The opening band tears into a blistering punk song and immediately wakes the crowd up. The audience was at the Roseland Theater in Portland Oregon on that night in February 2020 to see classic rock legends Blue Oyster Cult. The opening band is called The Screaming Geezers and self-deprecating jokes about their age aside, they lean into their years and experience. At the head of this rock and roll beast is a tall imposing figure in a trenchcoat and mirrorshade sunglasses. John Shirley is a legend all by himself, locally his earliest bands in the 70s like Sado-Nation and The Monitors morphed from performance art into the region’s first punk bands performing in small cafes and musty basements.
The music is not what makes John Shirley the legend who has won the praise of Clive Barker and William Gibson. As a screenwriter he is most famous for putting a guitar in the hands of Eric Draven. Before he and David J. Schow gave us the screenplay that would become the goth action classic The Crow John Shirley was a living revolution in both horror and Science Fiction.
As student at the famous Clarion writer’s workshop he was a dog-collared punk rocker whose teachers included Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Robert Silverberg and the constant firecracker that was Harlan Ellison. He was the student who dropped acid and jumped out trees to scare Ellison. “Everyone showed the tolerance I needed at Clarion—I was definitely the weirdo of the bunch—and I'm grateful for that too...”
In the 70s some wondered if it were possible for Science Fiction to get more extreme, but a new generation of writers was plugging in amps and slam dancing. When the torch passed, the next generation all brought something unique. John Shirley had his experience as a vocalist to help; a bold new voice entered the Science Fiction landscape.
A Bold Voice Emerges
William Gibson is the bestselling, most famous of the authors who wrote in the Cyberpunk subgenre. You can be forgiven for thinking that he created it. Gibson will tell you otherwise and did so in the introduction to the 1996 reissue of the underrated 1980 sci-fi masterpiece City Come A-Walkin’: “John Shirley was cyberpunk's patient zero, first locus of the virus, certifiably virulent. A Carrier. City Come A-Walkin' is evidence of that and more.”
Written in the late 70s, this novel imagined a future of interconnection when a city’s technology and collective unconscious comes alive—and the city decides to defend itself. The megalopolis of San Francisco wears mirrorshades on a humanoid avatar, and the city itself recruits punk rocker Stu Cole who is fighting to keep his nightclub, Club Anesthesia, open under the threat of mob harassment.
Shirley tells us, “It was an action-filled meditation on how I saw group minds. I had seemed to perceive group minds, even at a telepathic level, at rock concerts, and I was interested in Jung's idea of the collective unconscious, so I expanded that into the notion that a city, San Francisco in this case, might have a character of its own to the extent of creating a sort of egregore (google it, people), a personification of the city, fabricating a single person who has the power to control some aspects of the city.”
Graceful and poetic prose flows through this novel that never feels bloated, the story is no- nonsense while painting a picture of a strange and hard-edged future. It was so ahead of its time the reactions to the novel ranged from amazement to stunned blank stares and confusion. Written when Jimmy Carter was president, it has so many elements that would become mainstream in movies like Dark City and The Matrix decades later. It wouldn’t be the last time Cyberpunk broke boundaries, but those in the know credit this novel for good reason.
John Shirley was already making a mark in both Science Fiction and Horror. His opening salvo was a super bizarro speculative novel called Transmaniacon. Set in Portland, Oregon, two centuries after World War III this novel has fly and owl shaped nul-grav cars, dolphin pilots who lead blood cults, fist fights with conjoined octuplets, two-century-old frozen biker gangs, Muzak used as a sedative, motor-controlled mindless slaves, brainwashed mercenaries, and my personal favorite: the flesh tractors which are genetically engineered giant hands that are used as beasts of burden. While a product of the political times of the era, this novel is one-of-a-kind insanity that put the sci-fi world on notice that a strange new voice had arrived.
In horror, Shirley made a name for himself with a novel called Dracula in Love. Shirley was eighteen years old when he wrote the first draft—years before Clive Barker normalized the mixing of sexually explicit and the gruesomely macabre. This novel has its charm but it was not until the 1982 release of Cellars that Shirley’s first and influential horror classic hit the streets. Immortalized in Grady Hendrix’s coffee table book Paperbacks From Hell, Cellars has multiple hilarious over the top taglines like “Flesh for Satan” and “Descend into the dark beneath city streets…and die in hell.”
While this novel certainly delivers extreme moments with plenty of violent murder, street drugs and monsters, there is a deeper level that the novel is operating on. The street-level look of the Taxi-Driver-era New York city is ugly even without the horror elements. It is clear that the author had some less than savory days on those very streets. Years before American Psycho or Eyes Wide Shut, Cellars also explores the idea of yuppies and power elites in cults that feed off victims of circumstance.
The 80s and 90s were a productive time for John Shirley; he became a voice respected in the genre and the work kept coming. A Cyberpunk trilogy (we’ll come back to that), short story collections and lots of screenwriting came his way. Shirley is respected by critics and fans alike. He was name-dropped and blurbed by household names like Stephen King and Clive Barker but he never had a mainstream bestseller.
