An Interview with John Skipp


John Skipp is one of the innovators of contemporary horror. In 1986, his novel The Light at the End (with Craig Spector) hit the New York Times bestseller list, helped launch the splatterpunk movement, and inspired the character of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Their 1989 anthology Book of the Dead was the beginning of modern post-Romero zombie fiction.  After their script for A Nightmare on Elm St. 5: The Dream Child was bastardized out of all recognition, the duo moved to Hollywood, wrote one more book (Animals), and promptly parted ways.  Then Skipp disappeared from the scene.

Over a decade later, Skipp returned with the solo collection Conscience, and has published 13 new titles since, including Spore (with Cody Goodfellow) and Bizarro adventure favorite The Emerald Burrito of Oz (with Marc Levinthal). He also edited the massive landmark anthologies Zombies, Werewolves and Shapeshifters, and Demons, with Psychos due in September; launched his own Fungasm Press, devoted to wild fiction that defies all categories; and has embarked on a career as a film director.

On top of all that, Skipp's been hired as editor-in-chief of Ravenous Shadows, a new e-line of horror/ suspense/ mystery/ crime/ thrillers with no fat or filler, introducing a fresh wave of writers who he claims will kick your ass in the time it takes to watch a feature film. Skipp was kind enough to carve a little time out of his schedule to chat with me about this new venture and why going small is the next big thing in genre fiction.

Tell us a little about the initial run of releases from Ravenous Shadows - what are they, where do we find them, and when will they be available?

Okay, real quick, just to set this up, Ravenous Shadows is devoted to short, intense, cinematic books that deliver as much plot, punch, and power as novels three times their length. We were very lucky to launch with four truly excellent titles, covering a wide range of pop culture lit. And shit yeah, I'd love to talk about ‘em! I'm crazy about these books.

Let's start with Tribesmen by Adam Cesare: a literary redmeat midnight movie for horror freaks and film geeks, set during the ‘80s Italian cannibal phase. Had it been written and released in the ‘80s, it would have been up there in the splatterpunk canon, because it combines crazed transgressive gore-mania and break-neck propulsion with truly incisive portraits of the indie film-making process, both technically and emotionally. Anybody who's ever worked on a low-budget film set, or wanted to, will thank God they weren't on this one. But they will believe it, one trillion percent. And, like me, will be in awe.

Jan Kozlowski's Die, You Bastard, Die! is every bit as fucked up. But it's a crime novel, like Misery was a crime novel, or Last House On the Left was a crime movie, with a blue-collar Hannibal Lector so psychotically believable you'll wish you could kill him yourself, and an incestuous rape/revenge through-line that will have knowing women and the men who love them riveted every horrifying step of the way.

Eric Shapiro's The Devoted chronicles the last day of a sexy, deranged LA suicide cult, with a Hitchcockian ticking time bomb running all the way to its tragic explosion of monumental chaos and meaning. It's already been optioned for film, which is only right, because you're already inside the movie as you read it. A truly stunning book.

Finally, there's Mikita Brottman's House of Quiet Madness: a slow-building, deeply-engrossing, ultimately shocking "daylight thriller" that harkens back to the finest work of Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives). It's by far the subtlest title here, and the longest. But my God, does it kick at the end. And will give women nightmares for years to come.

Now I realize I'm hyping the shit out of these titles – which are available now, wherever better ebooks (and worse ones) are sold: Amazon, B&N, all the usual suspects. But that's why I bought ‘em. Because they kick ass, and I think your readers might be as knocked out as I was. And might also appreciate the tightness with which these tales were told. Because I think that's something special.

Bottom line: I think most novels are too long by half. Our goal is to deliver all the goods, with all the boring and endlessly redundant shit left out.

Why do you feel books have gotten so big?

Let's call it the blockbuster syndrome. Somewhere in the 1970s, the combination of The Exorcist and Jaws and Stephen King – not to mention a little film called Star Wars – turned New York's previously self-proclaimed "gentleman's business" into a miniature Hollywood wannabe. Everything had to be big; if not in impact, then at least in page count.

It should be duly noted that, from the publisher's standpoint, this was an audience-driven decision. People wanted bigger books. That's what they were buying. So publishers provided them, whether the books they were providing were actually larger in content or not.

But Hollywood and New York publishing have always been weirdly-fitted. The books Hollywood wanted were now too long, and had to be chopped for filmic purposes, making both authors and audiences howl with way more rage than glee. Rarely was anyone satisfied - as it remains to this day.

