A Man of Many Talents – Nick Zaino; Author, Musician and so much more

A Man of Many Talents – Nick Zaino; Author, Musician and so much more

The Haunted Cinema (THC) – Ghastly and I are happy to welcome Nick Zaino to The Haunted Cinema. You are as close to a horror renaissance man that we have ever had. You’re an author, musician, podcast host, and contributor to The Boston Globe. The best place to start is probably at the beginning. What was your earliest exposure to horror? What made you keep coming back?

Nick Zaino (NZ) – I had to think about this one, and it made me go all the way back to the Scholastic book fair in elementary school and a book called Tales for the Midnight Hour by Judith Bauer Stamper. I don’t remember the stories now, but I remember the cover – a skeleton in a kind of throwback-style suit fixing its tie – terrified me. I’m going to track down a copy of that edition and reread it.

The earliest horror movie is The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It seemed kind of silly as a kid, but it was also kind of fascinating. My dad worked at Kodak, and I remember getting to see it in 3D somewhere on the Kodak campus in Rochester. The earliest movies that actually scared me were the first Nightmare On Elm Street, Return of the Living Dead, and Time Bandits. I didn’t think of myself as a horror fan then, but I liked a lot of horror, and I read a lot of Stephen King. The Bachman Books and Misery got to me. For some reason, horror seemed more real to me than other genres. I’m trying to put myself back in that mindset, and I think the stories seemed more like things that could happen, in some strange way. Like a mythology passed down to me through these stories. Of course, I couldn’t have articulated it that way then, but looking back, I think that’s how it felt.

Nick at the “It’s Alive” exhibit

THC – What are some of your favorite horror films (past or present), and why are they special to you?

NZ – Creature is a big one. It’s a great story. The James Whale Frankenstein is another if we’re talking classics. The thing that made me realize how big a horror fan I was and got me started on looking at it more specifically, was Shaun of the Dead. I started looking into zombies as a trend then, and it led me back to the Romero films I loved in high school. That’s also what got me to start writing zombie short stories. I got into the slapstick gore and dark humor. I always feel bad with these questions, like I’m going to leave something out. With all the streaming services, I can watch so many now, and find so many strange and wonderful films. It’s great to walk into something with no prior knowledge and have it really knock you out.

THC – As an author, I would imagine that you like horror fiction as well. Do you have a favorite author or book? Tell us about them.

NZ – I’m sure a lot of people say this, but Stephen King was big early on. The Long Walk and The Running Man scared the hell out of me. The Walking Dead graphic novels hooked me much later when I started writing, myself. Again, I’m always worried I’m leaving people out when I talk about favorites. I’m lucky that some of the people whose work I admire are accessible to me in groups like The New England Horror Writers and events like NECON. Since I just finished it an hour ago, I’ll spotlight Dave Demchuk’s new one, Red X. I met Demchuk at NECON, where I picked up his first book, The Bone Mother. He’s a playwright, as well, and turned a stage play into The Bone Mother. The main story of Red X has to do with people in Toronto’s LGBTQ community disappearing mysteriously over a number of years. But there’s a lot to it. It’s also part memoir and leans heavily into Demchuk’s knowledge of folklore. There’s nothing quite like it.

Another book I want to mention, if I’m not already getting too longwinded here, is Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel. I went looking for horror stories with grief at the center, and someone on Twitter suggested that book to me. I’m so glad they did. It’s not a book that’s shelved under horror, probably more speculative fiction. She upends the idea of a traditional narrative arc. Time is disjointed. It’s sort of like having to splice a movie together yourself. The images are a bit warped, and the frame rate is off, and it keeps you in the narrative because you can’t take anything for granted. Some of it, you just have to feel more than process intellectually.  

THC – As an author, it’s your job to scare your readers, but what scares you?

NZ- More than I’d like. Right now, the idea of losing my memory is front and center. I had a nightmare about watching my memories slip away, physically watching them go, that I’m trying to work into a short story now. I have multiple sclerosis, and that’s a possible effect down the road. I talk to my neurologist about it and say, I lose track of things sometimes. Is that MS or just that I’m 49. And they shrug. The things we don’t know despite intense study, the things that are beyond the smartest people’s best guesses, I find daunting.

THC – As a writer, you have contributed to a few horror anthologies, including Wicked Creatures: An Anthology of New England Horror Writers, One Buck Horror, In Delirium Bloom, and Rom.Zom.Com. Do you have a favorite story among these contributions? What was it about?

NZ – I’m still very early in my horror writing career, despite my advancing age. I have a story that may get published soon called “Rituals,” which is the one I was looking into writing about grief for. All the short horror I’d written before had depended greatly on humor. So, I tried to see if I could go completely dark and not rely on it, and what came out was a story about suicide. Or at least suicide is the triggering event for the story, which is more about expecting answers you just aren’t going to get.

I tried to do that with the latest one, too – “The Weatherman and the Monk” in the Wicked Creatures anthology. I revised the hell out of that one to get it to feel like I wanted it to. There is some gore in it, related to its inspiration, the Japanese mythology of the Umibozu. But the scariest horror is personal. You feel it through the characters, so the closer you can get to capturing how they react to the horror they’re witnessing, the better the chance the reader is going to feel that. That’s why the main character in that one is essentially a non-military person on a ship during World War II, not necessarily built to witness the things he’s seeing. 

