Editor's note: This article appeared in the October 1987 issue of I Cover the War - A Monthly Guide to Culture and Entertainment, a free publication distributed in Birmingham, Alabama. It is reprinted here with the permission of its author (and editor of ICTW). Thank you!
At the traditional Birmingham bedtime, you're probably watching Pam Huff on the nightly news, with your teeth brushed and your pajamas on; at bedside, maybe you keep a good book, as an alternative to Barney Miller. And hey, maybe that book's a good horror novel, a clever and intense journey into bizarre and strange worlds, where evil forces get a little more pull than we prefer to believe they can. Maybe that book is written by Stephen King, or by Peter Straub, or maybe it's written by that Robert R. McCammon fellow. You know McCammon—he's the one who puts vampires on the LA freeway and psychos in the Kansas K-Mart, the one who took Poe's Usher family and dragged them into the 20th century for some serious nastiness. You know McCammon—he's the 35-year-old overnight success who's been making the horror scene for over a decade, the guy whose books are translated into more languages than you've got kitchen knives.
Well, here's a little something to ponder while you're watching Pam-baby flash her incisors: just as you're drifting off to nightmare territory, that same Robert McCammon is sitting down at his typewriter, readying up for his daily night shift, where he'll be conjuring up some nasty things 'til four in the morning. And he's gonna be doing this just a scant few blocks from your house—that's right. McCammon, that horror genre favorite, has been turning out critically-acclaimed horror novels in your very own city, where he and his wife nestle up somewhere in the dark and scary hills of Homewood. Shock! Horror!
But before you gather the villagers to storm the castle, you can just settle down and check out this interview with the creator of best-selling novels like They Thirst, Usher's Passing, and the recently-released Swan Song, an epic end-of-the-world tome that's already seen a two-month stint on the New York Times Bestseller List. Coming off a critical and public success that would've turned anyone else into an arrogant jerk, McCammon continues his tradition of baffling interviewers with his modesty and geniality. In the following conversation, McCammon discusses horror fiction, Birmingham media, and his own development into a major industry name.
I'd like to go ahead and resolve whether you have a problem with the term "horror writer;" I've seen some authors have a pretty nasty response to that kind of labeling.
No, I don't have any problem with that. I write in the horror genre, but I want to emphasize that I begin a book with characters; I don't sit down to write a horror novel. I sit down first and foremost to write a book, and then it may take on these horror elements.
Horror is my voice, and I think I'm trying to say—I hope I'm trying to say—things that are worthy, and I'm not just writing about blood and slash and splatter. I never really sit down and think that now I'm going to write the most frightening, bloody thing I can write. I don't do it that way. I simply write about people, and then the book takes its own direction.
If you look at the horror genre as being Friday the 13th or Invasion of the Surf Nazis, well, that's really not the kind of thing I do. I don't consider myself to be a slash and splatter type author, though it's part of the horror genre. I'm not saying that's all totally bad—shock effect has its place—but I wouldn't want to base my craft on the shock effect.
Well, your national reputation certainly links you a lot closer with Henry James than Herschell Gordon Lewis; your fiction generally has a gothic sense that belies your Southern heritage. I'd like to avoid the typical question of what makes you write in the horror genre; I'm more interested in finding out what makes a Southerner write horror fiction.
I think it's a combination of the South still being a frontier area, and the difference between how things appear and how they really are. We live in an area that's mostly woodland, and there are secrets and strange things out in those woods that we'd rather not know about. In the South, we're kind of a secretive, private culture, and the way one might appear on the street is totally different than the way one is at home. We have an atmosphere of repressed violence that's really not that suppressed anymore. For instance, the church deacon could very well be the guy who goes home and beats his wife to an inch of her life, and violates the family dog, and then he speaks at the church again, and nobody would think this person's twisted. The evil hides from the bright light, but it's there; it may show itself every once in a while, but it stays away from the bright light.
