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Life & Work with Robert Guffey

Today we’d like to introduce you to Robert Guffey.

Hi Robert, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
As a teenager, I spent most of my time goofing off, reading weird novels, writing even weirder stories, and attending a secondary school called Shery High in Torrance, California. The school was mainly populated by gangbangers two strikes away from prison and a bevy of pregnant delinquents one step away from nowhere. I was the only student at Shery who had specifically requested admission to that campus, though “requested” is accurate only in a technical sense. I did request admission, but only because my counselor at Torrance High strongly hinted that if I didn’t “choose” to transfer to Shery, I would flunk and be tossed out of Torrance High anyway.

For everybody else Shery was a form of punishment: the Southern California equivalent of Siberia or a Russian gulag. For me, it was a vacation. I couldn’t stand the idyllic, ivy-covered halls at Torrance High, forever immortalized in TV-land as the location for that masterpiece of American culture known as Beverly Hills 90210. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, but I knew I didn’t want to end up trapped in a crowd scene behind Shannon Doherty. So I took off, headed for the less restrictive (i.e., non-existent) curricula at Shery.

From a logical perspective, this was not an intelligent course of action. After all, the official school colors were black and blue. Knife fights, brawls, and virgin births were common occurrences at Shery. Most teenagers arrested for serious crimes in Torrance were students at Shery High. One day this guy I’d known since the fourth grade came up to me in the hall and said, “Hey, you want to see a dead body? I shot some old dude in Redondo. I stole his van, got it parked behind the Safeway. C’mon, you gotta check it out, man, it’s so cool.” I managed to beg off, claiming a previous engagement, and he ended up in prison. I think he’s still there. That incident was the inspiration for my crime noir novelette, “The Loser,” which was published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6 in June of 2020. The editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Michael Bracken, thought so highly of the novelette that he went out of his way to submit it for Derringer Award consideration. (The Derringers are awarded every year by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.) Anyway, that was the kind of place this was—not the most conducive environment for learning, but I didn’t care about any of that crap. I didn’t care if a diploma from Shery meant less than nothing. I didn’t even care if I ever graduated. I didn’t care about anything at all.

Needless to say, I had no plans to attend college. (That was something Other People did—people far more intelligent, sophisticated, and well-off than a freakin’ Shery High graduate.) No plans, that is, until I met a history teacher named Herb Ward. Ward took a liking to me, recommended odd books I’d never heard of before (The Basketball Diaries, Invisible Cities, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, At-Swim-Two-Birds), and even gave me history credits for all my short stories. “What the hell,” he’d say, “this stuff’s history, right?” He never lectured, nor did he give out assignments. He’d just sit in the front of the room and read the funnies, that was about it. You could do work if you wanted to, but it wasn’t really necessary.

The point is this: Because he didn’t require me to do anything, I finished two years of work in one semester. I see now it was a classic case of reverse psychology—except for the fact that it wasn’t a strategy on Ward’s part. He just didn’t care. That’s why I liked him. And maybe that’s why I took his advice to apply for Financial Aid and start taking some Creative Writing workshops at El Camino Community College with professional writers like award-winning science fiction novelist Sheila Finch (author of Reading the Bones and many other excellent works of fiction). Since then, I’ve sold eight books, forty-seven short stories, and nearly eighty articles.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Given the fact that my parents never managed to get past the tenth grade, and both my older brothers barely graduated high school, I didn’t have anyone in my personal life I could turn to in order to figure out how one goes about becoming a professional writer. My first guidepost was a faded copy of L. Sprague deCamp and Catherine Crook deCamp’s Science Fiction Handbook, Revised, which was almost ten years out of date by the time I stumbled across a copy in a bookstore and was helpful only in a rudimentary sense. For the most part, creative writing books are quite bad. If there are any hopeful writers reading this, I can recommend two books: Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing (helpful in an inspirational sense) and J. Michael Straczynski’s Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer (helpful in a practical, down-to-earth, utilitarian sense). Lacking any particular guidance, I probably wasted a lot of time exploring dead ends. Nonetheless, I persisted. Perhaps I was just too stupid to give up.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
Emily Rasmussen, a former student in one of my Creative Writing workshops who has since gone on to became a successful reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register (among other publications), once christened me “the PhD of Secret Shit” in a profile she wrote about me and my work for a short-lived weekly publication called The Edge. Of course, Rasmussen’s colorful honorific is based on the title of my first book, Cryptoscatology, a word I dreamed up many years ago. “Crypto” is Latin for “secret” and “scatology” is the study of shit, so if you put them together you get “the study of secret shit.” That’s my specialty. The word “cryptoscatology” refers to any field of endeavor that’s considered by mainstream culture to be transient, peripheral, or hopelessly obscure. Cryptoscatologists tend to devote an inordinate amount of attention to ostensibly insignificant historical factoids and data that—when joined together and seen as a whole—form a much more complex and vivid picture of the subject matter at hand, whatever that subject matter might be.