Most books, in my opinion, have an air hose stuffed up their ass, forcing them to artificially inflate their potentially taut, gripping narratives into Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade floats of bloat. Turning three slices of genuine grain into a loaf of Wonder Bread. Which, last I heard, was about to go out of business.

It breaks my heart, because the horrible fact is that I just can't read a lot of popular fiction. It goes on forever, telling me shit I already know, layering psychic speedbumps between my brain and the point they're hopefully trying to make. And I always think, "Oh, man, if you would just cut to the chase, I might have really loved this story!"

What's the key to keeping a story compact yet effective?

Ultimately, it comes down to filling the page. Like every page is a drink someone offers you. If it's full, I go, "Thanks!" If it's half-full, I go, "Hmmm." If there are just a few drops at the bottom, I go, "What the fuck is this?"

Every page should be full – of meaning, of character, of momentum. Every page should be worth reading. Otherwise, I am tempted to skim. At which point, I'm not reading. I'm fast-forwarding. Which means I no longer care.

A good story will not allow that to happen. In fact, it will absolutely refuse to let me go until it's thoroughly whipped my ass, told me what it needed to tell me, and tipped its hat on the way out the door.

Can you give us some examples of shorter works that typify what you're looking for?

Sure! Let's start with the seminal classics: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Body Snatchers. Let's look at Robert Bloch's Psycho, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Let's look at every book Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett ever wrote.

Let's look at some of Stephen King's finest work: Rage, Apt Pupil, The Body, The Mist. You see how much heart and thought and story he packed into those tales, and you boggle at their compressed immensity.

Ira Levin. Kurt Vonegutt, Jr. I could go on and on. If there aren't many current examples, it's for precisely the reasons I've stated. 

As noted literary smartass Nick Mamatas posted recently on my blog, "Sometimes people say that the writing of an excellent 50,000 word novel is a lost art. I think there are plenty of people out there writing great 50,000-word novels. They're just enmeshed with another 50,000-word novel that's all about the same characters raising their eyebrows and sipping their drinks and opening and closing doors and dreaming and having sex."

Can you give us some examples of longer works that you feel have earned and maximized their length?

Oh, absolutely. Many of our finest writers require a massive canvas, do their best work there, and unfailingly fill it to the brim. Nobody's gonna tell Peter Straub, James Ellroy, China Meiville, or George R.R. Martin that they're wasting our time. Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, and King's The Stand  (as originally published) number among the most important books I've ever read.

(King's unexpurgated version of said novel, however, utterly makes my point. GOD, how I miss his editor, Bill Thompson, who knew how to help King cut to the chase on those amazing early novels.)

I'm not against big books that honestly earn their page count, with ideas so huge they demand that kind of space. Most books, however, are not like that. And square-pegging them into that round hole is the mistake I would most love to help correct.

You're looking to publish 40 books in the first year of Ravenous Shadows. How many slots have been filled so far?

At this writing, I think we're up to 10 manuscripts at varying degrees of readiness, including the four already published. And a couple interesting prospects just landed on my desk. But we're pushing for quality, not quantity. And first, we need to sell the shit out of the books we have.

Will you continue to push for 40 a year after the first year?

Let's see how we handle this year! Thinking about the next 70 books makes my mind's eyeball ache. But yeah, if we find the writers we need, and they bring us great stories that people wanna read, then that is certainly the goal.

How does digital publishing make this endeavor possible?

Well, it brings the production and distribution costs way down, just for starters, and speeds up the road to profitability. This is definitely an e-driven effort, and would not have been possible if it weren't for the new technology. Flat out.

You've edited some successful, even landmark anthologies in the past, but this is an undertaking of a more permanent nature.

I don't know about more permanent. What lasts is what people love over the long haul. Let's just say this is an awesome experiment, at a stage in the game when pioneers can help redraw the playing field, stake a claim in this new publishing frontier.

How did your role in Ravenous Shadows come about, and why did this feel like the right fit for you?

(Ravenous Romance Editorial Director) Lori Perkins came to me with the job offer. This line has been a dream of hers for years, while building the Ravenous Romance brand. She'd always wanted to extend the model to other genres she loves. But if you had any idea how hard she works, you'd know it was impossible for her to do both at once.

But the timing was perfect, because she knew how much I love to edit, and knew I was dying to test my theories on how to make reading fun and exciting for a wider pop culture audience. So once we worked the deal out with the Ravenous brass, I signed on with fierce and delirious glee. And so far, everybody's been fantastic to work with. I love my bosses. I love my writers. I love my artists. I love my team. I love my audience. I love my work. That's a whole lotta love.

