Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Kickin' The Willy Bobo With: CHUCK MILLER

Derrick Ferguson: Who is Chuck Miller?

Chuck Miller: Someone who can make the best of a bad situation, and the worst of a good one.

DF: Where do you live and what do you do to keep yourself in cheese and crackers?

CM: I live in Norman, Oklahoma, and I have worked as a paralegal and in various capacities with a couple of different newspapers.

DF: Give us as much about your background as you’re legally able to tell us.

CM: Let me think a minute and see what isn't prohibited by the court order...

I was born in Ohio, and moved to Alabama when I was 10. I've got a BA in creative writing from the University of South Alabama, the only one that's ever been awarded from there. It was when I graduated, anyhow, and it may still be. They didn't offer creative writing as a degree major, but the chair of the English department decided that since I had been there for 11 years and none of us were getting any younger, they could go ahead and make an exception.

A few years ago, I was in a serious accident-- several broken bones, a collapsed lung, and other things. My recuperation was slow. That left me with a lot of time on my hands, and a glaring reminder of my own mortality to go with it. I decided that if I was ever going to get serious about writing, it was time to do it. That's sort of what brought this whole thing on.

DF: What is your philosophy about writing?

CM: The narrative voice is the most important thing. Whatever I might have to say, nobody's going to know about, unless I give them reason to enjoy it and engage with it.

DF: I describe your style of writing as what I imagine David Lynch would be writing if he were a New Pulp writer. How would you describe it?

CM: That's pretty good. I don't really know what I'd call it. I knew I wanted to do something different, something that hadn't been seen before, so I just kind of let my imagination wander. I bring a lot of different influences into it, and I can't name any particular one that stands out above the others. I draw on pulps, comics, and classic mysteries, as well as a few things you don't usually see in this genre, I think. Lots of movies. Writers like William S. Burroughs, Flannery O'Connor, Hunter S. Thompson, Joe Lansdale, Walter Mosley, Rex Stout, and quite a few more. "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," various sitcoms, and Little Lulu comics. I'm serious about that. The influence of John Stanley's Lulu stories is profound, particularly in the Vionna Valis & Mary Jane Kelly stories, but it's present with the Centipede as well, in the way some of the characters interact with one another.

DF: I first came across your website featuring THE BLACK CENTIPEDE a couple of years before your brought the character to Pro Se. When did you first create The Black Centipede and his universe?

CM: The whole thing started about twenty years ago. Some friends of mine and I wanted to do our own comic books, and I came up with several characters and situations. That whole thing never got off the ground. A few years later, I revived the idea and wrote a script. That was The Optimist, the story of Jack Christian, a former kid sidekick to a deceased superhero. That never went anywhere, either, but I held on to all the notes I made about the characters. The Black Centipede was originally conceived as a minor character in that series, a weird holdover from the age of the pulp heroes. What I had in mind was a sort of cross between William S. Burroughs and the Shadow.

More time passed, and when I finally decided to get serious about the writing, I naturally wondered what the heck I was going to write about. So I dug into my old notes and turned The Optimist into a short novel. I had no idea what to do with it, so I just posted it online for anybody to read for free. Very few did. A friend of mine suggested that people might be more likely to read a short story online than a whole novel, so I decided to give that a try. The main character didn't really lend himself to that, though, so I picked one of the supporting cast-- The Black Centipede. I did a short story called "Wisconsin Death Trip," in which our hero becomes embroiled in some bizarre events surrounding a peculiar little man named Ed Gein.

I was pleased with it, so I did some more, and posted them as well. The next one I did was a Black Centipede novella called Gasp, Choke, Good Lord! It's a tribute to the old EC horror comics, and the historical guest stars are Dr. Frederic Wertham and William M. Gaines. That one is still free and can be seen here:

Then I did one featuring Vionna Valis and Mary Kelly. The stuff accumulated on my blog and people started paying attention to it. One of them was Tommy Hancock at Pro Se. He asked me if I thought I was ready to do a whole novel for them. I wasn't sure, but I said I was, and I did. That was Creeping Dawn: The Rise of the Black Centipede.

It was well-received, as was the follow-up, Blood of the Centipede. Both of them garnered a lot of positive reviews and comments, and I am now striving to bring The Centipede to the attention of even more readers in the wider world. I know there is a vast potential audience out there, and I'd love to connect with them and take a little of their money now and again. I think it's a good deal for both parties. Of course, it's always been more about ego than money with me, but money can do an ego a powerful lot of good. It's a tangible expression of admiration. I am working on totally revamping The Optimist for Pro Se.

DF: Who is The Black Centipede?

