Horror & Dark Fantasy



Interview: Josh Malerman

In 2014, a horror novel by a young writer named Josh Malerman was released by HarperCollins’ Ecco Press imprint to starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews; both publications compared the book—about survivors in a post-apocalyptic America decimated by something that kills those who glimpse it—to the work of Stephen King. Malerman had never been published before, because (talk about dream day jobs!) he’d been touring for years as frontman for the band the High Strung, who scored when their song “The Luck You Got” was chosen as the theme song for the Showtime series Shameless. Since Bird Box, Josh has published an impressive array of short stories, novellas, introductions, and—just released in May—his second novel, Black Mad Wheel (which received a starred review in Library Journal), about a 1950s rock band as they undertake a government assignment to identify a sound that can kill. Forthcoming later this year is the novella collection Goblin, and his next novel Unbury Carol will be released by Del Rey next April. Malerman lives in Michigan with his fiancée Allison Laakko, and he still makes music with the High Strung.

When you were a kid, did you want to be a rock star, a writer, or something else?

I think I was mostly concerned with remaining a kid as long as I could. And while that sounds a bit like something to say, I think most writers of horror and dark fiction probably have maintained their childhood, in some way, for a much longer time than any Fate or Father Time would normally allow. But I am seeing fleeting scenes . . . moments . . . in answer to your question . . . like when I was riding in the car with Dad at midnight and Michael Jackson came on the radio and Dad casually said, “Man, I wish I coulda done something like this.” My heart just sank. Because here Dad was saying he wished he coulda done something other than what he ended up doing. It was the first time I can remember in which either of my parents removed their mask and cape, accidentally or otherwise, and proved themselves to be human. I said to Dad, “Why couldn’t you? Why couldn’t you still?”

So, while I may struggle to pinpoint exactly who or what told me that I, like anybody, could grow up to be a writer or a rocker or both, I’m able to recognize that at a very early age I believed any path/goal/ambition was possible for whoever wanted to take it. I once considered myself a militant optimist, back in the days when the High Strung lived on the road, six years and more, with no home base, playing odd gigs, small venues, scant crowds, because I believed I had to be. I somewhat foolishly thought I had to maintain a leviathan optimism in order to keep writing, both books and songs. But a friend, a poet, in Chicago changed that for me when I told him I wanted to write an optimistic horror novel and he responded with, “Isn’t the act of writing at all, every time, optimistic?” And I understood what he meant from top to bottom straight away. And yet . . . that optimism . . . that’s something like maintaining childhood, isn’t it?

I’m seeing other moments . . . scenes . . . in answer to your question . . . like when my neighbor friend Dan Baum and I drew comic books . . . like when I tried to write short stories that were more like single paragraphs . . . like when I walked around summer camp counting the books I had to one day write. There’s the one about the woods, I remember thinking, counting on my fingers. And the one about the lake. As if the woods and a lake couldn’t both be in the same story! Ha. You know, it was through writing poems and stories that I ended up in the band in the first place. One day my friend Mark started singing some of my poems while I screwed around on an old organ and that was it, really. I can still smell that day, just like we can all still smell the unbelievable days we’ve had, as if a seismic shift in our self-images actually give off a scent. From there, Mark and I wrote dozens of songs that would eventually become the backbone of the High Strung with Derek, Chad, and Jason. So, while the writing came first, they’ve been entwined since I was about 19, and I’m better for it. And because of that mesh, along with an innate belief that any of us can do anything we want to, it’s almost impossible for me to say that, as a kid, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just wanted to be it all.

At what point did you realize you could make a living doing something creative?

