Stephen Mark Rainey on "Blue Devil Island"
Stephen Mark Rainey is a prolific horror and fantasy novelist, with over 80 short stories to his credit, as well as a clutch of novels - including The Lebo Coven, a Dark Shadows novel titled Dreams of the Dark, and The Nightmare Frontier. His sixth novel, Blue Devil Island, has just been released from Five Star Press.
A World War II tale of air aces taking on Japanese fighter pilots in the South Pacific skies, Blue Devil Island features everything you’d want from a Saturday afternoon monster movie: a trio of heroic pilots (who call themselves by the names of the Three Musketeers, no less), an exotic, remote island in the South Pacific (called Conquest Island: you just know a monster must lurk in the jungle of any place with such an evocative name), all the airborne dogfight action you want from a Pacific Theatre setting, and a chilling mystery involving not-quite-human natives and the super-human creature they guard. The atmosphere builds like a rain-forest afternoon before a cloud-burst, and when the action on both fronts gears up, it’s like no other WWII novel.
Rainey writes with convincingly, with skill and imagination. I was so convinced by his descriptions of flying war planes that I assumed he must be a pilot of long experience. With that conviction in mind, I sailed into an email interview, to which Mr. Rainey was kind enough to agree...
EDGE: You’ve obviously flown a plane or two in your time. Was it difficult to re-create what a World War II fighter pilot would have gone through in terms of flight -- and air battle -- for the novel?
Stephen Mark Rainey: I’ve never actually been behind the controls of real plane. I’ve always loved flying, but it’s always been as a passenger. Several years ago, I took it to heart to learn to fly - virtually - in the hopes that one day I might actually get a pilot’s license. I delved into various computer flight simulators, from commercial jets to WWII combat, literally learning what an actual pilot needs to know. As for the aerial combat, I’ve been a military aviation buff since I was a kid, so I’ve read countless first-hand accounts by WWII fighter aces - which is why I opted to narrate Blue Devil Island from a first-person point of view. The most compelling nonfiction accounts are those that the pilots themselves have related, and I wanted to capture a similar realism and immediacy in the narrative.
EDGE: In Blue Devil Island, you address a regiment of Navy pilots and their Marine colleagues who are facing a "two-front war:" the Japanese in the air, and a ancient, inhuman threat in the island’s jungle. You make the decision to keep the air action going all throughout the novel and not to allow the airmen to get "grounded" when the action in the ground heats up. Was it difficult to combine those two story threads and keep them distinct and energetic, but simultaneously ongoing?
Stephen Mark Rainey: It was definitely a challenge to integrate the different conflicts into a workable drama. The key was to understand that the pilots had their jobs; they were trained to fly and fight; that was their purpose for being where they were at the time. The Marines had their responsibilities - maintaining the planes as well as providing security, such as it was, on the ground. Several times in the book, I refer to the "Dark Days" at Guadalcanal. Although the threat in Blue Devil Island is of a completely different nature, the roles of the military men are very much the same as they would have been in actual battle. During the most intense periods of fighting at Guadalcanal, the Japanese were literally at the edge of the airfield, but our pilots had to fly their missions, and the support crew had to maintain the planes - while fighting the threat on the ground at the same time. As I wrote in the novel, it was not uncommon for the maintenance crew to get a damaged plane air-worthy, only to see it destroyed before it ever got back up again. The fighting was that ferocious, right there at the airfield (Henderson, a.k.a. Cactus).
EDGE: I notice that one of the novel’s most heroic characters, young Kinney, is the subject of speculation by other airmen, who think he might be gay. One assumes that there must have been gay servicemen flying Navy planes, but you make him courageous and creative - while avoiding making his sexuality too big a focus, or making him a stereotype.
Stephen Mark Rainey: No, it’s not a major plot element, and rightly so, I think; my decision to include him was essentially a demographic one. With an entire fighting squadron and support crew populating the novel, there would have to be men of all backgrounds and persuasions, and it’s only natural that there would be at least one perceived "misfit" in the mix. However, it would have both slowed and needlessly politicized the novel, I think, to dwell on a particular character’s sexuality. Originally, I didn’t see Kinney as gay; just a painfully insecure young loner who clearly didn’t fit in, yet possessed both extraordinary talent and great devotion to his fellow pilots. I’ve known a few folks with exactly those qualities; I don’t know whether they’re gay and don’t particularly care. What’s important in the novel is the integrity he exhibits as a human being.
EDGE: The nature of the unearthly threat faced by the Navy pilots on Conquest Island is so strange, and yet you write the characters as accepting the very unusual nature of their foes on the ground and moving forward into battle. I think that worked well in terms of "keeping it real."
Stephen Mark Rainey: Again, this goes to the characters’ devotion to the mission. My father-in-law was a B-24 pilot in the Pacific in 1944-5; he flew 42 combat missions, which was twice the normal life expectancy for a bomber pilot at that time. Some of his experiences were so hair-raising (and I actually incorporated a few of them in the novel) that I can only marvel at how a human being copes with such circumstances. Yet, every day, he and his crew accepted life-or-death situations as a matter of course and did their jobs, as they were charged to do. Simple as that. Such courage staggers me. With world affairs being what they are today, there are plenty of Americans facing similar dangers and doing it every bit as courageously. I wanted to convey that outlook in the novel, even when the threat turns other-worldly. But at heart, I wanted to keep the characters human and believable. Obviously, some of them don’t make the best decisions over the course of the book.
EDGE: I enjoyed the Three Musketeers thing that Captain McLachlan had going with his two friends and fellow officers. What was behind that? Shorthand to the reader for the kind of valor that the three men would exhibit, especially when it came to defending one another? A way to let us see how McLachlan accepts Kinney without having to make a speech about it, when he dubs Kinney with a nickname after the fourth Musketeer? Good old fashioned military guy joshin’? All of the above?
Stephen Mark Rainey: Yep - a bit of everything you mention. Actually, Dumas’ The Three Musketeers is probably my favorite novel ever. I just love it. This was my way of paying tribute to it as well as incorporating the lore as actual pilots might very well have at the time.