State of Shock: "Robert R. McCammon"

1981 Interview

SoS #7 cover

From the Archives:

"Robert R. McCammon Interview"

by Roger Smith

SoS #8 cover

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the fanzine State of Shock, issues 7 and 8, in 1981. State of Shock was published by Roger Smith, who conducted this interview.

Smith: Would you like to begin by talking about your latest book?

McCammon: The newest one is called Mystery Walk. It's about a boy who can communicate with the dead. It's set in Alabama. It also involves a young boy who is a faith healer. He is on the evangelist circuit and the book eventually brings these two characters together in conflict.

Smith: It is horror I take it?

McCammon: Yes, it is a horror story.

Smith: How long is it? I mean compared to They Thirst?

McCammon: It's about the same length as They Thirst.

Smith: How long did it take you to write They Thirst?

McCammon: About nine months.

Smith: Nine months? It took me nearly two months to read it.

McCammon: Oh really? That's good.

Smith: Well, They Thirst is the kind of book that the reader wants to read every word ... slowly. I do that anyway, but a lot of books I do read quickly.

McCammon: Well, I think that proves that you liked it, and I appreciate that. You took the time to read it word for word, which not a lot of people do.

Smith: Yes, I know. But like I said in the magazine, I don't scan. But there are a lot of books that I read quickly because it's just bullshit!

McCammon: Yeah, that's right. You just want to get through the book and put it aside.

Smith: What are your writing habits? Do you write at a certain time each day?

McCammon: My working hours are all night. I start working about midnight and work until about six in the morning. I find it to be quiet, and that seems to be the best time for me, my time to work. I know people who get up bright and early in the morning, you know, seven in the morning and they're off and running. But I could never do that. I've tried to do that several times, to say that I've done it. But I can't get anything out.

Smith: Have you ever written any short fiction?

McCammon: Well, I've written a little, but as a matter of fact there is a book out this month called Modern Masters of Horror. I have a short story in that book [Editor's note: the story was "Makeup"] along with a host of other people. Some real good people.

I write some short stories and I may at some point do a book of short stories, but right now I'm more interested in novels. I think it's much harder to do a really good short story than a novel. And it's much harder to break in with a short story in a magazine, as I found out in college and I'd try to write short stories and send them off the magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, the big paying markets.

I was up all night with a typewriter, doing short stories that were horrible things. Real crap. And I found that it is much harder to break in with a short story than with a novel. Because, unfortunately, you really need a big name to get a story placed with a major market magazine.

Smith: It seems like it should be the other way around.

McCammon: Yeah it does, it really does. But I've read some really bad short stories that were by big names. But right now I'd rather devote my time to writing novels. Maybe at some point I hope to do a book of stories.

Smith: I think They Thirst is the best novel that I've read dealing with vampires.

McCammon: Why, thank you. (laughter)

Smith: And I was wondering, are you into vampires? (laughter) Are you a vampire fan?

McCammon: Yeah I am. I think they are very romantic creatures. The creature that belongs in the night. His activities are limited to the night. I think it's very romantic. It's fearsome of course, but interesting and strange.

There has been a lot of vampire literature. Have you ever read Interview with a Vampire?

Smith: Yes, I enjoyed it.

McCammon: I think that's a fantastic book. I don't know if it did well or not, but that I think is THE vampire novel.

Smith: Really?

McCammon: Yeah I do. I think it's fantastic. And it's not really so much a horror novel as a well-written, finely-detailed work of art.

I understand that it has been sold to the movies, and I heard John Travolta's name being passed around. But I don't know what is happening with that.

Smith: That would be interesting.

McCammon: Yes, it would be.

Smith: There were so many evil characters in They Thirst, Roach, Vulkan, Kobra .... and they were all so different from each other.

