We sat down with Matthew Heilman and Ryan Henry, the authors of the new vampire horror novel, Come Forth in Blood, to discuss their influences, backgrounds, how the novel came to be, and what might be next.
Q: So who are you guys? Where are you from?
I’m an avid reader of classic as well as modern horror fiction. I earned a PhD in English Literature and specialized in nineteenth-century British Romanticism. I also studied American Romanticism, Victorian novels, and early twentieth century ‘weird tales.’ I’ve published a few academic articles, and spent some time working as an adjunct college professor and teaching assistant. I’m currently a technical writer and editor based in Pittsburgh. Above all, I see myself as a fan of dark music, books, and movies more so than an aspiring or professional writer.
My interest in vampires goes back to when I was a little kid. I was totally obsessed with Fright Night and The Lost Boys, and Lucy Westenra became my first crush after I saw Sadie Frost in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. Salem’s Lot (both the TV movie and the novel) was huge for me. From there I read Anne Rice’s first five Vampire Chronicles books, discovered the Hammer films, watched The Hunger to see Bowie and Bauhaus, and then read all the classic short stories from Polidori, Gautier, Poe, Le Fanu, and so on. Since then, I’ve continued to read widely in the genre and try to keep up with major vampire movies and TV shows.
I hail from Virginia and earned a BA in History from The College of William & Mary. Unlike Matthew, I had my fill of academia after four years. I fondly recall reading Stephen King novels when I should have been studying for exams in high school. The first horror novel I read was William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist when I was eleven years old, followed by its sequel, Legion. My love of vampire fiction stems from a wide range of books and films, namely Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (of course), Fright Night, The Lost Boys, and Kathyrn Bigelow’s incomparable 1987 film Near Dark. In the 1990s, I was into the pen-and-paper RPG Vampire: The Masquerade, by White Wolf Games. In terms of work, I’ve been everything from a Park Ranger to a maintenance man to a field technician for the military-industrial complex. I was once a doom metal musician and indie author. In 2016, I fell ill and went on disability. My diagnosis is a rare disease called CIDP that attacks the nerves in my hands, arms, feet, and legs. It is notoriously difficult to treat, and I feel it has aged me beyond my years.
Q: How did you two meet and begin to collaborate on this novel?
Believe it or not, Ryan and I have never actually met each other in person. We ‘met’ virtually on an old message forum dedicated to doom metal music in either 1999 or 2000. We both had gothic metal bands on mp3.com and we liked each other’s music. We began to correspond via email and then eventually telephone. We quickly discovered that we had A LOT in common. In addition to a mutual love of early doom/death and other forms of good metal, we both liked the same books and TV shows, Pre-Raphaelite art, atmospheric horror movies, historical dramas, graphic novels (Ryan taught me all about the merits of Garth Ennis, The Punisher, and Hellblazer). We’ve been having epic multiple-hour phone conversations for more than twenty years. He’s a fascinating person to talk to and is not only passionate about his interests, but extremely knowledgeable.
Our collaboration as authors started back in 2007 or 2008. Ryan asked me to edit a novel he was working on, then I worked with him as an editor on other novellas and short stories. Not too far into the process, he suggested we collaborate and write something together. He had some ideas regarding vampires, and in particular, the two main characters that eventually became Matthias Bartsch and Edison Raymer. The entire plot and all the characters in Come Forth in Blood sprang from Ryan’s imagination. But we worked together to develop their personalities and the various circumstances that befall them. Both of us spent many years in college, and my experience as a professor helped to more fully sketch the academic world that Raymer and Veronica occupy.
I think Matthew summed up this collaboration and how it came to be nicely. I do recall I had the first two chapters of Come Forth in Blood and sent them to Matthew. He replied to me with a message to the effect of “you’ve got to develop this further.” I had a few scattershot ideas as to where I wanted to take the story, but at some point, I called Matthew and asked if he wanted to jump on board to write this with me. He agreed, so we worked and changed the course of the story over the years. You can now read the result of our endeavors.
Q: Can you describe the actual writing process and collaboration?
When we first started, Ryan would write a draft of a chapter, and then email it to me. I would read it, revise it, add to it, and send it back to him with all my changes in red text. We didn’t use “track changes” in Word because it wasn’t invented yet (or we didn’t bother to use it. We still don’t because it gives us headaches). Since I had spent a lot of time editing other things he had written, I was used to his ‘voice’ and style. I absolutely love his sharp, vivid writing. I just tried to find ways to enhance it in the same way that I would imagine he would have enhanced it himself. I would think about our mutual influences and strive to ensure that our work at least came somewhat close to meeting that same high standard.
