... John Shirley on horror, the market and the basics of terror

John Shirley... John Shirley ...
on horror, the market and the basics of terror

zur deutschen Version During the 80's, some books (SF and Horror) by John Shirley were published by Heyne. Then he was became almost forgotten in Germany - wrongly, imho. Voodoo-Press rediscovered him. This publisher plans a title for his story collection »Black Butterflies« with the ›‹Bram Stoker Award‹ and the ›International Horror Guild Award‹-winner. Title: »The Other End«. Shirley himself pointed us towards the story »Bleak History«. We talked to him about horror, and he has interesting insights. But read for yourself ...

Zauberspiegel: You're sitting in many saddles. Horror- and SF novels and stories, screenplays. What is the market for horror in print in the U.S. Currently like? Does horror belong to mainstream (and is thus suitable for becoming a bestseller), or is it going to belong more among niche markets?
John Shirley: Horror sometimes becomes best-selling, here, as in Stephen King and Peter Straub, most of the time it's a niche market. It's a smaller one than it used to be. One of the main horror publishers, Leisure, stopped publishing, for the most part. Not everyone likes to be horrified, it seems.. It does seem to come in cycles; the glut is certainly over long ago. However there is always going to be some market for it. Much of it now is tinctured, diluted, with other forms, eg there's the horror-detective novel, the vampire-detective novel, the ghost-detective novel, the urban fantasy which contains horror elements (as in my novel Bleak History) and so on. The market is in transition because of the decline of bookstores, the increase in ebooks and online bookstores, and the purchase of publishing houses by multinationals who eliminate anything that doesn't produce a huge profit. So you get a lot of vampire novels and tie-in novels relating to movies and tv series...There *are* small press publishers like Cemetary Dance and Prime Books who put out some adventurous, innovative horror and dark fantasy, still. Underlands Press is another--they're doing my story collection IN EXTREMIS: THE MOST EXTREME STORIES OF JOHN SHIRLEY which is certainly edgy, and not mainstream.

Zauberspiegel: In an interview with the Zauberspiegel fantasy author Brent Weeks said that horror in the print was a "glut in the 80's." And so here in Germany. There just weren't enough horror titles. On some thrillers a label "horror-thriller” was printed to meet readers' demands.
Now "dark Fantasy" or "urban fantasy" novels are available in laarge amounts, who previously would have been assigned to horror.
How did you experience this time, what were your experiences, and, in your view, why is it that the label "horror” is replaced by the label "fantasy"?

John Shirley: There is a synthesis of genres, so that oftentimes horror and fantasy and action go together, as in movies like Blade and TV series like True Blood and as in urban fantasy novels. I see nothing wrong with expanding the genre. Pure horror is still there, mostly in smaller presses but sometimes with popular authors in larger ones. I write to some extent in the genre that suits the theme, of what I'm writing. My work is intended to be meaningful as well as entertaining. So I've written science fiction in order to express some themes--like social commentary-- especially cyberpunk, as in novels like Black Glass, and the A Song Called Youth trilogy but those also have always had horrific elements. I've written horror to express existential and metaphysical ideas, as in my novel Demons. I don't mind blending them--as in my novel Bleak History. I have a new novel that's essentially a mainstream naturalistic horror novel called EVERYTHING IS BROKEN about tsunamis, and political deterioration leading to social wreckage (the novel was written before the Japanese tsunami) and that novel is a mix of a Steinbeckian novel of social conditions, an action novel a la Robert Parker, a dystopian novel a la John Brunner. So I'm used to blending forms.

Zauberspiegel: On the big screen horror very often “works” through violence and sex. Do more sex and more violence present a “new” way for horror in the area of printmedia? Or isn't it rather boring to sit and read about belching innards or a flying brain on the way to the wall? Where are the limits of such descriptions until the author gets bogged down the story is getting rather boring? Things that take seconds on the big screen in seconds can fill several pages of epic description.
John Shirley: I'm not interested in brutal imagery for its own sake. Sometimes I look for ways to wake the reader up and it can involve extreme imagery--as in IN EXTREMIS--but I'm just as interested in subtler horror and prefer it when I see it in films. I liked BLAIR WITCH PROJECT for that and INSIDIOUS and the original Robert Wise version of THE HAUNTING and the movie THE OTHERS. Not that I'm opposed to monstrous horror. I like Del Toro's work too. I do think that yes, people can become bored with it. Some people are very narrow in their tastes and some may be sublimating sadistic impulses, when they get into movies like The Devil's Rejects or Audition. I have however in some books tried to innovate in my description of grand scale horror, especially in IN DARKNESS WAITING. But I think it can be done intelligently.