McCammon: I get off on villains too. I think villains are terrific. I love to make a villain as sinister as possible. I think people really love to see a villain get his in the end. (laughter) Villains are fun to do. They're fun to construct because villains can do almost anything. Heroes are limited a little bit. Villains can do anything.

Smith: Your idea of a vampire motorcycle gang was ... well, frightening. It was so vivid I could almost see them pulling into Jack-in-the-Box.

McCammon: I had visited Los Angeles before working on the book.

Smith: You seem to know it very well.

McCammon: Well, as a matter of fact, I was there for a weekend. It was a high pressure weekend and I hit all those places that I could and did my research....

Smith: Just a weekend?

McCammon: Yes, just a weekend. And I sat down with a street map and all sorts of books about Los Angeles and my notes that I made over the weekend.

Smith: I'm impressed. Someone could use your book to learn their way around out here.

McCammon: Well, it was kind of amazing to me, that this time when I went back to Los Angeles I could find my way around. I knew my way around like I'd been living there for months, and it was because of this research that I had done. I just sat down and devoured this map and all my research material and my notes, and when I got back there last week I knew my way around.

Smith: There was a movie a few years ago called Vanishing Point. Did you happen to see it?

McCammon: No, I didn't.

Smith: Well, there was a disc jockey that was directing an outlaw driver away from road blocks and the like. You took that a step further in They Thirst by having a D.J. broadcast where the food supply was hiding,

McCammon: Yeah, that's right.

Smith: And it was great. I mean, it was funny and frightening at the same time. It would be impossible to escape a radio.

McCammon: Yes. Radios are out there all over the place. So one thing I noticed, (well, you know how many radio stations are there) you just take a radio and go from one end of the dial to the other and they are almost continual.

And it seemed to me to be a pretty good way to communicate. Of course there's so many cars out there and that's why there are so many radio stations, because they figure everybody is listening to the radio in their car.

If there were vampires out there,they would do the game thing.

Smith: (Laughter)

McCammon: I tried to make the vampires keep their personalities somewhat intact. California vampires might use the radio, whereas other vampires might not.

Smith: Yeah, that's like Kobra and the motorcycle gang. He was himself all the way through. He was just worse at the end.

McCammon: Right. He was just worse. He was just more greedy, more desperate to hold on to life, but in the wrong way, because he took away from others' lives.

Smith: I also liked the way that you talked about normal things, like Dylan and Richard Gere in the midst of all the horror. To read names that people are familiar with made it all much more believable. It made the situations seem like they were really happening. Like a newspaper account.

I got so into They Thirst.... I kept looking for something to happen where I live, on Buena Vista Street, to appear in the book.

McCammon: (laughter)

Smith: It never did, but you got close to me. You got very close to me.

McCammon: Good. That's what I was trying to do. I think that is what every horror author tries to do, to get close to the reader. Make them say, "Well, this isn't a real situation, but it could possibly be happening. This could be true."

And I take it as a compliment that it did get close to you.

Smith: I enjoy these types of books and they seldom scare me, but I caught myself glancing out the window a few times while reading They Thirst.

McCammon: Well good. (laughter) You read a lot of horror literature, what are the best ones that you have read?

Smith: Well, I liked They Thirst a hell of a lot. (laughter)

McCammon: Well, thank you.

Smith: And I'm not saying that because I'm talking to the author either.

McCammon: Well, I'm curious because you obviously like the horror situation, and you read a lot and see a lot of movies. And I'm just curious as to who your favorite authors are and your favorite books.

Smith: Well, I liked The Shining. I'm not too fond of King's other books, but I did enjoy The Shining.

McCammon: The Shining was a fantastic book. I'm sorry that it was screwed up....

Smith: When it was brought to the screen.

McCammon: Brought to the screen, right. But it was a fantastic book. I've been wanting to do a ghost story but it's hard to beat The Shining. And I'm not going to do one until I figure out a way to beat it. And that's doing to be tough. The Shining was fantastic.

