Q&A: Borderlands’ Thomas Monteleone talks re-introducing the work of Henry Kuttner
The crew over at Borderlands Press calls Henry Kuttner a “secret superstar.” It is an appellation that seems more than apt when one considers the profound impact this largely overlooked fantastic fiction maestro had on some of the most revered figures in the genre—Richard Matheson and Ray Bradury each dedicated books to Kuttner (I AM LEGEND and DARK CARNIVAL, respectively); William Burroughs saw fit to quote him in his work; Lovecraft considered him a friend and worthy purveyor of Cthulhu Mythos; Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Roger Zelazny, and other dark fiction luminaries cite him as an influence. Alas, in the years since his far-too-early death at age 42 in 1958—and despite the efforts of a coterie of staunch devotees—Kuttner’s work has fallen further and further off the dark literature radar.
An arcane past may not necessarily be prologue to future obscurity, however: Neil Gaiman and Borderlands Press are currently spearheading an already funded Kickstarter campaign to reintroduce a select cut of Kuttner’s stories to the masses via THE HOGBEN CHRONICLES OF HENRY KUTTNER.
FANGORIA spoke to novelist, long-running Cemetery Dance columnist, Borderlands Press co-founder, and iconoclastic raconteur Thomas F. Monteleone about resurrecting Kuttner’s nutty mutants, the winding road to actualizing that disinterment, and his own brand new Ken-Follett-by-way-of-Lovecraft novel SUBMERGED.
FANGORIA: How long has the idea for a collection of Kuttner’s Hogben stories been gestating?
THOMAS F. MONTELEONE: A long time, actually. A few years ago Neil Gaiman, F. Paul Wilson, and I were sitting around drinking at one of the World Fantasy conventions. Somehow the topic of those old sixties Ballantine anthologies came up and someone mentioned every once in awhile running into one of these utterly bizarre stories about the adventures of this odd mutant family; stories that were memorable, at least in part, because if you didn’t want to try to take the time to figure out what the hell was going on, the writer didn’t seem to give a shit. And Neil says, “Oh, yeah, that’s Kuttner. The Hogben stories.” And just like that it all came back to us. Stranger still, we all remembered reading the same story first—it was called, ‘A Pile of Trouble,’ about these mutants in the Appalachians getting all their power from this little atomic pile, a reactor of some sort. So we were drinking and laughing about this mutant family, marveling at the fact that we had all been affected so profoundly by these stories hardly anyone ever talks about, wondering if anyone had ever assembled all of them in one place, and Paul says, “Let me check it out.”
FANG: Famous last words.
MONTELEONE: Right, well, oddly enough at the time Paul was working with this guy Pierce Watters at Paizo who was putting together a collection of Kuttner stories called ROBOTS HAVE NO TAILS about this inventor named Galloway Gallegher who would get shit-faced drunk and go into this kind of fugue state where he would invent some crazy thing. Later, when he sobered up, he would have no idea what the invention was. So over the course of the story he had to figure out what he had built and then decide whether it needed to be dismantled or if could be put to good use. The stories were really clever intellectual puzzles—for the character and readers alike.
Anyway, Paul talked to Pierce, and Pierce said, “Hey, why don’t we do a book of Hogben stories?” Sure. Great. Paul started hunting down the stories. Four were readily available, but the very first one had appeared in a magazine called Thrilling Adventure Stories, which apparently ended up as fish wrap for most people. Seemingly no copies were in existence. It took Paul two-and-a-half years to find the lone Midwest magazine collector who even knew about the thing and when Paul finally gets in touch with him the guy says, “Yeah, I have a copy, but you’re not getting it.” [Laughs] The magazine was in such fragile shape he didn’t want to risk mailing it or having anyone else handle it. Still, Paul eventually convinced him to make a photocopy of these primitive yellow pulp pages—just about ready to self-destruct, really—and at last we have the story. So we transcribe it and take the collection to Paizo where they tell us, ‘Oh, it’s only 128 pages? We don’t want to do it.’ Not big enough.
FANG: So this is when you decide it might be a good fit for Borderlands?
MONTELEONE: We thought, If Neil would write an intro, a limited edition might really make sense. So my wife put a note in the Borderlands newsletter to gauge the interest level. The response, even with Neil involved, was honestly underwhelming—which just goes to show how obscure Kuttner’s work has become over the last forty or fifty years. The project seemed pretty risky at this point. People don’t realize that at a small press when the smoke clears there’s often not a lot of money left to go around. But Neil said, “Let’s try a Kickstarter, see if we can’t get enough people to support it.” And though it was still a grind, excitement and interest for the collection started to build, and it has taken us over the top to where we can make the book a reality.
FANG: Since you first read these stories, you’ve edited influential anthologies, run the Borderlands Press Boot Camp, and blurbed other authors’ books and written many of your own—including, essentially, the book on writing books, THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO WRITING A NOVEL. In short, you’ve seen and done a lot in the genre. Returning to Kuttner’s work did it prove as powerful as you remembered it after all these years?
MONTELEONE: There was a little bit of, “God, I’m almost afraid to re-read this.” Many times I’ve been excited to re-visit a book that had a big effect on me in the past and wound up thinking, “What the hell did I see in that?” But the Hogben stories held up great. They’re timeless because, even with all the writers Kuttner influenced, I can’t compare these stories to anything else. They really are that unique.
FANG: It must be gratifying for you as a long-time fan to have the wherewithal and opportunity to be able to bring this material back into the light.
MONTELEONE: When I was growing up and absorbing all the stuff that would shape my life as a writer, I never would have thought…Well, it sounds like bullshit, but I feel very blessed to be able to give back to the genre that has meant so much to me. If I can help re-introduce a wonderful writer like Kuttner to a new generation of readers who have clearly never heard of him and benefit the Kuttner estate along the way, I feel really good about that. I hope people treat THE HOGBEN CHRONICLES as a springboard to seek out some of Kuttner’s other work. He really wrote some just brilliant, subtly funny fantasy and science fiction. I mean, the Hogben stories aren’t Beverly Hillbillies bullshit, you know? You might be laughing at the way they talk but there is this underlying thought that snakes through your subconscious; a creepiness beneath the surface that stays with you.
FANG: Let’s talk a bit about your latest novel, SUBMERGED.
MONTELEONE: It’s a thriller that goes back and forth between the past and the present, following the German crew of what is essentially an underwater aircraft carrier on a mysterious mission near the end of World War II as well as the researchers who discover the ship decades later. It borrows from the early Ken Follett template, but also has that weird element that I bring to all my thrillers—there is more than just a nod to [Poe’s] THE NARRATIVE OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM and Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.” I was writing X-FILES-type stuff before there was an X-FILES. I never made X-FILES money, but at least I was there first. [Laughs] … It was a lot of fun, but also required a lot of intense research. Sometimes while writing at night I’d have this strange feeling of claustrophobia come over me, ‘cause you’re sitting there imagining the close quarters and the sounds and the smells. It took about three and a half years to do it right and make it as realistic as possible. Usually my books take six, seven months. So it was a big commitment. Once you get in that deep, though, you just have to go for it.
FANG: Even for a guy with an amazingly diverse body of work such as yourself this seems fairly different.
MONTELEONE: I hope so. I don’t want to write the eight-hundredth iteration of the zombie novel. I want to try to tell a story no one’s read before. And if I feel like I can’t do that with a story I lose interest quickly with it. I’d like to believe SUBMERGED carries on that tradition.