Interview with Stephen Jones
Horror, Pure and Simple
Conducted by Matt Cardin, December 2006 – February 2007
Published at The Teeming Brain, October 2009
Stephen Jones has seen the future, and he doesn’t like it. In a career spanning two decades, the renowned anthologist and editor of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and dozens of additional titles has not only experienced the various ups and downs of horror publishing but has also helped to shape and define the genre itself.
And yet he sounds not so much like a horror editor as a dystopian visionary in the tradition of Bradbury, Orwell, and Huxley when he offers his extremely grim prognosis for the fate of books, literacy, public intelligence, and general cultural life in Britain and America. “The problem,” he writes in the introductory essay to The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #17, “is that almost nobody reads books any more — any books, let alone horror titles. . . . The problem is that we are producing too many books for an ever-decreasing readership. . . . With ever more technological advances flooding the market every day to distract us, and the growth of an apparently sub-literate population, how long can it be before the printed word goes the way of the vinyl record album? . . . [T]here may not be a mass-market horror field around in a decade’s time. But then again, there may not be such a thing as books either.”
I caught up with him at the 2006 World Fantasy Convention and, in a wide-ranging interview that spanned the next three months, asked him about these and many other things. The result is a candid conversation that reveals Jones’s thoughts on a variety of hot-button topics, including the present state and probable future of horror publishing; the collapse of public intelligence in a world saturated with mass media trivialities; the role of horror fiction in an increasingly dumbed-down and aliterate world; the value (or not) of new publishing methods such as blogs and print-on-demand technology; and his disagreement with Stephen King over the likely future of books and reading.
MC: Let’s start by talking about the current status of horror as a publishing category. It’s no secret, in fact it’s pretty much rote by now, that horror’s reputation has never recovered in the ongoing aftermath of the 1980s/1990s boom and bust. In the present mass market environment, the dreaded “H” word is all but anathema. Or at least it’s that way in American publishing. I’m not as intimately familiar with the British end of it. Does the same thing hold true on your native side of the pond?
SJ: It’s definitely true in British publishing. In fact, if anything it’s probably worse here. So far as most British publishers (and agents) are concerned, “horror” is pretty much a pejorative word. Interestingly, “terror” was always seen as the respectable term for “horror” (Boris Karloff famously preferred his work to be described as such). However, since the events of 9/11 and other atrocities of the 21st century, it is “terror” that has now become the word we can’t use on books, because of its media associations in the reading public’s mind with “terrorism.”
MC: And yet you stated in your panel comments at last year’s World Fantasy Convention that you remain loyal to those very words. The degraded status of horror, and also of the people who write it, was simply assumed as a matter of course at WFC. At times the attitude almost seemed like an invisible fog hovering in the hotel air. I verified this several times when I fell into conversation with assorted con attendees, all of them science fiction and fantasy writers, and had the temerity to mention my own orientation toward horror. One of them responded with a jibe that, while it was offered in good humor, still summed up the general attitude of disdain that reigned at the con: “You’re a horror writer? Good God, you’re even lower on the totem pole than romance and western writers!”
Now, I find this to be significant since WFC is commonly held up as the pulse-checking, trend-setting event for everything related to fantasy and speculative fiction, including horror. But in your panel comments on Saturday morning, you stated strongly that you like having the words “horror” and “terror” on the covers of your books, and that you have no intention of changing or getting rid of them. So, what gives? Why the loyalty to these terms in an increasingly inhospitable publishing environment?
SJ: Language is always changing. That’s what makes it so exciting. The labels or descriptions may vary — who remembers or cares about “Dark Fantasy” these days? — but the work remains the same. That’s why I have always remained true to my course. It’s what I do. “Horror,” pure and simple. That’s the reason I got into this business in the first place: my love for stories of the imagination and the macabre. Why would I want to pretend that I was doing anything else?
MC: Well, one obvious reply from a pragmatic point of view — and I’m playing devil’s advocate here — would be that horror isn’t widely marketable anymore when it’s labeled as such, so it’s wrong-headed, as in unrealistic, to cling to the label.
