Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Christopher Golden

Surely there are few authors who can match Christopher Golden in terms of both the astonishing amount of acclaimed work he has produced, and the number of different genres and forms he has mastered. His first novel, Of Saints and Shadows, was published by Berkley in 1994 and inaugurated his series of urban fantasies centering on the vampiric hero Peter Octavian; other popular series include the “Prowlers” and “Body of Evidence” books. He has received awards and nominations for nonfiction books (Cut: Horror Writers on Horror Film), graphic novels (Baltimore Volume I: The Plague Ships, co-authored with Mike Mignola), anthology editing (The New Dead), and alternative forms (the Ghosts of Albion webseries, co-authored with Amber Benson). He is a frequent figure in the “Buffyverse,” having written or co-written dozens of novels, comics, and episode guides, and he has also written in the world of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. He recently edited the two-volume tribute to Rick Hautala, Mister October, and has three new releases in January: the novel Snowblind, the collaborative anthology Dark Duets, and the graphic novel Cemetery Girl (written with Charlaine Harris and illustrated by Don Kramer). Golden is a native of Massachusetts, where he still lives.

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You celebrated your twelfth birthday by turning out the lights at your party and reading from a horror novel. Were you also writing horror by then?

Not at that point. I believe back then the only thing I had written was a single chapter of a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen team-up story featuring Doc Savage, Robin Hood, and a handful of other characters. They were on a plane and it was about to crash. I started writing horror in high school, beginning with a story about a bunch of teenagers drinking by some train tracks, playing chicken with a train . . . and it going very badly. That year the school published a sort of literary journal and my story was in it. Exciting times for young Chris.

Your bio describes you as “a lifelong fan of the ‘team-up.’” Were there certain writing pairs you admired growing up?

I loved team-ups of all sorts, as my reference to that Doc Savage/Robin Hood story illustrates. I loved Abbott & Costello, Marvel Team-Up, the time that Charlie’s Angels crossed over with the series Vegas, with Robert Urich. No, I’m not joking. As for writing, the first time I remember realizing that two authors could write a novel together was when I read that Stephen King and Peter Straub would be releasing a collaborative novel called The Talisman. My head just about exploded. They were my two favorite writers and they were writing a novel together! How could it be anything but brilliant? It was brilliant, of course. Much later, during my senior year in college, I read John Skipp and Craig Spector’s novel The Light at the End, which was the inspiration I needed to finally start writing my first novel. So, yep . . . I still love a good team-up.

When asked to talk about your favorite genre to write in, you once answered, “I like monsters.” Monsters, of course, are the ultimate outsiders, but is there another reason you enjoy writing about them so much?

There are so many facets to the word “monster.” I love writing about monsters because I love folklore and mythology and horror stories. I enjoy reading old bits of folkore and doing the research that leads to inspiration for me. Historically, the label of “monster” has been used as a way to explain things that frighten or confound us, and searching for the root of that is always fascinating. Stories of vampires, for instance, are ancient and global. Though the nature of those particular monsters varies widely in world folklore, they’re similar enough that it’s clear they were all an attempt to explain something that people of the age did not understand . . . something that troubled or frightened them. We create our own monsters, just as we create them to frighten our children in order to keep them from wandering too near the water, or going about on their own after dark. I’m also always intrigued with the idea of turning the concept of monstrosity on its head, of looking at a conflict through the eyes of the character that we would normally presume to be evil or cruel. That ties in with the “outsider” reference. In Frankenstein, the monster is noble and sympathetic, and yet every time it has been adapted into another medium, the monster becomes more monstrous. In the Hammer version, the doctor is much more monstrous than his creation, but the monster is still a monster. But in the novel, you feel for him. Even in my college days, writing about Moby Dick, my paper was called “In Favor of the Whale.” I dissected the language of the novel, illustrating how the Ahab/white whale dynamic suggests Ahab as protagonist, or at least a protagonist, with the whale as antagonist, but the language Melville uses to describe them suggests the opposite. The same is true of the structure of my favorite film, which is Blade Runner. Structurally, Deckard is the protagonist and Roy Batty the antagonist, but in the language of film, the opposite is true. Deckard never smiles, is never shown in light, is nearly always shown in close-up or mid-range shots. Roy is lit up . . . illuminated . . . and is shown in long shots, often from below, almost deifying him. So I’m not just fascinated with monsters, but with monstrosity, both human and—in the way it reflects back the human—supernatural.

