Cullen Bunn: The Conjurer

A comics interview article by: E.D. Bryant
With books like The Damned and his latest hit supernatural western series, The Sixth Gun, horror writer Cullen Bunn has scared the hell out of us for years.

Now, like the boogeyman, he’s after our kids.

Stranger Than Fiction

I’m being punked. I must be. The big city boy with all his science and logic and gadgets being strung along by the disarming charm of southern legends and folklore, and their flawless delivery by a man known to come from a long line of hypnotists and storytellers. The best of them blur the lines between fiction and reality, and Mr. Bunn conjures history and embellishment before me with equal dexterity and dazzle, juggling the brilliance of his tales like a circus performer juggling fire before a wide-eyed and dumbfounded audience.

He begins with the truth, which, as it turns out, is hard to believe.

In a more superstitious time, when the night was dark and full with stars, and otherworldly creatures rose from their slumber to hunt and play in the mountains of southern Missouri, in the region known as the Ozarks, children would lay in their beds to hear stories of a dreadful sort.

One tells of a distraught woman who kills her baby, cooks it and serves it to her unsuspecting husband. When they are asleep, the ghost of the child can be heard crying, “Pennywinkle! Pennywinkle! My maw kilt me, my paw ate me, my sister buried my bones under a marble stone. I want my liver an’ lights an’ wi-i-i-ney pipe! Pennywinkle! Pennywinkle!”

Another bedtime story may sound familiar. After a day of butchering hogs, a family retires to bed. Soon after, they hear a voice: “Where’s my hog’s feet at?” The father is startled awake, but sees nothing. Later the same voice cries out: “I want my hog’s feet!” The father searches the home but finds no one, until he peers into the chimney, where upon he is startled by the sight of fierce, glowing eyes. “What’s them big eyes for?” he asks. The voice echoes, “To see you with.” The father asks, “What’s them big claws for?” The voice replied, “To dig your grave with!” The old man asked, “What that big bushy tail for?” After a silence: “To sweep off your grave with.” The last question the old man is known to have asked: “What’s them big teeth for?” “TO EAT YOU WITH!”

Other stories tell hair-raising tales of headless dogs, bones of murdered men rattling inside the trunks of trees, monstrous black boars that are said to foretell the death of its seer, and even bringing on rain by dunking a cat in sulfur water.

As Mr. Bunn winds down, he darts a look at me and hesitates. My face must betray what I’m thinking. Seemingly to sweep aside what he clearly deems as pesky incredulity, Mr. Bunn reveals his source: Vance Randolph. Look it up, he says with a playful and wicked defiance. And I do. Later, in the relative safety of reality and distance from Mr. Bunn, I verify that, indeed, Mr. Randolph was a real man, a folklorist that lay witness to two centuries, and who held a life-long obsession with the folklore and culture of the Ozarks. It comes as no surprise, then, that in the introduction to his 1964 book, “Ozark Magic and Folklore”, Mr. Randolph characterizes the people of the backwoods of the Ozarks as “[…] the most superstitious people in America.”

With that, it all comes together in my mind, and I can’t help but shudder. Yet, I am more troubled by the tingling of insatiable curiosity that wells up in me. I’ve lost. I am under the conjurer’s spell. Against the backdrop of such a rich--if not harrowing--cultural legacy, Mr. Bunn, aims to introduce us this Halloween, to Crooked Hills, the most haunted town in America. The echo is deliberate and haunting.

Ruby Red

As Mr. Bunn tells it, among the generations of residents of the Ozarks town of Crooked Hills, evil witches lived among the townspeople. They used their black magic to poison crops and livestock. They would strike in the dead of night, flying over the hilltops and valleys, swooping down at unsuspecting prey. Because the witches were hidden by the cover of night, the only way the people of Crooked Hills could see them coming was by watching the skies for what looked like red eyes that flickered in the darkness. The red eyes were actually magical rings made of rubies that the witches wore on the index fingers of their right hands. Lore passed down from family to family told that if you saw the faint red flicker in the sky, you had a chance to find shelter. But if you were unlucky enough to see it stop blinking, the witch was too close, and you were as good as dead.

