The Horror Show, Summer 1985
On the highway of horror writers are many vehicles. Some are no more than sputtering, patched-up clunkers, while others, bored-out and roaring, are moving rapidly toward the inevitable flaming crash. Then, one notices a few sensible, competently guided vehicles. They are in good shape, these few vehicles—they know exactly where they are going and with fuel enough to get there.
Robert R. McCammon has, does, and judging from his latest work, will know where he is going always. Baal, McCammon's first novel, was published while he was 26 years old. It was followed by Bethany's Sin, The Night Boat, They Thirst, the best-selling Mystery Walk, and his latest, Usher's Passing, which seriously wounded the phrase "Nothing New Beneath the Sun."
And McCammon's novelette, "Nightcrawlers," which opened J.N. Williamson's superb Masques anthology, adds new dimensions to the word terror. It had better win the World Fantasy Award. McCammon is the only writer I know who writes between the chill hours of 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. when, as any self-respecting Pumpkin Man will tell you, such things are done.
Robert R. McCammon resides in Birmingham, Alabama.
THS: I'm extremely fond of your latest novel, Usher's Passing. How did you conceive such a brilliant work?
McCAMMON: "The Fall of the House of Usher" was one of my most favorite Poe stories as a kid. I really liked the dark, chilly atmosphere and the sense of nightmare-in-reality that Poe had created. Well, I'd been kicking this idea around about doing a family saga of the Ushers for a couple of years, but the plot didn't click into place until I visited a huge estate called Biltmore, near Asheville, North Carolina. The house is just totally unreal, with all these magnificent rooms and banquet halls, libraries with hundreds of volumes of leather-bound books—the whole aristocratic trip! But tourists only get to see a small portion of the Biltmore house, because the basement, the upper floor and the attic are closed off, and those alone would make another huge mansion!
I did get to see the servants' quarters, which are these tiny cubicles in one of the basements—and I'm told there are many basement levels—and my mind started working. The house was built around the turn of the century by the Vanderbilt family, whose patriarch constructed Grand Central Station in New York City; they owned other showplace estates around the country, and I thought, Yes, the Usher family would be wealthy too! They'd be staggeringly wealthy, and naturally they'd be in a business that would reflect something of their tastes and attitudes.
So, it took off from my visit to the Biltmore Estate.
THS: You created a story which is truly singular—no one before has even attempted anything like Usher's Passing. Have you been getting much feedback from readers?
McCAMMON: Yes—much feedback! I've found that people either love it or hate it, with no in-between! Fortunately, I think more people love it than hate it, and the book is selling very well ... (it was) the second book on a two-book contract I'd already signed with Holt, Rinehart and Winston, of which Mystery Walk was the first.
THS: As I was reading Usher's Passing, I kept wondering if what you had in mind, while drawing the character New Tharpe, was a desire to illustrate, in the broadest manner, the coming-of-age/initiation aspect of boyhood: New came face-to-face with the darkest of terrors, and survived—even heroically. Was this your intent?
McCAMMON: Yes, and I think this is a pivotal point in much of horror literature; it's the idea of crossing a threshold—a point of no return, if you will—and living to tell about it, to be changed and altered into something stronger. There's a saying, incidentally, that I think is very true, and I believe it has an Oriental origin: Whatever opposes me and does not kill me, makes me stronger. I think that's basically true of the initiation of experience, and nowhere is it more true than in horror literature.
THS: On a somewhat different note, of your novels, excluding Usher's Passing, which, in particular, do you consider the most accomplished?
McCAMMON: I always like to think the child I've just given birth to is the best, the brightest and the most handsome—until the next child is born, that is. I think I enjoyed writing They Thirst the most, though I think Mystery Walk is the closest to what I wanted it to be. I figure that if I can get a book to be 70 percent or so of what I first envisioned it to be, I'm happy—because translating from the mind to the paper can be a very tricky and demanding process.
THS: I'd like to know what your thoughts are on the past of supernatural literature. Is today's work "superior" to that proffered by the old masters—from Poe to Bierce, LeFanu to Leiber? Or is the question of quality perhaps irrelevant, and the genre's focus has simply evolved, changed with the times?
McCAMMON: The old masters of horror literature certainly had to have guts to do what they did—they had to say, "Hey, people! This is what I like doing—this is what I have to do—and it may not be very popular or make me rich, but that's the way it has to be!"
