Huston, We Have Lift Off

September 30, 2010

Writer Charlie Huston

Charlie Huston is a writer on a serious roll.  Over the past year, in fact, the genre-bending author has been riding the literary version of a Vegas hot streak warm enough to make even the coolest Blackjack dealer sweat.  For starters, last October Huston published My Dead Body, the much-anticipated final book in his brilliant and brutal “Joe Pitt” mystery series about a hard-boiled vampire PI working in New York City.  A mere three months later, Huston went on tour to support his newest stand-alone Sleepless, a noir-style thriller set in a near-future L.A. that’s been devastated by a fatal insomnia epidemic.  Not one to rest, the versatile writer also spent early 2010 penning the Marvel comic book series Deathlok: The Demolisher, a slightly-satirical sci-fi adventure that was collected in hardcover this summer.  Clearly, the man’s been on a creative tear.  And there’s more.  In August, Huston signed a three-book deal with Mulholland Books that kicks off with his forthcoming novel Skinner in early 2012.  That very same month Marvel whet fans’ appetites with a preview of Huston’s new comic Wolverine: The Best There Is which is slated for release this December.   Believe it or not, however, it is yet another project in addition to these recent and upcoming works that’s making the biggest noise for Huston these days.  Teaming with True Blood creator Alan Ball, Huston has adapted his 2009 novel The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death into an HBO series pilot that’s poised to launch him into a new stratosphere of popularity.

In the Edgar-nominated Mystic Arts, Huston tells the wild and strangely touching story of Webster Fillmore Goodhue, a thirtysomething former teacher turned shellshocked slacker after tragedy strikes his L.A. classroom.  With his leeching wearing thin with the friends who support him, Web stumbles into a second career cleaning crime scenes with a misfit crew led by the tough and tender Po Sin.  In no time at all, Web is chin deep in a bizarre mystery involving clean team turf wars, shady businessmen, backwoods almond smugglers, and a femme fatale in need of a favor.  While Huston injects the ensuing mayhem with his signature blend of F-bombed dialogue and extra-vivid violence, Mystic Arts is ultimately a kind-hearted thug filled with enough hope and dark humor for author Ken Bruen to proclaim Huston the inventor of “compassionate noir.”  Super fan Stephen King writes, “Charlie Huston is a brilliant storyteller, and writes the best dialogue since George V. Higgins – but what pushes my personal happy-button is his morbid sense of humor and seemingly effortless ability to create scary/funny bad guys… [T]he best thing about Mystic Arts [though] is how decency and heroism rise to the top in spite of everyone’s best efforts to crush them under heel.”

Director Alan Ball

As it turns out, Alan Ball was equally enamored with Mystic Arts after being introduced to Huston’s writing by Charlaine Harris, the author who inspired Ball’s True Blood.  After reading all the Huston novels he could find, Ball met with the author and the two became fast friends.  When Huston sought his advice on whether to pitch Mystic Arts as a TV series, Ball’s response was enthusiastic and definitive:  “[Mystic Arts] has a hard noir feel but it’s also ironic; it’s graphic and gritty but human and very moving at the same time… It could be a great series.”  HBO apparently agreed because in July the network gave the go-ahead for a pilot titled All Signs of Death with Huston writing, Ball directing, and the pair co-producing.   Since a major priority for Ball is capturing Mystic Arts’ distinctive tone, he plans to shoot the pilot using small, handheld cameras.  Said the directer, “[Mystic Arts] is about the dirty underbelly of L.A.  We’re going to try to go against the grain, away from the overlit, stylized noir for a more frantic, contemporary, naturalistic style.”  With British stage actor Ben Whishaw playing the role of Web, filming on the pilot began in late August and, with any luck, a full series will be soon to follow.  Whatever the final outcome, however, there is no denying that the buzz surrounding All Signs is becoming deafening.

To tide you over until filming wraps, your first stop should be this excellent interview with Charlie Huston during which he discusses in detail his thoughts on making Mystic Arts ready for the small screen.  You can also look forward to All Signs by taking a look back at some of Huston and Ball’s earlier, individual works.  Check out the books, films, and T.V. series mentioned above and below, and the time until All Signs will fly by.

Huston’s “Caught Stealing”

Caught Stealing – In this Elmore Leonard-style first novel of his debut series, Huston introduces Hank Thompson, a washed-up baseball star turned alchoholic bartender in New York City.  After agreeing to cat sit for his “friend” Russ, Hank must figure out why an army of Russian mobsters and dirty cops is suddenly out to get him.  A word of caution: This lightening-paced thriller is not for the squeamish.

The Shotgun Rule – For his first stand-alone thrill ride, Huston tells the haunting and humorous coming-of-age tale of four teenage boys in 1980’s California.  When some local thugs steal one of their bikes, the boys’ disastrous attempt at retaliating threatens to bring about life-altering consequences.

Ultimate Annuals Vol. 2 – To better appreciate his considerable comic book skills, take a look at this collection of Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spider-Man comics that Huston helped to author.

Ball’s “Six Feet Under”

American Beauty – This biting look at American suburban culture won Ball the Oscar for Best Writing on his very first theatrical screenplay.  Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Mena Suvari, and Chris Cooper, this mesmerizing film will make you laugh and make you think.

Six Feet Under – Ball won a Best Director Emmy for his critically-acclaimed first HBO series that follows the quirky Fisher family as they operate their independent funeral home and navigate through life.  Poignant, hilarious, and never predictable, Ball’s masterpiece stars Peter Krause, Frances Conroy, Rachel Griffiths, and Michael C. Hall of current Dexter fame.

Towelhead – Based on the novel by Alicia Erian, Ball’s big-screen directorial debut follows a 13-year-old Arab-American girl as she grapples with adolescence in suburban Houston during the Gulf War.  This intense and unflinching film stars Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette, Summer Bishil, and Charlie Huston’s wife actress Virginia Louise Smith.

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Russell J.


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