On Saturday, I had the pleasure of moderating R.J. Torbert at the Port Jefferson Free Library on the North Shore of Long Island.
R.J., who is celebrating his twentieth year of employment at Fun World—where he works to protect the trademark and copyrights of the Ghost Face mask, popularized in Wes Craven’s Scream films—is also an author. His second Powers and Johnson novel, No Mercy, was published by Two Harbors Press last month.
The book, and its predecessor, The Face of Fear (2013), makes use of the Ghost Face mask—but in a different context than fans of the film franchise are accustomed to. Another trademark of the series is that it’s set in, and around, Port Jefferson—and that several of the characters are named after real people (such as Detective Kevin Cronin), albeit with some creative license thrown in.
I’d read the book in manuscript form more than a year ago, but decided to give the final version a perusal in preparation for our discussion. And I have to say that the story really came alive as my wife and I disembarked the ferry on Friday evening and meandered through the village. We stayed overnight at Danford’s, where Det. Bud Johnson has been known to dance; we had breakfast at Z Pita, where owner Joey Z—a “real character” in the books and in life—greeted us and even signed my book; we even strolled by a bench where Det. Paul Powers and his love interest, Rachelle, have a pivotal heart-to-heart. And don’t get me started about the ferry. (Did you read the first book?)
That first night, traffic was hopelessly gridlocked and an army of teenagers had taken to the streets as if under mind control. And I thought: It’s after dark. Shouldn’t these people be safely locked away inside their homes? There’s a lot of strange stuff going down here. Then I reminded myself that R.J.’s books are works of fiction, despite the real-life setting.
(I soon realized that all these teens were united in a common pursuit: the search for … Pokemon.)
The venue—the Port Jefferson Free Library—too, was rife with meaning, as R.J. had written the books there during marathon weekend sessions. And they did an admirable job of promoting their local celebrity: a supersized banner hung outside the building, a cardboard cut-out of the author donned in a trench coat and holding a blood-spattered Ghost Face mask greeted patrons in the entranceway, and other signage was posted prominently throughout the library. (One even boasted: “AUTHOR R.J. TORBERT BRINGS GHOST FACE BACK.” Like Justin Timberlake brought sexy back? I mused.)
In our freewheeling, hour-long conversation, R.J. discussed his writing process, how he researches police procedure, the ways in which his books differ from the Scream films, and the importance of offsetting horror—both written and real—with humor. Even more poignantly, he introduced us to Katherine, who he dedicated No Mercy to. (Let me just say this: She is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.)
Additionally, R.J. revealed details of his ongoing friendship with the philosophical, gentlemanly Craven, whom he’d first conversed with during the making of Scream in 1996; their relationship intensified throughout the production of Scream 4 in 2010, and continued to blossom until Craven’s death in 2015. (In fact, the legendary director’s words appear on No Mercy’s back cover: “THE FACE OF FEAR is a great read: full of fully drawn, interesting characters with page-turning plot twists and turns. This is good work. I look forward to reading NO MERCY.”)
Though Craven’s declining health would prevent him from reading No Mercy, he did leave his friend with a parting gift before his passing: a set of images taken during some mysterious, as yet to be revealed encounter with Ghost Face. Those pictures serve as the inspiration for R.J.’s third novel, which will also feature Craven’s photography—a revelation that had been teased in the lead-up to our interview.
Following this much anticipated announcement, there was the show-and-tell portion of the event in which R.J. unveiled the long-locked away molds for the masks featured in Miramax’s Scream spoof, Scary Movie—joking that even Fun World wasn’t aware he’d liberated them for the weekend. (I’d have kept that secret, but photographic proof exists. And not just my own.) Finally, he answered questions from the audience, signed books, posed for pictures, and even bestowed a 25th Silver Anniversary Edition Ghost Face mask on one young man, Joseph, who has quickly become a super-fan.
Then, much like a movie fades to black, the lights were dimmed and the show was over …