Cold Cuts - Robert Payne Cabeen
As a kid, when people asked what my favourite animal was, assuming they weren’t talking about the domestic variety, I’d always say a penguin. I mean, what’s not to like? They’re cute, full of abandon, have the reproductive division of labour sorted, and spend their days cavorting about on the ice as if it were a giant hydro-slide, and all while immaculately groomed in their everyday tuxedoes. And then Robert Payne Cabeen came along with his debut novel Cold Cuts, and made me reconsider my life choices because Cold Cuts is definitely not a Pingu remake. Instead, it’s attack of the teenage mutant turtles on meth. Oh, and there are hordes of them, lurking just outside the underground life support bunker of scientists Ben Eaton and Ozzy Pratt. But cut off and freezing in Antartica, the pair have other more pressing concerns…
Sharply written with laugh out loud comedy juxtaposed against pure terror, Cold Cuts isn’t just another monster survival story. Cabeen’s characters are complex, and their situation isn’t just imaginary-scary, it’s really scary because it could happen any day…
Mini interview with Robert Payne Cabeen:
Lee: Climate change and its consequences are highly topical right now with Harvey and Irma wreaking havoc on the southern states at the time of Cold Cuts’ release. When you set the story in Antarctica on edge of a massive ice shelf, did you intend for the book to be political, or was the decision more about throwing your characters into a brutal and unpredictable environment?
RPC: The latter, for sure. I needed a location where my characters would have to deal with terrifying isolation, so it was either space or Antarctica. The story elements that are politically topical now were not on the evening news when I began writing Cold Cuts. In fact, I worried that readers would balk at the idea that an iceberg so massive would calve off the south polar ice sheet. And I had absolutely no idea white supremacists would take center stage, the way they have. My editor, Kate Jonez, joked that perhaps I should stop writing because I was making bad things happen. My overriding goal, in everything I do, is entertainment, but I suppose it’s impossible to keep my world-view from surfacing, now and then. I guess I see climate change as more self-evident than political. Like Bob Dylan said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Lee: In places, Cold Cuts is extremely funny, and yet at its core the story is both bleak and terrifying. What is it, do you think, that make horror and comedy such good bedfellows?
RPC: That’s a great question, Lee, and one I’ve given a lot of thought to. My first awareness of the power of humor in horror was the EC horror comics from the 50s–Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear, and the Vault of Horror. I didn’t discover them until I was in my early 20s, but when I did, they became the foundation of my approach to horror. I am not the first, by any means, to say that. So, so many horror writers and directors acknowledge those comics influence on their work–from Steven King to George Romero. I’m just another of Al Feldstein’s mutant spawn. Al wrote and edited most of those horror stories. He was one of my mentors and I learned just about everything I needed to know about the power of humor in horror from him. For Al, the humor in his stories was situational, not joke driven, although, the Crypt Keeper was quite a punster. The impact of Feldstein’s humor was most often the product of pushing gore to such an absurd degree that it became funny. Your own Peter Jackson’s infamous “ear in the pudding” scene, from Dead Alive, is a perfect example–not to mention all Sam Rami’s Evil Dead movies. I should point out that Al Feldstein’s humor pedigree is impressive, to say the least. After the horror comics were banned, Al became the editor of Mad Magazine.
On a fundamental level, a laugh and a gasp are both involuntary. There’s a beautiful honesty and immediacy in that. It’s much more difficult to illicit either with the written word than it is with cinema. I may be giving away too much about how the sausage is made, but my use of humor is more sinister than you might think. I never use it for comic relief, quite the opposite. You may have noticed that I put the humor before the scare. It puts the reader off guard, so I can deliver a sucker punch. Movies have the advantage of sound effects, a scary score, and a variety of dramatic cuts that a writer just can’t duplicate. No jump scares on the printed page, so I use humor for a purpose it was never intended. The writer does have certain advantages over the filmmaker, like being able to convey a character’s inner thoughts and emotions. For me, one of the most terrifying scenes in Cold Cuts is when Ozzy turns the TV off and experiences the terror of the suffocating silence. I could never do that in a script. You can’t shoot pitch-black silence. But as dark as that scene is, it starts off funny. I hope I made you laugh out loud now and then–and maybe a gasp or two.
Lee: You obviously had a lot of fun writing Cold Cuts, judging from the myriad references to science fiction and horror tropes. Reference to Poe’s poetry is interesting, as Ozzy’s introspection, and Eaton’s example, are reminiscent of the paranoia seen in stories like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher. So what’s scarier in your view: the monstrosities which surround us, or the demons which haunt our own minds?
RPC: It’s interesting you would ask that because the monstrosities that roam the ruins of the devastated science station aren’t what’s scary to me. It’s the isolation that brings about Ozzy and Ben’s agonizing descent into madness and depravity that is the real source horror. The mutant penguins were just gory fun.
Lee: The end of the book includes some breath-taking concept art ‒ your own designs ‒ conjuring up your mutant penguins. So, did the writing inspire the artwork, or was it the other way around?
RPC: Thanks, Lee. The artwork is more proof-of-concept than anything else. I had to be sure I could make penguins scary. Let’s face it, they’re one of the least terrifying creatures on the planet–with their happy feet and all. My background is actually in the visual arts. I have a master’s degree in painting and design from Otis Art Institute. So, when I write, I always go for the visual first. That was a big plus when I started writing scripts, since film is a visual medium. I also did quite a few character and location sketches for Cold Cuts. I didn’t include them in the book because I didn’t want to rob the reader of conjuring their own mental images.
Lee: Plus, as a Kiwi, I couldn’t help but smile at the references to New Zealand. Any plans to come down and visit us?
RPC: As you know, New Zealand is the jumping off point for Antarctica. I had fun creating a Kiwi character. I’d like to have an imaginary beer with Roy sometime and listen to more of his roughneck stories about working on the docks in Auckland. I’d also like to have a real beer with you. We did have tea at StokerCon. Maybe a movie project will bring me to New Zealand some day. You’re surrounded by so many natural wonders. I’d love to hike around. This has been fun, Lee. Thanks so much.
Lee: Thanks so much for chatting with us, Bob! I’m putting some beer in the fridge now. Should be nicely cold by the time you get here.
Two environmental scientists, one who takes his work and himself seriously, the other a pop culture geek with a junk food habit, struggle for survival when Québécois paramilitary fanatics demolish their remote science station in the frozen wasteland at the bottom of the world. Drs. Pratt and Eaton uncover The Order of the Red Wolf’s Cold War Era nuclear reactor, but not before it has irradiated the Antarctic fauna and created hordes of ravenous mutations. Can the oddball duo survive monstrosities that roam the ruins of their devastated science station? Will they be able to overcome their own desperate appetites– born of madness and starvation? One thing is certain. They will learn the meaning of terror when the cold cuts deep.