Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Interview: John Joseph Adams and Wendy N. Wagner in Conversation

John Joseph Adams founded Nightmare Magazine eight years ago, serving up dark fiction first as editor and then in dual roles as publisher and editor. In that time, stories from Nightmare have won the Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, and Nebula awards and have been reprinted in many Year’s Best anthologies. He is also the founder, editor, and publisher of sister magazine Lightspeed, plus the publisher of the newly relaunched Fantasy Magazine. He is the series editor for the critically acclaimed Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology series, and ran the successful book imprint John Joseph Adams Books. In the middle of all that, he has somehow managed to establish his own small press (Adamant Press), edit dozens of anthologies, get nominated for a zillion editorial awards, and oversee a menagerie of adorable cats and dogs.

Wendy N. Wagner will be serving as Nightmare’s editor starting with our February issue. She joined the Nightmare team in 2014, serving as first managing/associate editor and then managing/senior editor. She was also the guest editor of Nightmare’s Queers Destroy Horror! special issue. A poet and writer, she is the author of nearly fifty short stories, and her fourth novel, a horror novel called The Deer Kings, plus a Gothic novella (The Secret Skin) are due out in 2021.

Would you call yourself a horror fan? How did you first get into horror?

JJA: Certainly! It would have been a pretty strange choice to launch and edit a horror magazine for eight years if I wasn’t, wouldn’t it?

I first got into horror either through science fiction and fantasy—where the boundaries crossed—or through medical thrillers (which could also often be seen as medical horror). I suppose the most direct through line is via the latter, as F. Paul Wilson wrote a medical thriller called The Select that I read and loved when I was in my medical thriller phase, and then when I went looking for other books by him what I found was all horror. So I read The Keep and the rest of the Adversary Cycle and then started branching out more from there.

Aside from books, like anyone I grew up seeing horror stuff in movies and on TV. I think the movie that probably had the most impact on me was Silence of the Lambs, and on TV my biggest influence was probably The X Files. Obviously both of those are sort of on the outside of mainstream horror, but they both proved to be useful gateways for me.

WNW: I started getting into horror when I was about eight years old. My oldest sister checked out a copy of Stephen King’s collection Skeleton Crew, and she was telling my mom and my other sister how scary the story “The Raft” was, so I read it one afternoon. I had this feeling that I was doing something I shouldn’t, but I really wanted to see what was so scary about it. After that, I read a lot of horror–mostly Dean R. Koontz stuff (my mom was a fan), but also some Charles L. Grant, John Coyne, and, later, Anne Rice. I was a really goth little kid.

The horror love sort of stayed in the background of everything until I moved in with my now-husband. He loves video games, and he was playing Resident Evil 4. IT. BLEW. MY. MIND. We played the entire series, and I became really obsessed with zombies. (I will never stop loving zombies.) That was when I was first getting serious about reading and writing short fiction, and it led me to your anthology The Living Dead. I became an immediate fan!

John, you’ve edited in every genre, but The Living Dead—your first zombie anthology—was your first big award nomination, right? What called you to the undead side? And do you still like zombies?

JJA: Yes, that was my first nomination—for the World Fantasy Award. As for what called me . . . it was Night Shade Books. As in literally Jeremy Lassen at Night Shade Books called me to talk about what book I wanted to do next (after my first anthology, Wastelands, which they published, did extraordinarily well). I threw out a couple of ideas, but Jeremy was really keen on the idea of doing a zombie anthology. So I said yes, and that turned out to be a really, really good decision, as The Living Dead did even better than Wastelands, and, as you noted, garnered me an award nomination. It also made a certain amount of sense in that zombie fiction often involves a “zombie apocalypse,” so to do a SFnal apocalypse anthology like Wastelands first, and then to do a horror/zombie apocalypse anthology after, with The Living Dead, seemed apropos.

I do still like zombies. Unfortunately I think the market got a bit oversaturated with zombie anthologies after The Living Dead. We did do a The Living Dead 2 volume, but with everyone and their undead uncle also publishing zombie anthologies, it’s never seemed like the market would bear a Volume 3. I’d be game, though, if the world was hungry for another one.

WNW: I’ll just be here waiting patiently for that third volume! Zombies are just about my favorite.

Speaking of favorites: readers have had 100 issues of my favorite horror stories—what are yours? Name three!

