In the 1980s, as horror exploded in popularity and supermarket paperback racks were crammed with books that featured glowing eyes and demonic children, critics and fans alike often talked about the genre’s three primary practitioners: Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Robert McCammon. A one-time journalist who grew up in the south during the era of civil rights activism, McCammon produced a string of popular novels beginning with Baal in 1978; he explored ancient cults next with Bethany’s Sin (1980), vampires with They Thirst (1981), the legacy of Poe’s most famous family with Usher’s Passing (1984), a post-apocalyptic world in Swan Song, and werewolves in The Wolf’s Hour (1989). He took horror seriously enough that in 1985 he co-founded (with Joe and Karen Lansdale) the Horror Writers of America (later the Horror Writers Association), and he was one of the first recipients of the organization’s Bram Stoker Award (he won both the first short fiction award for his story “The Deep End” and the first novel trophy for Swan Song); later, he edited HWA’s first anthology, Under the Fang. In 1991, he released what many consider his best book—the coming-of-age tale A Boy’s Life—and yet that book almost became (ironically) his own swan song to horror fiction. That same year, McCammon wrote a letter to his fans (it appeared in his newsletter) in which he expressed his disillusionment with horror (“a sense of wonder and beauty has been drained from our field”), and he left the genre behind to focus on historical fiction. In 2002, he published Speaks the Nightbird, the first of his historical detective novels focusing on the character Matthew Corbett; he has since published three more Matthew Corbett books, and one stand-alone rock-and-roll novel, The Five. However, McCammon’s next release, I Travel by Night (released in May by Subterranean) seemed to promise a return to horror, as it follows a vampire protagonist. McCammon was recently awarded the HWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and he currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama.
As a kid, you wrote ghost stories on an old Royal typewriter. What were your inspirations?
My inspirations were books about supposedly true hauntings and the fact that there was a “haunted house” in my neighborhood . . . right next door, as a matter of fact. But I actually was a big fan of science fiction, and I was doing those kind of stories too, as well as “war stories” starring kids in my classes. Those made me fairly popular because everybody either wanted to survive or die as heroes, and I had their fates in my hands.
You’ve written several short stories about Halloween, your novels have referenced characters with names like “The Pumpkin Man” (Usher’s Passing), and academic Marian Carcache has remarked on the use of masks in your work. Was Halloween a major day for you as a child?
Absolutely it was. It was a great day. I always enjoyed wearing masks and “changing my identity,” so to speak. It was a sad day when my daughter decided she was too old for Halloween and wanted to hang out with her friends instead of going trick-or-treating.
You were growing up in Birmingham at a time when it was one of the centers of the civil rights movement. That plays an obvious part in Boy’s Life, but did it affect your writing in other ways?
Well, I saw a lot of the actual violence of the civil rights movement on TV, and I suppose that sank in. There was a feeling of violence and danger in those days in Birmingham . . . I know that has affected my writing, for sure.
In their review of the 2011 re-release of your first novel Baal, Publisher’s Weekly complimented the book’s “fluid prose and vivid descriptions.” Before Baal, you’d worked mainly as a journalist—was writing a novel difficult, or liberating?
It was a necessity. I had a dead end job at a newspaper and I knew if I didn’t at least try to write a novel, I might be stuck on the copy desk for the rest of my life. It’s interesting to me that when the book first came out, it didn’t get such a good review. But yes . . . it was liberating because it freed me from that dead end job at the newspaper . . . which now is gone, and the job of copy editor is pretty much a thing of the past, as well.
In the past, you’ve noted that you were unhappy with the quality of the writing in your first four (Baal, Bethany’s Sin, The Night Boat, and They Thirst), but you’ve recently allowed Subterranean to reissue them. What changed your mind? And were you tempted to indulge in any rewriting?
I was convinced that some readers wanted a complete collection of my work. I was not tempted to indulge in rewriting, because I might have rewritten the entire books. It’s just that I feel like my ability has moved on so far from where I began . . . but I do believe that some readers want to complete their collection of my work, and reading back over those books I find they’re not as poorly written as I recall them to be, so . . . there you go.
Your 1984 novel Usher’s Passing followed up the Usher family created by Edgar Allan Poe, and even briefly included Poe as a character, but the style and many of the novel’s plot points—urban legends, greed—were distinctly your own. How did the idea for that book come about—did it begin as homage?