Sometimes he would press ahead and write the next few chapters and then we would bounce those back and forth a few more times. He would edit and revise all of my contributions and previous edits, and then – back and forth some more until we felt the chapter was right. Throughout this process, of course, we would have exhaustive phone calls plotting stuff out, discussing roadblocks, working out ideas, and then we’d dive back in and keep writing and revising. We revised and edited Come Forth in Blood for more than six years before we put out the first ebook version of it in 2014. We then went back and spent another several months tightening it up to prepare it for the print editions that were published this year.
I seriously do not think the book would have come together as it did without Matthew’s unbridled enthusiasm for the subject and our characters, as well as his dogged persistence to forge ahead onto new paths when I was at a complete loss. As he stated, it was a long process of bouncing chapter after chapter back and forth between us until we had trimmed all the fat. I think what I am most proud of is our ability to merge two distinct author’s voices into one. Since we both had a hand in the various re-writes and edits, it’s impossible to point to any chapter in the book and say, “I know who wrote that.”
I also want to add, we’ve never really argued about anything. There’s an incredible mutual respect between the two of us that has informed our writing and personal relationship. There have been a few instances where we may not have immediately agreed about an idea or aspect of a character, but we talk it out until we figure out what will work best overall. I trust his opinions, and he trusts mine. The only thing that has ever potentially threatened our bromance is my enthusiasm for Cascadian black metal, which, Ryan insists, rightly, is for hipsters, not trve kvlt fans of black metal.
Our divergent tastes in black metal have definitely put us at odds on a few occasions. But we can be civil with one another and elucidate why certain bands and albums are a hit or a miss for us.
Q: Speaking of music – whose idea was it to make Matthias a cellist? Who was responsible for including the various references to classical music?
It was my idea. Matthias wanted nothing more than to become an accomplished cellist when he was alive. The war and his induction into the German army cut that dream short, and of course, his death and rebirth as a vampire destroyed the future he had planned. It’s also important to consider the cello, and why he continues to revere the instrument. Matthias’ cello is a thread to his past, and, more importantly, to his wife Anna, who was also a musician. One composition that is a recurring theme through the story is Jacques Offenbach’s Les Larmes de Jacqueline (Jacqueline’s Tears) Op.76 No.2, as this was his wife’s favorite piece. To attempt to explain the feelings and reactions this piece elicits in him would, in a way, spoil a significant part of the book.
I’m a total sucker for chamber music, string quartets, and cello sonatas, so once Ryan explained that Matthias was an aspiring cellist before the war, I was eager to work in references to some of my favorite pieces, many of which, such as the Bach sonatas, are standard repertoire for cellists. Plus, his career as a classical musician adds another dimension to his character, and I suppose it is also a nod to the airs of refinement that are often attributed to vampires.
Q: Is there any significance to the names of the characters in the book?
If you are a fan of the German black metal band Bethlehem or the English gothic rock act Fields of the Nephilim, certain names may stand out for you. Otherwise, I found the name E. Raymer written on a WWI small box respirator bag that I bought in the 1990s. Veronica was used in place of Monica in tribute to a now-deceased English professor I had while attending William & Mary. Names like Luttrell, Pettit, and Halleck are somewhat common in the area of Virginia where the book takes place.
Q: There’s certainly no shortage of vampire novels in the world. So why vampires? Why add another vampire book to an already saturated market?
There have been certain authors, television shows, and movies that have eroded the mystery, malice, and grit that characterized a lot of the vampire fiction I was exposed to during my formative years. These days, when someone mentions ‘vampire fiction,’ it’s either in reference to ‘safe’ young adult fiction, or flat-out erotica filled with shameless author self-insertion and wish fulfillment. Thus, vampires aren’t ‘cool’ anymore. Personally, I think there was a certain challenge to take back a little bit of the genre that motivated us to write Come Forth in Blood. Our goal was to pen a modern vampire story that respected the roots of the genre yet brought something new to the table. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide if we succeeded or failed at making our vampires and hunters not only believable, but ‘cool.’
We started writing this book around 2009 or so, when the Twilight craze was winding down. True Blood was also very popular at the time. As much as I personally enjoyed the satirical approach with vampires “coming out of the coffin” to co-exist with humans on True Blood, I also missed the aura of danger and fear that once characterized vampires. Even in the Anne Rice books, as cool as they are and as dark and violent as they sometimes can be, her vampires are still very romanticized. We thought maybe we could approach vampires in a more realistic way, somewhat like how Christopher Nolan approached Batman and tried to ground the more far-fetched comic book ideas and make them more plausible. How would a vampire survive in this day and age? How would they blend in with society? How would they hide their victims and avoid the police? How would they earn money and what kind of jobs could they have?
Correct… not all vampires come from affluent European families like in Anne Rice novels.