You co-authored (with Stanley Wiater and Hank Wagner) The Complete Stephen King Universe: A Guide to the Worlds of Stephen King. How influential has King’s fiction been on your own work?

Well, I wrote a book, so pretty influential, I’d say. I always say that Stephen King is the narrative voice of my youth. I went from reading S.E. Hinton and Doc Savage and Norse mythology to The Stand . . . and from The Stand to everything else. King led me to an entire generation of horror writers, and then back through Matheson and Bradbury all the way to Poe, Lovecraft, Horace Walpole, you name it. His books changed my life. His characters became people I knew. I got in trouble in the—seventh grade, maybe—for reading Firestarter instead of something the nuns who taught me thought was more appropriate. I read all of King’s stories and novels over and over again. Danse Macabre led me to other writers and to movies I would never have otherwise seen. In high school, a stupid kid, I wrote him a letter and sent him two of my short stories. He sent the stories back with a note saying that his lawyer advised him not to read unsolicited manuscripts (of course, but I was maybe sixteen, so . . .). I should have been bummed, but instead I was thrilled! Stephen King had written back to me, and the letter had his signature on it. When I was in college, I sent him a fortieth birthday card . . . and not longer after, I happened to be in Harvard Square when I heard someone say he was in Wordsworth bookshop, just . . . shopping. I went in, grabbed a paperback copy of Misery, and waited—starstruck—while he paid for his purchases. Then I stopped him, apologized for the intrusion, and babbled something about wanting to be a writer, and that I’d interviewed Clive Barker, who’d been incredibly supportive. He signed the book for me and left, and I was grinning from ear to ear. Since then, I’ve written a lot of books and retired my fanboy hat. But King is still my favorite author and The Stand—tied with John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany—remains my favorite novel. Peter Straub told me a couple of times over the years that Stephen King was “keeping an eye on” me, so when I wrote Wildwood Road, I asked if he’d read it with an eye toward a blurb. He agreed, with no guarantees. When he called me one day, on his way to a Red Sox game, to tell me he was halfway through and loving it, and would be giving me a blurb, I honestly thought for at least the first fifteen seconds or so that it was one of my friends busting my balls. Most recently, he was incredibly kind in agreeing to read Snowblind for a blurb. The blurb itself is great, but even more valuable to me were the emails he sent me as he was reading it and the kind things he said in those emails. I should point out that King is far from my only influence. My interests are broad and I read all sorts of things. But Stephen King and Rod Serling are certainly the two biggest influences on my writing.

Given that your Peter Octavian series (beginning with Of Saints and Shadows in 1994) predates the term “urban fantasy,” have you enjoyed watching the explosion in popularity of that genre since? Do you ever feel a sense of almost-parental satisfaction?

It’s an interesting history, isn’t it, the whole urban fantasy thing? I always thought of urban fantasy as what Charles de Lint and Emma Bull wrote, and that influenced me a lot, too. Then Buffy the Vampire Slayer happened and whatever ingredients were boiling in the pot—including what I did in Of Saints and Shadows—became its own genre. I never considered, not for a moment, that I’d had any part in planting the seeds that would become modern urban fantasy. Then Penguin was re-releasing the earlier Octavian novels and Charlaine Harris agreed to write a short intro for Of Saints and Shadows, in which she pointed out that many of the elements that are fundamental to urban fantasy first appeared in that book—my first novel. Jonathan Maberry wrote something similar. I don’t know that anyone’s ever done the research and tried to figure out how true it is, but it’s nice to think about.

You’ve been writing dark fiction for young adults for several decades now. How has that landscape shifted during that time?

