What Screams May Come: Scott Cole’s HEADLESS

banner What Screams May Come by Rick Hipson

Headless by Scott Cole
Grindhouse Press (March 5, 2024)

cover of HeadlessThe Synopsis:

In the midst of a heat wave punctuated by frequent rainstorms, people are losing their heads. Literally. Not only that, but their bodies are still walking, and attacking others.

And to make matters worse, tiny, translucent, maggot-sized worms are falling from the skies like hail.

As uncanny violence threatens to take over the city, Linzy, Carter, and Joanna become fast friends and leave for points unknown, hoping to stay alive, hoping to outrun the Headless.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: Keeping in mind your other books, Crazytimes, SuperGhost and Triple Axe as well as your short story collections, if one is to go off the synopsis alone, I think it’s safe to assume Headless is another fine addition to your bat shit crazy repertoire of gore-soaked glee. I mean, headless animated mutated corpses anyone? (Yes, please!) Scott, where were you when this idea came to you, and what got you most excited to sit down and bang this bizarro world out for us readers to enjoy?

SCOTT COLE: “Bat shit crazy repertoire” has a nice ring to it. I mean, I do what I can…

With Headless, I decided I wanted to write something a little bloodier than my previous work. At the same time, I was itching to write something a bit longer again, after working on a slew of short stories. And just like that, the image of a man without a head continuing to walk came to me. I think I was lying in bed one night, trying to fall asleep. Next thing I knew, the first chapter completely congealed in my brain, and I knew it was a hell of a way to kick off a book. I definitely did not fall asleep quickly that night.

When I read the description for this one, my first thought was zombies? Cool! Except zombies typically have heads as decayed as they might be, which comes in handy for brain munching. Which begs the question — which I hope can be answered without running any surprises — what do your mutant corpses crave, and how the heck do they go about getting it?

Not to be the I-was-into-zombies-before-zombies-were-cool guy, but…yeah, I was totally into zombies from a very early age. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Zombie changed my life. I still have the paperback copy of Skipp & Spector’s Book of the Dead I bought off the shelf when it first came out. I even remember watching the premiere of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video on MTV. So to answer your question, yes, I’m old.

Oh wait. That wasn’t your question at all!

Anyway, I’ve always loved zombies. But Headless is definitely not a zombie story – at least not in the classic Romero sense. I’m sure people will see a connection there, and I’m sure my fascination with that particular sort of monster informed the story, but there’s a different trope at play in the book, which people will just have to read to discover. And it’s not so much what the corpses crave… So I’ll just leave it at that before we tread too deep into spoiler territory.

As someone who’s been caught in more than a few early winter rain showers, I can attest how the biting cold rain has a way to seep inside a person. But, of course, things go to a whole new level in Headless where it rains worms. How fun is it for you to cross pollinate the horrors beyond our world with the world we’re stuck in, and do we at least get to find out where those worms come from?

Certain things are explained, yes.

As I got into fleshing out what the story was, I realized it was good way to combine a splatterpunk idea with some cosmic horror, those being two of my favorite modes of horror. And it was a blast. It’s fun, and scary, writing about things that feel threatening, things that are beyond our control, things we can’t even fully comprehend. But I suppose that’s why some of us do write about such things. To cope with uncertainty. To have some sense of control when things seem out of hand.

To keep the intensity as high octane as possible, is it fair to assume you tend to throw down your first drafts as quickly as possible in as few sessions as you can?

I do write my first drafts quickly — at least with the novellas I’ve written so far. Short stories, on the other hand, can vary from a single sitting to several years’ worth of seemingly endless tweaking. But yeah, for my longer works, the first draft comes out fast — not necessarily by design so much as it’s just the way it happens — but I agree that it probably doesn’t hurt in keeping the energy up. I always outline my novellas and have all the major beats worked out, then I set off down the road and see where it leads — which can sometimes be surprising. I’ve knocked out each of these first drafts in about two weeks — but of course then there are many more weeks of edits, revisions, additions, and so on.

As a talented artist and graphic designer, I’m surprised your artwork isn’t spread out though your books beyond the cover and interior design to go along with the various scenes of mayhem. Is this done intentionally, maybe to separate the two art forms?

I guess I do tend to keep the words and images separate. They’re very different processes for me, so when I’m not feeling one, I work on the other. They’re both creative endeavors, of course, but for me, they’re like different paths from an intersection.

While I really enjoy doing my own covers and designing promo materials to go along with them, I’ve never felt a strong urge to illustrate any of my stories beyond that. A single image for the cover and some little design elements inside feel like enough for me.

One thing I like about the written word is that it evokes imagery in a reader’s head, and those images are going to vary from one person to the next. So, I think there’s a part of me that wants to let that breathe a bit, and not force a definitive visual upon someone. Even though I do my own covers, the art leans toward the more cryptic end of the spectrum. Obviously, I have an idea in my mind about how something would look in “my” story, but I’m happy to have those images interpreted a little differently in someone else’s head.

To sort of piggyback off the idea of balancing your art and your words, when a story starts to bake in your brain, does it generally come by way of images that form a story later or, or something else?

