Back in 2013, I reviewed Reel Splatter filmmaker and author Mike Lombardo’s Lovecraftian short film “The Stall” alongside two short stories, “Play Place” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday,” which he had published in separate anthologies. Now it’s 2023, I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday is an excellent feature film available via www.ScreamTeamReleasing.com, Amazon, and many other major retailers, and Lombardo has recently published his first collection of short fiction, Please Don’t Tap on the Glass.
Looking at what I wrote almost a decade ago, I see I was pretty much glowing about Lombardo’s work, which makes sense, as I happen to like it quite a lot and think its combination of horror and humor will appeal to many. “I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday” and “Play Place” appear in the new collection, which Lombardo’s Introduction tells us he wrote between 2009 and 2019, so the task I’m setting myself here is to spread the glow to the collection’s other nine tales.
First, however, I must comment on the book’s interstitial material, which helps make it a more poignant whole. The aforementioned Introduction paints Lombardo first as a struggling artist pushing his wares at a convention–which is exactly how I met him, and I imagine I’m among thousands–and then as someone at the mercy of his readers, who, he says, are about to “look at my insides and judge me.”
The opportunity to look at his insides feels authentic; in addition to “melancholy and the grotesque,” I might tack “nostalgia and intimacy” onto his title. Okay, I wouldn’t, but those words apply equally well, as the melancholy very often springs from losses passing, without permission, into the past. The surprising emotional power that comes from most of the stories’ descent into seriousness involving characters with internal crises perhaps more pressing than external horrors creates an atmosphere of intimacy–a feeling that Lombardo is sharing personal experience. After each story, Lombardo usually reinforces this personal connection in “Story Notes” that continue the conversation begun in the intro, often alternating cool facts (such as a connection between “Play Place” and one of my favorite films, Masque of the Red Death, that I had totally missed) with painful confessions about how the preceding story sprung from his life. Lombardo admits he thinks of himself as a filmmaker first, so even in prose, he foregrounds a way of playing with his audience’s voyeurism, amping it up with pathos for his authorial presence in a way that gives his stories more depth and makes his book much harder to put down.
Now, for some brief comments on the nine stories I haven’t reviewed before…
Cluttered with the bygone that looks initially superficial–from the opening line about pubic hairstyles to VHS tapes, the story’s focus–this story is in some ways about nostalgia. As the specter of death enters, ready to slash its way through the protagonist (and some neighbors), the nostalgic becomes anything but superficial, and Lombardo beautifully delivers chills as well as a deeper understanding of why dead formats matter. Tied for my favorite tale in the book.
I’m not the biggest fan of erotic horror, but this story’s out-there gory imagery is a lot of fun. In keeping with my theme, a notable bit is the Story Notes’ mention of Lombardo being “bright red” while writing parts.
“The World in the Window”
This one is more of a classic tale of loss and the supernatural, with a digital component. It’s a nice presence in the book because it points to a broader context of horrors and hauntings. Lombardo seems to be working outside of his own idiom–but he still works well.
This story is about a famed writer of zombie novels who gets into some gruesome trouble, and I’m inclined to agree with the Story Notes that if you don’t know who Brian Keene is, the story won’t make tons of sense. However, the Story Notes provide enough context to enhance the amusing scenario and to make the story itself into a kind of nostalgic relic.
“Please Don’t Tap on the Glass”
My other favorite. In a hospital waiting room, the fish in a display tank seem to have an odd relationship to patients’ fates. The creepy premise is very effective, as is the surreal imagery, but Lombardo summons the intensity of waiting for your own drama to unfold while being surrounded by strangers’ tragedies like few could.
“Hard Times at the Opium Den”
Much of this story’s fun involves coming to understand what’s going on, so I’ll stay relatively mum. The tale does involve a great deal of reminiscing about zany goings-on at the titular Den, and the Story Notes identify the story as a Christmas gift to housemates who share names with the characters (I presume, from the dedication), so again, Lombardo compounds represented nostalgia by making the story an object of nostalgic consideration for us voyeurs. Clever, clever.
