Fans of offbeat, retro-flavored horror stories are going to love ATOMIC TALES, a new horror series coming this year to TFN Audio. ATOMIC TALES is the invention of author and creator Stephen D. Sullivan, who works closely with Chris Mihm (who handles the series’ audio production and has his own Mihmiverse creations hitting TFN Audio too). Sullivan is a prolific author with a long and interesting history working in fantasy/horror/gaming entertainment, including a connection to TSR, makers of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. We chatted with him about his career and ATOMIC TALES.
TFN NEWS: How did you become interested in telling your own stories?
SULLIVAN: I’ve been a storyteller literally as long as I can remember, from the time I was a little kid, when my interests were dinosaurs, monsters, and my cat. I remember getting praise for my stories and writing in grade school, and I was pretty serious about it in high school and college. So, it’s been a lifelong development of skills for me.
What do you love most about the retro, SFF/horror genre?
It’s tempting to say “the simplicity,” because things were seemingly simpler “way back when,” but really what attracts me is that in the era that ATOMIC TALES are set in, the monsters were actual monsters — giant insects, aliens, relics of forgotten eras (or even supernatural creatures) — rather than demented humans of one type or another. I’m not interested in knife-wielding maniacs in my stories, but I sure do like writing about giant bugs, aliens, werewolves, etc.
You worked on Dungeons & Dragons. Tell us how you came to work with TSR and what you enjoyed about that role.
In September 1980, just days after my 21st birthday, I left college to work at TSR in the Editorial Department (then called Production) to work on Dungeons & Dragons — a dream job offer that I couldn’t turn down. I ended up working on D&D Basic and Expert (now often called Moldvay-Cook), the first revision of Top Secret, the first modules for that and Boot Hill, some mini-games, and a whole lot of other stuff, including the infamous B3 “Palace of the Silver Princess,” where I was the overseeing editor. (Check out this YouTube video on his time at TSR.)
Eventually, I moved from Editorial to the Art Department, where I worked on an astonishing variety of projects, mostly as a map maker. There was a year or two where I literally worked on every product TSR put out. Somewhere during that period I wrote the much-loved D&D comic book ads, most of which were drawn by my pal Bill Willingham. I also pitched a Dragonlance comic with Tim Truman, but we couldn’t convince TSR to do their own comics.
I left TSR in 1984 to work at Pacesetter on CHILL and the rest of that product line as Art Director and part of the creative team. And when that company, sadly, folded, I became a freelancer, did more work for TSR (including maps for Dragonlance books and games), and many other companies. Eventually, that led me to work in comics and then novels… And eventually, here we are at my current creator-owned projects, including Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors and ATOMIC TALES.
What I loved most about TSR were the people I was working with and the amazing range of talents they brought to the company, both designers, artists, and everyone else. I got there at just the right time and ended up working with some of the biggest names in art and gaming, most of whom remain my good friends to this day. (I’d list them, but the list would be HUGE, and I’d be afraid of leaving someone out!)
As you’ve said, you’re an artist as well as a writer. How do visuals influence how you approach storytelling?
Images are often a big part of my writing, though I’m not sure if this is because of my art background or because I’m a huge film buff — which is obvious to anyone who’s ever heard me on Monster Kid Radio or a number of other podcasts.
Usually, my stories start with some kind of an image in my head, whether a samurai walking through a field of dead foes or Agent One trying to get back to his car while being chased by a giant ant.
When writing, I often think of the images that jump into my head as the set pieces of the story. Those are usually the Big Action Sequences that I build my story around. In the case of ATOMIC TALES, because the stories are so short, it’s only one image/piece per episode — like a giant centipede bursting out of the street of a western ghost town.
I see the image, and then I figure out how to get there, and write that.
You’ve obviously created a lot of cool books and projects. Is there one that is especially near and dear to your heart?
I have more than one, so I’ll hit a few highlights… The work I did at TSR, especially on D&D and the D&D comic ads are things that I’m really proud of. At Pacesetter, CHILL was and remains one of the best horror RPGs ever.
In comics, I had a lot of fun writing characters I loved, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a standout, because they basically let me and my artists have fun and do what we wanted and then paid us well for doing it. It hardly gets better than that. And doing my creator-owned comic, The Twilight Empire: Robinson’s War, in Dragon magazine, was great for the four years it lasted.
In novels, I’d probably still be writing Boy Detectives stories (I wrote 14 books) if the company hadn’t been absorbed into a bigger corporation. My Legend of the Five Rings novels won my first writing award. Of course, Manos: The Hands of Fate won me and my small company the Scribe for Best Adapted Novel — beating out Star Wars and Batman, among others. And what can I say about Iron Man?
Of my creator-owned projects, it’s like picking favorite children. They’re all favorites when I’m working on them. Daikaiju Attack came out pretty much exactly what I wanted, as did Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors. But for fun, ATOMIC TALES is hard to beat!
What can readers expect when they get their hands on one of your books?
Action, excitement, a strong overall storyline, interesting characters, a good dose of suspense and (almost all the time) monsters. Basically, I try to give readers exactly the kinds of things that I’d want if I were reading a book of that genre.
The titles and book descriptions should make clear what’s coming, though not necessarily how it will get there. So Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors will give you a Universal / Hammer movie experience, while ATOMIC TALES should remind people of the atomic monster films of the 1950s.
What types of themes do you particularly enjoy exploring in your stories?
Looking back over my career, monsters are the clear main motif — but monsters aren’t really a theme. Learning to be yourself and find your place in the world is an ongoing idea I deal with, which includes finding your people, either in your own family or a family that you create.
Often, my heroes are outsiders of some type, which reflects my own writer-artist, kid/man with health problems, square peg kind of existence. There’s a place for everyone in this world — or there should be.