Well, not several decades. Two. My first YA novel came out in 1995. I think it’s young adult fiction in general that’s changed the most. Once upon a time there wasn’t a lot of crossover. Most writers who wrote YA set out to do that—they wanted to speak to that audience because they had something to say, or because certain books touched them at that age, or because they’d felt that there weren’t books for younger readers that they’d want to have read at that age. Then YA became a red-hot publishing category and suddenly every major writer of adult fiction also wrote YA, sometimes with great results and sometimes . . . not so great. One element that has changed only in the sense that it’s worsened is that while there are plenty of teen and tween girls reading, getting boys to read is an uphill climb. I actually enjoy writing female protagonists more, but if I could figure out a way to get young boys to read, I’d be doing more of that just because I think it’s so important.

You’ve written or co-written at least seventeen Buffy the Vampire Slayer books. Is there anyone who knows more about the Buffyverse than you do?

Sure. Joss Whedon.

You and Nancy Holder wrote your first Buffy novel, Halloween Rain, in three-and-a-half weeks. Even given that the book is relatively short (160 pages) . . . How is that possible?

Oh, it’s not that crazy when you do the math. I think it was something like 55,000 words. That’s about 27,000 words each. Twenty-five days at even 1,100 words a day puts you over that.

Did collaborating on the Ghosts of Albion series with Amber Benson (Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) come about as a result of all the Buffy books?

Indirectly, I suppose, in the sense that writing the novels led to me writing Buffy and Angel comics. Then I was out in L.A. for various Hollywood-type meetings and a mutual friend set up a lunch so that Amber and I would meet. We got on well and the next time I was out there, a big group of us got together at dinner again. That dinner led to us writing Willow & Tara comics together for Dark Horse, and the fact that we had written those comics together inspired a fellow at the BBC (Rob Francis, who has since become a good friend to both of us) to contact me with the invitation for Amber and me to create an online animated series. Ghosts of Albion, as a webseries, was way ahead of its time. We’re still very proud of what we accomplished with that.

Although you’ve written a number of highly-acclaimed stand-alone novels, you’ve produced dozens of books in series. When you begin a new series, how much do you already know about the plots of future volumes?

It varies, of course. With something like Prowlers, I had a full outline for only the first book and then a general idea for what the future volumes would contain—just short descriptions. The same was true for Body of Evidence. Those were both YA series. But with my Veil trilogy—starting with The Myth Hunters—I had it fairly well laid out in my original pitch document . . . and then when I wrote the trilogy, the story changed more dramatically than anything else I’ve ever done had changed from outline to finished manuscript.

In the introduction to the 2008 anthology British Invasion (co-edited with Tim Lebbon and James A. Moore), it’s stated that you thought “with British writers, the lines between genres seem far more blurred.” What genres do you see the British authors meshing?

It’s just that they don’t tend to categorize things the way we do. If a crime story is also a ghost story, there’s not a lot of talk about labels. Fantasy tends to have more darkness in it, in a general sense. Tim Lebbon’s “Noreela” books are a great example. I’m not sure if I wrote that bit of the introduction, but I think the point is that British genre writers don’t seem to feel the need to pigeonhole their work, to confine it within established parameters. Read any story by Robert Shearman, as a for instance, and you’ll see what I mean.

Your collaborations with Mike Mignola started with Hellboy illustrated novels and moved onto the original Baltimore illustrated novel and then graphic novels. Can you talk a little about how your partnership with Mignola works? Does he give you a lot of story input, and do you ever give him suggestions on the art?

The only way I’ve ever given him any input on the art has been during conversations about whether or not certain elements of the novels ought to be included in the illustrations. But as for whatever his approach might be to art, I would never presume. He’s Mike Mignola, after all. What can I bring to a conversation with him about illustration? On the comics it’s very different, of course, because I’m writing the scripts, and of course half the job is explaining what you want to see in each panel. Ben Stenbeck has been the artist of the comic book series from the first issue and is extraordinary. Just a supremely talented guy. It’s been a gift, working with him. As for how the partnership works—each of the novels has had a different dynamic, but in general, the first two novels came from Mike’s ideas, with me filling in places he hadn’t considered or hadn’t gotten around to yet, or making sense of things that needed sorting out. I write the actual prose and he gives me feedback about what he had in his imagination that he’d like to see me do a little differently. The third book we did together, Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism, was a novella whose plot came from me, but which hit on a lot of Mike’s sweet spots, including the whole creepy puppet thing. On the comics, we talk out our ideas for Baltimore stories, I plot them out in detail and then write the scripts, and Mike reads it, calls me with his notes, and makes everything better. He knows I’m not going to argue with him over something unless I think it’s important, which also means that usually when I do argue with him about a change he’s asking for, he relents. It’s funny, because we’re both what I think most people would think of as “control freaks,” and yet I think we have an excellent working relationship.

