…and meet author Joe Bonadonna, the master of heroic fantasy, a lover of Captain Blood and Greek mythology, and a force behind many hellish stories in Heroes in Hell series!
Joe Bonadonna has written the heroic fantasy novel, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, published by iUniverse; a sword and sorcery pirate adventure called Waters of Darkness (with David C. Smith), published by Damnation Books; and the space opera, Three Against The Stars, published by Airship 27 Productions. He’s also written stories for several anthologies, including: Azieran: Artifacts and Relics, published by Heathen Oracle; Griots: Sisters of the Spear, published by MVmedia; and Sinbad: The New Voyages, Vol. 4, published by Airship 27 Productions. For Perseid Press, Joe has stories appearing in Poets in Hell, Heroika: Dragon Eaters, and Doctors in Hell, and has just finished a novella for the next volume in the Heroes in Hell series. In addition to his fiction, Joe has written a number of articles and book reviews for Black Gate Magazine.
Joe, you’ve been a contributing writer to author and publisher Janet Morris’ Perseid Press for a few years now. How has that affected your writing?
Oh, definitely for the better. As well as being a great writer, Janet Morris is also an excellent editor. She has a terrific insight and knows how to get inside a story, to know when a story isn’t working and how to fix it. Great story instincts, you know? I think the three stories I’ve thus far written for her are my best work. I’ve had to “up my game” and approach my writing with more literary style and substance. What I like is that Janet wants character-driven tales, stories dealing with the wide range of human thoughts and emotions. It’s like putting three people from different cultures and traditions in a scene and let them talk, and after a time you see the dynamics between them, how they relate to one another, and how their beliefs and ideas may turn them into friends or enemies. Trust in your characters and they’ll lead you down the path to plot and story. I also try for a style of prose different from my usual “voice,” one with a more poetic flow more suited to the Heroes in Hell franchise. We’re working in the “worlds” of John Milton and Dante Alighieri here, in a shared-universe that covers the entire span of human history, as well as well all the various Hells, such as Hades, Sheol, and Niflheim. In Hell, we write about real people who, for the most part, lived and died prior to 1900. We can also write about fictional, legendary, and mythical characters, using the same criteria. And because we’re writing about real people —Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Mary Shelley, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and fictional or mythical characters such as Achilles, Victor Frankenstein, Lemuel Gulliver, and Quasimodo — we’re dealing with a richness of history that is quite unique in fantasy. So I wanted to compose my narratives and dialogue with as much literary style and grace as I could muster. Hell writers also do a lot of research — biographies, history, religion, mythology, folklore — which has helped me with plots and subplots.
My first story set in Hell, “We the Furious,” was written for Poets in Hell. My main characters are Victor Frankenstein, Adam (the Creature) Frankenstein, Galatea, and Mary Shelley. My aim here was to establish the relationships between them and pit them against a new breed of demons led by Lemuel Gulliver, who plots to usurp Satan’s throne and take over Hell. Not exactly fighting on the side of the angels, are they? One of the things I had fun with was having Victor’s brain transplanted into the skull of Adam, and Adam’s brain put inside the head of the infamous doctor. Then I made Adam and Galatea lovers, which seemed appropriate because neither had been sired by Man and born of Woman: they were created by mortal hands and brought to life by a “spark of the divine.” Now, this being Poets in Hell, I wrapped my characters and their mission inside a secondary plot involving a threat to all the poets, authors, screenwriters in Hell who thought they were romancing the Muses when all along they were consorting with demons.
The second story I wrote for Perseid Press was “The Dragon’s Horde,” for Heroika: Dragon Eaters, the first volume in a new anthology series of heroic fantasy. At first, this story reads like a straight-forward tale: men fighting a continuing cycle and scourge of dragons, and believing that by eating the flesh of a dragon they’ll become invincible in battle. These are not friendly or wise or telepathic dragons: these are monsters, bent on enslaving Mankind and turning us into cattle: we are below them on the food chain. It’s a kill and eat, or be killed and be eaten scenario. As the story develops, I inject an element of mystery, adding layers to each scene and then ending them with one revelation after another. The story is pretty simple in structure and nature, the main characters being a warrior who will do whatever it takes to save his people from a new breed of dragons, and a woman who will sacrifice anything and everything to save her children. The theme I chose for this is how all creatures on earth, Man and Beast, are related, are connected to a greater thread of a “divine” plan then mortals realize. And one of the revelations, without giving too much away, is that we don’t realize we are killing ourselves when we kill others. This story has a lot of action scenes, although I concentrate on the story between this warrior and the woman he accompanies on a quest to finally rid the world of dragons. The woman, by the way, a warrior in her own right, is protected by two very unusual wolverines.
