Jeff Brackett is the author of Chucklers, which is a wildly fast-paced horror ride. The story features the outbreak of an ancient virus that turns victims into homicidal maniacs, with the odd side effect that they can’t stop finding the humor in everything around them. Think zombie apocalypse, if the zombies laughed maniacally the whole time. The prolific author was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and what he has on deck (pun intended).
nK: Welcome, Jeff. Great work on Chucklers. I really enjoyed it for the creep factor, and for the uniqueness of the story. Can you tell me where you draw inspiration for this type of writing?
JB: Thanks. I appreciate the kind words. I’m really glad you liked it.
As for the inspiration, well, that’s actually a pretty loaded question. And in order to answer it completely, I have to take you down the rabbit hole for a bit…
You see the process for this novel was so far out of the ordinary for me that it’s not even funny. The “Chucklers” trilogy (yes, it’s going to be a trilogy) isn’t like anything else I’ve written. First of all, I don’t normally write horror. That may account for the uniqueness you mentioned. Before this book, my only other foray into the genre was a short story I wrote for an anthology. The anthology was going to be a re-imagining of the old Universal Studios classic monsters. It was going to be a charity gig, and was being organized by horror author, Edward Lorn. Ed and I have been good friends since 2012, when we were both getting our feet wet with our writing and had both just released our first novels. We had the same editor, and she introduced us. We’ve been great friends ever since.
But when he asked me to do a story for his anthology, I initially declined. You see, the other authors he had lined up were already building their reputations as horror writers, while I had never written in the genre. My writing up to that point had been in the post-apocalyptic and sci-fi arenas, and to be perfectly honest, the idea of submitting alongside these other writers intimidated the hell out of me. But when he lost one of the other authors, he asked me again. To make a long story short (no pun intended), he finally convinced me, and the result was the short, “Ghost Story”. I was pretty nervous about submitting it, but after reading it, he and a few others really seemed to like it, telling me I had a knack for horror.
So when Ed approached me later with the idea that we collaborate on a novel together, I agreed. He wanted to expand on a short story he had published in which people began laughing and killing each other for no apparent reason. His thinking was that since I was familiar with the PA genre, and he was familiar with the horror genre, we could complement one another’s writing to create a good apocalyptic horror tale. It worked for a while, but life seemed to have other ideas about our collaboration. In the end, I wrote too slowly, and Ed ended up with a rather lucrative offer that was just too good to pass up. When the smoke had cleared, he was going to have to dedicate all his time to a new project, but gave me his blessing and turned the project over to me.
However, with Ed gone, I didn’t feel right using anything that he had written. So I pretty much started over on it. If you read the author’s notes in the book, you know that there are some pretty awesome scenes that Ed wrote… scenes that will never see the light of day. That’s something I really regret.
So I suppose the short answer is that the inspiration for the book was Ed’s short story “He Who Laughs Last“. But as you can see, there is quite a bit more to it than that.
nK: The cruise ship was such a great setting for an outbreak. What made you decide to use that particular setting?
JB: I like to mix just enough science into my writing so that the reader feels comfortable taking that trip with me into the unbelievable. So when developing the story, I wanted to come up with a plausible cause for people suddenly breaking out into bouts of laughter, while at the same time being compelled to attack others. I came up with the idea of an extremophile virus that was trapped in a sub-glacial lake beneath the Antarctic ice caps. Research told me that there are lakes as big as some of the Great Lakes beneath the icecaps, and that they have been locked away from the rest of the world for millions of years. From there is wasn’t much of a leap for me to hypothesize that such a lake might contain a virus that is older than humanity, itself.
So if such a lake were to be released from its imprisonment, pouring its contents into the world’s oceans, it just seemed logical that one of the worst places to be would be on a cruise ship. Just think… you’re out on an ocean cruise, on what should be one of the best times of your life. The ship enters a massive bioluminescent slick on the water, and suddenly you’re trapped on a ship where the majority of people around you become laughing, insane, homicidal killers. Where are you going to go? How do you survive?
nK: I found Chucklers thanks to our friend, A.F. Grappin, who appears (sort of) in the story. Did you have these characters already fleshed out (pardon the pun) or did the characters come about due to your beta readers?
JB: It’s a bit of both, actually. There is a saying that writers are usually either plotters (plotting out a story in advance, using outlines, character synopses, etc.) or they are pantsers (writing the story by the seat of their pants, as if trying to write down the scenes of a movie playing in their heads). I’m more of a pantser. When I start writing, I usually have a basic plot idea in my mind… maybe some key scenes, and if I’m lucky, I’ll know how the story ends.
