While most horror authors are content to create chills, a handful are more interested in studying exactly how those chills are manufactured. Leslie Klinger is one of the genre’s most significant nonfiction experts. Although he began his nonfiction career annotating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, Les has since become a major figure in the art of nonfiction horror, providing annotations for Dracula, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and (released in October) twenty-two stories by H. P. Lovecraft. Next up for Les is an Annotated Frankenstein, which—as with all of his books—will not only include his far-ranging and insightful notes, but also a stunning collection of illustrations. Les has also edited anthologies of vampire and mystery stories, and by day he is an attorney who lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
Let’s talk first about how one becomes a professional annotator. You started by just annotating a few Sherlock Holmes stories for fun, right?
Yes, it began as a kind of test for myself. I became hooked on Holmes through the original Baring-Gould Annotated Sherlock Holmes, published in 1967, and I dreamt that someday I might be the one who would update that book when I retired. In the mid-1990s, I had some time on my hands and decided to give it a spin, see what it would be like to update the annotations on a few stories. I showed them to friends whose opinions I valued, they liked them, and a monster was born!
After you finished your three-volume annotated Sherlock Holmes, you decided to tackle Dracula next because, as you put it in the preface to your Dracula, you were “so immersed in the Victorian world.” What is it about that time and place that fascinates you?
It’s an era that we think we know because it’s close to us in time and we’ve seen it in so many movies, but it’s full of surprises. I say that the Victorian era was the birthplace of all of the great revolutions of the twentieth century—civil rights, women’s rights, technology, the rise of the middle class—and if we want to understand the twentieth century, we need to examine its roots.
You’re an expert in both Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, and yet those characters seem almost complete opposites, with Holmes representing intellect and Dracula, passion . . . but do those characters actually have more in common than meets the eye?
The main thing that the characters have in common is their size—both are larger than life and both have captivated readers for more than a century. Of course, they walked the streets of London at exactly the same time, and their stories reflect many of the same cultural and historical issues. Doyle and Stoker were friends and moved in the same literary circles, so this is no surprise. The characters also have intense fandoms, and this too fascinated me. The vampire fans are little less visible than Sherlockians (today, anyway) but as cycles rise and fall—e.g., the Twilight films or Sherlock—they come out of the dark!
For Dracula, you spent two days with the original manuscript, which was part of the collection of Paul Allen. That must have been like having a cocktail out of the Holy Grail.
It was an amazing experience, being able to examine so closely the creative process. The manuscript (actually, a typescript, possibly typed by Stoker himself) has handwritten emendations by Stoker and his editor as well as notes by Thornley Stoker, Bram’s brother, a doctor whose advice Bram sought. The coolest part of the manuscript was the parts where material was actually typed and pasted over other material. Handling the manuscript permitted me to hold those pages up to the light and read the “pasted over” material, something no one else had ever done! I tried to indicate every significant change in my footnotes.
I’ve been able to have a similar experience with Sherlock Holmes stories as well, examining manuscripts, though there are many missing ones. Conan Doyle’s manuscripts are much less revealing, however; either he did little editing or, in some cases, I suspect that the “manuscripts” are actually “fair copies” of manuscripts that he discarded.
Why wasn’t Dracula immediately a huge hit upon its first publication in 1897?
As in the case of Frankenstein, some critics found the story “disgusting,” and certainly Stoker was not known for writing high literature. I think it simply took time for readers to discover that there was more to the book than a simple, sensational tale. It didn’t fail—it went through multiple printings—but it didn’t achieve real prominence until—surprise, surprise—it was a successful stage play and film.
Why does Dracula continue to fascinate us more than a century after its release?
While it’s not the first vampire story, it’s the first full-length story, and unlike the previous prominent tales (The Vampyre, Varney the Vampire, Carmilla), it focused equally on the vampire and the vampire-hunters. By depicting the latter, it achieved a level of suspense never reached before, allowing the reader to place themselves into the minds of these people who slowly learn that they are facing a monster.