So, the band had been living in New York for a couple years, learning songs, recording them, but only playing a handful of shows. In those days, we were so wrapped up in making albums, or trying to, that playing actual shows wasn’t the main priority. Then we did a small run of three shows in Ohio, that area. On the way back to New York we started talking about how amazing it was, out on the road, even for that short a time. This led to us booking our first real tour, a two-month circle of the country. In those days we didn’t have cellphones and I booked the whole tour from a landline in the loft space we all shared (our “rooms” were divvied up by hanging tapestries . . . still $725 a month each, can you believe that?) I didn’t know what I was doing. Not at all. I would sometimes call a town’s sub shop and ask the punk who answered where the rock bands played when they came to town. The kid working the sub shop would name a place and I’d try to get us a show on or about the time we’d be passing through. It was like building a tower out of toothpicks. The whole enterprise felt real flimsy. But I did it and we did it and once we were out on the road for a couple months, as we were driving back to New York again, we decided to just keep going. At that point it became more like building a bridge as you’re walking across it. And we more or less stayed out on the road for the next six-plus years. Got rid of our apartments, all that. Jumped in with both feet. And it was somewhere in the early days of that run that we understood, hey, we might not be making much money, but we could technically live off the shows. Soon we set it up where we each lived off $10 a day. That was our per diem. You had to make it stretch. Make it work. And as fucked up as that sounds, those days, the Ten Dollar Days, with no cellphones and really no place to be until show time, those days were some of the brightest of my life. I don’t know why exactly, but I’ve never looked at the books or songs with dollar signs in my eyes . . . never felt desperate about selling the pile of books that was growing, growing taller than me, in the van or the bus or eventually in my apartment or home office. Even when I was the brokest guy you’ve ever met (that period lasted for what felt like forever). But at the same time, I blindly believed it was going to work out. I imagined all the books I was writing on the shelves in the bookstores and that was somehow enough for me to not entirely freak out and walk away from a life of so much writing. Writing for me has never been a hobby (that word sounds so frighteningly lazy, so unrelatable), no more so than love is only a feeling or family is just some people that you know.

You wrote more than a dozen novels during the years you were touring with the High Strung. Describe writing a novel while on tour with a rock band.

First things first: whoever is driving gets dibs on the radio, so some days you may have to write that book to the Grateful Dead or The Bangles and it ain’t easy writing a scary scene while Jerry Garcia plays guitar and Bob Weir sings about smiling. But Derek loves to drive and Chad loves to read rock bios and so I pretty much had the passenger seat as a regular gig and I either wrote freehand (I did four books this way, wanna do another one now) or used the computer, hammering away, as we crossed from Illinois to Iowa, from Nevada to California. It wasn’t easy. But I had been trying to write novels for ten years and kept failing; meaning, I hadn’t finished one yet. I even made it 300 pages into one . . . just didn’t know how to end it back then. But I had a breakthrough during a two-month stretch when the High Strung were off the road, after Mark left the band. I was living at Dad’s place for those two months and there was an all-night coffee shop nearby and every night, once Dad and co. fell asleep, I headed out there to write. Maybe I was trying to work through something. Probably I was. And it was at that all-night place that I had my breakthrough, theee breakthrough we all pine for: I finished my first book. Wendy. It remains the most electrifying feeling I’ve ever known. And just because the band was about to hit the road again, I wasn’t about to lose my grip on what I’d learned how to do. So I really had no choice but to write the next one and the next partially or entirely in the van. It was a little bit crazy. But at the time it made a lot of sense: when you’re not driving the van and you don’t have a cellphone to distract you, what are you going to do? You could read, talk, or . . . write a dozen novels. Up to you.

How did Bird Box become the first novel published?

So I started posting online every time I finished another book. I didn’t know anything about publishing or really anything at all other than writing the books and posting, hey, I finished another one, every time I did. A friend of mine from high school and college contacted me, told me he knew of a lawyer who represented authors. Could he send him a book of mine? Yeah, sure, of course he could. But which one? Well, I nervously settled on one and Dave sent it to the lawyer he knew and the lawyer called me and said he’d like to represent me. Told me he had a manager in mind for me, too. I got stoned that night, with the intention of just feeling good about it all. Instead I lost my shit. Freaked out. Felt a freezing cold wave of horror . . . unsure whether or not I was ready for what all would follow. I imagined myself tongue-tied and writer-blocked and useless and ugly and an imposter. And then . . . that feeling passed. And when the stone wore off, I actually got to work. We all did.

