NICK CATO is the author of one novel, six novellas, one short story collection, and a forthcoming non-fiction film book. He runs The Horror Fiction Review website and hosts the Suburban Grindhouse podcast.
Ryan Lieske: What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you?
Nick Cato: Probably Danny and the Dinosaur. It’s the first book I remember being fascinated with as a young boy. I read it countless times in first/second grade (if I’m remembering correctly).
RL: What are the books that sealed your fate as a lifelong reader?
NC: Around the same time (which would be about 1977-8 while I was in the 5th grade) I read both The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz and The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. I’ve re-read The Sentinel a few years ago and I think it still holds up (as well as it’s seldom read sequel, The Guardian), but I have yet to revisit Amityville. I have heard from several peers it doesn’t hold up too good, so I’d like to think the first novel I ever read in one sitting was as good as I remember.
RL: A lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you?
NC: For me it was middle school, which began with the 6th grade here in NYC in 1979/80. While I was a big horror fan, science fiction was plentiful both in bookstores and libraries and I consumed everything: Asimov, Heinlen, Herbert, Anthony, Le Guin…I had a sci-fi novel in my hands and with my school books all the time. And if I wasn’t reading a sci-fi novel (or the occasional horror novel when I could get my hands on one) I was heavily into film-related books.
RL: What is one book by each of those authors that particularly stands out to you?
NC: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K le Guin. It was incredibly weird, possibly the first “bizarro” novel I ever read, and although a lot of it went over my head, I revisited it a few years ago and loved it all over again.
While I loved Starship Troopers from Robert Heinlein, my favorite from him is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which despite being released in 1966, to me, was basically a punk rock revolt story set in a penal colony on the moon. It’s ridiculously fun.
A lot of scifi geeks don’t think too highly of Piers Anthony, but I was fortunate enough to read his three-novel “Of Man and Manta” series in the 6th grade. The novels, Omnivore, Orn, and Ox (originally released 1968, 1970, and 1976) are each fascinating in their own ways, but there’s this environmental thing going on throughout all of them that in retrospect was way ahead of its time. I’ve read many of Anthony’s other novels but didn’t find any as special as this trilogy.
And while most were fascinated with Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, for me it was his short stories, my favorite being collected in The Best of Frank Herbert 1952-1964, which includes two of my all time favorite stories, The Being Machine and Nightmare Blues.
RL: What film books were you into?
NC: As far as film books, an aunt had bought me a book titled A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford when I was in the 1st or 2nd grade and I basically slept with it until junior high. I must’ve read that thing 5,000 times from cover to cover.
I also read a lot of sc-ifi related books in my elementary/junior high years. But in 1983, while a sophomore in high school, I read Midnight Movies by Stuart Samuels, The Amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis and his World of Exploitation Films by Daniel Krogh, and The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Michael Weldon. All three of these books completely changed my life. I strongly suggest tracking these down if you love cult or unusual cinema, even though it will cost you on the second hand market.
RL: Speaking of this time period, were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether?
NC: Oh yes. I HATED every subject except for English and my art/music classes. I either zoned out or had a copy of Fangoria or Famous Monsters under my notebook in class. I had no problem reading what was assigned in English, but as far as history, science, etc., just…blechhhh.
RL: Did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up? Were you more apt to hide out in the library at school, or stay home on a Saturday night to read a book?
NC: I have always been a light sleeper. As a kid I’d get up early on the weekends (and on summer vacation) to read comics and later novels or sci-fi magazines such as Asimov’s before going out to play. I spent a crazy amount of time in my local library reading about UFOs, bigfoot, and the occult, yet I always spent as much if not more time outside with my friends. I guess you can say I was a “closet geek.” This went on through high school, too. I hung out, played in bands, went to midnight movies, yet I ALWAYS made time to read.
RL: Sounds just like me growing up. And I, too, was obsessed with books on bigfoot, UFOs, the paranormal, etc. Are there any particular books of that ilk that still stand out to you from back then?
