INTERCONTINENTAL HORROR EDITOR
Interview Conducted by Mark McLaughlin and Michael McCarty
What follows is an excerpt from Esoteria-Land, a 2009 collection of interviews, essays and musings by Michael McCarty. Reprinted with permission. Buy Esoteria-Land from Bear Manor Media.
Stephen Jones lives in London, England. He is the winner of two World Fantasy Awards, three Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards and two International Horror Guild Awards, as well as being a thirteen-time recipient of the British Fantasy Award and a Hugo Award nominee.
A former television producer/director and genre movie publicist and consultant (the first three Hellraiser movies, Nightbreed, Split Second, etc.), he has edited and written more than seventy books, including the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Dark Terrors, and Fantasy Tales series. You can visit his website at www.herebedragons.co.uk/jones.
You're an established expert on horror fiction and movies. After all, you edit Best New Horror, and you've written The Essential Monster Movie Guide. How are American and British horror fiction different? How about American and British horror movies?
Stephen Jones: Good horror fiction shouldn't be different on either side of the Atlantic: when it works, horror at its best should genuinely scare or disturb the reader and/or viewer. That's the whole point of the genre -- to create a subjective feeling in your audience. However, having worked extensively with writers and filmmakers in both countries over the years, I have to admit that I find much "American horror" goes for the soft option -- the cheap scare or the twist ending. The best horror sustains that sense of unease throughout the entire narrative. Unfortunately, far too many writers working today seem to think that they can construct a story, a novel or a movie around a single idea -- and not always an original one at that -- and that's all it takes to succeed. I read literally hundreds of stories a year where nothing happens until the final couple of paragraphs. What's the point in that?
Of course, then there's the other school -- [those who] attempt to cram as much gratuitous sex and violence into every sentence and simply end up desensitizing their audience. As a generalization, I would have to say that "British horror" is usually more about ideas and more about pushing the envelope. America could never have made a film like Hellraiser or turned out a writer like Ramsey Campbell. But then again, could Britain have come up with The Exorcist or Robert Bloch? Horror, like any form of fiction, is shaped by the influences that surround it. Although both our countries share many things, horror on either side of the Atlantic is also a reflection of two very distinctive cultures and histories.
You read a ton of submissions of all your various anthologies. Without making you sound like a Playboy bunny, what are your turn-ons and turn-offs -- fictionwise, of course?
Stephen Jones: I guess I've touched on some in the above answer. Like a well-constructed movie, a good horror story must be filled with peaks and troughs so that the scares are spaced out through the narrative and have an impact on the reader when they come. As I said, it's no good leaving everything until the very end, nor can you expect anyone to plow through a never-ending catalogue of atrocities. My other personal "turn-offs" include unnecessary violence against children, gratuitous blending of sex and violence, or graphic descriptions of real events -- such as the Holocaust. More than anything, I'm looking for an entertaining story -- preferably based around a concept that is unfamiliar to me -- that is well written and well told. That's all it takes to grab my attention.
I also want a story to genuinely scare or disturb me, but not necessarily to revolt me. Horror does not need to be life affirming -- although it can be -- but it is a genre of commercial fiction and, as such, should at least be competently crafted and entertaining. Too many people forget about that in their rush to get their work down on paper. Oh, and for god's sake, read your story through a few times after it's finished for typos and mistakes. If a writer can't be bothered to check for even the most basic errors, why should I?
We've seen samples of your very detailed artwork. That's what got you into the field, right? Do you still have time to do that?
Stephen Jones: I actually got my start in the field writing nonfiction articles and contributing artwork to small press magazines. From there, some of the artwork began appearing in newsstand magazines and books. That was around the early- to mid-1970s. My two major influences were the pulp magazine artists Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok, and I would spend hours building up images on scraper-board using tiny dots and intricate cross-hatch. It was fun, and people seemed to like what I was doing. Unfortunately there is no money to be made in black and white illustration -- and I was not very good at painting -- and then there was no time to continue with the artwork once I started producing the books in the late 1980s. Perhaps if I ever retire, I'll be able to go back to the artwork. Of course, I'll probably be unable to even see the dots by then...!
Who are some of the rising stars on the U.K. fiction scene these days?
Stephen Jones: Mmmmmm. "Star" is a big word, and one I am loathe to use as a generalization. Of course, Ramsey Campbell is still a true "star" of horror, and James Herbert, Brian Lumley and Graham Masterton are amongst the most successful home-grown writers published in Britain. I don't think that there's anyone who can touch these guys in terms of sales at the moment. However, one of the most inventive and original writers we have is Kim Newman. Although his novels have been directed more towards science-fiction or the mainstream, I definitely think Michael Marshall Smith is one of horror's best stylists, and such writers as Christopher Fowler, Chaz Brenchley, Lisa Tuttle, Terry Lamsley, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane are all producing consistently fine work.
Of course, I realize that none of the writers I've mentioned can really be described as "rising stars" as they have all been around for quite a few years. Unfortunately, very few of the latest generation of British horror writers have yet to prove to me that they have the sustained talent to survive in the genre -- no matter how much they praise each other's work, give each other awards or have their work published in overpriced and over-rated small press editions! Probably the one person I would say has as good a chance as any of emerging as a serious talent is Tim Lebbon. He's been toiling away in the small press for several years, learning his craft, and although he has published far too much lately, if he ignores the hype and concentrates on improving his craft, then I think he'll remain in the field for the long run. More recently, I've just published the first story by a woman named Gala Blau -- who I know virtually nothing about. It's always great when you can introduce an entirely new author into the genre, and on the basis of her debut story I expect to see her make a genuine impact on the field if she decides to stick with it.
You've received some criticism online from people who have noticed that some volumes of Best New Horror have some of the same names in them. What are your thoughts on that?