No witch was more feared than Maddie Someday, for she did not simply kill off your cattle or corn; she stole your children. The terror she struck was so fierce, so paralyzing, the children stopped playing in the fields and hills and creeks. That is until one day--there is always “one day” in Mr. Bunn’s stories--a generation of children that had grown up, rebelled and devised a way to capture Maddie Someday. After her capture, the savage mob cut her into pieces and buried her across the deepest parts of the woods in unmarked graves, including her ruby red ring. After that, the evil witches seemed to disappear from Crooked Hills almost overnight, and not one child has disappeared since.

Until now.

There is always an “until now” in Mr. Bunn’s stories. Then, you hang on those words to hear the rest of the story.

A Boiling Cauldron of Genre Stew

Throughout his writing career, Mr. Bunn has managed to pull off acts of literary bravado others might ruin their reputations in merely attempting. He has been dubbed a king of the genre mash-up, and comics fans can’t seem to get enough of his particular brand of narrative spectacle. The slight of hand began to take on a polished form in front of indie comics audiences when, as an unknown writer, he teamed up with artist Brian Hurtt to create a noir story about humans versus demons during the rat-tat-tat years of Prohibition, a tale with all the stylish cinematic flavor of “Miller’s Crossing”, if you add some smooth-talking, cigar smoking demons in fedoras. The supernatural crime miniseries, The Damned was published in 2006 by Oni Press. Its improbable mix of genres garnered the attention of the comics industry, and--as happens a great deal of late--Hollywood, which has optioned it for film. The original series was subsequently collected into book form, and has spawned two sequels, Prodigal Sons, a three-issue miniseries that appeared in 2009, and the upcoming Daughter’s Danse.

If The Damned dazzles us with an alternate universe rendition of the American gangster mythos, Mr. Bunn’s latest effort attempts to re-imagine the Old West in a way that is less spaghetti, and more John Wayne meets Lord of the Rings. Set in the dark years following the Civil War, The Sixth Gun tells of a band of despicable men that use magic to raise a dead Confederate general to seek out one of six cursed pistols of otherworldly power. As with his first book, Mr. Bunn has teamed with Mr. Hurtt once again to tell this supernatural western tale in an ongoing comic book series. Although only the first two issues have been published, The Sixth Gun has already captured the imagination of fans, and to some, more importantly, retailers. The free full preview of the first issue was made available during Free Comic Book Day last May. At a signing event in Austin this spring, Messrs Bunn and Hurtt signed copies for hundreds of fans lining around the store entrance and around the mall, purportedly the largest turnout the store had ever hosted for such a signing event. During its official debut in July, Oni Press released the first two issues on the same day, and has been sold out at comic book shops since.

Mr. Bunn is also creeping up on the mainstream comics scene. Blending the supernatural with martial arts, he has written an Iron Fist tale that appeared in Marvel’s Immortal Weapons. He has also blended his penchant for action with his comedic timing to pen several Deadpool stories.

Beyond comics, Mr. Bunn has his eyes fixed on the prose fiction market for young readers. With the ongoing novel series, Crooked Hills, Mr. Bunn hopes to continue casting his narrative spells, this time turning his leering gaze and untiring imagination toward doing what would seem to be the impossible: scare the heck out of kids, and have their parents love it. Here, his southern charm will come in handy.

The Ties That Bind…and Cut Off Circulation

If the Internet is to be believed, the surname, Bunn, originates in France during the thirteenth century. A derivative of the Old French word, “bon” it’s principal meaning is that of “benevolent”, and was used as a nickname to describe a good person. So it would seem appropriate to float a new nickname for Mr. Bunn in reference to his notable skills as a gentleman charmer and storyteller: Cullen The Good, perhaps? Mr. Bunn himself seems to enjoy the prospects of its power to assuage his audience.

“It would certainly help wouldn’t it?”

The help to which he refers is the challenge of bringing his brand of supernatural stories to children, for until now, his primary reader has been a male in his twenties--the typical profile of a comic book reader. Junior novel readers, middle grade readers--however you want to label them--are a bit harder to entertain, gender diverse, and hard to scare. To be sure, ghost stories for readers eight to fourteen years old are not new. Modern book series such as Goosebumps have set the bar by cultivating large, ravenous fan bases that devour every book in the series as soon as they are printed in the hopes of being scared witless. Even a part of the runaway success of the Harry Potter books is surely due to its riveting, and often, frightful scenes. Despite the high expectations, it seems Mr. Bunn welcomes the challenge.