In 1991, however, a painful period in his life led to the novel that would become his undisputed horror masterpiece. Working in Hollywood developing the script that would eventually become The Crow, Shirley relapsed into drug addiction. This time he managed to stay off the street but it was hard on his loved ones. Shirley channeled his rage, shame and sorrow at himself and his addiction into nightmare fuel. The result was the novel Wetbones; it feels like the bastard child of Requiem for a Dream, Lovecraft, early David Fincher and Cronenberg films, all while surgically satirizing the Hollywood of the time.
Wetbones is the story of a father looking for his lost drug-addicted daughter who has been kidnapped by a supernatural serial killer. This psychically empowered psychokiller feeds off, and controls, his victim’s addictions. The desire that can never be satisfied is the lurking monster; the inherent desire in us all is the key. We are all one choice away from the control of this monster. It is what makes the novel frightening to the core.
With over 30 novels in his catalog (including franchise tie-ins), almost every one of them could warrant study and articles all on their own. In Darkness Waiting explores intolerance and violence by using the metaphor of insects, burrowed into the human brain, who feed on anger and hateful impulses. Demons is an environmental masterpiece that imagines corporations as cultists using eco-disasters as a ritual to summon monsters. Everything is Broken warns of the nightmare created by the dominance of libertarianism in times of crisis. No one combines imagination and activism on the page like John Shirley.
John Shirley and the Future
Ray Bradbury famously pointed out it is not the job of Science Fiction writers to predict the future but often to prevent it. Some authors however have been prophetic, Octavia Butler and John Brunner being two good examples. John Shirley is no different. In the 80s he wrote a Cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth that is now re-issued as a massive complete volume from Dove books. It comprises three novels: Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona.
While composed during the Reagan years, the A Song Called Youth trilogy is about far right reactionary neo-facism. It was impossible to see them as anything short of predictive during the George W. Bush years. The novels are set after the fall of NATO and the rise of rightwing racist fascism. America gets the most attention for it but the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe shows that Shirley’s nightmare of a global apartheid is not far off the mark. The first novel crescendos with the hero plugging in a guitar on the streets of Paris in an act of resistance to combat the rise of fascism.
Here we are again: the Trump era was supposed to end on January sixth but as some members of congress and the senate refuse to support a bi-partisan truth committee, Shirley looks like a prophet again. “In the Bush years and in the Trump years I saw a movement toward creating a theocracy, a Christian-far-right dictatorship in the making, starting out with the merging of church-and-state through born-again fundamentalism embodied by George W. Bush and his voters. There was also an effort to remake ‘truth’ as truthiness; as ‘whatever we say it is’, which was the seed of what is happening now, as cultivated by Trump and the sickness in the internet. The internet should be informing us. It needs re-forming—it has become a tool for the most insidious deception. Trump made great use of it and continues to. It's all very like my A Song Called Youth trilogy (the Eclipse books). Neo-fascism is here, now, as predicted in the novels.”
So what does John Shirley think of the future now? After a few years of writing in other directions, like his metaphysical mystery Doyle after Death that saw the creator of Sherlock Holmes investigating crime in the afterlife, or his historical Western Wyatt in Wichita, John Shirley has returned to the Cyberpunk and the social-political novel of the future with his new release Stormland.
Set in a future South Carolina that is constantly battered by climate-change-driven tropical storms, Stormland presents what will hopefully be an exaggeration of our future. Battered by unending storms and an Atlantic Ocean that simply won’t cool, this future is not that unlikely in the world of climate change unleashed. Much of the novel explores the people who would choose to stay in the disaster zones. The novel is not the climate future alone, it also examines how we interface with technology in a condition of perpetual extreme weather.
Stormland is both a Cyberpunk novel and a climate change warning; it is dystopian warning like Alas, Babylon or On the Beach—books which sent shivers down the spine of its readers who needed atomic war personalized. The issue at hand is the temperature in the world now: heat domes, wild-fires, rising waters, and of course raging storms. We can only hope the punk prophet is wrong this time.
But John Shirley won’t stop. That night in Portland, before The Blue Oyster Cult took the stage, the audience was waiting to Fear the Reaper. The Screaming Geezers ignited the audience with raw energy. The angry artist at the microphone does not slow down. Science Fiction is still this rock n’ roll vocalist’s day job.
Besides Stormland, Shirley has also released a new Fantasy novel A Sorcerer of Atlantis, inspired by the seminal style of Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard, and a wild new short story collection called Feverish Stars. John Shirley is still screenwriting and tinkering with ideas yet to come. With Stormland, it’s exciting to see that one of the founders of the subgenre is keeping the punk in cyberpunk.
You can get more details about John Shirley at his website
Check out David Agranoff’s full interview about the release of Stormland on the (PKD)Dickheads podcast