SJ: Remember, horror as a genre goes in and out of favour as the years pass. I’ve been doing this long enough now to have survived a number of peaks and troughs. The wheel turns, and horror is replaced by fantasy, or science fiction, or romance as the Next Big Thing — at least so far as the major publishers are concerned, which are the ones who have probably already reaped the financial benefits of any such boom and strip-mined its success until there’s nothing worthwhile left. But people are still out there reading horror. There are many publishers, albeit maybe the smaller houses, who are still publishing it. After all, it’s been around for a couple of centuries now, and it’s never gone away. Except in the minds of the publishers, editors and bean-counters at big businesses who are probably more interested in making a profit and protecting their own jobs than they are in marketing good fiction to the masses. It’s the publishing houses that are out of touch. Not the writers. Not the anthology editors. And certainly not the readers.
I love what I do. And I do it to the best of my ability. It’s my world — I live and breathe horror fiction every day. Why wouldn’t I be proud to stand up for a literary genre I wholeheartedly believe in, and want see my work proudly labeled as such? Publishers, imprints, editors, designers, marketing people all come and go. The work will always survive in one form or another.
MC: How do you think it’s come about that the publishing houses have gotten so far out of step with everybody else?
“Why wouldn’t I be proud to stand up for a literary genre I wholeheartedly believe in, and want see my work proudly labeled as horror?”
SJ: Today we live in a world of knee-jerk reactions: “If this doesn’t work, let’s immediately change it!” “We don’t understand this, make it more like something else!” “There’s no market for this, so do that instead!” We see it in TV all the time — a new show barely has time to establish itself before it’s yanked from the ratings. It’s never allowed any time to grow and develop. And these days it’s the same with books and authors. Nothing angers me more than a publisher forcing a writer to change their by-line because their previous books may not have done as well as hoped, or hyped.
MC: Has anybody ever challenged you on this point for being an idealist who refuses to acknowledge the concrete, practical realities of the contemporary publishing business?
SJ: It has occasionally come up as a question on panels, but I don’t think anybody has ever “challenged” me as such. After all, it’s up to me if I want to be an “idealist.” I have to work hard to get the projects I do, and being a full-time anthology editor and nonfiction writer is not the easiest way to make a living wage. If it truly was only about the money, I’d be far better off working for the Post Office or in a bank. But I have no interest in those types of careers.
It’s hard. Very hard sometimes. But the rewards are so much more. There’s still no better thrill for me than having a new book published.
MC: Your comments about the career aspect lead right into my next question. At WFC I told one of the attendees, an up-and-coming horror writer who apparently doesn’t like to label herself as such, about your panel comments in defense of the words “horror” and “terror,” and her immediate gut reaction was to regard such a stance as unrealistic, unwarranted, and unfortunate. I was a bit taken aback. I mean, I had mentioned it to her in the expectation of solidarity, of receiving a response along the lines of “Right on, brother!” But instead her reaction was the complete opposite. Of course, she was looking at it from a career-planning point of view. She thought it would be professional suicide to cling stubbornly to labels that aren’t “working.” So I’m curious about what you’d say to people like her who think the strategic relabeling of fiction to correspond to “market realities” is simply prudent, and that writers who refuse to accept this are sabotaging their careers.
SJ: I think that’s an absolutely valid point — for some people. Just not for me, personally. There’s nothing wrong with being a “working” author. I mean working in any genre or doing any kind of writing that pays you money. It’s simply not something that I am interested in doing.
When talking to new or up-and-coming writers, I always tell them to think about how they want to structure their careers. In the years to come, if they stay in this business long enough — and it is a business — they’ll have to look back on what they did and how they achieved their goals, and they should be happy with the choices they made.
I know that I am. We all do work for different reasons — for money, or to advance our careers. I understand that. We also all have to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. I simply try to remain true to the genre that I have embraced and which seems to have embraced me. Having said that, I always try to do my very best work no matter what the project, and I aim to push the boundaries of the genre when and where I can. Let’s face it, when you’re working on books with titles like The Mammoth Book of Vampires or The Mammoth Book of Monsters, you have to try to do something a little bit different for your own sense of satisfaction as well as that of the reader.
I’ve turned down work in the past — very lucrative work — because I just wasn’t particularly interested in doing it. I’ve also tried my hand at projects simply because I wanted to stretch myself a little. Have I hurt my career by being selective? Maybe. Probably. But it’s my career and so it’s my decision how I want it to evolve.
