Coy Hall lives in West Virginia, where he splits time as an author and professor of history. As a historian, he studies Medieval and Early Modern Europe. History influences his fiction, with many of his stories set in the distant past—sometimes the real past, sometimes an imagined one, but most often a mix of the two.
Other influences include authors Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler, Fritz Leiber, M.R. James, Chester Himes, and Shirley Jackson. Radio drama series like Inner Sanctum Mysteries and CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Black Cat (1934) have also shaped his storytelling.
His books include Grimoire of the Four Impostors (2021) and The Hangman Feeds the Jackal: A Gothic Western (2022).
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THE HANGMAN FEEDS JACKAL MINI INTERVIEW
What is THE HANGMAN FEEDS THE JACKAL about, and what drew you to this type of story?
The character of Elijah Valero takes center stage in THE HANGMAN FEEDS THE JACKAL. Valero is an antihero, a drifter and killer, who operates in the 1880s and 1890s American West. He’s a character I’ve developed over the course of a dozen short stories. The first Valero story was published in an issue of Big Pulp in 2010. I love to work with Valero, and I plan to keep telling his stories. This is his first novel.
As a historian, I want my characters to embody a feature of the past often overlooked in popular culture. I developed Valero after studying and teaching about the American West for several years. It struck me how mental illness is prevalent in the era but isn’t discussed regarding the men who made the West famous. Valero is my reaction to that. Today, we would say Valero suffered from a form of psychosis, specifically schizophrenia. The term schizophrenia wasn’t coined in his time, so proper diagnosis was unlikely in Valero’s world. Even if he had sought treatment, the “treatment” was horrific, cruel, and ineffective.
For Valero, the illness arises when he’s twenty-two and is acute by the time he reaches his thirties. The stories I write move along this timeline. Sometimes his illness does not factor into the story, other times it drives the narrative. The latter is the case with THE HANGMAN FEEDS THE JACKAL.
The novel begins with Valero fighting to regain control over reality, sequestering himself in an abandoned monastery in the wilderness to protect those he might harm. A murderous young man named Felix, part of a larger plot to unearth silver in a nearby settlement, drives Valero from isolation. The novel is about Valero gaining control and redemption.
I love this type of gritty story about the underbelly of the world. It’s a story about the human gutter. You find that in noir, which I enjoy tremendously, but it’s often absent from westerns. There’s truth in the unhappiness and grim nature of it. I moved it closer to the “weird western” subgenre with the Hangman and Spider apparitions that haunt Valero.
What do you like about Gothic Westerns?
I love the Classic Western, where good and bad are divided along clear lines, but the real West was ugly, desperate, apathetic, and mean for most. As a historian, I think the model of the Gothic Western, with its dark timbre, is truer to the real West. The line between good and bad is thin, blurred, sometimes nonexistent, sometimes so delicate that a single action or decision can determine the side on which you fall.
The ruins of Native American civilization and the remains of Spanish settlement created layers and layers of decay on top of which the American West was built. Gothic exists in the service of rot—no other genre serves decay better. The Classic Western emphasizes newness, gain, growth, and the triumph of Good. The Gothic Western emphasizes decay, loss, withering humanity, and the banality of Evil. It’s an antidote to the mythology.
What are you working on next?
With my next project, I’m moving to other characters I love. I’m writing the first novel with Dorin Toth and his greyhound, Vinegar Tom. The characters first appeared in GRIMOIRE OF THE FOUR IMPOSTORS in a story called “The Nightshade Garden.” Toth is a Doctor of Theology, a scholar of occult philosophies, and a brilliant investigator who operates in the late 17th century. Like Valero, Toth is an outsider in his society who must solve problems from the margin.
The novel is titled THE PROMISE OF PLAGUE WOLVES. Toth is summoned from Vienna to investigate a vampiric disease that is overtaking a cluster of villages in the Holy Roman Empire. Vinegar Tom goes along for the ride, of course. Animals are so important to me, so I love Tom deeply (despite his acerbic nature). And don’t worry, he isn’t there for decoration. He’ll make his mark.
AN INTERVIEW WITH COY HALL
Tell us about the GRIMOIRE OF THE FOUR IMPOSTORS. What inspired you to write it?
