Last week I reviewed The Wicked, a nasty little bit of throwback-style horror from the pen of James Newman. Whenever a book grabs me like The Wicked did – shakes me up and reminds me of why I spend so much time reading this crazy genre – I like to talk to the writer, get inside his or her head and find out what led them to make the choices they made in writing it. Luckily for me, Newman was more than willing to answer a few of my questions.
In the afterword to your novel The Wicked, you talk about the influence of the horror of the 1980s. Which novels and writers of that era influence you in general and The Wicked in particular?
Oh, man. How much time do you have?
Here's my Top Ten: The House Next Door by Anne Rivers-Siddons (that one was the first "adult" horror novel I ever read, in fact), The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum, Feast by Graham Masterton, Legion by William Peter Blatty, The Beast Within by Edward Levy, The Brain Eaters by Gary Brandner, Lightning by Dean Koontz, and of course I can't forget Stephen King's Christine, Cujo, and The Dead Zone.
The bad ones were no less an influence on me than the good ones, though, if you want to know the truth. Not only because they were valuable lessons on what not to do if you wanted to be a good writer, but also because . . . hey, who can deny that those gaudy covers were so freaking cool? Except the ones with the evil kids. We've all seen enough of those to last a lifetime.
The '80s are credited with producing some of the best and most influential writers in horror, but the over-saturation of the market that occurred in that decade left scars on the genre that still haven't fully healed. At this point in time, would you say more was done in the '80s to help or to hurt horror, and why?
I think, overall, it hurt. There was that over-saturation you referred to, a case of "quantity over quality" in the truest sense of that phrase. And not just on the literary side, either. There were the bad movies with no point to them other than cardboard characters getting slaughtered in creative ways. Crap like that gave horror a bad name, and still does. Unfortunately, I think we're still trying to get over that stigma to this day. Blood-and-guts is what most folks think of when you say the "H" word. It's not fair, but that's the way it is.
The cream rises to the top, though. The best of the best are still around. The words of those writers who have consistently produced quality work through the years, they'll live on even as the market rises and falls.
Without giving too much away, there is some very explicit action of the sexual variety toward the end of The Wicked. Did you feel self-conscious writing that, or when people bring it up to you? What kind of response did you get on that section of the book?
I wouldn't say I felt self-conscious writing it. I usually refrain from getting too terribly graphic, but that's probably because I think a lot of really detailed sex scenes just come across as silly. For this particular book, though, those scenes felt right. Especially the stuff between David and Kate -- I felt the story needed those uncomfortable moments to convey where both of them were, as individuals and in regards to their relationship, after the awful thing that happened to Kate in New York City. These were damaged people, so obviously that carried over into the bedroom.
One or two reviewers actually suggested that certain aspects of The Wicked were "homophobic". I didn't get that at all. I even ran it by a couple of my gay readers and they agreed with me, that such an accusation was ridiculous.
Why are small towns (such as The Wicked's own Morganville, North Carolina) such fertile settings for horror novels?
Small towns can be scary in real life. Everybody has secrets, some more sinister than others, and usually those secrets are shared between multiple parties. Places that are supposed to be quiet and innocent often hide something between the surfaces that's anything but good. Kind and decent people prove themselves to be hateful and malicious. That fascinates me to no end. I don't think I've ever realized it before this moment, but to some extent I've written about those themes in every single novel I've published so far. Cool . . . .
The Wicked reads like a novel that's tailor-made for a film adaptation. Is there anything like that in the works?
As a matter of fact, there are a few folks who have shown interest. Nothing's set in stone, though (read: no green has crossed my palm). Just "talk".
You're moving away from the supernatural in your next novel, which you described on your website as "Southern noir." Why the shift, and do you feel it could be a permanent move for you?
Well, technically the shift away from the supernatural has already happened for me. The Wicked was the first full-length novel I wrote, but then Midnight Rain -- which wasn't horror -- was the first one that was published. The first edition of The Wicked was released after Midnight Rain. Animosity followed The Wicked. Then came the paperback edition of The Wicked.
Animosity had no supernatural element, I should mention. As a matter of fact, reviewers have called it "white picket fence suspense" (I love that), the kind of this-could-really-happen horror that Jack Ketchum's so great at. Of course, I'll take that comparison any day of the week!
As for moving away from the genre entirely? I doubt I'll ever do that. I love it too much. Book-by-book, I'm just writing the kind of stuff I'd want to read. I figure if I do that, I can't go wrong.
You've called Joe Lansdale a major influence on your work. He's built a long career writing in all kinds of genres - horror, western, crime, etc. What other genres would you like to explore?
I haven't given any thought at all to exploring other genres, honestly. I'm sure whatever I write will always be "dark." I've never been a sci-fi fan, per se (with the exception of growing up a Star Wars nerd and a newfound obsession with Doctor Who), but I have been thinking about maybe writing a time-travel tale at some point. I love time-travel stories and films, always have.
Again, though, it'll be dark. I don't think I could avoid that if I tried.
Will you keep writing stories set in the South? Is writing about the South a deliberate choice of yours, or just a natural extension of who you are and where you're from?
I'd say it's a natural extension, definitely. I don't ever sit down at the computer and consciously decide, "Yeeeehaw! Time to write some Southern-fried horror." It just comes out of me. I suppose it's because I was born and raised in the South, and these characters are the people I know -- the good and the bad.
"Write what y'all know," as they say.
What other projects do you have in the works, and when can we get our hands on them?
There are a few exciting things in the works. I wanted to mention that my first novel, Midnight Rain, was reprinted just a few weeks ago in trade paperback by Evil Jester Press. My little contribution to the "coming of age" subgenre still holds a special place in my heart, so it's nice to get it back out there.
Also, I'm pleased to announce that my novel Animosity will see publication in trade paperback and e-book around the first quarter of 2014. Since the ink hasn't quite dried on the contract yet, I should probably wait a few more days before I give specific details, but I'll be announcing everything soon on my website, Facebook page, etc. So far Animosity has only been available as one of those pricey limited-edition hardcovers, so I'm very happy to get it into more readers' hands.
Meanwhile, I'm about to cross the finish line on my latest novel, Ugly As Sin. It shouldn't be too much longer till I'm ready to announce the publisher for that one.
Visit the official James Newman website and order The Wicked by James Newman.
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.