But the horror tale is as old as recorded literature—look at Beowulf, for instance. Lots of monsters and sword-swinging nastiness in that one ... and it is not fantasy, as some would say because Beowulf was written to mirror that particular era, whereas fantasy usually deals with an alternative reality. I think horror literature is the most elemental, most truthful type of fiction because horror writers are by-and-large unflinching observers of society and are unafraid to rip the lid off the old crate that everybody keeps down in their dark, private dungeon. Horror literature can be both the most experimental, most daring type of fiction and the most conservative and reassuring as well—I mean, we can tear the hell out of just about whatever we want to, create our style of nightmare-in-reality, and either leave that nightmare hanging or stitch up the wound and say, "Okay, folks—the demon's back in the box, it's okay to look now."
The most disturbing tale, I think, is one that leaves the nightmare unresolved—and I think Usher's does that, to some extent, because on one level Usher's is about nuclear arms sales, and I certainly don't think that's something that can be tied up in a neat little box and made to look pretty. But most horror novels take the demon out of the box, shake it in your face and then shove it back in that box again—and that's a very reassuring, conservative attitude. "Well, we humans—we good ole boys and girls—won out over the demon again. We looked him in the face, kicked him in the ass and shoved him back in the box!"
That's like waking up from a nightmare and finding yourself safe at home in your own warm bed, and you have vicariously conquered the demon—at least for a time.
Again, the old masters had to really have courage to do their thing—but I'm inclined to think that the writers of today are better. Let's be realistic and stack writers like Peter Straub, Charles Grant, Stephen King, Michael McDowell and Dean Koontz against Poe, Bierce and LeFanu—well, the horror field is extremely competitive these days, with the result that you have to keep going further and further out on a limb to find original—if anything can be considered totally original anymore!—ideas. Also, the quality of the writing and the characterization in today's horror fiction is excellent—even though life may still be echoing the basic themes the old masters set forth. I actually think the writers of today are producing works that would zap the minds of the old masters; I'd like to believe Poe, Bierce and LeFanu would look at our work and say, "Wow! Those guys are weird!"
Though—just a side thought—I've found horror authors to be among the nicest folks you could meet anywhere, because horror writers get to purge a lot of the things that make other people nasty.
THS: And what does the future hold for the Tale of Terror?
McCAMMON: The Tale of Terror—ah yes! Well, I was recently told by a publisher that "Horror fiction is dying."
THS: Oh no!
McCAMMON: My reply to that was, "No, horror fiction is not dying—reading is dying!" Because horror literature had been, is, and always will be a popular form of fiction, and if anybody tells you it's dying, they don't know much about it or they're tolling the death-knell for reading itself.
I have to laugh at the idea of somebody who doesn't know beans about the subject telling me that the same force that created The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Monk, "The Fall of the House of Usher," The Shining, and Shadowland is dying! No! Those emotions and conflicts are indestructible and reach far beyond publishing fads and fancies.
THS: In the genre of supernatural literature, whose works do you find yourself returning to again and again?
McCAMMON: Well, though not strictly supernatural, I love reading and re-reading the works of Ray Bradbury. He truly can weave a spell, and I love the music in his stories. I grew up on Poe, Bradbury, and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine—though when I was a kid I couldn't even bear to watch the horror movie previews at the local neighborhood theater. I always screamed and threw my hands over my eyes!
I was a real nerd, you see. Wore ties to class and everything. Slicked-back hair. Goofy grin. Yeech!
So, maybe when I write I'm back in that theater again, making myself look at the monsters I was too scared to behold as a kid. Who knows?
THS: Sounds like your boyhood days were frighteningly like my own. Now, when you write, do you work from an outline or are you an instinctual writer?
McCAMMON: No, I don't use an outline. I just go. Usually I have specific scenes in my head, but I really don't know what's going to happen. The only time I ever used an outline I almost went crazy from boredom and wound up chucking three-hundred pages into the oval file.
THS: Any new projects under way?
McCAMMON: I am just finishing up a large novel—about eight hundred pages, I believe—called Swan Song that I hope is going to be the novel of total nuclear holocaust. I've been working on this off-and-on for about four years, and the reason I haven't written it before now is that I couldn't! I think my writing skill has just recently reached a level that I can tackle something of this magnitude, and it's got all sorts of characters and subplots and heroes and villains—and I'm going to really miss these folks when I'm through.
But on to the next, which I'll he starting after Christmas.
THS: And now, what advice can you give the aspiring novelist?
McCAMMON: My advice to the aspiring novelist is to dare to take a personal demon or two out of that old locked box and throw him on pages, wrestle with him, say something about the world, about people, and about yourself. Make a difference! Give a damn! Work hard! And don't give up! Because if you do give up, the demon wins.
Author William J. Grabowski has just launched Oblivion Press, a new independent publishing house. This interview is reprinted here with his permission.