Originally posted on CircletPress by JKB on October 7th, 2008. Reprinted here since it is no longer online.
John Everson is the author of two (soon to be three) novels and dozens of short stories of horror and dark fantasy. He has recently re-released his first novel Covenant as a mass market paperback with Leisure Books. Look for him on the shelves of your local bookstore, or online at www.johneverson.com.
How did you start writing horror and dark fantasy?
Growing up, I read hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels—I was very much a “golden age of sci-fi” kid, reading and re-reading Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Clifford Simak, Eric Frank Russell, Robert Heinlein, Keith Laumer… But while my reading tastes were “in space” I watched a lot of programs like Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Night Gallery and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Since I was a voracious reader, I think it was a natural progression that I always wanted to “give back” and produce the same kind of enjoyment for others that I had received from books. My initial short stories had a stronger foot in science fiction backgrounds, but seemed to naturally veer into darker “twist” tales along the lines of those television series stories. I found myself coming up with things more in a Twilight Zone vein than a space opera style, which is what I’d grown up reading. So it wasn’t really a conscious decision to write horror—that was kind of a surprise to me. But those are the stories that popped to mind when I would sit down to create something.
Is there something particularly compelling to you about horror and/or dark fantasy?
Just as with old style science fiction, I love the sense of “the unexplored” and often “the unexplained” in dark fantasy. With horror and dark fantasy, there’s a sort of “anything can happen” feeling that I relish. As a reader, I always wanted to escape into another world—to be transported into a place that was unfamiliar. So I read a lot about alien worlds because they were exotic and offered wild opportunity and often featured characters with powers and experiences very different from anything we could ever come in contact with. I used to love characters that had super mental powers, which you saw a lot of in science fiction… and then Stephen King’s Firestarter showed me how that could also work in a horror novel. But I loved that sense of wonder that those wildly imaginative novels brought. That’s why I don’t have any particular interest in writing horror that deals with real-world problems like a psychological study of a serial killer. I can see that in the newspapers and as a reader I want to escape the troubled realities of this world, not explore them deeper. So virtually all of my horror truly has a dark fantasy element to it—something about [all of] my fictional worlds is generally outside the realm of our existence, unless you fully believe in ghosts, or erotic creatures who can suck away memory, or taxidermists who embalm people in a way that immobilizes them yet keeps them conscious forever, or boys who perform the unspeakable and in doing so create an all-consuming pumpkin queen.
How do you integrate erotic elements into horror writing while still retaining the potency of both elements?
Well, that implies that the two are disparate elements… I don’t think they are. The most exposed and vulnerable time of our existence is arguably during sex—to release yourself to the potential ridicule (or outright wounding as you expose your most private aspect) by another human being during that act is inherently scary, as well as exhilarating. And our culture treats sex with a bizarre duality. On one hand, it uses provocative imagery to sell virtually everything in the free world—I’ve seen banks use sexual imagery on billboards to sell mortgages! (When did mortgages become sexy?) At the same time, while we’re growing up, most sexual deeds are spoken of by adults in whispers. We hide our nakedness and curse using sexual terms yet forbid our children from using those same terms (most parents do, anyway). So we turn sex into a dark whispered land of hidden unspeakable secrets for each new generation—what more fertile ground can there be, then, for horror? Horror is simply fear, and if sex is a hidden secret thing, doesn’t it make sense that there is inherent darkness, and something to be afraid of there?
Clichéd horror movies take the most surface aspect of this conceit and basically exploit the “if you have premarital sex you’re doomed to die because you’ve broken the moral code (sex before marriage).” But I think the way our culture treats sex ultimately makes it more scary than it already is due to its inherent physical danger. And so [the] erotic and horror become yin and yang—inseparable. Figuratively (and in some stories very literally) joined at the hip.
What is the appeal for you of adding the erotic to dark fantasy and horror?
Again, I think they are natural thematic partners. The exposure of the erotic puts characters in a vulnerable position—erotic elements in horror serve to titillate the reader, certainly. But they also help build the feeling of “exposure,” and in exposure there is certainly danger along with the potential ecstatic payoff.
But for me in particular, I suppose the themes of erotic horror in my writing also stem in part from a reaction against my upbringing. I’m a liberal in most ideological respects who came from an ultra-conservative Catholic home with a mother who believed that Sunday mass should still be said in Latin and that the act of masturbation needed to be confessed like an act of thievery or murder to a strangely robed man in a dark windowless confessional in church every week. That vilification of sexuality mixed up with images of dark spaces, forced penitence and an obsession with ancient chants in another language certainly set a ripe stage in my subconscious for erotic horror (it’s good—it’s bad—it’s good—it’s bad) with incense-scented hooks of an unseen afterlife tossed in.
How does your real life experience get translated into your writing?