When I look back over the books and other stuff I’ve done, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. Of course, I have a few regrets. There’s stuff I could or would have done better given more time or money. But I’m proud of my choices, as I’m sure are those writers or editors who follow the most lucrative markets without any thought to which genre they’re working in. We just have different career plans, that’s all.
MC: We’ve been talking mainly about horror as a publishing and marketing category, but there is of course another side to it as well, the side you alluded to when you mentioned that horror has been around for a couple hundred years now. I think it’s important to distinguish between horror as a centuries-old literary genre and horror as a modern publishing category whose birth coincided roughly with the appearance of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Whenever people talk about the horror bust, they automatically assume they’re talking about the latter aspect, if indeed they recognize the distinction at all. But might there be something more fundamental going on? Do you sense any sort of bias in the present-day publishing business not just against horror as a label, but against horror itself, as a genre? If so, do you think it’s simply bleed-over from the business and marketing side or is there something else at work?
SJ: We live in strange times. As I mentioned earlier, “terror” is no longer a word we can use in the same context as before. Moral majorities, religious fundamentalism, self-proclaimed protectors of decency are everywhere these days. Following the knee-jerk hysteria in the wake of 9/11, I thought perhaps we would see horror targeted in the same way that it was in the 1970s and ’80s, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. If anything, the genre seems to have been left alone. Maybe there are more obvious targets these days.
However, there are still crazy people out there who are happy to burn copies of the latest Harry Potter book or take Mark Twain off school library shelves. And although I’m sure they include any horror titles they find in their fanatical purgings, I’m relieved that they haven’t come after the genre as a whole. Yet. That’s not to say they won’t eventually, which is why we must always remain vigilant. At the moment, I don’t think horror is even on their radar, although I was disturbed that so many Halloween festivities were cancelled by “concerned groups” in 2006. There’s definitely the atmosphere in place for a moral backlash sometime soon.
As for the publishing business, I don’t think they care very much. If horror continues to sell, whether it’s labeled as such, then they’re reasonably content. As soon as sales drop below a certain level, they’ll move their budgets into another genre. Obviously, if enough people protested about horror as a genre, then the publishers might possibly rethink their strategy. But at the moment the genre is really too small to worry about. Also, it’s still doing well in movies and on television, so there’s enough of an audience out there to keep it ticking over, even in a small way. If there was ever a big enough market for it again, you’d soon see the major publishers putting a “horror” label on their book spines again. They really are that cynical.
MC: This whole line of thought — sales figures and audience size and such — brings me to the second major tangent I want to pursue with you, namely, the paired phenomena of creeping aliteracy and plummeting book sales. I was absolutely riveted at WFC when I heard you talk about the declining levels of readership across the board in Britain and America, and about the way this is affecting the writing and publishing industry. Then just a week or two after I returned from the convention, I read your year’s-end summary in the new edition of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and was again riveted when I saw you take up the same theme. You even speculated there that given current trends, the profession of “writer” might one day, in a logically foreseeable future, become a quaint historical curiosity along the lines of other defunct professions like the lamplighters in gaslit cities of a bygone era. Obviously, this is an issue that’s of great concern to you, and it’s a concern that’s shared by many other people as well. Would you please share your thoughts about these matters? Maybe restate what you said in your year’s-end summary? Or even just quote yourself wholesale if you want, since your words deserve the largest possible audience.
SJ: It’s simple, really. You only have to do the math. Most kids are leaving school sub-literate these days, whatever the official figures claim. Exams are being dumbed down. The days when I left school with a solid grounding in Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austin and Geoffrey Chaucer are, apparently, long gone. How many kids read Mark Twain anymore, let alone L. Frank Baum?
Almost nobody reads these days. There are too many other distractions: cell phones, Playstations, reality TV. It’s exactly what Aldous Huxley predicted in Brave New World: it’s all a form of “soma” to keep the masses happy so they don’t complain while the troops are sent off to fight pointless wars — which seem to be planned like video games themselves — crime rates rocket out of control, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, animals are driven to extinction and the planet is gradually destroyed by a couldn’t-care-less mankind.
