This essay was written in 2013 to be included in The Night Prophets: The Ultimate Edition, published by KHP Publishers, Inc. Since it is no longer featured in current editions of the book, I wanted to share it here for any readers curious about the origins of the novel.
This is the way it was meant to be.
The edition of The Night Prophets you’re holding now is the version I originally wrote over a period of several years in the mid 1980’s. It differs substantially from the novel that was ultimately published by New American Library at the tail end of 1989. Just for starters, the title is different. When I wrote the book, the title was three words: The Night Prophets. NAL later decided to drop the article and call it simply Night Prophets. Why? I wish I knew. That riddle always perplexed me, and the answer is a mystery to me even now. At the time the word was dropped, it seemed like a small change, nothing more than a cosmetic touch-up. But it was only the beginning. Much more important, this version of the book is substantially longer, as it restores a great deal of material that was cut for the original paperback publication. Some things are also in a different order, particularly at the beginning and the end of the story. Many of the changes are minor, some a little more significant. For example – and I don’t think I’ll spoil anything if I tell you this – at least two of the characters meet a different end in this version of the tale than they did in the NAL edition.
The cuts and changes made by the publisher were done for the same reasons such things usually are, particularly with first novels by unknown writers. One was the sheer length of the book and the need to keep the cover price at a reasonable level – $4.50, which was pretty much top price for all but the most massive midlist paperbacks in those days. Another reason was a fairly common difference of philosophy. In short, John Silbersack, my editor at NAL, wanted one kind of book – a rip-roaring potboiler that got from Point A to Point B as fast as humanly possible – while I had written a completely different kind of book, the kind of book I liked to read, long and a little bit rambling, rich with background and detail, the kind of book you can get lost in for a few days or even a few weeks. I understood what John wanted, and I agreed to all but a handful of the changes he asked for, – yes, even dropping “The” from the title. We worked very well together, John and I, and in the end we came up with a novel that was somewhere right in between his vision and mine, which when you think about it, is probably just about right. But I still felt a sense of loss. I remember sitting down to do the rewrites with a heavy heart, unable to shake the feeling that I was turning the book into something that was no longer truly mine. It was a good book. It was a book I was proud of. But it really wasn’t mybook. That feeling intensified after the rewrites were finished, when we moved on to the editorial line-edits and a few more turns and tweaks by the copyeditor. By the time I was proofreading the galleys, I felt like I was reading an abridged Reader’s Digest version of The Night Prophets – recognizable but no longer familiar. And almost from the moment the novel landed in bookstores, I started to ponder. I imagined the day I would be able to publish The Night Prophets: Complete and Uncut. Of course, I was also realistic. I knew it was the longest of long shots, and I honestly never expected it to happen. But hey, a writer can dream, can’t he?
It began with a phrase.
That’s an odd way for a novel to take root. In my experience, it’s much more common for books to be born from the germ of a plot or situation – the fabled “what if?” Sometimes they begin with mental images of one or more characters – you want to write a novel about firefighters in New York City, for example, or a retired schoolteacher or a troubled teen or a group of friends who solve mysteries. Sometimes it’s even a location – “Wow, I’d really like to write a book set in the south of France.” But The Night Prophets began with a phrase.
It was 1983 and I was stuck on a short story I was writing. As I often do when I’m stuck, I started noodling at the keyboard, which in those days was a Brother electronic typewriter; I was still two years away from buying my first PC and word processing software. So there I was just typing away at the dining room table, putting down random words and sentence fragments, doing anything to keep the juices flowing a little bit and break the mental logjam, when I suddenly pecked out this: That voice – as deep as a disc jockey’s, as inviting as a pimp’s. I stopped typing and sat up a little straighter, wondering who I was writing about. Whose voice was it? An actor? A politician? A singer? I didn’t know, but I was intrigued. The phrase certainly captured my imagination more than the other things I typed out that day, which I no longer remember but were probably on the order of the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. In fact, I was so intrigued that I grabbed my pen and notebook, wrote down the phrase, tore that page out of the book, and tucked it into the file folder where I kept all my little bits and fragments – those plot ideas, potential titles, character descriptions, and other oddball tidbits that I always told myself might amount to something some day – and almost never did.
I would not think about it again for almost three years.
I should mention here that I had always wanted to write a vampire novel. At that time, vampires were sort of the forgotten stepchild of the horror field – or maybe the crazy aunt that has been locked away in the attic, the one everybody is a little ashamed of and never talks about. This was a few years before the vampire craze that swept the genre in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s – a craze so intense that it left readers dazed and burned out and just about killed off vampire fiction completely for a decade or so – and of course it was an entire generation before Twilight and True Blood and today’s current undead renaissance. Back then, only Anne Rice and a handful of others were writing about vampires in a serious way. Everybody else was ignoring them, or at least trying to find ways to make them relevant to modern times, like turning them from the familiar bloodsuckers of pulp fiction and B-movies into punk-rocking, city-street-stalking subway slashers.
