Webmaster's note: This article appeared in the January 1987 issue of Mystery Scene.
Have you always wanted to be a writer, or was this a decision you made later in life?
When I was a kid, becoming a writer seemed like an impossible dream. I used to write stories about cowboys, monsters, detectives, spies, all sorts of things. Writing was a great fantasy trip. Which I needed very badly, because I didn't really have a lot of friends. I was always pretty much of a loner, whether by choice or by circumstance I don't know. I was very skinny, very self-conscious, shy, and the usual package of bully-bait. Terrible at sports, and you get a certain mindset about yourself when kids pick teams and at the end they say to each other, "You can have McCammon." So I would rather be by myself than undergo that kind of humiliation, I guess. I liked to read, and later on I started trying to write my own stories at about the age of eight or nine. As I say, writing was a great fantasy trip. I could create my own friends, and they were always true friends. I guess writing let me be the captain of my own team, and I could decide who would live or die. But I never dreamed I'd ever do it for a living, or be able to make money from it. Who does, really? I mean, it's just an impossible dream and if it works out it's always unexpected.
I've heard you have unusual working hours. Could you tell us about your work habits?
I do have unusual hours. I start work about ten at night and work until around four in the morning. On second thought, I don't consider those hours unusual, because even as a kid I loved the night. I used to have a radio in my room at home, as a child, and I'd listen to the far-away signals between midnight and two in the morning even on a school-night. I've always been more comfortable working at night, though sometimes I'll work in the daylight if I'm trying to hurry on a project or if I'm finishing it up. When you're working at night, with no distractions, you feel like the whole world is yours. It's great!
I also listen to music while I'm working, and my musical tastes run from Beethoven to Elvis Costello and just about everybody in between. Except I can't really get into country music very much and never have been able to, though I understand how strong its emotions are and how deep its roots run. Sorry, Joe, I'm rambling.
There seems to be two schools of horror. The "loud" school and the "quiet" school. Do you have a preference? What exactly are you attempting to present in the way of horror, and in what direction do you see the field moving as a whole?
I feel I'm reaching, or at least trying to reach, a balance between a whisper and a shout. I'm trying to whisper as effectively as I shout, and I think shouting—that is, writing in a certain register of emotion/panic/violence/or what have you—can easily be overdone. A whisper may be more intelligent than a shout, as well as more effective. I think I'm also learning how to use humor, too, which I think may be part of the future of horror fiction—not laugh-out-loud humor, though that's there too, but skewed humor that really serves to humanize the characters and situation and make the horror more horrifying. I think humor has been an element sorely missing in horror fiction for a long time, and I'm glad to see it coming into more use.
I know at one point you were interested in being a reporter. Is that still an interest, maybe a lost ambition?
No. I realize now that being a reporter means you have to hurt people. You've got to trample on their feelings and privacy and expose all the sores you can find. I wouldn't want to be doing that. I want to be in my office, writing, and hopefully people will like what I do and I won't be in the position of hurting anybody.
Your first books were not obviously Southern, but your latest works, Mystery Walk and Usher's Passing, utilize your Southern background. Will this be a trend in your future work?
I think I'm just naturally using more of my Southern background because when I first started writing I made a conscious effort to avoid any kind of "regional" style. The South has its celebrated writers, of course, but I couldn't really identify with any of them. I'm not really a great fan of the Southern style of writing, though I like the Southern atmosphere and folklore. But then again, if you consider Poe a "Southern" writer, I guess he was the exception. Anyway, I see Southern writing as a gloom-and-doom down-on-the-plantation lamenting, though the new Southern writers are breaking that mold and becoming "yuppyized." Maybe I just don't like labels. I'm using more Southern characters, though, if not using the South as a background. I've found a gentleness of spirit in Southern characters that I don't see in people from other parts of the country. I like innocence in characters, a child-like viewpoint of the world, and I see that as part of the South, too. But, as I say, I'm using more of my Southern background as a natural next step in what I hope is a positive evolution.
How do you feel about modern horror films and fiction?
Well, I think there are very, very good and very, very bad in both fiction and films these days. The good ones really advance the genre in some way. but the bad ones wind up being a ball of sound and fury wrapped around an empty core. I really think the best of any genre has something to say about real people and real life, though it uses horror and "supernatural" elements to do so. Of course there's nothing wrong with horror novels and films that simply go for the shock effect, but those don't advance the genre as much as they're exercises in visceral description and makeup techniques. I think that, without solid characters and something of interest to say about people or the world, "horror" is an empty Halloween suit. It might look great, but it has a very limited life.
But I think also that we're approaching, if not already in, a Golden Age of horror fiction. I think horror literature is coming into its own. Stephen King brought horror fiction out of the Dark Ages of paperbacks based on Hammer monster movies and sadistic tomes people kept hidden under their beds, and I think other writers who are coming along and developing their own styles and voices are making great contributions to the field. I'm very excited about the future of horror literature as a valid form of expression—valid in that reviewers of major newspapers and magazines are sitting up and taking notice of horror writers, and not only of King but of other authors too, and that's great. About horror films: I very rarely go see them. I'd rather read.
I know you were the first to generate interest in an organization for horror writers, and that something has finally come of that initial effort. Could you tell us about The Horror Writers of America, and how you became involved?
The Horror Writers of America started with my total isolation from other writers in the field. I didn't know any other people who did the same thing as me, and I had no idea there were even any conventions of horror writers. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed reasonable that there should be some kind of center for the community of horror writers, something comparable to any of the other organizations for authors, I wrote letters to other writers asking their opinions, and most of them were favorable. Suddenly Publisher's Weekly was asking me questions about the idea. And I was getting calls at home from the New York Times and the Washington Post, which was a totally unexpected development. But I saw then how much interest there is in horror fiction, and how positively the media responded. I started getting batches of letters, and since I'm probably the world's worst at answering letters I asked for help (from you and Karen, and please put that in if you've a mind to) and again the response was great. HWA—HOWL, as it was called then—had simply outgrown the abilities of one person, and it was time to let the child sink or swim.
Anyway, Dean Koontz has just been elected as HWA's first president, and he'll officially be taking office toward the end of October. The membership roll is growing, we've got a newsletter and we'll probably be having an awards ceremony and doing HWA anthologies in the near future. I think HWA still has a long way to go, but I think the future for the organization and for horror fiction is virtually unlimited. Needless to say, I'm excited! And if I sound like a cheerleader, so be it.