In the old days, we used to get our information from words. For instance, we would read a book about global warming and understand its implications. Or, at the very least, we would look at an article in the newspaper that would present the salient facts, which we could think about and maybe discuss with others. Nowadays, in Britain, at least, newspapers have become part of the “dumbing down” process. Here we now have “lite” newspapers that are more like MTV newsbites for people who don’t want to read about anything in-depth. And what they read about is the latest gossip surrounding such empty vessels as Paris, Britney, Lindsay or Angelina. They aren’t actually learning anything — except how not to behave in public and what the latest fashion accessory is. Television is no better, with most major news programmes now presented as if they were a coffee afternoon.
Now apply all that to fiction. With successive generations leaving school unable or unwilling to read, progressively fewer people are buying books — except, of course, much-needed self-help volumes and witless biographies about people who have barely lived a life yet. That attrition applies to all books. Now remember that horror is just a very, very small part of the overall industry, so the percentage of people who actually pick up a horror title — and, God help us, anthologies account for an even smaller percentage of that figure — is probably miniscule compared to worldwide sales. To make matters worse, figures seem to indicate that publishers on both sides of the Atlantic are publishing more titles in a vain attempt to capture that elusive reading public. So now you have the publishers dumbing down their books for a dumbed-down readership. Add to that the fact that corporate takeovers have consolidated the number of major publishers into a handful of mega-corporations around the world, which means that choice is ever more limited, and the book chains will only discount those titles that are pre-ordained to be “bestsellers.” And you can see how it’s all a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen.
The publishing industry simply cannot sustain its current level of output forever. More books and less readers means that, eventually, the industry will implode. They can’t keep throwing money at “celebrity” biographies or facile how-to books in the hope that one title may become a best seller. In the end, the whole pack of cards will come tumbling down and that’s when the cutbacks will begin. And guess where those cuts will happen first? That’s right, not with the bloated volumes of disposable garbage that they have over-hyped and over-paid for, but with the genre titles, the new writers, the collections and anthologies. All those areas that they perceive to be losing money on because they’ve never supported them as they should have.
It’s a depressing scenario, but more than likely to happen at the moment. Of course, the small presses can and will pick up some of the slack but, let’s face it, most writers and especially anthology editors can’t survive on the kind of money paid by the smaller publishers. And you can forget print-on-demand — there’s no money in that at all. So I can foresee a time when the writing of genre fiction will have reverted to a “gentlemanly” hobby, much as it was in the 19th century, to be indulged in only by the independently wealthy or a dedicated few who can squeeze it in after work or while bringing up a family.
Of course, it could be worse. You could be a poet!
“The publishing industry simply cannot sustain its current level of output forever. More books and less readers means that, eventually, the industry will implode. It’s a depressing scenario, but more than likely to happen at the moment.”
MC: What you say about the decline of reading resonates with a lot of forceful cultural criticism that’s been written over the past couple of decades, such as Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education as Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,” and Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America. These authors and many more have pointed to the precipitous rise of a culture based on consumerism and entertainment, and the attendant decline of reading and thinking skills among huge swaths of the population. The consensus diagnosis is that the dominant culture has become increasingly barbaric and moronic as its attitudes and thought patterns have been shaped more and more by television and its spin-offs — such as the idiotized newspapers you mentioned — and less by books and other printed matter composed of words with serious propositional content.
SJ: And it’s the same wherever you go. As you know, I travel between Europe and North America quite often, and wherever you go these days you meet people who can’t string a coherent sentence together, who are unable to express an intelligent thought, and who apparently think that texting and language are the same thing!
Okay, so I may be exaggerating. Slightly. But this basic lack of linguistic understanding — and more, a basic lack of ability to use language — is definitely filtering down to book buying, and also to other media.
MC: As you pointed out, this is all eerily reminiscent of Huxley’s prophetic warning, and also of Orwell’s, Bradbury’s, and others. How do you think such a thing has come about when these warnings already existed and were even hailed as classics?
SJ: It’s a vicious circle. How many young people do you think read Orwell, or Huxley, or even Bradbury these days? Let alone great social thinkers like Wells. The warnings are all there — but people have to read them to be made aware of them.
The blame lies with the parents and successive governments. The parents, because they are probably not readers themselves and have never passed that skill or pleasure on to their children. The governments, because they have repeatedly cut reading programmes in schools, dumbed down exams and withdrawn funds from public libraries. Governments are supposed to lead by example. And let’s face it, the current resident of the White House is hardly a shining example of literacy.