Smith: I also like James Herbert's books, Gary Brandner, Graham Masterton, John Russo.

McCammon: I'm not too familiar with his work.

Smith: Oh, Russo's great. His books are like real life gone hard. They're not pretty books. I mean sometimes the people that you really care about, all of a sudden get destroyed very quickly. You know, you've developed a feeling for this certain character and something horrible happens to him.

McCammon: Does he have a new one out?

Smith: Yes, Limb to Limb. It's the newest one. He has another one coming out, The Black Cat, coming out in .... I believe October.

McCammon: Did he do Night Of The Living Dead?

Smith: Yes. He co-wrote the screenplay and did the novel.

McCammon: I've seen Limb to Limb out. I haven't picked it up, but I will.

Smith: Have you ever read any Harlan Ellison?

McCammon: Yeah.

Smith: I enjoy his work a lot.

McCammon: Yeah, he's good. He's powerful, he really is.

Smith: Definitely. And some of his work, I don't know if you would call it horror, but I'd call it horror.

McCammon: Right. It's a strange mixture of science fiction and fantasy. He's good. He's very good. As a matter of fact, when I was out there last weekend there was a store opening up....

Smith: Dangerous Vision?

McCammon: Yeah. He was there doing a short story in the window.

Smith: Jesusfuckingchrist. I missed it! I heard too fucking late that he was there, but I understood that it was like an autograph party.

McCammon: (laughter) He sat in the window, for I think three days, and did a short story every day.

Smith: I was sitting here on my ass wondering how the hell I could approach him for the magazine. I could have gotten pictures....

[Here I cussed, complained, moaned, kicked my feet, and cried, the way only an editor who has just "blown" a MAJOR scoop can understand, while Robert McCammon waited patiently, offering solace in laughter. Whatalife.]

Smith: What modern writers do you like7

McCammon: Well, I like John Farris. I think he's done some terrific stuff. He has a new one out. I haven't read it yet, but I will. And Michael McDowell, he's really good.

Smith: Yes, he is. I'm setting up an interview with him.

McCammon: Oh good. I'd love to read that. I'd like to know more about him. His stuff is very good, it's very descriptive. I also enjoy William Hallahan, The Search For Joseph Tully.

Smith: Yes,that was very good I thought.

McCammon: He's very good. He does some strange stuff. He did The Search For Joseph Tully and then he did a spy novel. And then he did another sort of occult horror novel. He kind of goes back and forth doing spy/horror novels. Anyway, he's very good. I wish that he would stick to horror, I really do, but he's very good.

Smith: McDowell is writing under another name, writing detective novels.

McCammon: Yes he is. In fact I think he writes under a couple different names.

Smith: Well, I just know of the one.

McCammon: Nathan....

Smith: Aaaa ... Nathan Andyne.

McCammon: I'll tell you what I've been reading lately, and I really love them. Not lately, I've been reading them for the last eight or nine years. And that's Doc Savage books.

Smith: Oh yeah.

McCammon: Have you read those?

Smith: Oh yeah, Kenneth Robeson. I've got a whole wall full of them.

McCammon: I do too. They're fantastic. I love those things.

Smith: Yeah, that's L. Ron Hubbard.

McCammon: Yeah.

Smith: He wrote the Avenger series too. Have you ever read any of them?

McCammon: No, I haven't read them.

Smith: They're not as good as Doc Savage, but they're interesting. I really like the characters in Savage.

McCammon: Yeah, Doc Savage is really good. I think that the early ones are fine novels, but the later ones are not quite as good. But I'm still stickin' in there. That guy wrote one a month, and how he did that I have no idea. But he was something.

Smith: The characters all came alive.

McCammon: They really do.

Smith: I think there were others, but I know of one movie that was done on him, and it was more or less a kid's movie.

McCammon: Yeah it was. The one with Ron Ely.

Smith: Yeah, and I could envision Ely as Doc Savage, and I was hoping for a lot, but I was very disappointed in it.