CM: The way I really see him is that he is me, if all restraints were removed. He behaves the way I would if I could get away with it. In some ways, he's kind of a shallow character-- he never indulges in self-doubt or self-recrimination. He is absolutely certain of himself at all times, and if he does make a mistake, he quickly corrects it and dismisses it from his mind.  He would rather die than pass up an opportunity to make a smart remark to someone. Frankly, he's more than a little unbalanced, but through sheer moxie he forces the world to accept him on his own terms. The former is certainly true of me, though the latter has been very problematical. So the Centipede is my fantasy-fulfillment in that regard. All of my major characters have been cobbled together out of bits and pieces I found lying around in my psyche. Jack Christian is closer to me as I actually am, while Vionna Valis could be called the "inner child," if you use terms like that. It's all psycho-drama, to a degree.

DF: The universe of The Black Centipede is populated with many colorful characters. Tell us about them.

CM: I have two other series that are part of my work for Pro Se Press, and both of them splinter off of The Optimist. Doctor Unknown Junior, the daughter of the Centipede's old sorcerer pal Doctor Unknown, has appeared in an issue of Pro Se Presents, and a novel is in the works. The first installment of The Incredible Adventures of Vionna Valis and Mary Jane Kelly will be out in the near future. I've seen the cover art, and I'm impressed. "Vionna and the Vampires" is also the first part of the "Moriarty, Lord of the Vampires" trilogy, which will continue in Black Centipede Confidential and the first Doctor Unknown Junior novel, The Return of Little Precious.

Vionna is a quirky and eccentric young woman whose past is something of a mystery. Mary Jane Kelly was, as some people will be aware, the last known victim of Jack the Ripper in 1888. She was resurrected in The Optimist, and ended up forming a partnership with Vionna. Together, they are the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee Psychic Detective Agency, specializing in unusual investigations involving paranormal phenomena.

Dr. Dana Marie Laveau Unknown, PhD, a/k/a Doctor Unknown Junior is a very powerful and nearsighted sorceress. She functions in the same capacity as pretty much any good-guy magic-user in the comics, defending the earth against all manner of supernatural threats. During the events recounted in The Optimist, she sustains a serious psychic injury and finds herself seriously de-powered. Jack Christian has become her assistant for the duration, and serves as her "Watson," producing first-person accounts of her adventures. Actually, he's more like Archie Goodwin than Watson. There are some personality clashes that go on between them, but they're working those out.

DF: What are your future plans for The Black Centipede?

CM: I'd like to keep him going for as long as I can. I have more than enough ideas to last for the remainder of my life and then some. He's been active for more than 80 years, so there's a lot to work with. I've been doing the novels in chronological order, and the third one only goes up to the end of 1933. I have a rather sketchy history worked out for him from then until the present day, and I may start skipping forward a lot more in the books. A major turning point in his life comes in 1972, when he falls from grace with a huge thud, and ends up becoming a wanted criminal once again. His long-standing feud with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reaches a crisis point when the Centipede is accused of murdering him. Nixon is also an antagonist, and the Centipede goes underground to wage a covert war, which culminates in the Watergate scandal. That's all I have for that at present. At the rate I'm going, I won't have to worry about it until I'm 100.

DF: You seem to get a real kick out of mixing historical figures in with your fiction. Where does that come from?

CM: I've always been interested in history, and I really got a big kick out of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld novels, in which everyone who ever lived was transported to this mysterious alien world. Various historical figures mix freely and have adventures as they try to unravel the riddle of the Riverworld. I also enjoyed Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series, where  "real" history is usurped and overlaid with this alien invasion scenario. So I thought about the kind of people someone like The Black Centipede would be likely to come into contact with.

I figured he'd have to have some excellent PR in order to avoid being arrested any time he showed himself in public, so I hooked him up with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst is a rather shady character anyhow, and through a liberal application of bribes and wildly distorted news stories, he has made The Centipede into one of America's most beloved heroes. I also put him together with Amelia Earhart, whom I've always admired. She tries to act as a sort of moral compass for The Centipede, dissuading him from giving in to his more violent impulses-- sometimes through reasoning or nagging, sometimes at gunpoint, as she does during their first encounter in Blood of the Centipede. They form a sort of unofficial partnership. 