As a kid, I was writing short stories and such, mysteries and cowboys-and-Indians stuff, but I always ended up gravitating towards ghost stories and weird tales. People always ask why; I think that is the most difficult question for anybody who's working in this field to answer. I don't know why; it just seems to appeal to me. I think, deep down, exposing secrets appeals to me.
It's now the College Adult Theatre, but when I was growing up in Roebuck, it used to just be the College Theatre, and they would show these neat horror movies in the weekends. I would go in as a kid, and I was just terrified of those movies—see, I would never go to a horror movie by myself, but even when I was with my folks, they'd show a horror preview, and it would scare me to death. Yet, something about the sounds of the things really kind of intrigued me. I remember one film in particular called The Brain Eaters, and it has this sound of something going into a skull and eating....
I think, in a way, what I'm doing now is going back to that theatre, and I'm forcing myself to look, because it's a lot safer to look if I'm in control of the scene. And I do consider myself a movie-maker within the pages of a book; I'm casting the thing, I'm doing the lighting, constructing the sets, the colors, the wardrobe, everything. And hopefully, what you see in your mind when you read is like a movie.
Well, having gone into one clichéd subject, I guess I'll ask the other typical dumb question: where do you get your ideas?
I'm going to be diplomatic and say that there are no stupid questions; there are just some questions that are easier to answer than others. Ideas come from everywhere. I read a lot, everything I can possibly get a hold of—newspapers, histories, biographies, anything. You never know where an idea will come from, but it takes time to germinate; it may be two years before the idea really comes together, to where you can start working on it, but you never know where that seed will come from.
For instance, I read this story out of New York about this guy who caught rats for New York City; he works for the environmental people up there, or something. He talked about some of the rats he'd seen in the basements of New York; he said some of them were the size of cats, and he thinks that there are two rats for every person in New York City. Now, I know there's a story there somewhere, but I'm not quite sure where it's going to lead to.
Going back to the local angle, you're easily Birmingham's most successful novelist. You were born in the Birmingham area, and educated at the University of Alabama—the obvious question is what are you still doing hanging around?
I find myself very fortunate that I'm able to work at a national level, and still live in Birmingham. I really don't see the need to move anywhere, because this is my home; I really enjoy living in Birmingham.
But you obviously had larger ambitions that what could have been fulfilled by your home town.
After school, I rode with a truck driver down to Florida, and helped him unpack like 24,000 pounds of dog food ... just ridiculous things; I don't know why I did them. I was desperate to do something, to reach beyond Birmingham. They were filming Stay Hungry here, and I tried to crash the Stay Hungry set by posing as a Rolling Stone reporter. I got thrown out—brutally thrown out. Birmingham seemed to me a dead end; there was no market for what I wanted to do. I wasn't a physical laborer, and I didn't fit in with the powers-that-be. I realized that if I was going to survive, I was going to have to step beyond Birmingham. I did finally get a job at the Post-Herald, writing headlines on the copy desk. I was working at the Post-Herald when I got a call from my agents and they told me Baal had been bought.
Now, Baal (1978) was a big deal, if only in that you had pulled off the neat trick of selling the first novel you'd ever written. However, I don't think you're going to disagree with me if I say that Baal was pretty much your standard demonic possession story.
Baal is a straight genre novel, and that probably did help get my foot in the door. The publishers at that time were looking for somebody who would give them straight genre material. I was working with Avon then, and at that time—it was right when The Exorcist had come out—everybody was looking for that category of horror. Category work is fine, but if you stay with category work, you become willing to work within the limits of that category, and you don't want to move beyond it. I'm just not that way.
Which brings us to your 1981 epic vampire novel, They Thirst. Bethany's Sin (1979) and The Night Boat (1980), the two novels that followed Baal, showed a certain amount of creative growth, but still had that "category" feel to them. With They Thirst, you suddenly found yourself receiving critical attention, being touted as a major new force in horror fiction.
