Twilight Zone Interview: Robert R. McCammon

The Twilight Zone Magazine, October 1986

From the Archives:
"Interview: Robert R. McCammon"
by Joe R. Lansdale

Editor's note: The following interview originally appeared in the October 1986 issue of The Twilight Zone Magazine. It has been reprinted here with the permission of Joe R. Lansdale.

Almost anyone who has met Robert R. McCammon will mention that he is the embodiment of the perfect Southern gentleman, the kind of guy you wouldn't mind your daughter bringing home. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, he is soft-spoken, modest, and polite. He hardly seems like the man to have written several popular horror novels, but he is the author of Baal, The Night Boat, Bethany's Sin, and, of more recent vintage, They Thirst, Mystery Walk, Usher's Passing, and the forthcoming Swan Song.

The stats on Robert R. McCammon are as follows: He was born July 17, 1952, "a day of suffering heat," he says as if he remembers. He has a younger brother, Michael; majored in journalism at the University of Alabama, where he was the editor of the college paper; and claims the high-point of his career was interviewing Linda Lovelace (pre-religion days) while she was wearing a see-through blouse. He is married to Sally Sanders McCammon, for ten years a first-grade teacher, who helped him survive Halley's comet.

As a novelist, McCammon has fast evolved from a teller of simplistic morality tales into a first-rate author, a master of subtlety. His prose is among the sharpest and finest in the field, poetic on one hand, hardboiled on the other, and his hackle-raising skills are unsurpassed, not even by the acknowledged master, Stephen King.

Recently his short stories have been met with equal enthusiasm. "Nightcrawlers," which first appeared in Masques, edited by Jerry N. Williamson, is arguably McCammon's best work to date. It was translated to television via the new Twilight Zone show to become one of the finer half hours to appear on the tube, and certainly the most frightening. His most recent story, "The Red House," which appeared in Charles L. Grant's Greystone Bay, has just been picked up for inclusion in The Year's Best Fantasy Stories. This positive response has inspired McCammon to devote more of his time to the form.

When this interview was conducted, he was hard at work on a new short story and another novel, which he hopes to have finished by year's end. [The novel was Stinger—Ed.]

Lansdale: It's been nine years since your first book, Baal. How do you feel about it now?

McCammon: Baal, Bethany's Sin, and The Night Boat probably should've stayed locked away in my desk drawer and never been shown the light of day, much less publication. They're feeble attempts, but I believe in what a friend told me a long time ago: "You do the best you can at the time." At that time, those books were the best I could do. I was learning, and I was lucky. Lucky in that the first book I ever wrote was accepted by Avon for publication. But I look back on those and shudder, because all those books seem so labored and methodical to me now. I was allowed by the vagaries of the publishing business to break in probably before I was really ready. It's amazing to me that those books still sell. I mean, really! Just the other day I got royalties on those books. That's incredible to me, that someone out there is still buying what I consider to be akin to a child's finger-painting. Not that I didn't enjoy writing those books or feel that some of that material is pretty strong—I'm just a different person now, and those early books seem as if they were written by someone I used to know.

I was a kid when I wrote Baal in 1977, just two years out of college. I couldn't find a job in newspaper reporting, which is what I really wanted to do. I was blocked and frustrated and full of rage, and that's what spilled out and became Baal. That book is all anger and shouting. I've learned that sometimes a whisper communicates more effectively. I've learned about tones and undercurrents and foreshadowing, and that characters—real people—rarely have souls that are all black and white. I think I've learned compassion for my characters, and I hope that shows through in my work.

Lansdale: Unlike a lot of writers in the genre, you didn't really hang around with people in the field. I was wondering if you ever felt isolated from the rest of the horror community.

McCammon: I felt terribly isolated. I didn't know any writers, I had no contact with writers, I had no mentor, and my folks kept telling me that writing was a good hobby, but I'd never make any money at it. I didn't know there was a "horror community." Out of that feeling of isolation came my hopes for a horror writer's organization. I think, at that time also, that I had a real need to be liked. But I was never a joiner; I was always pretty much of a loner, which is why I like writing so much, because you're on your own, and I prefer it that way. But still, there's a need in me to be part of a larger picture, too.

