HORROR AND TERROR, SLASHERS AND STUMPS
Part Three of a Four-Part Conversation About Horror Fiction With Christopher Conlon, Lisa Morton, Kurt Newton, and Norman Prentiss
For Part One of this discussion, please visit Christopher Conlon’s blog at http://chrisconlon.livejournal.com/12355.h
For Part Two, visit Kurt Newton’s blog at http://kurtnewton.wordpress.com/2010/05/2
CONLON: How much do the realities of the horror market affect what you write? Do you feel that you write for markets, or for yourself, or somewhere in between? Do you ever find yourself censoring or sensationalizing your work in order to appeal to a given market?
NEWTON: I don’t depend on my writing for financial support, so I tend to write whatever interests me. Even as a part-time writer I produce a lot of material—poems, flash pieces, short stories, novelettes and the occasional novella or novel. So when I see a market I like, I generally have several pieces on hand that may be suitable for it. Rarely will I sit down to write for a specific market.
As for censoring or sensationalizing, when a story is conceived I usually know the kind of story it’s going to be—graphic or subtle or something in between. Never once have I introduced more violence or sexual content just to amp up the shock value of a story. But I will tone down the content on occasion if I feel it is too over-the-top or unnecessary.
MORTON: Well, unlike Kurt, I do depend on my writing for income (while I love my day job, I can’t live on a used bookseller’s meager wages), so yes, I absolutely do have to be conscious of certain markets. If, for example, there’s a themed anthology coming up that’s paying decent rates, I will try to come up with something for it (provided I find the theme even remotely intriguing—that’s not a given). While I have a lot of writer friends who say they can’t write to someone else’s specifications, I never look at it that way; for me it’s more like a puzzle to be solved. Can I tell a story my way and get across a message that’s important to me within the context of their theme? One thing I learned from screenwriting (where you’re pretty much always operating per someone else’s instructions—even if the producer has purchased your original spec script, you’ll be asked to rewrite it to fit their whims or budget or whatever) was how to take someone else’s ideas and personalize them in a way that made them interesting to me. I’ve never censored or sensationalized a work to appeal to a given market, and fortunately I’ve never been asked to do so. If I was…well, I could conceivably cut back, but I can’t see myself “sensationalizing” something, unless it was integral to the story and was a good editorial suggestion.
PRENTISS: I don’t typically think about markets when I’m writing short stories—I’m usually trying to write something that interests me and that I’d be proud of, and I hope it will find a market later. The worst part is when I’m writing something I’m really happy with, then cross the 4,000-5,000 word limit and realize quite a few markets might be closed to that story. My market concerns tend to have more to do with word count than with content.
One thing that’s relatively new to me is being asked to write for a particular anthology or market. In those cases, it’s just like Lisa said: a challenge or a puzzle that exists from the beginning—and it sometimes helps me to write a story I never would have attempted otherwise. The “limits” can paradoxically open up your creativity, the same way a fixed poetic form can help poets explore new territory in verse. What’s Richard Wilbur’s famous line? (excuse me while I Google): “The strength of the genie comes from his being confined in a bottle.”
As far as novels, I guess I’m painfully aware of market concerns, almost to a paralyzing extent. I’m very happy with my novella, Invisible Fences, but I was lucky to get that published through Cemetery Dance’s novella series—there’s no significant market for novellas outside the small press. When I’ve attempted the longer novel form, with full awareness of what I like and don’t like in trade or mass market horror novels, I haven’t yet been satisfied with the results: the story seems padded, or the atmosphere of dread is too difficult to maintain. That might be changing for me recently, however, since I’m pretty happy with the first seventy percent of the novel I'm currently writing.
CONLON: Norman, I sure as hell wish you good luck with that last thirty percent! Speaking strictly for myself, I don’t think I’m smart enough to write for markets. I simply don’t have the capacity. Oh, I can write an article or a review to order—that’s easy enough—but in the realm of fiction, I’m hopeless at it. My stories come out whatever length they come out. They’re about whatever they happen to be about. Some end up easier to get published than others; eventually, though, pretty much everything I write gets published somewhere, sometime. But I long ago gave up considering markets or audience or anything else besides, really, myself. I finish a piece to my own satisfaction and then have a look around and ask who might like to bring it out. Sometimes it takes a while. One novella of mine, “The Unfinished Music,” took ten years to find a place—there was absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. Now both Gary Braunbeck and Bill Nolan refer to it as one of the finest novellas they’ve ever read. Ten years. Go figure. Yet as with your Invisible Fences, Norman, it was a small press that finally published it.
