Christopher Leppek and Emanuel Isler talk Abattoir and what makes great horror
Christopher Leppek (left) and Emanuel Isler
In Abattoir, the new novel by local horror authors Christopher Leppek and Emanuel Isler, an aging building gets renovated into trendy lofts, but its violent past remains hidden beneath the new surface. The duo's second novel -- following 2001's Chaosicon -- is, as Leppek puts it, a "haunted house on steroids," classic horror story turned up to eleven.
Before Leppek and Isler's release event for Abattoir onn Tuesday, July 10 at the Tattered Cover Colfax, we talked with them about the book, how they work together, and what makes good horror.
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Westword: How did you guys start working together?
Emanuel Isler: Chris came to interview me for a story, because I used to be the financial representative for the state of Israel. He was sent by the Jewish News to interview me and it was awful because every time he asked me a question I said, "I can't answer that." I was all paranoid and everything; it was all these off-the-record things. To make a long story short, we actually didn't like each other at first, but he saw on my bookshelf in my office that I had [Edgar Allan] Poe, and that melted the proverbial ice. We found that we had a common love for horror, so just on a whim we said, "Why don't we, just for the hell of it, write a story together?" And we did. We actually followed through and wrote a story together and it sold. What was it, $10?
Christopher Leppek: I think we made twenty bucks
Isler: That gave us the confidence that maybe there was some talent there. We did it because it was a great release. That was how we started writing. It was our interest and we didn't care if we made millions on it. It didn't ever have to do with money. It'll never have anything to do with money. We like this dark world, and we like to entice people into our dark world and they seem to enjoy it.
Had either of you written horror before that, or was this something that started with your collaboration?
Leppek: I published a Sherlock Holmes mystery a couple years before Chaosicon came out. I think the only horror we'd ever done was amateur, kicking-around-at-home kind of stuff. We really concentrated on this as a collaboration all the way and developed a common voice. It actually didn't take that long to develop that, but it's taken us a while to hone it. We think it's pretty well honed by the time we get to this book. It's always a work in progress. We're still trying to improve, we're still trying to get better at what we do. We're trying to be more original than we were in the past. Again, I think we sort of pulled it off with this book.
What's your working process? How do you collaborate on the actual writing?
Isler: I learned the collaborative process in Los Angeles, because the agency I was with, our niche was basically comedy. We represented the majority of the really hot television writers. from M*A*S*H* to Happy Days to Alice to Welcome Back Kotter, we had all these people. Invariably, all these people collaborated. It's very rare to see a teleplay written by one person, it's all collaborative. It goes back to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen on Your Show of Shows sitting in an office. They're all collaborative. With us, it was just a natural process and we think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Leppek: Literally every word in that book was spoken out. We sit at the computer at the same time. I usually keyboard, Mani usually sits to the side, and we literally talk the entire book out vocally. It also helps in the sense that dialogue sounds a lot more [real]. You can test your dialogue a lot more effectively if you speak it out than if you write. It can come out really contrived if you don't speak it. So that helps us. We go through a very painstaking process. It took us us two years to write [Abattoir] and it's a relatively short novel.
So you just sit at the computer, talking back and forth, saying the words out as you type them?
Isler: Visualizing. Our style is a very visual style, compared to other people.
Leppek: And occasionally cursing each other. It's not a peaceful process, necessarily. We have different approaches to things. We don't always see eye to eye. There are times when we sit down and have to stop and say, "Okay, let's hash it out, write it out and decide how this is going to be."
Isler: Drama is about conflict and we have conflict. That makes better drama.
Leppek: It's not like "Kumbaya." No "Kumbaya."
Has the process evolved since your first novel, or has it always worked pretty much the same way for you?
Leppek: We've gone from short stories to novels. We did a noir mystery set in Denver that we're hoping someday might see the light of day. We've kind of gone back and forth, we've even played with film a little bit, but the novels are the things that we're obviously proud of. That's the main objective, to get something in book form. We've got an option on a movie deal for [Abattoir] and we're keeping our fingers crossed for something good there.
Give us a short summary of what we can expect from Abattoir.
Isler: Basically the story is about fear. The plotline is that you have a very respected, well-known architect who decides to go all in and quits his job, and puts his treasure and everything into this project. The project is to transform this ugly, brick, utilitarian building into these beautifully appointed and designed lofts. What happens in the story is he's able to fulfill his dream but as people start moving in, everybody is confronted with their worst fear. What we've tried to accomplish here is do a set-up that's in many ways a stereotypical ghost story. It's all about atmosphere, the secret of horror.
Leppek: You've got to mention that the building he develops was, in the early twentieth century, a slaughterhouse.
Isler: It's about fear, it's about darkness, and it's about redemption.
The first chapter certainly seems to imply something of a classic haunted house story.
Isler: That's what we want you to think. We want our readers to think that this is a very good ghost story, but we wanted to do something very fresh, very exciting and hopefully that will surprise the reader. It's not like what you'd expect.
Leppek: It's kind of like a haunted house on steroids. If you know the traditional haunted house model, it's that something terrible happened in the past and traces of that, either in the form of a ghost or some sort of negative energy, persist into the present and manifest themselves, usually in awful ways. Can you imagine the experience of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of cattle and pigs who went through this building knowing that they were facing imminent death? The fear that was generated by these victims never really left the bricks of that building. You can plaster and you can put new tile in and you can put new climate control systems in, but what it was is still there. That's the haunted house cliche, in many ways, on steroids. We've taken it a step beyond that. There's a part we can't discuss. There's a twist, another dimension to this. There's a little girl who's five years old, her name is Anna. She's the only one in the book that knows what's going on, and she can't tell anyone.
What are your influences from within the horror genre? The fear thing and the little girl seem to suggest a strong Stephen King influence, maybe a little bit of The Shining meets It?
Leppek: There's no horror writer today who is not influenced by Stephen King. Beyond him we have a lot to owe to Richard Matheson, to Ray Bradbury, to H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson and a whole bunch of others. King is definitely there, but if you were to look at our previous novel, there's a lot more Stephen King [in it].
Isler: Steve Rasnic [Tem]
Leppek: He's a local guy, he wrote one of our blurbs. There's actually a pretty cool community of horror writers in the Denver area. There's Edward Bryant, who won a Nebula for some of his science fiction work. You have Steve Rasnic Tem, Dan Simmons. Of course, Stephen King did some work while he was here. He wrote The Shining based on his time in Colorado. So there's a tradition of good horror in Colorado that we're trying to become a part of.
Is there anything else you want to mention?
Isler: We learned when Chaosicon came out that a very large majority of the readership was women, and women do not read horror, but they loved it. We don't know what this means, but we'd like to write for everybody. Hopefully the people who like suspense with a little romance will like our work, and the people who like zombies will like us. You can't please everybody, but we try to write from heart, and it's all about the story.
Read more from Leppek and Isler at their website, BloodOnTheRainbow.com
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