The "horror community" is just like any other part of life—there are cliques and factions; there are the people who live by the railroad tracks and those who inhabit the white mansions on the hill. I find it difficult to accept the fact that some look down on others, because we're all working in the same town and we all know what the work takes. But that's life, isn't it? Everybody was once a beginner, laboring by the railroad tracks, but some people in our town feel they were born in the white mansions.

Lansdale: This gets asked of nearly all writers—especially horror writers—but, do you think your childhood contributed directly to the sort of material you write?

McCammon: This question does get asked all the time—but rarely is it answered straight. So I'll give you a straight answer: I was raised by my grandparents who lived in a very large house in a nice section of Birmingham while my mother was off trying to be an actress in Hollywood and my father—who I never saw except once when I was about four years old when he came by with his new wife—played drums in a traveling band. My grandfather was—is, because he's going on eighty-six—a rich man, but very cold. He's the kind who watches Ernest Angley every Sunday night and slams the door in the face of the kid who's collecting for the March of Dimes. On Sunday mornings I was made painfully aware of the fact that if I didn't get out of bed and go to church with him, I'd get a belt-whipping.

But as a child I had every material thing you can think of. I had a soft, easy childhood, but I paid for it in subtle ways. I know now that you pay for everything. Nothing is free. My grandparents fought a lot, using me as a shield and a weapon between them, and if they read this, they'll scream and have a fit because it was always so very, very important to them that they appear perfect. Which taught me a good lesson—you can't grow unless you admit your imperfections. You can't stretch if you don't admit that you're too short.

But for all that, my grandfather did two wonderful things: he read to me, and he told me ghost stories. He unlocked my mind, which helped me escape the realities of being a skinny, gawky, painfully shy kid. I started reading everything I could lay my hands on. I made A's in spelling. English was a snap. So my grandfather, more than anybody, started me out to be a writer.

Lansdale: What sort of work did you do before you became a writer?

McCammon: Before I typed a word of Baal, I was an usher in a theater, I carried advertising copy around a department store, I worked in a B. Dalton bookstore, and I wrote headlines and corrected stories on the copydesk of a Birmingham newspaper. I tried doing freelance stories myself—such as riding with a truck driver through Florida and unloading 26,000 pounds of animal feed, spending Christmas Eve at a local homeless mission, going down into a God-awful wilderness canyon hunting Alabama's "Bigfoot," and crashing onto a movie set where Jeff Bridges and Sally Field were working by passing myself off as a Rolling Stone reporter. Didn't work. I was close to lunacy then. Anyway, it was all grist for the mill, and I don't think any experience is ever wasted.

Lansdale: I get the impression that, unlike a lot of horror writers, you're happy with the field. Don't you have any other kind of story you want to tell?

McCammon: Consider this: Horror writing is about God, the Devil, sin, good, evil, life, death, decay, redemption, struggle, torment, and truth. What other kind of writing covers the bases like that? In what other field can you write with a hammer and a feather? I love writing, and I love writing horror novels and stories because that's my voice. That's how I speak, and I'm very proud to be associated with the field because I think horror writing is the fundamental literature of humanity.

I'm talking about books now, not films. Most of the current horror films have nothing at all to say, so they throw blood in your face and tapdance on entrails. Not to say that scenes of blood and entrails are bad, but for a film or book to be based on empty murder scenes is worthless. I think horror novels, in general, retain a nobility, while horror films have become guttersnipes. The tragedy is when horror writers, seeing the "success" of such films, begin to believe that they should follow the trend. Thus, as soon as you introduce yourself to a mixed audience as a "horror writer," you instantly are identified with the films that go for the lowest common denominator. In this genre, we're judged by the worst of the work instead of the best.

Actually, I'm still trying to figure out what horror is. The great thing about the genre is that it's an elusive animal, and there are so many tales yet to be told! So I'll stick with horror writing until I find a kind of literature that speaks more strongly about the human condition. I don't think there is one.