As to how I first became interested in matters of cryptoscatology, I’m not quite sure. So many bizarre events occurred to me over the course of the past few decades that it would require a separate book to adequately answer such a question. I don’t have enough space to go into detail about the time my friend Damien and I were being stalked by Homeland Security agents after Damien was given the Abu Ghraib treatment in a San Diego jail for six days straight due to the fact that he was suspected by Naval Criminal Investigative Services of selling stolen Top Secret night-vision goggles to Middle Eastern terrorists. I don’t have enough space to talk about the time Walter Bowart (the late author of Operation Mind Control) and I saw a UFO hovering over the 29 Palms military base in the middle of the Joshua Tree desert at about two in the morning. I don’t have enough space to talk about destroying jars of peanut butter with Marshall McLuhan’s former archivist, Robert Dobbs, at midnight in the middle of a supermarket in Mesquite, Nevada. I don’t have enough space to talk about the time my girlfriend (now my wife) and I visited Dr. Lev Berger—a classic mad scientist straight out of a Universal horror film from the 1930s—in his hidden desert laboratory in the middle of Hemet, California where he was experimenting with cutting-edge optical-camouflage technology. Alas, I don’t have space to go into any of that. So instead I’ll just say the following….

It’s difficult to pinpoint when my interest in esoteric subjects first came to the fore. Was it when my mother brought home a box of occult books edited by Colin Wilson and Uri Geller from the downtown Torrance thrift store where she worked as a cashier when I was about ten years old? In those pages, I first discovered Charles Fort and the subject of secret societies, particularly Freemasonry and related esoteric orders based on the philosophy of Hermeticism, two huge influences on my life and writing. One can see these interests colliding in a violent and dramatic way in “Widow of the Amputation,” the featured novella of my recent collection, Widow of the Amputation & Other Weird Crimes, which was published by Eraserhead Press in April of 2021.

I think I began studying conspiracy theories in-depth in the late 1980s when I discovered Roy Tuckman’s Something’s Happening show that still airs on KPFK (90.7 FM) to this day. It’s a late night radio show that airs from midnight to six A.M. every Monday through Thursday. For decades it was the only radio show of its kind in the L.A. area until the emergence of Art Bell and Coast To Coast A.M. in the mid-1990s. Tuckman specialized in airing information of a bizarre nature that was quite rare in those pre-internet days. On Tuesday nights a regular contributor to the show was investigative journalist Jon Rappoport whose book AIDS Inc. was a significant impetus that drove me to consider conspiracy theories as a subject worthy of study. That book and The Assassination of Robert Kennedy by Jonn Christian and William Turner were the “bad influences” that really sent me over the deep end, as some might say.

From there, I discovered Walter Bowart’s groundbreaking 1978 book Operation Mind Control, which was actively suppressed by the government and the book’s own publisher. Due to being threatened by certain anonymous government agents, Walter was forced to give up much of his research in the early 1980s. Reading Walter’s book and then becoming friends with him during the last years of his life impacted me a great deal. What struck me most about Walter was that he was able to maintain a very open mind about conspiratorial matters while also being discerning about what topics he chose to take seriously. Perhaps most importantly, while researching depressing topics such as government mind control experiments on political prisoners, he was also able to maintain a certain sense of humor throughout that kept him from being completely weighted down by the potential hopelessness of these subjects. Even when he was at his most despondent, Walter always had a puckish twinkle in his eyes along with a Cheshire-Cat-grin. Sometimes he came off as a Lewis Carroll character wandering Alice-like through a Wonderland made sinister by the National Security Act, a notepad and a pencil at hand, always ready to take notes on whatever strangeness was swirling around him at the moment.

