Author: Eliot Baker
Title: The Last Ancient
Genres: Supernatural Thriller
Publisher: Burst Books Pages: 316
Around Nantucket Island, brutal crime scenes are peppered with ancient coins, found by the one man who can unlock their meaning. But what do the coins have to do with the crimes? Or the sudden disease epidemic? Even the creature? And who--or what--left them?
The answer leads reporter Simon Stephenson on a journey through ancient mythology, numismatics, and the occult. Not to mention his own past, which turns out to be even darker than he'd realized; his murdered father was a feared arms dealer, after all. Along the way, Simon battles panic attacks and a host of nasty characters -- some natural, others less so -- while his heiress fiancee goes bridezilla, and a gorgeous rival TV reporter conceals her own intentions.
The deer’s blood catches the golden hour light. It radiates throughout the animal’s carcass in fall hues that reflect the island’s rustling red leaves and honey-colored needles littering the sand. Such eerie, blasphemous beauty. I fire shots from my Nikon.
“That’s six. Six deer mutilations this month,” I say to my experts. Click. Click. Click.
Branches partially cover the deer. Its eyes are wet brown marbles rimmed and veined in burning red, as though it had been hung upside down for a day. Its lips are peeled back above the gums in a grimace of broken teeth. Brain matter spills through a crack in the skull. Two yellowjackets buzz over the red pulp. Land. Feed. Hover above their feast. Click. The neck is attached to the body by a flap of hide. One of the deer’s forelegs is missing. Inside the hole in its torso I can see that its entrails have been removed. I get on my elbows and snap pictures from the cold, damp sand. The heart is gone, too.
Dr. Pauline Driscoll, Nantucket’s town biologist, is squatting beside the carcass. She’s furious at Sgt. Brad Fernandez, who is cursing and stomp-cleaning a gore-splattered boot into the sand. She affects his tar-thick Roxbury accent. “Nice shaht cut, ace!” Her silvering French braid swings out the back of her UMass baseball hat as she unpacks measuring tape, sample tubes, and baggies from her turquoise external frame pack. Sgt. Fernadez kicks bloody goo into the bushes.
“Maybe I wanna carry da machete fuh once, Doctor Driscoll,” he says.
Dr. Driscoll mutters and scribbles into her notepad. She is oblivious to her windswept beauty. Her dark eyes shine and sparkle, and she’s maintained her triathlete’s figure despite being on the other side of forty. She’s over a decade older than me, but I understand why Sgt. Fernandez wants to impress her.
Dr. Driscoll carves out an eyeball, coaxing it from the deer’s eye socket with a gloved hand. Tendons follow the jelly marble from the orbital cavity like melted provolone. She saws through the tendons with a retractable scalpel. Fernandez gags. It makes him look like a blushing Boy Scout in his green Environmental Police uniform and billed hat and bulky black utility belt. Driscoll smiles school-girl sweet, dropping the eyeball into a baggie. She offers Fernandez the instrument and baggie, asking him if he’d like to carry the scalpel for once.
Fernandez holds up one hand at her and balls the other over his mouth, gulps twice. “You’re one sick hippy,” he says.
Driscoll hums a macabre rendition of Melanie Safka’s Lay Down as she scoops bits of brain from the crack in the animal’s skull.
I sniff the shrieking wind. It’s bowing the barrens of pitch pines toward our clearing in the scrub oak like gnarled magnetic filaments. I can smell the ocean, almost hear it, but not see it. From our elevated bald spot in the suffocating brush, I can see the sandy path we just traversed. It cuts like a surgical scar through the open conservation land’s tufts of bladed grass and bristling patches of black huckleberry and pasture rose. It winds up Altar Rock into the reddening horizon, where a hunter stands silhouetted on the rim of the valley, binoculars pressed to his face. The strapped shotgun jutting from his shoulder makes him look like a fierce insect with an antenna.
“You poor baby,” says Driscoll, passing a black fine-toothed comb over the deer’s patchy fur. She taps the comb and a dozen ticks fall like grains of volcanic sand into a plastic dish. “Those teeth, that pelt–man, you were one sick fella.”