WNW: For me, that list probably includes “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” by Jon Padgett, which is just incredibly weird and unsettling; “The Willows,” by Algernon Blackwood, which is one of the seminal works of the weird; and Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now,” which always feels like the illicit love child of an E.M. Forster novel and some nasty Gothic piece.

So is there a subgenre of horror that you really feel called to—your horror catnip?

JJA: I don’t know that any one thing is my horror catnip. I think I’m just not that kind of reader. It’s true in SF/F as well—while there are tropes I like, I wouldn’t say that seeing a book or story on [theme] would arise to catnip level. With horror in particular, I think, I enjoy the unknown more than the familiar. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy established tropes—I do, and we’ve published plenty such stories in Nightmare—but I think what excites me most are those stories where I just have no idea where they’re going and feature a horror that’s totally new to me.

As for trope-oriented stuff, it’s probably unsurprising to hear that I find myself drawn to SFnal horror. (Aliens, Predator, and The Thing were all formative for me.)

WNW: Because I come from Portland, Oregon—home of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and the Lovecraft Bar—I have a lot of connections to the Lovecraftian/Cosmic Horror/Weird community. I’ve written a lot of work for Lovecraft-riffing publications, too. I guess you could say that I really got my start in that subgenre. So there’s a part of my heart that’s incredibly drawn to works of cosmic horror. I’ll always have a soft spot for it, I think.

As for tropes I can’t resist? I am an absolute sucker for the recovery of ancient things, preferably if they’re Weird or cursed. Archaeological horror. (That’s why one of my all-time favorite Nightmare stories is “Bog Dog,” by Seras Nikita [https://bit.ly/3qhHOmY]. Holy heck, that was a creepy story!) And like you, I also love SFnal horror like Aliens and The Thing!

What kinds of horror are just not for you? Like, do you have any boundaries? If so, how did you find them?

JJA: I’m not sure that I have boundaries, really, though I guess I’m least likely to enjoy stories that get into the realm of gore and splatter (though there are certainly stories that do that I’ve enjoyed).

WNW: Yes, sometimes I love the gore! Chuck Palahniuk really does a great job with being gory but delightful. I remember you turned me on to his story “Guts,” which is really gross and wonderful.

Long, long ago, when I was a horror reviewer, I read an anthology where all the stories were fish-based horror stories. And there was one story in that combined animal abuse, sex, and the concept of “sloppy seconds” in a particularly memorable way. I was reading it while eating lunch, and the description made me put down my fork. It was the first time I’d ever been so grossed out by something I read. Great story, though!

So, tough question: what are you going to miss the most about putting down your editorial hat at Nightmare?

JJA: One of the nice things about having the two magazines is that it gives me more flexibility in what I can publish. Before Nightmare, I often found myself with stories on submission that felt too dark for Lightspeed, or too focused on the horror elements. One time, we did a whole SF-Horror issue of Lightspeed because of that. Having both magazines means I never had to reject anything because of that—I’d just take a “too dark” story for Nightmare instead of Lightspeed. So I’ll miss being able to do that, I imagine. Of course, Nightmare will still be there, so it’s still possible that’ll happen from time to time, but you’d have to like it also, naturally! Otherwise, I imagine I’ll keep my horror fix in check with all of the reading I do for Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy (which includes horror as well) . . . not to mention reading your selections for the magazine!

What are you most looking forward to about putting on the editorial hat?

WNW: That’s a tough question! Of course I’m really excited about applying all the stuff I’ve learned from working with you. But I think I’m most thrilled to be a better ambassador for the genre. It’s wonderful to get to work with our writers and see their work go out in the world, and I’m absolutely delighted to be in a position where I’ll get to do more to promote their words and to work even more closely with them.

I’m also very excited to try to push the conversation about horror into new places. For example, I’ve started looking at submissions of short creative nonfiction. It’s a field where I’ve seen people really do great work exploring the darkness of the human condition, and I think our readers would enjoy that kind of material. I mean, the real world is a scary and painful place! It seems like a natural extension of Nightmare’s oeuvre.

What changes can readers look forward to under your tenure?

WNW: The biggest change is that I’ve decided not to run reprints. That was a hard choice! I’ve learned so much about the genre by catching up with great stories in our reprint section. But I knew I really wanted to include work that nudged the horror genre into new little corners of the world. So two of our features every month will be micro original works (flash fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction) that I’m calling “The Horror Lab.” I’m hoping to share work that takes some risks with form or topic or in some other way feels new and fresh.

