John Pelan on 'The Century's Best Horror Fiction': Part II


See part 1 of this interview with John Pelan about The Century's Best Horror Fiction here. Read part 2 after the jump.

What kind of surprises did you encounter along the way? Authors you'd never heard of, one-hit wonders, that sort of thing…

Authors I've never heard of that were good enough to merit inclusion in this book? Not to sound arrogant, but it's been a long time since I ran across a story that wowed me by an author completely unknown to me (at least as far as the 20th century is concerned). The last time was a story in Ramsey Campbell's wonderful anthology Uncanny Banquet, which everyone reading this should rush out and buy as your horizons will be expanded. I immediately dashed off an e-mail asking if this individual has written anything else… Sadly, he had not…  The story didn't make the book, but it could have. I'll challenge your readers to try and figure out which story/author I'm alluding to…

Now for one-hit wonders… I wouldn't call Robert Barbour Johnson a "one-hit wonder" as he actually produced enough quality material for a small book, but he's certainly known for only one story, "Far Below" (which is arguably the best story ever published in Weird Tales).

Now take Stefan Aletti, I think his total output in forty years is below a half-dozen stories, but they are certainly brilliant! Anna Hunger falls into the same group.

As to surprises, when I started out I figured that neither Robert Bloch nor August Derleth (would get in). Hell, I would have bet money on it as both authors to me are the epitome of (with the exception of Derleth's ghastly mythos pastiches) "consistently good, never great."  However, 1946 was sort of weak and "Carousel" is a great story. "That Hell-bound Train" was also in the right place at the right time.  Conversely, a dear friend of mine who happens to be one of the best short story writers in the English-speaking world as well as being a fantastic editor isn't in the book despite having enjoyed a long career (over fifty years) and winning more awards across the genres of science fiction/fantasy/horror than anyone else. Just consistently edged out by something else that I thought just a hair better.

 What years were most difficult?

One year (1907) had brilliant stories by Hodgson, Blackwood, and Edward Lucas White. In fact, here's a case where the two best stories by two different authors got edged out by the best story by another author… Another challenge for your readers to figure out which two stories I'm referring to…

Are you anticipating feedback, even arguments, over the selections that made it in?

I certainly hope so… After all, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I don't do the Facebook thing, but I can be reached at - I don't always reply immediately, but I always reply.

Are there any selections that you'd reconsider?

Yes, but if I told you, I'd have to kill you… Seriously, it's been over a decade since I made the selections and it's amazing to me how little I'd change. I still agonize over "The Thing in the Cellar" vs. "Second Night Out." When I dissect them critically, I conclude that Keller's story is a masterpiece and Long's story is not necessarily as well put together technically (I never thought I'd be holding David H. Keller up as an example of technical brilliance, so there's a surprise), and Long's is an excellent story but my reaction to it is more of an emotional one due to when I read it originally. I was a kid when I first read it and it scared the hell out of me and I still react to it forty years later, but I think Keller pulled off a masterpiece that will speak to everyone. But still, if there was any way to include both…

There would really be no substantial changes to the book's overall composition. There was one story that I didn't get because at the time no one could find the heirs to the estate, but the story that I used instead was so close that looking at it now, I don't know that I'd make the change if it were possible to do so.

What are some stories that didn't make it in that you wish there had been room for?

Hahaha.We don't have space to list them all! I actually have a full four-drawer file cabinet of stories and notes. If there are any publishers (especially Rich Chizmar) reading this, let it be known that in the aforementioned cabinet is the contents for a ten-volume anthology series, Horror by the Decade. However, here's a few examples that I would have liked to include: "The Swords," "Pages from a Young Girl's Diary" and about a dozen others by Robert Aickman; "Waiting for Trains," "Lords of the Refuge," and "Henri Larne" by Sir Charles Birkin (and about ten more); "Passion Flower," "Song of the Dead," "Models for Madness," "Lady of the Yellow Death," and "The Horror at his Heels," all by Wyatt Blassingame; "Room of Shadows," "Mates for the Morgue Master," "Six Doors to Horror," "The Bells of Oceana," "The Ghosts of Steamboat Coulee," "Black Harvest of Moraine," and "Devils in the Dust" by Arthur J. Burks.

