John E. Meredith is a Halloween baby, sometimes photographer, and freelance writer currently slouching toward his first novel. His writing about movies has appeared on the website PSYCHO DRIVE-IN. He’s got horror stories in three published books from PDI PRESS (all available on Amazon) and a continuing series on Instagram called RETAIL JESUS. John is a cool dude who hopes, like all artists do, to one day keep the lights on and get his car repaired with the proceeds from his art.
What was your first story and when did you write it?
I’m fifty now and I’ve been writing since I could hold a crayon. The first stories I wrote were before I was ten, mostly rip-offs of those black-and-white Lassie shows that were already ancient when I was a kid.
For a while I thought I was gonna be some kinda artist, so my stories became comic strips. They were mostly based around the strange world of puppets and Star Wars action figures that made up my playtime. These all mixed up the daytime soap operas that my mother watched with the Judy Blume books we were reading in school and the Stephen King novels I was reading at home. It was a pretty messed-up place, as you can imagine.
The first legit story I finished, though, was probably in my early teens, maybe age twelve or thirteen. It was about this old man who had a puppet shop on the top floor of his home (hence, it was called the Pedestal Puppet Shoppe). He had a wicked and greedy wife who killed him in order to collect the insurance money. Afterward, though, when she climbed the stairs to the shop, the puppets came to life and devoured her . . .
Surprisingly, my parents never sent me to a psychiatrist.
Can you tell us something about your Instagram’s The Cabin and Retail Jesus?
I’ve gotta lotta stories to tell. Too many, really. With Insta, I saw a way to at least start getting a few of them out there. So I started the second account, then began posting installments of a story I’d written in college (which was only about ten years ago, by the way). It was called Azrael And The Fire-Man. It’s the least autobiographical of the three stories I’ve put up there so far, and it’s the closest to a horror story.
The idea was to catch attention-deficit eyes with something that didn’t appear to involve that much reading. Hence, all the images. Some of the images have been mine, some not. Many of the ‘not’ have been public domain pics, or at least ones that are so obviously not mine that I don’t even need to say it. I do probably need to get better at finding and crediting the artists, even in public domain, but then I’ve never gotten a dime from any of this anyway.
The Cabin came about when a few of my followers said I should write a love story. Bah, I exclaimed, both a romantic and a cynic. The result, however, was actually pretty good . . . and I’m slowly working on revamping that story for (hopefully) publication. By the time it’s ready, it won’t be quite as personal and the erotic sections will be much more so. I think it could sell.
Retail Jesus was the next thing I started, mostly because I wanted to start getting these anecdotes and stories out there before my old ass starts to forget them all. Ultimately, a different version of that might be headed toward being a “real” book too.
I’ve always wanted to ask: is there a complete file of Retail Jesus somewhere, or are you making it up post by post?
A little both, really.
Retail Jesus, naturally, comes out of my own lifelong experience working in retail, but the inspirations for the story might not be so obvious.
There’s the Tim O’Brien book about his experiences as a soldier in Viet Nam, The Things They Carried. I absolutely love the structure of the book, which is a series of short stories, all connecting somehow. The title story is the most amazing one for me, with plot points flipping over and twining around each other, coming back later to things that were mentioned earlier. I imagined the stocking crew from my story like the guys in this book, expendable and foul-mouthed grunts on the front lines.
The other inspiration was from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where strange prisoners watch shadows play out on the walls, never trying to make their escape. The original title of my story was actually gonna be Strange Prisoners, but then Retail Jesus spoke . . .
But, Jesus, that wasn’t your question, was it? You see what happens, right? When you ask a writer about their work? Well, you know, you’ve done some fine work yourself . . .
There is an overarching plot, a final endgame the story is headed toward, though it keeps changing a bit. Coworkers keep reminding me of other stories I’d forgotten, so there’s no way to really contain this thing until it’s done.
But I basically make it up post by post.
Can you tell me something about your beginning in the indie world?
I love horror movies. My birthday is Halloween, which is the coolest birthday a horror-lover could ever hope for. I’m also kinda old, and maybe a bit of a loser, so I’m still really into Facebook. Maybe about five years ago, I decided to post a paragraph or two about my favorite horror movies there each day throughout the month of October, leading up to my birthday. It immediately became a bigger deal than I expected, and I yammered on and on in every post. Imagine that.
It was maybe the fourth day of doing that when I saw a similar thing on Instagram. It was from some kind of website, called PSYCHO DRIVE-IN. It was really cool, so I left a comment, basically, “hey, cool, I’m doing the same thing on my Facebook page.”
Later that day, the creator and editor of the website, Paul Brian McCoy, contacted me and asked if he could simultaneously run my posts on his site. Well, shit, of course.