We’re also fascinated by the vampire itself—a creature that defies death and perhaps, at least in Dracula, invites some sympathy for its “outsider” status. As one friend remarked, who wouldn’t want to have the strength of twenty men, a hypnotic power over other people, and live forever?
You’ve taught college courses on Dracula via UCLA Extension. What’s the first thing you’d want students to know about the Count?
The “truth” about Dracula—that is, I want them to put aside their (mis)conceptions that arise from the films and popular culture. Probably most importantly, Dracula was not Vlad the Impaler!
Talk a little about “the Icelandic edition” of Dracula.
The first foreign-language edition of Dracula was the Icelandic edition, published in 1901. It’s important because it included a preface written by Stoker, probably in 1898, in which he identified the Harkers and Dr. Seward as real persons who were his friends and suggested a connection between Dracula and the Ripper murders. I’ve included it in my edition, though it didn’t appear in English until 1986!
Nearly all of the works you’ve annotated have had previous annotated editions. Is that ever intimidating for you? Or do those earlier works inspire you and provide a good jumping-off point?
It’s certainly intimidating when the previous annotations are as good as the ones that preceded mine (and there are three previous annotated Dracula editions), but I’ve only done an annotated edition where I thought I could do something better or significantly differently. For example, while the Baring-Gould Annotated Sherlock Holmes is a treasure, it was almost forty years (now almost fifty years) out of date in terms of references to the scholarship, plus it presented the stories in an eccentric order. In the case of my New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, while the two slim volumes done by S. T. Joshi and colleagues are excellent, the annotations there present solely the editors’ own original comments and don’t reference a large body of other Lovecraftian scholarship. Also, I wanted to add a large number of illustrations and “pop culture” material omitted from those volumes and expand the number of annotated stories. In the case of my New Annotated Dracula, no one had referenced either Stoker’s notes or the manuscript, and I wanted to include a great deal of material about the text itself. Of course, I owe a great debt to the previous annotators. I always say that I had three large advantages over Baring-Gould in preparing my Sherlock Holmes annotations:
1) The Internet (and computers)
2) The publication of the brilliant DeWaal bibliography listing 25,000+ Sherlockian items
3) I got to start with Baring-Gould’s edition in front of me!
For both your Holmes and Dracula annotations, you begin with the conceit (known in Sherlockian circles as “The Game”) that the fictional characters were actually real, and the Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker were really nonfiction authors who just changed a few names. What do you, the annotator, gain from this approach?
Playing the Game allows me to justify spending a good deal of attention on the problems of “authenticity”—that is, whether the things described by the author could have really happened. Only great writers like Doyle and Stoker can pull this off. This in turn provides much more historical detail and, I think, enhances the verisimilitude of the original story. And it’s grand fun to study such things as the tide and lunar tables to consider whether Stoker accurately described them!
Do you follow that notion at any point in your Lovecraft annotations?
Lovecraft himself said that a successful story had to have the elements of a hoax in order to make the horror effective. So yes, I did devote some attention to considering how well he pulled off that hoax, examining in detail places, events, and the science he used in his stories.
Were you ever tempted to write your own novel about a real vampire interacting with the author Bram Stoker?
Tempted, but never seriously—writing fiction is a talent that I’m not sure that I possess. It’s awfully intimidating to see that blank page in front of you!
You’ve mentioned that you think Jack Palance is the most accurate cinematic portrayal of Dracula, but what about some of the other characters? Who’s the best Van Helsing? Renfield?
I’m a bit of a purist here, and Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye (from the 1931 Dracula) remain my favorites, although Pablo Alvarez Rubio from the 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula is also fine as Renfield. Although I love the work of Peter Cushing in general, and especially his Sherlock Holmes, he always seemed lacking to me as Van Helsing. Van Helsing strikes me as a bit mad and certainly as an outsider, neither of which qualities is conveyed by Cushing in the Hammer films.