But I wanted to write about traditional vampires, the kind I’d grown up with – not slick sex symbols, not rock stars, not pierced and leather-jacketed metaphors for urban angst, but good old-fashioned night-walking monsters, at home in well-hidden coffins, repelled by crosses and garlic, killable by stake and hammer. The problem was, I couldn’t find a way to do it. From time to time, in between other projects, I would take a halfhearted stab at the subject, but I just never found an approach I was comfortable with. Nothing I tried felt right. Nothing grabbed my imagination. Nothing came to life, and most of what I did put down on paper dropped dead and shriveled up within a few pages.
Then one day in 1986 I was thinking about it again, wanting more than ever to write “my vampire novel,” but still searching for the key, the way in. Suddenly that phrase returned to me, unexpected and unbidden, bubbling up from the shadowy depths – That voice – as deep as a disc jockey’s, as inviting as a pimp’s. This time, for a reason I still don’t fully understand, it came along with a full-blown picture in my mind, and I knew exactly who the voice belonged to – a handsome preacher standing in the pulpit, mesmerizing a large flock of listeners with a fiery sermon.
In that weird way that every writer knows so well and non-writers will never understand, I heard the tumblers falling into place, followed by the satisfying click of the lock opening, the creak of the door swinging wide. As it so often does, it had all come together at once – the phrase, the mental image, my deep-felt desire to write about vampires, my long and frustrating search for a way to do it – and within mere minutes the story was taking shape in my mind. Not long after that, I had the first few pages written.
There was plenty of hard work to come, of course. Once I knew what I was going to do, I still had to figure out how I was going to do it. And I had lots of questions. Just for starters: Vampires in a church? That’s a little odd. How is that going to work, exactly? But figuring those things out was the fun part, a task that pleasantly occupied me for much of the next year or so. The difficult chore, the tricky part was over, and it had all happened in the blink of an eye, with almost no conscious effort on my part, as if by magic.
Let me tell you, it doesn’t always happen that way, but it’s awfully cool when it does.
A lot of other things happened while I was writing The Night Prophets. I launched a magazine called Horrorstruck: The World of Dark Fantasy. I teamed up with my buddy, the late, great Dave Silva, to put together an anthology called Post Mortem. We got an agent for that book, the incredible Lori Perkins, and much to my delight she agreed to represent my vampire opus as well.
I was very pleased when Lori decided to send The Night Prophets to John Silbersack, who had treated me extremely well a few years earlier, when I sent him a “sample chapters and outline” package for another novel I was working on. John didn’t buy that book, but he did go miles above and beyond the call of duty by writing me a long, friendly, supportive, encouraging, and extremely detailed letter, telling me everything he liked and didn’t like, what I needed to fix and how to fix it, and encouraging me to contact him again for future projects. Back then, unknown writers without an agent didn’t often get that kind of treatment from the big New York publishers. Certainly I didn’t expect it from John. He didn’t have to respond to my submission at all, or he could have just stuck the typical form rejection into my SASE and shot it back to me. Or maybe he could have done what most editors seemed to do – send the form rejection with a handwritten “thanks for thinking of us, good luck” note scribbled on the bottom. But John didn’t do any of that that. He took time to not only critique my novel-in-progress, but to offer solid suggestions, and he went out of his way to balance every criticism with a favorable comment, plus a few words of support. Editors like that don’t come along every day, and John instantly became a hero of mine.
On the day Lori called to tell me NAL was buying The Night Prophets, I just about flew over the moon. Not only had I sold my first novel, but I had sold it to a man I admired as much as anyone in the business. What could be better than that? Sure, we went on to disagree a bit over our visions for the book, but that was okay. I really did understand what he wanted and why he wanted it, and even on those dark days of rewriting, when I grumbled and cursed and watched entire chapters of the novel disappear with a touch of the DELETE key, I knew deep down that John had my best interests and the best interests of The Night Prophets at heart. He had taken a chance on me. I was grateful. And even now, almost a quarter-century later, I still am.
The rest of this tale can be quickly told.
The book came out. The years flew by. I grew to feel comfortable with the version of the novel that sat up on my shelf, with its garish red cover and its cheesy tagline: When the basket goes ’round in this church, the donation is blood! I grew comfortable with all the cuts and changes, the things that were rearranged or trimmed or lost altogether. But I never quite gave up hope that some day I could release the book again, the way I had originally intended it to be.