NEWTON: The horror small press has been called everything from a training ground for tomorrow’s leading names in the field, to an incestuous tar pit of hacks and would-be hacks that can drag a good writer down. Which is it?
MORTON: Well, Kurt—that could be a description of the major publishers, too! (Snort) Okay, now I’ll calm down and try a real answer: I personally love knowing that horror has an active small press (I won’t say “thriving,” because I know how hard it is for most of these presses to make a buck and that many of them exist really as labors of love). At its best, the small press provides that market for the writers whose work doesn’t fit the majors for one reason or another, be it length or theme or whatever. I’d say probably two-thirds of my favorite horror books published in the last few years came from the small press, and I’m thrilled that the small press has been able to provide a home for writers like Michael Louis Calvillo and Gene O’Neill and Cody Goodfellow and John R. Little and (not meaning to brown nose here, but!) Christopher Conlon.
CONLON: Brown-nosing noted and approved, Lisa! As for the small press, I wouldn’t want to generalize. There are fine, respectable, responsible publishers out there—I’ve worked with some of them—and there are appalling people with whom I shall never again have anything to do in this life. I do think, though, that writers, most of them based in the small press, can face the trap of getting too involved with the gossip and back-biting that goes on in this field. I’ve always stayed far away from such activity myself, but it’s easy enough to watch it happen on some message boards. There are writers who, to my mind, seem less interested in writing stories than in scoring points off people they don’t like. I wish I were only talking about unpublished amateurs here, but alas, I could name some relatively well-regarded professionals who engage in this kind of behavior online, too.
PRENTISS: I think message board behavior might be another topic—though the boards are certainly the place where small press books get promoted. It’s so many people fighting over the same readers/buyers (and a lot of writers selling things to each other)—which is why things can get heated. But it seems clear to me which discussions will get contentious, and I don’t post in those threads. Is it actually possible that some authors can’t grasp the tone of a discussion, or can’t control how their public persona comes across?
I think many would agree that the small press saved the horror genre after the mass-market bust of the late ’80s. A lot of writers wouldn’t have had audiences during the lean years that followed if it weren’t for the small press. And Lisa, I think your point about the size of a work is especially relevant: novellas, which rarely appear from New York publishers, thrive in the small press. I also like that some small presses will still do single author collections or anthologies, which you almost never see in mass market unless the author has a huge name…or unless that same collection had huge success previously in the small press. Chris, isn’t that the case with Gauntlet’s edition of He is Legend now forthcoming from Tor?
CONLON: Well, that’s not an either/or. It was a huge success because it has a huge name in it: Stephen King’s. It would never have sold to a major press otherwise. I’m quite sure of that.
So how much horror do you all read these days? More than you used to? Less?
NEWTON: I don’t read as much horror as I used to. But then I don’t read as much of anything as I used to. I’m a slow reader, but in my younger days I read everything in the horror field, because it was all new to me. I also read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. If I “discovered” a particular author I liked, I would run through their entire back catalog. But now that I’m older, my reading time is limited, so I’ve become a much more discerning reader. And, to be honest, I’d much rather be writing than reading.
MORTON: Like Kurt, I don’t have nearly the time for reading that I used to, and I’m also a slow reader. Aside from how much writing eats into my former reading time, I end up reading a lot of manuscripts for friends, I’m trying to get more into professional reviewing, and I’m also working on another non-fiction project which requires lots of reading (a 2nd edition of my Halloween Encyclopedia). Right now, for example, I’m reading a Graham Masterton novel I’ll be reviewing for Cemetery Dance, and a history of Guy Fawkes some friends just sent me from Britain.
If I had my druthers, I’d be reading a mix of…well, everything. I like non-fiction as much as fiction—the last two books I bought were The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided (but I have no idea when I’ll be able to get to them!). Also sitting near the top of the endless to-be-read stack are Saramago’s Blindness, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, and a curious book called Medusa by E. H. Visiak, which I paid a lot of money for because it’s a beautiful book, and is supposed to be a sort of unknown classic.
I don’t believe writers of any genre should limit themselves to reading only in that genre, but I also think it’s important to be versed in the classics of the genre and to keep abreast of current interesting works as well.
CONLON: Lisa, for God’s sake read Blindness, one of my favorite novels of the past twenty years. Saramago is absolutely amazing. I’ve read nearly everything of his that’s available in English. (Sometimes the Nobel Prize committee does get it right.) Norman, what about you and your reading?
PRENTISS: A lot of my teenage reading was in horror—Poe and Lovecraft, but also Bloch and the Twilight Zone writers. That’s the stuff I loved to read, and what I wanted to write, but college and grad school shifted my interest, slightly, towards Dickens and Hardy and the 18th century Gothics. When I came back to horror, it was a revelation. I could meet authors at conventions, and then read their stuff, and I would read just about anything. There was so much horror I’d missed, and it was all I wanted to read for the longest time.