I finished out the month, my 31 days of horror, and he asked if I wanted to keep writing for them. One of the films I featured in that original run was Funny Games, which – if you’ve not seen it, you should! – it totally messes with your head, pisses you off even. Watching it, I had two opposite reactions, of being both impressed and angry . . . so I basically split myself into two different reviewers. I was the film snob and the guy who just wants blood and boobs.
The way I handled that one post became my own column on the website, and I called it POPCORN CINEMA. Another column followed, then a bunch of random reviews with my own particularly personal and chatty slant.
McCoy had written a few things himself, and he’s pretty good. He said that his ultimate goal was to make PSYCHO DRIVE-IN into an indie publishing house. With a handful of other writers (including Dan Lee, Rick Shingler, and Lexi Wolfe), we put out our first collection of stories under PDI PRESS.
The book is called NOIRLATHOTEP: Tales of Lovecraftian Crime, combining the horror of H.P. Lovecraft with the detective stories of film noir. It was a really good book, and I’d have said that even if I wasn’t in it.
The next one was AMERICAN CARNAGE: Tales of Trumpian Dystopia (which seems even more relevant now than it did in 2017). It was political, but it was also a throwback to sleazy old-school horror, Repo Man, and the films of John Waters. I’m not entirely pleased with my story in this one, but it’s got some moments.
The most recent PDI publication, from over a year ago now, was a sequel to the first book. It was just as good as the other one, maybe better. There was talk of doing a third, which I really hope happens, and of doing a sleazy sci-fi sextacular kinda thing. PDI is also in the progress of putting out some really awesome comic art.
I owe a lot to Paul Brian McCoy, and in a small way to Instagram. Other than these, there have been a few random things: a poem about Lara Croft, long ago in a Tomb Raider comic book, a few articles for DEN OF GEEK UK, and the work I did as creator and editor of an Episcopal newsletter.
Many horror creatures are tied to religion (vampires, ghosts, demons and even possessions.) Do you find this puts a limit on horror creativity as a genre?
Despite my work with the church newsletter, I’m not a religious guy. I wasn’t raised with it and haven’t found it on my own. So if I write about religion at all, it’s usually in some kinda attempt to explore my own thoughts on it.
You can do this through any subject, of course, but I think the horror genre lends itself to all kinds of explorations. Sometimes a zombie is just a hungry corpse, but it could also be voracious consumerism or a wealthy ruling class feeding off of the working 99%.
That being said, we could really write these creatures any way we want them to be. Imagine an atheist figuring out how to fight a demon, or ghosts who hang around because they can’t find an afterlife.
The possibilities are endless.
Does writing energise or exhaust you?
Both, really. I’ve been either journaling, or in some way writing to find out who I am, since I was a teenager. So it’s become my therapist, muse, and sometimes a spiritual guide. That’s both energizing and exhausting.
When I’m in the middle of a deadline, I kinda lose my mind, though. Probably because I’m a bit of a procrastinator. Suddenly I’ll realize that I’ve got a week left and my main character has only made it halfway through his journey . . . there’s going to be some sleepless nights . . .
Do you have a writing space and, more generally, a writing routine?
I don’t, but I need to. The space tends to be the room I call my office and the big, ten-year old computer for most things. The Instagram stuff is done on my phone, and that could be anywhere. I really need to work on the routine, though, to make the non-Insta writing a daily thing. Instead, I catch inspiration somewhere, who knows why, and try to set the world on fire until there’s nothing left. It doesn’t make for much stability . . . or sanity.
Do you have a formal writing instruction (for example, a degree in creative writing)? Do you think that a formal instruction helps writing?
I think reading a lot is probably the greatest instruction you can get. Find a writer or a work that really gets to you and try to figure out why it does. Figure out what tricks they use to pull you in, then try doing that. It was Stephen King for me, like a million other people would say. He’s not the best writer who ever lived, but he’s one helluva storyteller, the kinda guy who bids you to sit down beside the fire and listen to what he’s saying.
I’ve got a degree in literature, and creative writing, but it’s not like these things will get you a job. Now I’m still working in retail and I owe eighty thousand dollars in student loans. So, unless you come from a wealthy family or can get a full scholarship, I’d say the hell with formal instruction. If you wanna do it, just start doing it. Practice and your own love of the art will, hopefully, make you the best that you can be.
Have you ever killed a character you didn’t want to?
Ohmygod, yes. I’ve killed more people than Covid-19, and I didn’t really want them all to die.
How do you choose your characters’ names and how important are the names of the characters in your stories?
I’ve agonized over characters names. It’s gotta mean something, yet not obviously mean something. Like, you don’t want the antagonist to be called Dastardly Dick . . . well, I suppose it depends on what kind of a story you’re writing, but for the most part . . .
