Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror, March 1990
Unlike Stephen King (four book attempts before Carrie) or John Saul (ten novel attempts before Suffer the Children), Robert R. McCammon apparently did it right his first time out. For even though he intended to make his career in writing as a journalist, no one was more surprised than he when that first attempt at a novel, Baal, was published in 1978. McCammon was all of twenty-six. Since that time he has published nine more novels and a growing body of acclaimed short stories, recently collected in Blue World. The novels include Bethany's Sin, The Night Boat, They Thirst, Mystery Walk, Usher's Passing, Swan Song, Stinger, The Wolf's Hour, and this year's Mine. Although his popular novels are yet to be filmed by Hollywood, two of his short stories ("Makeup" and "Nightcrawlers") were adapted for the television series "Darkroom" and "The Twilight Zone," respectively. In its original form, or as it was adapted for television, "Nightcrawlers" is one of the most terrifying examinations of the power of the human mind to bring into reality its own worst nightmares.
Regardless of the usual cliches that go along with being labeled a creator of tales of fear, in person the soft-spoken Rick McCammon more accurately represents the finer qualities embodied by the phrase a Southern gentleman. (Admittedly yet another stereotype, but certainly an admirable one.) His consideration of other writers in the field extends back to 1984 when he originated the idea for the Horror Writers of America, a professional guild which currently has some 400 members. One of the reasons McCammon started the organization was the belief that horror writers needed to "have a place they could call home," in the manner of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America. Like the organization he founded, McCammon's career has been growing at a rapid rate, with the end nowhere in sight.
He still lives in his native city of Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife Sally, and his work has often been critically recognized as possessing a depth and a maturity which belies the author's age. Booklist has described him as, "A true master of the gothic novel." Perhaps one of the ultimate signs of this writer's popularity is evidenced by the newsletter (Lights Out!) devoted to the man and his writings. Even though he feels he is just beginning to reach his stride as an author, book-length critical examinations of his work are already in-progress.
Wiater: When you went to college, it was to major in journalism. You had no intention at that point of becoming a novelist?
McCammon: When I finished school, it was when All the President's Men came out, and everybody wanted to be a reporter, so I couldn't find a job as one. I found a job in the advertising department of a local department store. It was a terrible job and wasn't what I really wanted to do. So I realized the only thing I could do was to try to write a novel. I'd entertained the idea of writing one, but never thought I'd be successful at it. Because who really thinks they can be successful with a first novel? And whoever thinks they can write something someone will buy and like? So I was just astounded when my first novel was bought. And I'm still astounded, because I really don't think Baal is a very good book, though it was the best I could do at the time. It mirrored a lot of what I was feeling, because at the time I was very angry, very frustrated and upset about a lot of things.
Wiater: Was it a conscious decision to write a horror novel, or was that simply a subject you thought had a chance of selling?
McCammon: Yes, it was something that had always been my interest, and I think it's the most difficult question to answer: Why do you write horror? I don't know what went into me to make me write horror. But I had the same interests as you—I read Famous Monsters of Filmland when I was a kid, and loved collecting all those. I went to monster movies. But monster movies scared me [laughs]! They scared me to death when I was a kid—I just couldn't watch 'em! So maybe now, by writing horror novels, I'm forcing myself to watch—to sit and look at—things I was fearful of as a kid.
Wiater: Tell me some of your early influences.
McCammon: With the exception of Ray Bradbury, I can't honestly say I was influenced by anybody as much as I just liked to read. People may say, "I was influenced by this writer and I was influenced by that writer," but I believe horror writers are really influenced most of all by their childhoods. I wonder if most horror writers had happy childhoods. I wonder if things have happened that made us this way—it seems like we're always trying to get back to our childhood. Trying to find something we lost, or correct something we missed. Or purge it. Perhaps you can purge something in a book, and it seems to come back to you. I don't know what that is; perhaps that's just our bent as horror writers.
Wiater: Unlike some authors who have reached a noticeable degree of success in this field, you don't seem to be embarrassed to be primarily recognized as "Robert McCammon, horror writer." I ask this because I've had others tell me that what they really write are "novels of fear" or "dark fantasy." Anything so as not to be considered a writer of horror.
McCammon: Well, I'm not embarrassed. In fact, I'm very pleased to be associated with the field. I'm very pleased with what horror can be for its millions of fans. I think those labels like dark fantasy are glossing over what horror really is. I think it's a gut-level kind of writing, and on-the-edge kind of writing. Horror is also really neat because it's always redefining itself. So I'm extremely pleased to be a horror writer, and would be willing to shout it from the rooftops that I love horror and that I love what I do.
Wiater: That may work for you, but others have declared that they don't wish to be so labeled—that it limits their careers to be thought of as horror writers, even though they don't deny it's an area of fiction in which they excel.
