Rafael Sarmento, Beverly Poppe (photograph)
Thursday, June 21, 2012 | midnight
“It was always going to be Las Vegas,” Vicki Pettersson says as she sits at the bar in the Peppermill’s Fireside Lounge, drinking a glass of water (it’s the middle of the day) and looking completely, totally at home. Pettersson is the New York Times best-selling author of the Signs of the Zodiac urban fantasy series, which concluded with its sixth book, The Neon Graveyard, last May. Her new series, Celestial Blues, premieres with The Taken, which hit stores June 12.
Like all of Pettersson’s books, The Taken takes place in Las Vegas, where Pettersson was born and raised and spent a decade working as a showgirl, in Jubilee! and the Folies Bergere. It stars the unlikely duo of reporter and rockabilly enthusiast Kit Craig and former private detective Griffin Shaw, who’s now an angel charged with ferrying murdered souls to the afterlife. The two team up to solve a series of murders, including Shaw’s own, nearly 50 years ago. They also spend quite a bit of time at Frankie’s Tiki Room.
- An Evening With Vicki Pettersson
- June 21, 7 p.m., free
- Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road, 507-3400
Frankie’s is just one of a number of authentic Vegas locations that play important roles in Pettersson’s novels. The Zodiac series, about an epic struggle between forces of good and evil, used Vegas landmarks as touchstones for a supernatural world, and Pettersson works hard to ground her fantastical stories in the reality of the city. “Las Vegas is malleable anyway,” she says. “Even its reality can be distorted easily.”
From the bar at the Peppermill, Pettersson talks me through the most important Vegas locations in her two series, creating an alternate picture of the city where angels and superheroes fit comfortably into familiar dive bars and cultural landmarks.
The Neon Boneyard
“The Boneyard was probably the most sentimental inclusion, and had the biggest part in the [Zodiac] series,” Pettersson says of the Downtown open-air museum that houses vintage Las Vegas signs. “Because it’s Vegas, and Vegas’ past. I found it terribly sad that an entire city’s past could be discarded like that. But it was also fascinating, because you could see the visual evidence of people who had come before. Going there, it’s a bit spooky. You get that feeling of, if these walls could talk, if these signs could talk. I thought, well, let’s give them a voice.”
In the Zodiac series, the Boneyard is the hideout for the heroes who fight for the Light, and they have a unique way of accessing their lair. “Initially, they went through the top of the Silver Slipper, the shoe, and they’d slide down into the toe and down into the underground,” Pettersson explains. But the city moved the Silver Slipper sign to Downtown’s Cultural Corridor in 2009 as part of a project to restore and showcase old neon signs. “I was like, ‘Really, guys? It’s been sitting there decaying there in the Boneyard for a decade, and now you move it? Thanks a lot.’” Pettersson decided to incorporate the move into her story instead of ignoring it. “It’s just one more bit of reality that people can hang their hat on,” she says.
“All you have to do is look around,” Pettersson says, surveying the place from the bar, and anyone who’s been to the old-school lounge and restaurant on the Strip will know what she means. “I think what I love the best about the Peppermill is that it has retained its kitsch. It doesn’t take itself too seriously,” she says, pointing to the decorations around the room. “I mean, neon and fake foliage, really? In one room? And red velvet? It’s just too much, and I love every inch of it.”
Pettersson has a long history with the Peppermill. When was her first time here? “Gosh, was I legal?” Does she have any special memories? “Yeah, but I can’t remember them.” How have things changed? “When I first came here, there were no [TV] screens all over the place. I know they’ve updated bathrooms, too, which is necessary on one level, but on another it’s annoying. I want it to be exactly as it was, but so little is.”
The Peppermill is clearly a refuge for Pettersson, just as it is for the characters in the Zodiac series, in which it serves as neutral ground in the battle between the Light and the Shadow. “I thought, if [the characters are] going to come and take a breath somewhere, where would I want it to be?” she says. “And the Peppermill is pretty much the perfect spot for that.”