Wow, there's well over 100,000 words and I'm only to the letter "B" and I've skipped Bradbury, Brennan, Brite, Brown, and Brunner. Suffice it to say I could easily do Decades of Horror and have ten volumes averaging 120,000 words each. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Cemetery Dance were to green light the project and maybe do one or two volumes a year in order to keep costs down. It would be affordable to readers that wanted to keep up with the set (buying ten books at once could be a problem for some people, myself included; but budgeting for two books a year is pretty do-able for almost anyone). It would be a blast to do and while you wouldn't have any authors around to sign the early volumes, you could always commission some contemporary authors who are what I call "students of the game" to write essays about some or all of the contents and then you could have a signed edition. When you get to the last four books, there are enough of the authors around to sign. In fact, you would have some pretty scarce signatures… 

Anyway, I'd love to do a follow-up of some sort as there's a lot of great material out there that even a lot of very well-read folks have missed. I'd be interested to see how many readers have ever encountered John H. Knox, Ralston Shields, Wayne Rogers, Wyatt Blassingame, L.T.C. Rolt, Frederick Cowles, Andrew Caldecott, Donald Dale, or David Campton?  Even some of the greats like Carl Jacobi, Donald & Howard Wandrei, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, and Greye La Spina may be unfamiliar to a lot of modern readers. (Hint: Stories by all these folks would definitely appear in Decades of Horror.)

The book stops at the year 2000 - any ideas of stories you'd recognize from the last eleven years?

Of course! Even though it's been a few years since my last anthology, I expect I'll be doing more, so it's my job to stay on top of the scene and watch for promising newcomers. This last decade has had some amazing stuff published, you have a whole bunch of us that really came in to our own in the 1990s (when horror was supposedly dead) that still think we're young, but have the writing chops that come with practice (after all, fifty is the new thirty); and then there's a whole group that started a few years later that are producing excellent work, so readers are really in a sort of "Golden Age" as far as having a lot of quality material to read.

Shane Ryan Staley at Delirium Books is doing what I did with Silver Salamander as far as exposing newer authors and doing it better than I ever did due to the volume of titles he's able to produce. Some of the best people writing today that weren't even published in 2000 (or at least were just getting started) would include Laird Barron, John Langan, Brian James Freeman, Barbara Roden, Tim Curran, and Alan Campbell just to name a few. My buddy Scott Nicolay is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the next five years (you heard it here first), and best of all, I think you're seeing a lot of people who are now in their forties and fifties doing their best work.

Would you consider a project like this again?

Let's see… Century's Best took three years of my life, for the most part put my own fiction writing on hold and was as emotionally draining as any creative endeavor could possibly be… So my answer is "yes," in a heartbeat!  If nothing else, it showed me that I can take on huge projects and pull them off. Well, the Darkside anthologies were intended to be the Dangerous Visions of the horror genre, but the publishers didn't see it through (I had wanted to do twelve volumes before calling it quits). But each book was standard in size, so on a volume by volume basis, it wasn't a huge project. The huge projects came recently…

In the last two years I launched an imprint through Ramble House publishers that has produced over twenty books in the horror genre and then last year added a science fiction imprint under which I produce a collection a month of short fiction by one of the authors that I grew up reading. Then with Centipede Press I've taken on (and turned in) the definitive collections of Frank Belknap Long, Arthur J. Burks, and Hugh Cave; all three books come in at over 1,000 pages or 320,000 words each! I'm working with S.T. Joshi on a Carl Jacobi collection of the same scope, and a volume by Greye La Spina with Stefan Dziemianowicz as part of the series. I don't think I would have tackled projects like this without having had the experience of Century's Best behind me. Of course, it would not have been possible without a publisher like Rich Chizmar who probably had at least as many sleepless nights as I did. That this book ever saw print is a testament to what's possible when you have a staff like Rich does at Cemetery Dance.


John Pelan has been hard at work rescuing many obscure authors of weird fiction from obscurity through his imprint, Dancing Tuatara Press (a division of Ramble House), to see what sort of goodies he's unearthed, visit

The Century's Best Horror Fiction edited by John Pelan is currently available on the Cemetery Dance Publications website.

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.