Nope! When it comes to the human characters, we wondered how a bunch of academics would react if they discovered that vampires were real. How would they find them? Would they try to stop them or would they try to learn from them? How would the police react if crime scene evidence led them to a vampire? These were some of the questions that informed our earliest drafts. As we wrote, the story began to cohere around these ideas.
Q: So there are no sparkly vampires or steamy sex scenes in the book?
Obviously, most modern vampire books and films emphasize the romantic (lower-case ‘r’) and erotic elements. But that just doesn’t really interest us. There are still some minor elements of romance in the book, but ultimately, we tried to subvert that to some degree. To allude to Joy Division, love basically tears our characters apart. It’s their downfall.
There’s a reason that a character in the novel wears a Joy Division shirt, and it’s not for hipster cred.
Right. But also, stuff like What We Do in The Shadows and Preacher shows how easy it is to poke fun at the poofy-shirt wearing vampire stereotypes. We hope our novel sticks out as something that’s a bit darker, more realistic, and not so formulaic. Our book is a return to form, in that it is a traditional ‘humans vs monsters’ take on the vampire myth that characterized vampire stories before Anne Rice got all philosophical and normalized the first-person perspective of a vampire having an existential crisis. I mean, we still spend time inside the head of Matthias, but we also spend a lot of time exploring Raymer’s human perspective as well. So there’s a balance.
Q: What about Lovecraft? He’s a towering figure in horror fiction and has experienced a kind of cultural renaissance as of late.
We’re both fans of Lovecraft’s work, but personally, I’m more interested in writers like Blackwood, Machen, Hodgson, or Chambers, who predate Lovecraft and helped to shape his conceptualization of cosmic horror. So really the only Lovecraftian element that we’ve incorporated into the book is the notion that humans are forever changed (if not utterly destroyed) by their encounters with the supernatural. The supernatural defies reason and challenges the rationalism that prevails in modern society. So, there should be recognizable psychological repercussions when a person discovers that vampires (or ghosts, or demons, or aliens) are real. These ideas inform part of Raymer’s classroom lecture early in the book, which was our most direct tip of the hat to Lovecraft and the “weird tales” tradition. We also included a quote from Blackwood as an epigraph at the start the book.
Q: How are your vampires similar to or differ from other works? What are the various ‘rules’ of your universe?
Near Dark is my favorite vampire film. I loved the depiction of gun-toting, nomadic vampires who were essentially scavengers, living off the grid and below the poverty line. I also liked the concept that sunlight did them physical harm. So, we brought in certain aspects from that film, but with our own twist on everything. One thing that makes our vampires differ from others is a play on the old saying “you are what you eat.” Namely, if a vampire in our world wants to walk among humans, then he or she is forced to feed from the blood of the living. That can be done surreptitiously or violently. There are no easy outs. If a vampire feeds from the dead, then that bloodsucker takes on a monstrous countenance – something like Count Orlok from Nosferatu. As well, if a vampire obtains sustenance from animal blood, then it will take on feral characteristics. And vampires must feed, or they become weak and powerless. Literally, their strength and presence comes from the imbibing of blood.
In the more fantastic tales, vampires can shapeshift, or control the weather. Not so in our book. At best, the strongest of the lot may be able to teleport, or just move short distances very quickly. They are nothing like the undead superheroes of Stephanie Meyer that seemingly have no weaknesses. Vampires in our book are most certainly apex predators (if they choose to be), but their weaknesses make it necessary to adjust to their undeaths rather quickly. They abhor religious imagery, can be staked, or killed with fire – so they are not invulnerable. Also, they tend to be lone hunters, and extremely territorial. Occasionally, vampires in our world may mentor or clique up with a partner – perhaps a fledgling – but this is rare and can lead to disaster if a union is made for the wrong reasons.
I would like to note that when we set out to write the book, we made it clear that – although we had our own ideas to add – it was important to always respect the classic ‘vampire rules.’
Q: So what’s next for you guys? Will there be a sequel to Come Forth in Blood?
Well, as the “Epilogue” of the novel reveals, there is another vampire at large in Williamsport, and she’s not particularly friendly. In the interest of preventing spoilers, we can only say that all the characters that survive the first book will be returning in a sequel to face an even more dangerous and unpredictable vampire. We’ve doubled down on the realistic noir style and will be introducing a more pervasive police-procedural/detective element to it. At the same time, though, there’s an even stronger element of the supernatural. The vampire and her backstory are rooted more firmly in the gothic tradition. To be honest, she scares the fuck out of us, and we hope that she terrifies our readers as well. If all goes as planned, the novel may see the light of day at some point in 2022.
We’d like to thank Ryan and Matthew for their time and offering a glimpse into their creative process as well as their shared interests and enthusiasm with the community.
Come Forth in Blood is available to read in paperback, deluxe hardcover, and ebook editions from Stygian Press, and can be ordered directly or at any online or retail bookstore that you wish to support.