While I think many of the twists and craziness reflected in my fiction are the result of an occasionally overstimulated imagination, there are always pieces of me and the things I see embedded in my fiction. The lead character Joe, in my novels Covenant and Sacrifice is a reporter. I’m a journalism major who started my professional career as a suburban newspaper reporter, so certainly the “humdrum” aspects of Joe’s experience in covering local village board meetings is enlightened by my own life experience. On the other hand, I was never personally seduced by a fortune teller under the influence of a demon. Joe has all the fun I never did!
Is writing horror different from writing other genres?
I don’t think so. Storytelling is storytelling, regardless of whether you’re writing about a train robbery in the old west or an interspecies love story in outer space or a vampire with a lust for blondes drunk on Bloody Marys. It’s all about creating characters the reader can and wants to identify with. You have to create the rules of your fictional world, whatever genre it exists in, and entrance the reader with your characters’ voices to get them to buy into those rules. Then you take the reader on a ride that lives within that world. It’s when your voice is weak and/or you violate the rules you set up at the start of your fictional world that you lose the reader. But that’s the same whether you’re writing a love story or an occult mystery.
What is your writing process like?
I’m an immersion writer. What I mean by that is, when I write, I have to sort of ramp up mentally to get into the “groove”, and then I stay there for short intense marathons. Some writers work for an hour every day and knock out five hundred to one thousand words before going to their day job, and slowly, consistently put their work together. I usually take an hour of screwing around at the keyboard before the wheels really start digging in and getting some creative traction. Once I’m ramped up and there, I’ll spend three to four hours on intense writing, and get three to four thousand words of finished fiction out of it. With a busy day job and a toddler at home, I can’t do that kind of routine every day—I have to dedicate one night a week to working on a project, when I’m working. And I usually try to do that by settling in at a bar away from home, so there are no distractions. I’ll hole up in a corner with some nachos or hot wings (good nibbling finger food) and a steady flow of Newcastle and work for the night. Then I might put in some time in an afternoon on the weekend… Or not, depending on the deadline of the project. I’ve churned out fifty thousand words in a month before, and then not written another word of fiction for the next two to three months. So, the short answer is, I write in erratic, intense spurts of dedicated creativity rather than on a daily schedule.
Are/were there authors who influence your writing?
Richard Matheson is an early favorite, because of his meld of science fiction and dark fantasy. He wrote a lot of those Twilight Zone stories that we all still love today and I know some of those are what I imitated early on. I admire Stephen King for his wide range of inspired “worlds” and his amazing ability to sketch out a character that you can instantly see in your head, and Anne Rice for her gothic world-building that truly brought to life a modern world where believable vampires and witches exist. Clive Barker’s early work includes some of the most gruesomely beautiful stories ever written while Edward Lee’s novels are like erotic horror carnival rides where he just keeps jacking up the energy. And my “lighter” fantasy work is hugely influenced by Neil Gaiman and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, who have written some of the most entertaining stories about worlds one step to the left of ours that I’ve ever read.
Do you have a favorite story or work of yours, and why that one?
I don’t think I’ve produced enough novels yet to look back and pick a favorite—I have two published and just finished a third. I have a few short stories that I like for different reasons. “Pumpkin Head” is a perennial favorite because I think it captures some of the dark magic of Halloween, with the purely strange element of a pumpkin queen and the erotic perversity of a teen who does the dark deed that brings her to life. That story has been published a handful of times now. And “Bloodroses”, which was published in both my first and third short story collections is another favorite, because in some ways it’s my “hardest” story in terms of emotional horror. My Needles & Sins collection from Necro Publications last year includes “Bloodroses” and pulls together most of my strongest short stories overall. In particular from that book, I also love “Letting Go,” a story that made the Bram Stoker Award ballot last year. That tale is a very personal story to me. While I’ve never seen people so filled with desire that they will continue to screw even as their skin dissolves, and I’ve never tasted an elixir that evokes heaven for even a brief time, the emotional torture the characters explore is something that comes from my own internal journey.
Why did you decide to re-release Covenant with Leisure Books?
I always hoped that Covenant would ultimately find a mass market home and be available in bookstores everywhere. I was ecstatic when the book first came out in a beautiful hardcover edition from Delirium Books, but that edition was also only made available to two hundred and fifty people. I would like to touch more readers than that, especially with a book that took me years to finally complete. Certainly in my newspaper career, my writing has always been read by tens of thousands of people, and I’d like for my fiction to be accessible to thousands as well. I will always call the small press home, because the core horror fans all “live” there and that’s where I was “raised” as a fiction writer. At the same time, I want to inspire a dream and a shiver now and then to those people who browse the bookstores and libraries just looking for something different, people who are like I was, growing up. And most of those people will never even hear of the small press community. So I’d like to live in both worlds.
Where do you think horror is heading as a genre? What place do you think it currently has in the publishing industry?
