There’s just something about amusement parks that lends itself to the sinister — just ask about half the villains from Scooby-Doo and Batman. Maybe it’s the animatronic figures that create an uncanny valley of joy and terror, or the sense of temporary and purposeful semi-danger, from thrill rides to the dietary fun of deep-frying a Twinkie. And then the greater thrill of more rides after you’ve eaten that oily sweetness and it's sitting in your stomach like an angry food-baby. That stomach churn you might be re-experiencing right now from the mention of amusement parks past? That’s sort of what Jon Bassoff’s novel Captain Clive’s Dreamworld is all about.
In this, the month we set aside each year for scares and tricks and treats and spirits, we talked with the Colorado author about his latest novel, writing the bizarre, and general weirdness.
Westword: Captain Clive's Dreamworld just hit stores this month. Was October the purposeful launch for this weird and haunting story?
Jon Bassoff: I know the folks at Blackstone Audio and Eraserhead Press wanted to get this creepy novel out near Halloween to put people in the mood. Personally, I was hoping it would be released around Christmas or Valentine’s Day to counteract all the Hallmark movies. But an author only has so much say.
Where did the idea come from to invent this amusement park to tell this story of (as one of your blurbs says) "the crumbling skeleton of the American Dream"?
A few years back, I went with my family to Disney World. You want a traumatic experience? Go to Disney World. I remember seeing all the moms and dads and children trying so hard to be happy. Grins plastered on faces. Forced laughter echoing on the filthy concrete. And as I staggered down Main Street and dodged my way around families wearing matching Disney outfits and Mickey ears, I couldn’t help but feel a bit suffocated by the mythos — not only of Disneyworld, but of America. I figured there was a horror story somewhere in there. And so I created the amusement park of Captain Clive’s Dreamworld and the company town of Angels and Hope, a place where neighbors greet neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight. Where children chase fireflies. Where porch swings provide easy refuge from the cares of the day. And where girls are vanishing without a trace.
What is it about amusement parks — especially abandoned ones — that so intrigues us? They’ve always had a weird and often threatening place in our pop culture. What's that about?
It’s the ghosts, I think. When you have these places that were once full of laughter and screams, once full of crowds and rides and smells, and then it’s all gone…well, that can be disquieting. It reminds us that life doesn’t go on forever. That the conductor must end the ride eventually. And then there are the structures themselves. There’s something powerful about seeing those towering machines felled by time and circumstances. But I’m weird. I find those abandoned places comforting. But then, that’s why I’ve spent so much time in therapy.
Speaking of weirdness, that sense plays a huge role in this book. The odd and offbeat and inexplicable have always been a draw in a story, especially in comic books and television. Were you a fan of the comic books (Weird War Tales, Strange Adventures, anything from EC in the ’50s and early ’60s), or the TV shows (Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, Tales From the Darkside) and so on?
You know, the only comic I really read growing up was Archie. I don’t think that quite fits into the genre, although Jughead was a pretty odd dude. But as an adult, I’m always looking for strange books and movies. I love me some David Lynch: Lost Highway, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive. So great. But if you want to see a truly off-the-wall movie, you should see this French movie called Holy Motors. It is absolutely bonkers.
I’ve also long loved all the surreal painters and especially the surreal writers, guys like Bruno Schulz and Alfred Kubin and, of course, Kafka. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me energized.
So what are your models in the horror/bizarre fiction genre today? Who do you read for inspiration?
There are so many great contemporary writers. Paul Trembley is fantastic. He wrote a book called Headful of Ghosts, which is incredible. I love Kathe Koja. Joe Lansdale. Ramsey Campbell. I just read this book called Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and I really dug it. And then in the bizarro realm, you have guys like Danger Slater and Carlton Mellick III, both of whom are great writers who happen to write really weird books. It’s encouraging that there is so much strange, demented stuff out there to discover.
Eraserhead Press is a unique sort of publisher, one with which this book seems to fit perfectly. How did you find that small press? How do you see the importance of niche presses like Eraserhead?
This is the second novel I’ve published with Eraserhead. The first one was called The Drive-Thru Crematorium, and I knew that after I finished that one, getting any mainstream publisher to touch it would be a reach. But Rose O’Keefe, who runs Eraserhead, loves her some weird books, so it was a great fit. Then she took on Captain Clive’s Dreamworld, so I feel very fortunate. They’re based in Portland, and I just love the press so much. Every year, they run something called BizarroCon, which is where a bunch of writers and readers of the weird get together and do weird stuff. I think having those kinds of niche presses is crucial, especially in this age where just a few publishers hold so much power. I have nothing against publishers like Simon & Schuster and Penguin — they publish a lot of great books — but they are less likely to take chances on weird and bizarre novels because of the bottom line. Publishers like Eraserhead can afford to take those risks since everything is at a much smaller scale. I’m also really thankful that Blackstone Audio agreed to do the audio version. I think this book is pretty different from most of their other titles.
Your bio says that not only do you teach high school English, but you're also "a connoisseur of tequila, hot sauces, psychobilly music, and flea-bag motels." Where do you teach, and what are you known for in terms of your teaching?
I teach at Longmont High. I’ve been here for five years but have been teaching for about twenty years in all. What am I known for as a teacher? That’s a question I don’t know if I want to know the answer to. I guess that depends on the student and if they’re on the record or not. I think for some of them, I’m known as a strange but fun teacher, somebody who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Somebody who loves teaching them how to write and watching them grow as students and people. And then there are the rest, who spend each waking day muttering under their collective breaths about how they want to knife me when I’m asleep. Those are the kids I like the best.
So how does your writing life cross over into your teaching life? Do your students read your books and talk with you about them?
The students are definitely aware that I’m a writer, mainly because I’m narcissistic and have all of my books sitting on my desk. I never push them to read my books because I’m sure I’d be fired, but every year, a few kids take the plunge and pick one of my books to read. There was this one girl who asked to read one of my books, and when she finished, she said, “Mr. Bassoff, I’ll never be able to look at you the same way.” I took that as a compliment.
Okay, rapid fire: best tequila?
Now you’re talking my game! I’ll go local for the tequila. From right here in Longmont: Dry Land Distillers Cactus Reposado.
Weirdest hot sauce that was also worth the pain?
I’m all about the habanero. So I’ll recommend Area 51, The Hot Sauce That Doesn’t Exist. Bizarre and tasty.
Best psychobilly album to own on vinyl?
For pure psychobilly ugliness on vinyl, you should get In Sickness & In Health, by Demented Are Go!.
Most quintessential, fleabaggiest motel?
For fleabag motels, you can’t go wrong with the No-Tel Motel in Tucson. Some of the best hourly rates in the Southwest. Great for honeymoons and other regrettable events.
And finally, in local strangeness: weirdest Colorado locale deserving of its own unsettlingly dark novel?
Ward is one of the weirder places in Colorado. When you arrive, there are dozens of broken down and abandoned cars from the last fifty years, a not-so-subtle warning for outsiders to stay away. And once you get out of your car and tiptoe through town, you begin to notice that there are no people, but dozens of dogs. The streets all seem to have "Do Not Enter" signs on both sides. It's very disconcerting. Actually, the town of Ward makes a subtle appearance in my novel Corrosion. I'm pretty sure that if you spend more than an hour there that you go stark raving mad.
Jon Bassoff’s new novel, Captain Clive’s Dreamland, is available and ready to weird you out now.