Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Interview: Ellen Datlow

Ellen Datlow is an editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories whose work has been recognized with every major award in the field, including the Hugo, the World Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the Locus Award. In the past three decades, she has edited influential genre magazines such as OMNI, Twilight Zone, and Sci Fiction. She co-edited The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies with Terri Windling from 1988 to 2002, and from 2004 to 2008 with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant; she currently edits Best Horror of the Year. Ellen has also edited or co-edited dozens of original and reprint anthologies, most notably Alien Sex (1990), Snow White, Blood Red (1993, with Terri Windling), The Dark: New Ghost Stories (2003), The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm (2004, with Terri Windling), Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (2007), Lovecraft Unbound (2009), Poe: New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (2009), and Haunted Legends (2010, with Nick Mamatas). Her latest anthology, co-edited with Terri Windling, is After: Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Tales (2012).

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How do you define horror?

To me it’s the genre of unease. It makes me feel really uneasy and it gives me kind of a creepy feeling. It can border on wanting to look away, it can border on disgust—but that’s a type of horror.

Horror can be any genre. There’s science fiction horror, there’s dark fantasy that’s really really dark, there can be mysteries that converge on horror. It depends on how far you want to go down the path of darkness. Science fiction is about the future, but horror can be about any period of time. As Doug Winter said, it’s your emotional response to the material. So I think it’s in the perception of the reader if something is horror or not.

In my mind, I subconsciously create a separation between dark fantasy and horror as I’m reading. I’ll think, “I’m not going to take this for the Best of the Year because I really like it but the story just isn’t quite dark enough for my purposes.” It’s a question of degree—my personal reaction to the material. I’m deep into working on my Best of the Year, so I’m reading a lot right now and as I read something I constantly judge the material—not just “do I like it” or “is it a good story” but “is it dark enough for me and my readers?” Is it hitting the buttons that makes me squirm and think, “ooh this is really creepy?” Is it making me uncomfortable?

That’s why I loved editing the horror half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Even though I didn’t choose the fantasy half, to me the choices were all on a continuum: fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror. High fantasy or light fantasy versus horror are separated in a sense, or joined, by dark fantasy, which is perhaps the gray area between white and black. To me horror is extremely dark in feeling, in how it makes the reader react.

Do you have an example of something you would consider a quintessential horror story?

Pick up any volume of my Best of the Year—in them are the stories I consider dark enough to be horror. In my most recent volume, Peter Straub’s “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine,” starts off in time displacement but it doesn’t seem all that dark. It seems to be about a romantic river trip taken by a couple. The story becomes darker and darker as you go back and forth and around in time and you get to the point when you realize by the end how horrific it is. It’s nicely subtle.

There are different subgenres of horror: the monster story, cosmic horror (Lovecraftian), the terror tale, represented by a lot of Robert Bloch’s finest work. Supernatural horror vs. psychological and the contes cruel, (which basically means “cruel tales”). I enjoy many different types of horror fiction.

When someone asks, “Are there any tropes you can’t stand anymore?” I find myself saying “nope.” I thought that I would never want to look at another zombie story and yet there are still excellent zombie stories being published. Dan Chaon had a fantastic, wonderful zombie story out this year that was in 21st Century Dead. And Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, the novel that was published in 2011, was a wonderful zombie book about a zombie “clean-up” crew in New York City. The same goes for vampires. Even though I may generally think “ugh, not another vampire story . . .” Every once in a while a terrific one will stand out.

By the way, not all vampire stories are horror. Most paranormal detective and urban fantasy fiction with vampires and werewolves are not horror. When you romanticize the monster, it’s no longer frightening. Without a threat of real damage to body or soul, you’ve strayed from horror and lost the edge.

The thing about tropes is that they’re just the starting point of a good story, the quality of any story about anything is what the writer creates using that trope. As with all fiction, what makes a story brilliant is how that story is told, what the writer does with the characters she creates, the world the writer envisions, the plot engine, and the voice and tone. Anything can be made interesting in the right hands.

Even though you’ve edited science fiction and fantasy, you’re probably best known for editing horror. What drew you to that genre in particular?

I think I’m known best for horror because of my co-editing the YBFH and now the Best Horror of the Year. But don’t forget, I started at OMNI. I was there seventeen years and I was publishing mostly science fiction and fantasy and only a little horror. But I deliberately began editing horror anthologies so that there wouldn’t be a conflict of interest with my job at OMNI.

