Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Jeff Strand

Jeff Strand may sometimes be called “the clown prince of horror,” but in truth he’s a multi-talented author whose work spans styles and genres. He started writing screenplays while still in college, but by the late 1990s he was regularly selling his comedic short horror stories. His novels run from the demented slapstick horror/comedy of Benjamin’s Parasite to the more traditional werewolf tale Wolf Hunt to the intense psychological thriller Pressure, and he’s also provided some of the wittiest genre awards hosting around as emcee of the Bram Stoker Awards presentation for the last few years. His most recent releases are the young adult thriller I Have a Bad Feeling About This and the collection Dead Clown Barbecue.

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Since you’re known as the funniest man in horror, let’s start with something obvious: Why do horror and humor go so well together?

Well, they both often feature the element of surprise, and they both often involve terrible things happening to people. A lot of seemingly innocuous jokes (“I’ve got good news and bad news.” “What’s the good news, doc?” “Your test results came in, and you only have a week to life.” “That’s the good news??? What’s the bad news?” “I’ve been trying to call for six days.”) really aren’t very far removed from horror.

I never thought to myself “Eureka! I shall combine the two genres and make my fortune!” I’d always wanted to write humor, and I got into horror in a big way in high school, but my first horror/comedy novel, Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) was just supposed to be a whodunit mystery. In fact, my agent at the time kept saying “Don’t make it funny! Don’t make it funny!” Somehow, though, it mutated into this dark, grisly, black-comedy-filled book that I still described as a “mystery novel.” Readers and reviewers called it a horror-comedy, and I quickly embraced that label. But it was never a case of “Humor and horror go great together! That’s what I’m gonna write!”

Some authors use humor to relieve tension after a scare, but you’ve been successful in integrating humor throughout your horror tales. Is there any method to your madness?

A lot of it is instinctual, but it varies from book to book. It depends on the balance of humor and horror, which is usually something I lock down pretty early. For example, Benjamin’s Parasite is a comedy in terms of characters and structure. Its primary purpose is to make the reader laugh. Then, on top of the jokes, I tried to make the “body horror” elements as disturbing as possible, so that you’re cringing while you’re laughing.

On the other hand, Dweller is a horror novel. Much of it is very downbeat, and the main character makes a lot of self-destructive decisions. Yet my goal was not to drag you down into a pit of nihilistic despair, so the book needed plenty of comic relief. And also, it was important to embrace the absurdity of a kid becoming best buddies with a monster that lives in the woods. So the humor in that book is all character-based, and it doesn’t bleed into the tragic or horrific moments.

With something like the Andrew Mayhem series, which is equal parts horror and humor, I try to make it as funny as possible while being careful to never take away from the threat. There’s a lot of silliness, but they’re playing with real knives. Though I allow myself the creative license of characters who keep their wit at a time when most people would be silently wetting themselves, Andrew Mayhem never takes a casual attitude about the danger he’s in.

A book like Stalking You Now, meanwhile, plays the characters straight, and the humor comes from a situation that keeps spiraling out of control. So there aren’t that many “jokes,” just the narrator’s frustration at how things are playing out.

So you can take my body of work and call almost all of it “horror/comedy,” but the method changes a lot with each story.

Do you ever find yourself reading a straight horror novel and thinking, Oh, author, you really need to lighten up . . .

No, ironically, I’m much more likely to be annoyed by inappropriate humor than by a novel taking itself too seriously.

Humor and horror are two genres that frequently run afoul of political correctness. Do you ever worry about that, or do you pride yourself on having no boundaries?

I don’t worry about it much, but I definitely have boundaries. Though many children have tragically lost their lives in my fiction, I wouldn’t write an explicit child-death scene unless it was absolutely essential to the story. Sexual violence is almost non-existent. (My story “The Origin of Slashy” is a dark comedy about a rape victim, but there aren’t any rape jokes in it.) I wouldn’t mine real-life tragedies for humor. My work is ghoulish and demented yet not very often politically incorrect. I’m not interested in pissing people off.

