Black City is Christian Read’s debut novel, an occult noir tale set in a city seething with magic, home to a modern melting-pot of mixed magical traditions that coexist alongside and underneath the ordinary everyday lives of “citizens”.
Christian’s published work to date has included the supernatural-wild-west graphic novel The Eldritch Kid: Whiskey and Hate and the slice-of-life supervillan comic series Unmasked. He’s had work featured in the comic anthologies Flinch, Character Sketches and Home Brew Vampire Bullets and has also written for US based Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars Tales.
Black City is the story of Lark, an ex-enforcer for a major magical institution who’s hired by his ex-girlfriend to investigate a magical massacre. His investigation uncovers a conspiracy that earns him the unwanted attention of some seriously out-of-his-league powers that he nonetheless has to face without the support of his usual network of friends and colleagues, his former employers or his fomer girlfriend.
Lark’s story is written in a raw, intense and urgent style, exploring his relationships with magic and its institutions, his thoughts about power and his suspicion of those who want to wield it. It’s also a great look at what happens to relationships – personal and professional – when people’s worldviews diverge.
Lark is a compelling antihero, at turns arrogant and selfish or sympathetic and altruistic without ever losing his essential cynicism and skepticism, which sit comfortably, though contradictory, alongside his magical beliefs and practices.
He’s a great protagonist, a self-centred man who acts unselfishly when it’s needed, a guy you can barrack for at the same time as shaking your head at and tut-tutting.
I swapped a few emails with Christian to find out more about his thoughts on magic, the publishing game and making the distinction between writing novels and writing comics.
Caveat: Christian is a friend of mine, so if that sort of thing seems relevant to you when reading this sort of review-slash-interview, consider yourself duly informed.
What’s your elevator pitch for Black City?
It’s an occult crime story involving the seedy underworld of the City, a place where Lodges and Covens practice lurid magic. When a battle between two cults releases something onto the streets, Lark, former informal policeman of these cults turned freelancer for scraps, is hired to sort out the mess.
What do you think of the elevator pitch concept in general?
Well, the term itself reeks of the usual desperation of Hollywood. But no one’s got time to hear you bark like a beast about your goddamned novel’s plot all day.
Was the relationship arc between Lark and Scarlet always part of the story?
Oh yes. Kind of written to tell that story. For those who’ve not read the book, Lark quit his job and his own cult in bad circumstances. His girl stayed, last in a long chain of sadness that broke up their relationship. Scarlet hires Lark and is, perhaps, not entirely honest with him about the whole skinny.
Lark’s own resentment of her choices, and his attempts to deal with those resentments like a grown man, form a large part of the emotional heart of the book. Could you work with your ex? For them? Even if they were loyal to something you perceived as unethical? And when does heartbreak get boring?
What did you have in mind when you were developing the rules for magic that the characters in Black City live by? Were they developed in response to any other magical rules you’d previously encountered as a writer or reader?
It’s all real. It’s all based on real magical practices around the world.
The Omegamantis, an entirely fictional God invented by the main character, owes his genesis to the deeply strange Voudon Gnostic Workbook by Michael Bertiaux. Lark’s freeform style owes itself to Phil Hine’s seminal work from the ’70s.
From there, it’s just a lifelong layman’s fascination with this stuff, reading about Enochian Seniors, Neoplatonism, Jack Kirby comic books, Man, Myth & Magic in the Library at lunch and In Search Of. Austin Spare. Ken Grant. All the usual crew. Journal for the Academic Study of Magic.
Given that it’s based on real world traditions, have you ever put any of them into practise? Do you know or have you met anyone who has?
That’s a bit like asking a fella their religion, no? Sure I’ve known a lot of practitioners. As for me, well, I’ll keep my beliefs and whatnot quiet, if it’s all the same.
Fair enough. What kind of magic practices have you seen in action, then? Any of the ones you mentioned previously?
We’ll keep this light. Went to a pagan wedding, think it’s called a handfasting, one day. Jersey Devil territory. Pine Barrens. Seen what they call an invocation. Call a spirit into somebody. You ever read about vodou loa rites, you’ll get the idea. Lady just sitting there, call up her goddess (Ceridwen? Rhiannon? Those guys were on the Welsh trip, it was a while ago so I can’t lay it out with authority) and she takes up the role. She changes. Posture, voice, presence, all that. Hell of a thing to see.
Psychological transformation in highly ritualised setting or the goddess riding? Who cares?
Who’s your favourite fictional user of magic?
Three-way tie between Doctor Hullah in The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies, Simon Iff, Al Crowley’s fantastically self-congratulatory self-insert, and Dan Abnett’s Zygmunt Molotch from the Ravenor series.
What comic-writing habits or skills that you’ve acquired over the years did you find you had to consciously refrain from when working on black city?
How did Gestalt, ostensibly a comics publisher come to publish your novel?
This is a pretty good story.
So I’m on the phone to Wolfgang, the boss of bosses over at Gestalt. Finished the novel. Proofed it. Taken the first steps down the slaughterhouse chute. Finding agents. All that. You know the deal. Already got one rejection from an agent who says, “I want dark urban fantasy.” “This isn’t the kind of thing we’re looking for right now.” Hands up if you’ve had that dentist-drill whine in your ears.
I hate that scene. I hate that whole marketing-driven mainstream scene, but there’s that sorrowful world again. Nothing for it.
That week I find out a girl, just out of high school, gets a six-figure deal for the vampire fan fiction she put up online. Now, I don’t begrudge the girl but… what’s a serious fiction editor doing reading fan fiction online?