McCammon: The problem is not in the writing, or in the writers. The problem is with the publishers. They see horror as primarily a book with some scary elements, and they market it from that narrow perspective. But there's so many different kinds of horror, and so many things going on in horror fiction, that it's very hard to define. But the publishers will try to define it in terms of the marketplace, and will push whatever works. I think it's the writer's responsibility to push the boundaries of what a publisher may feel is "horror fiction." It's the writer who should really get in there and try to do different things within the genre, and push those boundaries. And in that way, he'll eventually reeducate the publishers—and the audience—as to what horror fiction is.
I'm not sure myself what horror is. But I know it's not just one thing; it's not just Friday the 13th or The Shining and it's not just Weaveworld. It's all those elements—and more.
Wiater: Critics say that the genre will never be taken seriously because it doesn't deal with real events or real people. You should be writing on a "serious" topic.
McCammon: [angrily] Yeah, that really ticks me off. Because to me, hell, horror is real. I don't think I or my colleagues could write it if we didn't think it was a serious subject. I take that as a great insult when somebody says, "When are you going to write something serious?" But this is real—it's about life and death! You know, people who ask that question have never read horror—they don't know a damn thing about it! And they probably don't know much about...anything.
Because horror writing has always seemed to me a very liberal, forward-thinking kind of literature that is not afraid to shake things up. It's not afraid to be nasty. It's not afraid. It's just not afraid. And isn't that what art is all about? Horror fiction can be—is—art. Now art may not necessarily be pleasant or nice to look at. And yet, to me, the beauty of horror is that there's so many ways to go, there's so many areas still left undiscovered and unexplored.
Wiater: Are there any taboo areas that you won't touch in your work for risk of being too offensive? In other words, can there be a concept as "bad taste" in horror fiction?
McCammon: I don't believe there can be such a thing as bad taste. There can only be bad writing. You can have the most outrageous scene with the most extreme violence and handle it in such a way that it'll be extremely excruciating—but there'll be no blood. So I don't think there can be any bad taste in creating a scene, only bad writing in handling it.
Wiater: A major theme in your work is that, no matter how awful the situation may be, your characters always retain the hope that they will somehow reach the end of the darkness or the chaos. But don't you feel the most effective horror lies in dealing with situations which eventually fade to utter black?
McCammon: But how do you mean "effective"? I tell stories which are effective to me in terms of hope. But then someone else might want to tell a story in terms of hopelessness. But my key word is hope; I think there's hope in any situation. And that's what motivates my characters to do what they do, because they think, "There's a way out of this mess...." or, "There's a way I can transform myself personally..." Again, one voice may want to deal with horror from this perspective, while another may want to focus on the darkness. I have different tones in my stories, and hope is not always the right tone, but the element of hope is in most of my work.
Wiater: You've been described as a writer whose strength lies in bringing life to his characters rather than just finding the ways of gruesomely destroying them. Do you feel others are attempting to create more than just "books with scary elements"?
McCammon: You know, I think horror writers are now like that Bohemian society in Paris in 1920s, where everybody had their own style of art, and their own philosophy about art. This one was experimenting in cubism, and this one in naturalism.... But what they were really all talking about was the same thing—they were really talking about art. So it doesn't matter whether we talk today about quiet horror or splatterpunk because there's a great horror within all these voices. And I know I'm trying to sound diplomatic, but I'm not: I enjoy all these spectrums, and there's room for all of them. So to say, "Well, there should only be quiet horror, no blood and guts," or that it should be the other way around, diminishes the field. Diminishes the force of horror itself. It may be that horror is forever undefinable. It will always have these different voices and moods, and there may be no way to tame or define it. And that may be one of the great powers of horror fiction.
Wiater: Do you believe that perhaps the academics have given the field a legitimacy it didn't have even a decade ago? For example, science fiction and mystery are genres that have at last been recognized as worthy of legitimate literary acclaim.
McCammon: Well, I have to admit that my aged relatives don't read my books because they would find it very uneasy to be around me [laughs]! But I really do feel there's a change in the wind. I don't want to say that horror's become respectable—the great thing about horror is that most of it will never become respectable—but people are finally listening to what this kind of fiction can say about the human condition. And it's not only that people are being scared by the superficial elements of horror fiction. They really are beginning to realize that there is more to it than just the scare scenes.
Wiater: You've told me before how horror is in fact the oldest form of literature, both written and oral.
McCammon: Horror fiction has as its basis the human condition, and it can talk about that condition in a way that other types of fiction cannot. It's the idea that this literature that we do has worth—it's too fun, it's a hell of a lot of fun!—but it has worth. And I think it has enduring worth. People are beginning to realize that as well and they're reading horror now as serious literature. I really believe that. (And I can hear the howls from that statement all the way across the Atlantic. But I really think it's so.) The longest running tradition in literature is the horror tale, and it goes back to Beowulf, and I'm sure it goes back to the oral tales of "You better not go by the swamp, because there's something in there...." These tales of warning, of danger—either in a physical or a mental way—which show the ways others have dealt with it, have been around a long, long, time. And will be around until the end of time.