McCammon: You know the character in Raiders Of The Lost Ark is taken from Doc Savage.

Smith: Oh really, Indiana Jones?

McCammon: Yeah, he's kind of a combination between Doc Savage and a couple of others. Blackhawk. Remember Blackhawk?

Smith: Sure. Are you a comic book person too?

McCammon: Yeah I am. I used to have big stacks of Batman, Blackhawk.... I love the old Batman comics of the fifties. Those were fantastic.

Smith: Yes, I liked Superboy too.

McCammon: Superboy, that's fantastic. The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman.

Smith: I never liked him too much. I couldn't get into him.

McCammon: Sea Devils. I think the Sea Devils were good, all of those old comics.

Smith: Remember the Blue Beetle?

McCammon: Sure, the Blue Beetle. Right!

Smith: The art work was ..... awful by today's standards.

McCammon: But it had strength to it. Like the old Batman. The art in the thirties, forties, and fifties was just great. It changed in the sixties and I didn't like it as well. Something happened. It became more realistic and the comic suffered.

Smith: So did the stories.

McCammon: Yeah, the stories did. They kind of worked Robin out, sent him off to college or whatever.

Smith: Yeah and they started calling Batman "The Batman" and tried to make him some kind of mysterious figure. I remember the early one,where his father was dressed up as a Bat-man at a masquerade and he got shot you know. That was great stuff.

McCammon: Great stuff. It really was.

Smith: And it still is when you go back and read it.

McCammon: Yeah like Doc Savage. I still love them.

I like Stephen King's work very much, some books I like better than others, but I think he's strong. He, I guess, has brought the horror genre out of the closet and made it popular.

Smith: I don't agree with that. I think a lot of people think that Stephen King invented horror literature, and it has always been around.

McCammon: There was, but people didn't pay that much attention to it.

Smith: In my article, "Uncrowning of King," I complained about how he uses the same characters over and over. They're usually teachers, or writers, and there is always a major fire in all of his books from Carrie to Firestarter. And they go best-seller before they are even released, and that pisses me off. There are a lot of good writers around that no one ever hears about, like Richard Laymon, and Russo, and you!

McCammon: I really think there are a lot of good horror authors who have a lot of good things to say, and whose work would sell well to the movies. But the movie people really love Stephen King. Everything that he does is sold to the movies. But there are a lot of people, a lot of working people that are working hard, and their stuff should be considered too.

Smith: Yes, but it's not. By the way, have you had any bites from the movie industry yet?

McCammon: Well, my stuff is with an agent in Los Angeles, with a guy that is selling scripts to the movies. And I understand that a couple of people are interested in They Thirst. But you know, you may never hear anything more about it. So I'm really not excited about it. If it happens, it happens. My pleasure is writing the book. I really love to write, and that's my thing. And if someone wants to make a movie out of my work, that's fine. But I would consider the movie their product. The book is my love-child (laughter) and that's what I do. And everything else is incidental to me.

Smith: That's interesting, I never really considered things that way. I mean I got real pissed off when Gary Brandner's book, The Howling, you know, the way Dante screwed up the movie.

McCammon: Yeah, it was completely changed, wasn't it?

Smith: Yeah. I could understand if it was a bad book, but it was a good book, a very good book, and they changed the movie so much that it was....

McCammon: Unrecognizable.

Smith: Yeah.

McCammon: Well, like I say, I would do the book and if someone else wanted to take the book and change it, and add to it and do whatever else they wanted, that would be fine. They could do that, but I wouldn't consider that my work. My pleasure is writing.



Smith: What do you think of the new trend in horror movies?

McCammon: Well, you may not believe this. but I think the most horrible things are the shadows on the wall. You see a shadow with a knife. and you know the figure has a knife, but you can't tell what the figure looks like.

It's interesting to me that the new batch of horror films, Friday the 13th and some of the others, are shot from the view of the killer. And it encourages audience identification, not with the victim, but with the killer.