Then… Look, I don’t know anything about Fifty Shades of Grey and I’m not putting the boot into it here – hell do I care, your mums likes reading about rough trade? But I do know it’s a fan fiction. So then I read that a fan fiction of Fifty Shades is getting its own book. Having your own vision seems like nothing the big publishers value.
That mainstream scene, man. They don’t care. They’re just looking for the next Nirvana.
Tell that to Wolfgang, my publisher over at Gestalt. We have a laugh. Phone goes silent. “I’ll do it,” he says. Which makes me happy because, you know, damn the man. I like keeping it indie anyways.
After that, it’s a montage.
How would you characterise your relationship with Gestalt? What are they like to work with?
You know, I get my way, I’ll never deal with another publisher. Wolf has the business sense of a tiger on PCP and the heart of a lion who was smart enough to sell that tiger the PCP, but would call him an ambulance after the crash.
What do you want from a publisher? (Aside from cash-money-player.) Open communication. Honesty about their dealings and your work. People who have a vested interest in your best interest. You want a partner, someone who has your back. Brother, you want to be Silver Surfer working for Galactus.
Wolf and me, we been through some stuff and he comes at me straight. But when he says no to me, I know I earned that no fairly.
Reckon you’ve got something worth keeping when you don’t spite the negative.
Which came first for you: writing prose or writing comics?
Hmmm. I’m not sure of the timeline but I think I had some stories published in mad little fanzines in the late ’90s and my first comic was in 2000. I draw no real distinction between them as far as artistic merit goes. I just like stories and writing them. Always wanted to write. Always read comics and novels. Never saw much separation in the ambitions.
How many writing projects do you normally have on the go at once? How many do you have on the go right now?
Well, I’m close up on finishing the sequel to Black City. I’ve written two more comic scripts (Unmasked, Dread Empire) – wait, three (Legio Ex Mortis) – and they require supervision. (Sorry, four – Karnak).
I’m slowly plugging away at Bone War, the next in the Eldritch Kid series. I’m talking to Gestalt about more Unmasked, but we need to see how well a trade goes before writing more of those, though I have a half dozen stories to tell over there.
I’ve written a bunch of stuff for the Home Brew Vampire Bullets anthology. Now and again I pick up some quick consulting work for video games, including the upcoming Protocol E.
None of these include sketching out notes for projects months or years in the future that it’s too early to talk about.
So the response to Black City has been good? Good critically? Good in terms of sales?
Ah, man, I can’t be talking about the money. Here’s what I know. My publishers like the book, they think I earned myself another round in the ring. And I know there’s print versions and distro deals for bookshops getting done.
I get the email, “Yeah, we’d like another.” I write another. So, reckon it must be doing enough business. Gestalt are good people, but it’s not a charity they’re running.
Critically, I just saw some good reviews go up on Amazon and all that, which was pretty nice of some readers, so cheers. But, I published with a small indie house in Australia. Proper reviews aren’t really something we get enough of. Arts run on facetime and charm and gladhands get the prizes. Sound bitter? Nah, just the way it is.
What can we expect from the Black City sequel?
The devil and his woman.
Are you a proponent of cantilevering your writing? When you need a break from writing comics, is it time to write prose or vice versa?
Nah. I just work. I find it quite difficult to switch between projects. I just had a three-day weekend and I’m already feeling a bit adrift. I tend to work extremely hard for short bursts of time. 30,000 words last week. I used to freelance for magazines like that a while back. I’m used to deadlines. The work gets done when it’s working time. Making deadlines is the goddamn job.
So you stick with one project till it’s done and then move on to the next?
Ideally, but the world is a sorrowful place and who gets their way all the time?
What’s the most annoying comparison anyone’s given Black City?
Ah, it doesn’t work like that. Someone says, “Hellfire, this book is almost as good as Book I Don’t Like” or never heard of, or like that? That’s them paying me a compliment, perhaps the only way they know how. I might not dig their taste in literature, but that doesn’t mean I throw a neighbourly thought back in their teeth.
Writing something someone likes, that’s good, right? I mean, writing to please an audience is a dicey but if they do like it? Disregarding them because they don’t like it the right way? Ah, man. How does that attitude end well for your peace of mind? Take the compliment and save the “no one appreciates me” till the blinds are drawn.
Fair call. So what’s the most satisfying or most surprising comparison you’ve heard?
Dunno. Only seriously read one review and it never bothered with the “X is like Y on Z” that indicates some pretty unoriginal thinking. I’m unlikely to be flattered by comparisons.
What does flatter me is when people share how they feel when they read the book and I know I hit the notes I wanted to play. And when I see them picking up on some of the stuff I left under the water.
Is there anything that you see when looking back that you wish you hadn’t done, or that makes you wince just a little?
Yeah, of course, but I expect most of those concerns would be absolutely invisible to most readers, and who wants to see some novelist slip into the hair shirt? Goddamn embarrassing for everyone. Besides: make a mistake, learn from it. I’ll give you this: the clipped language of Black City will be a little more relaxed. Only some.
New book in what it pains me to call “The City Sequence” (publisher wants more, you do it). Then either a morbid fantasy western or a take on a supervillain novel that may or may not take place in the world of the Unmasked graphic novels. Have to have that conversation with the Dark Masters of Gestalt Publishing before that’s sorted.
That documentary, Comic Book Heroes, that me and my comics amigos were in, is getting a DVD release, so might have some press or something for that. Other than that, what I said above.
Comics limp into the world like a man digging his way out of his own grave, so expect to see some of those projects when they’re done. Expect a new novel sooner.
Black City is currently available in ebook format from iBooks, Smashwords and Amazon for the unarguable price of $4.99. Details on how to snag your own copy are over at Gestalt’s website, along with a free downloadable sample chapter. Get on that.