When I wrote They Thirst, it really surprised me a lot of people. It counted as a turning point. I just decided I was doing this particular book, and I wanted to bust out, go ahead and take it as afar as I could go with it. People suddenly started saying, "Well, he's not a flash in the pan; he's not going to go away ... in fact, he's maturing."
Since that maturing point, you've seen three other novels published, all written in the horror vein; do you see the day when you mature beyond the genre?
I can't say I want to stay with it, but I think the element of horror stays with me. I think I might be able to take it in a different direction. Baal was about horror more than it was about people, and Swan Song is more about people, with the addition of horror. Even the most straight idea has a little bit of darkness in it, and this would still be the kind of thing I had wanted to do, and stay true to what I wanted to say.
Up until now, I had agents in San Francisco. They were category agents, agents that only handle category novels. I realized that I'd gone as far with them as I could. The way the publishing world is set up ... it's kind of like a big Birmingham. There are a lot of people who'd like to hold you back, and a lot of rules and things, and people and powers that be who you have to deal with, or not deal with. So I changed agents, and went to somebody who I thought would represent me better in terms of expansion and growth. It took a couple of years to get settled in with that person.
Actually, I finished Swan Song a year before its release, and it kind of sat on my living room floor for about a year, before I got everything straightened out with my agent.
After the success of They Thirst, you were able to make the move to hardcover publisher Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, who released Mystery Walk (1983) and Usher's Passing (1984). In light of your growing reputation, I was surprised to find Swan Song didn't also see hardcover release.
I had a terrible experience with Holt, who published the two hardbacks. I had an editor who was just horrible, a human black hole. In negotiations for Swan Song, I was offered a hardback deal, but the book would have been extremely expensive.
This is for a novel that measures nearly a thousand pages.
Right. I wanted a lot of people to read Swan Song; I wanted that exposure. The choice was presented to me to go hardback, with potentially a very expensive book, or paperback, which doesn't have a lot of shelf life, but gives a lot of quick exposure.
With Swan Song coming off a two-month stay on the New York Times Bestseller List, it looks like you made the right choice. In addition to the exposure that accompanies your best-selling novel to date, there's also some other McCammon projects to get your name out to the public. New World Pictures has mentioned the possibility of a filmed adaptation of They Thirst.
Well, I can't really talk about that; they're kind of working on a deal. We're also talking about Mystery Walk, which may be made in Alabama. There's some interest in Swan Song, but Swan Song would be very expensive to produce. Nothing definite; They Thirst is more definite than any of the others.
You've already seen two of your short stories adapted for television: "Makeup" for [ABC-TV'S Darkroom], and "Nightcrawlers" for CBS-TV's revival of The Twilight Zone series. Were you happy with those initial experiences?
I went over to a friend's apartment and we sat down to watch "Makeup;" this was the first thing I'd ever had done on TV and I was scared to death. But we started watching, and within five minutes, I wasn't scared anymore because it wasn't my story. They changed the story, the changed all the names of the secondary characters—in the story, maybe it was "my cousin Joe," but in the television play, it was "my cousin Tom." For some reason, they changed everything!
"Nightcrawlers," however, was considered by many critics to be one of the few real achievements of CBS's ill-fated Twilight Zone.
I was extremely happy with "Nightcrawlers." I think I really got lucky for all those elements to come together—the screenwriting, the acting, the direction.
There's no faster way for a novelist to get name recognition than a successful television or film adaptation of his work. Considering the offers you receive from film producers, in addition to the success of Swan Song, do you see yourself approaching that American Express pinnacle of celebritydom?
It's funny how you're not supposed to want to get your name known everywhere, but it simply helps your sales, and it helps people identify you with what you do. I think there are a lot of things that are kind of bad in that—you become a brand name and maybe you're not as compelled to write beyond the genre. That's something I kind of have to deal with now, because I want to keep pushing myself. To me, there's no fun in anything unless you continue to push yourself. That's why I think this is probably the only job I could ever do; every job I've ever had, I got bored sick within a year. This is the only job I've ever had where you can totally reinvent the world every nine months, which is about how long it takes me to write a book.