Wiater: A personal favorite of mine among your early novels is They Thirst. Can you recall how that story originated?
McCammon: Well, I always wanted to do a vampire novel. So I thought, where would be a good place to set a vampire novel? First it was going to be set in Chicago, and be about teenage gangs who were vampires. I did two hundred pages of that book...and you get to a certain point where it either takes off or it doesn't take off. Well, that was one that didn't take off [laughs]. I wanted an epic novel that I could take in a lot of different directions, so the first thing I did was have a detective who was originally from Hungary, who had a lot of prior experience with these vampire forces. So, where? Los Angeles—a lot of different kinds of people out there, different nationalities. I mean, who says a vampire can't be Jewish, or whatever? So I went from there, and this time it worked out.
Wiater: It may at last seem like an appropriate stereotype, but is it true you write at night and sleep during the day?
McCammon: I start work at about ten at night, and finish up at about four in the morning. When I'm finishing up a book, as I am now, I'll get up at about eleven o'clock in the morning and get right back to work. It takes me about nine months to write a book. I pace myself pretty well, in terms of doing only about five or six pages a day—and those are finished pages. When I'm completing a book, I'll double up on my shift, working seven days a week. I take my summers off. I do write short stories, but generally I just enjoy the summer.
I enjoy working at night—I just do better at night. I've noticed that the quality of my work changes somewhat: When I work at night, there's more of the fantastic and a horrific feeling to it. And in the daylight, that's when I go back and shape up what I've written the night before.
Wiater: Speaking of stereotypes—and since you founded the Horror Writers of America—why are people in this business often just the opposite of what the public expects them to be?
McCammon: Usually when I talk about fellow horror writers, I find that others ask me, "Aren't those people all weird???" It's amazing that most of the people in this field are so nice. Really! And I think it's because we're able to get all this acid out on paper. To get these bad feelings and impulses out on paper, which so-called normal people can't do. Everybody has violent impulses sometimes where they'd just like to rip somebody to pieces; where they're inflicted by some kind of momentary madness. But we can get it all out on paper! And we're probably a lot more healthy, mentally, then a lot of these folks running around. I really believe that.
Wiater: Of course, not everyone is a fan of your work—or the genre in general. What do you say to those who charge that horror—in any medium in the mass media—is inherently bad for children, and is basically of no value whatsoever?
McCammon: Well, life is bad for children, too. Life makes them grow up, and that can be bad. Like it or not, there are many aspects of horror fiction which offer clear and very penetrating insights into the human condition. Yet I can see some very prim and proper person saying that "Horror fiction is no good, and it should be banned." And that's been said to me before. After I gave a speech, I once had a person stand up who was very upset and ask me, Why was I forcing people to read this stuff? And I said I wasn't forcing anyone to read it. Because there is nothing wrong with reading horror fiction!
One of the reasons I like it is because there is an element of hope in most horror fiction; it doesn't all have to be dark. It can be a glorious human transformation as well as an unfortunate fall from grace. And a climb to grace. And that's what I believe the best in horror fiction entails. I think that's fantastic—I think that's fabulous! Of course, nothing I could say would probably keep anybody from censoring horror. But it'll never be censored in this house.
Wiater: But what about the critics who charge that, with all the real-life horrors around us, why dwell upon the subject even more.
McCammon: Horror writers are approaching "real" horror, but we're doing it in such a way that is, hopefully, artistic and civilized. And in an educated and thoughtful way. We're not glorifying madness or murder or child abuse or any other of our twentieth-century horrors. We're simply trying to make sense out of the chaos, and in the process, exploring ourselves as well. We have to go all the way in, to conduct exploratory surgery. And some surgery is done with a laser, and some with a saw. We may not like what we find, but we still have to know what's there. For me, that has always been one of the valid reasons to write horror fiction.
Wiater: So again, you have no misgivings about being recognized and ultimately packaged as a writer in this genre?
McCammon: Absolutely none. Although some publishers may treat it as a second-rate literature, it is a first-rate literature, as far as I'm concerned. I don't believe there's any other kind of literature that has as much to say, or is as strong. Or as important. I think many more people should be exposed to the genre. Because when you consider the term "horror fiction," the average person says, "Well, it must be...horrible. Or, "Why should I want to read something that gives me nightmares?" But good horror fiction can be a wonderful way of stirring things up—of making you appreciate life all the more because there is so much death and suffering in this world.
Stanley Wiater is an award-winning author, consultant, screenwriter, and creator and host of the Dark Dreamers television series. For more information, please visit www.StanleyWiater.com or www.DarkDreamers.com.
Excerpt copyright © 1990 by Stanley Wiater. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.