Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Night Class and why Tom Piccirilli is the best writer you aren't reading

Elmore Leonard died yesterday and so I started thinking about my favorite authors who have managed to switch genres, sometimes back and forth or just in eras of their careers. Leonard, to me, is most famous as a crime writer, but he wrote a bunch of great Westerns, including the work the current TV series "Justified" is based on. Crime and Westerns aren't so different, really.

Crime and horror aren't all that different, either. In fact, a large percent of horror tales have their seeds in crime: someone murdered someone else. The difference between horror and crime is often what happens after the murder.

My thoughts naturally turned to Tom Piccirilli and how I discovered him ten years ago this month.

I had finally enrolled in college after screwing around for six years after leaving high school. I made a trip to the Borders (R.I.P.) in Henderson, Nev., and scoured the horror section. Since I am very much a creature prone to affectations, I wanted a horror novel about college. Lo and behold, Piccirilli's The Night Class caught my eye.

The book had recently won the Bram Stoker Award and the subject matter was right: Caleb Prentiss returns to his dorm after winter break only to see evidence of a murder committed in his room. Life gets crazy between Cal and the people he encounters. Security guards, girls, the dean's wife and, as I recall, a particularly bonkers professor all contribute to Cal's increasing madness. Eventually, he exhibits stigmata. It's nuts and I loved every page.

But it wasn't enough and The Night Class was soon knocked off as my favorite Piccirilli book. After three years, it dropped into fourth place. The book is still special because it was my first encounter with his work. (Misery, Good Omens, On the Road, The Poet, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Girl Next Door, and Fight Club occupy similar slots as the first but not my favorite book by their respective authors.)

The next three Pic books (listed below in reverse order) I read gave him a permanent spot on my bookshelf and proved that mixing genres can be done well. Headstone City, purchased at Powell's while I attended an English major conference in Portland, brings the supernatural into the world of New York gangsters. November Mourns (Borders in Henderson, again, as is the next book) did the same for southern moonshiners. A Choir of Ill Children is a bona fide classic and should be included in every discussion of southern gothic along with William Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner and Harry Crews.

When the time comes that I get to pick my topics and texts for literature classes, my students will read A Choir of Ill Children. I won't make them read The Night Class because I don't want to scare them away from school. Then again, there might be that incoming student who has a similar itch that needs to be scratched until it bleeds.

Lately, Piccirilli has turned to a more traditional brand of crime writing and it's garnered him hardcover status again. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of seeing his The Last Kind Words on the "new books" shelf of my local library. I wanted to check it out first, but I also wanted to see if someone else would pick it up and ask them if they knew what they were in for or if this would be their first time with Piccirilli.

Pic has had some medical problems this year that I won't get into. You can follow his Facebook page if you are interested. The best way to help him and every self-employed author who may or may not have health coverage is to buy his books. Consider him a constant RED on the threat level. Read him now, read him immediately. You'll thank me for it.

As for me, school starts again in about a month. I spent ten years finishing what I started in Nevada and will begin a new phase in Washington, pursuing a master's degree in literature. I won't get to assign books to my first crop of English 101 freshmen, but the road to making them read what I want them to read is not that long. There will be darkness, I'm sure, but it's a good dark, the dark of imagination, of thinking the worst to bring out the best. 

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