In The Lurker in the Dark, my story in NOIRLATHOTEP: Tales of Lovecraftian Crime, there’s a femme fatale who hires my African-American detective. Her name is Theda Lang, which was from the sultry silent film actress Theda Bara, but also from Fritz Lang, the great German director who was at the roots of film noir. There’s also a wise professor named Meursault, which was from Camus’ The Stranger, which kinda fit in with the story’s sense of isolation and paranoia.
Sometimes, though, the name is just there. The characters in Retail Jesus, for instance, are based on people I’ve worked with . . . but sometimes based too much on them. There’s a guy from New Jersey, named Bob. He’s kinda got an attitude, always calling someone a “douche”, yet sometimes he’s one of the wisest people I know. I always say he should have been a philosopher, so in the story, his character had no choice but to be . . . “the philosopher Bob”. It just makes me laugh.
What was a prominent genre on your bookshelf growing up?
Horror, definitely. It still is, though I’ve got a bit of everything now. Not that it’s a genre, but I’ve got a lotta short story collections. Every few years I hear that the short story is dead or dying, but I just don’t see it. Especially in our ever more attention-deficit world. It’s the thing I’ll pick up more than anything else, other than maybe horror.
Is there anything you find bad about the indie movement?
Yes. I don’t like being poor! I should be used to it, but it still sucks.
Do indie writers perpetuate their own ghettoization?
It’s probably one of the hazards of being indie. We want to get our stuff out there, but to do that we give half of it away for free. Then half of the folks who support us joke about getting a “free copy” of our books when they get published. If I did that, then who exactly is going to be putting out money to read my stuff?
Is there a subject you would never write about as an author?
Especially not if I end up doing more horror. There’s some really dark shit even in many of the non-horror tales I’d like to tell. There are two sides in my head too, the kind of restrained and subtle work I’d like to do, and the in-your-face, brutally extreme stuff . . . and I don’t think I’d shy away from much of anything in either one. It just depends on how I’d want to present that subject . . .
Do you normally research your stories before writing them, or o you start with a general concept and see where it goes?
Mostly, I’ve come up with some kind of story I wanted to tell, only to find that I know nothing and have to look up a hundred things while I’m writing it. What I know instinctively is dialogue and psychology, but almost everything else . . . it’s time to summon the gods of Wikipedia. For my first NOIRLATHOTEP story, I was probably online as much as I was writing. I needed to know about fictional cities and real forests and bits of history and cinematic tropes. I wanted lines from both film noir and Lovecraft that deep fans of either might pick out of my story. I sought out old songs that would have played and ads that would have flashed on billboards.
Those are just the fairly normal things. If the feds ever decided to check my browser history, they’d find all kinds of searches for weapons and the damage they could do to someone’s face and ancient occult spells and the availability of handguns to African-Americans in the early 1950s.
That being said, I’ve been fascinated by the Roma people since my early teens. There are no less than thirty books about travelers and notebooks full of things I’ve been scribbling down forever. It feels like my entire life has been research for a story that still hasn’t really presented itself to me yet.
How important is it to have a good cover in order to get your book read?
Very, I think, unless you’re a name that readers are already seeking out. For me, selecting a book is very much like going to a video or music store used to be. I might end up in any genre, but, once there, something has to catch my eye. Maybe it’s the title, but it’s often going to be the artwork, the design of the book. Once it gets that far, I might pick it up and read a few sentences. But, unless I’ve already read about it, it’s gotta catch my eye.
What do you do when you’re not knee-deep in writing?
I watch a lotta movies, binge-watch a lotta shows, and I love music to the depths of my soul. There’s some photography in my life too, mostly just with the phone now. I read a lot. Before the pandemic, I was going to the gym at least three times a week too. So I guess I’m interested in being healthy, or, being newly single again, I’m just hoping to have sex again someday.
Do you want to talk about any current projects? What’s next for you?
I should be finishing Retail Jesus soon, then I’ll probably give that account a rest. I’m not sure for how long, since I’ve gotten used to doing something there every day. I’ve already got an Instagram follow-up in mind, though. Basically, I’m going to explore my childhood in the same way I did working retail, with a combination of memoir and quasi-fiction.
Outside of that, I’ve started making The Cabin into a book. There are several PDI projects that I’m really excited about: horror, science fiction, fantasy, and maybe even our take on an American Western. That should be twisted. I’ve had several shorts about mortality kicking around in my head, and my father’s death about a month ago . . . well, that’s pushing that one toward the front of my mind. Not top mention, there are all kinds of horrors in my head that are just dying to get out. I’ve got a friend named Dave who might just kill me if I don’t start those soon.
But mostly, there’s no telling where I’ll go next.
Do you want to give us some of your contacts?
Keep an eye out for my author site, it’s in the works.
Meanwhile, look for me on Instagram, the Psycho Drive-In website, and even on Facebook. But please, look for me.