In fact, the first two original anthologies I edited were half original and half reprint: Blood is Not Enough and Alien Sex; the core of those books were stories I turned down for OMNI because I felt (at the time) they were too extreme for a national magazine. Stories like “All My Darling Daughters” by Connie Willis and “Dancing Chickens” by Edward Bryant, and “Her Furry Face” by Leigh Kennedy (all those ended up in Alien Sex). Similarly with “Down Among the Dead Men” by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, about the vampire in the concentration camp (in Blood is Not Enough). I was very conscious of not stepping on my own toes as the fiction editor of OMNI. Although I’ve always loved horror, that’s not what OMNI was about. I published a few horror stories there over the years, but not many.

So that’s how I got into editing horror. I have a love/hate relationship with the Best of the Year because for over twenty-five years it’s been eating up my life. It’s more time and energy consuming than anything else I’ve ever done. However, I love it because while reading for it I’ve become aware of hundreds of new SF/F/H writers.

However, I’m very pleased that I’ve been hired to solicit new stories for Tor.com.

Right, you recently joined Tor.com as a consulting editor, and you’ve mentioned that you’re soliciting stories from specific writers. Are you going to focus on horror or a mix of genres?

This for me is an opportunity to acquire and edit science fiction again, something I haven’t done regularly since I worked for SCIFI.COM. I intend to buy science fiction and horror and will try to avoid fantasy. However the first story I’ve bought is a science fantasy, so what can you do?

I’d like to emphasize that I’m not reading slush and I’m not taking submissions. I’m soliciting from specific writers at this time.

This may be depressing—it’s depressing to me—but I’m thinking I may not be able to publish any more horror anthologies for a while. I’m having a difficult time selling original anthologies. They just don’t sell enough to readers for publishers to want to invest in them. And it is an investment. But the publishing business is cyclical, so we’ll see what happens in the future.

I’ve just launched a Kickstarter that ends January 10th, to edit an all original non-themed anthology to be called Fearful Symmetries. It’s an experiment, and I’m curious to see if we’ll make our goal.

I’m doing it with Chizine Publications and half the money goes to me and the authors (they’ll be getting six cents a word), and the other half is going to Chizine for production: copyediting, proofreading, art, printing, publicity, marketing, and everything. So although it will seem like a lot of money, it really isn’t. If the money doesn’t come in we just won’t do it.

A question a lot of writers get is: Where do you get your ideas? Where do you get your ideas for your themed anthologies?

Sometimes, an in-house editor at a publisher will approach me with an idea. I was approached about editing an anthology inspired by Edgar Allan Poe for the Poe Bicentennial several years ago. Others come in a flash of inspiration, like when I was talking to former Dark Horse editor Rob Simpson about anthologies, one of us brought up H. P. Lovecraft and how popular pastiches of his work are and we ended up with Lovecraft Unbound. I came up with the title (half-influenced by Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound), and from that I just knew that the anthology was going to be filled with Lovecraftian stories with no tentacles and no ichor.

With Terri Windling and my six volume series of adult fairy tale anthologies beginning with Snow White, Blood Red, artist Tom Canty suggested the idea to Terri. She and I had been working on the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for several years by then, and she asked if I’d like to collaborate with her on the fairy tale anthology.

So the ideas come from all over the place, just as I guess story ideas do to writers. But then some fail, because I can’t sell them. Kasey Lansdale and I tried to sell an all-original movie and TV anthology but even with relatively big name writers interested in writing stories for it we haven’t gotten any interest, because publishers only want the bestselling writers these days. Big names to them mean Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. I’m like, are you kidding? Anne Rice doesn’t write short stories. Stop it! Clive Barker hasn’t written a story in ages. Stephen King—that’s nice. Maybe.

So when readers ask for more good anthologies all I can say is, if you buy more of them, publishers will buy and publish more. Why does one anthology sell well and another of the same quality not? I have absolutely no idea. And neither do the publishers—if they did everything would be a bestseller. (I’m talking here not only about anthologies, but about all books).

You’ve mentioned before that Snow White, Blood Red, which you co-edited with Terri Windling in 1993, is your most successful anthology to date. What do you think accounts for its success and lasting appeal?