You were friends with Rick Hautala before you even wrote your first novel. Was it hard for you to edit the two-volume tribute anthology Mister October (released in November 2013 by JournalStone)?

The opposite of hard, actually. It was a gift. A blessing. In a very real way, putting together Mister October was therapeutic for me. Rick was one of my closest friends and I still miss him every day, but in the midst of staggering grief, I was in touch with all of these wonderful writers and artists who all either also loved him or—if they hadn’t known him well—at least admired him and wanted to contribute to this perfect memorial. Rick had a career full of ups and downs and unfortunately died during one of the downs, shortly after he’d had to let his life insurance policy lapse. Christopher Payne, the publisher of JournalStone, had made a two-book deal with Rick just weeks before he died, and when I explained Rick’s circumstances to him, he agreed to publish the book without taking a penny above his costs. All of the writers and artists donated their work, so that every dime goes to Rick’s wife, Holly Newstein, and his three sons, Aaron, Jesse, and Matti, all of whom were left with financial difficulties on top of their grief when he passed away. I still get emotional about losing him, but putting together Mister October helped get me through the worst of it.

Your new novel Snowblind (published in January by St. Martin’s Press) has been compared to the early work of Stephen King. Do you find a comparison like that flattering or nerve-wracking?

It’s funny, I don’t really think about it that much. Comments like that are like reviews, and while great reviews are flattering, if you take the great reviews completely seriously, then you have to take the really negative stuff to heart as well. Given King’s influence on me as a writer, it’s no surprise that some of that influence would seep in enough that it might be remarked upon. It’s a supernatural horror ensemble set in New England, it’s a character piece in which the horror is a catalyst for the characters’ growth and self-examination (well, the ones who survive). But anyone making a qualitative comparison—suggesting that Snowblind is up to King’s level—is obviously delusional.

Snowblind is being touted as your first horror novel in ten years. Was that gap just dictated by schedules, or was there another reason for it?

It’s purely an accident. I’ve very rarely set out to write something that I would consider horror. The Ferryman is horror. Prowlers is horror. Wildwood Road is horror. But pretty much nothing else I’ve done started with the intention of being horrific. Much of it has been published as horror—and I grew up on horror; the horror people are my people—but I start with the idea first, and worry about what genre it might fall into afterward.

January also sees the release of the first volume in a new graphic novel trilogy, Cemetery Girl, co-authored with Charlaine Harris (and released by InkLit). Is it fair to call it a YA/horror/graphic novel/team-up genre-crosser?

Strangely enough, I think that’s pretty close. It’s not precisely YA, but it’s YA-accessible. Working with Charlaine has been fantastic, and we’ve just done what I always do, which is create characters and dream up a plot, and let other people figure out how to label it.

Did your new anthology Dark Duets (published in January by Harper Voyager) spring out of your affection for team-ups? Did you suggest collaborations to the contributors, or let them come up with their partners?

Absolutely. It all went back to my excitement when I heard King and Straub were writing The Talisman. In some cases I did suggest collaborations, as in the case of Mark Morris and Rio Youers. For the most part, I approached certain writers and asked them to come up with another writer they’d been interested in collaborating with. In a couple of cases, as with Kevin Anderson and Sherrilyn Kenyon, I’d approached them both and they chose each other, which was great.

Do you have any rituals for shifting gears when you move between projects/genres?

Sleep, and watching too much television.

Why is Croatia the coolest place you’ve ever been?

If you go to Dubrovnik by sea, you come across the harbor and the city looks like something straight out of Lord of the Rings. It’s this white, walled city, full of lovely buildings and friendly people, with cobblestoned streets. I was there for half a day, on a cruise, and I’m dying to go back and explore not only Dubrovnik, but as much of the country as I can. Someday.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.