Of course, there will always be those families, however few, who still encourage their children to read and enjoy books, and these are our hope for a new generation of book-buyers, not to mention a new generation of authors. I don’t see books disappearing altogether, but I do believe that fiction, as opposed to “popularist” titles, will become, if it hasn’t already, a very small sub-section of the publishing industry.
I hope I’m wrong about this. But unless parents and governments make a concerted effort to get kids to read, I can only see the situation growing worse.
MC: Given your insider position in the contemporary publishing industry, what do you think is a productive response this trend? Can anything at all be done to reverse or mitigate it?
SJ: Of course it can. As New Labour said when they came to power here in the late 1990s: Education. Education. Education. If you can start getting children to read at an early age, and then give them books that they will actually enjoy, then they will hopefully remain readers into their adult lives. And a small number of those people may want to become writers themselves. That’s the only way the various literary fields can grow.
I’m always trying to bring new blood — excuse the obvious pun! — into the horror field, but it’s particularly hard nowadays because the standard of literacy is so low. This is never more obvious than in the quality of the manuscripts I receive or the self-published books I have to read each year for The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. You only have to look at the current fad for “blogging” to realise how low our literary standards have fallen over the past couple of decades.
MC: Many people still reject the idea that reading and literacy are declining. In November of 2006, for example, Forbes.com carried a special report that argued quite the opposite. “The future of publishing,” they said, “is brim-full of reasons to be optimistic. People are reading more, not less. The Internet is fueling literacy. Giving books away online increases off-line readership. New forms of expression — wikis, networked books — are blossoming in a digital hothouse.” What’s your response?
SJ: Numbers can always be manipulated to support any argument. If people are reading more instead of less — and that’s certainly not my own experience — then it’s important to ask what exactly they’re reading. Puzzle books? Self-help? Is the Internet really fueling literacy or merely allowing people to select bite-sized pieces of information at the touch of a keyboard? Why read a whole book when you can get all you need to know about a title by Googling it? I’m all for giving books away, but it’s just a drop in the ocean. And digital books, like print-on-demand, are basically a waste of time.
A book is also a physical thing. It’s tactile. It has pages, a cover. Sometimes it has a distinctive smell. It can be held. Loved. Cherished. Collected. You can’t do that with an e-book. Again, this is something that I personally like and crave about the whole reading experience. There’s nothing better than settling down with a good, well-made book.
MC: You’re reminding me of something Stephen King said in his Entertainment Weekly column last December when he was discussing his ten favorite books of 2006.
SJ: I hate those lists he does for Entertainment Weekly. It always seems like lazy column writing to me. I much prefer his more general articles. Of course, if this were an email, here’s where I’d insert a “smiley” emoticon.
MC: He said that when he was out on his tour to promote Lisey’s Story, he encountered people everywhere who were anxious about the fate of books in modern society. “One question,” he said, “cropped up again and again: Do I believe books have any real future as entertainment in a world stuffed with so much good TV, so many loaded DVDs, and such a bumper crop of big-budget movies?” His answer was an unequivocal, enthusiastic yes, based on such things as the technological simplicity of books, their ease of transport, and their ability to “furnish a room.” I find this noteworthy not only because he disagreed with your gloomy view of the future but also because he met people all over America who recognized and worried about the possibility of serious troubles. Have you seen the same thing in your own frequent travels? You’ve said you’re encountering more and more signs of linguistic degeneration and aliteracy. Are you also running into people who know there’s a problem?
SJ: Remember, Steve was on a book-signing tour. Those of us toiling on the lower rungs of the genre don’t get many of those any more (another “smiley” face). So his audience was primarily readers — and of course there would be a certain amount of interest amongst such a group about the future of the written word.
But if you cast your net wider, amongst the general population who rarely read a cereal packet, let alone a newspaper, I suspect you would be met by a sea of apathy. The question would never even occur to them. They’re probably not even aware that there is a crisis looming for books, simply because they rarely, if ever, open one.
Except for people who belong to those odious book circles, where it seems to me that you’re taught what to think about a current “best-seller” rather than being allowed to form your own opinion, I don’t think there’s much water-cooler talk about books these days. The latest reality TV crap, yes. The new blockbuster movie, of course. Britney’s lack of underwear, certainly. But books? No chance.
