I never had the opportunity to go to a Grateful Dead concert — although I did get to go to a few Further Fests after Jerry Garcia passed away — but even if I had, I’m pretty sure an underground culture of vampires feeding on unsuspecting fans would not have been on my radar.
That’s just me.
“I was describing it as ‘a paranormal noir set on the last Grateful Dead tour’ when I was pitching it to agents and publishers,” Housley wrote in an email. “I like crime fiction, so I always thought of the book as a crime book first, a book set on the last Grateful Dead tour second, and a vampire or paranormal book last.”
Housley’s novel is inventive, complex and hip, and Housley brings the story to life, capturing the essence of the Grateful Dead’s parking lot culture and the heart of the music the band was playing.
“I have really fond memories of attending Dead shows in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s, right up through that last concert in Chicago,” Housley said. “It almost felt like setting a book in a different country or culture. I worked really hard to use the real dates and places and events of those shows, but one of my characters is also a vampire who can only travel at night. It took a lot of revision to try to make the events make sense in terms of the vampire thing and the actual tour dates.”
Along with the intricate setting, Housley creates a law enforcement universe unto itself, going as far as creating a federal invasive species unit to register and work with identified vampires — including a partly synthetic blood cocktail for registered vampires that is delivered to vampires’ homes weekly — and a resurgence of a now defunct mind-control unit that peaked in the 1960s.
“There are these two government functions happening in the book: one that was invented and one that was real, and they’re both pretty crazy,” Housley said. “The invented one is the one that deals with all things vampire, and is responsible for really keeping them in line. The part that’s real is Project MKUltra, which was a Sixties era attempt to harness mind control through, among other methods, LSD.”
The way Housley delves into the details of the two government functions is an event unto itself.
“There’s a shady government agency called Invasive Species that deals with vampires, and once we had a shady government agency the rest of the vampire stuff kind of fell into place,” Housley said. “There’s a real cross-section between MKUltra and the ‘60s and the Dead — Ken Kesey and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter were among the early subjects of LSD-based experiments, and that was something I wanted to play around with here — what happens when these two threads come back together some 30 years later?”
To create such a complex web and have it drive a thrilling plot must be an act of genius, or at least some level of non-pedestrian brilliance, but Housley is much more workaday in his approach.
“I have a full-time job at Penn State, and also a wife and a 12-year-old son, so my writing process is different now than it was when I was younger,” Housley said. “I tend to write in small blocks of time, a half hour over lunch break, 45 minutes while my son is at a practice or activity. It’s a tough way to do it but it’s realistic and you really can chip away a novel writing in these small, stolen moments.”
When Housley isn’t working or spending time with his family, he also pursues his passion for writing by helping run Barrelhouse literary magazine, which organizes yearly retreats for writers, and builds a sense of community for like-minded literary artists.
“It’s really important to have a community there to help you along when you’re feeling the worst about that whole situation,” Housley said, “to help you see that you can do it 400 or 650 words at a time, that you can do it while you’re working full time and being an active parent and community member.”
Still, there’s something to the artistry in and of itself, and writing is hard, often grueling work, it lends itself to those sacred segments of time identified and celebrated by anyone who has ever dropped into the stillness of a single-point of focus.
“For me it’s mostly work,” Housley said. “Every now and then there are moments when it kind of lifts off for a bit and it feels like you’re floating for a section or a page and then you land back down but maybe you’re in a kind of different place than you were before. Then the next day it’s back to work.”