Smith: Yeah, it kind of turns everything around.

McCammon: It does. And that bothers me a little, but it must be the times we live in. People seem to be getting pretty violent these days. Maybe everyone would like to do something violent, I don't know. But that bothers me a little bit, that the movies are shot from the perspective of the killer. Everything is laid out. You see everything. But I remember as a kid I'd go to horror movies, black and white you know, and you would see the shadow on the wall of a maniac with a knife. And you wouldn't be able to tell exactly what he looked [like, or what] the victim looked like when he was finished with his knife. But you would be very frightened, because your mind would add the details.

I've tried to do that in a couple of places in They Thirst, and I'm trying to work on that level. I think it is much more frightening. Brian De Palma does that very well.

Smith: Yes he does.

McCammon: Anyway, that is what I'm trying to shoot for.

Smith: Did you happen to see the movie Maniac?

McCammon: No I didn't

Smith: Well, they just kind of follow the killer around, but the way that it is done is very interesting. It was like dark horror, and I don't see how they can top it.

McCammon: Really? Who did it?

Smith: Joe Spinelli. Well, it was directed by William Lustig.

McCammon: Oh yeah, I know of him. But I haven't seen the picture.

Smith: Well, I thought it was great. Very controversial. It had a shadowy flavor ..... but it was very depressing movie. You see, I liked Taxi Driver; did you see it?

McCammon: Yes.

Smith: I really got off on that. The DeNiro character, the city slum....

McCammon: That's right, it was a frightening movie. But it was very real!

Smith: And Maniac hit me the same way! I started to say it was black and white, but I don't believe it was. But it struck me as black and white...especially one scene, where he comes out of the fog and shoots into a car with a shot gun. And it is so scary. I mean you know it's comin', but...

McCammon: Yeah, that's frightening, it really is.

Smith: And Tom Savini did the effects and he is even in the movie in this one part, And he gets blown away, so he had to reconstruct himself getting killed. I don't think there is any effect that can match that one.

McCammon: Did you say it was black and white?

Smith: Well. it comes across like black and white, all washed out, you know?

McCammon: Black and white is a wonderful medium.

Smith: I think so too. If my movie gets made I want it in black and white.

McCammon: That's interesting, because there seems to be a movement back to black and white. Which I think is great, because black and white can be very creative. And it's overlooked I think, because people think they are spending a lot of money to go to a movie and it should be in color. But I think black and white can be fearsome, very nightmarish and otherworldly. I remember a movie I once saw called Dementia 13.

Smith: Oh yeah, Coppola.

McCammon: Right. Francis Ford Coppola's first effort.

Smith: Yeah, he was like 22 when he wrote it.

McCammon: Yeah, and he.... Have you ever seen that movie?

Smith: Yes, in fact I saw it again a couple of weeks ago on KCOP, I think.

McCammon: It's powerful. I don't know how it stood up because I saw it when I was maybe ten, It seems like it was black and white and at scared me. I remember screaming at the credits, because the credits showed disembodied forms floating to the bottom of a pond, I think. People screamed at the credits. It was a great movie

Smith: Coppola was working for Roger Corman then.

McCammon: Yeah, right.

Smith: And he wrote it like in three days and they shot it in two weeks.

McCammon: It was an excellent movie.

Smith: Do you read much horror?

McCammon: Well really I read a lot of different things. I go to a book store and pick up a handful at a time. Right now I'm reading some historical stuff about knights, a lot of medieval stuff for research for a book I'm starting in August. I read material for what I'm working on at the time. For Mystery Walk I read a lot about ghost sightings, apparitions, evangelists, faith healings and all kinds of stuff like that. The book I'm about to start deals with the world after a nuclear holocaust, so I'm doing a lot of research on nuclear bombs, Hiroshima, stuff like that.