As I begin writing, the story just comes to me. And I’ve found that when I need a character, there are often volunteers who are more than willing to let me use their name in my books. It started with a former boss of mine, whom I still count as a good friend. When he found out that I was also a writer, he was more than eager for me to use his name in one of my books. Since then, I simply make it a habit of taking to my Facebook page whenever I need names for the grist. I put out the call for people to volunteer their names for use as characters, and I usually end up with more volunteers than I need.
That’s how the character of August Grappin came about… or at least, that’s how the character came to be named. The funny thing is, I originally intended for him to be a red-shirt. But that’s another facet of being a pantser. Characters don’t always do what you think they should. Sometimes, like in the case of August, they go off on their own and behave in the most interesting ways. That’s when some of the best story-telling occurs.
nK: There’s one chapter that is actually from the point-of-view of a dolphin. Any unusual research that you had to do for that particular scene?
JB: I don’t know that you would call it unusual. You see, I’m what you might call a research junkie. I have a tendency to spend much more time researching things for my books than I probably should. As an example, I once spent three days researching atmospheric conditions, types of photosynthesis, stellar classifications, and the frequency of various star types in our galaxy, all for a five thousand word short story in an anthology.
So for the dolphin interlude chapter, I did research a bit into the intelligence levels and social structures of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Since the virus in the book begins in the ocean, and it affects the infected creature’s sense of humor, I had to make sure that cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises, whales, etc) could be affected the way I imagined.
I wanted something that would stress to the reader just how broad the range of this disease really was, and let them know that absolutely no one with enough intelligence to understand the simplest of jokes, was safe from its affects.
nK: The scene descriptions really make it feel to the reader that they’re in Houston or its suburbs. What made you decide on that setting?
JB: That one was easy for me. I was raised in and around Houston. So with the focus in the story beginning with the outbreak in the Gulf of Mexico, it was a simple leap for me to set the land based scenarios in an area where I’d lived for most of my life. The Houston metroplex offers really a huge and varied setting, too. I mean, you can go from the wide open spaces of some of the suburbs, to the densely populated concrete jungles of downtown Houston. And that’s exactly what I tried to do.
So spoiler alert… Remember the outbreak in the movie theater at the mall in Katy? That theater actually exists. The mall exists. The car dealership exists. The streets and overpasses that the characters travel, all really exist. Of course, there are plenty of imagined places in the story, as well. The barbeque diner, for instance. But I tend to straddle the line between imagination and reality when it comes to my world building. It makes it easier for the reader to take that journey with me.
nK: You delve into military intelligence, hoarders, the CDC, nursing forums, pretty much all over the road. How much of that was from your own background and how much was from research?
JB: Some of it goes back again to me being a research junkie. I mean, before this, I never even knew that there was a CDC facility in the Houston area. But in researching possible reactions to a pandemic like the one in Chucklers, I stumbled across the fact that the CDC maintains quarantine stations at several major airports across the US, including one at Bush Intercontinental Airport.
And yes, some of it also comes from my background. For example, my son was in NJROTC in high school, and went into a Naval Academy preparatory program afterwards. As his father, I was privileged to get to meet some fantastic military officers and their families, and I got to catch glimpses of some of what they go through in order to protect our country.
And the interlude with the forum post is actually an adaptation that I read on a survival forum. Remember the “bath salts” craze a few years back, when people were going nuts and chewing off their victims faces? Well one of the members on the forum was a nurse, and had something very similar to that chapter actually happen to him.
nK: What’s next for you? I know you have more projects in the works, which you’re very transparent about on your website. Any upcoming appearances or releases?
JB: No appearances. I’m afraid the budget won’t allow that at the moment. You know, starving artist and all that. I have a new release that just came out a few weeks ago. It’s a new novel in my post-apocalyptic, “Half Past Midnight” series, and it’s titled “Year 12“.
As for what’s next, I’m currently working on a novella in the “Half Past Midnight” world, entitled “Crazy Larry”. That will likely be the last of my HPM writing for a while. In the meantime, I’m also working on a completely new book series for Severed Press. It is set in the late Triassic era, and the working title is “End Point Pangaea”. That means I’ll be rotating between the “Chucklers” trilogy, the “Pangaea” trilogy, and my futuristic detective “Amber Payne” series. Bottom line, I’ll have plenty to keep me busy for quite some time to come.