We worked on a book for about a year and a half together. I rewrote it according to their notes and my own. And just about when they thought it was ready to shop to agents, I stopped the whole process and told them I thought this other book of mine, Bird Box, was a better debut, a better “hello,” a cleaner way to introduce myself to the world. Now, the lawyer and manager, they have nothing to do with the band, and like I said, we’d been going back and forth on another one for eighteen months, but I’ve always seen Bird Box as a black and white book, a Twilight Zone episode, a straight drink. While writing it I didn’t think of it as an apocalyptic story . . . it was more like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” One street, one river, one house . . . something bad is outside. But in order to compress things for Malorie and the housemates, I kinda had to make it a worldwide event. Yet, it was always about Malorie and the kids; I didn’t want to write about the armed forces or the world’s communal reaction to the problem, none of that. For me it was meant to be a very simple, streamlined, black and white experience. That felt like a stronger, more direct, “hello.” So, my manager and lawyer read it and we spent another eighteen months going back and forth on her as well. When we thought she was ready, we shopped her to a literary agent, Kristin Nelson, and a few days later I had my first ever conversation with any agent of any kind. Kristin shopped her shortly thereafter, and here we are.

One of the things I loved about Bird Box was the way it felt like an allegory about how hard it is to live one’s life being afraid of things that can’t be seen (a theme that also appears in the short story “Danny” from the anthology Scary Out There). What inspired that?

In hindsight, Bird Box reads like an inkblot to me. What do you see in the amorphous shape presented to you? What do YOU think the creatures are? While writing it I hadn’t totally planned whether or not to “show” the creatures, but about a third of the way deep, maybe halfway, I finally told myself not to do it. Just don’t do it, Josh! Once that decision was made, I realized that I do have an affinity for movies and books in which the “monster” doesn’t get much screen time. We all reference Jaws and Silence of the Lambs for this and rightfully so . . . Hannibal and the shark feel more like they’re performing in the corner of our eyes, like they’re just out of sight, because we want to see more of them, but aren’t given that. So what might happen if Hannibal wasn’t shown . . . at all? If the shark wasn’t shown . . . at all? Well, now it’s easy to say that would make both those movies suck! Ha. But it’s a fun thing to think about. In “Danny,” when Charles (the “dad”) tells Kelly (the babysitter) that Danny likes to “peer around the corner of doorways . . . make a face at you,” he’s pretty much telling me that, no matter what face a kid might make in reality, the one you’re gonna imagine Danny making by the doorway is a helluva lot worse. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I once shouted at my mother’s bathroom mirror, shouted for the ghost in the house to show itself, the ghost Mom said was there, and maybe it’s because the ghost didn’t show itself that I’ve got a few stories where the unseen weighs more than the seen. But, you know, there are many tales over here in this office . . . and most of them show the damn monster.

What was the first experience of working with an editor (on Bird Box) like for you?

Glad you asked this. It was incredible, really, as Lee Boudreaux is a brilliant southern spitfire who just added and added to the whole thing. I loved it. I didn’t encounter anything close to a moral dilemma with Bird Box (Why not have the book take place in Taco Bell, Josh!!) Here’s an example of how she helped: in the first draft there were fourteen housemates, rather than the seven we’ve got now. This was good because I liked how little we got to know each of the other characters. They came off like a gallery of freaked out, sad faces, emerging and disappearing into the hallways, the bedrooms, the kitchen, the cellar. It was disorienting, trying to keep track of who was who, and I thought, well, Malorie’s whole world is upside down . . . so why shouldn’t the house be even more so? But Lee explained to me why she thought otherwise, what it could do for Tom, for Felix, for Olympia and Don. I thought about it for all of a few hours and said, yeah, she’s right. Then I set to cutting the number of characters in half. She just did all the things great editors do. And I couldn’t have known that before meeting her.

Now that Bird Box has been optioned for film, will you have a hand in the screenplay? Or even (Bird Box producers, take note!) the soundtrack?

The script is already written. I think it’s five drafts deep? I’m not sure. The fella who wrote the screenplay for Arrival wrote it. Eric Heisserer. Great guy. I met up with him in Los Angeles last time I was out there. We had lunch, talked, said how excited we’d be if the movie got made. And here we are, and the movie’s scheduled to begin shooting next month (mid-September.) I also met up with the director who used to be attached, Andres Muschietti (Mama, It) and he actually did ask me if I was interested in doing the soundtrack. I was kinda floored. So I nervously asked him who else he had in mind and he told me Mica Levi, who did the soundtrack for Under the Skin. Well that happens to be one of the greatest scary movie soundtracks ever and I was like, “Um, look . . . go get her. Definitely go get her first. If you can’t get her . . . then yes, I’d love to.” But Andres is no longer the director and I haven’t heard anything about the soundtrack since.

