An Interview With Rick Claypool

An Interview With Rick Claypool

Anarchic weirdism triumphs in Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War (Anxiety Press, 2024). Rick Claypool’s wild novel unveils new visions of absurd abandon, wrapped up in a hyperreal rush of cartoonish wonder. As a whirlpool of body horror kitsch drenched in neon trash nightmares, Claypool’s demented sensibility evokes creature feature mayhem and B-movie unruliness. Never did slime glow so good. I spoke to Rick about the book.

Rebecca Gransden: When did the idea for the book first appear to you? I’m curious about the genesis of the characters and the origin of the world they inhabit. What came first, a character? an image? a concept?

Rick Claypool: The idea for the characters Skullface and Tentaclehead came to me about five years ago, in 2019. They’re sort of a doomed comic duo, like Vladimir and Estragon or Ren and Stimpy. Skullface is the angry one, whose reaction to life’s frustrations is this uncontrollable destructive rage that manifests as killer puke. Tentaclehead is the depressed one, whose reaction to life’s frustrations manifests as self-loathing and suicide attempts, except he can’t really die. I thought it would be funny to have them be spurred into this adventure through their shitty, upsetting world after discovering this weird baby in a two-liter bottle of soda, an idea that’s a little bit inspired by people in the ’90s supposedly finding objects contaminating their cans of soda that should not have been possible to find in a can of soda. 

RG:  His neighbor is enjoying himself. Actually enjoying himself. His neighbor who just a few hours earlier was so overcome with despair he cut off his own head is having a lovely time. 

Early on, we are introduced to the characters of Skullface and Tentaclehead as uneasy neighbors. Any weird experiences with neighbors?

RC: The guy who lived next door to us when I was in high school killed himself. I remember my mom bringing me home from a guitar lesson and there were all these cops everywhere. But also like, in general for me there’s always a weird tension with neighbors. Like, as a person who believes in existing in solidarity and friendship with the people around me, especially the people physically closest to me in my community, I think it’s important to try to have the best relationship with my neighbors that I can. But as an awkward introvert who is always carrying a lowkey fear of other humans, neighbors can be kind of terrifying. 

RG:  The world you’ve created is one that is hyperreal and colorful, filled with trashy neon and fluorescent slime. What is the pinkish glow in Skullface’s eye holes?

RC: I love that meme with the skull-faced chair with the glowing eyes – it has this look that says “I’m powerful and deranged and overwhelmed.” You know the one? My therapist once told me human vision narrows when we become so upset we’re suddenly in fight or flight mode. (And paying attention to your peripheral vision is a strategy for calming down.) So it makes sense to have the glow appear as a precursor to when Skullface gets so upset he pukes killer pink foam, which of course creates many embarrassing situations for him.

RG: Tentaclehead takes his place in the grand tradition of depressive yet endearingly maudlin inventions such as Eeyore and Marvin the Paranoid Android. How does your earlier novella Tentacle Head (2022) relate to the Tentaclehead of Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War?

RC: Tentaclehead is such a fun character to write. I’m someone who is inclined occasionally to fall into these depressive doom spirals, and so Tentaclehead is sort of a ridiculous personification of that. My 2022 not-for-children children’s book Tentacle Head came out from Bear Creek Press a few months before its infamous collapse. That book is basically the backstory for a somewhat less developed version of the Tentaclehead character. Like, this was before I understood he should puke knives. Also I have to say Tentacle Head’s illustrator, Piper Bly, is an absolute genius. 

RG:  “WHERE’S THE MANNEQUIN?” Tentaclehead repeatedly inwardly screams. “WHERE’S THE MANNEQUIN? WHERE’S THE MANNEQUIN?” 

Tentaclehead possesses an unhealthy obsession with a mannequin. What’s with that?

RC: Any desire can become an unhealthy obsession, can warp our view of the world and influence our decisions in unexpected ways, especially when the object of desire is just out of reach. It’s the object petit a of Lacanian psychoanalysis – the acorn the proto-squirrel in the Ice Age movies is always after. In Tentaclehead’s case, I guess I’m a sucker for a tragic romance. What could be more tragic than falling in love with something incapable of loving you back? And which, despite being completely inert, remains somehow always just out of reach?

RG: Absurdist humor is central to the story, with parts of the book taking on the quality of a deadpan domestic farce, the characters a type of dysfunctional pseudo-family in a surrealist soap opera, before the narrative moves to hijinks on a more epic scale. What led you to this approach? If you have comedy influences, who are they?

RC: I’m always trying to balance horror and humor. Growing up, my mother worked in a hospital, and over dinner she would often share stories about awful, tragic things she witnessed – body parts on a lab table, that kind of thing – and somehow, her stories were always funny. So I’ve always been drawn to stories like that. As a writer, the bleak hilarity of Samuel Beckett, wild absurdity of Daniil Kharms and merciless deadpan humor of Joy Williams have all been hugely influential. I’m constantly being inspired by writers like Zac Smith and Ivy Grimes and Sam Pink and Claire Hopple. Also, if I’m being honest, I’ve been more than a little influenced by Adult Swim cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and cult films, like early John Waters movies and Troma stuff and Peter Jackson’s weird old gloopy pre-Lord of the Rings movies.

RG:  Who is the hero of Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War?, and who is the villain? Is it ever that simple?