Ideas come to me constantly — sometimes because I’m trying to figure out a way to tell a particular story, or twist a trope I’m interested in writing about, but more often than not, they just come to me randomly. And yeah, it’s usually in the form of images. Pretty often, there’s a story, whether its fully formed or just the germ of an idea, baked right into the image my mind has conjured up. These visuals aren’t always the starting point, but they probably are 80-90% of the time. The other portion usually comes from overhearing (and sometimes mishearing) bits of conversation in public or just playing with words or concepts and combining them in unusual ways.

Do you think we might ever get to see a book in which your story or stories and your art get to co-exist in a single publication as a way to complement each other?

Anything’s possible! I mean, it’s not something I’ve put a ton of thought into, honestly. Once I finish writing (and revising and editing) a story, I feel somewhat removed from it, almost like I’ve gotten it out of my system and it’s time to move on to something else. So the idea of digging back into whatever world any given story is doesn’t appeal to me so much. But maybe I’ll U-turn my thoughts on the matter someday. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and decide I only want to write stories in a shared universe with fully detailed schematics of every piece of technology, cross sections of the flora, and photo-realistic portraits of every character. I seriously doubt it, but who knows. Never say never!

To date, you’ve kept your books and collections (Slices, Departures) lean and mean at under a couple hundred pages. At this stage in the game, do you have plans for anything closer to full novel length and, if so, how do you think that might change your approach and overall writing process?

Headless is my longest book yet, just a few thousand words shy of technically crossing the threshold into novel territory. But will I ever write a full-length, full-fledged novel? Who knows! Short stories were always my first love in fiction, as a reader and then as a writer, and that hasn’t changed. But there’s something special about a novella too, and I think that length is well suited to the horror genre when things need to be expanded upon in order to tell the story.

Personally, I love shorter books. Give me a 150-200 page paperback, be it a short novel or a collection, and I’m happy. Nothing ever overstays its welcome at that length, and everything feels more exciting.

Not that I’m completely opposed to full novels, of course. I enjoy them too. But once a book goes beyond about 400 pages, my interest level tends to drop off a cliff, except with a handful of authors. I watch way more movies than series too.

So, it’s possible I’ll write a novel one day. But I can tell you I’ll never write an epic. Nothing against any writers or readers who are into that sort of thing, but the idea of just reading a 700-800 page novel turns my stomach, let alone writing one. I’d rather tear off all my own fingers. And imagine how difficult those last few would be!

Considering the tight sandbox you give your stories to take place in, what can you share of your writing process as far as if you outline, select from a trunk full of notes, sit down to type at specific intervals, or anything else you wish to share about how you get it all done?

photo of Scott Cole
Scott Cole

I do have an obscene amount of notes and story ideas. Far, far more than I’ll ever be able to flesh out in my lifetime. Sometimes an idea will come to me and I have to start writing it immediately. Other times it just gets added to the heap. If I ever find myself stuck for an idea, I’ll read through some of my notes and invariably five new ideas will be sparked, or, sometimes, I’ll realize that two or three previous ones would combine nicely with each other. That’s actually how most of my novellas have come together.

As far as process goes, it’s pretty rare for me to outline a short story. I’ll have some idea in my head about where things are going, but I don’t feel the need the draw a map first.

My novellas are a completely different thing, though. I have to outline those. They wouldn’t get written otherwise. Not that I don’t find strange pathways to explore off the main road, but I definitely can’t “pants” it with the longer stuff — at least not thus far. Maybe I’ll get to that point someday.

With those longer works, I generally figure out what the main trajectory of the story is, and what certain beats are, and I start breaking it out chapter by chapter, deciding where I’m going to interrupt the flow of one character’s story and switch to another’s, and so on. Once I have that figured out, or at least something that feels close enough, it’s time to write. And I treat the outline as a guide. I’m not super rigid about it; I always stray from it to some extent.

In terms of routine, I don’t really have one — at least not one that I stick to day after day. If I did, I’d probably be more prolific! But I do what I can, when I can. Like a lot of folks, I have to fit the writing around other work and life demands. When I’m in the process of writing a longer piece, though, I do tend to cast other things aside as much as possible to focus on it, starting at the same time each day and going until I simply can’t do any more. But most days it’s about squeezing in as many words as I can around working on a cover for someone else, or laying out a book for a publisher, or whatever else needs to be done so bills get paid and there are clean clothes to wear. Some days I don’t write at all. And that’s fine. Some writers will have you believe that if you’re not writing every day, you’re not doing it right, and that’s simply not true. Granted, none of my titles are moving in NYT Best Seller List quantities, so maybe don’t listen to me either.

I love how you mention getting the beats of your story right. I’ve heard other authors mention this as well, as though their story truly is like an orchestrated symphony that will only work if the peaks and lulls are timed perfectly and in unison.

For those who may not be so familiar with considering a good story as the product of beats and notes, how do you describe such a thing? How do you know when you’ve got it right?