No, I just had the idea and the curiosity about what had happened to the Usher family over the years. I wanted to complete the family history. That began as every book I write begins . . . as a book I want to read, and I’m going to have to write it to be able to read it.
Your short story “Nightcrawlers” was adapted for the New Twilight Zone in 1985, directed by William Friedkin, and is now generally considered to be that series’ finest episode. Were you pleased with the adaptation?
Yes, Friedkin did a great job. I was very proud of that episode.
Your work is full of memorable characters—Swan in Swan Song, Cory in Boy’s Life, and of course Matthew Corbett in the recent historical detective novels, just to name a few. When you plan a book, do you start with the characters?
No, I start with a basic idea and go from there. Again, it has to be a book I want to read. I don’t work with an outline, so the characters define themselves as the story goes on. The only time I tried to work with an outline I got bored and gave the project up because I’d already read the book! It was like the Cliff’s Notes version . . . so I just write on faith that everything will work out, though I do have what I call “signpost scenes” that keep me going in what I believe—or hope—is the right direction.
You’ve published about thirty short stories, many of which were collected in Blue World (1990). Do you enjoy writing short fiction as much as novels?
I do, I just have more ideas for novels than I do for short fiction.
In 1991, you wrote, “The field of horror writing has changed dramatically since the mid-to-late-‘70s. At that time, horror writing was still influenced by the classics of the literature. I don’t find that to be true anymore.” Do you think the genre has changed in the twenty years since you wrote that? Do you still read horror?
As an answer to both questions above, I do still read horror fiction but not as much as I used to, and my comment from 1991 was based on my belief at the time that horror fiction was becoming too gory and sadistic for my taste.
“The Enigmatic Emperors of Crime” is a short article you recently wrote about your affection for villains, including Fu Manchu and Fantômas. Do you read a lot of pulp fiction?
I read a lot of what intrigues me and what I think I will enjoy, but I don’t limit that to one area. My “Enigmatic Emperors of Crime” article basically talked about the power of the villain in all fiction.
The label “Southern Gothic” has occasionally been applied to your work, including Boy’s Life. Do you consider anything you’ve written to be Southern Gothic?
I think there are elements of what might be considered “Southern Gothic” in Usher’s Passing, Mystery Walk and Gone South as well. I don’t set out to do this, it just happens.
You returned from retirement with Speaks the Nightbird, the first of your historical Matthew Corbett novels, and you’ve mentioned plans for ten novels in this series—are they already outlined?
I don’t have all of them planned—and certainly none are outlined, because I don’t work that way—but I know where the series is going. I know how it will end and I know the last line of the final book.
You’ve talked about how much difficulty you’ve had finding a publisher for your historical novels, because it’s not what they expect from you. Did you ever consider a pen name for those books?
I had an agent once who told me publishers didn’t want anything but horror from me, and when I suggested using a pen name he said that wouldn’t work because then my fans couldn’t find me. I then retreated again to my cave.
Technology has changed so much since you began to publish and, later, encounter difficulties with publishers. Does the idea of self-publishing appeal at all to you?
Self-publishing? Well, I’m not sure about that but certainly the publishing world has changed and is still changing. Where it will go from here is anyone’s guess, and I surely don’t want to make one.
I’ve heard you speak about The Village, your historical novel about a Russian theater troupe in World War II, and I thought it sounded fantastic, but your website states that it will “never be published”—can you talk about that?
No, I really can’t. That is a painful episode in my own personal history.
Given your journalism background and your obvious affection for research, have you ever considered writing a nonfiction book?
Hm . . . maybe, someday, if I have time.
Is your new book I Travel by Night (released this month by Subterranean) a conscious return to horror fiction?
I’ve always said I write what I want to read, so if it’s not there to be read I have to create it. I don’t think of it as “horror fiction” but as something I created because I wanted to read the story.
The “genre” thing has always been a thorny issue for me. I mean . . . really . . . what is “horror fiction”? What is its point? What does it say? Does it exist to convey a meaning or a “truth” or is it simply to provoke a gross-out? There are so many varieties and styles of “horror fiction,” that it’s hard to put the genre in a box. So . . . again, I always write what I want to read.