RC: It’s never that simple. I think maybe just about all the characters are heroes but they all suck at being heroes? Like they’re constantly being overcome by their desires and their emotions and the material limits of their world. Which to me is a lot like what life over the past several years has felt like, where you can always be trying your best to make smart, good, ethical choices, but the forces you’re up against – pandemic, genocidal war, catastrophic climate change, rising fascism, and so on – are just too much to deal with, especially on top of personal mental health struggles, y’know? It feels like there is no dealing with any of these overwhelming forces without completely losing your fucking mind. 

RG:  Eat them all! Eat them all! Eat them all! 

At one point there is discussion among factions on who should be eaten. Of the three mutants under debate—Skullface, Tentaclehead, and the infant named Abomination!—which would you choose to consume? A general theme of the book is that characters ingest, or are ingested, in a variety of ways. Is a metaphor happening here, or are mutants natural eaters?

RC: Skullface would be too spicy and Tentaclehead would be the most sustainable choice. I’m sorry, but Abomination! would for sure be the most delicious of the three. Which is horrible, right? You’re not supposed to eat the baby, even the mutant soda-dispensing baby. But like if there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, what’s stopping you from eating the baby? And if you choose not to eat the baby, well, yay for you, but who’s to say the baby won’t grow up and choose to eat you? Eating is the purest form not only of consumption, but exploitation. You can be thankful for what you eat all you want, you are still literally taking another living thing and using its body as fuel for your own body. 

RG: One day Skullface reminisces aloud about different meatballs he’s been served during his time in the facility tasting somewhat differently. “They used to be sweeter and tangier,” he says, “but before they moved me from my old room into this room with you they became less tangy and more salty. Yesterday’s meatball was hardly tangy at all. Do you remember yesterday’s meatball?” 

What is it with mutants and meatballs?

RC: Just one meatball contains all the vitamins and minerals a mutant needs for a whole day.

RG: FUCK THAT, Skullface thinks. He tries to say it too. He realizes his jaw being all dangly is making it impossible for him to speak. He tries to grab it to lift it back up to his face but his arms don’t work the way they should and his jaw keeps swinging around on those slime threads in a way that makes it hard to catch. He just keeps getting slime stuck to his fingers. Oh fuck oh fuck.

Mutant life can be challenging. Are there mutants you created that didn’t make the final book?

RC: A few of the mutants went through different versions before I settled on their final forms. Like there was a version of Oogus Boogus where she had a stone for a head and a whole bunch of crystal eyes, and a version of Pegasus where they were more like a giant locust. I took a lot of inspiration from toys from my childhood when creating these mutants, like those little M.U.S.C.L.E. Man guys. And there are artists still designing amazing little weird toy creatures. Like there’s one guy who goes by Basement Puke. His stuff is amazing and fun as hell. 

RG: Did you listen to music when writing Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War? While reading, I kept soundtracking scenes with a particularly demented fantasy variety of psychobilly. How do you imagine the score?

RC: The score, based on what I was listening to while writing, would include a lot of noisy, synthy stuff like Fire-Toolz and Black Moth Super Rainbow and Magic Sword. 

RG: Moontown’s lore suggests a rich history. Are there plans for future works to further explore Moontown, or Moontown adjacent locations, and the inhabitants? Prequels, alternate timelines? Any thoughts on how the world could translate to comic book, animation or live action form?

RC: Yeah, there’s a lot there that might seem random to some readers, but there is an underlying system to things, which I will not be explaining. I don’t have any immediate plans to revisit the world, which came out of a particularly difficult time for me in terms of my mental health. I don’t want to say I’d never go back to it though. Honestly, collaborating on an adaptation would be a dream come true. I also have zero idea how to make that happen. I’m guessing I’d probably need an agent. So I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Adult Swim to call me up, but like if some underground animator wants to talk about it, I’d probably fall all over myself trying to make it happen. 

RG: You’ve chosen to publish Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War with Anxiety Press. What attracted you to work with them and how have you found the process?

RC: It’s been great working with Cody Sexton at Anxiety Press. He wrote a review of Tentacle Head in 2022 and loved it, so that was an early indication he might love Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War too. And he did. Also, Anxiety Press is keeping some of the weird vibe that went down with Bear Creek alive, publishing talented folks from that scene like Tyler Dempsey, Scott Mitchel May, and Jack Moody. But yeah I also had a particular vision for how I wanted the book to look and I wanted to include my goofy illustrations and to maintain a particular tone throughout. Cody was cool with letting me pretty much get away with whatever I wanted, which I know not every publisher will do, even in this offbeat little indie corner.

RG: What’s next for Rick Claypool?

RC: I’m a little bit addicted to writing short stories right now. So the immediate next things from me are stories that will be published in anthologies later this year – one in Monsters in the Mills (an anthology of Rhode Island horror writers), one in Dark Spores (a fungal horror anthology coming out from Crone Girls Press), and one I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about yet. I don’t know, maybe I’ll start thinking about compiling them into a collection. Once things settle down I want to get back to the next longer form thing, which is a sort of minimalist sword and sorcery-flavored novella I’m writing entirely in second person. I’m a slow writer – once I settle into working on that, that’ll probably be enough for me for a while.


Rick Claypool (he/him) is the author of SKULL SLIME TENTACLE WITCH WAR (Anxiety Press, 2024), TENTACLE HEAD (Bear Creek Press, 2022), THE MOLD FARMER (Six Gallery Press, 2020), LEECH GIRL LIVES (Spaceboy Books, 2017), and short stories that appear here and there online, including HAD, Maudlin House, and Back Patio Press. He grew up in the industrial outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and lives in Rhode Island.

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