Zauberspiegel: Is horror actually not rather the moments before "sex and violence" break ouot and when the victim tries to escape from the threat that is inexorably approaching. Isn't violence more of a catharsis, a moment of cleansing, redemption?
John Shirley: Yes I think there's truth in that. Some of the most effective horror and thriller material has been about risk. Obviously there's Hitchcock for that. The scariest parts of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE are when the girl is trying to escape. Shock is an effect in the art form of horror itself however and sometimes shock includes sudden violence.

Zauberspiegel: On the TV-screen (including Supernatural) and in movies horror is booming. Is this due to the fact that movies are a visual medium?
John Shirley: Partly it's due to the fact that people are reading less and they like the ease of the amusement-park-ride feel of cinematic and television horror. People like a quick fix now; they're very short term attention span oriented. Still, there are some good horror movies, fairly artfully made.

Zauberspiegel: Where will the path of horror in print lead to? In the direction of a subgenre to fantasy, or will it establish itself as a genre again?
John Shirley: Horror will never go away as long as people are afraid of death; as long as people try to suppress thoughts of mortality. So the genre is permanent. It can be found in campfire tales and in schoolyard stories and in comic books and animation and all kinds of places. People need the catharsis of it. Their fear of life is as much involved, in fact, as their fear of death. The viewer or the reader's personal fears, before they ever take in the work of art, are the driving force for the industry. It will fluctuate as a print genre, going and coming. Probably it'll eventually be found in Virtual Reality experiences more than in literature...and people will forget that it's "just a movie" because they'll be much more immersed through the VR experience. Some may literally die of fright. Fantasy seems to be ascendant now; but even in popular fantasy, as in GAME OF THRONES for example there is much that is horrific.

Zauberspiegel: What will become of the horror on movie and TV-screen? Will the boom continue, or is there a risk that the genre will literally be “filmed to death” (with all the sequels), remakes and reboots?
John Shirley: New generations need new styles of horror suited for them, so it'll come and go as the generations do. Often the same stories will be told in new styles. For example, the movie DISTURBIA--a rather good relatively modern film--was for its generation what REAR WINDOW, the Hitchcock thriller, was for its own. Oh sure, it will be filmed to death for awhile, and subside, only to arise, like the living dead.

Zauberspiegel: Is there still anything really new or is it all just a variation of the existing set pieces?
John Shirley: There are two streams of horror, some is just archetypal horror, vampires and zombies and so on, that represent desires and fears in the unconscious--perhaps in the "collective unconscious" as Jung called it--and that will go on in new ways. We're going through a period of ghost stories now, or ghostly demonic stories, thanks to the movie PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. That too is archetypal, going back thousands of years. The other type is innovative horror, partly possible because new trends in our world provide new horrors: the creation of germ warfare created new horrors, VR may create new horrors, robots create new horrors, and so on. Plus there are a few people who try to synthesize old and new forms or who look deeper for horror. Clive Barker did it a generation ago in THE BOOKS OF BLOOD.

Zauberspiegel: What does a horror writer like John Shirley think about cute vampires who fall in love? Doesn't this deprive the vampires of their threatening dimension? Is the vegan vampire with PETA membership card a desirable goal?
John Shirley: I'm not much interested in cute vampires. I recently wrote a science-fiction/vampire fusion, a story called SOULGLOBE (it will be in EVOLVE 2 anthology), but those vampires were certainly not cute. A vegan vampire is possible, as in True Blood where there's artificial blood a "good" vampire can drink. (I do like True Blood pretty well.) But the true vampire archetype is one who feeds maliciously and voraciously on human beings and delights in their destruction. The other one is just an adolescent-girl fantasy.

Zauberspiegel: Can the modern horror novel learn something from the classic gothic novel?
John Shirley: Definitely. Chris Conlon is planning an anthology called DREAD which is new gothic horror, if that's not a contradiction in terms, and if he gets that off the ground I'd love to write one. I wrote a couple of Lovecraftian stories, which have gothic elements, set in modern times. I also collaborated with Edgar Allan Poe! Because Conlon created an anthology of stories that completed a Poe story fragment, a book called Poe's LIghthouse.. That was a pleasure for me--and I wrote the story in his style as much as I could. The gothic novel's subtleties and unrelenting, slowly building tension, its mastery of atmosphere, should teach modern horror writers a lot ...

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