Fernandez breathes, gets down on one knee, and starts shaving samples from the spine with his own folding knife. He then slices off chunks of muscle and organs that he places into baggies under Driscoll’s direction. Click.
“I’m bustin’ heads, and you can quote me on that,” says Fernandez through clenched teeth behind his trimmed mustache. “Someone was huntin’ before dawn.”
“Or something,” I say, snapping close-ups of the spray radius. Drops of blood shine like rubies on wooden pendants in the foreground against a hazy cloud of thorns. The experts exchange looks and groans.
“Anyways, this is roundabouts where da Pike brothers said dey heard something freaky ’bout an hour ago,” says Fernandez. “Said it was like a deer cry, but kinda mutant, with loads a struggle.”
Dr. Driscoll stands and examines the sand and rocks for tracks. She picks up the machete she used to carve a trail here through the scrub oak. “Man, what is wrong with people?” she says and hacks at the thorny curtain with skills she picked up surveying birds in the Amazon and in Africa. She asks Fernandez if he can find any boot prints. He shakes his head.
I ask them to speculate on a predator. No dice.
“How about speculating on how it got in here then?” I say. “We lost the tracks and the blood trail way long ago.”
“Good point,” admits Dr. Driscoll.
The deer’s remaining foreleg suddenly stiffens as though saluting, hitting Driscoll’s thigh.
“Oh, fuck me hard on Sunday!” says Dr. Driscoll, jumping into Sgt. Fernandez’s arms.
He whispers, “Relax, it’s a fresh kill. And sure, Sunday’s good for me.”
Driscoll shoves Fernandez, and says to me, “Don’t you dare put that in the article.”
“I’ll think about it,” I say, and try to smile. Can’t. I’m shaken.
Why did you decide to become a writer?
Because writing makes me happy. Crafting a good sentence makes my brain light up like it just had coffee and a cigarette on a sunny seaside morning. I don’t smoke, so writing sentences is my little addiction. My big addiction—the one that gives a full-body “Aaaah!”like marathon-high or something with a high street value—comes from finishing a book. Once you feel those highs, there’s no going back. You’re a writer. I’ve felt them since I was a kid. Writing is the one thing for which I always received praised. I realized in my adult life as I vacillated between career choices of law school or medical school or science that I really only had one choice. And that was to be a writer. So I write about science and other stuff while I compose fiction.
Who/what are your writing inspirations?
My mother was my morning star. Sharon Baker published three sci-fi novels in the 1980s (she passed away in 1991, when I was barely a teenager). I used to listen to her typing all night, soothing me to sleep like waves lapping against a boat’s hull. She and her writer friends were so passionate about their craft that I decided to start writing short stories around seven years old. Stuff about intergalactic skateboarding contests and wars with lizard people. I was hooked. I guess you could say she was my enabler.
What are your favorite genres to read?
Urban fantasy, horror and sci-fi are my go-to’s, but I rarely read two genre books in a row, and I never read within the genre that I’m currently writing. It’s a strategy I picked up to keep my horizons broad and my writing fresh. I break up genre fiction with literary fiction or nonfiction. For instance, this year I read Rick Yancey’s 5th Wave, Justin Cronin’s The Passage books and Glen Duncan’s Last Werewolf series, but in between I read Kevin Powers’ Yellow Birds (utterly stunning, amazing writing), Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (deserved all its laurels), and re-read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Favorite writing food / snack?
Coffee. Pure, strong, hot black coffee. It’s basically a performance enhancing substance. And peanut butter and jelly rice cakes keep the blood sugar up.
What do you hope readers take away most from your writing?
The recipe for turning lead to gold and mortality to godhood. That, and a sense of uniqueness and depth. I mash genres together with meticulous research and I strive for lean, exposition-light, adverb-free, muscular-poetic writing. I want people to lose themselves inThe Last Ancient’s action, and then ponder its meaning and trajectory before going to bed. I want people to feel they got their money’s worth in entertainment, while picking up some cool new knowledge as a little added value to the experience.
Who’s the favorite character of yours that you’ve written and why?
Must… resist… saying… “all of them…” Right, then. My favorite character is probably The Last Ancient’s mythological beast. It’s unique. Giving away its identity would be a spoiler, but I liked one of my reviewer’s description of Her as a Lovecraftian creature. She’s reallyThe Last Ancient’s main character, as the story’s universe revolves around Her and everything She represents, from her history to her veiled intentions for the main characters and for the world–which she is either working to save or destroy, depending on your perspective.
