Tales From the Metalnomicon: John Edward Lawson

Welcome to Tales From the Metalnomicon, a twice-monthly column delving into the surprisingly vast world of heavy metal-tinged/inspired literature and metalhead authors…
Reading the work of Raw Dog Screaming Press founding editor/bizarro author extraordinaire John Lawson might be best described as taking a very scenic shortcut into an Altered States-esque surrealist landscape without having to invest in a sensory deprivation tank. Metalnomicon, naturally, is more than a little pleased to have the heavy metal loving boundary pusher here today to give us a peek at the soundtrack to his escape…

The path I took to becoming an author was somewhat crooked. I started out as a child excelling in visual art, and learned to use music to block out the world and concentrate on my craft. Later, as a teenager entering adulthood, I shifted focus to making music and even became a certified audio engineer at Omega Studios. Between sessions in the studio I indulged my side passion, writing, and received much more notice for it than I ever did in music. Over a dozen years later I’m a full time author and member of the editorial staff at Raw Dog Screaming Press, where I’m lucky enough to work with such author musicians as S. Craig Zahler of Charnel Valley and Realmbuilder, Donna Lynch and Steve Archer of Ego Likeness, Michael Arnzen and Jason Jack Miller who collaborated on the Audiovile project, and Eckhard Gerdes of Scuff Mudd.

As you can see there’s an enclave of creators who are successfully working with both sound and the written word.

The moment where it all clicked for me was 1990 during a trip to England, where I heard Napalm Death after years of struggling to find music that spoke to me. Ever since then I’ve listened to brutal music while working. In general it’s stuff like Six Feet Under’s Undead album — listening as I write this! — or Killed the Fixtion. Especially their song “Pulse.” But I like to mix the old with the new, and include such as Sepultura’s Arise, …And Justice For All, Earth AD by the Misfits. They’re still in regular rotation as I put words on the page.

My next book being released is an artbook called Verminomicon, A Field Guide to the Vermin of Yuggoth: Abominations of a Haunted World. You’d think for a project like Verminomicon I wouldn’t need any more inspiration beyond the incredible — and horrific — sculptures created by artist Tony Debartolis for the book. However, I mixed lethal doses of death metal and dark drum ‘n bass to keep me charging through crafting all the Lovecraftian-style purple prose. The playlist included Mantis, Substep Infrabass, The Relic, Hypocrisy, Arch Enemy, and Carcass. I anticipated needing something more atmospheric and moody, but creative forces can be counterintuitive.


In terms of my unavailable books, well, you could say the music influence is even more prevalent there. Pocket Full of Loose Razorblades, an out of print collection from Afterbirth Books, derived it’s title from a sample in a song by Scar Tissue, and one of the stories within is named after the Skrew song “Mouthful of Dust.” That was a surreal collection of body horror and madness that required some offbeat music.


The e-novel New Mosque City was available online for a while to get feedback from readers, and now it’s offline while I’m retooling it. I hate to admit this but for the first time in my life I found myself listening to…Guns ‘n Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, nonstop, for about five hours a day during the writing process. Which was speedy — the book was done within three weeks. I attribute that to the specific and narrow music cues I was drawing from. The other example in this category is the postmodern horror novel Sin Conductor. I’ve got a playlist of about 100 songs for that novel, ranging from ’80s pop to goth to Rob Zombie, but mostly the work of 16 Volt, Helios Creed, Samhain, and Pig. Especially Pig. Raymond Watts of Pig/KMFDM has this…warped? Twisted? Visionary?…idea of boundaries. And for sure I was creating a novel that pushes boundaries in Sin Conductor.

My short stories have also been driven by music. The influence of Acumen Nation can be seen here; the novella “Jagged Desire” in the Demonology anthology was inspired by the song “Stone Farm,” while “False Witness” in the Into the Darkness anthology drew from the song “Message From the Grave.” Both of those tales went to very grim places, even for horror, and Acumen Nation kept me on track.


By the same token I needed something angry, hopeful, and inspiring to drive my work in the next issue of Fiction International, “Playing the Long Game,” so for that I relied on God Forbid’s album Equilibrium. That was more of an experimental literary sci-fi piece, but as we all know there’s metal to suit every occasion. Mixed in plenty of Angerfist on that one for the futuristic element. The anthology Death to the Brothers Grimm! contains my novelette “The Non-Duality of Elanoir” which was built on heavy doses of As I Lay Dying, Danzig’s Deth Red Sabaoth — both mainly for their dark romance songs — and DJ Midnight. I tend to write lots of love stories, even though I don’t know anything about writing love stories, so having these songs as signposts reminded me of what I was supposed to be doing.


Poetry is no different. My most recent poetry collection, SuiPsalms, germinated when I misheard lyrics by the industrial punk band Babyland. As I always do when I’ve got a title I think is hot I go online see if anybody else is using it! Nobody was, but what I discovered was that suicide poetry has become considered an actual genre of poetry, and most of it is either really bad or glorifies suicide. I was annoyed, so I set out to make a book of suicide poetry so heavy that nobody would ever need to read or write suicide poetry ever again. I found myself listening heavily to Sylvia Plath’s readings, the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, Joy Division and early New Order, and the entire catalog of Ministry albums. On paper it doesn’t look like they’d all fit together, but it makes sense when going through the process — which took two years, in this case, to cut through the sorrow with anger and reach the aftermath. Ministry is great for that because their body of work spans so many forms of anger and resentment.

The music definitely comes into play while working on book design as well. When putting together Dustin LaValley’s brutal collection Odds and Ends: An Assortment of Sorts I was listening to Whitechapel — I tend to go fast and heavy to stay motivated and work both hard and fast for the authors. Which in this case was the perfect blend, because Dustin is himself a “metalhead’s metalhead” who introduced me to such bands as Knut, Isis, Irresistible, and Unsane. If you go and download Odds and Ends for free you can just feel the metal as you read… The atmosphere is somber, harsh, desolate… It leaves you feeling like your ears are ringing at 4 a.m. from the concert where you got your toes broken in the pit after your girlfriend dumped you. Kinda like Godflesh’s Streetcleaner. That’s where the two arts intersect: a good story leaves you exhausted and exhilarated, and good metal leaves you feeling like you coming out on top in a twelve round brawl. Successful art transcends reality creating a physical experience that only exists for the viewer, reader, or listener.


On a final note, my career has really taken off due to a dedicated network of music fans worldwide. That’s no mistake. Recently several well-known names in music have taken an interest in my work, inspiring me to reach out to music fans as opposed to readers and authors on social networks. It’s been great getting to know so many people with the same interests as me. I don’t get into hero worship, but the guy in music who might have had the single largest impact on my life, Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy, filmed a shout out video for me at a convention in March. A couple weeks later when I saw the video I was blown away. That has only convinced me to take the music connection up to the next level. With all the e-formats available now I’m more interested in doing something that bridges the gap between albums and books. More on that as it develops. The work of Skinny Puppy showed me early on what’s possible when you blend genres, and their song “Death” is still a favorite of mine…