“Just Like the Real Thing”
The story of a boy and his adventure with a “pocket pussy.” Lombardo writes that he “didn’t really want to write another gross-out sex story,” but he did, and it’s more than that. From the first sentence the story evokes memories of the awkwardness surrounding youth and sex, and the whole story is arguably about fears surrounding masturbation. Did I mention that it’s twisted, gross, and funny?
“It wasn’t wise to stay lost in nostalgia.” We’ve all thought about revisiting our childhood homes, haven’t we? Perhaps… more? An evocative… provocative?… and pleasingly horrific flash piece.
“Weekend at Escobar’s”
This story moves into action/adventure territory with its comedy and horrors, featuring drug deals and drug heists gone bad south of the U.S. border, shenanigans involving a corpse passed for living, and eventually snuff film and torture. What makes it great rather than good, however, is the protagonist’s flashbacks to a childhood trauma, inspired by Lombardo’s life, as his present-day trauma becomes more and more heinous.
The collection ends with “Play Place,” which is suitable. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite. Although I’ve unified it around a couple of themes, the collection offers diverse reading pleasures, and each one is effective. Worth a read!
Catching Up with Mike Lombardo: A Brief Interview
When I last interviewed you in 2013, you mentioned that you’d imagined “I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday” as a film but had switched to prose when you realized the large scope doing the idea as film would involve. Now, it’s an award-winning feature film, and you’re promoting prose and film versions side by side. I know you always wanted to adapt the story—what enabled you to make the leap? Today, how do you feel about the two versions when you look at them together?
The answer is peer pressure, haha. When the original short story was published, it did really well, and people kept telling me that I should adapt it as a film. I of course immediately convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough to pull off a film version, and even if I were, there was no way in hell I could ever adapt it with my salary from the pizza shop that I was working in at the time. This went on for a few months. Friends and fellow creatives would tell me that I should adapt it, and I would give them a dissertation on all the reasons I had invented in my head to stay in my comfort zone of horror comedy short films.
Eventually I started to cave and wonder, “What if I did do it? How would I pull off creating the apocalypse with no money?” One of the things I love the most about filmmaking is finding ways to make something out of nothing. That type of creative problem solving and creating the magic trick that would fool the audience gives me endless delight, so I just started thinking through little set pieces and props and figuring out how I would accomplish them. What I started to realize is that there was a lot I could do, so I broke down the key scenes in the story logistically and wrote the script. From there, I just had to get over the crippling self-doubt and anxiety I had about no one taking me seriously and how humiliating it would be when I tried to shoot a drama and got laughed off stage at its premiere.
The first real scene we shot was the mom leaving the bomb shelter and having to say goodbye to her little boy. At first I was absolutely terrified directing something so serious, but it just felt right on set, and after the first take I had a real sense of calm come over me. I did a rough cut of the scene that night after we wrapped shooting and showed my roommates at the time, and it made them cry. That was the moment when I knew I could actually do this, and I needed to brick wall the imposter syndrome that was ruling my psyche.
It is a surreal feeling seeing the Blu-ray of White Doomsday sitting next to the paperback of Please Don’t Tap on the Glass on my shelf. I am extremely proud of the film version, flaws and all, and re-visiting the short story for the book, it made me smile seeing just how much of the page ended up on screen. There are things I really wish I could go back and do over of course, but that is borne out of hindsight, and without stumbling over those things during the production of the movie I wouldn’t have gained the perspective and experience I have now, so I’m still happy with it. I do think they make a nice pairing, and I think that all the extra background stuff that was in the story but not the movie enhances subsequent viewings. I used to joke on set and ask the crew that since I wrote the screenplay and the original book, do I get to send death threats and hate mail to myself about the changes I made for the movie?
In that same interview, you said, “I think that as a genre, horror, and especially horror comedy, is the perfect vehicle for self-expression. After all, what is more personal than our fears?” Now you have your first book, Please Don’t Tap on the Glass and Other Tales of the Melancholy and Grotesque, and it feels incredibly personal, a feeling you enhance with your Story Notes, to your stories’ benefit. You name characters after people you know and even make “Mike Lombardo” the narrator of the story “Hard Times at the Opium Den.” Not that you should, but you could express yourself without asserting yourself so directly. What are the effects, for you and your readers, of making at least a version of Mike Lombardo the star of your collection?
