Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the serious business of writing that we forget why we do it. Like many people, our next guest set out to have fun, to pay homage to the campy, rubbery, oh-so-cheesy past of creature features and late night movie marathons. At least that’s where he started. The whole strange trip took a few detours along the way. Nathan Lowell Presents…
That may not seem like much of a deal to you, but it was a real surprise to me. Up until then, I had never felt much of a tug to write serious fiction. I’ve been a freelance writer and editor for over a decade, happily plugging away on articles and textbooks and policy reports. Sure, I wrote the occasional short story in writing workshops, and I did have one idea for a novel that I finally wrote and self-published in 2006, but after that came out I figured I had gotten the fiction-writing bug out of my head and so I went right back to writing factual stuff for a living.
So what suddenly triggered the urge to write a story on my blog? A wonderfully bad 1950s alien monster movie called “The Monster That Challenged The World.”
It really should have been called “The Monster That Annoyed a Couple of Guys on a Boat,” but that’s not the point. One night I was flipping through the TV listings trying to find an excuse to stay up a little later when I stumbled on it just as it was starting. I thought, what the heck. At first I went all MST3K on it, because it deserved it. But at some point, I stopped mocking things like the stock characters (the Gruff but Secretly Warm-Hearted Hero, the Comely Lab Assistant, the Elderly Scientist Who Speaks in Dissertations) and actually got hooked on the story itself. As hokey as it was, it had a decent plot, earnest acting, and a not-half-bad script.
Watching the movie, I also began to feel a deep, warm nostalgia. In grade school I used to watch sci-fi and monster movie marathons on the two UHF channels that we could barely pick up from Albuquerque. I also absorbed all of the anthology shows like The Twilight Zone (loved it), The Outer Limits (liked it), and One Step Beyond (meh), and of course Irwin Allen’s series and — towering above them all — Star Trek. Like so many others here, I lived science fiction as a kid: I wrote and drew stories featuring my own space heroes, pretended that the arroyo behind my house was an alien planet or a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and lived for hours in a taped-together refrigerator box submarine/spaceship/underground lair until it was time for dinner. Then in high school, Doctor Who arrived on our local PBS station, the miracle of cable TV introduced me to anime, and my driver’s license made it possible to travel to cons in distant cities.
But in college, I walked away from fandom, from science fiction, and from storytelling.
It was the golden age of Creation’s traveling-circus conventions and the dawn of the age of the cease-and-desist letter. Sequel-mania was just getting started. And I fell in with the wrong crowd.
The girl I was dating at the time introduced me to her circle of fannish friends, and they turned out to be pretty hard-core types. I hung around the edges of the group for about a year, but then one Saturday we went over to someone’s house to watch videos. She put in a tape that turned out to be home movies of a TV star’s child’s fifth birthday, which, she said with pride, a friend of hers had stolen from the actor’s house.
Yeah, um, not really my thing there, sorry.
So out of a combination of shock and disgust, I abandoned the science fiction life altogether. By then, in my head it had become indistinguishable from the dark, barnacle-encrusted underside of fandom that I had been stuck in, and anyway I had been feeling the urge to grow up and be taken seriously as a professional young man.
And that’s pretty much where things stood until I came across “The Monster That Annoyed a Couple of Guys on a Boat” — er, “The Monster That Challenged The World” many years later.
After I watched it, I felt the urge to try writing a science fiction story in the style of a campy 1950s monster movie, with quippy and flirtatious dialogue, rubber suited monsters, the works. But I had to somehow convey the cheesiness in writing. How do you make a reader visualize that the flying saucers heading toward our heroes looked like tinfoil-covered pie plates wobbling on strings? That proved to be more of a challenge than I thought.
I decided to call the story “The Terror from the Other Dimension!” (the exclamation mark was de rigueur). For fun, I even created a graphic of the title screen in a suitably horror-movie font, complete with film scratches and a glaring typo (which, I might add, no one has ever noticed to this day). I wrote the first chapter and posted it on my blog, and though I really enjoyed doing it, I wasn’t sure if it would make it past the first installment. But every week or so I kept finding my way back to the story, adding another chapter, surprising myself with how involved I was becoming with the plotting, the character development, and the research (can you make a laser out of the things you would find on a Navy blimp ca. 1957? Answer, courtesy of a retired radar officer who served on one: yes).
Around about Chapter 6 or so, when it appeared that “Terror” just wasn’t going to fade away after all, I decided to kick it out of the nest and on to its own blog. But what to call the new site? Well, since I had grown up watching movies and shows like that on UHF channels, why not “Channel Something?” While reading about the history of UHF on Wikipedia, I saw that Channel 37 had never been assigned in the U.S., and was often used as a fictional TV station the way “555” is used for telephone numbers in the movies.
So there it was: Channel 37: Serial Science Fiction from the Distant Reaches of UHF. I launched it as a WordPress.com blog that day, with the idea that I would keep it up just as an occasional hobby and a writing exercise (denial runs strong in me).
Shortly after I launched Channel 37, I was chatting with my friend Gary Lester at a writing conference and I mentioned what I had gotten myself into. He loved the idea and immediately started coming up with great ideas for plots and characters on the spot, and thinking up clever ways to branch out into e-books and podcasts and who knows what all. Which got me all fired up too. We realized that we could have twice as many stories — and at least twice as much fun — with two writers working on stories in parallel.
Gary debuted on Channel 37 with his cold-war adventure thriller “They Came from New Jersey!” (again with the exclamation point), which introduced his ongoing heroine, Candace Dare. I wrapped up “Terror” and launched a TV series-style storyline called “Space Repairman” (no punctuation), starring Chuck Banner and his robot sidekick F.R.E.D.D. Together we established the anthology series “The Event Horizon,” which features one-part stories of suspense and horror with a twist, in the style of The Twilight Zone. And as the months went by, the tone of our stories gradually became less campy, our plots more sophisticated. We were starting to take this whole thing more and more seriously.
In the meantime, I was also working furiously on a completely revamped site that would roll out under its own dedicated domain name (www.channel-37.net) in time for Balticon 45, which we had settled on as our official debut. The new Channel 37 site went live in mid-March of this year, and at Balticon we met Nathan (who I had sought out on Twitter and who had so kindly given us some very helpful shout-outs early on), Scott Roche and Zach Ricks of Flying Island Press, and oh so many other fine and upstanding creators, writers, podcasters, fans, and readers who welcomed us into the fold. It’s a great time to be experimenting with storytelling on the web and in e-books, and thanks to Nathan and our many new friends, we’re thrilled to be a part of it.
So that’s where I am today. Looking back on it, I feel like I’ve come full circle. I am back in science fiction — this time, I think, to stay.
It’s nice to be home.