Neil Gaiman’s been present through much of your career, first as a fellow Sherlockian, then providing the introduction for your Dracula, and finally, of course, as the author of the source material for The Annotated Sandman. Did Neil approach you about the latter volumes, or was it your idea, or someone else’s?
Neil and I had joked for years about doing Annotated Sandman, and he’d always said, “Let’s wait until I’m dead.” One day he called me and said, “You know, I’m starting to forget why I wrote some of those things. We’d better do this. I’m calling D.C.” He did, and they said yes, and the rest is “history.”
Were you ever hesitant to step into the world of a living author?
Oh, yes, I was very nervous about suggesting things that someone in authority (that is, Neil) might disagree with! However, it was very exciting. I called some of what I did “reverse-engineering,” trying to figure out what sources he’d used for some of the material. It was a thrill to be at his home, go through his library, and discover that I was right—mostly!
Did you ever ask Neil about something you were in the midst of annotating?
Absolutely, I tried out ideas on him. In some cases, he said, “Huh, I hadn’t thought of that, but if you think you can prove it, go for it!” In others, he steered me in the correct direction when I was at sea.
Graphic novels and comics can be incestuous, with cross-references to other series and characters. Did you ever worry about missing any such bits in the Sandman comics?
I was quite worried, but first (and I want to give credit where credit is due), there was a great deal of online annotation of the Sandman comics that appeared when they were first published, to which a large body of fans contributed. So I picked up a lot of cross-references from that. Neil also seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of comics (among other subjects), and he was able to supply a few missing cross-references.
How did you come next to H. P. Lovecraft?
I actually pitched a number of other ideas when finally struck by the obvious choice: As in the case of Holmes and Dracula, there is a large, devoted fanbase for Lovecraft’s work, and that’s exactly what the publisher wanted. I’ve always been a science fiction reader, as long as I can remember, and so the idea of exploring one of the founders of the genre sounded great. I really had read very little of Lovecraft, and it was a joy to discover how truly rich the material was. I built up an immense library of Lovecraft material (including a number of issues of Weird Tales) and dove in!
Why Lovecraft and not Poe?
I would love to annotate Poe’s work, but unfortunately Liveright/Norton had already given the project to another writer, Michael Patrick O’Hearn, and he was well along with the project when I asked. I believe that the book will be out in the next two years. Liveright/Norton isn’t the only publisher out there, but I love working with them, and they’ve produced such beautiful books. I’m doubtful that any other publisher would be as supportive as they’ve been, for all of my books for them.
There are Lovecraft fans and scholars who have studied the entire Cthulhu Mythos for decades. Did you ever worry about diving into that pool?
Of course. This is why I read everything and sought the help of lifelong HPL scholars like S. T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, who embraced the project and were immensely helpful.
Your Lovecraft volume covers twenty-two stories and still clocks in at almost 1,000 pages. Were there any stories you had to leave out just for space considerations that you regretted losing?
Oh, yes—”The Outsider,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Other Gods,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” “The Shunned House,” and “The Rats in the Wall” were hard to leave out. In the end, though, I stuck with the stories that feature Arkham and Miskatonic U. The problem was that to add those stories would have meant another 200 pages, and that would have pushed the book up to $49.95, not as attractive a “price point.”
If you had access to Lovecraft, what one question would you most like to ask him?
It wouldn’t really be one question—I’d like to speak with him about how the American culture has produced its own mythos, largely as a result of the “melting pot.” I know that his antipathy toward those who weren’t white folks from New England was the product of his parents’ mental illness, and I’d like to think that he was growing out of it as he matured.
How did Alan Moore come to provide the foreword for the Lovecraft volume?
A lovely story: Alan, I knew, was deeply interested in Lovecraft and was in fact writing his own graphic novel called Providence. I emailed Alan’s daughter Leah Moore, who I met through Dracula (I helped Leah and her husband John with their wonderful Complete Dracula graphic novel and Holmes comic books) to ask her how to get in touch with Alan (who doesn’t do email). I told her why, and eight hours later, she emailed me back, “He’d love to do it!” I had only meant to get his mailing address, but Leah pitched him for me! I was thrilled beyond measure that he agreed to write the foreword—he was my first and only choice.