Amelia returns in the next book, Black Centipede Confidential, along with two new supporting cast members that I snatched out of the Public Domain: Gregor Samsa, the giant verminous protagonist from Franz Kafka's “The Metamorphosis”, and J. Alfred Prufrock, from the poem by T.S. Eliot. These two actually show up in the ongoing web serial, The Return of Doctor Reverso, as does another major new character, the faceless Russian assassin called Anonymoushka. She has quite a history, including some very interesting parentage, which is revealed in Confidential.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is the main historical guest star in the next novel, along with his wife, Zelda. Frank Nitti, who was a major character in Creeping Dawn, returns, as does Hearst. Lester Dent and Walter B. Gibson are also on hand, helping The Centipede bring down Professor James Moriarty, Lord of the Vampires. A certain beekeeper who lives on the Sussex Downs also plays a part in the proceedings. I won't give away any of the plot, except to mention that Moriarty's nefarious organization, the Order of the Sunless Circle, includes such luminaries as John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Dr. Hawley Crippen, Stagger Lee, Pretty Boy Floyd, Doctor Herbert West, the Bell Witch and the Loch Ness Monster.

I'm also interested in crime history, so there's a lot of that. The Centipede's origin involves Lizzie Borden, and Jack the Ripper is a recurring character in the series. In fact, his arch-enemy (I call her that, though I've never shown them fighting-- usually quite the opposite), "Bloody" Mary Jane Gallows is the supernaturally-generated daughter of Lizzie and the Ripper. Mary Jane has become a much more sympathetic character than I originally intended for her to be, and appears as more friend than foe. But I've come up with a gimmick in Confidential that will give us the best of both worlds, and allow her to realize her full potential in both directions. That's all I'll say about that for now.

DF: You’ve recently introduced a new character, The Bay Phantom. What’s his deal?

CM: A couple years ago, I wrote a short story for a magazine that ended up never being published. It involved a 94-year-old former masked hero called The Bay Phantom, and what happens to him when his arch-nemesis, the 98-year-old Doctor Piranha, is released after spending 75 years in prison. It was a comedy with a fairly heartwarming ending. The publication I was writing it for had a sort of nautical theme, so I put the Phantom in a seaport town-- Mobile, Alabama, where I lived for many years. Janie Colson is an original character I salvaged from a fan fiction thing I did years ago. (The father whose name she never mentions is Carl Kolchak) It's too bad I can't use her in the current project, because I'm very fond of her. Of course, there's always time travel... As I say, that fell through, and the story languished. Eventually, I got the idea to do the same thing I did with The Black Centipede--go back in time to the character's heyday and present tales of some of his early experiences.
If you're interested, the original story can be enjoyed (or not) for free at this link:


I'm working now on the first novel. I don't have a title yet. This is completely separate from The Black Centipede's world, and I'm working with a different publisher. The Phantom is almost the polar opposite of The Centipede, in fact-- very prim and strait-laced, he doesn't even say "damn" or "hell," and he gets rather pedantic at times, but he has an extremely dry sense of humor. I've been putting together a supporting cast, and it has four members so far, individuals who aid The Phantom in one way or another. 

The most important of these is Mirabelle Darcy, one of the nine most intelligent human beings in the world. I don't really know what that means, or who the other eight are-- the phrase just popped into my head and I liked the way it sounded. Her early years were not easy for her. Growing up black in the Deep South of the 1920s and 30s, she had to hide her light under a bushel to avoid trouble. But Joe Perrone-- The Bay Phantom-- had enough sense to appreciate her potential. By day, she is Perrone's housekeeper; by night, she is The Bay Phantom's most trusted confidante-- his "Alfred," and sometimes his "Kato" as well. In her spare time, she builds electron microscopes and helps Sigmund Freud fine-tune the science of psychoanalysis.

The Phantom has an excruciatingly strict moral code, and is a little bit naive about how the world really works. Mirabelle and his other helpers often do underhanded and illegal things behind his back to help him solve his cases. While there are not many overtly occult elements in the story, The Phantom does have a keen interest in unexplained phenomena, and is good friends with Charles Fort. The house he buys in Mobile to use as a headquarters is haunted by at least four ghosts, one of whom claims to be the emperor Caligula. In the first novel, The Bay Phantom faces a couple of bizarre criminals called the Werewolf and the Black Embalmer-- and the shadowy mastermind who pulls their strings. One thing this series has in common with The Black Centipede is the fact that virtually nothing is what it seems to be, and anything can happen.

DF: What’s A Day In The Life of Chuck Miller like?

CM: I usually rise at about one in the afternoon-- or later, depending on the extent of the previous night's hedonistic excesses-- and breakfast on caviar and champagne. Then it's off to the links for a few holes of golf and a few more martinis. After a late lunch at the Drones Club, I may take in an opera or a Broadway show.

Derrick Ferguson: Anything else we need to know?

Chuck Miller: I just had a Sherlock Holmes story published in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Vol. 5 from Airship 27, and I was very pleased about that, because it's been an ambition of mine for a while.
Just stay tuned, because I've got a lot going on in the coming year. I would like to encourage everyone to visit my blog or connect with me on Facebook:


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