As I said earlier, it’s simply the world we live in now. There’s no use in whining and complaining. All we can do is get on with it and hopefully reach the audience that is still out there . . . for now, at least.
MC: Speaking of Stephen King, what did you think of his receiving the National Book Foundation award? Some people, such as Howard Bloom, talked like it was a milestone in the history of literature’s demise. Others thought it was exactly the opposite and regarded it as a great and liberating moment in American letters. Personally, I’m somewhat conflicted and don’t know what to make of it, since I do believe the distinction between literary and popular fiction is a valid one, at least conceptually. But one thing I’m not conflicted about are King’s remarks in his acceptance speech, which I thought were brilliant and struck just the right note.
SJ: I thought it was brilliant that they gave him the award! God knows, few other contemporary writers deserve more recognition for promoting literacy — whether or not it is perceived to be “literary” or “popular.” Obviously, the National Book Foundation award doesn’t have the same resonance here as it may do in the United States, but I personally agree with Neil Gaiman’s comments about Howard Bloom: he’s a pompous ass! I would expect no other response from the so-called literary cognizanti to a writer as popular as King. You only have to look at the book titles that get reviewed by national newspapers, especially here in Britain, to understand just how out-of-touch most critics are with the general reading public. Oh, and for the record, I thought Steve’s acceptance speech was perfect.
MC: Since you’ve forged a career specifically in the arena of horror publishing, do you have any thoughts about the value that horror itself might have in this present age of literary dis-ease? Does horror fiction have any kind of special contribution to make? I know people have been debating the question of horror’s literary role and value for decades, but I’m asking about the way it might figure into the present situation of dumbing-down and rising aliteracy.
SJ: I’ve said this many times before, and I’m happy to reiterate: good horror fiction is amongst the most imaginative types of fiction there are.
Now, let’s look at that statement. First of all, we are talking about fiction, which is hardly an earth-shattering area of literature to begin with. Leaving aside the nonfiction books about the genre for a moment, most of the material produced under the horror banner is, by nature, pure entertainment.
As readers, we simply want to be entertained. To be transported for a few hours to a world where the supernatural or whatever happens. Where the thrills and chills of a roller coaster ride last for more than a few minutes.
Sure, an author can say something about the human condition in such a story. After all, good horror fiction is grounded in the world around us. But in the end it’s just a story and, as such, succeeds or fails based on the skill of the writer and the ability of the plot to transport the reader to a darker, scarier world.
Note that I’m talking about good horror fiction. That’s because there is so much of the other sort around, the pap that’s churned out to fill paperback racks in drugstores and airports, and that will, if it’s lucky, have a shelf life of two or three weeks before another embossed and foiled cover takes its space. Or there’s those self-published, print-on-demand collections of gratuitous, misogynistic serial-killer stories in which the author likes to describe — in graphic, if not particularly literate, detail — how to disembowel a pretty young victim.
This latter type of horror fiction, which is especially nasty and unpleasant, has now leaked into the movie world with such films as the Saw series and the Hostel series, which do the horror genre no favours whatsoever. Sure, at the moment there’s a market of teenage gorehounds out there who lap up this kind of stuff. A lot of movie studios and book publishers are making their money off it. But that audience won’t be around forever, and both they and most of the stuff they read and watch will one day be forgotten.
You see, it’s the good horror that invariably survives. The clever and, God help us, original plots. The stylists — writers who know how to construct an impressive sentence or describe a scene without resorting to a string of crude expletives or tedious clichés. Those authors who genuinely wish to tell a story, to take the reader on a journey, rather than simply describe a list of gruesome events in anatomical detail.
Don’t get me wrong. I think gore and violence sometimes have a place in horror fiction, and often an important one, but only if they’re handled with intelligence and style. Bad horror fiction — and we all have our own definition of that term — is what adds to the current state of dumbing-down and rising aliteracy, and although many authors have said, and can say, something important in their fiction, at the end of the day it’s still there to entertain, and, as such, doesn’t really have any valuable contribution to make beyond its ability to do just that.