Terri’s convinced that the negative review in the New York Times Book Review section helped sell it. I find that hard to believe because that was the hardcover edition and it’s the mass market that did so well for so long. It sold 72,000 over the years. The book was reissued in a new proprietary hardcover edition by Barnes & Noble and selling well. It’s already gone back to press. So I have no idea why. I mean maybe it got a boost from the New York Times initially, even with its bad review.

Almost all of your anthologies have been invite-only and feature familiar names, authors you’ve worked with in the past. How do you go about soliciting stories for a particular theme?

I worked in magazines for over twenty-two years. During those years I read slush piles on and off, or at least fished through the slush piles, so I learned about a lot of new writers that way. Then I started editing the Year’s Best in 1987—so just think, for twenty-five years I’ve been reading everything, or at least skimming everything, that might have horror in it. Basically, writers who make an impression on me are the writers I’ll ask for stories, whether I’ve met them or not. Last year in the Year’s Best there were about six writers I’d never bought anything from before. In the future I may approach those writers for original stories. There’s no secret to coming under my radar. Just write great stories and when they’re published I’ll likely notice them.

For a theme anthology I contact writers who I think have an interest or who I think could write about a particular theme. Sometimes I’ll be talking to a writer and I’ll discover she is interested in something I’d never dreamt she would care about. For example, Delia Sherman’s “The Red Piano,” written for Poe; I had no idea she was interested in Poe. But he came up in conversation so I asked her for a story.

It’s disturbing when writers I’ve published often expect me to ask them to be in every anthology. Now, obviously that’s impossible. I know a few hundred writers and I can only fit at the most, twenty-three or twenty-four in a book. And I do try for variety, like to use newer writers on occasion.

For any given anthology I’ll solicit about a third stories more than I need, because usually a third of the writers don’t produce or don’t produce something I can use. When putting together an anthology proposal I’ll try to get a commitment from some big names (see above where I talk about “big” names), some writers whose work I particularly love, and leave some room for wild cards.

Once Terri and I started co-editing YA anthologies we started soliciting from both adult writers we had worked with and young adult writers who were recommended to us. Now that we know of their work, we might try to get them to write stories for adults some time. But it’s great to see if you can get a writer to stretch and try something he hasn’t done before.

I always feel bad turning down stories I’ve solicited. I don’t think any editor enjoys rejecting stories. The hardest thing is to reject stories by friends and hope that they’re not going to take it personally. Most of my friends are writers, so it’s treading that fine line between friendship and professionalism. You can’t take a story just because someone’s a friend of yours if the story doesn’t work for the anthology.

Let’s talk a little about your latest anthology, After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse & Dystopia, co-edited with Terri Windling. Obviously dystopias are very popular right now in young adult fiction.

That was an idea that Merrilee had, our agent. She told us that dystopia was really hot, why don’t we edit an anthology about it? I said, okay, maybe. It hadn’t even occurred to me. Terri is the one who suggested we call it After and have the stories take place after whatever happened that caused the apocalyptic event or the dystopia.

Did you always intend to include both adult authors and YA? Did that present any unusual challenges?

Yes, we do that with all our YA anthologies. Many of our adult authors such as Carol Emshwiller, Richard Bowes, and Jeffrey Ford had already written YA for us in our earlier books, in our mythic series. Gregory Maguire has written YA and adult stories and books. So have Jane Yolen, Steven Gould, and Garth Nix. Some writers we took a chance on, like Caitlín Kiernan and Nalo Hopkinson. I don’t think either of them had written YA before. We used several writers we hadn’t used before in After: Beth Revis, Carrie Ryan, Susan Beth Pfeffer, and Sarah Rees Brennan—I think our agent put us in touch with them. But neither Terri nor I ever met any of them or worked with them previously. It’s always taking a chance soliciting stories from writers you’ve never worked with.

In our mythic series, we always mixed our regular adult contributors with the young adult contributors. For example, although Jeff Ford is known as an adult writer, his lovely, bittersweet “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” (from The Faery Reel) about a kind of a fairy that lives on a beach with a life span only lasting one day, would make a great children’s story. I think he’s tried to sell it as a picture book. So I think the lines aren’t that rigid.

The different age groups were something we had to get used to as editors. We started with adult, moved to young adult, and finally edited some middle grade anthologies. Once in a while a writer will submit a story that’s too young or too old for whatever age the anthology is aimed.