I love meta-fiction. I have always been drawn to art, be it film, prose, or music, where it’s evident that the creator is dealing with their own shit in it. You can read a something and just feel that it’s been pulled from the author’s real life, and I love that. Often it’s the stories behind the stories that fascinate me the most.
I’ve often felt like I am a novelty to people when I meet them. A lot of times they have this idea of who I am, this caricature of me based on my work and bizarre interests, or stories they’ve heard about me from parties or conventions. That’s all fine and good, but the reality is that I am actually a fairly introverted and low-key person. It takes a lot out of me to be “on” at a show or film festival, and people often mistake that loud and outgoing weirdo for the normal everyday me. I’ve been told that Please Don’t Tap on the Glass is half short story collection and half memoir, and while I didn’t actually consciously set out to do that, I really love that it turned out that way. I think I was able to pull back the curtain a bit and let people see the real me, not the crazy Reel Splatter Mike Lombardo, but the human being with vulnerabilities and struggles and emotions. I’ve had a lot of strangers say that after reading the book they feel like they’ve known me for years, and I guess that’s a nice compliment.
You mentioned before that you’d love to adapt “Play Place” if you had an appropriate bucket of money. Most of the other stories in the collection wouldn’t necessarily require such a big budget. Are there others you’d consider adapting? If so, which ones and why? If not, why the hell not? Would you consider combining short adaptations into a feature-length anthology film?
It’s funny you mention that because my next big project is actually going to be an adaptation of one of the stories in the book. More than anything else I have ever written, I want to adapt the story “Dead Format” as a short film. It encompasses everything I’m feeling in my life right now and is a perfect example of the type of film I want to make. It has the melancholy and deep cutting personal subtext of White Doomsday, but the darkness is evened out by the little splashes of classic Reel Splatter style humor. My dad always used to ask me when I was going to make something nice, and I think this is that film. It’s definitely still violent and gory, but I think the ending has a lot of heart and will make a lot of people smile. Video stores were a massive part of my life growing up, and wandering down those aisles exposed me to so many of the films that shaped my interests and personality. The story itself is also a kind of love letter to my dad, who passed away in 2014. I think he would be proud of what I’m making.
I have tossed the idea of an anthology around in my head for sure. I really enjoy anthology films, but I prefer stuff like 3 Extremes where there is no wrap around story or focused theme, but at that point I may as well just make separate short films and let the audience judge them on their own merits instead of comparing them to the other segments. My plan is to do “Dead Format” and maybe one other short and release a Reel Splatter volume 2 compilation covering my work from where Suburban Holocaust left off to now. I already have the title and the cover art fully formed in my head. I just need to finish the shorts to fill out the collection.
Why “melancholy and grotesque?” You blend them beautifully—but why do they go together? Your earlier work seems to focus more on combining the comic and the grotesque, though melancholy creeps in. Do you see yourself transitioning away from horror comedy toward a more melancholic seriousness? Why or why not?
The older I get the more I’ve come to embrace more serious fare. Not just in my own work, but in the type of things I watch and read. I think that when I was younger and hadn’t yet learned firsthand that the universe has teeth, that type of stuff didn’t resonate with me nearly as much. I was much more comfortable with acid barbed satire and poking fun at things, but now I think my sensibilities have mellowed a bit, and I’m more interested in the emotional side of things. I think a part of it was that I wasn’t yet comfortable with expressing myself so openly and being vulnerable. That side of me has always been there, and “Play Place” was my first attempt at tapping into it, but I’ve learned to embrace that side of myself, and it’s been a lovely form of therapy haha. At the risk of sounding pretentious, these stories and projects are me exploring my own psyche and trying to figure out my own head. Writing things like “Weekend at Escobar’s” and the story “Please Don’t Tap on the Glass” really helped me cope with some things that I was feeling.
I don’t think I’ll ever shy away from comedy entirely. It’s in my blood and it’s one of the ways I deal with my own demons, so it will always be there, but it really just depends on the story. I never sit down with the intent to write something and have a rigid path set. I just let it flow naturally, and whatever happens happens. I feel like even in the darkest times, people still have a sense of humor, grim as it may be, and I love that.