I love boundary-free humor and horror (I’m a huge fan of both The Onion and Edward Lee) and I’m most assuredly not in a constant state of self-censorship; I just tend not to get into genuinely offensive territory. I’ve got a friend who takes unrestrained delight in the outraged reactions to his dead baby joke book, but when I do a story like “Mr. Twitcher’s Miracle Baby-Chopping Machine,” it’s really not handled in a way that’s pushing people’s buttons.

An exception is my novel Fangboy, which is written in the style of a children’s fairy tale. It has no profanity, sex, or graphic violence, but it does have quite a bit of politically incorrect humor. Ironically, because of the lack of any blatant adult content, it’s a book that many reviewers describe as being suitable for children. This kind of horrifies me, because the novel has a character called The Magical Negro. Obviously, the character is not making fun of black people, he’s making fun of the wise, mystical black character who exists in certain movies only to help solve the problems of rich white people . . . but kids don’t know that!

Your work makes frequent use of children—even your first professional short story sale, “Scarecrow’s Discovery” (from Horrors: 365 Scary Stories) begins with adults but ends with children. Why do children work so well with your style?

Honestly, it’s just a coincidence, sort of the way so many of my books have a forest setting, even though I would never say “Ooh! I just love to write about the forest!” Pressure and Dweller both covered long time periods in the character’s lives, so it made sense to start with them as children. Andrew Mayhem has young kids because I thought it would be funny to have a hero who also had to constantly deal with babysitting responsibilities. My stories “Gramma’s Corpse,” “It’s Bath Time,” “Hologram Skull Cover,” “The Story of My First Kiss,” “Drain Bamage,” “Abbey’s Shriek,” “Roasting Weenies by Hellfire,” and “One of Them” all feature kids, so clearly this is an accurate observation on your part and there is probably some deep psychological explanation for it, but I think it’s just coincidence that the stories work out this way.

Pressure (2007) is probably your most acclaimed novel to date, and—despite an incredibly funny first chapter with a twelve-year-old stealing condoms—seems to have a very different tone from many of your other stories. Tell us a little about how Pressure developed.

Pressure spawned from an idea I had in the early 1990s, when I thought, “What if you saved the life of a serial killer, not knowing what kind of person he was, and he was eternally grateful?” I wrote a big chunk of that book, but of course it was a bad book because that’s what I was writing then. Though I never finished it, I kept coming back to the idea, and through several incarnations of the story I realized that what I liked was the friendship between this introverted college student and a sadistic psychopath. I ditched the life-saving element, and once I came up with the idea of spanning it over at least twenty years at different points in their lives, I had the concept for Pressure.

It wasn’t written to be a major departure from my other work. It actually has more humor than something like Mandibles, but the big difference is that Pressure doesn’t really mix the humor and horror. It has both elements; just not often in the same scene, and the book is so dark that nobody is saying, “Oh, what a jolly romp that was!” When Earthling Publications bought the novel, I’d established myself as a funny horror guy, so it made sense to promote it as “The first serious novel from Jeff Strand!”

Wolf Hunt is in some ways your most traditional novel, since it deals with a standard genre trope (a werewolf). Is that why it’s the one you recommend new readers start with?

Wolf Hunt is not necessarily the book of mine that readers like the best, but it’s the one that the most readers like, if that makes sense. The fact that it’s a werewolf novel unquestionably contributed to its success. I tend to recommend it as a good starting point because it’s right in the middle of my horror/comedy spectrum. I’m always a little nervous when somebody says, “Hey, I really enjoyed The Sinister Mr. Corpse! I’m off to read Pressure next!” because the tones of the two books are so far apart. “WTF??? I was expecting a laugh riot and now I’m bummed out! Death to Strand!!!” Wolf Hunt is the middle ground, so if somebody likes that one, it’s less of a leap to the unrestrained silliness of A Bad Day for Voodoo or the bleak misery of Dweller.

You’ve written four books about the character Andrew Mayhem. Describe Andrew to a reader who hasn’t met him yet.

