When it comes to describing the work of novelist and freethinking conservo-libertarian provocateur Thomas F. Monteleone, it is difficult to beat the introduction John DeChancie penned for the excellent short story collection Rough Beasts and Other Mutations:
Guys like Tom are thorns in the side of the rat-runners and the reductionists, the determinists and the dialectical materialists; those who would pin us all, wriggling, against the laboratory wall or preserve us in the formaldehyde of ideology.
Such iconoclasm sets Monteleone more apart than one might presume: Though the realms of dark and speculative fiction are rife with transgressive imagery and scenarios, there is an oddly submissive tendency amongst many of its creators to seek cultural respectability with a patina of milquetoast proselytizing and stock villains straight out of liberal central casting — Sure, we write for this outré genre, but look how well we tow the dominant progressive cultural line!
In contrast, Monteleone not only eschews groupthink, he appears downright allergic to it. Exhibit A: More than three decades worth of eclectic, vibrant novels and short story collections; an acerbic Twitter feed; his long running Cemetery Dance column, The Mothers and Fathers Italian Association; and five much-lauded anthologies edited for Borderland Press alongside his spry, feisty wife Elizabeth, of whom he declares, “She’s my rudder, my conscience…and she’s also probably prevented me and my big mouth from getting shot at least a couple times!”
“I attended a Jesuit high school,” Monteleone begins by way of explaining the origins of his intertwined aesthetic and political philosophies, “and the most valuable lesson I learned there was, no what you learn in life or from whom, always ask the next question.”
“One thing that attracted me to this rogue outlaw genre was that it allowed writers to ask that next question — to say and do and examine things that weren’t part of the mainstream,” he continues. “I definitely didn’t get into this to think like everyone else or to write stuff that reads like the latest issue of People magazine! Whenever someone feels the need to couch a story in social justice bulls–t, you have to wonder if they might not have a subcutaneous discomfort with the core of the genre they’ve adopted. I don’t.”
That’s not to say Monteleone stands on a soapbox as he types out his fiction. Subtlety and a dedication to storytelling are more Monteleone’s bag than preaching — even if the writer admits that when faced with “a supernally stupid supernova of numb-nuttery” he might “go off the reservation” and unsheathe a devastating riposte. (See, for example, Monteleone’s novella, “The Prime Time of Spenser Golding” — essentially a spectacular Socratic demolition of moral relativism chic by way of the Twilight Zone, featuring a big city reporter/servant of the “Media Moloch” who gets more than he bargains for at a mystical rest stop in “fly-over country.”) Truth is, work wriggling up from a transcendent foundational ferment is bound to exude a deeper kind of honesty in all its myriad manifestations, and, above all, Monteleone is an honest writer.
“Outside of losing a child, which is every parent’s worst nightmare, you know what really scares me?” he says. “Losing freedom of expression. Losing individualism, autonomy. These are things I care about deeply.”
“I THINK I WAS ALWAYS A MUTANT,” Monteleone laughs. “I can’t remember ever not being interested in the Twilight Zone or skeletons or people coming back from the dead. My dad was this working class machinist guy who got out of World War II and went to work in the Bethlehem Steel shipyard for thirty something years, but he lived with his head in the clouds. He loved flying saucers and horror movies. He read me dinosaur books and Edgar Rice Burroughs. My dad was a mutant that never really got to be one because he had to work all the time, and he passed the gene on to me.”
Even as a child, however, Monteleone was no mooch. During the week he would collect glass bottles, turn them in at the local firehouse on a Saturday for a couple cents apiece, then run to the pharmacy next door to buy horror comics with the proceeds.
“One night when I was probably eight or nine years old my father comes into my room and catches me reading an issue of Witches Tales,” Monteleone recalls. “The cover was really grotesque — a guy is up in a belfry crazily tugging the bell rope and the clapper is this woman’s head. You do the math. Anyway, my dad takes the comic from me, looks at it, and just shakes his head. I’m sure he’s going to tear it up and throw it in the garbage. Instead he hands it back to me and says, ‘Better not let Mom see this one.’ You know…dad was cool! He could dig it! I came by my mutant genes honestly!”
Monteleone’s family self-identified as FDR Democrats, but the 1960s iteration of lock-step liberalism on his college campus failed to impress him. “I never bought into the hippie bullshit,” he says. “I thought the Weather Underground were a bunch of dirty assholes.” One day a fellow student suggested he check out this novel, The Fountainhead. “I did, and I was like, ‘Roark is me, man. I can see that.'” Atlas Shrugged followed, leaving an even bigger impression: To this day Monteleone views the tome as both book and “barometer.”
“What’s endlessly fascinating to me about Rand is that her work never goes out of style,” he says. “She had this weird prescience. Remember the antitrust suit Clinton’s Justice Department brought against Microsoft because the government considered them too successful in the free-market? Substitute Rearden Metal for Microsoft and you’re back to Atlas. Look at everything that’s gone on the last four years. Back to Atlas. It never ends. There will always be a segment of liberal America that can’t understand why people weren’t beating each other over the head to buy Soviet toasters.”
In the future, the nobility of the striving individual and the siege of achievement by collectivist forces would become motifs in Monteleone’s own work as well, from his parable of supernatural government corruption The Resurrectionist and the horrors precipitated by the triumph of the idle man (“Identity Crisis”) to “Camera Obscura,” a rumination on the idiosyncratic nature of artistic actualization (“He had broken all the rules by establishing new ones; his work sang his message to the critics with all the subtlety of a Beethoven symphony”) and “Mister Magister,” a sweet tale of nonconformist salvation.
To simply describe the wellspring and then skip ahead to the consequent body of work, however, does not do justice to the industry and travail between. Which is to say, after college Monteleone began writing stories, collecting the requisite rejection slips and slowly honing his work, finding his voice. In 1972 he sold a story to Amazing Stories and never looked back. Since then he has published more than one hundred short stories, over twenty novels, and literally wrote the book on writing books, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel.
Monteleone might not have a head on a rope, but he sure as hell knows how to ring a bell.
Yet he toils primarily in a genre, which, though well-rooted in the American literary tradition — Poe, Hawthorne, Washington Irving — exists to adopt the in the (ahem) borderlands.
“When you say you write horror or weird dark fantasy you’ll sometimes get a look from people like they feel as if maybe they’ve gotta get you one of those pamphlets to help save your soul,” Monteleone says. “Explaining that literature full of scary scenarios and violence can be ultimately uplifting or enriching or inspiring can be a tough sell. You’re not going to convert everyone. But at its best this is a genre that shocks, yes, but it is also one that can open your mind up to new perspectives, take your thinking down paths its probably never been down before, and address fears that otherwise go unspoken. It can be a wonderful thing.”
And while Monteleone is as grateful for honest constructive criticism as the next successful artist, those hoping tut-tutting from self-proclaimed cultural arbiters will shut him up are bound to be disappointed.
“At some point you have to pull the lever and throw it into gear,” Monteleone says of his process. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I don’t need a mirror on a stick to find my own ass.”