Any plans for print editions of any of the Ravenous Shadows books?

They'll be print on demand. So, yes. Anyone who wants a physical book should be able to get them, soon. Adam Cesare will have print copies of Tribesmen at the World Horror Convention in a couple of weeks.

It seems like short stories would be a nice fit given your "less is more" credo. Any plans for short story collections? What about releasing individual short stories?

I have released one absolutely staggering short story collection, through my Bizarro-affiliated imprint, Fungasm Press. It's called I Am Genghis Cum, by Violet LeVoit. Along with Laura Lee Bahr (whose amazing David Lynchian Bizarro/noir hall-of-mirrors novel Haunt also came out on Fungasm), it's seriously some of the most jolting stuff I have ever been involved with.

I also guest-edited Issue #4 of The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, featuring short stories by Amelia Beamer, Robert Devereaux, Cameron Pierce, J. David Osborne, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and a dozen others.

Past that is where Black Dog and Leventhal comes in. They've given me the most incredible platform I could possibly ask for, with this series of mega-anthologies. Between Zombies, Demons, Psychos, and Werewolves and Shapeshifters, I'm making a case for short fiction as a premiere place to gobble up storytelling genius in 5-20 minute increments. Commingling new writers like Shapiro, Bahr, Beamer, LeVoit, Goodfellow, Osborne, and Johnson with King, Gaiman, Bradbury, Bloch, Beaumont, Blatty, Poe, Palahniuk, Lovecraft, Lansdale, Saki, Schow, Matheson, McCammon, Angela Carter, Carlton Mellick III, and on and on. The best of the old. The best of the new. It couldn't be more exciting.

That said, I get more fresh, fantastic short fiction than I can possibly publish. So maybe down the line, that could happen. I ain't makin' no promises. But you never know.

What impact has all of this editing work had on your writing?

Well, I will not be writing a new novel this year, and that is a fact. I hope to complete a short story collection of Bizarro-flavored weirdness for Eraserhead Press by late spring, so it can come out in fall. But that's the extent of fresh prose you can expect from me. My brilliant collaborator Cody Goodfellow's got a couple of great solo novels to attend to. Marc Levinthal and I are taking our good-natured time on the sequel to The Emerald Burrito of Oz.

And as for me, as an artist, all I really wanna do is direct. Which is to say, make films. Between Rose: The Bizarro Zombie Musical and several movie projects with co-director Andrew Kasch (Thirsty, Never Sleep Again: The Elm St. Chronicles), I am happily plowing all kinds of new ground. That's the other frontier for me. And the other full-time job.

Your passion for the genre is evident in the series of essays you've posted on your blog recently ( What brought you to horror in the first place? What books lit a fire under you and inspired you to pursue a career in this business?

Aw, jeez. If you wanna go back 53 years, I had a near-death fever when I was two years old, and rat-like monsters crawled down the walls. I know that's pretty young to start hallucinating. But all in all, I think it worked out pretty well.

I made the jump from Dr. Seuss to Edgar Allan Poe at age 7, while Dr. Cadaverino – Milwaukee's ghost host in the 60s – introduced me to horror movies both superb and stupographic, thereby educating me to the difference. Blew past the Hardy Boys to Ray Bradbury, Creepy Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock anthologies shortly thereafter, while living in Argentina, where I actually got to watch people die first-hand, whether I liked it or not. (I didn't.)

So violence and horror have always haunted me, and made me wanna come to grips with what the fuck it all means. That's why I got into it. That's why I'm still here.

Horror is the fiction of worst-case scenarios: one part checklist of nightmare atrocities, one part How-To manual for coping (or not). At its best – for me, at least - it's both revelatory and wildly entertaining. I love the gallows humor and painful honesty of confrontational fiction. It reminds me that I'm not alone. So making it fun to face down our demons is one of my favorite things.

Finally, any new John Skipp books/short stories we should be on the lookout for?

At this point, for me, it's less about writing new fiction than getting people excited about the ones already there. So please, check out Spore, The Day Before, and Jake's Wake (with Cody Goodfellow); The Emerald Burrito of Oz (with Marc Levinthal); The Long Last Call, Conscience, and Stupography (by myself); and all the old Skipp & Spector books. That's nearly 30 years of writing, all of which I stand behind to this day.

Between that, Ravenous Shadows, Fungasm, Black Dog, and all the crazy anthologies I've appeared in recently (Classics Mutilated, The Living Dead 2, Tales of the Flying Spaghetti Monster), that oughtta keep readers busy for a while.

Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.