At the moment horror as a branded genre seems to be heading towards dissolution. Many bookstores now lump “horror” books into the Fiction & Literature section or categorize horror novels as “thrillers.” Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampire hunter series is often shelved not in the dwindling Horror section, but in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Meanwhile, there’s a growing subgenre of “paranormal romance” which takes many of the tropes of horror and spins them with a sexier twist. Nobody wants to call a horror novel “horror” anymore. Which, as a reader, I don’t get. I WANT to be able to walk into a store and go to a section that includes the kind of book I like to read. But that’s eroding away, as far as “horror” is concerned. Certainly most people didn’t call Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones a “horror” novel. Yet, that’s what it was. The core of Horror with a capital H is fear, and humans are innately fearful creatures who conquer their fears by telling stories about it. That will never change, no matter how you brand the stories. There will always be stories about death and the afterlife coming back to impact the living, because we’re afraid of our mortality and what may or may not lay beyond it. Whether that is symbolized by a ghost or a vampire or a zombie or a ghoul or a—fill in your own favorite monster here—is immaterial. And where you shelve it in the bookstore doesn’t change the reality of what those stories are. Horror’s not really going to change or go away, because it’s an exploration of fear, and our fears today at their core are largely the same as they were one hundred or one thousand years ago. Plain and simple, we don’t want to die, or to have those we love die… And we’re afraid of death coming for us.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author who considers him/herself a horror writer, especially in light of the apparent dwindling of the genre?
Write paranormal romances?
Seriously, if you’re in the game simply to have financial career success, horror is probably the wrong genre to focus on. It will certainly be the hardest of the genres to make a real living at. Drop some of the dark fantasy and move your writing towards “thrillers” which are great sellers these days. For me? I write the kind of stories I like to read and don’t worry about the genre. I write about characters and plots that intrigue me. I couldn’t personally set out to write in a specific genre simply because that’s what was selling. I’d like to say that if you believe in your story, are personally entertained by it and tell it well, that it will sell regardless of genre. Unfortunately, I don’t actually believe that’s true. But it’s the way I personally “live” as a writer. I do my best to tell the stories that come to me and stick in my head without going away. And I hope that they ultimately provide some enjoyment to readers who find them, whatever shelf they end up on in the bookstore!
What do you, personally, find scary? Have you ever scared yourself with your own writing?
I’m afraid of death, and afraid of losing the people I value in my life. I’m afraid of losing the life I’ve built through circumstances I cannot control. I’ve occasionally creeped myself out by my writing, but not a lot. I think because I am the creator of the events in the fiction it doesn’t impact me that way. But I always get a kick when someone tells me they read Covenant or one of my short stories and had a nightmare. I always think, Really? Why??
Are there any horror tropes you tend to avoid? Are there any you’re particularly fond of?
I tend to focus on demon/occult power sorts of horror. Stories that somehow bring through the frightening potential of another place where amazing things are possible compared to our staid realm of physical law. As I said before, serial killers for the sake of invoking terror don’t interest me—they ARE scary, but that’s just real life. And I want to escape real life when I read (or write). But a serial killer who is performing ritual killings with an erotic hook that are intended to bring through a breed of blood-lusting succubi to our world… Now that interests me (and that serves as the jump-off point for my second novel, Sacrifice).
Do you have anything new coming up that you want to tell people about?
Covenant is, of course, out now and for the next few weeks I’m dedicating all my free time to a book tour to promote it. Sacrifice, the sequel, will be out in June of 2009. This summer I finished a new unrelated novel called The 13th, which I’ll be turning in to Leisure this month (I’m doing some final proofing and edits now). That will be out in 2010, I would imagine. I’ve also got some short fiction due out any day—I just finished co-writing a Halloween tale for Doorways Magazine with Gary Braunbeck and JF Gonzalez, which will be out in October. My novelette “In Memoryum” should be out in the next few weeks in the Dark Hart anthology Fearful Symmetry, Deadly Beauty. And another novelette, “Fish Bait,” which I wrote after a visit to some of my old CyberPsycho’s Magazine friends in Denver a couple years ago, will be out soon in Cutting Block Press’s Horror Library Vol. 3 anthology. My own small press, Dark Arts Books (www.darkartsbooks.com) released two anthologies this year—Sins of the Sirens, an erotic horror anthology, and Like A Chinese Tattoo, a combination of literary horror and over-the-top humorously gruesome horror. Those books each feature multiple stories by four authors—a great way to get to know the breadth and depth of phenomenal short story writers. This winter we’ll be gearing up to put together and release our fifth Dark Arts volume for the World Horror Convention next spring, while at the same time, I’ll be starting work on my fourth novel.
So, it will be a busy next few months for me! Anyone who wants to check in about my projects, read some free fiction or check out some of my horror-related art and music can visit www.johneverson.com where you can also read my blog and signup for my monthly e-newsletter. Thanks for interviewing me about my “Dark Arts”!
Thank you John.