Lansdale: What writers do you admire; who has influenced your work?

McCammon: In other words, who have I ripped off lately? Actually, one of my strongest influences—besides Poe and Bradbury—has been Walter van Tilburg Clark, who wrote "The Ox-Bow Incident" and a great book called The Track of the Cat, which superficially is about the search for a panther in a snowstorm but is also about the breakdown of the American family and the death of Western—as in cowboy-and-Indian—mythology. In fact, I'm working on a horror novel right now that's set in the West and is kind of a punk Magnificent Seven tale. [Stinger—Ed.]

I used to read a lot of Ian Fleming. I wrote a couple of spy novels, not intended for publication. Tossed into a drawer. Forgotten, mercifully. I realize now that much of my style comes from Fleming. I begin a lot of sentences with "But" and "And"—straight out of Ian Fleming's stylebook. I tried for the James Bond series a few years back, but an English gentleman got it. Unfortunately, the new Bond novels have the substance of cardboard steaks. Does anybody really think Bond would drive a car with an exhaust emission system or smoke filter-tipped cigarettes? I'm surprised he didn't ask for Nehi-grape "shaken not stirred."

I also admire Dean Koontz, Jere Cunningham, Charles L. Grant, Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, John Farris, and I wish I could write like Thomas Tryon more than anybody on earth. Tom, get back to work!

Lansdale: On occasion you've been accused of being overly influenced by Stephen King. Has he affected your work?

McCammon: Yes, I've been accused of being overly influenced by King's work. I agree that I have been. King throws such a huge shadow and is everywhere, and being a horror writer today, you cannot escape his shadow. Now, I really enjoy doing multi-character, multi-viewpoint novels because I like to get into a lot of heads and look through many sets of eyeballs. I enjoy doing long, complex clash-and-bash sagas. That's what I like to read; that's what I like to write. Maybe in that sense, I have been overly influenced. But should I stop writing what I enjoy doing and try to stuff myself into smaller shoes?

I recently read a review of Usher's Passing that said I was "walking on King-Straub territory," as if the reviewer was a watchdog guarding the Mason-Dixon line. And another thing I think is just as unfair is when a reviewer trumpets "McCammon is the next Stephen King!" That's utterly ridiculous and is guaranteed to make my gut churn. The problem here is that people want to label you; they want to put you in a box and nail you in, and when you start trying to break it open, they remind you that you'd better know your place. One editor told me I was "writing over the heads of my audience," as if I were a dog-trainer who should lower the bone so the animals wouldn't have to jump so high. Well, when you start breaking out of the box you've been put into, there is no lack of people—toadies, actually—who want to beat you back inside and snap the lid shut.

As I said, I'm still learning. And part of that continuing education is finding a voice that can be my own. I hope I'm making giant strides in that direction.

Lansdale: I believe you told me once that you read little fiction when you're working for fear of it rubbing off on you. But since you work consistently, when do you read in the field, if ever? And if you don't read horror, what do you read?

McCammon: I never forget. Really. Never. My memory is like a sponge, and I have a horror of writing something and then somebody saying, "Hey! This McCammon thing is just like a short story published in Doc Savage magazine in 1936!" Seriously. So my reading in the field has diminished because I don't want to come up with a great idea and realize halfway into the novel that the core is from something I read six or seven years ago.

I only read fiction now when I'm between novels, and I'm very selective about what I read. But I do read every day—histories and biographies. Every year I set myself a reading project: a few years ago it was the American Revolution, then the Civil War Era, then World War II. This year my project will be the life of Napoleon, and I've just finished a huge book by David Chandler called, aptly enough, The Campaigns of Napoleon.

Lansdale: Not all of your fiction has been set in the South, but it is my opinion that your best works have been. Do you think there is something about the landscape, the people, that lends itself to dark fiction of one kind or another, be it supernatural horror or the human miseries of a Tennessee Williams play?