Also, the Editorial will probably be a lot longer!

So, random question time: who’s your favorite horror villain, creature, or monster?

JJA: This is probably a weird choice, but I’m a huge fan of the movie Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight. I seem to be in the minority of that opinion, but I straight up love that movie, and I’m particularly fond of the big bad in it (played by Billy Zane).

WNW: For me, it’s definitely The Xenomorph from Alien. It’s the most beautiful horror creature ever created.

Also, I know he’s from SF, but I absolutely love Jabba the Hutt. I wish there was a Sopranos-style tv show that was all about the Hutt crime family.

But to be more serious: people say horror is having a renaissance right now. It definitely seems like horror is thriving in the box office and on the book shelves. What do you think horror brings to people right now? And what would you like to see the genre do better?

WNW: One of the parts of Nightmare that I love best is The H Word column (which I’ve been overseeing for about the last four years), and these questions are topics that writers come back to over and over again. What’s so great about horror and why are we so drawn to it? And how can it help us get through difficult times?

You know, when I was in second grade, my best friend was killed in a tragic accident. Finding horror a few years afterward was the first thing that made that accident stop hurting me. There was something about seeing other people in terrible situations that made me feel like I could actually face the awful stuff in the world.

There’s also something about horror that makes me feel more alive. At times when I’ve been depressed, delving into horror has brought me back into functionality. I love a good jump scare, especially in a horror video game. It’s that jolt of pure adrenaline. I’m a horror true believer!

I think the popularity of horror right now comes in part from the fact we live in an era where a lot of people who have lived with incredible privilege are confronting the precariousness of their situation. With climate change and widening economic inequality, people in countries like the US and the UK are facing a future where their lifestyles might not be available any longer, and that’s really scary for them. But horror gives us a place to look into difficult situations and say “it could be worse.” It gives a chance to practice being braver and better—or to more horrible and cruel. Sometimes you have to practice both sets of behaviors to get a handle on the world.

On top of that, horror often gives us the opportunity to experience life from the perspective of people who are getting the worst of a situation. It’s a place to build your empathy muscles. I think we’re living in one of the loneliest times in human history—even before we were put into lockdown—and we’re hungry to feel the full range of human relationships. To connect with people in deeper, more meaningful ways that we do the office Slack channel.

So of course what I’d like to see the genre do better is to build more empathy across a wider and more meaningful array of people. My motto is that “Horror is for everyone”—not that everyone likes horror, but that everyone should feel welcome to enjoy the genre.

Historically, the horror community and the texts it’s created, whether you’re talking about films, literature, or games, hasn’t been that great about extending the joy of horror to a wide variety of people. So many stories have been used to say “this kind of identity is bad” or “this kind of identity doesn’t deserve safety” or “these people should be unhappy.”

But I think you and I are part of the larger trend within the horror community that is saying “Oh, HELL no.” We’re done beating people down, and we’re ready to build them up. It’s time for an open and accepting horror community that will give every human being the opportunity to have terrible, terrible nightmares. I just really want to be a part of that.

JJA: I’m going to go with “What Wendy said”!

John Joseph Adams

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John Joseph Adams is the series editor of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and is the bestselling editor of more than thirty anthologies, including Wastelands and The Living Dead. Recent books include A People’s Future of the United States, Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, and the three volumes of The Dystopia Triptych. Called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble, John is a two-time winner of the Hugo Award (for which he has been a finalist twelve times) and an eight-time World Fantasy Award finalist. John is also the editor and publisher of Lightspeed and is the publisher of its sister-magazines, Fantasy and Nightmare. For five years, he ran the John Joseph Adams Books novel imprint for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Find him online at johnjosephadams.com and @johnjosephadams.

Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy N. Wagner is the author of the forthcoming horror novel The Deer Kings (due out summer 2021) and the forthcoming gothic novella The Secret Skin (fall 2021). Previous work includes the SF thriller An Oath of Dogs and two novels for the Pathfinder Tales series. Her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in more than fifty venues. She also serves as the managing/senior editor of Lightspeed magazine, and previously served as the guest editor of Nightmare‘s Queers Destroy Horror! She lives in Oregon with her very understanding family, two large cats, and a Muppet disguised as a dog.