Yeah, I do a lot of reading, That's why my apartment is in such a mess. I've got books up to my ass (laughter) and above.

Smith: Jumping back to They Thirst, what you said about the holocaust reminded me of the destruction of L.A. The way you did it with the sand drifts, like snow drifts back east. Well, I could visualize it so well. And I kept thinking, "Man, Los Angeles, if you take away the cars you ain't got shit!"

McCammon: That's right, nobody could get around, it's so spread out. They would just be sitting ducks.

Smith: Sitting ducks, exactly!

McCammon: That's what I tried to convey, and hopefully it worked out. But you know if you cut out al of those cars, you couldn't get around at all. You know that by living there. There are very few places that you can walk to in L.A. I'd like to tell you one thing about Hollywood. I really like new wave music and when I was out there last week my brother and I went up Sunset Blvd. It was about two in the morning, I guess....

Smith: (laughter)

McCammon: ... And we went up to the Whiskey and the punks were out. And I'm telling you there's some mean-looking guys standing around there. I mean Kobra would have been right at home in there. There was this one huge, bald-headed guy with a leather jacket and it read across the back, "Fear is death, death is fear". That crowd is really something!

Smith: That's one reason I thought out here, because you seem people. I've seen a lot of people since I've read They Thirst that I think to myself, "That is the kind of people that Kobra would have been before...."

McCammon: Yeah, we saw them that night. They were standing on the carrier. We had a good time though. I really love Hollywood. It's real1y a nice city.

Smith: As I said, I just finished reading your book The Night Boat, and I was wondering have you ever been to the Caribbean?

McCammon: No, I haven't. But I've been to Florida. I've been to Key West and I think the weather in Key West is very similar to the Caribbean. And again that's just another situation of doing a lot of research. People have asked me if I have ever been down there because it seems to them that I've lived there, but I haven't. I just did a lot of research and evidently it worked out.

Smith: Are you very familiar with boats?

McCammon: Oh, fairly familiar. Again that's research. I'm fortunate that I can visualize things pretty easily with a little research. I'm lucky that I can do that.

Smith: Well, I've seen your work and I'm impressed.

McCammon: It's a challenge, and I really love a challenge. I love to get into a situation where I'm working on a book and I say, "This is going to be hard as hell to finish. Why do you really want to work like that?" But I love to do it.

The one I'm about to start is going to be a real challenge. It's going to be very involved and I'm looking forward to it because it is going to be good. It'll work you to the bone and really make you sweat, and I think that's good.

Smith: Oh yeah, it sounds very interesting too. I don't know where you are going with it, but judging from your other work, it's going to be worth the journey.

How long have you been writing?

McCammon: Well, my first one was published when I was about 22 and I'm 29 now. I've been publishing since I was 22 and I've been writing since I was about ten.

Smith: I was going to say I've been writing since I could read and.... (laughter)

McCammon: (laughter) Yeah really, I did short stories and junk like that. Really junky short stories ... Cowboys and Indians ... spies.

Smith: Well, you've got to start somewhere. Look what it led to: Vampires! (laughter)

McCammon: (laughter) I never dreamed, well I DID dream about it, but I never thought I would be able to write for a living. That's all I do now. I write full-time. That, to me, is fantastic!

What I try to do, is take off the summer. I usually write all year and I do my research in the summer and my vacations, and try to get some sun. The rest of the year I work. I've always dreamed about doing that. But never thought I'd be able to do it, and to me it's a great kind of existence.


[I feel it is quite evident to the reader how much I enjoyed conducting the above interview with Rick McCammon.

In the course of the conversation we jumped track many times and discussed such topics as music, synthesizers, other writers, and even personal matters.

Some of these topics I merely touched on in the interview, but nevertheless it was an enlightening conversation.

We built an almost instant comradery and I feel we struck a card that goes beyond interviewer/interviewee. I'm proud to think of Robert R. McCammon as a friend.]

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