MC: I certainly see what you’re saying, but I can’t say I fully agree with you since I suspect that horror fiction can have a central significance beyond that of entertainment. I think, for example, of Ray Bradbury, whose Fahrenheit 451 has proved to be perhaps the most significant of the dystopian classics since it appears that we’re now well on our way to becoming the society he warned about, minus the book-burning, which isn’t really necessary since, as Ray himself pointed out just a few years ago, you can destroy a culture without burning books if you’ll just get people to stop reading them. But anyway, Ray started out as a horror writer. He was influenced by Weird Tales and Lovecraft and all that, and his first fiction collection was published by Arkham House. Then during the period when he produced one of the great dystopian novels of all time, he also worked some of its ideas into brilliant horror stories like “Usher II” and “Pillar of Fire,” which examine the fate of horror fiction and film in the same future world where Fahrenheit 451 is set.
Do you think it’s possible that any present-day horror fiction could do something like that? Do you know of any writers who are doing something like that?
SJ: Are you seriously claiming that stories like those have changed the way we live our lives? I don’t think so. Good science fiction, like good horror, can reflect what is happening in the real world, although SF has the added advantage of then postulating how that world will change or affect the future. Most contemporary horror is grounded in the here-and-now and, as such, it can only hold up a mirror to the madness that surrounds us today. But as to whether even the best horror stories have the ability to set about changing the way most people think, I seriously doubt it.
“Bad horror fiction adds to the current state of dumbing-down and rising aliteracy. It’s alive and thriving in the paperback racks.”
MC: I’m not saying Bradbury’s or anybody else’s stories have necessarily changed the way we live. In the case of dystopian fiction, quite the opposite. I remember reading and agreeing with an essay a year or two ago titled “The Failure of Fahrenheit 451,” which examines the failure of the novel to prevent the imagined future it warned about. But I do think good SF, horror, and other types of fiction, both genre and non-genre, can inform our lives — for example, by giving us a vocabulary and set of concepts by which to understand and talk about these very things like we’re doing right now. So in the case of horror, its ability to “mirror the madness,” as you neatly put it, is pretty close to what I was getting at. I wasn’t thinking of a strictly utilitarian value.
SJ: All right, but I still maintain that fiction is first and foremost an entertainment business. And any subtext or moral observations that can be incorporated into any writing are obviously to be welcomed, but I believe that if they work at all, they work in a very subtle way. The first book edition of Ray’s Fahrenheit 451 was published the year I was born. It was a chilling look at a possible dystopian future. Now here we are, more than fifty years later, and they’re still burning books in some areas of the United States and Britain. As you point out, it was a warning that went unheeded.
More importantly, let’s just face it, the kind of morons who burn books in public are unlikely to have read Bradbury’s work in the first place. This comes back to everything I’ve been saying — if you deny people books, even fiction, you deny people knowledge. And without knowledge, some people have no moral compass.
MC: We’ve covered a lot of ground here, much more than I had expected. To return this conversation to its beginning, and to try to draw together its various strands, I’d like to ask you to comment on some of your own words from more than a decade ago. Back in 1995, in your introduction to the sixth edition of The Best New Horror, you said there was “little doubt that the genre is in for a rough ride over the next few years.” You placed most of the responsibility for the genre’s downturn on the publishers themselves, who, as you saw it, had flooded the market with inferior material in a shameless attempt to cash in on the horror boom. You lamented the fact that such inferior work “is the type of fiction that the majority of people apparently want to read. You only have to compare the sales figures for these kinds of books with those of works by many of the field’s most critically acclaimed authors to realise that quality does not necessarily equal success in the world of literature.” And you predicted that despite those high sales figures, the horror market was looking ahead at a long-term slump once the financial flame of the ephemeral material had burned itself out, since such low-quality material simply can’t sustain the genre. You also talked briefly about the small press, describing it as a venue where “writers and artists with little or no talent (and even less professional experience) are lionised to the point of adulation.”
You closed your remarks by saying, “The majority of horror fiction currently being published is woefully lacking in both originality and the ability to inspire any emotion whatsoever in the reader. How can we expect others to take horror seriously when we ourselves cannot, or will not, take responsibility for what we are writing and reading? Until we can get our own genre in order, any prospective growth in the horror market looks very unlikely indeed.”