(Note: I’m extremely excited and optimistic about Susanne Bier directing Bird Box. She isn’t from the horror world, and oftentimes, a non-horror artist can do something incredible, unthinkable, with the genre. So, eyes crossed, as we say over here for good luck, and I’m sending her every good vibe I’ve got.)

What are your expectations—and your fears—in regards to seeing your work adapted to film?

The more horror I watch, the more I think the real meat of the matter is in the cinematography and the music. Almost every scary movie I love took real care of both. The look. The music. So . . . I hope these two things are done well with Bird Box. My only real fear, or anything like that, is the concern with whether or not the creatures are shown. Just about anything else can happen but that. I knew when I signed the film rights over that it was all out of my hands at that point, that I was a complete unknown writer with no leverage, and that I’d have to hope it comes out as close to the book as possible. And if it doesn’t mirror the book, well that’s okay too if it’s scary as hell. And now here we are, maybe less than a month out from principal photography, and I’m very optimistic. Thing is, I just can’t wait to see it. And I’m doing my best not to be too precious with it; let them make their movie. I wrote my book. And let’s hope both are great. (Eyes crossed!)

Speaking of film, who were the inspirations for the late ‘50s/early 60s horror filmmakers Gordon Ghastle and Allan Yule in your novella Ghastle and Yule?

At the time I was reading a lot of history of horror films. One book in particular really thrilled me: Italian Horror by Jim Harper. I loved reading all these titles of movies, some I’d seen, some I hadn’t. It struck me that, in the name of liking Harper’s book, it didn’t matter if I’d seen the movies or not! Just reading about who did the makeup, the music, how it was received, that was enough for me on its own. So, that naturally led to writing a novella about fictional films, presented in a nonfiction way. As if the films themselves are the main characters. Goblin is like that, too. The city is the main character. And with Bird Box I might argue that the Unknown stole the spotlight from Malorie and the kids. Come to think of it, to enlarge the answer to one of your earlier questions, I don’t think I’m as interested in the “unseen” as I am the angles by which we might view a horror story. Okay, so recently I wrapped the rough draft for a book about two friends, kids, who are always sent down into the one kid’s basement to play. Through the ceiling they overhear Chris’s parents dealing with what is revealed to be a ghost in the house, something Mom and Dad are obviously very afraid of. Eventually the book becomes an exorcism off-camera, all heard through the basement and, later, other off-camera vantage points. So, like Allan Yule made movies with nary a human being in them, it’s the angle that interests me most. As if we readers are the camera . . . and the narrative tells us what to focus on. In this way, that Italian Horror book really had a big impact on me. Cause it confirmed for me that nonfiction or fiction, real directors or not, I could be thrilled by the lens either way.

Near the beginning of Ghastle and Yule are these paragraphs: “Horror for you isn’t funny. You don’t love horror because you think it represents the fears of the society you live in. You don’t love horror because it excites the imagination. You love horror because you believe it’s possible.” How would you answer a horror fan who responds to this by saying, “But I know it’s not possible”?

I’d say, hey man! Don’t ruin it for me! I believe in this shit! Every word of it. But you know, the narrator, the mutual cinematographer, he’s the one doing the talking, so I’m not sure what he’d say. But I can guess: You say you don’t believe it, but there’s a part of you that still does, when you get scared, truly scared, when the scare reaches that point where it’s no fun anymore . . . that’s the part of you that believes it, still, after all these years, after all the things you’ve heard people say, all the eyes you’ve seen rolled. That deep fear is the proof that reveals, no matter how many times you say otherwise, that you haven’t . . . completely . . . ruled . . . it . . . out . . .

In a 2014 interview you talked about writing a story called Nurse Ellen, which you described as “the story of a soldier in the Korean War who chances upon a place in the woods where all the wars of history are fought at the same time” (the soldier is named Philip). Was that Black Mad Wheel? If so, how did that evolution happen?