Finally, the third story I wrote for Perseid Press is called “Hell on a Technicality,” for Doctors in Hell. I continue the adventures of Galatea and the Frankensteins, and introduce Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, as Doctor Frankenstein’s new lab assistant. Having a much better understanding about the nature of Hell, I had even more fun writing this one. In an earlier volume in the series, God has deemed Satan to be too lenient with the Damned, and thus sends Erra, the Babylonian god of plague and pestilence to show the Devil how it should be done. So now we are dealing with all sorts of plagues ravaging Hell and its lost souls. Victor Frankenstein concocts a vaccine to combat these plagues. However, Hell being Hell, the results are most disastrous . . . and Satan is quite pleased. The second part of this story concerns the efforts of Frankenstein’s Monster (whose brain is still housed in the doctor’s body) and Galatea to find out if they have souls or not. Remember, they are not “natural” creatures and may not even be truly human. If they don’t have souls, then is it possible they were sent to Hell due to some clerical error and can get out of Hell on a technicality, as per the title? They appear before a panel of experts on the nature of the soul: Imhotep, Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and other doctors of medicine and philosophy. But the egos of these brilliant men get in the way and the whole meeting erupts in a childish melee as they argue over whether the soul is located in the brain or in the heart. The final resolution, I think, is very satisfying and unexpected, and I hope readers will think so, too. The last scene, where we learn the fate of Victor’s Vaccine and what trick Satan has played on Doctor Frankenstein, is pure irony and pathos, two of the elements that make Hell so hellish. Perfect punishment for Victor, the man who thought he could play God. I am very proud of this story.
Did you always want to write fantasy/action/adventure?
Yep! My Dad, a huge film buff, introduced me to films at a very early age, and always brought home a variety of books for me to read. I was hooked on films like King Kong, Gunga Din, Beau Geste, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Captain Blood, The Vikings, Hercules (1959), Hercules Unchained (1960), Spartacus (1960), and so many others. I was watching Universal Monsters horror films when I was in kindergarten in 1956! I wasn’t inspired to write by Tolkien or Howard, but by television and motion pictures, especially the films of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, and especially Joseph Stefano, the creator of the original The Outer Limits, who deserves much greater credit than he has been given, were my earliest writing influences. I even wrote stories in those days that are now called “fan fiction.” My entire childhood revolved around motion pictures: the movies led me to reading Greek mythology, Knights of the Round Table, and Burton’s 1001 Arabian Nights. I devoured Classics Illustrated comics as fast as they could be published, and these led me to reading many of the novels on which they were based. It was actually through a magazine devoted to horror films, Castle of Frankenstein that I first heard about Robert E. Howard. Later, in about 1967, a high school friend told me about The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Then I began to read as many heroic fantasy, and sword & sorcery novels as I could get my hands on. I was born during the era when pulp magazines were still everywhere magazines were sold, and my favorites were Analog, Amazing Stories, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as what my parents read: Life, Look, Time, and The Saturday Evening Post. I continued to read science fiction and some horror for a time, while getting into mysteries, hard-boiled detective, westerns, and World War II thrillers. Then I started reading the Black Mask authors, and novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, Thieves Like Us, and The Real Cool Killers. I’ve read everything by Raymond Chandler, and I’m still working my way through Dashiell Hammett’s body of work.
What else can you tell us about your childhood, about growing up and how that plays into your writing?
I grew up on the west side of Chicago, Illinois. It was a huge neighborhood, with at least 5 public grade schools, one public high school, and I think two or three parochial schools. The largest, I believe, was Our Lady of Angels, the school I attended from 1957 to 1966. The neighborhood was filled with kids of all ages, from all these different schools, and we were neighbors and team mates in one sport or another. There were kids hanging out everywhere, and it was not unusual to see 200 or more kids hanging out in front of the church on a summer’s evening. We also had two parish centers, one of which was a gym, where even more kids hung out.
Now, on December 1, 1958, Our Lady of Angels was set on fire. (I won’t go into all the details or discuss who did it.) It was an extremely old, wooden building — a veritable fire trap. 92 kids and 3 nuns died in that fire, including the young girl who walked me to and from school every day. If had been born before December 1, 1951, (I was born January 1952,) I would have been in second grade and in the building that burned. Instead, I was down the street in one of the two homes donated to the parish and used for kindergarten and first grade. That tragedy affected the whole neighborhood, no matter what school or church you attended. This was the day I learned that not just old and sick people die . . . kids can die, too. There were no social workers or grief counselors in those days to help the survivors and the families who lost children in that fire. There’s a special bond between all of us kids that is unbreakable, even to this day. This was really my first experience with loss, and many of the kids I grew up with lost some member of their family in that fire. (You can Google OLA Fire and see videos and tributes of this tragic event, as well as the PBS documentary, Angels Too Soon, which is based on a book titled To Sleep with the Angels. Jonathan (Friga) Cain, long-time keyboardist for the band Journey, attended Our Lady of Angels and was in the fire. He wrote a heart-wrenching song called The Day They Became Angels, which he performed at the 50th anniversary mass in 2008.)
So what has all this to do with my writing? Well, it’s what shaped me as a human being and as a writer. The theme of loss plays into a lot of my stories: The six novellas that comprise Mad Shadows each deal with loss of one kind or another. And writing for Heroes in Hell is a perfect outlet for dealing with sorrow, guilt and loss. Grief is the price we pay for love. Death is the price we pay for life.
Besides your “legacy character,” the heroic fantasy private eye, Dorgo the Dowser, which of your characters do you find the most fascinating?
