The book publishing industry is in a transition and there is no shortage of opinions as to the exact future destination. Are book stores dead? Will Amazon make all the rules? Is there a happy balance between traditional and Indie that maintains both freedom of voice and high quality material?
These may appear odd introductory questions for an author interview piece, but today’s guest, Richard Thomas, knows a little about transition. For the past twenty years of so the horror and, or, dark fiction genres have transformed and it is a dance that continues today. So who better than an author and editor from the dark fiction and horror world to shed some light on the subject and to help unveil a little of the truth in darkness.
WIDW: In books, horror elements exist in many genres, perhaps all of them, but as an official bookstore section it had a short shelf life in the US—say from Lovecraft to King in the 1980s. Even in most writing contests it’s grouped with Fantasy and Sci-Fi. Do you think “horror” deserves its own section in the book world?
RT: That’s an interesting question. A few years ago, I might have said a resounding YES. And while I do think that it’s very handy to have a horror section at the library or the bookstore, or even online these days, I see so much horror that crosses over. What do you call Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy? There is a ton of horrific fiction these days that is also fantastic, is also trangressive, sometimes with a literary voice (Red Moon by Benjamin Percy is NOT your usual werewolf book), with touches of magical realism, the surreal, Southern gothic, and the grotesque.
WIDW: The major category is certainly parsed among many different ones from zombies to psychotics. My opinion is the average “horror-type” reader is a pretty intelligent individual if not with more eclectic tastes. Do you think all the subcategories speak more to the difficulty in defining “horror” or is it more reflective of the diverse appetites of horror fans?
RT: Both. Some people do seek out specific horror voices, whether it’s zombies or post-apocalyptic or splatterpunk. But there are also novels that are quietly horrific, moments of terror. I do think many horror fans are intellectual, they like to be challenged—look at something like House of Leaves. But then somebody like Jack Ketchum with more of a “blue-collar voice” he really never looks away, the horror is right there, no denying it, with books like The Girl Next Door or Red or Offspring. Those books were important for me to read, but so were American Psycho and The End of Alice.
WIDW: Fans of the “darkness” are hard-core, very loyal, and rightfully critical of the material. They always want more and yet over the years the small press businesses have struggled and failed alongside many magazines dedicated to horror. Do you think its audience size, marketing issues, or something else that keeps the genre from crawling fully from its dark abyss?
RT: There will always be people that don’t like horror. There will always be fans that say they hate Stephen King and yet still love Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Stand By Me. There are a lot of really great small presses out there doing wonderful work in the horror genres, excellent magazines, too. I feel like it’s a bit of a BOOM right now, actually. Cemetery Dance is an institution with their books, as well as the magazine (and I don’t just say that because my story, “Chasing Ghosts” will be in there this fall), but also ChiZine, and DarkFuse and Medallion. It will always be a subset, I think. People want to call films and books anything but horror, at times—they think it is a stigma. What is The Road? It’s a post-apocalyptic horror story, but the language is elevated, for sure.
WIDW: Throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies horror went hollywood. It’s a very visual genre and sometimes works well on the screen, but often the themes within horror are reduced to blood, gore and sex. Although three of my favorites, do you think the movies may have hurt the prose?
RT: I don’t think so. If anything, it should PUSH the writers to tap into those thrills, to find a way to get it on the page. I don’t just watch horror films for the gore, that’s not enough for me—it’s boring. I like the story behind it all. For instance, I just watched Oldboy (the original) for the first time, and WOW, without spoiling anything, it is horrific, with one twist after another. Some of the films I mentioned already, The Machinist, I mean that’s such a dark film, but so intelligent and well done. Requiem for a Dream is another, based on the book by Hubert Selby, Jr. I think these days audiences want more, they are smarter, so whether it’s film or in print, you can’t just slap some blood on the page or screen, have a cat jump in a window, and call it a day.
WIDW: To the last point, when I say “I write horror” a frequent response is “Oh, I don’t read that stuff.” Horror fans know that much of the work deals with important human themes and conditions, just in the context of the extreme. Horror continues, however, to be the red-headed-step child of literature (no offense gingers). Do you think that writers would be better served with rebranding all of it under “Dark Fiction”?
RT: Interesting question. While I do write horror, I don’t call myself solely a horror writer. I do think saying that you write “dark fiction” is one way to expand out into fantasy/sf, crime/noir/neo-noir, as well as Southern gothic, etc.—and literary fiction, too. I’ve read some WILD stories in The New Yorker, not just Stephen King, which is obvious, but George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill. What I’m most interested in reading, and writing, and publishing these days is “neo-noir” which just means “new-black” an evolution of horror and crime, with bits of the speculative, and a literary voice. So you are definitely on to something. In fact, The New Black, the first book for Dark House Press (where I’m Editor-in-Chief) that I also edited, taps into that very idea—a mix of dark voices that cross over to several different genres. I’m seeing a lot of great slipstream, or hybrid fiction these days. And I love it.
WIDW: So purely opinion here—I believe a great place for a centralized effort to marketing the genre could be the Horror Writers Association. HWA, however, feels very focused on traditionally published writers even though, in my opinion, the next generation is independent authors. Do you think groups like HWA should open the doors further to Indie’s?
RT: Sure. But I already see the HWA embracing a lot of small presses and unknown authors. I think they may have a strong history in classic horror, and may want authors to embrace the horror label more, but I see a lot of great titles being accepted. Laird Barron just won a Stoker for best collection, and his voice is very original, not straight or classic horror at all. So, I think they’re broadening their definition of horror, for sure.