Frankie’s Tiki Room
Since the Celestial Blues series is steeped in rockabilly culture, Pettersson wanted an authentic rockabilly hangout where the characters could spend their time socializing and connecting with each other. She chose Frankie’s, and made her first trip there in the name of research. “I had to order a big tiki mug filled with a rum drink in order to do research. It was awful,” she laughs. “I knew that that’s where a lot of the rockabilly crowd hangs out in Vegas. I don’t know if any of them will read the book, but if they do, I want them to feel a sense of identification, of authenticity.”
In The Taken, Frankie’s is Kit’s home away from home, her place of comfort. “It’s where we’re introduced to her friends, her support system,” Pettersson says. It’s also the site of one of the book’s freakier moments. “The angel in charge comes through, talking through a baby,” Pettersson explains. “The angels can speak through the very old and the very young.” This all takes place during a wake for Kit’s murdered friend Nicole. “That’s where she would be, so that’s where they decide to go celebrate her life,” Pettersson says.
Frankie’s owner P Moss has since reached out to Pettersson with his gratitude. “I heard from [Moss] via email … he wrote that he was really flattered that I had included Frankie’s in it,” she says. After her local appearance at the Clark County Library on June 21, Pettersson plans an informal gathering for fans at Frankie’s, “just to kind of raise a glass and thank Moss and hang out with my invisible friends.”
Dark alleys and underground tunnels
Zodiac protagonist Joanna Archer spends a lot of time dodging her enemies and traversing the city via dangerous back routes. “That poor girl!” Pettersson laughs. “She’s always dressed in leather, and she’s always lost in a dark alley. I just felt bad for her after a while.” Pettersson did just as much due diligence on underground urban byways as she did on more hospitable locations. “More than anything, I was looking Downtown, because I’ve noticed there’s some really fabulous, gorgeous dark alleys Downtown,” she says. “Some dark alleys that would rival dark alleys in any city. Some of the world’s best dark alleys, I would say.”
After reading local journalist Matthew O’Brien’s book Beneath the Neon, Pettersson also became fascinated with Las Vegas’ flood-control tunnels, and used them as part of the Zodiac series’ mystical universe, as the access point for the characters to reach another world. And yes, she did research there, too, “but then my husband yelled at me.” Pettersson recounts this bit of dialogue between her and her husband:
He’s like, “Stop going in the tunnels.”
I’m like, “I’m researching!”
“But you’re gonna get yourself killed.”
“Well, I’m not going during a flood.”
“I’m not talking about natural occurrences, I’m talking about human predators.”
I’m like, “Fine. Fine, I won’t go into dark alleys anymore either.”
Pettersson may love Vegas’ gritty urban character, but she gets the most nostalgic when discussing a place outside of town, in the desert on the way to Pahrump. Cathedral Canyon no longer exists, but for a time it was one of the great oddities of Southern Nevada, the creation of an eccentric character on par with Lonnie Hammargren’s Home of Nevada History. Lawyer Roland Wiley filled the small natural canyon on his property with stained-glass windows, a footbridge, poems under plexiglass, religious statues, even working lights and a sound system to play music. “My girlfriend and I would go out there regularly, take the drive and walk through the canyon,” Pettersson says. “You could go out there, turn on the lights and the music at the same time, and then go down and wander into this canyon in total darkness and quiet. In retrospect, it was terribly unsafe, but I did it many times in my late teens, and it was magical.”
After Wiley’s death in 1993, the place fell prey to vandals and the natural elements, and is now in ruins. Pettersson did her small part to reclaim it by featuring it as the site of a massive battle in the Zodiac series. “Destruction rolled through it, so in my mind it was the destruction of the battle that destroyed this place, and not assholes,” she says.
These days Pettersson splits her time between Dallas and Las Vegas, but she remains fiercely loyal to the city where she grew up, and which she still considers home. Many other Vegas locations crop up in her books, including Downtown Cocktail Room and the Alternate Reality comic book store, and future installments in the Celestial Blues series will showcase Naked City and the old Jolly Trolley casino. “It’s just a long love story to the city, but to my city,” Pettersson says of her body of work. “Not the touristy one, not the one that draws people in by fantasy ad campaigns.” And whatever she writes in the future, she expects her stories will continue to be set here. “As long as it continues to stir my imagination, I can’t imagine that it’s going to stop any time soon. It’s Vegas.”