Yeah, it sure was. Nurse Ellen was originally written as one of five novellas that made up a book called On the Other Hand, Five Fingers. Ghastle and Yule was plucked from that same book. (I have plans for my favorite of the batch, Merry Impresario.) You know, after Bird Box came out, I had some nineteen novels and a pack of novellas to pick from as the follow up, as book two. I’m always writing something new, too, and I just wasn’t sure which story should come next. So I sent my agent an email with a bunch of briefs. In hindsight, this was the wrong thing to do. I’m a terrible pitcher and every brief I send her sounds like a child describing a “scary” dream he had where maybe something kinda scary happened. But there’s so much more to a book than its brief. If someone pitched you and me some of our favorite books we might not be into the idea. Cause it’s the voice, the mood, the colors, THE WAY IT’S DONE, all that, that’s what blows our minds. But Kristin liked Nurse Ellen and she pitched the idea to Ecco/HarperCollins and they liked it, too. I love ’em all so I said alright, but what I’d accidentally done was set myself up to work in a way I never had before, That is, expanding a novella into a novel. Well, shit, silly me figured, no problem! I got it! I write books after all! But it was hard. The first draft was really just a bloated novella. Then it got better, you know, with each round. It went through many titles (The End of Bright Colors, A Juggernaut’s Sandbox, and F were my favorites) and settings (woods, desert, Korea, Africa) and band mates, too. For me, for a guy who’s written a stack of books, the whole process took way too long. Started to freak me out. I saw a couple articles about Bird Box in which writers asked if “Josh Malerman was ever gonna write another book.” You can imagine how frustrating that was, writing two or three a year for a decade or more now. A House at the Bottom of a Lake helped bridge releases for me, but it was a struggle. Allison kept me grounded, reminded me that this is all incredible, writing books, writing scary books, and that, hey man, you’re at the beginning of a career, Josh, it can’t all be waaa-hooo down a water slide, right? And she was right. And by the end of the process I was glad as hell to have a book that, aside from the present tense and alternating timelines, wasn’t much like Bird Box at all. I’ve always thought that, with albums, a band can either do what they did on the previous album, just with new songs, or they could record something different enough where it sets them up to do whatever they want to on the next one and the one after that. I think Black Mad Wheel opened a door for me, in that way. Made it so that Goblin and Unbury Carol and others that have yet to be written make a lot more sense when viewed as pieces of a canon, a body of work, rather than what a sequel to Bird Box would’ve done.

The pacing in Black Mad Wheel feels very different from that in Bird Box—faster and more frantic. You’ve mentioned listening to horror soundtracks while writing. Did you listen to more rock music while working on Black Mad Wheel?

I pluck albums from the same seemingly endless collection of soundtracks for every book I write now, but that collection changes often, as I’m always walking into UHF and Found Sound here in my neck of the woods, looking for anything new that might’ve come in. That’s all to say that it’s possible I was listening to more amped up soundtracks throughout Black Mad Wheel than what I listened to with Bird Box. I listened to some 50s stuff, too, early rock n’ roll, but I don’t quite see Black Mad Wheel as a 50s book (like, say, Diner is a 50s movie) or even a rock n’ roll book for that matter. Black Mad Wheel is squarely an anti-war anthem to me, a small song but an anthem all the same, and I’ve no doubt that the dark violins I listened to while writing her helped set whatever mood made it onto the page.

Are both Bird Box and Black Mad Wheel really about the horrors of trying to comprehend infinity?

Hmm. Well, Bird Box is for sure. On one level anyway. We know that much. But I think there’s enough of a difference between infinity and a cycle to say no, Black Mad Wheel does not end up addressing the same thing. I definitely see where the question comes from. Philip encounters all the dead soldiers from all the wars, there’s that bit about the soldiers riding the black mad wheel like they would a Ferris Wheel, over and over again . . . and what’s infinity if not a loop into forever? Well . . . that’s the thing. We aren’t capable of contemplating infinity, but we are capable of contemplating a horrible loop, a wheel that turns and turns, history repeating itself, all that jazz. When the man in red tells Philip that technology travels faster than philosophy does, when he goes off on that idea, to me, that’s the meat of Black Mad Wheel. That’s what the whole book is actually about. And Bird Box . . . I wanna make sure I don’t pinpoint that one too finely. Yes, it’s certainly about infinity and what being forced to encounter it might do to you. But it’s also about being afraid of the world beyond your window, and what you see in the Rorschach Test going on outside.

Your first novel centered on sight, and the second—Black Mad Wheel—on sound. Do the senses play a part in more of your novels?