Being a school teacher keeps me grounded these days, so I’m not always reading in my genre. It also forces me to think about literary history, and what works continue to influence me “despite” them not being horror (at least by the typical classification).
In recent years, a lot of what I read is also determined by my job as a part-time editor and proofreader. I do this kind of work exclusively with horror manuscripts, and it ends up being a big chunk of my reading time.
And now I gotta address a pet peeve of mine, which is when writers say something like, “When I was writing my vampire/zombie/demon novel, I deliberately chose not to read other vampire/zombie/demon books. I didn’t want the other writers to influence me.” Well, why the hell not? What’s the matter with being aware of what’s been done before in the genre, like Lisa said—and letting the influence improve your own approach?
CONLON: Like you, Norman, I faded away from the genre for a long time—in my case over ten years. But, I guess unlike you, my fade was total. I had nothing to do with genre fiction for over a decade, and I thought I’d left it behind forever. People who knew me in college or Peace Corps would be surprised indeed to hear my name associated with horror fiction—nearly as surprised as I am myself, sometimes. But that’s where I’ve found whatever audience I’ve located, and for that I’m grateful.
But as for reading, I guess I’m one of the few middle-aged people out there for whom life hasn’t gotten in the way of books. My wife spends just as much time reading as I do. We don’t have kids. We live in a simple routine. So I read just as much as I ever did, just as enthusiastically. Not horror, for the most part—I was never that much of a horror reader, though I do enjoy a few writers in the genre. I love Joyce Carol Oates—her short work more than her novels. I read more science fiction than horror and more poetry than science fiction. And I read more literary fiction and classics than any of them. I just finished Wait by C.K. Williams, who’s been one of my favorite poets for the past twenty-five years; a collection of William Styron’s correspondence, Letters to My Father; and a fantasy/horror YA I agreed to review, The Gardener by S.A. Bodeen—not to mention a first-rate novella, Invisible Fences, by one Norman Prentiss. Now I’m into a Steampunk anthology, Extraordinary Engines, and Thomas Ligotti’s latest collection, Teatro Grottesco. I have a huge stack of reading for this summer and I’ll get to all of it.
NEWTON: So, is there anything anybody can point to in their childhoods that they could say “predisposed” them to horror? Something you may have witnessed? A tragic or unusual event that occurred that left an impression?
MORTON: Well…ahem…this may sound strange, but…horror was a happy thing for me as a child. My parents both loved horror movies, and we all did crazy things like watch the Universal horror films and build the Aurora monster models together. There were two times I do remember being frightened by something as a very young child, and oddly enough, both events occurred at Disneyland (we lived within a forty-minute drive of the park, so we went fairly often). The first incident: There used to be a guy dressed as Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera who stood in front of the Main Street Cinema, and of course my folks thought it would be too adorable to have me pose for photos with him—and I was scared witless! (And damn, I wish I knew where those photos were now…) The second event: There used to be a “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” exhibit in Tomorrowland, and I remember being about four or five, and at the end of the exhibit was a porthole you could look through. I was too small to reach the porthole, so dad had to lift me up, and he was kind of grinning as I looked through—and there was the giant squid, with its dinner-plate-sized eye staring right into mine! Of course it didn’t matter that it was just a big rubber prop held up with strings.
Really, I had a pretty placid childhood, one without much trauma or tragedy. Now, of course, I look back and realize that I was extraordinarily lucky that the scariest things I saw were a man in a silly mask and a fake squid.
PRENTISS: I think a lot of the predisposition came from my family. First, our living room was like Miss Havisham's home in Great Expectations: my mother never left the house, and she never threw anything away. When friends called, I sometimes said that my mother was dead, as a half-joking explanation for why they’d never seen her; Mom overheard this, and afterwards would sometimes answer the phone by announcing, “This is Norman’s dead mother.” So a rather odd upbringing, but more Addams Family than traumatic—since we mostly kept a sense of humor about things.
The other huge influence was from my father, who loved horror movies and sci-fi movies and was also a good storyteller. I’d hear about Dad’s favorite movies, and couldn’t wait to see them on television when they finally cycled around (sometimes I waited for years!). He also recommended Poe stories to me, and was the guy who’d take me to Barbarian Books in Wheaton, Maryland—a comic shop, and I bought my share of horror comics, but they also had used paperbacks in the back. It was about the only place I could find books by Bloch, Matheson, Beaumont, Fredric Brown.