NC: Oh yes! The Satan Seller by by Mike Warnke was an addictive story of a guy who allegedly became a high priest in a satanic cult, and it explains how he eventually became a born again Christian and then a minister. The book came out in 1978 and my library had it right away. I believe it was in the mid 90s when Warnke’s story turned out to be total bullshit! It was basically his attempt to “reach out” to devil worshipers with the gospel of Christ…sort of a novel length religious tract. I’m assuming Warkne figured it’d be the Christian thing to do to try and lie some people into church? Hilarious.
RL: I actually still own an old copy of The Satan Seller. He was pretty popular in my church’s youth groups. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I discovered he was a fraud. I was fascinated by his story in my youth, though. Someone should do a biopic or documentary about him.
NC: But probably my all time fave of this genre was Ultimate Encounter: The True Story of a UFO Kidnapping by Bill Barry. I think it was the first book about the Travis Walton case, that became the film Fire in the Sky. It came out when I was in the 5th grade (1978) and it scared the shit out of me. It’s a short read, too, and very effective.
RL: What new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college?
NC: I didn’t go to college. I got out of High School by the skin of my ass, and was fortunate enough to find a good job early on. I was, however, exposed to writers such as Bukowski and De Sade by some friends who went to college, and I surely went into different directions as a reader after high school, but I’ve always found myself coming back to horror and the weird stuff.
RL: What’s an example of one of those different directions you went in, aside from horror?
NC: I tried mainstream thrillers, and while some were good, to me they always seemed like “horror novel-lites.” Thriller novels always seemed as if they were holding back, although again, these were mainstream novels.
I also did a lot of religious reading. Around 1990 I became absolutely fascinated with eschatology, and read anything I could find dealing with the end times. I read older books such as The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and a lot of stuff by this guy from Oregon named Dave Hunt, who wrote some pretty amazing things about how he believed the Bible said the Catholic Church fit into the whole end times scenario (spoiler alert: it’s not good!). His book A Woman Rides the Beast was controversial, as some found it nothing but Catholic bashing while others quoted it almost as much as the bible. Unfortunately, after about ten years of end times books, few offered anything new so I grew tired of them. But I still like reading about cults and weird religious movements. That has always been an interest of mine that I guess ties in with the whole UFO/new age section of the library when I was a kid.
RL: What were your first bookstore experiences?
NC: In my local mall we had a Waldenbooks and a B. Dalton Bookseller. I would visit both at least once a week. Both have been closed for a while now and our mall is basically useless (for me) without them.
RL: Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you? Or do you still enjoy all the types of books you’ve been exposed to throughout your life?
NC: I was a BIG fan of Piers Anthony, but as I grew older his stuff just stopped working for me. He wrote that environmental sci-fi trilogy (mentioned above) that I still love and feel were way ahead of their time, but his more fantasy oriented stuff doesn’t work for me anymore.
RL: Talk to me a bit more about that trilogy. Why do you feel they were ahead of their time?
NC: As I mentioned, I didn’t think they were ahead of their time when I first read them around 1980/81, but when environmentalism started to get popular in the mid 90s, I always thought back to those novels and wished they’d re-release them to a new audience. I know Medallion Press re-released the first novel Omnivore about 7 years ago, but I’m not sure how wide of an audience a small press can reach. The third book, OX, is another fine example of a bizarro story before bizarro had a label. While a lot of sci-fi is quite weird, this one was just way out there in the way it handled beings made of energy and killer machines ALA The Terminator. I don’t remember what happened to my original paperbacks, so after getting the bug to read them again I purchased the trilogy in their original paperback editions on ebay a few years back and reread them. They really hold up well, which I guess is a sign of good sci-fi. And I grabbed the set for a mere $5.00!
RL: How has your reading life survived adulthood?
NC: As a reviewer at The Horror Fiction Review, people ask me this question often. The answer is simple: TURN OFF THE DAMN TV! Seriously. If you spend an hour or two a night reading instead of binge watching something, you’ll be surprised how fast you can blow through a novel. I also get an hour lunch break at work, and I often spend most of that time reading. The only period of my life where it was hard to find time to get between the pages was from 1992-1997, when my children were in their first few years.
