Exclusive: Editor Stephen Jones on the State of Modern Horror -- Part 2


Yesterday, I presented the first half of my recent conversation with acclaimed horror fiction editor Stephen Jones, in which Jones spoke about the recent glut of short story anthologies. After the jump, read the second half of our chat, in which Jones discusses Twilight, the paranormal romance subgenre, the impact they're having on horror publishing, and how he hopes, with his new anthology A Book of Horrors, to remind fiction readers that the genre is at its best when it's just plain old scary.

Your introduction to A Book of Horrors – the new anthology from Jo Fletcher Books that you edited – is titled "Whatever Happened to Horror?" In it, you touch on how subgenres like paranormal romance are now replacing proper horror on bookstore shelves. Is it a double-edged sword, the mainstream interest in things like Twilight and True Blood? Because on the one hand, they're not true horror, often merely a watered-down version. But on the other hand, horror may be getting a new audience if the fans cross over.

But are we getting a new audience? I don't know. There's certainly an audience for that kind of fiction, but does that audience cross over into what you and I call horror fiction? I'm not sure it does. We know people who read Star Trek don't necessarily read science fiction. People who are Doctor Who fans don't read anything but Doctor Who or whatever. Which is not necessarily true of Conan fans or H.P. Lovecraft fans – they tend to read a little bit more widely. I think the trouble we've got now is we have these subgenres, which publishers see as cash cows.

I'll tell you a good example – when young adult fiction was really hot a few years ago. We said, "That's great. When kids grow up, they'll be used to horror, so they'll move on to Stephen King or Clive Barker or whatever." But they never did. When they grew out of the YA books, they just went away and became bank managers or something. They never continued reading in the genre. I think it's the same with the steampunk people, the paranormal romance people. I'm not saying totally, but a huge percentage of those people do not read anything but those kinds of books. But the fact that those books are now basically swamping the market – and this was particularly true when I wrote it in the introduction – there is no space on the shelves for anything else. There is no space to find the books that try to do something a little bit different. They just want the same thing, book after book after book. It's basically the same book with a different cover and a slightly different plot. And they're formulaic because people want them to be, like a Star Trek novelization. They want them to be formulaic, because that's the attraction – they're safe. And horror shouldn't be safe. Horror should not be safe at all! Horror should be out there on the edge.

One of the things I've tried to do with A Book of Horrors is to show in a series of novellas and short stories how different horror stories can be from one to the other while still being a horror story and still doing what horror stories set out to do, which is to scare you, to chill you, to disturb you. So it's basically saying, "Just draw a line in the sand here. We don't handsome vampires, we don't want tough werewolf soldiers, we don't want romantic zombies, Jane Austen having tea with creatures of the night. Let's go back and see what horror was about. Let's try and go back to basics on this. But also at the same time, let's play with new tropes. Let's play with new ideas. Let's play with new styles. And let's try and say, ‘This is what horror is about' or ‘This is at least some of what horror is about.'" I wouldn't claim to have it nailed down, but by going to some of the bigger names in the field, I've managed to get some, I think, pretty good stories, which try to do something different. They're trying to do something different with the genre and for the most part I think they succeed very well.

I may be playing to the same audience. Basically my audience might say, "Oh yeah, it's great" and then in everybody else it produces ad nauseum, which is what can happen. But I'm hoping that people who enjoy horror will pick up the book and go, "Oh, yeah, I didn't realize you could do this as well. Oh is that horror? I didn't realize that was technically a horror story. I thought was something else." So at the end of the day it's an experiment, but hopefully at the same time it's a sort of validation of what we do. And who knows? So far the reviews have been very kind. It seems to have touched a nerve in a lot of people. P.S. and Cemetery Dance are gonna combine to do the limited edition, signed by everybody. We're selling foreign rights at the moment… I hope it's done the job. As I say in the introduction, basically it's called A Book of Horrors because that's what it says on the cover. That's what it is. And hopefully people enjoy it.

Going back to the paranormal romance question for a minute… However questionable the literary roots of things like Twilight are, does the fact that they even have literary roots – which other fan phenomena like Star Trek and Doctor Who do not – offer some kind of hope?

Interesting question. There's not an easy answer to it, because… You look at the Twilight material, which is based on books, and it's asinine and terrible. You can look at True Blood, which is based on books, and it's kind of interesting and funky. Or you can look at The Walking Dead, which is based on a comic book series – and frankly I think it's The Talking Dead; there's not a lot of zombies in the TV show; it's more about the human characters and less about the zombies… So I think it all depends on how good the basis material was. A very good example at the moment for me is a show I enjoy, Haven. It's based on a Stephen King story.

 "The Colorado Kid" Of course Haven's nothing like it.

Yeah, exactly, it has nothing to do with the story.  But somehow they've made a good TV show out of it. So again I think it always comes down to the quality of the source material. Anybody who's slept through the three Twilight films knows that probably the books are just as terrible. But anybody who's watched all the Harry Potter films know that you can really enjoy the books as well. But we've always said in these kinds of interviews that film, TV, books, comics, they're very different mediums. And you can take the same concept and treat it different ways in different mediums. Sometimes it works, sometimes it pulls together, and sometimes it doesn't. So I don't think that just because it's based on fiction it means it will work. And I don't see it as a positive thing, because bad faction is always gonna be bad fiction… When I say "bad," it's very unfair, because obviously there's a lot of people out there who love this stuff.

Perhaps one could call it timid fiction.

It's safe fiction.

Comfort food.

Comfort horror. And I just don't understand that. Horror should be disturbing; it should be scary; it should be creepy. It shouldn't be reassuring and romantic…

It should be the Sex Pistols and not the Bee Gees.

Yeah, that's actually a very good analogy. Absolutely. I feel we've lost sight. There was a time when the two happily co-existed, and that was fine. There's an audience for those kinds of books; there's an audience for the kinds of books I do. Absolutely no problem at all. But in the last few years, the balance has changed, the wheel has turned. Suddenly we've been overwhelmed with these books. What's worrying me is that people are gonna start thinking, "This is what horror is." And when you start getting those second string TV shows and the knock-off books of the books, it's gonna dilute it even more, and suddenly that becomes "Do you remember that great novel about the vampire detective battling the werewolf soldier?" And you're like, "Wha…?" You've already seen it in paranormal romance – people writing almost pastiches of pastiches. So where's that gonna go? It's just absorbed and the machinery turns. I just think all of us who work in the horror field and care about the horror field need to start drawing a line in the sand and saying, "We're gonna take it back. We're gonna make it ours. We're gonna show people." Like Clive Barker did in The Books of Blood when it was published back in the 1980s. We can do it and we can do it right if we want to. We don't have to put up with this crap any longer. The trouble is of course that if the audience is there the publishers will publish it because that's their job. They don't care whether it's good or bad, they just want to sell it. That's what we're always fighting. So it's really down to the readers to basically say, "No, we're gonna want to read this kind of horror or this kind of fiction again." If that works they'll buy the books and the publishers will publish it. If you publish it, they will come. [Laughs.]