No. And it’s weird that they played a part in the first two. It’s also weird to me that the first three real releases, Bird Box, A House at the Bottom of a Lake, and Black Mad Wheel all build toward seeing or not seeing the “monster.” It’s not necessarily my style, for real! And yet, here we have three stories that are similar in that way. I’ve got a book (blessedly) coming out with Cemetery Dance next Halloween (2018) in which the “monster” is revealed in chapter one and away we go. So, no, there isn’t a conscious focus on the senses, seeing/not seeing, hearing/not hearing, and I sure as shit don’t wanna be the guy to write the smell horror story. If anybody wants that they can go over to my friend Dean’s house. [smile]

When you did readings from Bird Box, you offered blindfolds to the audience and played live music as you read (an amazing feat, by the way!). What are you doing for Black Mad Wheel readings?

Oh, man, these were so exciting. It turns out that one of the perks of living with a fearless fiancée is that she’s gonna say yes to any freaked out performance idea I’ve got. I asked Allison if she’d be into playing Nurse Ellen and, if so, what did she think of doing the scene where Ellen pretends to dance with Philip, essentially dancing alone for a minute or two? Now, this may not sound like a huge to-do to some, but to me? Man, I’m not sure I’d have done it. And here Allison not only said yes, she went and found a vintage 50s nurse’s uniform (hat and all). She pretty much designed the entire stage set. And it was a set, for sure, as I’d say we’re now knocking on the door of actual theater, rather than a reading. When HarperCollins told me I was going to go on a book tour for Bird Box I asked them what I should do and they said, you know, you can stand at a podium, maybe dim the lights, and read. I was like no way and we set out to make the readings an event. With Black Mad Wheel we had props, a cot, outfits, a prepared music playlist (including the High Strung playing “Be Here” live at the book launch) and more. I’ve got a fantasy of opening a horror theater here in the Detroit area, maybe bands could play on nights there wasn’t a play, maybe a small horror bookstore at the front, stacks of scary books you gotta walk through to get to the main theater. I’m way into Grand-Guignol. I mean, we all are. Ten-minute plays, three or four a night? Come on. What horror fan wouldn’t give a foot to experience some of that? So, it’s no surprise to me that the readings are leaning that way, inching closer to straight-up horror theater. I’m thinking (and hoping) that by Unbury Carol, I’m finally just the director, as real actors act out the story across the country.

In the novella A House at the Bottom of a Lake, it’s most important to the teenage lovers—even more important than sex—to hang on to magic. If you did a sequel to that book, would they have succeeded, or would they be disillusioned adults?

Lisa, this is one of my favorite questions of the lot. I wanna say they’ve succeeded, but there’s a side of me, far from a teenager now, that knows better. Maybe, in a sequel, whatever it was that bonded them in that lake returns, and James and Amelia are (willingly) forced to reunite to get rid of the thing in their (adult) lives. I like that. But I also think that, if the novella is really about falling deeply in love (rather than deeply into a lake) then the end suggests they made it to dry land, that their relationship is no longer an amorphous, watery fantasy, that they’re here to stay.

In one interview, you talked about having a fear of losing control, but said that when it comes to writing you’re willing to “truly ‘let go.’” Do you have to clean up some out-of-control stuff in rewrites?

To say the least. The rough draft for Bird Box was close to twice as long as the version that was released. I’m working on book two for Del Rey now and I cut 50k from the rough draft. That’s almost 20k more than A House at the Bottom of a Lake, I mean, that’s a lot, you know. But I don’t mind. Lately I’ve been really taking John Skipp’s Facebook posts to heart, when he writes about not caring about a day’s word count, not wanting to blow through a rough draft, but rather giving his all to each session as they come. Forever I’ve been a full-on pantser, no outlines, go go go, and while that’s yielded some great times, it can also leave you with a rewrite so daunting you don’t get to it for a while. I don’t know. We’ll see, right? But yes, to answer your question, there’s a lot of shit that’s off the rails that doesn’t make it. Now, I’m a huge fan of off-the-rails, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes the out-of-control stuff is actually just awkward writing.

Given how much you love the actual process of writing—and how long you did it before even submitting work—is the business side hard for you?