RL: Currently, what types of books are you mostly drawn to?
NC: I’m still a die hard horror fan. I’ve been hearing for years how the genre is dead or dying, yet it not only continues to grow, but I believe some of the best quality fiction has been coming from the genre over the past 5-10 years or so. But aside from horror, I’m always checking out the latest bizarro titles and the couple of sci-fi authors I still follow.
RL: Can you talk about a couple of examples of both of those?
NC: As far as sci-fi, I am a big fan of Charles Stross. His “laundry” series is so much fun: basically a James Bond type guy (and organization) battling Lovecraftian threats. Some of them are hilarious, especially The Atrocity Archives, the first in the series. He has 1-2 novels out a year, and I’ve enjoyed just about everything I’ve read by him.
I’m a fan of many bizarro authors, and give a lot of newbies a chance. There’s a lot of bizarro that’s just weird for weirdness’ sake, but when it’s on, it’s on. Some of my faves are Wall of Kiss by Gina Ranalli, Your Cities, Your Tombs by Jordan Krall, and Pseudo City by D. Harlan Wilson. Bizarro is one genre where you can pretty much do anything and be as original and out there as you want. Those who are able to channel this literary freedom and keep it coherent come up with some amazing stories.
RL: How do you share your love of books with others?
NC: As I mentioned, I’ve been running The Horror Fiction Review since 2003. It was an old-school styled fanzine from 2003-2008, when printing costs forced me to take it online. But it reaches a better audience this way, and I’m thanked continually for the recommendations my small staff and I give out twice a month. Also, I’ll only loan books to close friends who I know won’t destroy them!
RL: Could you give me a couple of horror titles you’ve reviewed over the last year or so that you really loved, and why?
NC: Sure. Last year my favorite was The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp (which will soon be a film directed by Ron Howard!). It’s a fantastic blend of horror and humor and reads like lightning. I mentioned Mr. Suicide by Nicole Cushing and I highly recommend it; one of the more disturbing horror novels to come down the pike in recent memory. Sarah Pinborough’s The Death House is one of my faves from her ever growing catalog, incredibly well written with an ending that will make you beg for more, despite the ending being as good as it gets. Rio Youers’ Westlake Soul, which is a real emotional (and chilling) roller coaster ride, and Rock ‘N’ Roll by L.L. Soares. Soares’ strength as a writer is his original ideas, and the easiest way to describe this one is “it’s like a lost Cronenberg film amped up to 11.” A grossly under-read and underrated novel that’s unlike anything out there.
RL: Well, shit. My To-Read pile just got higher. Thank you! Speaking of which, I’m one of those people who reads several books at a time. I’ve been called a “reading polygamist.” Are you? Or are you pretty monogamous when it comes to reading?
NC: Anytime I can read during the day, be it at lunchtime or early evening, I’ll read whatever novel I’m currently trying to get through. But at night, I always go to whatever anthology or collection I’m currently reading. Just a preference. I think that’s somewhere between a poly and a mono?
RL: Now, I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures?
NC: That’s tough to answer as I read a lot of “cult” or indie fiction, novels that I know others consider a guilty pleasure. I guess I have to say rock star bios? I mean, I’m not the biggest fan of Twisted Sister, but their singer (Dee Snider) had a bio out recently that was quite amazing and nothing you’d expect a rock star to write (he wasn’t into drugs and has been with the same woman over 30 years, on top of having a hardcore work ethic).
A lot of these other bios are pure trash, but I love ‘em. I just finished My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory by Roger Miret, the lead singer of NY hardcore legends Agnostic Front. I loved it to pieces, especially since it showed me a side of the scene I partially grew up in from a very different angle.
RL: I’m not a big Twisted Sister fan, either, but you’ve piqued my interest in reading his bio. I’ve often enjoyed interviews with him. He is very well spoken. Of course, I have to ask: what are a couple of really trashy ones you enjoyed?