CONLON: I remember Barbarian Books quite well, Norman—not from my childhood (I grew up in California), but from when I first moved to Maryland fifteen years ago. It was quite a glorious mess, that place. I remember buying a VHS tape of my first favorite cartoon, Gigantor, there. I still have it.
As to the question. I’d rather not get into specific childhood memories, but I’ll say that I do think that my upbringing, to which I alluded earlier, had something to do with my literary predilections—not toward horror, necessarily, but toward tragedy, something the best horror often encompasses. I responded just as much to the tragedy in the great Poe works as to their horrific elements—see “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” “Annabel Lee.” Same thing with the tragic elements of Psycho. The composer who has meant the most to me throughout my life has been Mahler, who is often almost unbearably tragic. I love Shakespeare’s tragedies—King Lear is my favorite of all plays. The films of Orson Welles. It’s all tragedy, tragedy and catharsis. And it’s when horror goes most deeply in that direction—Frankenstein, say, or, more recently, Gary Braunbeck’s In Silent Graves—that I respond most deeply to it.
But let’s let the questioner in here. What about you, Kurt?
NEWTON: I’d like to think I’ve led a relatively normal life. But the more I write, and the more I call on some of the stranger memories of my youth, the more I realize how disturbing were some of the things I not only witnessed but experienced firsthand.
I was the youngest of four children. My older siblings were each born a year apart, and then there was a four-year gap before I came along. I was fortunate that my older brother was my nearest sibling (I have two older sisters). Fortunate because, growing up, I followed him around like a pup, and, for the most part, he allowed me to. We grew up in the country in Connecticut in a small house on our own land. There were woods. We had dogs and cats. We rode our bikes down to the lake in the summer; our father took us tobogganing in the winter. We were a typical 1960s New England family of six.
Our father was hardly home, a machinist by trade. He left early in the morning and, a lot of times, didn’t return until dark. Our mother didn’t work a job until I was in school. But she cooked and cleaned and maintained a garden and basically looked after the four of us. As children, however, we were mostly left to own devices.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of my brother and I playing out in the back yard, while our mother is working in the garden. At edge of the woods, my brother saw a brown-furred creature ambling along the stonewall. “A bear! A baby bear!” he began yelling. My mother ran inside the house, returned with one of my father’s rifles and blew it off the stonewall in one shot. My mother went over to check to see if it was still alive. “It's okay, it’s dead,” I remember her saying. She put the gun back inside the house and went back to work in the garden. Meanwhile, my brother and I had to see for ourselves. We walked over to where the creature had been shot and on the other side of the stonewall was a woodchuck. (We must have been very young to think a woodchuck was a bear!) There was blood and its body had been torn open by the gunshot. Its intestines were spilled out onto the leaves. I remember staring at it. I wasn’t grossed out by the sight. I think I was more fascinated by the contrast between what I saw on the outside of the animal and what was inside.
My mother and father’s relationship was strained at best. They tried to put on a happy face but they couldn’t hide the tension in the air. Of course, as kids, we thought this was normal. We thought the brooding way our father cleaned his guns was normal. We thought our sometimes warm and loving, sometimes distant and depressive mother was normal. I thought the way my brother acted out and teased and tortured me was normal. I thought the fear in my sisters’ eyes when my father came home was normal. There was favoritism and jealousy and helplessness and hatred. And it was all normal.
We all lived in a small two-bedroom cape. My brother and I slept upstairs in the attic. There were cloth curtains that separated the bedroom from the rafters. At night with the light off and the moon providing just enough illumination, I would see those curtains move. I remember many nights protecting myself by not letting any part of my body escape the confines of the covers.
What I’m getting at is, I didn’t know it at the time, but I grew up in an atmosphere of fear. Subtle, vague, shadowy, expressionless fear. Some of my fondest childhood memories are outside the house—swimming at the lake, picking black raspberries along the road, playing in the woods. The house was too small, too dark, too oppressive. It harbored everything that was wrong with the family. When the house burned down when I was nine, it was a relief. It closed a chapter in our lives. A new house was built—open, bright—and it exposed the family for what it really was: dysfunctional. Years later, my parents divorced and us kids went our separate ways.
For me, when I look back as a seed grown in that tragic garden, I’m struck by a lot of things. My older sisters and brother didn’t fare well later in life. Each carried a part of that earlier darkness with them, and it had its effect. I, on the other hand, took that darkness and made it my own. Perhaps I was just younger and hadn’t endured as much as my older siblings. Maybe I got lucky. Maybe.
For Part Four of this discussion, please visit Lisa Morton’s blog at: http://cinriter.livejournal.com/192771.h