GRIMOIRE is a book I envisioned as the literary equivalent of the portmanteau films released by Amicus in the ‘60s and ‘70s (movies like Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood, and From Beyond the Grave). The films would have four or five themed stories with a wraparound tale as the connecting tissue. That’s what I did with GRIMOIRE. The first and last stories are encounters with a purportedly genuine occult text called GRIMOIRE OF THE FOUR IMPOSTORS. The four stories in between are the impostor stories that comprise the original GRIMOIRE.
I like to imagine Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Michael Ripper, and Herbert Lom taking roles in these stories.
An interest in occult history also inspired the book. Prana Film, in particular, was an inspiration. This was a company created in 1920s Germany with the intention of producing genuine occult films. The films were to be infused with occult symbols. Prana made Nosferatu (1922). Because of designer Albin Grau, Nosferatu has occult symbolism built into the narrative. When Knock, the real estate agent, is reading a letter from Graf Orlok, the letter is written with Enochian symbols. I loved the idea of that, so GRIMOIRE is likewise filled with genuine occult symbolism.
I’ve planned a sequel to GRIMOIRE set in the years following World War One. This will tie in closer with Nosferatu, with the occult scene of 1920s Berlin playing a central role.
What about history (and your own academic study of it) draws you to making horror stories?
It’s less the real horrors and tragedies of history, and more the horrors people imagined to exist in the past that inspire me. I think of my study of history as a form of mental archaeology. I enjoy studying the things people believed to be true in their time. As far as propelling things, what people believe to be true is more important than objective truth.
In this regard, supernatural and occult beliefs fire my imagination more than anything else.
The world in which my stories take place is one in which the occult beliefs of the past are real. The horror set pieces in GRIMOIRE are drawn from things people believed to be true in the 1500s and 1600s.
What’s your favorite historical era and why?
The 17th century. I love studying transitional eras. In the western world, you have movement from Medieval to Modern, and it’s as painful as you’d expect.
With one eye to the past and one eye to the present, the 17th century has a Janus-faced character. I originally stumbled upon that idea with a book called The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought by B.J.T. Dobbs. That book struck me because the Scientific Revolution isn’t taught that way in grade school. Newton was forward thinking (calculus) and backward thinking (alchemy), and that captures the time in which he lived. Writers in the 19th century tried to erase the magical side of Newton because it was embarrassing. Maybe it embarrasses scientists, but historians love it.
There’s a wonderful book by Holly Tucker called Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution that really gets at the aspirations and limitations of the century. In 1667 France, Dr. Jean-Baptiste Denys was working on blood transfusions. That’s an eye forward. However, he experiments by transfusing lamb blood into a sick child. That’s an eye to the past, obviously. There’s an idea of sympathetic magic (blood of the lamb, blood of Christ) inside a budding science.
Nothing fascinates me more than that push and pull. I hope those ideas come through in GRIMOIRE.
What’s the West Virginia horror writing scene like? How does the region inform your work?
For being a state with a small population, the scene is fairly active for the horror genre. Led by Bridgett Nelson, we organized a West Virginia chapter of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) in 2021. We had our first meeting in July. We’re planning book signings and gatherings. We have about twenty writers, with Scott Edelman and Michael Knost being well known members of the chapter.
The region influences my work, too. I enjoy touring “haunted” places. We have some great spots in WV: Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, Moundsville Penitentiary, and Point Pleasant, home of the Mothman. The texture and atmosphere of Trans-Allegheny and Moundsville impacted my conception of architecture as atmosphere. They bring to mind the cliché: “Architecture is frozen music.” We don’t create buildings like that, buildings meant to stand centuries, anymore.
What other writing projects do you have coming?
My next novel to release will begin a mystery series. The first, A SÉANCE FOR WICKED KING DEATH, will release from Level Best Books on January 31, 2022. The story is set in 1956, and it concerns a con artist who conducts fraudulent séances in the 1950s. The sequel, THE SWITCHBLADE SVENGALI, will release on February 1, 2023.
Between those books, I’ll be releasing a novel called THE HANGMAN FEEDS THE JACKAL: A GOTHIC WESTERN with Nosetouch Press. This is an exciting work for me because I’ve published five short stories about the character, Elijah Valero. The first story, “Make Ready a Grave, My Friend, Valero Shoots to Kill,” was published in a magazine called Big Pulp eleven years ago.
Beyond that, I’m writing an occult horror/mystery series of novels set in the 1600s about a character in GRIMOIRE OF THE FOUR IMPOSTORS named Dorin Toth. I can’t wait to share more about Toth and his greyhound, Vinegar Tom!