NC: I loved No Regrets, the Ace Frehley biography. While it was great hearing old KISS stories and how they recorded Ace’s classic 1978 solo album, I’d say a good 70% of the book featured stories about Ace and John Belushi hanging out doing cocaine! And a personal fave is the 2010 bio The Beast by and about former Iron Maiden front man Paul Di’anno. I knew Paul was wild, but not this wild. He pretty much makes most other metal heads and punks look like honor roll students.
RL: What are your thoughts on “genre?” What I mean is, do you feel it’s necessary to label? Ultimately, do you think genre labeling even matters? Does it matter to you?
NC: While I don’t feel it is necessary to label, I do miss the days when HORROR would be seen on the spine of a horror novel. In my own experience, most book store clerks would be lost without ROMANCE or HUMOR written on the spines, hence why most HORROR sections were either terrible or just not there. I used to be more passionate about this issue but over the past 5-6 years I lost patience with it. Life’s too short! Just get those books out there…
RL: I’m with you. I don’t care about labels, but man, I do miss seeing HORROR on the spine. Back in the late 80s, when I was finally starting to get into “grown up” horror, there were two words that thrilled me like no other: TOR HORROR. With the little dragon head logo? Damn, I miss those days. And those covers?? Sigh… Anyway, I digress.
NC: I admit I still get excited when I browse my bookshelf and see HORROR on the spines of those old Leisure paperbacks and other presses. It was just … cool.
RL: Are you a physical copy person, or do you prefer other ways of “reading” books, such as e-books or audio? Does the “delivery system,” as Stephen King calls it, matter to you?
NC: I prefer hard copies, but I do like eBooks for review purposes. I still can’t see paying $16 for an eBook. I have no problem paying $25 for a hardcover if it’s one of my favorite authors and a book I know I’ll want to keep. From what I’ve read, physical books have actually been doing great with the YA crowd, so I don’t think they’re going away as fast as most people feared. While I’ll always prefer hard copies, when I see young people reading in ANY format, it brings a smile to my face.
RL: Do you take a book with you wherever you go?
NC: Yes. And with my Kindle app on my cell phone, I even read when I’m waiting on a line that’s taking too long. But I still love having a physical book with me. There’s just something about the feel (and the smell) of them. I’m a freak over book smell, especially aged paperbacks.
RL: If you get the chance, check out the interview I did with Ray Garton. We discuss our mutual love of book sniffing. I’ve been known to stop in the middle of sentences just to steal a quick sniff. It’s delightful beyond words.
NC: I surely will! My kids even bought me a cologne a few years ago for Christimas called OLD PAPERBACK. It doesn’t smell anything like one, but the label looks great on my shelf. For the first several years, my reviews in THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW featured a “smell rating” of the books, which often received laughs from fans and especially the (said) authors. But, being most review material started coming in as eBooks, that part of the fanzine stopped. It was a lot of fun while it lasted.
RL: Do you collect books?
NC: I have a healthy collection featuring lots of signed editions. And as a book reviewer, I get lots of review copies, although I do share those with friends and other reviewers when I’m done. I think a home without books is a boring home. They give your house not only a cool look, but a quick view of the homeowner’s mind.
RL: What books―and they don’t have to necessarily have to be all-time favorites―do you feel have influenced you and shaped you the most: as a human being, as an artist, etc.?
NC: I have read Tom Piccirilli’s novel A Choir of Ill Children 5 times. It’s an amazing, surreal southern Gothic told in an almost poetic style. It’s THE book that I look up to, that continually keeps me in awe just thinking about it. Tom’s talent never ceased to amaze me, but this one was just in its own universe. It’s my goal to one day be able to write something even an ant’s nostril as good as it.
RL: I ADORE that novel. Tom was a genius. I was looking forward to meeting him at the 2015 WHC, but he passed away shortly before it. I was so heartbroken over that, and heartbroken for the world of literature. He was one of the greats.