In 2011 I began to toy with the idea of releasing an e-book version of the uncut novel. The problem was, I didn’t have a digital copy. Well, I did, but it was in a format that was essentially unusable – written in the old Wordstar program and stored on ancient 5.25-inch diskettes. Other than that, all I had was my original manuscript, all eight or ten pounds of it, which had been returned to me by NAL after the book was published. I called on a good friend of mine, Laurie Jasmin, and asked if she would be willing to help me out. Laurie had already done me a great service by retyping some old short stories of mine for an upcoming collection, and I asked if she’d be willing to do the same with The Night Prophets. Laurie is an amazing person. She’s also a glutton for punishment. To this day, I’m still not exactly sure why she said yes, but she did, and a few months later I had a spiffy new digital version of the uncut, unedited novel safely stored on my hard drive.
I didn’t do anything with it for a long time, but I kept telling myself “some day … some day soon …” Then, in the spring of 2013, I got a Facebook friend request from the writer K.H. (Karen) Koehler. Nothing unusual about that. Friend requests come in every day, right? But this one came with a little note from Karen, who said the nicest things imaginable about The Night Prophets – how she had bought the book as a girl and enjoyed it, how it had helped launch her own career as a writer, how she still had a copy in her collection. Every writer loves to hear those kinds of things, but when you hear them about a book that came out 24 years ago, sank without a trace, and has been out-of-print for more than two decades … well, let’s just say that kind of note is surprising and gratifying and all-around delightful.
Karen and I exchanged a few lighthearted Facebook messages, and I learned that in addition to being a writer, a fun correspondent, and a very nice person, she was also an editor for KHP Publishers, Inc. And then she wrote this: “If you’re ever interested in republishing The Night Prophets as an e-book, let me know.” I wrote back immediately and said, “Well, now that you mention it, I’ve had this long-time dream …”
And a mere six weeks later, here we are.
I’ve spent a lot of time here talking about differences between the original published version of The Night Prophets and this version, and casual readers may be wondering what some of those differences are. In particular, anyone out there who still remembers the 1989 edition may be thinking that this version is completely different, that they are getting a brand new book. I must be clear and tell you that’s not really the case. The plot of the novel is still the same. All of the characters from the original are still there. There are no new characters – well, none of significance anyway. Unless you’ve just finished reading the old NAL paperback in the last few weeks, you may not notice any difference at all. You may have a sense that it’s not quite the same, without exactly knowing how or why.
It would take far too long, and probably be far too boring, to list all of the changes for you now. So let me just say that what you’re getting this time around is much more detail, more background, more depth, a deeper inside look at the religious movement at the heart of the novel, and more time spent getting to know all of the characters – the good guys a little bit and the bad guys a lot. Things that seemed to happen with little or no justification in the original may now make more sense. Questions you may have had while reading the original will now be answered. Things that didn’t quite add up will now be explained. Two plus two will equal four, instead of 3.998.
In summary, the book you’re holding now is the tale the way I always wanted to tell it.
This is the way I wrote it.
This is the way I wanted you to read it.
This is the way it was meant to be.
Not long after the new, uncut edition of The Night Prophets was released in July 2013, I gave an interview in which I went on at great and enthusiastic length about the benefits of digital publication. Unlike the original NAL paperback, whose stay on bookstore shelves was roughly the same as a mayfly’s lifespan, the new e-book edition would be around forever. Yes, I actually said that. I said the e-book would be available forever. I said it would still be here long after all of us were gone, ready to be discovered by countless new generations of readers.
As it turns out, I may have been just a bit hasty.
The universe, as we know, loves to chuckle at the naïve proclamations of foolish mortals, and it was about to have a good, long belly laugh at my expense.
Barely a year after I gave that interview, KHP Publishers closed its doors, and just like that, The Night Prophets was out of print again – even faster than the first time, as a matter of fact. Instead of laying claim to immortality like a triumphant vampire, the book had instead taken a quick stake to the heart and had its lifeless corpse unceremoniously dumped back into a lonely and forgotten crypt.
I did my best to put the book out of my mind. I worked on other projects, published other things. Occasionally I wondered if The Night Prophets was really dead this time – dead for good, for all, forever – but I never really believed it. I knew the novel would eventually return. The only questions were when and how.
And so …
It’s taken longer than I would have liked, but finally, at long last, here in the late winter of 2021, my first novel is coming back to life again. The re-release is happening in two stages. First, a new e-book edition is being published for readers on a variety of platforms (Kindle, Nook, Kobo). The text is the same as the 2013 publication and remains my preferred edition of the novel. The new e-book will be followed in a few weeks by the first-ever audiobook edition of The Night Prophets, read by Scott MacDonald. Scott previously did a magnificent job with the audio version of my short story collection, Whispered Echoes, so I’m beyond thrilled to have him back behind the microphone for this book as well as the upcoming audio edition of Alexander’s Song, another novel of mine. I’m confident that long-time fans and first-time listeners alike are going to be entertained and enthralled by Scott’s narrations.