What is your writing style? Outliner/Planner or Seat of the Pantser?
I’m a natural Pantser reformed into an outliner/planner. My first novel attempt out of college was a complete pantser effort—I basically jammed a dual USB port from my computer into my heart and my lizard brain and let stuff flow. The resulting story had some nice moments but it got away from me, and it never got published. I learned from that experience to approach new projects more systematically, more logically. First I’d get a beginning and end firmly down, and then sketch the supporting characters and narrative arc in basic chapter form. Once that’s done, I like to let the voices in my head tell me what to do. They work for me, at that point, rather than against me.
If someone wanted to become a writer, what tips would you give to them?
Go for it. Just do it. If there’s a little voice or a raging demon inside of you begging you to write something, listen to it. Fall in love with the process of writing. Then set about the practical stuff. Don’t let the size of the mountain keep you from trying to summit it. If Frodo did that, we’d all be speaking Orc. If you’re reading this interview, you’re going to refine your fundamentals and learn the elements of fiction. I won’t get all pedantic about that here, but an author needs passion to achieve the requisite 10,000 hours of mastering her craft. Once you’ve begun honing your talents, you can start looking into all the practical downers of querying and marketing, criticism and rejection, and the drudgery of re-drafting and editing. But really, writing is the work of kings. Have fun when you can, have sleep when you can’t, and have Prozac when you must!
Have you ever purchased something from a late-night infomercial? If so, what?
No, but I have bought ill-advised plane tickets and accepted stupid trades for my fantasy football league past midnight. And nutrition gods forgive me for all the late-night Taco Bell runs of my youth. Annoying as it is that all stores close by eleven in Finland, it has reduced unnecessary late-night munching for me.
If you could collaborate with any other author(living, dead, or undead) who would that be and why?
Undead? Hmm. I recall a Simpsons episode that featured Zombie Shakespeare, which would be cool. Can you imagine Hamlet II: Yorick’s Skull’s Revenge? No? Me neither. In which case, I would love to turn Hunter S. Thompson loose on Finland, where I live. If you’ve ever been to Finland, perhaps the most level-headed, non-Las Vegas place on Earth, you’d understand how hilarious and bizarre it would be to see Dr. Thompson swim in a vat of mescaline and then stagger off in search of the Finnish Dream, driving a diesel Peugot while yelling curses at crowds of dumb-struck pale-faced Lutherans flagellating themselves with birch switches in their saunas. Finer points of the human condition would surely be discovered. I’d let him take the drugs—not my thing—and then I’d take the notes for Fear and Loathing in Suomi.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you do?
I had a near miss with medicine and science, so mending broken bones or performing evil human experiments would be my safest bets. Although I really like singing for my metal band, so Rock Star would have to be my top choice.
Coke, Pepsi, or?
Coke at a movie, because it’s easier to locate the big red cup in the dark. Pepsi at an afternoon baseball game, because the black and blue color of the cup is more refreshing on a sunny day. But I got really into the delightfully wretched Peruvian infusion, Inca Cola back when I hiked Machu Pichu.
What’s one thing people should know and/or don’t know about you?
I look like a normal person, but I’m weird. Like, David Lynch/ Tim Burton-movie weird. Writers, more often than not, are outsiders of some fashion; being an outsider enables the broadened perspective and sharp observations requisite for good stories. You’re watching the moment even while you’re in it. Growing up in sports, I was a comic book-collecting sci-fi nerd surrounded by jocks. I progressed to being a not-terribly-bright public school kid surrounded by much-smarter-kids at an elite private school (and followed that up by being a now-private-schooled kid at a rough public high school; followed by being a rough-public-school kid at a small liberal arts college; followed by consistently being the dumbest guy in rooms full of smart Harvard and Boston University kids in grad school). I was a West Coast driver taking East Coast metros. I am an American writer teaching communications in Finland. Now I’ve reached that point Bill Bryson described in “I’m a Stranger Here Myself!” where everywhere I live or have lived seems equally bizarre and familiar.