For the Sherlock and Dracula books, you already had a considerable personal collection of Victoriana to refer to. Do you now have a home library that includes mythology, graphic novels, and mythos works?
Oh, indeed. Not only do I have everything that Gaiman has written, plus hundreds of other comics and graphic novels, I now have an immense Lovecraft library, almost 350 books, plus complete runs of several Lovecraft magazines (Crypt of Cthulhu, Lovecraft Studies). I really am not much interested in the Mythos stories, however. I also have a large collection of non-Dracula vampire material, plus Jack the Ripper material, and now a core library of Frankenstein-related books.
Why has Lovecraft proven so difficult to adapt to film?
Lovecraft’s stories aren’t the kind of horror tales that filmmakers like. They’re more about psychological terrors than creatures that go bump in the night, and there’s virtually no blood. I think they’re tough to sell to audiences.
You’re now working on an annotated Frankenstein. I would imagine that a key difficulty in annotating that work might be simply in knowing when to stop, given the gigantic wealth of material surrounding the book and its history.
You’re right about that—there is a ton of academic material. I expect that I’ll end up taking the same approach as I did with Dracula and Lovecraft, though, and while I’ll try to indicate the existence of the academic scholarship, I don’t plan to examine it in any detail. I’m much more interested in the historical and cultural background than considering whether Frankenstein is a disguised tale of childbirth from the mother’s perspective or an exemplar of Rousseau’s theories of education, for example.
Are you going to approach Frankenstein as a real story?
Certainly I will examine the cultural and historical background and criticize the verisimilitude—the improbabilities in the story. I can’t stop myself from doing that. However, I already have a lot of material about the text itself—the changes made to the original text by Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley as it evolved.
You’ve also worked as an editor, producing both volumes of previously-printed stories (In the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes and In the Shadow of Dracula), and new stories (A Study in Sherlock, co-edited with Laurie King). Do you enjoy working as an editor with living authors? Are there other projects you’d like to pursue as an editor?
I find anthologies a great pleasure, both assembling classic stories and teasing work out of writer-friends. Laurie and I have co-edited In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, another collection of new stories inspired by the Sherlockian Canon, to be published by Pegasus Books in November 2014, and we may well do a third volume—so many friends who want to play in this sandbox! I’ve also just started a very different anthology with my dear friend Laura Caldwell, called Anatomy of Innocence. This will be true stories about exonerees—innocent people wrongly convicted and exonerated—told by major thriller writers working with the exonerees. Laura is the founder/director of the Life After Innocence Project at Loyola University Chicago, and this was her idea. I’m honored to be part of it! It will be published by Norton in 2016.
Have you ever considered writing something like a narrative history or critical study of an iconic character like Dracula or Sherlock?
You mean a real book? Actually, I have. Nancy Holder and I are trying to sell a book we call Baker Street Chronicles, a narrative history of the lives of Holmes and Watson, Doyle, and the major figures of the period 1850-1930. It’s kind of a cross between an art book and a history text.
You’ve worked as a consultant on several movies, and I happen to know that you’ve watched the entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer five times. Have you ever been tempted to write a film book?
I would love to do the Annotated Buffy one day, and Scott Allie (editor-in-chief at Dark Horse) and I actually talked about how to do that with the comics. I also pitched the idea of doing an annotated edition of the Christopher Nolan Batman scripts but didn’t get any traction.
By day, you’re an attorney, and you’re also very involved with several writers’ organizations (including both Mystery Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association). You must have amazing time management skills.
And a very supportive wife!
Are you already considering an annotation project after Frankenstein?
We’re talking about a big book called Annotated Noir that would consist of four or five classic noir novels (e.g., Maltese Falcon, Big Sleep) and maybe a classic film script. We’re still putting it together, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do!
Spread the word!