He’s the hero of the novels Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary), Single White Psychopath Seeks Same, Casket For Sale (Only Used Once), and Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to “Shirley”). He matures a bit over the course of the series, but when you meet him in the first book, he’s an unemployed, married father of two who is perhaps not the most responsible guy in the world.

Andrew Mayhem is very self-aware and self-deprecating, and he tries to do the right thing, but despite his well-meaning nature, his poor decisions and overall bad luck means that he often finds himself facing vicious psychopathic serial killers.

On your website bio (and by the way, I think you have the longest website bio ever, and possibly the most entertaining), you credit your early involvement with the Horror Writers Association with helping your career. How important is it for writers to network with other writers?

When I joined HWA in 1994, I didn’t know a single other author. This was before online social media, so I had no real access to them. I was actively pursuing a career as an author and I’d submitted manuscripts using information I got from Writer’s Market, but I was still weirdly uninformed about the writing business.

The HWA newsletter was a treasure trove of information. Things really changed when I got online and joined the GEnie service, which had a private bulletin board exclusively for HWA members. Suddenly I got to interact with actual published writers! I’d already read a lot of their books! The education I got from that message board was invaluable, though not always what I wanted to hear (reading posts by Rick Hautala was a pretty good way to shatter my rose-colored glasses).

I’m sure there are authors who perfect their craft in solitude, send an unagented manuscript to the slush pile, are discovered by an enthusiastic editor, and go on to be rich and famous. Generally, though, contacts are an essential part of the business, and HWA is how I started making them.

Your first YA book was A Bad Day for Voodoo, and now I Have a Bad Feeling About This is coming out. How did you get into writing YA?

When the book came out, I did a guest blog called “How To Become A Young Adult Author In 34 Easy Steps.” It all ties into the networking thing above. The simplest answer is: “Leah Hultenschmidt at Sourcebooks emailed me and asked if I’d ever considered writing a young adult novel.” Which makes it sound really easy. In truth, it was a convoluted years-long web of connections that led to the book contract.

I’d written a young adult novel about fifteen years before that, a comedy called Elrod McBugle on the Loose, for an editor at Harcourt Brace who’d been insanely enthusiastic about my novels How to Rescue a Dead Princess and Out of Whack and wanted me to write something specifically for the young adult market. He enjoyed Elrod but said that he needed something with a serious theme, at which point I thought, “Screw serious themes! I write all-funny, all-the-time books!” and didn’t send him anything else.

I guess your question wasn’t “Have you done anything really stupid in your writing career that you regret?” So: Leah Hultenschmidt at Sourcebooks emailed me and asked if I’d ever considered writing a young adult novel.

I know you keep saying that I Have a Bad Feeling About This isn’t horror . . . but it’s about hired killers descending on a kids’ summer camp. Are you sure there’s not a little horror in it?

Even in my most shameless and corrupt efforts to sell this book to Nightmare Magazine readers, I couldn’t say that I Have a Bad Feeling About This is a horror novel. Yeah, there’s a bear attack and the possibility of a creature living underneath an outhouse, but if I say, “Oh, okay, there’s a little horror in it,” I’ll get angry emails from people calling me a damned liar, and then I’ll have to write back and say, “It wasn’t my fault! Lisa Morton coerced me into saying that with a leading question!” and then they’ll get mad at me for trying to deflect the blame, and it’ll be a great big mess.

I believe that readers who have enjoyed my other works will also enjoy this one, but, nope, it’s not horror.

You also have a brand new short story collection (Dead Clown Barbecue). With eighty-five short stories to your credit, is it your preferred form, or would you still rather dive into a novel?

I still prefer novels, if only because a short story is about three times as much work for me as writing the same number of pages in a novel. Short stories are fun because I can often be much weirder or sillier than I would be in a longer project, and I can write from the point of view of truly despicable characters that I wouldn’t want to follow for an entire novel. But in the end, if somebody held a roaring chainsaw up to my face and said “Novels or short stories? One or the other? Choose, motherfucker!” I’d have to go with novels.

You’ve mentioned starting a great many more projects than you finish. What determines whether you finish a work or not?