WIDW: And speaking of Independent Publishing—certainly many talented and of course not-so-talented writers are going out on their own. Do you think the rise of independent publishing is hurting, helping or some combination of both, the book industry?
RT: Hard to say. I think there are some terrible self-published titles out there, but also some really important books being published by independent authors.
WIDW: If you were the Lord Master of Dark Fiction, how would you instruct the would-be writer minions to improve our genre?
RT: Don’t shoot for the lowest common denominator. Be fresh, be passionate, and find your own voice. That’s what I see with a lot of neo-noir fiction, not the same old formulas, or settings, not the same characters and atmospheres. We still want the same experience, the thrill of it all, the scare, the ending that goes BAM leaving you shaking and drained and sweaty. We want the excitement, but not the same old story.
WIDW: You’ve been in the business a while with quite an impressive resume of work including editing, managing, your debut novel Transubstantiate and your recent two-book deal with Random House Alibi which includes the forthcoming Disintegration. You describe your genre as…wait…let me get enough air in my lungs to say it all… “neo-noir transgressive slipstream fiction.” Sounds kind of like Horror, but much cooler. I’m interested however in what exactly the average Amazon/Barnes and Noble shopper should expect from that genre?
RT: Ha, I’ll try to get enough air in my lungs to answer. Neo-noir simply means “new-black,” which for me, is contemporary dark fiction. It doesn’t rely on the same old formulas and expectations, the same monsters, the same stories. It’s a mix of horror and crime, tragedy and heavy atmosphere, all with a literary voice. Dennis Lehane is a voice that comes to mind. Transgressive, to me, is about people that rebel against the norms of society and engage in taboo behavior. So it’s the laws of man, the laws of society, laws of physics, you name it. It can be about sex, drugs, violence, incest, rape, murder, S&M, any sort of deviant behavior. I think of Chuck Palahniuk. Slipstream is two things, in my opinion—a story that slips in and out of reality, and one that slips in and out of various genres—fantasy, SF, horror, crime, etc. If you were to look at film, for instance, you might just call it dark drama or weird, directors like David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception), and David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), for example.
WIDW: You’re an author so I can’t let you out of the interview without asking—who were you’re influences that lead you to this career?
RT: I grew up reading Stephen King, he’s been a huge influence—I still love reading him today. As for horror I also love Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum, and Peter Straub. I got into Chuck Palahniuk after Fight Club came out which got me to Stephen Graham Jones, Will Christopher Baer and Craig Clevenger. And then through my MFA program I got into Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Haruki Murakami. Basically everyone in The New Black has been an influence on my writing as well.
WIDW: Richard thanks for joining us today. Where can readers find you and your work?
RT: Oh, I’m everywhere on Facebook and Twitter, I have a profile on Amazon, or you can check with your local bookstore, or Indiebound. My story in Cemetery Dance will be in Issue #72, the Halloween edition, in October. Disintegration will be out in May of 2015, and Four Corners in August of 2015. The New Black just released, and it’s in stores everywhere, or online. There are Dark House Press Facebook pages, for the press, and each title, and a Twitter account, too. If you go to my blog at http://www.whatdoesnotkillme.com there is a whole section of my FREE work online as well, if you want to see if you like what I’m doing.
“THE NEW BLACK ought to be the New High Standard for dark fiction anthologies. It’s loaded with intelligence and talent. Every one of the pieces in this extraordinary compilation is worthy of your full attention.” —Jack Ketchum
Staring Into the Abyss Blurb:
“The stories in STARING INTO THE ABYSS are little literary predators that are smart, savage, and stealthy, with a lethal pounce at the end. Readers who enjoy finely-crafted and genuinely disturbing dark fiction will love Richard Thomas’s outstanding collection.” —Lisa Morton, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Monsters in L.A. ”STARING INTO THE ABYSS by Richard Thomas is an outstanding book, a grim tapestry of broken lives and shattered dreams, of dark fantasies and dark reflections. It’s one of the better single-author collections I’ve had the pleasure to read in recent years, and as such, gets my highest recommendation. It’s also a fine testament to a talent I suspect we are going to be hearing a lot more from, and soon.” —Kealan Patrick Burke, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Turtle Boy, and Kin.
About Richard Thomas
BIO: Richard Thomas is the author of five books—Disintegration (Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications), and two short story collections, Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press) and Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), as well as one novella of Four Corners (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Pear Noir!, Chrial Mad 2, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine, One Buck Horror, and Jotspeak and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of three anthologies out in 2014: The New Black (Dark House Press), The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he is a book critic at The Nervous Breakdown, a columnist at LitReactor, and Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. He agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit http://www.whatdoesnotkillme.com
About the Upcoming Disintegration
This is the story of a man whose happy family life is lost to him through a wretched collision of bad luck and bad blood. Cursed by night terrors and day tremors, he finds a vengeful relief in his new role as assassin for criminal underlord Vlad. Marking each successful hit with a tattoo, he celebrates his killing of those perverts, pedophiles, and murderers who most deserved to die…or did they? Set in the meanest streets of Chicago, this neo-noir thriller reveals how far one man can fall while struggling to save his soul—one terrible sacrifice at a time. Out with Random House Alibi in May of 2015.
Categories: IAI - Indie Author Interviews