Al Sarrantonio has been called a "master anthologist" (by Booklist) for his editing work on such anthologies as 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense (winner of the 2000 Bram Stoker Award), Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction, and (with Neil Gaiman) Stories (winner of both the 2011 Audie Award and the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award). Al also edited Halloween: New Poems, and in 2011, Portents, an all-original anthology which Al's own brand Flying Fox Publishers produced.
For many genre fans, though, Al is a master at the craft of creating his own horror fiction. His first novel, The Worms, was published by Doubleday in 1985, and his 1989 novel Cold Night was nominated for the Shamus Award. Beginning in 2001 with the novella Hornets (which originally appeared in the Cemetery Dance anthology Trick or Treat: A Collection of Halloween Novellas, Al's "Orangefield" cycle has proven to be a fan favorite. Set in the mythical New York town of Orangefield - known for both its pumpkins and the Halloween visits by Samhain, Celtic Lord of the Dead - the Orangefield novels, novellas, novelettes and short stories find new readers every Halloween.
Since it's that time of year, let's talk first about the Orangefield cycle, which I think we can safely say is the most beloved Halloween fiction series in the horror genre. When you wrote the first Orangefield story, the novella Hornets, back in 2001, did you imagine it all as living on beyond that one piece?
I had no idea I would continue with it. The novella was based on something that actually happened to me—my home office was infested with hornets, which had built a nest inside the wall four feet to the left of my head. It was as big as a soccer ball when the beekeeper/exterminator came to take care of it. Talk about firsthand experience! But after that piece was published (actually, if I remember correctly the town was not called Orangefield in the original version of the story) I started to think and expand on the idea of a town whose fate is tied to Samhain, and whose biggest business and time of year is Halloween. From there it just grew, and I have to say I've enjoyed every moment of it.
One of the things I love about the Orangefield stories is the way you combine modern Halloween—the pumpkin fields and carnivals and even consumerism— with ancient folklore. Do you read a lot of non-fiction Halloween history and/or folklore?
I'm reading a book published in 1919 on my Kindle right now (and it's free) titled The Book of Hallowe'en, by Ruth Edna Kelley, a classic look at Halloween history. When I wrote my first Halloween novel, October, which was published almost a decade before I created Orangefield, I did some background research into the roots of the holiday, but couldn't easily come up with some quotes to put at the beginning of the book. So I made some up. I must have done a good job, because the copy editor wanted to know if we needed to get permission to reprint them!
It's been two years now since the last Orangefield story "All Souls' Day" (which appeared at the website Horror Drive-In). Is there a new Orangefield tale lurking on the horizon?
Yes. And all I can say is that it will be announced sometime around...you guessed it, Halloween.
In the original novella Hornets, I love the titles of the series of children's Halloween books the protagonist is working on: Sam Hain and the Halloween That Almost Wasn't, Sam and Holly and the Halloween Moon, Sam and Holly Meet the Undergrounders...have you ever considered actually writing those?
I wrote a novel called Underground. It was supposed to be published by Bantam Books the year after my book Skeletons. Then Bantam jettisoned their entire horror line. It sits in my drawer to this day. It was about, literally, Hell. It had a character in it named Malice in Wonderland. As for the Samhain books, they were just conceits. I've only written one children's book, a Christmas story about a plucky cat who has to take on Santa's chores, and that's in a drawer, too. It had full-color pictures by a wonderful artist.
You also edited a collection of Halloween poetry, Halloween: New Poems, published by Cemetery Dance in 2010. You'd never been involved with a book of poetry before, so how did that come about? And was editing a poetry anthology different from editing a prose anthology?
I noticed that no one had ever done a book of original Halloween poetry, and it seemed like such a natural. When I went to Rich Chizmar at Cemetery Dance he immediately said yes. It was no different than editing a prose collection: I asked people to write poems, and they wrote poems. I inspired Joe Lansdale to write his first poems ever. I've written poetry myself since college. A few of those pieces ended up in my novel Moonbane. One is a love letter to Emily Dickinson, across one hundred years of time.
Your most recently anthology as editor, Portents, was published by Flying Fox Publishers, which is you. It's certainly not a line-up one usually expects to find in self-published anthologies, with authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Ramsey Campbell, Joe Lansdale and Brian Keene involved. Why did you decide to self-publish?
It was an experiment in terror! I've done pretty much everything else in my business: I've been a novelist, a short story writer, I edited books at a major publishing house, I've been an anthology editor of both fiction and nonfiction, a critic, a book reviewer, an agent (for myself), a poet (see above!). The only thing left to try was publishing. And I know and have worked with so many wonderful people, that I thought I might be able to beg for a story for something new. I was startled how many of them, 19 in all, came through. Here's the plug, no shame involved: the book (Portents) is a limited edition Smyth-sewn hardcover anthology of original stories, foil-stamped and hand signed and numbered by me. It was published this year and is still available at Alsarrantonio.com.
Are small press and self-published anthologies the future for horror short fiction?
I think everything's on the table now. Once you factor in Sturgeon's Law (90 percent of everything is crap) I think there will be great work offered in the small presses, the major publishers, who aren't going away, and in all kinds of mediums. We haven't even talked about e-books, which are revolutionizing the backlist and out-of-print arena. More than twenty of my unavailable titles are now available for Kindle, Nook, the Sony reader and others. And by the way, I consider Flying Fox a small press, because we have plans for further books up the line, if we get the support.
What are you working on now?
Like I said, a new Orangefield tale. Also putting together a new story collection, which would be my fifth. Maybe a new novel....
And finally: What will you be doing on the evening of October 31st?
Giving out candy to little kids in bad Lady Gaga outfits.