ANGELES — Richard Kadrey’s new novel, "Dead
Set," gave me nightmares. And I can’t stop myself
from telling him — even though the bestselling horror
author dresses in black, has intimidating tattoos and
the watchful bearing of an assassin. He’s reluctant to
take off his dark glasses.
he says, stirring his coffee in the dim daytime light of
a Los Angeles bar. "It’s an experiment."
"Dead Set" (Harper Voyager, $22.99) is far
less violent than the bestselling Sandman Slim series he’s
known for: "There’s fewer bad words and less
actual bloody body parts."
noir-meets-urban-fantasy Sandman Slim series — five
books so far — feature a wry criminal hero from Hell
who has the occasional existential crisis, plus a
supporting cast of demons, strippers, zombies, ghouls
and demi-gods, all doused in dark magic and
Set" is a major departure: It’s for young adults
and omits the dirtiest, darkest elements of Kadrey’s
oeuvre. Characters still travel to the underworld, but
where Slim is brutal and sexual, "Dead Set"
focuses on longing and the pull of the past.
preparation for writing for young adults, Kadrey read
works by Neil Gaiman and Holly Black. Black’s 2002 YA
novel, "Tithe," he says, "really
impressed me with how far you could go, how hard you
could be, the kind of families and kids you could talk
protagonist of "Dead Set" is Zoe, a teenager
who’s moved into a cheap San Francisco apartment with
her mom after her dad’s death. Zoe discovers a
used-record store with a passage to purgatory and
bargains with its double-dealing owner to reach her
lot of the characters I’ve written about are people
with power. I wanted to write about someone with
virtually no power," Kadrey says. "There’s
nothing worse than being 16 — you have all these adult
responsibilities, no actual adult power."
a teenager in Houston in the 1970s, Kadrey felt that
frustration. He got good grades but resisted the
sit-still-and-do-as-you’re-told aspect of school.
"Everyone asks how I could write about a teenage
girl," he says. "Well, the part that was me
was Zoe thinking she was way smarter than anybody
Zoe, Kadrey lost his dad (when he was 3) and was brought
up by a mother who sometimes struggled financially. She
encouraged her son’s writing; he began publishing
music and concert reviews in local papers when he was
of my big regrets is that she died before I made the New
York Times bestseller list. That would have made her
happy," he says.
didn’t find success as a novelist until "Sandman
Slim" was published in 2009. Although he’d always
thought of himself as a writer, his focus had drifted.
As a young man, he’d driven a forklift in a warehouse;
later, in San Francisco, he detoured from writing for
Wired to taking a full-time job at an ad agency in the
first dot-com boom. "At the ad agency, I was a
writer. Just not necessarily what I wanted to
write," he says.
the Internet economy went bust, Kadrey was bereft —
but the low he experienced helped him find his voice.
he has lived in San Francisco for decades, Kadrey spent
most of his 20s in Los Angeles’ Silverlake
neighborhood — chic now, but dingy and crime-ridden in
the early 1980s. He rode the bus to work at a bookstore,
and saw more bands play than he can remember — mostly
because of the Jack Daniels he was drinking. "It
was brutal, because none of my writing was any good back
then. It was very hard."
texture of those difficult years inform the Sandman Slim
novels, which are set in L.A. "I love L.A.,"
Kadrey says. "I love L.A. for all the reasons other
people hate L.A. It’s venal, and it’s
cheerily talks about meeting with the producers from the
De Laurentiis company, which has optioned Sandman Slim.
"There’s that great L.A. look: Are you someone I
should know, someone I should be nice to? After a few
minutes they go, ‘Nah.’ And you can see their eyes
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has often set Slim up to wreak havoc on filmland. In
"Kill City Blues," published in July, his
characters camped out in the apex of Hollywood, the
penthouse of the Chateau Marmont.
fantasies are set in cities and incorporate real
elements — hotels, doughnut shops — to which Kadrey
has added the unsentimentality of noir. Inspired by the
books of Jim Thomson and Donald Westlake (Slim’s real
name is James Stark in his honor), Kadrey wanted to
write fantasy stories from the criminal’s point of
Sandman Slim universe incorporates elements of
Christianity, the Kabbalah, and the Gnostic Gospels. Its
Los Angeles is inhabited by a parallel population of
monsters, some familiar, some invented. "I’m on
the side of the monsters," Kadrey says, referencing
something Guillermo del Toro said about "Pan’s
Labrynth": "You kind of have to be on the side
of the monsters to live with the monsters."
book in the series incorporates a different sub-genre.
In "Kill City Blues," it’s the haunted house
— via the Gothic. "If you’re a Gothic lit
major, you will find these little tropes. To really nail
down my credentials, there’s even a Castle of Otranto
joke," Kadrey says, referring to the 1764 book by
Horace Walpole, considered the first Gothic novel.
has heard from a couple of fans who got it. He’s
comfortable engaging with his readers online, on Twitter
and in Reddit Ask Me Anything interviews. He’s also
active on Tumblr, where his blog often includes his
sideline, not-safe-for-work fetish photography.
was able to set that sensibility aside, however, in
"Dead Set." Leaving the sexuality, violence
and extreme language of Sandman Slim behind may be
frightening for a writer as gorily successful as Kadrey,
but it was a risk that pays off. "Dead Set" is
a tender, if terrifying, story of a lost teenager trying
to find her way.