It’s not hard to tumble down the rabbit hole from the concept of AIDS being a bio-weapon designed by the U.S. government to the notion of a Presidential candidate being shot to death by a hypno-programmed CIA assassin to far stranger subjects such as UFOs, the hollow earth, and Bigfoot sightings. Like Walter, I’m fairly discerning when it comes to segregating the serious subjects from the not-so-serious ones, but in the end I think these topics do indeed share similar DNA. (The dour-minded investigative journalists in this field, however, might be loath to admit this).

Keen journalists I’ve known personally, such as Walter, have long been fascinated by the paranormal as well as the persuasive and propagandistic aspects of conspiracy theories. All of these fringe topics share a certain metaphysical nature not dissimilar to the initiations practiced by Mystery Schools that are millennia-old. The true secret to fraternal societies like Freemasonry is that anyone can join as long as one is bold enough to initiate oneself into the ranks. The only qualification for membership is the desire of the initiate to be included. The same is true when it comes to studying conspiracies and the paranormal. To be included doesn’t require a PhD from a well-respected Ivy League University. It only requires an intense desire to pierce the veil between the quotidian world and the hidden world, between Main Street and Wonderland, between the L.A. Times and Cryptoscatology. Upon piercing this veil some will lose their minds. Others are able to navigate these realms with a certain detachment and dark sense of humor. “When you’re laughing, you’re learning,” Marshall McLuhan used to say. No matter how depressing or weighty the discoveries, I think it’s always important to keep this sage advice firmly in mind. (That’s why a strong strain of gallows humor runs throughout my work.)

Investigators in this field are self-initiates in a Mystery School so secret its members don’t even know they are part of a rarified club of seekers desperately attempting to nail down the Truth, always an elusive prey. Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever nail it down myself, but for the past few decades I’ve had great fun trying. This undying interest in Conspiracy Theory as the ultimate hidden influencer of our times has recently culminated in a long series of articles about the lunacy of QAnon (written for Salon and The Evergreen Review) as well as a book-length study entitled Operation Mindfuck, which will be released by OR Books in the spring of 2022.

How do you think about luck?
Here’s a story of both good luck and bad luck combined. The initial draft of my latest novel, Bela Lugosi’s Dead, was completed in 2011. The legendary Tor Books editor David Hartwell was in the middle of reading the book—and expressed enthusiasm about the first few chapters—when he unexpectedly died! David published several of my articles (including a very long piece about the Bela Lugosi film, Murders in the Rue Morgue) in The New York Review of Science Fiction, which David founded in the late 1980s. Back in 2010, he reached out to me via email to let me know how much he liked my articles about science fiction cinema and told me that several other SF luminaries, like James Morrow and Gregory Benford, had commented positively on them as well. This kicked off an exchange about the Golden Age of Hollywood in which David shared his memories of having seen some of these classic films (such as The Man from Planet X) in the theatre during their initial release. Because of this, I happened to mention that I was working on a lengthy dark fantasy novel entitled Bela Lugosi’s Dead that revolves around both Lugosi’s legend and the Golden Age of Cinema. I wasn’t really trying to pitch him an idea; this just naturally arose during the conversation. A few days before Halloween of 2011, while the World Fantasy Con was underway, David asked me to email him the first 100 pages of Bela Lugosi’s Dead. I did as he asked, expecting to hear back from him relatively soon. For some reason, however, I never received any response at all—not even a form rejection letter. I decided to shrug it off, assuming the novel wasn’t right for Tor. Besides, I had already moved on to three other projects, each of which I quickly sold to three different publishers.

Now let’s flash forward five years later: Out of the blue, in November of 2015, I received an email from David’s assistant (Jennifer Gunnels) apologizing for the “unusually long delay” and telling me she wanted me to know David had at last gotten around to reading the first 100 pages of Bela Lugosi’s Dead! Imagine my surprise. She told me David liked the pages very much and wondered if the novel was still available for purchase. I told Jennifer that, yes, the novel was still available and promptly emailed the complete manuscript to her. She assured me David would get to it within a couple of months.