Deadlines. When I’m not on deadline, I can write anything I want, and it’s a glorious feeling, and if I’m not in the mood to work on this book I can work on that book or maybe even start a whole new book that’s going to be really cool and, oops, am I really working on seven novels at once?

What tends to happen is that if I get pulled away from a project for too long I’ll just lose the enthusiasm to return to it, even if I love what I’ve already written. In theory, the novel that’s already 100 pages underway should be the more appealing option, but more often I’m just in the mood to start a brand-new book. I’ve got something called Blister that I think would be a fan favorite, but I keep getting pulled away from it!

Sometimes I’ll find fatal flaws in the premise that I wish I’d discovered a few chapters earlier. Other times I’ll just decide that it’s the wrong book to be working on, career-wise.

I purposely try to post about works-in-progress to give myself some accountability to finish them . . . but it doesn’t usually work.

You’ve collaborated with J. A. Konrath (on Suckers), James A. Moore (on The Haunted Forest Tour), and Konrath, Blake Crouch, and F. Paul Wilson on Draculas. Do you enjoy the collaborative process, or are you more of a go-my-own-way guy?

All three collaborations were very different kinds of experiences, all were rewarding, and I’m proud of all of the finished projects. In the end, though, I’m still much more of a go-my-own-way guy. There’s material in all three books that’s way better than what I would have come up with on my own . . . but, jeez, I hate losing disagreements over creative choices. And if a collaboration is going to work, you have to compromise.

So I get to share credit for fantastic scenes that I didn’t write, yet there are also scenes where I’m thinking “No! No! No! That’s wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” I prefer to hog all of the creative control until the editor steps in.

Also: J.A. Konrath? Very, very fast. Jim Moore? Very, very fast. Me? Not that fast. So I was always playing catch-up with my co-authors!

Likewise, you haven’t done many stories (are there any?) set in another writer’s universe or involving their character. If someone approached you about doing, say, a tie-in novel, could you do it and enjoy writing it?

I’ve been offered two opportunities to write tie-in novels for major properties, and both times I leapt at the chance. In the first case, the editor left the company, and in the second, the publisher wasn’t able to finalize a deal with the rights-holder. I’m not necessarily saying that there won’t be moments when I want to claw my eyes out during the process, but, yeah, I could do it and enjoy it.

I have, in fact, recently completed my first-ever tie-in project, a short story for a franchise that I’m not allowed to blab about yet.

In 2001, you were President of EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection), an organization dedicated to e-publishing. At the time, did you think e-books were going to become so important to the marketplace?

At the time of my two years as EPIC Prez, the majority of the publishing industry thought that being e-published was worse than being unpublished. (Somebody even pointed me toward a message board thread that was basically “Jeff Strand is such a nice guy and so talented . . . it’s so sad that he gave up on having a real writing career.”) (By the way, screw you guys!)

You couldn’t argue with the “I don’t want to read books off my computer” logic. The Rocket Reader was cool but expensive, and ultimately an inferior reading experience to paper, but there was always the expectation that there would be a reading device that would change everything.

We thought it was going to be the REB1100. Oprah was giving it to her audience on her annual My Favorite Things episode, so I watched the show, thinking that this was going to be the moment where e-books went mainstream. The studio audience squealed with delight when they got their e-book readers, and then Oprah proudly announced that their gift cost was three hundred dollars, and the audience members went into orgasmic glee over their expensive gift while viewers across the nation went, “Whoa! Three hundred bucks? Screw that!”

By the time the Kindle came around and really did change everything, I was at the point where I was allowed to identify myself as an “author” instead of an “e-book author.” In a delightful irony, the industry started to take e-books seriously right around the time that I finally had a mass market print release.

Given your lifelong love of comics and art, when will we see a Jeff Strand graphic novel?

Just for fun, I wrote the script for the first issue of a horror/humor (mostly humor) series called Town of Turmoil . . . and I haven’t really done anything with it. “Graphic novel market research” is on my to-do list. Any comic book publishers who want to make millions and millions and millions of dollars are welcome to contact me.

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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.