Writing a story, to me, is kind of like solving a puzzle — or maybe more like using one half of your brain to solve a puzzle while the other half is inventing it at the same time. You’ve got a plot you want to carry forward, various characters who might react to events in different ways, scenery to describe, and so on. You need to think about things from numerous perspectives within the story and also think about how the actual telling of that story is going to be perceived by a reader. It’s a lot of moving parts all at once, and they have to be arranged in a way that’s going to make sense to someone you’ve never even met.

And you also have to do this while making the damn thing fun, or at least interesting, to read. So there’s this whole other layer, which I always liken to music. The words you’re putting down need to have some sense of rhythm and harmony. It all has to flow.

But how do you know when you’ve got it right? One possible answer to that question is: Never! Occasionally I’ll re-read stories I wrote years ago, and I’ll always find things that could be improved, or made more clear, or more descriptive. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t know if there’s a concrete way to determine that something is finished. For me, it’s just a sense, like a nagging feeling that’s finally evaporated. There’s that old quote that says a work of art is never completed, only abandoned. So you just have to make it the best it can be, then send it off and cross your fingers that you did an okay job.

Let’s face it, you could easily keep your work solely focused on the shock and awe splattered across your pages, yet you also don’t hesitate to throw a little humor into the gore mix. What are your thoughts on the way humor and horror often go so well together, if done right?

“If done right” are the key words here. Combining horror and comedy can be a tough thing to do. And I think more often than not, it actually doesn’t work — at least not for my sensibilities. But that’s a matter of opinion, I guess. I can be picky when it comes to comedy. You might be doubled over, tears in your eyes, at something that doesn’t even get me to crack a smile, and vice versa. Pretty often my wife and I will be watching something and the most understated line of dialogue will send me over the edge, laughing so hard I can hardly breathe.

Shaun of the Dead (zombies again!) and Evil Dead II are two prime examples of what works for me. They both manage a nice balance of horror and comedy, whereas something like What We Do in the Shadows — which I also like — is more of a comedy with a horror aesthetic.

As far as humor in my own work goes, it’s generally not something I plan on, to be honest — the puns in Triple Axe being an exception, of course, and maybe the overall campy, pulpy vibe of SuperGhost. But in my work since those books, the humor that’s there is, I suppose, just part of my personality coming through on the page. I definitely use humor as a coping mechanism in life. It’s kind of a reaction to the absurdity of the world in general.

When I sat down to write Headless, I deliberately thought, okay, this is going to be meaner and bloodier than anything else I’ve written — and I think it is — but there are still some silly moments that crept in. It just happens. Real life is ridiculous in many ways, so I guess it makes sense that these stories, or at least parts of them, are too.

On the flip side of that, is there a way for a writer to get humor wrong when trying to insert it into their terror tales?

Oh, it’s real easy to screw up, I think — at least if you’re trying to balance the two. It’s plenty easy to mess up even if you’re just trying to squeeze in some jokes here and there too. You have to find the spaces where it’s appropriate and not shoehorn humor in where it’s not going to work. But again, comedy is subjective. What’s funny for one person isn’t for another. It can be a tricky thing. I try not to force it in my own writing. I just follow my instincts and hopefully it works for others. And if it doesn’t, at least there are plenty of malevolent forces and ruined bodies to enjoy.

On a more serious note, what do you have up your sleeves next to fascinate, repulse, and otherwise entertain us with?

Oh boy. Like I said earlier, I have so many ideas, it’s kind of depressing knowing I’ll never get around to all of them. But I’ll write as many as I can. I’m always working on short stories and hope to keep putting out collections for years to come. I really want to do a collection of Halloween-themed stories at some point, just because it’s the greatest day of the year and I love writing stories that either take place on the holiday or incorporate its iconography (a few have been published, but a lot more haven’t yet), so I’m sure that will see the light of day soon enough.

As for longer projects, I have a first draft of another novella I completed a while ago that I need to dive back into. Kind of a slasher thing. And I just recently outlined several new projects, so I’ll be working on those soon too. I don’t usually like to talk much about projects until they’re completed, but I will say I have a haunty thing, a witchy thing, a splattery thing, and a sort of Twilight Zone-ish thing all in the works, among other projects.

Other than catching up with you on the road at whichever con you’re attending, what’s the best way to not miss what’s coming out of your muse next?

I try to do a few cons a year, mainly on the east coast, so I look forward to running into old friends and making new ones at those. Other than that, I can always be found on social media, and my website (13visions.com) is a good place to keep up-to-date on what I’ve got going on, whether it’s my writing or design work. While you’re there, feel free to sign up for my finally-hatched newsletter. And I’ve got a shop there as well, where signed books can be purchased.

And finally, Scott, for all who make it to the end of your headless hellscape with their own heads still intact, what do you hope comes to mind when they put the book down and reflect on the experience they just had in your wild and bloody world?

I just want people to be entertained. Life throws curveballs at you all the time, so if you can escape the real world for a little while, great. And if any of my stories provoke thought, make you consider something you hadn’t before, that’s even better. But ultimately, I just like writing weird stuff, and I hope people come away from my books having had a little fun.

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