I’m also interested in relationships, loyalty, and betrayal. I can probably trace some of that back to an 8th Man (cartoon) story that really wowed me as a young kid, and Jonny Quest and Speed Racer later on, plus a panoply of other cool kid TV shows..
Related to that is power, how people use it, and whether having it leads to doing justice or becoming corrupt. Too often, in the real world, power leads to corruption. But I grew up with Spider-Man and other heroes and fully believe in the maxim that Stan Lee penned so long ago: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We have the duty to use our power to help others, not just enrich ourselves.
Finally, I’m interested in redemption, maybe because I’m a preacher’s kid. Redemption means that all, but the worst of us can turn around and make the world better. We only have to make that choice.
Tell us about your audio drama podcast, ATOMIC TALES. What’s the concept? What can listeners expect when they tune in?
ATOMIC TALES started out as a short story with me refuting the idea that giant ants and other big bugs in the movies I love were and are “unscientific” and could never happen. To prove that people who think that aren’t thinking hard enough, I wrote “A Sci-Ant-ific Problem.” That was supposed to be the end of it.
But pretty much as soon as I wrote it, I became fascinated with the idea of the US Science Bureau and people like Agent One battling against such creatures on a regular basis. That led to sketching out some further story ideas in one of my commonplace books. Those further story ideas then sat there for years.
During that time, though, I talked to a number of podcasters and other friends about maybe making the stories into a series. Eventually, I mentioned it to filmmaker Christopher R. Mihm, and floated the idea of him reading it on his Mihmiverse podcast. I had written Canoe Cops vs. the Mummy, based on a joke marquee in his film The Giant Spider, as a serial for that podcast, and he read it every month on the show. That series had ended (and I published it as a book), but it had been popular.
With Chris’ encouragement, I started writing more ATOMIC TALES stories, and he started producing them for the podcast. I was surprised and delighted when he did the stories as full-cast audio, rather than just simple readings. Having more voices really enriches the story. It makes every episode even more exciting to work on.
Listeners can expect a complete story in every episode of ATOMIC TALES — though some stories are closely related, and there’s definitely a Big Arc to the whole thing that will reward ongoing listeners. And of course, every episode will have giant bugs, UFOs, or some similar 1950s threat to peace and prosperity.
How does podcasting compare to book writing? In terms of storytelling, do you prefer one approach to the other?
I love podcasting, but I only do it as a guest on other people’s shows. I’m sure it’d be fun to do, but I’d have to give up something else to make it happen, and I don’t have enough time as it is!
Basically, I write ATOMIC TALES the same as I would any novel or short story, and the episodes will eventually be collected into a book or a series of books. I then trust Chris to take what I write and really make it sing. We’re both used to working on our own, so this is a great approach — and I trust him completely. He exceeds my expectations with the audio version of AT every time.
What’s it been like for you and Chris Mihm to collaborate?
Chris and I first met because our mutual friend Derek M. Koch (of Monster Kid Radio) recommended that I see The Giant Spider. I’d seen some of Chris’ other films previously, but I didn’t completely “get” the modern-retro, good-bad movie ethos he was embracing. When I saw Spider, though, it all clicked — and I happened to see it at one of his local showings, so he and I got to hang and talk a LOT afterward.
Over the years, we’ve become good friends, and before the pandemic we saw each other fairly frequently, though we live six hours apart. Being midwesterners, we have similar outlooks on many things and obviously a very similar taste in movies.
That being said, we don’t collaborate in the same way that most people might think. Usually, I say something like, “Hey, I’d like to write a book about the Canoe Cops,” or he says, “Hey, I’d like to have a subtle cameo of USSB agents in my next movie,” and then the other one says: “Cool! Go for it!”
And because we’re friends and have similar mindsets, the other one just goes off and does whatever we talked about, and we trust each other to do it right. Though we do bounce ideas off of each other, too, and ask questions to make the work easier.
We’ve talked about some more traditional collaboration arrangements — swapping scripts and — but the pandemic sent us both back to our own little caves to work on our own. Maybe in future, though!
What other projects do you have coming up?
I have a serialized story running on Kindle’s Vella platform right now: Monster Shark on a Nude Beach. It’s just the kind of action-adventure, sexy exploitation JAWS type thing you’d expect from the title. Each episode is just pennies to read, and the first three are free.
The Frost Harrow millennium-set modern goth horror series continues on my site.
What advice would you give to others who want to write their own stories?
The first advice is: if you have an idea, you can do it — if you take the time.
The even more important advice is: Put your ass in the chair and write it.
Because almost everyone has an idea they think could make a great story or book. The difference between me and my friends who write a pile of books is that we spend a LOT of time with our asses in chairs doing the actual work — and probably about that same amount of time making notes, outlines, and planning, to make the actual work go smoother.
When I did more conventions, people were always coming up and wondering if I could write their idea as a book. And unless Big Money upfront was involved, the answer was always “No,” because I have more ideas of my own than I can find time to write.
So, if you have an idea: Write it! Put a word on a page and just keep going.
(Don’t rewrite until later; just keep writing, writing, writing!)
What excites you most about partnering with The Fantasy Network to share your work?
What excites me most about working with TFN is working with people whose work I’ve admired and supported in the past, and sharing my work with their fans and — through the site — sharing their work with my fans. Together, we’re building the kind of fandom network all of us need to keep doing the kind of stories we all love.
How can people best support your work?
And the same goes for all the other creators on TFN: Buy our work! And leave reviews and comments, so other people can find the same cool stuff you like. Buying books and leaving positive reviews is always the best way to support an author.
I want to thank everyone so much for all the support I’ve been given over the years, and all the support to come. I’m really excited to be here. I hope you enjoy my work, especially ATOMIC TALES!