A lot has happened since then, including the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web, the rise of reality TV and POD and other things we’ve talked about here, and all sorts of additional large- and small-scale cultural transformations in Britain and America. Looking back on your 1995 comments and predictions from your present vantage point, how do you think they’ve played out?
SJ: Boy, I haven’t read those words since that book came out. I think that was a pretty good prediction of the way the field was heading and I still stand by every word I said. If anything, it’s become worse.
Of course, we don’t have quite the same number of terrible horror books being published today, but you only have to look at some of the titles being churned out by Leisure and a few of the other bottom-feeder publishers to realize that bad horror is alive and still thriving on the paperback stacks. Hell, it’s even being pushed out there by the bigger houses, but they just pretend it’s mainstream fiction rather than putting the dreaded “H” word on it.
The small presses continue to churn out sub-standard books by supposedly “cult” authors — which really means they can’t sell to the mainstream houses — that have to be tricked up with all sorts of limitations and fancy bindings to appeal to the vanity of the authors and the avarice of the book-buyer. I don’t see many of the smaller imprints taking a chance on new or up-and-coming writers when they can make a quick buck off yet another variant edition of some well-known author’s work.
And one has only to look at the joke the Bram Stoker Awards have become to realize that nepotism and cronyism are alive and well and flourishing in the Horror Writers Association. Anybody who thinks the majority of these annual nominations and awards accurately reflect the standard of excellence in the horror genre is seriously deluding himself. Occasionally the odd worthy title somehow squeezes its way through the balloting system, but for the most part these awards, and others like them in our field, are little more than an exercise in blatant venality.
Then you have such wastes-of-time as print-on-demand, blogging and personal websites, which were not really around when I originally wrote those words. Print-on-demand is the last-ditch effort of somebody to get their work published. You won’t make money from it, and nobody will really treat you seriously. If something is not worth being published by a real imprint, no matter how small that imprint may be, then the world is probably telling you that it’s not very good in the first place, matter how much you want to delude yourself to the contrary. And as for those established authors who allow their backlist titles to appear in PoD format, I think they are doing themselves and their work a disservice. I was taught many years ago that the most important thing a writer or editor can do is hold on to the copyright to their work. That’s where your future is. That’s where you hopefully reap your rewards for all that hard work you put in. To throw all that away on an invariably overpriced and under-designed book that nobody but a handful of people are going to see is a tragic waste of time and talent.
Meanwhile, all those “writers” who spend countless hours and thousands of empty words talking about themselves and their “careers” on their blogs and websites might do themselves a favor and learn from H.P. Lovecraft’s mistakes. He spent so much time corresponding with friends and acquaintances that his own fiction suffered as a consequence. Rather than talking about themselves or pushing their half-formed “opinions” out to a disinterested world, they would do better to spend that otherwise wasted time working on their writing and honing their skills as an author. That way, they may actually accomplish something eventually and, more to the point, have something of interest to say. But, of course, it’s much easier to type a stream-of-consciousness rant than it is to craft a clever or empowering sentence.
MC: Finally, what projects are you working on right now? I know you’re a man who always has many irons in the fire.
SJ: Well, my compilation of Rudyard Kipling stories, The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales, has just come out from Gollancz’s “Fantasy Masterworks” series with an Introduction by Neil Gaiman and an extensive Afterword by me. Then the next two anthologies, Summer Chills and The Mammoth Book of Monsters, feature some excellent new and reprint stories. I also edited Travellers in Darkness, the hardcover souvenir book for World Horror Convention 2007 in Toronto, Canada, which is a mix of stories and nonfiction. I wrote the text for the “making of” Stardust book, which will tie into the release of the movie based on the graphic story by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess. And, of course, there’s always The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. The eighteenth volume is published this year, and with the twentieth edition only a couple of years away we have something a little special planned.
Further into the future, I have a major Lovecraft project I’m working on, a couple of new books for PS Publishing and, if I ever find the time, I’d like to finish my guide to Mexican monster movies, which I’ve been writing on-and-off now for several years.
I guess I just hope that I can continue to entertain people with my books, and that I can give a little something back to a genre that I have loved and enjoyed all my life. That’s really all I ask for. I realize now that I’m never going to be a best-seller, or the “next big thing,” but as I approach my 100th title I don’t think I’ve done too badly, really.