As a writer, I always cringe when I hear other writers give the advice that a book should be “cinematic”: that it should be written not only to give the reader the same thrill that they’d get at the movies, but also that it be custom-built to try to sell ancillary rights to a film company in order to rake in the dough. While I do think that most writers wouldn’t be able to make a living without film option income, I often think that fiction is supposed to be fiction first. In fact, some of the best books in the world are those that can ONLY be books, because they really make the most out of the form — and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film adaptation usually sucks skunkwater.
And then I read an exception to the rule and I bite my tongue.
John Skipp’s latest book, Conscience, is just such a book. The back cover claims it was “designed to be read in one sitting — in roughly the time it takes to watch a feature film” — and it succeeds at delivering its nightmare with the immediacy of a bullet to the brain. Conscience — a dark crime story about a vicious killer who discovers his conscience during a massacre — is an excellent novella. When I put it down, I felt breathless and more than a little astounded at what he’d managed to pull off. Its pace reminded me a little bit of Douglas Winter’s novel, Run — a great suspense fiction that experiments with pace and reads like a car chase. But Conscience accomplishes this while seated firmly behind the driver’s seat that is the mind of a killer, careening toward his destiny. As I read Conscience, I was impressed by Skipp’s talent at writing psychological fiction that doesn’t get mired down in moody explorations of the mind, but rather moves rapidly toward its inevitable conclusion. Even though the story is loaded with interior monologue and moments of psychological soul-searching that would threaten to bog down any other book, Skipp’s lean prose, sharp style, and quick rhythm makes this story gallop along at the breakneck pace of Hollywood cinema. And it drips with the noirish charm of a Quentin Tarantino film, as the narrator muses over love, life, and all that corrupts it… even while he’s blasting someone’s head off with a shotgun.
Perhaps it’s not fair to compare Skipp to Q. Although this he is definitely a writer channelling the culture of Hollywood and Los Angeles, Skipp’s crime writing reflects the deep introspection and wit of Jim Thompson’s twisted noir — on several shots of espresso. This book — while fast-paced — isn’t as hyperactive and self-referential as a Tarantino film; though it races, it is instead powered by a strongly crafted voice And it’s only appropriate, I think, that Skipp — a progenitor of the “splatterpunk” movement when he collaborated with Craig Spector a decade ago on bestselling books like The Light at the End or The Scream — rediscovers his own voice in the mind of a madman.
In his introduction to the story, Skipp calls this a sort of antithesis to the “Big Fat Contemporary Novel” — but the book as a whole is very thick indeed. Conscience is, in fact, just one novella in a collection of works that weighs in at 321 pages long. If I had to come up with one word for the book, I’d call it “generous”! It features some great historical documents from Skipp’s writing career, all of which — bound together — really give you a strong sense of what makes this writer unique. The book features six short stories (two of them short-shorts) and a full-length screenplay (which is much longer than Conscience itself!) for a story called Johnny Death. The stories made me nostalgic (three were reprints from books I’d read before, like the brutal tale, “Film at Eleven” which appeared in David J. Schow’s anthology, Silver Scream in 1988), but they stand up to re-reading, especially from the context of this book, which allows you to contrast his early entries into brutality against his writing today. I also enjoyed the inclusion of two rare short-shorts — “A Quickee” and “Welcome to Here.” The screenplay, Johnny Death, while very different than Conscience, is still a great study in how to write a bizarre film with a big budget feel. Skipp’s imagination is wild; he really knows how to entertain. And the introductions to all of the pieces in this book give readers a welcome insight into the ingenious mind of John Skipp. You’ll get remarks on the writing process, the patterns in his work that define him as an independent writer, and reflections on the Skipp and Spector days and the events that led to their creative separation.
What I learned from reading this book was not only that cinematic writing can succeed, but that John Skipp has >always< been a writer with a conscience, even in his most splattery of gore fiction. He's a writer of great insight and honesty — what makes him different today, I think, could very well be a more developed sense of humility in his fiction. As he says at one point in the book, "I just want a better world. That's all. And I'd like to point out that we ain't there yet." I think this simple sentiment lies behind a lot of what Skipp writes.
Friendly Firewalk Press — Skipp's own imprint — makes Conscience available as a trade paperback. The quality of the book is good and you really do get a trove of Skipp material for the $19.99 price. It's available through amazon.com or John Skipp's home page. (His "Eats" project — something of a custom-built homage to Wacky Packages — made the Goreletter's "Weird Links of the Month" last issue; if you like that, you might like his weblog, called "The Hard Way," too).