McCammon: I once resisted being called a "Southern writer." Know what that means to me? I get the picture of a fop sitting under the magnolias, drinking a whisky, and moaning that there'll never be writers the caliber of Williams and Faulkner again. Most of the Southern writers I know are still fighting the Civil War and just dripping in pretense. I don't like bullshit. I don't like "writers" who publish one short story every two or three years and talk about the agony of art. If you're a real writer, you just do what you do and to hell with the poses. "Southern writers," by and large, seem to be waiting for a handout like refugees from the Reconstruction, and I did not want to be included with that ilk.

But I misjudged one thing: the power of the land. There really is a poetry in the South that I'm just beginning to understand. I love living in the South. I love warm winters and hot summers, mist in the morning, lightning bugs at night. This is a great, rich place—but, still, there's a loneliness here, and maybe that goes back to the old "cultured" civilization that was destroyed in the Civil War. Even ruins seem more poignant in a Southern forest. I think the Southern history—of great lavish balls and plantations and lynchings and unspeakable brutalities, genteel culture and horrid secrets of blood and birth all mingled together—does hold a great power and influence over literature, particularly the literature of the supernatural. I think the South and New England have a common bond of rigid religion and unwanted babies thrown down the well. Anywhere you have such a combination of light and darkness, the potential for writing about that place is going to be very strong. I plan to base more work in the South, because I'm beginning to understand more about this place. Or maybe I want to understand more. In any case, I'm starting to hear the poetry.

Lansdale: Unlike most writers in this field, you seldom do short stories. Will there be more short stories in the future?

McCammon: Well, I'm trying to do more short stories. A good one is very hard to do. I think I'm basically a novelist, and that's my mind set. I've begun a lot of stories and never sent them out because I realized there were good novel ideas tucked into them, or a scene I could use in a book a little farther down the line. Still, I'm very encouraged by people enjoying my shorter work, so I'll probably try more of them when I can.

Lansdale: What did you think of Twilight Zone's adaptation of "Nightcrawlers"?

McCammon: TZ did a great job! I'd had a short story adapted for ABC's Darkroom series a few years ago, and that was a disaster! Even the names of the minor characters were changed for some reason, everything was all turned-around and bass-ackwards—and I had the vision of cigar-chewing California cats sitting around a big table trying to justify their fifty-thousand-a-year salaries by twisting the dials on a sputtering Idea Machine. But TZ was very faithful to the work—Friedkin did a fabulous job—and since one of my favorite rock bands is X, I was pleased to see Xene in the part of the waitress. Nifty!

Lansdale: Horror fiction deals with death and darkness, but is there a positive side to it?

McCammon: Yes, horror writing is certainly a positive force. I think it's like a smart little bad-ass in a church full of stiff-backed conservatives, and the preacher is emoting up a storm and on a roll, but every time he shouts "Amen!" in sweating fervor, the kid shouts, "Why?" Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted. It's not safe, and it probably rots your teeth, too. Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader's own will. And since horror can be many, many things and go in many, many directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the readers loose. It's always new, always creating itself over and over again, trying to attain an impossible perfection. I love it!

Lansdale: Where do you think horror fiction is going? You must think it has a future, since you came up with an idea for an organization called The Horror Writers of America.

McCammon: I see some sharp experimental work emerging from small press publishers. Horror fiction is kind of like art in Paris during the time of Gauguin and Van Gogh; there are a lot of fine voices, a lot of fine touches and elements at work, but probably a lot of the more experimental voices will never find full expression because "mainstream" publishers shy away from bizarre material. Still, I see an explosion in the horror field. Nobody can define horror, so everyone tackles it a bit differently. And horror fiction is cyclical, just like any element of the culture, but of its future I have no doubt. Horror fiction has been around since the birth of ideas, and as long as there are ideas, there will be dark dreams as well.

I have great hopes for The Horror Writers of America as a solid base for the future of our craft. We've drifted way too long as bastard children between fantasy and science fiction, and we need a name for that place where the houses sit by the railroad tracks and the white mansions perch on the hill. That place will have room for everyone, and horror fiction itself will be stronger for having a home.

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