May 3rd, 2012

Michael Louis Calvillo - An Appreciation

(This piece was written for the HWA Newsletter, and will appear in the next issue. However, I decided to post it here as well since I'd like all of Michael's family and friends to have a chance at reading it.)

Back in early 2007, a young author e-mailed me to ask if I'd read his debut novel. I'd never heard of him, but he was a Southern California local and I liked the enthusiasm evident even in his e-mail query, so I said yes.

I say "Yes" to a lot of these requests. I will now sheepishly admit that I often don't finish the books. They're usually decent enough, but my time is scarce and I really want to be wowed.

This book - a thing called I Will Rise, by Michael Louis Calvillo - did more than wow me. It left me delirious and frankly envious. It was that brilliant, unique new voice you always hope for when you pick up a book by someone you've never heard of. I immediately agreed to provide Michael with a blurb, and here's what I said: "I Will Rise is like the bastard lovechild of William S. Burroughs and Bentley Little, and is the biggest waiting-to-be-discovered cult novel of the decade. It's hip, witty, scary, strange, apocalyptic, sad, and full of beautifully observed moments. In a perfect world, American readers would already be slavering in anticipation of whatever Michael Louis Calvillo puts out next."

That was an easy blurb to write, because I meant every word.

Not long after, I met Michael for the first time, at a signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California. I don't mind admitting that I was immediately smitten, but in that platonic, "God, I adore this guy's energy and talent and obvious love for what he's doing" kind of way. He had a funny, nervous manner that I found completely endearing. That mad energy got him in a little bit of hot water early on - a few HWA stalwarts got a trifle irritated with his frequent posts about I Will Rise on the organization's message board - and that irritation just left him baffled. He began one response with, "Doth I offend?" He loved his writing so much - and I don't mean that in an egomaniacal way, rather this was a guy who found such obvious great joy in the act - that he seemed unable to understand why others didn't relish every mention of one of his books as much as he did.

In 2009, Michael was ready to spring his second novel, As Fate Would Have It, on an unsuspecting world, and he asked me if I might consider doing the afterword. I read the manuscript and was hooked immediately. The book was quirky and disturbing and funny and insightful and experimental. Michael wasn't afraid to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader and have a bit of word play fun. One of my favorite lines comes near the front, as the first victim (the book is about the crossed fates of a cannibalistic gourmet chef and a pathetic young heroin addict) waits for her date to bring her a glass of wine: "She felt a tingle of warmth in her heart (groin)." In ten words, Michael had summed up the way a lot of people mistake sex for love better than books that made that theme their sole subject, and he did it in a way that made me laugh out loud. I told him that although this book deserved an afterword by someone who was much bigger than I was, that I would be honored to provide it.

(Amusing side note on As Fate Would Have It: Some time after the book was released as a signed/limited hardcover, I received a curious paperback in the mail called The Application of Heat: Observations and Recipes for the Discerning Gourmand. I was literally typing an e-mail to the sender suggesting that I'd been sent this in error when I flipped through the book - which looked for all the world like some technical cooking book - and saw a recipe titled "Prime Morton With Potatoes". It was only then that I remembered that the lettered edition of Fate was supposed to come with this "cookbook", which incorporated into recipes the names of those who had received the lettered editions. The joke was definitely on me!)

But reading Michael's work and knowing him through signings and parties was nothing compared to seeing him read his work. First off, he made cool little giveaways (see the "menu" illustration below) and often brought food, which was doled out by his gorgeous wife Michelle. Then the Mad Genius Himself got to work. When he read, Michael was like some walking bomb, winding itself up to a constant detonation. He would pace rapidly back and forth and fire those words out like a human machine-gun. I soon made sure that I saw him read at every possible opportunity and he was always amazing. In Brighton, England, at the 2010 World Horror Convention, he read a story (I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know the name) which struck me as vaguely ridiculous - something about a man who is caught by a cult and turned into a rampaging and very horny beast - but his performance of the story turned it into the most addictive kind of art. Michael always left his audience wanting more.

He was prolific; while he was teaching high school and socializing with his wife and their lovely daughter Deja, he was also churning out stories and books and columns and blog posts at an astonishing pace. Sometimes I worried that he was overdoing it - a couple of the later books feel rushed to me - but I was still flabbergasted that he never found major success. He and I both pursued the same agent at one point; the agent turned me down, but signed Michael. Sadly, the agent was unable to find the bigger home that Michael's work deserved.

In late 2010, I saw Michael at a signing, and was dismayed to see he was having difficulty walking (he was using a cane) and was obviously in great pain. "Sciatica," he told me the doctors had diagnosed. After he left, I told my significant other Ricky Grove (who is also a Calvillo fan) that I'd had stuntman friends who'd suffered from sciatica, and it didn't look like that.

Unfortunately, I was right. In December, Michael was diagnosed with CUP, or cancer undiagnosed primary, an aggressive form of cancer which is difficult to treat and has a high mortality rate.

I was thunderstruck. Michael was 36 years old, with a loving family and a promising career as one of the most unique voices in genre fiction. This was simply unthinkable.

Michael's fight began...and what a fight it was. He saw experts at UCLA and City of Hope. He and Michelle considered alternative healing and nutrition-based therapies. He underwent multiple surgeries and various forms of chemotherapy and radiation. For a while in 2011 he was pronounced "stable", and most of us began to wonder if he'd beaten the Big C (if anyone could do it, it was him). When I saw him in 2011, he was thinner and using crutches to get around, but he was as vibrant and excited as ever.

But by the end of 2011, it was apparent that his condition wasn't as stable as we'd hoped. He and Michelle kept an online journal of Michael's journey ( ), and there seemed to be more and more unexpected trips to emergency wards. Tumors continued to develop, and in March of 2012 he developed ascites, a condition in which fluid fills the abdomen. In April he spent ten days in ICU, went home...but soon returned to the ICU. On the morning of Monday, April 30th, 2012, a self-induced coma finally led to Michael's passing. He was 37.

For the 16 months that he lived with his diagnosis, Michael's indomitable spirit and vitality were never brighter. Even though he was often in intense pain and weakness, he continued to teach, to socialize with his family and friends, to attend conventions...and of course to write.

In his 2010 collection Blood & Gristle, the title work turns out to actually be a non-fiction meditation on death. With eerie foresight, he ponders, "...what if I visit a doctor and he tells me I have some devouring, aggressive form of cancer...?" He notes, "...real death is anything but cool and I am extremely sensitive about it and it actually makes me all kinds of ill. Though I am a horror fanatic, I am a big, big baby when it comes to the real thing...And I can't stop the thoughts...that in life we are nothing but rotting biology, we are nothing but hot blood and steaming gristle, and in death, when everything cools and congeals, we are nothing at all."

Michael, I'm still here to tell you: You are far from nothing at all. You showed all of us the face of extraordinary bravery and deternination in your fight, and your zest for writing will remain a source of inspiration to your writer friends. Your books - I Will Rise, As Fate Would Have It, Blood & Gristle, Bleed for You, Death & Desire in the Age of Women, 7 Brains, Lambs, and Birdbox - will live on for years to come, and I'm guessing will be imitated by lesser talents but never equaled, certainly never surpassed. Those of us who knew you in person will carry your memory with us throughout our lives, and be thankful for the opportunity to have known you.

This is where I should say RIP, Michael Louis Calvillo...but I suspect you never had the least interest in resting peacefully, and far be it from me to suggest you should now. Kick some eternal ass, MLC.