“The wonderful thing about the folklore traditions of the Ozarks, especially the juvenile bedtime stories,” he says, “is they don’t dance around death or gore. And they are unpredictable. Kids like to be scared ... and they like to be surprised.”

Indeed, like the original tales of the Brothers Grimm, many of the stories found in Vance Randolph’s body of work about Ozark culture don’t sugarcoat lessons meant to keep children safe in a geographic region that, for much of its settled history, could often be deadly for its inhabitants.

“The stories they told are memorable because they aren’t mere entertainment. They provide instruction--sometimes warnings--but always, somehow, they tie back to the daily life of the Ozark family. I think that’s the power of these stories, and it’s the spirit I want to capture with Charlie and the residents of Crooked Hills.”

Charlie Ward is the fourteen-year old protagonist of the series, which will be published by Evileye Books this fall. Due to a dramatic family event, Charlie, his brother and mother find themselves traveling to visit family in Crooked Hills, a small town, proudly known for its hauntings. For Charlie, moving from the big city to a small dead town is the least of his problems, as he confronts local bullies, crazy old ladies, ghost dogs and witches back from the dead. How he reacts seems to be far more important.

“At its core,” asserts Mr. Bunn, Crooked Hills is a ghost story; but it’s also a coming of age tale. The move to the small town comes at a time in Charlie’s life where he is changing physically, mentally, and spiritually. How he confronts the adversity will define him as an adult. Really, the spooks and creatures are the least of his worries. In these types of stories there’s always a potion or spell or dumb luck that gets one out of harm’s way. But the lessons of identity and self-determination, those are the enduring themes of Charlie’s journey.”

The Voices of Place and Legend

Mr. Bunn’s own travels have led him through a life journey that is as colorful and adventurous as the one he has set down for his young Mr. Ward.

“My father was, among other careers, a salesman, an auctioneer, and--yes--a stage hypnotist. But, more than anything, he was a born tale-teller. I grew up hearing about legends of The Devil’s Stomping Ground and the Maco Light, and my dad would add to all the ghost stories that circulated in the area. He used to tell me about blood-crazed bulls roaming the countryside, witches that lurked in the woods, and other creatures and culprits.

“He once told me that when he was 18, he was riding his motorcycle along a deserted back road. It started to rain, so he took shelter near an old, abandoned church. As he hunkered down near the church, he heard a piano playing inside...and a woman weeping, and a baby wailing. The church was empty, but the sounds emerged loud and clear. He ran for the hills, leaving his bike behind, and he didn’t return until later the next day.”

Himself born in North Carolina, the fictional town of Crooked Hills represents a literary amalgam of the places in which Mr. Bunn lived during his childhood: towns like Newton Grove and Goldsboro in North Carolina; Koshkonong and Thayer in Missouri, where his family moved to raise cattle.

“When we moved to Missouri, the cultural shock was significant. I had never lived in such a rural environment. Once, when we first moved to Thayer, we were driving along a dirt road and I saw thousands of tarantulas migrating across the road. It was really strange and creepy. Another time I was attacked by a swarm of hornets, another by scorpions, yet another by cougars--yeah, cougars--and I even got caught in a flash flood. Those impressions are all echoed in Charlie’s move to Crooked Hills.”

Mr. Bunn’s use of his life and experiences has always been a thread weaving through his growing literary canon. Crooked Hills is one of several fictional locales huddled in the Ozarks that he has employed as backdrops for his stories. Imaginary towns, Spider Creek and Black Oak, make up Mr. Bunn’s mythical cycle, what he dubs his “answer to Lovecraft Country.”

Beyond place, however, it is the impressions and stories lived and heard over a lifetime that make up the rich and singular literary voice that charms us into submission. In this next chapter of his career, he turns to our children, and their impulse will be to run for the hills. But as we have already come to know, they won’t be safe there at all.

Not when he soon will raise the ruby red ring of Maddie Someday.

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