Talking With James Aquilone About New Kickstarter ‘Shakespeare Unleashed’

by Olly MacNamee

James Aquilone is currently helming an already successful new Kickstarter for Shakespeare Unleashed. A prose/poetry and manga comic book that reimagines the great bard’s iconic characters and plotlines as horrifying dark short stories. I got to catch up with James and talk to him about this imaginative and interesting new project.

Olly MacNamee: First you took on classic monsters, in Kickstarter’s highest funded prose horror anthology, and now you’re taking on the great bard himself, William Shakespeare, in new Kickstarter poetry/prose anthology, Shakespeare Unleashed. Why did you choose Shakespeare as the source for inspiration behind this next campaign, James?

James Aquilone: I liked the idea of keeping the Unleashed series in the world of classic literature and I love Shakespeare. Before I jumped into speculative fiction as a writer, I was a literary snob who would only read the “classics.” I hadn’t read a Stephen King novel until my early 20s. From my mid-teens until that time, I thought that to be a great writer I had to be the synthesis of Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka, with a little Mark Twain thrown in. I was even a philosophy major. For years I read only Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Gustave Flaubert, and T.S. Eliot. I never did get through James Joyce’s Ulysses, and I think my snobbery ended with Ivanhoe. I didn’t really enjoy three-page descriptions of everyone’s outfit.

It wasn’t until I met my wife that I got into Stephen King and started reading contemporary literature. She only read King and Koontz and John Saul and V.C. Andrews. So Shakespeare Unleashed is really me putting those two worlds together. Maybe the next book will be Faulkner Unleashed.

OM: Macbeth, Caliban, the ghost of Hamlet, and more. I can see their appeal, but what remit did you give your writers. I mean, Macbeth is pretty bloody already.

JA: The Macbeth story is being written by Joe Lansdale and his daughter Kasey. I didn’t assign any of the stories. I asked the writers what they wanted to write. And, yes, Macbeth is already bloody, but Joe and Kasey are doing something different. Their story will be set in modern times and center around a production of Macbeth. The play itself is supposedly cursed. In the theater you’re supposed to refer to it as “The Scottish play.” To say the actual name only invites disaster and mayhem. I’m really looking forward to that story.

OM: And which writers are tackling which of Bill’s plays or characters? And, who’s handing in scary sonnets for this collection? Anything you can elaborate on?

JA: Here’s the list:

  • Joe and Kasey Lansdale (Macbeth)
  • Ian Doescher (Twelfth Night)
  • Cullen Bunn (Hamlet)
  • Jonathan Maberry (The Tempest)
  • Seanan McGuire (A Midsummer’s Night Dream)
  • Lee Murray (The Winter’s Tale)
  • Gemma Files (Henry V)
  • Tim Waggoner (Rosencrantz from Hamlet)
  • John Palisano (Merchant of Venice)
  • Lisa Morton (Titus Andronicus)
  • Gene Flynn (Desdemona from Othello)
  • Hailey Piper (Ophelia and Polonius from Hamlet)
  • Philip Fracassi (King Lear)
  • Gwendolyn Kiste (Julius Caesar)

Sonnets will be by Linda D. Addison, Alessandro Manzetti, Jessica McHugh, Sara Tantlinger, Stephanie M. Wytovich and Lucy A. Snyder.

OM: Now, as well as this being a collection of short stories and sonnets, there will also be a Manga comic. Why manga, and why a comic included?

JA: It’s a manga only in size. It won’t be manga style. I love comics and once I did the Kolchak graphic novel I really caught the bug. The original idea was to include only an 8-page comic within the prose anthology, but then I learned that it would cost about the same to print a separate small-sized comic. I liked that idea much better. So I asked David Avallone to write a story and he did one based on Richard III, and I had a few ideas so I jumped in and wrote two stories, one is called “Romeo and Juliet: Afterlife” and the other is based on the Shakespearean stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

OM: Shakespeare has a good deal of the supernatural and the horrific about his works. But not all. What are the plays you’re taking on you think will surprise readers? A zombie retelling of Julius Caesar who comes back from the dead after being assassinated, or a nightmarish recount of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, maybe?

JA: Oh, we have zombies!

Gwendolyn Kiste is doing a Julius Caesar story and Seanan McGuire’s doing something with A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

Ian Doescher, who has mashed up Shakespeare with the Avengers and Star Wars and a bunch of other things, noticed that many contributors were taking tragedies, so he decided to use a romantic comedy, Twelfth Night, as a jumping off point for a horror story. He’s also going to do the entire story in iambic pentameter just like a Shakespearean play.

OM: Of course, Kickstarter campaigns also mean a good deal of add-ons and potential stretch goals on offer. What can fans pick up?

JA: Besides the hardcover prose anthology and softcover comic, we have a limited-edition signed poster of the cover art, prints of J.K. Woodward’s art with lettering by Tom Napolitano, a Shakespeare parody T-shirt designed by Zac Atkinson, and some add-ons leftover from the Classic Monsters Unleashed campaign.

OM: Finally, James, an English Literature teacher I am forever being asked why I teach ’em Shakespeare. What would your answer be?

JA: It was in a high school English class where I got my love of Shakespeare. I was given Hamlet on a Friday and by Sunday I had finished it. Like many students, I often didn’t bother reading the assigned books. I would try to wing it by reading only the back of the book. (This is before Wikipedia. By the way, I once wrote an essay about the Francis Ford Coppola movie The Conversation without having seen it. I just made assumptions based on the title and the fact that it was about a surveillance expert, and I got a B. So I was pretty good at bullshitting my way through writing assignments.) I don’t remember why I dove into Hamlet. I think it was raining that day. So keep teaching Shakespeare, because you never know when you’ll inspire a young person and set them on the path of literary snobbery. They also might stop bullshitting their way through life and read the damn book.

OM: Many thanks, James, and good luck with the campaign.

JA: Thanks, Olly, for the questions. Maybe one day you’ll teach Shakespeare Unleashed to your students and they’ll pretend to read it — and this will all come full circle.

You can check out and back Shakeapeare Unleashed here now.

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