I do think about the name recognition. I hope it happens, but I hope when it happens I will be mentally ready for something like it. The more you stay at something, and continue to work, it helps your chances for success. I don't think that just because you do your work your name will be a household name, adored from coast to coast ... or hated from coast to coast. I've been doing this full-time for about 8 years. I really enjoy what I do, and that, whether I make any money or not, is successful.
It's strange that the better you do, the more bargaining power you have with your publisher. More people are reading your book; more people are getting to know your name. And the name recognition factor is important, because there are so many authors.
Well, before we have Robert McCammon doing American Express commercials, I guess we should deal with the aspect of McCammon as local celebrity. When I made the appointment for this interview, I'd already assumed you were being hit up by the every local news-hound for a Halloween interview.
No, not at all.
And that's just bizarre. Then what kind of attention are you getting locally?
I had one story in the Birmingham News, and I was in Birmingham magazine ... that sort of thing you would expect. I've done a couple of signings here, but I don't really feel like I get much support from Birmingham, and I don't know why that is.
I've often thought maybe it's because the powers that be can't understand how somebody could've made it in a market that doesn't exist in Birmingham. It goes back to a kind of inferiority complex Birmingham has: "How good can a person be if he chooses to live in Birmingham? If he doesn't want to got to New York and fight the New York market or the Los Angeles market ... he must not be that successful. He must not be that good."
I'm doing promotions, and I go to conventions all over the country. I hope I have a good many readers in Birmingham, but I probably have a lot more readers in other cities. One of the great things about writing is that you're able to communicate with people all over the world, but you never have to leave Birmingham.
What's your mail like? Any stuff from the fringe?
Oh, yes, absolutely; some strange stuff. People who'd like for me to come and exorcise demons out of their houses and that sort of thing. I got a letter from a motorcycle gang member in Georgia who wanted to tutor me all about motorcycles and guns for They Thirst. I got a letter from a bunch of people in Minnesota who said they've figured out how to control the world with black magic, stuff like that. That's going to happen.
Going back to your comments on name recognition: you mentioned that it was important because there are so many authors, especially in the horror genre. And with that many people writing horror novels, why can't I ever find one worth reading?
The publishers' money wheels are going around. They have this perception—it's like bad videos. You can go into a video store and see a hundred bad horror films that you've hardly ever heard of before. The publishers have people who do category work, and these people do maybe a book a month, or every couple of months, and the books are just awful. Blood with no passion, no characterizations, just done by an outline.
I've really kind of lucked out because I started working by finishing a book and then giving it to the publishers.
You've never sold a concept first, or worked from a proposal?
No. A lot of these writers are working on other people's ideas. A publisher says, "Let's do a story where this guy maybe finds a skull, and the skull comes to life and starts talking to him, telling him to go kill people." And you could make a good story out of that, but then, "... well, I want the skull to be that of a murderer, and it tells this kid to go to the beach and kill all the surfers ..." See what I mean? It just kind of destroys the idea. I think there's a lot of good novelists being turned bad, who would have potential after they worked beyond the category stuff.
I've heard speculation that, following the success of Swan Song, Avon is considering putting your first three books back into print. What new works are forthcoming from the McCammon Corporation?
My next book, Stinger, will be out next April, and I'm working on a book of short stories that should be out in the fall. I'm also working on a new book now that will be out, I guess, in '89.
The short story collection will have "Nightcrawlers" in it, and the original "Makeup," and some new stuff. The collection's kind of interesting; it has some early, raw short stories in it, and it has this new novellette I'm doing, called "Preacherman." It's set in 1940s Alabama.
Going back to your earlier comments on the parallels between writing and movie-making—if your books had soundtracks, who'd be composing?
It would have to be some dead band, I'm sure. Maybe some long-ago band that you heard on the radio at three in the morning. Like going cross-country, and you have these strange sounds on these far-away radio bands, and you can never hear the disc jockey say who they are.