Oakland author Nick Mamatas offers a trip down the rabbit hole of theories about mass shootings in his new metaphysical thriller, The Second Shooter.
According to Mamatas, for every mass shooting in America—four victims or more—there is initially a report of a second shooter; someone who fires multiple rounds or might be witnessed fleeing the scene. But rarely is anyone ever able to identify, much less apprehend, the second person.
Mamatas, 49, said in a phone interview, “Almost all early media reports of mass shootings, whether the gunman was politically motivated or working through some personal pathology to deadly effect—or both—include details about a second shooter.”
Mamatas insists there is almost never an actual second shooter. Witnesses, for example, mishear echoes of bullets fired by police officers. “The fog and night of war in the microcosm explain[s] nearly every sighting,” he said.
Yet Mamatas asks in the novel: If there are no second shooters, then who are the figures who reportedly appear at the events and seem to shimmer like heat distortion above grills?
In The Second Shooter, published by Solaris, freelance journalist Mike Karras is working on a book about the phenomenon when he’s caught up in a potential two-shooter situation himself. Harassed by a talk-show radio host, stalked by drones and badgered by his seemingly omniscient editor, Karras heads to Berkeley to consult with a Muslim family of conspiracy theorists. Things get complicated mighty fast, and Karras finds himself enmeshed in a techno-mystical plot to “murder America.”
Raised in Brooklyn and Long Island, Mamatas is something of a shape-shifter, often writing about literary figures—Jack Kerouac and H.P. Lovecraft in particular—confronting the supernatural. His novels include Move Under Ground, I Am Providence, Sabbath and Love Is the Law.
Beginning in 2008, Mamatas worked at VIZ Media, LLC in San Francisco. As trade-books editor, he oversaw titles for the Haikasoru (“High Castle”) imprint, which published Japanese science fiction in English translation. He now works for the manga company Seven Seas Entertainment. His short fiction, non-fiction and editing work have been variously nominated for the Locus, Hugo, World Fantasy and many other awards.
The Second Shooter starts out as one kind of novel and swiftly morphs into something else. Its influences range from sci-fi TV series such as “Fringe” and “X-Files” to conspiracy novels from the ’70s, including Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil.
“That’s a classic example for me,” Mamatas said, “where there’s a conspiracy to clone Hitler and to place these clones in families that were much like Hitler’s, in order to get another Fuehrer. That was a seminal film and book for me when I was a little kid.”
Simply reading the day’s news served as research on second shooters, Mamatas said, but he acknowledged that his years of editing and writing put him in touch with fringe-dwellers.
“One can’t be of a certain age and involved in things like horror publishing and nerd culture without seeing how parts of it have been weaponized and radicalized,” Mamatas said.
Shootings happen so often in America that there’s often only a few degrees of separation between one’s own social circle and that of a shooter.
“I had a coworker who lost close friends in the San Bernardino mass shooting a couple of years ago, so it happens,” he said. “You live here and you’re in a certain environment, you’ll be pretty close to these events.”
Mamatas started writing The Second Shooter six years ago but put it away to pursue other projects.
“And, of course, in 2016 we had the President Trump election and the rise of Q’Anon and the disintegration of the news media,” he added. “I had to revisit everything, because the book as it stood was not as weird as reality. I had to rewrite the third act completely, introducing characters I had not conceptualized before. I had to really amp up the volume of The Second Shooter, otherwise it would not have read as a fantastical thriller. It would have read as a slice-of-life novel.”
The Trump Era certainly changed the course of literature, and the pandemic is already starting to do the same.
“I teach classes in writing fiction, and many of my students are struggling with writing pandemic stories or pandemic books,” Mamatas said. “They’re very afraid of doing it because they’re rightly concerned that slush piles will be full of pandemic stories. At the same time, if you want to write about a pandemic, you must write about it. You can’t hint at it, or be suggestive and just a half-step between doing it and not doing it.”
“We’re definitely going to also see a lot of books about people by themselves,” he added, “whether they’re on a spaceship or in a house or in a laboratory. There’s going to be a lot of monologue-style stories.”
The Second Shooter makes good use of its East Bay setting.
“At the risk of inviting people to come knock on my door, [the novel is set in] my neighborhood, the lower-Telegraph area of Berkeley. So there are scenes at the Whole Foods on Telegraph and Halcyon Commons and a couple of imaginary buildings I put in to make sure people don’t go visit real residences,” Mamatas said.
“If you go to Amazon.com,” he continued, “I’ve got a bunch of one-star reviews, saying, ‘What is this? What happened? You call this a book? It makes no sense.’ And there are a bunch of five-star reviews as well.”
Mamatas described his perfect reader. “If you are ready for anything—and if you have a mind for any possibility or impossibility—you’ll be every impossibility, and you’ll be very happy with the book.”