I hate turning down people who I don’t know. I don’t know which is worse: turning down stories by friends, or turning down stories by strangers who you asked for a story. It’s equally uncomfortable. It’s one of the toughest parts of the job, but you have to do it. And it’s part of the author’s job to not take offense.

How is editing magazines different from anthologies? Financial considerations aside, do you enjoy one more than the other?

Not really. I just love editing short stories. The good thing about working for Tor.com is I don’t have to worry about production. I don’t have to schedule the stories. Someone else does that. When I was working for OMNI and for Event Horizon and Sci Fiction, I was like, “Oh my God, I have to get this in on time.” If I went on vacation for two weeks I needed to do this and this and this before I left. And when I returned it took me weeks to catch up.

Freelancing at Tor.com, I can buy what I want, when I want, and they just plop it in. Basically I’m editing, and yes I’ll have to go over copyedits, but that’s probably it. I just bought my first story from Genevieve Valentine, and it’s coming out in March, which is really fast. March third, if I remember correctly.

But I love editing anthologies too, because I know I have to buy twenty-three, twenty-four stories. I never worked at a magazine that was all fiction; I assume that editing a magazine like Asimov’s or F&SF is almost like doing a mini-anthology. The way I did it, it was always part of a nonfiction package and of other elements. I was in my own little department doing what I wanted and hoping I’d be left alone. At least at OMNI, even if they tortured me and the contributors with cuts and ads to fit with the advertising (until typesetting became computerized). Also, we had a very powerful and influential art director at OMNI. I learned a lot about playing politics while there. At OMNI and Sci Fiction I was always somewhat protected by my bosses. I just want to be left alone to do my job. My ambition was and remains to do exactly what I’m doing; editing short stories. I’m in the perfect place for what I love doing.

This issue of Nightmare features Lucius Shepard’s “The Ease with Which We Freed the Beast,” which appeared in your anthology Inferno. What is it like to have stories you solicited and edited see such success in reprints and often winning awards—particularly when that story might not otherwise have existed?

One of the most fun things for an editor is seeing a story that may not have existed if you didn’t ask for it. Now for that story, because it was in Inferno, which was a non-theme anthology, it’s less likely that would have happened. Lucius might have written it anyway. But for theme anthologies especially, people have said to me, I’d never have written that story if you hadn’t asked for it. I’ve had a couple of stories dedicated to me and that’s exceptionally pleasing. Persuading a writer to write a great story for me is the closest I’ll ever get to creation, since I have no intention, no ability, and no imagination to write. I guess you can say I’m a Muse. That’s okay with me, to be a bunch of writers’ Muse.

It’s rare—in most publishing you don’t get that kick. In science fiction, fantasy, and horror, editors get more credit than in other fields. In mainstream, how many short story editors are readers aware of? Do they know their names or anything about them? The field of fantastic literature has had many high profile editors. It’s a validation of what you’re doing even if sometimes it seems as if it’s yes, a popularity contest, blah blah blah . . . If I get the award. But if my authors get the award for their stories, that’s really cool. Or even just get nominated or just get attention.

It used to always frustrate me at OMNI and at Sci Fiction when a story that I loved loved loved didn’t get the attention I thought it deserved. Of course there are stories I love that do get attention. But over the years a handful of stories became my favorites, and those are the ones I’ve reprinted over and over in various venues—so an astute reader could figure out my favorites by checking out all the stories I’ve reprinted over the years for different anthologies or magazines I’ve worked at. I feel like I’m a pusher: My job is to get people to like what I like. To persuade them that what I’m showing them is really great and they should read it.

What trends are you seeing in horror short fiction today?

It’s hard to say. The zombies still continue. Each year I hope the zombies go away, but no, they haven’t gone away. They’re mutating and sometimes they’re quite interesting. I can never catch a trend, I can only say this seems to have been a trend last year. I’ve been told for the past three years that mermaids are the next trend. I’m sorry, mermaids have not caught on as a trend. Despite the fact that there’s a “mermaid” magazine, I don’t see them trending.

Do you enjoy horror in other media, like television or film? What are some of your favorites?

I don’t like it on film. Most films I can’t stand. Most of what I see advertised, I have no interest in: the Saw stuff and the Hostel stuff. It just sounds awful. I still haven’t seen Prometheus. I’m going to rent it. I’ve heard how bad it is, but I don’t care, I want to see it.