Sometimes. I don’t love how everyone seems to be looking for that bullet-thriller right now. I realize Bird Box was something like that, but she’s only one of many stories in this office and so it’d feel real weird trying to intentionally pen a thriller. Sounds too much like advertising. Something corporate. My manager is incredible, an open minded brilliant guy about my age who sees things a lot like I do in terms of variety, color, this book or that book, and because he and my agent take care of a lot of the business, I’m somewhat shielded from the dailies on that front. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I sometimes even enjoy it. I like meeting with people and talking about the books, the best time to release them, the potential cover art, all that.

Is it important to you to balance novels with short stories and big houses with small presses?

Yes and yes. I’m working on a big book right now. I’m closing in on 500 pages and it’s not halfway done. Meanwhile, there’s a voice that’s nudging me to write some shorts along the way. The greedy writer in me likes shorts simply because I can get more ideas out that way. The cooler writer in me likes shorts because I love to read them. And we (all us horror fans) know how sweet a sweet spot the short story has in the genre. So, yeah, I wanna keep consistently working on a new book, but I wanna make sure I’m peppering in other stories as I go. As far as the presses part of the question: it’s not like I had some master plan heading in, alternating “big” houses and “smaller” ones. I don’t love using the terms “big” and “small” to begin with. Because here my band played for an average of twenty people a night for six-plus years and so . . . are we so “small”? Or are we actually giants for doing it? All I’m saying is, when a book comes out a book comes out and if you sell a million copies or just three, the book has a chance to reach readers once it’s out in the world. The difficulty, the thing I gotta keep my eye on (and I hope I have this “problem” for a long time) is making sure I don’t step on anybody’s toes in either direction. I gotta make sure the releases are spread out far enough so that I’m not eating into one or another. I believe they’re all gonna help each other, all the books, in the end, and I’ll never stop being thrilled when someone tells me they wanna put a book of mine out, big or small. I’m gonna do all I can to say yes to all scenarios that may come my way.

Are the High Strung really working on a double album of science fiction-themed songs? Is that a genre you’d like to write prose in?

Man, I really thought that’s what was on tap but, no . . . it’s turned out to be nothing like that. We are making an album this September, but not how I imagined it was gonna go. Part of that is because a second songwriter has rejoined the band and he and I have been putting together all sorts of songs, making an album’s worth of them. Maybe Mark and I will do the science fiction one next. I hope so. As goes prose . . . I’m not sure. I came close with The Jupiter Drop but just because something happens in outer space doesn’t mean it’s science fiction. Right or wrong, I see myself as a horror writer, it’s what I’ve always identified with, had to do, have done. And while some reviews might say Bird Box or Black Mad Wheel are on the cusp of the genre, that they don’t fit squarely into horror, I see them all, all the stories surrounding me in this very office, as blood-chilling, black-boned horror.

What can you tell us about your next release, Goblin (coming for Halloween from Earthling Publications)?

Well, she went live a few days ago and Paul Miller (the publisher) did a very cool thing in sending out some forty galleys to the first forty or so people who wrote him that they were interested in getting one. So I’ve seen some early reviews. Right now the book is in production and is set to be sent out in October, right around Halloween, which is a horror author’s fantasy, really. Goblin is “a novel in six novellas.” Six stories that take place in the city of Goblin, all in the course of one night. I’m real excited about her. And Paul Miller has been incredible to work with. He’s a horror fan first, so most of our conversations are centered around books we’ve read, books he’s put out, cover art, all that. I just really trust his judgment and I hope to do another with him as soon as I can. But Goblin has the floor for now, and Allison’s cover art pretty much reveals how the book feels to a T.

Is there an art form you haven’t tackled yet that you still want to try?

Yes. I’d love to direct a very scary movie. My manager hinted at the idea of me writing/directing the first book I wrote, Wendy. I hadn’t thought (at all) about doing that, but since Ryan suggested it, I’ve thought of little else. I can really see the movie. I can hear it, too. Cinematography and music, again . . . oh, how I’d love to have my finger on the look and feel of Wendy the movie. I daresay, it might end up requiring a warning from the ushers: Beware! A horror man made this movie! This means he hopes you lose part of your mind during the show . . . this means he hopes you go a little bit mad . . .

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Lisa Morton

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 150 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert. Her recent releases include Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction from Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; her latest short stories appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, Speculative Los Angeles, and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other  Spectacles. Forthcoming in 2021 is the collection Night Terrors & Other Tales. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online at lisamorton.com.