Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Steve Niles

Steve Niles is the undisputed crown prince of modern horror comics. Building (knowingly) on the tradition of the EC classics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, Niles most famously re-claimed vampires with 30 Days of Night, which took them back from the realm of the romantic and made them fast, cunning, bloodthirsty monsters that attacked a small Alaskan town in the Arctic Circle. He’s also worked as a screenwriter (he was involved with the screenplay for the movie of 30 Days of Night), and his series of Cal McDonald stories—about the adventures of a hard-living paranormal private dick in Los Angeles—have shown he’s a fine prose writer with a flair for noirish style. Although his horror comics have explored everything from horror-movie hosts to the Frankenstein monster, his most recent graphic novel returns to vampires: Transfusion collects a three-issue series from 2012 that pits bloodsuckers against robots in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Niles is an affable man who travels frequently, and although he was raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C. he currently resides just north of Los Angeles.

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I know you’ve stated before that as a kid you grew up making monster movies with a Super 8 camera—did you ever write your own comics, though? How about horror stories?

I didn’t start writing stories until I was twelve or thirteen. Before that I just made these little Super 8 horror films. I read comics my whole life but it never occurred to me to try and make my own until my late teens.

You once said, “There’s a true innocence about monsters.” Is there something innocent about the monsters (vampires) in 30 Days of Night?

In a way, I suppose. They are very pure and honorable among their own kind. They have about as much respect for us as we do cows, so killing humans doesn’t make them any less innocent than us for eating cows and chickens. I think animals and children under two years old are the only innocents left in this world. Monsters are often treated like animals, so . . .

What were your inspirations for 30 Days of Night? I wondered if the name of your main vampire—Marlow—was a tip of the hat to Salem’s Lot, in which the vampire is named Barlow.

The name was definitely a tip of the hat to Salem’s Lot, both book and TV movie. The TV movie scared the crap out of me when I was a kid, the window scene. So creepy. I think my other inspirations are fairly obvious, The Thing, Carpenter’s version and the original, and Night of the Living Dead. I love films where people are isolated and attacked, I guess.

Ben Templesmith’s art in the original 30 Days of Night created an unusual image for the vampires, with faces that were distorted and stylized. How much did you work with him in crafting that look?

Ben and I agreed when we started we wanted different vampires. My first description I wrote called them “Land Sharks” and Ben took that and ran with it. He made them vicious and stylish at the same time without making them look like they shopped at Hot Topic. I think Ben’s art is what made the comic really stand out. To me, he set the bar for what a horror comic should look like.

You’ve commented before on how you believe that vampires represent our fear of disease and of something invading our family . . . but don’t they also represent our fear of sexuality?

I think fear of sex and fear of disease are related. One certainly can lead to another. I realize the popular notion is that vampires represent sex, but I think it’s silly to ignore the other things they represent to us, and fear of invasion and disease are right up there with sex.

You also worked on the screenplay for the film adaptation of 30 Days of Night—was it a strange experience to re-imagine your work for a different medium? Or is working in film not that different from scripting a comic?

Ugh. Honestly, that wasn’t the best experience for me. I loved working with Raimi and Tapert but unfortunately there were fifteen other producers whose ideas I tried to incorporate. That was my first gig, and I learned the hard way that it’s impossible to make everybody happy. Technically writing a screenplay isn’t that much different than a comic. The biggest difference is in comics you freeze your moment and in a screenplay you move right through it.

Do you approach writing about an existing character—say, Batman, or DC’s The Creeper—differently from writing an original work?

Very different. When I get to work on a character like Batman, most of the work is done already, the world and all the characters exist, the toys are already there so all I have to do is come up with a new way to arrange the toys. When I do a new book I have to establish the world and characters, and that takes time.

With the Cal McDonald stories, you not only proved you could write prose, but that you had a real love affair with noir style, too. Where did Cal’s hardboiled side come from?

Cal started with me just plain ripping off Raymond Chandler. I wrote a few stories and they seemed really dated so I added drugs and monsters and he’s been writing himself ever since. I have so much fun with him because he’s so cynical and I get to see the world through those eyes. He’s a dick, but sometimes it’s fun to be the dick, ya know?

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the Cal McDonald stories is that they really capture L.A. . . . as a seething home for ghouls, junkies and monsters, that is. Are these stories at all a deliberate comment on Southern California?

Oh yeah. Definitely. Cal is from the East Coast so he has some very grim attitudes about the silliness of the Hollywood lifestyle.

In 2008 you said you were writing “John Carpenter’s next movie”—can you talk about what happened to that? Any chance it’ll still see the light of day?

You might see the film but I doubt John and I will be involved. I butted heads with an idiot producer and got myself fired for mouthing off. I have very little patience for non-creatives giving creative notes. I’m working on that. Too bad too, because John and I had something good brewing. It would have been a scary one for sure. Carpenter and I got along great. Really too bad people couldn’t trust us to come up with something scary.

And how about the Wake the Dead movie—what stage is it at now?

That just stalled out. We have the script, director, and WETA on board. We just never found the financing. We haven’t quit. We’re still trying to find a home for it. Jay Russell and I are still out there shopping it around. I have new reps. Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll see it happen. This is one reason I love comics. At least they come out. I hate that about Hollywood. Way too much good stuff sitting on shelves while we get Captain Underpants Part 5 in 3D.

You once said, “Romero in general was a real inspiration for me. Not only did he make the best horror movies, he also did them his way. He’s the original DIY guy.” Yet you haven’t really tackled zombies yet. Is that still coming?

I wrote Remains, which was made into a TV movie for Chiller. That was my one big zombie thing. It was more about the relationship between characters, but there were lots and lots of zombies. DIY is incredibly important to me. I came up in the Washington D.C. music scene and we did everything ourselves, put out records, books, shows and tours. We never even thought about going to some corporate bullshit label. Something happened and I found myself sitting around waiting for DC to give me work, and I guess you could say I woke up again. I think DIY will save books, comics, and film. It’s the only way we’ll ever hear a creator’s voice as we head into a world owned by Disney. It’s vital that creators in all arts learn how to deal direct and make their art themselves. Do not sit and wait for anybody.

This April will see the publication of Transfusion, which collects the three issues of your horror/science fiction hybrid comic. Transfusion seems different from most of your earlier work, using not only science fiction tropes but a more terse style, with sparse text and dialogue. Was it a deliberate attempt to explore something new?

The artist, Menton3, inspired the style of writing, to be honest. I always try to match the art and for me Transfusion is an incredibly grim story so the sparse dialogue and captions seemed to fit. And yes, it was extremely deliberate. I love to experiment. I fall flat on my face a lot but when it works, man, that’s the best.

Transfusion is a post-apocalyptic story that features both blood-drinking robots and vampires. These vampires seem quite different from the ones in 30 Days of Night—how intentional was that?

Very intentional. I wanted to steer clear of the 30 Days types of vampires, not only to avoid ripping myself off, but also to try something new. The vampires in Transfusion are much more traditional, and since I don’t have much experience with those types it felt very new to me.

You’ve written graphic novels, screenplays, and short fiction—will we see a full length novel from you at some point?

Yes. I am done with the rough draft of my novel A World of Hurt. I’m doing rewrites right now and working on something very different for that as well. Can’t wait to show that one off.

Lastly: Have you really received hate mail from Twilight fans?

Just when we did the Sparkles for Blood Drive where people could turn in their Twilight novels and exchange them for 30 Days of Night. I got some of the most awful, venomous emails . . . followed very quickly by the sweetest apologies in the world.

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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.