NC: Yes he was. I was fortunate enough to meet him at WHC 2005 in NYC, and we spoke often back in the AOL chat room days about our mutual favorite film, The Warriors. It continually amazes me just how humble he was toward his own writing talent, and I know he helped several other authors I admire when they started out. Just a great guy. One time he asked if I could get him an autograph of the actor who played “Vermin” in The Warriors, as I was attending a film convention where several cast members were going to be. I sent Tom a signed picture of actor Terry Michos, and a couple weeks later as a thank you, Tom sent me a huge, limited edition hardcover collection of his short stories titled Deep Into That Darkness Peering, which he not only signed, but has signatures from authors/artist Poppy Z. Brite, Richard Laymon, Chad Savage, and Ken Abner who provided intros, interviews and artwork. It’s one of my most cherished possessions.
As far as my own writing, I think it was Richard Laymon’s Night Show that showed me a novel could be told like a movie. It was the first time I put a book down and said, “Damn, I want to do this.” I actually felt like I had been in a darkened theater, watching this kick ass horror film about…horror films. It was just so much fun. I like to think my “grindhouse” style came directly from Laymon’s influence, which I had first experienced with this novel in 1987.
RL: At the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a group of people have chosen books to memorize, so that someday they may be able to write them down again. What would your 451 book be, and why?
NC: As mentioned above, Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children. It’s such an interesting, layered story that takes a couple of reads to fully “get.” Its poetic style sounds great when read aloud (there are some passages I have read out loud in my house) and some of the characters are as mysterious as they are unforgettable.
RL: Have you ever read a book that made you cry?
NC: I don’t know if it’s my age (49), but over the past few years two novels actually yanked tears from me. The first was Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter (2010), about a charismatic guru who, in the 60s, altered the life of several people. Many years later, one member of the cult starts writing a book about the experience, and in the process he and some other members are brought face to face with the guru and what he unleashed. This one ripped tears from me at two separate times. Some critics thought the book was repetitive, but in context it’s what makes the story work.
The next was Rio Youers’ 2012 Westlake Soul, about a hot shot surfer who becomes paralyzed, completely unable to move. He finds a way to get around outside his body (a sort of astral projection) and Youers’ handling of Westlake was incredibly authentic despite the supernatural element. Once scene was a real emotional roller coaster and it nailed me right in the gut. Youers has become a must-read author for me.
RL: Have you ever read a book that truly, deep down in your soul or psyche, disturbed you or went too far and made you not want to finish it? If so, which one(s) and why? Did you finish it anyway?
NC: While I’ve found a lot of books disturbing, the recent Mr. Suicide by Nicole Cushing really messed with my head. At first it seems like it’s going to be this all-out “extreme” horror novel, but Cushing bends it into a mind-twisting cosmic horror piece that caused me to re-read several passages before going on. It’s brilliant.
One other title that comes to mind is Michael Laimo’s The Demonologist from 2005. There’s one scene where we see a demonic possession from inside the man who is possessed. It’s so freaky I actually stood up and walked around my living room before finishing the chapter. I’m a sucker for any Exorcist/devil worshiper/occult horror story, and this was one of my faves. It may have been a “homage” to occult novels from the 70s/80s, but I felt it was far better than the majority of them.
The only book I ever started that I stopped reading after a few chapters (due to subject matter) I won’t mention, but suffice it to say it held child sex in high regard. I threw it in the garbage (despite it being a review copy sent to me by the author).
RL: Lastly, just for fun, what is the one book―be it a widely lauded classic, or bestselling popular phenom―do you find absolutely unreadable?
NC: I know a lot of people raved over the bestseller The Ruins by Scott Smith, but it did absolutely nothing for me. I found it lifeless. I sort of enjoyed the film version, but the novel? I don’t get it.
As far as terrible writing? I once received a physical advanced review copy of a novel titled The Nursing Home (I won’t mention the author’s name…you can Google if interested). It came in a package with all kinds of swag (bookmarks, stickers, etc), and for a self published book it had a gorgeous cover and nice interior layout design. But by the third page I couldn’t handle the writing anymore. It was in need of a major league edit and is a fine example of how not to release your own story.
RL: Thank you for discussing your reading life with me. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
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