for the power company that was stationed a few miles away, unlike the city dwellers that seem to earn the bigger headlines. It’s not quite in my paranormal wheelhouse in terms of writing a non-fiction book, and there was one very good one that came out a few years ago (Floodpath by Jon Wilkman)…but there are reports of a few local hauntings that are supposedly flood victims, including one very disturbing one of a tree in which witnesses claim to see ghost infants.

Ghost infants? Yup, that’s an extra layer of creepy. I hope those ghosts are at least seen to be playing around the tree rather than any number of other unkind reasons they may have for sticking around in that spot.

LM: Y’know, I realize I didn’t specify that the reason people say they see ghost infants in a tree is because they were deposited there by the floodwaters. I keep meaning to go look at the tree, but I think it’s on private property.

Did either of you already have a working relationship with the dynamic era of the roaring ’20s, or did you dig deep into the history books, watch classic films and eavesdrop in back-alley speakeasies to get the vibe just right in your story?

photo of author John Palisano
John Palisano

JP: I’d been visiting the area for years. There’s so much amazing history if you take the time to look in the Santa Clarita Valley. I love the topography and being right on the edge of the desert. It’s gorgeous. It’s intimidating. It’s like being in another world.

LM: I did a fair amount of research on everything from the St. Francis Dam and William Mulholland’s relationship to it to Aimee Semple McPherson’s astonishing reach (she was really the first televangelist and the inventor of the mega-church). 

I love me a good urban myth, and few are riper for further examination than the Lizard People. What for you, Lisa and John, made The Lizard People the perfect creature for your feature and what is it about this myth that keeps it in constant rotation to this day?

LM: I first heard this urban legend around twenty years ago, when (I swear I’m not making this up!) it appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Public Library’s website, with a note about how the downtown branch was rumored to have a door to the secret underground world of the Lizard People. From there I dug into the insane story of G. Warren Shufelt, an engineer and probable con-man who apparently rooked the city of L.A. out of a great deal of money in 1934 when he got it to invest in his crazy invention that he said would detect the gold tunnels of the Lizard People beneath the city’s streets. Of course when it didn’t pan out Shufelt took off with the city’s money. I think that combination of mythology, conspiracy and greed makes it a compelling story that just refuses to die.

JP: The idea that there’s a lost race of beings is fascinating to most of us, especially if they’re intelligent and have their own culture. Irresistible. And that they may be just out of sight or under our feet? Even more so. It doesn’t seem that implausible, either. There’ve been many lost tribes so why not one in the vast west? If you’ve ever been out to the huge areas, it’s easy to imagine that such things could exist with little to no notice, too.

I imagine it must be a challenge to use such a familiar legend and somehow make it fresh and interesting. Is there any truth to that? I’m curious if that took any added focus during the writing.

LM: I’m actually amazed that more fiction writers haven’t made use of Shufelt and the Lizard People! I think for Placerita, it all clicked into place when we came up with the idea of combining the real dam disaster with the myth of the Lizard People.

JP: One of the reasons we wanted to explore this is because we hadn’t seen anything about Los Angeles’s lizard people that was more than an entry or a goof. We wanted to take it seriously and really explore the mythology.

Since this book weighs in a crisp 60 pages, you clearly had to ensure ever word and line counted. Was there much outlining, or brainstorming before you both sat down to flesh it all out? I would love to hear whatever process you used to create this joint tale of terror.

JP: I hate to say it, but some of the earliest conversations are very hazy. I recall a few emails or chats tossing the idea around. From there? I think I may have written a page or two, sent it to Lisa, she added to it and sent it back. I recall it being built that way, but this was seven years back at this point, so forgive me if I’ve got any of that wrong.

LM: I don’t recall doing a lot of outlining. I think we talked about it over a few lunches, and then John actually got the ball rolling by writing the first few pages. From there we just kind of traded it back and forth.

John, there’s something I’m curious about regarding your debut novel, Nerves. Considering you’ve written a few stand-alone novels since you first published Nerves with Bad Moon Books, I understand you’re working on its sequel. What brought you to writing a follow up to Nerves after all these years? And, if I may add to that, what can you tell us about the sequel and at which stage in the completion process is it as of this conversation?

JP: The sequel to Nerves was already in progress when the first one was published. Soon thereafter, Bad Moon slowed down as Roy pivoted to becoming a pastor. Searching for a publisher to put out a second book in a series for a book they didn’t publish didn’t fly, so I wrote new works for Samhain specifically for that company. The world of Nerves was planned out as a trilogy which I’d still love to complete, if only for myself. I’ve got two-thirds of the second book written. The characters in that world still speak to me constantly, as they have since they’ve made themselves known so long ago.  Which reminds me: I’m overdue to open that up and get working on it again. 

Likewise, for you, Lisa, what might you be working on now or otherwise have in the works you are most excited about?

LM: As I write this, I’ve just handed my agent a new novel — it’s my first full novel in ten years, so we’ll see what happens (and I’d be lying if I said I’m completely cool and collected as I await my agent’s response). I’m also mulling over a new non-fiction book, but I’m waiting to see what happens with the novel before I dive into anything else big.

And, I feel I would be remiss to chat with you and not ask about any recent hauntings you may have had the pleasure of exploring or investigating?

LM: While in San Diego for StokerCon I toured the Whaley House, which bills itself as “America’s Most Haunted House.” It’s interesting because the house, which is located in San Diego’s historic Old Town district, is both smaller and more modernized than many haunted locations, so when you’re touring it it’s almost slightly disappointing — it just doesn’t have that old spooky, rusty, moldy sense that most haunted venues have. But when I got home and looked at all the photos I shot inside the house (I used both my phone and a digital camera), there was one photo that is filled with what I can only describe as a swirling black mass, so suddenly the Whaley House got a lot more interesting!

Hopefully, Lisa, the mescal you snagged when in Old Tequila Town didn’t result in an evil purge like that poor guy in Poltergeist?

LM: I can only say that the mescal (small-brew, artisanal) is delicious and purge-free!

I would love if you both could share what you’re reading now and what you think of it?

JP: I’ve been reading through Leigh Bardugo’s wonderful Ninth House series and loving them. Also, quite enjoying T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea and their other works. Lots of dark imagination at play which I find irresistible.

LM: I just finished reading an advance copy of Sarah Read’s forthcoming novel The Atropine Tree, and it was fantastic — beautifully researched and written, evocative and full of dread. Up next is the sequel to my all-time favorite graphic novel, Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

Finally, guys, are there any final words of wisdom or caution readers ought to know about before they go back in time to meet your Lizard People?

LISA: Just know that much of our story really happened! I’ll leave it to you to figure out which parts are real and which John and I created. 

JP: More than anything, I hope readers go along for the journey with our kickass heroine, Alexis Crawford. She’s way ahead of her time and here’s hoping we get more stories from her down the road a bit.

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