Stephen Jones: Once again, see my answer to the previous question. There are only a certain number of writers working in this field who are genuinely talented. When you are putting together an annual collection such as Best New Horror, it is only to be expected that many of these writers will be included on a regular basis. Most of them have already proved their skill and expertise in anthologies and novels. That's not to say that I do not consider work by other writers -- of course I do, and nobody is more delighted than I am when I can include a name that is new to the series or perhaps unfamiliar to my readers. However, I only have a certain number of pages to fill, and when I am already looking at the work of the above names, plus people like Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Dennis Etchison, Poppy Z. Brite, Thomas Tessier, Caitlin R. Kiernan, David J. Schow, Richard Christian Matheson, Brian Hodge and numerous others, then you realize that any story by a relatively unknown writer has to be incredibly good to make the final selection. But of course that doesn't mean that it never happens. I always try to include up-and-coming or unfamiliar names in my anthologies. As I said earlier, that's one of the thrills I get from being an editor.
It would seem that horror is a soft market in Britain these days -- so many British horror magazines have folded. Do you think there will be a resurgence -- and if so, what would bring about that resurgence?
Stephen Jones: I think this is the resurgence. This is as good as it's going to get on both sides of the Atlantic. The market -- and indeed publishing in general -- has changed. The readership has changed. Horror itself has changed. We will never return to those halcyon days of the 1980s. All we can hope is that there are enough people out there who will still buy horror books and that mainstream publishers will continue to support them while there is some kind of an audience. The small presses are doing a wonderful job of training up new talent and keeping back titles in print but, make no mistake, they are doing nothing to promote horror to the wider mainstream readership. And if that market eventually dries up, then you can kiss the horror genre goodbye for good.
You've worked in the film industry as well as fiction. Do you see any sort of hand-in-hand relationship there? In what ways do they tie-in with each other, besides, say, movie novelizations?
Stephen Jones: There really is no hand-in-hand relationship between movies and books. Most producers have no concept of plot, dialogue or characterization. All they care about is "the idea." If you can sum the concept up in a -- preferably -- short sentence, you have a snappy title, and they manage to grasp what it's about -- hopefully because it's just like something else which was successful -- then you can probably sell your project to the movies or to television. Despite my background as a television director, my experience in the movies, and my various awards and expertise in this area, over the years I have wasted far too much of my time sitting in offices in Hollywood or London pitching strong, commercial and innovative horror projects to executives who are paid to take such meetings every day and wouldn't know a good idea if it bit them on the arse!
Generally in America, the book industry is considered East Coast, and the movie industry is considered West Coast, with the big money in films. Again, for our American readers, what's the situation in Britain, geographically/financially speaking?
Stephen Jones: The major players are still based in London -- both in publishing and films. As with America, because of buyouts and takeovers, there are now only a limited number of publishing houses you can try to sell your books to. Outside of the television stations, there is a small handful of independent British production companies who are probably backed by grants from the Arts Council or lottery money. These people seem to be obsessed with making parochially "British" films that, save for a very few notable exceptions, stand little or no chance of recouping their budgets in an international market place. Gone are the days when companies like Hammer, Amicus and Tigon could turn out low-budget yet classy-looking horror films which they could sell all over the world. No wonder talented people like Clive Barker and Peter Atkins moved to Hollywood. It may not be perfect, but at least they are getting some kind of support there for the type of films they want to make...
You are friends with Forrest J Ackerman, who wrote the introduction to your book, Essential Monster Movie Guide. Do you have any personal anecdotes about Forry?
Stephen Jones: While I remain friends with Harlan Ellison, I have to say I adore Forry. Like so many others of my generation, I grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland. It was a huge influence on me during the 1960s -- especially as I was not old enough to see most of the horror films released in Britain during the same period. I know it's become fashionable in recent years for some of the younger writers to criticize Forry and FM, especially the puns, but what they don't understand is that at that time it was pretty much the only game in town. It was the only place we could find out information about upcoming and classic films, or read articles by Robert Bloch and Joe Dante. Later magazines such as Castle of Frankenstein may have been more eclectic, but Forry and Famous Monsters were the first.
And let us not forget that Forry is one of our last direct contacts with the pulp era as well! I was on vacation with my parents in Los Angeles in the early 1970s when I first tried to contact Forry. I called his number every day, and every day I got his answering machine. Then, on the day before I was due to return home, he answered! He immediately invited me -- a teenage fan from Britain who he didn't know at all -- up to the Ackermansion for a guided tour and ended up taking me out to lunch as well! It was a wonderful kindness to a stranger, and I later learned that he had only returned from a convention in Australia the previous evening and was probably exhausted! Over the years we remained in contact: when I started writing, I sold my first set report to Famous Monsters and I later became the British editor to Forry's Monsterland. He invited me to conventions and to his birthday parties, and I even got to film him and the Ackermansion for a documentary I made for British television in the late 1980s. He had very kindly helped me out with research material on some of my previous movie books, so when it came time to put together my magnum opus on monster movies, Forry was the only person I could even consider to write the Introduction.
Forrest J. Ackerman is a national treasure in our genre. He has given so much to the field and influenced so many people. I simply can't understand those people who have been trying to make his life hell for the past few years. He should be prized, and deserves only to be lauded in my opinion.
Last question: Let's talk about your Stephen King movie book Creepshows. Who were the other contributors to the book?
Stephen Jones: Creepshows: The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide. This book looked at all the King movies and spin-offs, profusely illustrated in color and black and white with an Introduction by Mick Garris and contributions from Harlan Ellison, Frank Darabont, Dennis Etchison, Bernie Wrightson, and many other people connected with King's film and TV adaptations.
Sounds like you're pretty busy! Thank you, Stephen Jones, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.