THC – How is writing for an anthology different than writing a novel, or novella?

NZ – I haven’t written a novella or novel yet, but I’m hoping to. Or at least I haven’t published one. I have a novella that stops just short of the ending I need to rewrite. What I’d say, though, is that when you’re writing something short, it’s okay for it to capture just a moment in time. You don’t have to reveal everything or make sure everyone’s motivations are clear. It might even be better not to. As long as you can take the reader somewhere and make an impression with that glimpse of the world you’ve created, that might be enough.

THC – Looking at your biography, comedy is very important to you as well. Comedy and Horror have a long history together. There have been many great films intertwining the two, from Abbott and Costello , Meet Frankenstein, all the way to Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Why do you think these genres blend so well together?

NZ – They both depend on timing, and they both depend on twisting the audience’s expectations. You’re leading the audience somewhere, and if they predict where it’s going, they’ll be disappointed. But if there’s no connection to the set-up, that can be even worse. I think a lot of the mechanics are the same, in terms of ratcheting up tension and then relieving it. Plus, they can work well together based on that tension. If you set up a joke and give them a scare, that’s great. If you can set up a scare and then give them a punchline, also great. I think you see that in a lot of 80s movies. From Evil Dead II to Gremlins.

THC – Any plans on a horror novel?

NZ – I’d love to, and that will happen once I finish the nonfiction book on comedy I’m working on now.

THC – What advice can you give to a budding horror author? How can they get their work seen?

NZ – Good question. I think you’ve got to just keep writing and submitting. I mentioned the New England Horror Writers and NECON before. Find groups and conventions like that, where you can develop friendships and good relationships with other people doing what you’re trying to do. That’s where I’m at now. I am by no means an established horror author, but those folks have made me feel very welcome, like it’s not out of reach. You’re going to need that in moments when nothing is working.

THC – As I mentioned above, you are also a musician. How did your interest in music develop?

NZ – I was a big Muppets fan as a kid. I loved Animal and wanted to play drums. But I started out listening mostly to Muppets music, musical soundtracks, and country in elementary school. Oliver!, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, and Dr. Teeth. Around junior high, I discovered the Beatles watching Yellow Submarine, and then Rush, though a high school band that played our field day. I started playing the drums, like Animal and Ringo, but realized I wanted to write my own songs like the Beatles, so I learned to play guitar. How’s that for a convoluted origin story?

THC – How can people hear your music? Now that the world is getting back to normal, are you doing any live performances?

NZ – I’ve been very cautious about live performing in the pandemic. I’m immunocompromised, so playing the cafes and small clubs that I would usually play is problematic. I’ve done some outdoor stuff in the warmer months, and I have my fingers crossed I can get back to it in 2022. I do play live on Facebook and Instagram sometimes. I want to do that more regularly.

THC – You also host a podcast, The Department of Tangents. Tell us about your podcast? Why did you start it? What’s it about?

NZ – I’d wanted to start a podcast for a while before I launched The Department of Tangents in 2016, but I couldn’t figure out exactly how to approach it, and the technical aspects seemed daunting. I wanted to do something with comedy, music, or horror, and couldn’t decide, so I just called it The Department of Tangents and decided to interview people from each of those worlds.

THC – You do lots of interviews on your podcast, who have been your favorites regarding horror?

NZ – I decided to start doing actual seasons earlier this year, after just keeping the thing rolling in the first few years. So, the last season I had a great conversation with Paul Tremblay about writing Survivor Song, a book about an epidemic written months before an actual pandemic with some uncomfortable similarities hit. He actually posted an excerpt from it on Twitter a couple of months before it came out, describing the inadequate governmental response and mysterious onset of his fictional pandemic, saying, hey, uh, sorry about this, but please read my new book when it comes out.

Some other notable ones. I talked to Melanie R. Anderson and Lisa Kroger about their book Monster, She Wrote, about pioneering female horror writers. Aaron Lupton and Jeff Spirglas about their book Blood On Black Wax, which talks about horror soundtracks. Writer Pornsak Pichetshote and artist Aaron Campbell about their graphic novel Infidel. And there have been some more freewheeling discussions with comedian Lamont Price and another one from last season with Stay Scary Podcast hosts Lisa and Yinh. Again, I am leaving out too many people!  

THC – You’ve been a freelance contributor to The Boston Globe for many years. Do you ever get the opportunity to write articles on spooky topics? If so, what have been some favorites?

NZ – I haven’t written too much that’s horror-related for the Globe, other than a review of Tremblay’s Survivor Song and a couple of Halloween comedy shows. I will be pitching more of that this year to horror mags and book review publications. It’s something I’d like to do a lot more of.

THC – How can people find you?

NZ – All the usual places. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. Here’s the list of links:

Facebook – Writing and Music

https://www.facebook.com/NickZainoMusic

Facebook – The Department of Tangents

https://www.facebook.com/departmentoftangents

Twitter – Personal Account

https://twitter.com/nzaino

Twitter – Department of Tangents

https://twitter.com/Dept_o_Tangents

Instagram

https://www.instagram.com/departmentoftangents/

Music

https://nickzaino.bandcamp.com/

Department of Tangents

http://www.departmentoftangents.com/  

Wicked Creatures Anthology on Amazon:

A cartoon drawing of a zombie in cinema staff attire