I was so busy during my Winter Break with so many different hectic developments in my life that I just pushed the whole thing out of my mind. (I learned long ago, of course, that it’s best not to dwell on a project when it’s being considered for publication.) I didn’t think about it at all… until one night when I was lying in bed, exhausted from the first day of the spring semester at CSU Long Beach. I suddenly thought, “I wonder if David’s finished reading Bela Lugosi’s Dead yet.” At that moment, I felt compelled—for no reason at all, really—to climb out of bed and log onto Facebook, something I don’t often do at night and certainly not when I’m exhausted. At the exact moment I logged on, my former Clarion Writers Workshop instructor, Ellen Datlow, posted a message about David having passed away! I watched in shock as Ellen’s sad message popped up on my glowing screen. I couldn’t believe it! It was a weird synchronicity of Jungian proportions….

Anyway, now we must flashback to my high school years for a moment. My friend Damien (about whom I’ve written in my 2015 book, Chameleo) has been a natural born shoplifter since the day I first met him. I once watched him slip a Taschen-sized Andy Warhol art book down his pants and stroll out of a Barnes & Noble without appearing to be nervous at all. At the time Damien was about 5’6 and weighed 130 pounds. This hardcover art book probably weighed half as much as he did. How, I wondered, could he get away with such brazen criminality? One day I decided to satisfy my curiosity by dipping my toe into the dark waters of TRUE CRIME. I concluded it would be best to start out small. So I walked into a Crown Books and slipped a paperback copy of a new anthology called The Book of the Dead (co-edited by horror novelist Craig Spector) into my inside jacket pocket. I walked out and did not get caught. Now, I know some people who really get off on the adrenaline rush associated with doing something illegal. I don’t, not at all—probably for the same reason I dislike rollercoasters. I have enough nonsense in my life that raises my blood pressure on a daily basis, so I don’t need to artificially induce such feelings into my nervous system. I swore off shoplifting at that point.

But having ripped off this book still nagged at my conscience from time to time.

Flash forward to 2017, the year my first novel, Until the Last Dog Dies, was released by Night Shade/Skyhorse. By this time, I had become Facebook friends with Craig Spector, the co-editor of Book of the Dead. One day I wrote him a message in which I apologized for ripping off his potential royalties way back when and offered to send him a signed copy of Until the Last Dog Dies to make up—at least in some small way—for that paperback of The Book of the Dead with which I had absconded in the dim, dark days of 1988. This communication, two years later, directly led to Craig buying my hybrid story/essay entitled “Farewell, Frankenstein!” for his transgressive anthology, Freedom of Screech, which explored First Amendment issues through the lens of the horror genre. I was proud to find myself sharing the same Table of Contents page with the likes of Norman Spinrad and Richard Christian Matheson, writers I’d been reading since high school. Matheson’s first book, Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks, had long been one of my favorite short story collections and Spinrad’s The Iron Dream is one of the most audacious and challenging science fiction novels published during the past fifty years.

Freedom of Screech was published by David Wilson’s Crossroad Press. As a result of “Farewell, Frankenstein!” appearing in Freedom of Screech, Wilson ended up publishing the final version of Bela Lugosi’s Dead in April of 2021. This novel has since garnered praise from such diverse writers as Alan Moore (author of V for Vendetta and Watchmen), Gary D. Rhodes (author of Lugosi and Tod Browning’s Dracula), and Terence Taylor (author of Bite Marks and Blood Pressure).

In other words, if I hadn’t given myself that five-fingered discount in 1988, Bela Lugosi’s Dead might still be unpublished to this day. It kind of makes me wish I’d stolen just a few more horror paperbacks in my youth. I might have even more novels in print now. Well, it’s not too late to resume my sordid life of crime, I suppose….

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Image Credits:

All of these photos were taken by my wife, Melissa Guffey, except for two. The third photo, in which I’m sitting at a desk in a classroom while wearing a silver mask, was taken by my former student, Christopher Mardiroussian. The fifth photo, in which I’m standing next to a sign that reads, “INTEGRATRON,” was taken by my friend, Eric Blair.

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