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Mass appeal Tom Monteleone hopes (and prays?) his latest novel will attract many readers


On the hottest day of summer, Tom Monteleone is holding forth from his recliner, gulping coffee and talking up what he hopes will be his hottest book: A religious thriller about the Second Coming of Christ.

"The Blood of The Lamb" (Tor, $21.95) is about a group who steals blood from the Shroud of Turin and creates a genetic clone of Jesus. Set in the near future, it deals with religious conspiracy, politics, violence, unholy alliances between priests and television reporters and a lot of questions about the American way of life.

It's not the kind of book you take home to mother, but it's the kind she might rush out to buy. And the 46-year-old author is more than ready to tell Katie Couric all about it.

"I hope this is my breakout, crossover, breakthrough, whatever you want to call it, book. I'd like to be an overnight sensation after 20 years. . . . I've had a lot of mystery and suspense and horror people read my stuff mainly. They're real dedicated -- I get lots of weird fan mail -- but I wanted to do something that would appeal to a larger audience because, you know, I'm running out of time."

Over the years, Mr. Monteleone has become something of a dark fantasy marathoner. His 19 novels include "Lyrica," the story of a creature taken from medieval legend who feeds upon artists' creativity; "Night Train," a thriller set in the New York subway, and "The Magnificent Gallery," a story adapted for television about a carnival wagon that visits a small town and forever changes it. "The Last Man," one of his feature-length screen plays, won a 1991 grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. He has edited several dark fantasy fiction anthologies -- including the prestigious Borderlands series -- and published almost 100 short stories.

In 1990, he founded Borderlands Press which produces limited editions of works of such collectible genre authors as Robert R. ++ McCammon, Peter Straub and Joe Lansdale.

As a full-time, self-supporting writer, the Sudbrook Park resident has researched a number of fields and acquired an opinion on just about everything. He seems especially distasteful of the back-scratching in the film industry, the politics behind the two-party political system -- he's registered as independent -- and writers who consider themselves auteurs.

"If someone says they spent eight years writing a book, they're just not writing it," he says. "When I talk at colleges, I tell 'em it's not that big a deal to write a book. If you really do want to be a writer, you need to think if you can write two, three pages a day. Once you get over the discipline thing, it's a cupcake. Three pages a day is 15 pages a week, if you don't work on weekends. In six months, you have a 360-page book. And if you really are smoking when you're doing it, you can have two novels a year."

Mr. Monteleone began his writing career publishing short stories. His first novel, "Seeds of Change," published in 1975, was about rebels who overthrow an oppressive future world society. The plot was presented to him by publishers of a formulaic science fiction series called Laser Books. He got $1,600 for the job.

"They used my book to launch the line. And it did as bad as I thought it would: Packaging science fiction like a bunch of sausage links was an awful marketing mistake. It gave me a real stigma in the science fiction field."

At the time, Mr. Monteleone was studying English in graduate school and working as a therapist at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital in Jessup. He grew up in Sudbrook Park, the only child of the late Mario Monteleone, a machinist at Bethlehem Steel, and Marie Monteleone, who worked as a saleswoman at Best & Co., the now-defunct clothing store at Reisterstown Road Plaza. Tom went to Loyola High School -- he was in the class before Tom Clancy -- and the University of Maryland, College Park, where he received an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's in English.

He says he learned most from the Jesuits.

"They taught me discipline and language: I had four years of Latin. And they taught me how to think and how to always ask the next question. And one of the first things I started to question was all this mystical, based-on-faith religious stuff."

Part of the mass appeal of "The Blood of the Lamb," he hopes, will come from its probing of a growing fear that the world will end in the year 2000. His book is set in 1998.

"A poll in The New York Times showed that 50 million people [around the world] believe the world is going to end in the year 2000. They think the earthquakes, the riots, are all signs of the times. If my instincts are right, people are going to get more and more worked up about the year 2000 in the next few years.

"The fundamentalist outlook is a lot more tenacious than we think. You remember when James Watt said he didn't know why everyone was so worried about what was going to happen to the redwoods because the world was going to end anyway?'. . . I think this is one of the first books to deal with this."

And he had no trouble selling it.

Mr. Monteleone, who has two sons from two marriages, often works 15-hour days at his trade. "One of the dangers of getting into a profession like this where I pretty much live by my wits is that I never know how much money I'm going to make. . . . I'll sell a book for $25,000 to $40,000. But then you pay your agent and the government, and you have to manage what's left and live on it for a year. I try to do a book a year. Sometimes it doesn't work that way and I live on credit cards."

He hopes for a profitable August. The books are in the stores, the interviews are starting, the reviews should follow close behind. Publishers Weekly calls "The Blood of the Lamb" "a riveting story about evil done in the purported service of good."

"My publishers feel I've tapped into a new genre, kind of like a religious thriller thing. I've got a couple more books in the works.

"I want to deal with things that affect all of us in major ways, but not necessarily all in the same ways," Mr. Monteleone says. "And I don't want to think of myself as an artist. If I was in the Middle Ages, I would be the guy with the funny hat, juggling the balls and telling the jokes. I'm an entertainer, not an artist."

Is there a big difference?

"Yeah, in the minds of the people who think they're artists."

Book signing

Tom Monteleone will sign copies of "The Blood of the Lamb" from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Waldenbooks in Towsontowne Center; at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mystery Loves Company, 1730 Fleet St. in Fells Point and at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at Waldenbooks in White Marsh Mall.

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