I like some horror movies but I don’t go out of my way to see them. I’m not sure why. I think I prefer reading horror. I think the last one I remember, that I hated, was Drag Me to Hell. What a piece of garbage! That wasn’t the last one I saw but that’s the last one I remember vividly because I thought it was so bad. Okay, I’ll force myself to name a few I like: (nothing very recent): Pan’s Labyrinth, Paranormal Activity, Don’t Look Now, Alien, The Thing (Carpenter’s), The Blair Witch Project, The Haunting (original), Session 9.

What’s next for you?

Hauntings, a reprint anthology for Tachyon is coming out in March. It’s a mixture of ghost stories, haunted houses, and other types of hauntings. And it’s got a great cover. I was really pleased that I was able to reprint a terrific story by Kelly Link that was only recently published: “Two Houses.” “Delta Sly Honey” by Lucius Shepard. Two stories called “Hunger,” one by Dale Bailey and one by Peter Straub. “Hunger: A Confession” and then “Hunger: An Introduction.” Stories by Connie Willis, Stephen Gallagher, Michael Marshall Smith, Richard Bowes, James Blaylock, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Hand, Joyce Carol Oates, Caitlín Kiernan, David Morrell. I used one by Jeffrey Ford, also Gemma Files. And Jonathan Carroll.

Then there’s Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, all original adult stories that are gaslight fantasy. It’s got a tiny bit of steampunk in it. Terri and I edited it for Tor and that’s also coming out in March.

I’m editing a Clarion West Thirtieth Anniversary anthology that’s coming out from Hydra House, which is Tod McCoy’s publishing house. He was a 2010 graduate. And the Best Horror of course, which is my ball and chain.

I just signed a contract with Tachyon for Lovecraft’s Monsters, which is going to be another Lovecraftian anthology of reprints, with hopefully each story using at least one of Lovecraft’s creatures in it. The “monster” doesn’t have to be the focal point, but it must be at least a part of the story. And again the challenge will be finding stories that haven’t been overused. I think someone will do illustrations of each creature.

Oh, and the Kickstarter anthology I mentioned earlier. Fearful Symmetries, will be about 125,000 words. I have commitments from Laird Barron, Dale Bailey, Lucius Shepard, Pat Cadigan, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Marshall Smith, John Langan, Kaaron Warren, Robert Shearman, Helen Marshall, Terry Dowling, Sarah Pinborough, Joe Lansdale, Elizabeth Hand, Brian Evenson, Bill Willingham, Doug Clegg, Nathan Ballingrud, and Garth Nix. And maybe Kim Newman. Most of those people will be in the book, and we’re leaving three open slots; I am not reading the unsolicited stories but Sandra and Brett of Chizine will be passing on the good stuff to me. If we receive the funding, the book will be out in 2014.

Has anything supernatural or horrific ever happened to you?

Supernatural . . . maybe. I don’t know. But I was staying with a bunch of friends in a house where one friend was house-sitting on a lake on Long Island, and we were hanging out on the first floor, in the living room, just sitting around. Everyone but me went out for a walk and while they were gone I heard footsteps above and assumed it was someone who had stayed behind. But it turned out that no one else had stayed behind.

That was the extent of it. It was kind of creepy going to bed that night. We all slept on the floors upstairs, it was a big house and totally unfurnished, and we heard music. Now of course, this was a lake, God knows where the music came from. It could have been from any of the houses along the lake I guess, but it was very creepy. And that’s the most supernatural thing that ever happened, if it was supernatural.

I love reading about this stuff, but I don’t really believe in it. But that doesn’t matter because a good story forces you to suspend your disbelief. I think supernatural fiction is really hard to sustain for a whole novel. The short story length is usually more effective, because unless one actually does believe in the supernatural, it’s difficult for the writer to not fumble and accidentally push the reader out of the story for a whole novel.

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E.C. Myers

E. C. MyersNightmare assistant editor E. C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He is a graduate of the 2005 Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. His short fiction has appeared in various publications, including Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Sybil’s Garage, and Shimmer, and his first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr. He also blogs regularly about Star Trek: The Next Generation at theviewscreen.com and at his website, ecmyers.net. When he isn’t working, writing, or editing, he plays video games, watches films and TV, sleeps as little as possible, and spends too much time on the internet. Follow him on Twitter @ecmyers.

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