Well, I’ve always identified with the “lone wolf” characters such as Philip Marlowe, Quasimodo, the monsters from Universal Pictures, and even Conan, to some extant; probably because I’m an only child. Dorgo the Dowser, the star of my novel, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser is a loner, in spite of all his friends and associates. He’s a smart-ass, often down on his luck, and loves women so much he can decide on which one is “the one.” He is extremely curious about all things, has a very open mind, and loves a good mystery and a good brawl . . . and of course he sometimes walks that fine line between the Light and the Dark.
But I have to say that Victor Frankenstein truly intrigues me: he symbolizes all the broken dreams, the shattered hopes and the plans gone awry that most people can identify with, I believe. Good intentions gone bad . . . and as we all know, the road to Hell is paved with those. Frankenstein was a good man whose obsession with conquering death overwhelmed him, drove him insane, and he was punished in life for daring to play God from the very moment the creature he brought back from the dead first opened his eyes. Frankenstein’s Monster, (called Adam at one point in Shelley’s novel), murdered Victor’s wife, family members and retainers, and went on a rampage that brought nothing but remorse and horror to Victor’s life. I see Victor as a truly tragic figure. His punishment continues on in death, in the bowels of Hell. He and Adam are now reconciled and embrace each other as father and son. Hey — when in Hell, you make the best of a bad situation. (There is an interesting correlation between Victor Frankenstein and a real life physician/vivisectionist named Konrad Dipple, who was born in Castle Frankenstein and was practicing his profession in Geneva, Switzerland during the time Mary and Percy Shelley were traveling through Switzerland. Many scholars believe Dipple to be the inspiration for Shelley’s most infamous creation.)
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing, off and on, since grade school. I wrote my first “story” in 5th grade, about 1962-63. This was a sequel to “Nightmare,” an episode of the original The Outer Limits. I later wrote a play I had hoped to “produce and direct” in my parents’ basement. It was called “The Return of the Greatest Monster Ever,” a sequel to Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. (You can see how the Frankenstein films, as well as Mary Shelley’s novel, sparked my fascination with Victor Frankenstein.) In high school I wrote a sequel to Jason and the Argonauts, and there’s some type of Ray Harryhausen “creature” in almost everything I write. I also wrote poems and songs, and played guitar in local rock bands from 1964 to 1984. In 1983 I wrote a screenplay, a crazy fantasy based on my job, and between 1997 and 2001 I wrote 5 screenplays, none of which sold. I was a board member of the Chicago Screenwriter’s Network from 1998 to 2002. I also write the occasional article for Black Gate e-Magazine.
In what direction do you think your work is now heading?
I’m attempting to write stories that are more literary and serious in nature, while still remaining firmly rooted in the sword & sorcery and heroic fantasy genres. My characters want me to go delve deeper, to tackle some social issues, if possible. I’m more interested in writing about characters and their relationships than I am with writing the next action scene, slaying the next monster. I can sit all day and let my characters talk. But when it comes to action scenes, I’m hard-pressed and often grow quickly bored: it’s a challenge for me to write fight and battle scenes, but not the sort of challenge that inspires me. What inspires me is planting the plot device, the “McGuffin,” as Alfred Hitchcock called it, and surrounding it with as interesting a cast of characters as I can devise. Then I let them do whatever they want to, for and against one another in their efforts to steal and sell, use or destroy the McGuffin. I want to say something about life and the human condition, without turning my stories into lectures or dissertations.
What can you tell us about any future projects or works currently in progress?
Let’s see, I have a 3-part heroic fantasy novel of Dorgo the Dowser waiting in the wings. One of the stories is about the loss of a child, loss of a mother, and a father’s betrayal. (The overall theme of the first volume, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, is about loss of one kind or another: financial loss, loss of trust, loss of identity, loss of family, friends and loved ones; one of the novellas in that volume deals with a lost race and the funerary customs of different cultures.) I’m also working on a sequel to Three Against The Stars, my space opera. This one is set on just one planet — no planet hopping this time around. I’m going for a “sword and planet” feel: a little Edgar Rice Burroughs, a dash of Frank Herbert, a smidgen of Leigh Brackett. And because the story is set mainly on another planet, I have to create an entire eco-system, with flora, fauna, marine life, as well as two indigenous cultures of humanoids. The theme is the slaughtering of endangered species, killing creatures that are vital not only to the planet and its native population, but may be the key to eradicating all disease from the human race. It’s a slow-going process and one of the most difficult and complex things I’ve sat down to write. Finally, I just finished another novella for an upcoming volume in the Heroes in Hell shared-universe. And that’s all I can say right now about that. Mum’s the word, you know?
Thanks for having me “on the show” again, Jennifer. Peace and blessings to you.
Thank you, Joe! What a fascinating interview! I absolutely loved having you here! Readers! Please, remember to check out Joe’s sites. Thanks!
Joe Bonadonna’s Amazon Author page:
Bonadonna’s Bookshelf on Facebook:
The Dowser’s Delusions blogspot:
Black Gate Magazine’s review of Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser:
Black Gate Magazine’s review of Three Against The Stars:
Black Gate Magazine’s review of Waters of Darkness: