What do you find inspires you most for writing horror? Do you find the real world has more inspiration to offer than your imagination?
The world is so full of mind numbingly awful horrors that the only way to cope with the insecurity of existence is to write about it, to allow the imagination to take the things we fear most and create art from it. In this way I believe we come to terms with our own mortality.
What are your favourite horror movies? Favourite director?
I’m still old school. I love John Carpenter and Wes Craven. A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the best horror movies of all time with one of the greatest villains of all time. It’s hard to top that. Carpenter blew my young mind with The Thing. The remake didn’t come close, with either of those movies. I think Eli Roth has a great handle of all things terror, more so for his movie Hostel than the Saw series even. Brilliantly terrifying. For me though the scariest movie is still Misery. Kathy Bates did an amazing job of capturing an insane fan in that movie. I’m also a big fan of Jacob’s Ladder.
What are your favourite ever books (of any genre)? Favourite author?
I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on then went on to study English Lit in college so it’s hard to pick just a few. Anything by Salman Rushdie. He is amazing. Same for Michael Connelly, Stephen King, and Don Delillo. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk. That’s an amazing and totally under-rated novel. In the zombie genre I’m a big fan of Jonathan Maberry, Shana Festa, Stephen Kozeniewski, Sharon Stevenson, Stevie Kopias, Frank Tayell, and most recently S.P. Durnin. There are so many awesome indie authors writing in the zompoc genre right now it’s mind blowing.
Do you aim to scare and otherwise provoke yourself with your own writing, or does your own writing not affect you like that? Should a horror author try and scare themselves first if they wish to scare their audience?
It’s not often that I scare myself with an idea but it does happen from time to time. The biggest challenge can be moving that same level of fear from inside of me out onto paper in a way that will translate with readers. Usually I try to focus on creating tension and allowing the reader to slip seamlessly into the world I’m creating. That way the emotions I’m working on evoking will seem like a natural progression of the storyline.
What is your personal favourite of all the stories you’ve written? The one you are most proud of.
I’m very proud of my novel Undead L.A. 1. I wanted to strike a balance between mindless zombie killing fun and literary fiction without alienating readers of course. I think I did a fairly good job. There is plenty hidden in that novel for those who want it but the stories are entertaining enough to hold your attention even if you don’t see the deeper meanings tucked into them.
I read your Dark Dreams blog post for The Escapist about the popularity of zombies, and it seemed to me to pose the idea that a major pull of apocalyptic zombie horror is that it gives a redemptive arc to humanity, a simple fantasy that gives hope both for personal heroism and solidarity against a common, defeatable enemy. In essence, something uplifting, free of ‘shades of grey’ and ethical confusion.
Would you say this is accurate, and that it perhaps covers more than just zombies, but the popularity of many fantasy horror genres (those without depressing endings!), by giving killable monsters and a humanity to unequivocally root for? I am reminded a little of a quote by G.K. Chesteton: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
A great number of people far smarter than me seem to think that zombies are a vehicle to vent our fears and anxieties, and therefore have an ever shifting meaning dictated by the period of history they are presented in. White Zombie with Bela Lugosi targets the fear of black men using voodoo to control white women. Romero’s Day of the Dead highlights our fears of consumerism and being turned into mindless hordes, poignantly underscored by the fact that it happens at a mall. 28 Days Later was about our fears of a global pandemic while World War Z hit a nerve for showing us an inescapable threat that moves at an unstoppable speed destroying all in its path. There is definitely a strong argument to be made for the idea that the rise in popularity of zombies can be traced back to the feeling that we live in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world where fear drives the nightly news. I wanted to suggest that the idea of being heroic played a role as well. I also suggested that being able to vent our anger at the helplessness most of us find ourselves mired in by killing other people in a justifiable way plays a bigger role than we like to admit. It’s an ugly truth not often mentioned, but I believe it plays a part. If the zombie apocalypse happened tomorrow I get the feeling a lot of people would go looking for their boss or any other number of people who made their shit list. I explore this idea further in Undead L.A. when a police detective uses the chaos of the end of the world as an excuse to hunt down the one killer who got away and ruined his career. The story is called NO ONE IS WATCHING.
When did your obsession with horror start, and what were (and are) your biggest influences for your own writing (whether other authors, films, music, art etc.)? How long have you been writing for? Did you always want to be an author?
I’ve wanted to be a novelist for as long as I can remember. I was obsessed with books and writing as a kid. I wrote my first horror short story when I was in fifth grade. It was about a man stuck on an island with a monster stalking him. Eventually he gets eviscerated. That story earned me a parent teacher conference but the general consensus at the time was that I would grow out of it. Luckily I didn’t.
I was a voracious reader as a kid so the list of authors who influenced me is probably too long for an interview. I can tell you I was obsessed with vampires as a kid. I must have seen The Lost Boys over a hundred times. As a teenager if you told me I could become a vampire I would have jumped at the chance.
A friend is choosing a horror film for you to watch. What’s your preference: slasher, b-movie, comedy-horror, supernatural thriller, gothic horror, classic black-and-white, gorefest or just utterly weird? Or no horror at all!
All of the above! My movie watching habits mirror my book reading habits. I watch just about everything good and bad. Sometimes bad is better to be honest. I can say that I feel horror needs to stop relying so heavily on gore and special effects and get back to story telling. Or maybe just find a better balance. Sometimes the implied threat is more terrifying than seeing someone get their head cut off and tossed around like a volleyball.
What is a passion of yours that has absolutey nothing to do with horror?
Surfing. I grew up in Southern California and have been in love with the ocean all my life. Writing has really cut into my time in the water but I still dream about it a lot. I have surfing in both my young adult novel Zombie Attack Army of the Dead and Undead L.A. I don’t think it will ever be out of my system. I plan on being one of those old dudes on a longboard cutting off kids with fancy Al Merrick boards made out of bamboo. I got it bad man. I wasn’t able to get to the beach as much when I was growing up so I got heavy into skating and street competitions. Now that I’m back near the water it’s on my mind all the time. Some days I just go sit on the sand and watch other people ride.
Do you ever find real world people creeping into your novels in the guise of fictional characters?
I get asked this a lot but the truth is even if a character starts out being based on someone I know they quickly develop their own agenda and become something else. Really great characters take on a life of their own and start telling you what they want to do. It can be a fun surprise that totally blows the plot outline too. Sometimes you just have to trust them and let them take you where they need to go.
Which of your novels or short stories would you most like to be made into movie? Any thoughts as to who would play the main characters?
I’m holding out for my Zombie Attack series to be made into a movie. I think it would be insanely popular if done correctly and if the director sticks to the storyline. Xander is an awesome character but since he is just 16 it’s hard to pick an actor to play him. Even if someone bought the rights today and put it into pre-production it would be over a year before it shot, so the actors would change.
I nearly always write a story while visualising it as a movie. While writing do you visualise the scenes played out as if you were watching a movie?
I do. It like to see it in my mind before I write it down. Usually I’ll give the characters a setting and then let them loose and try to record the dialogue. I often have people tell me that my writing is very visual and that’s why.
Are you disciplined with your writing? Do you make yourself write every day? Or are you a brilliant procrastinator?
I write every single day because I love to write. It’s not always on a book or something for mass consumption. Sometimes it’s just an idea or a letter or a dream. It’s always been this way. It’s important to work on your craft if you want to be a pro.
What is your personal most effective remedy for writer’s block?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. As long as you have a routine you can always get past being stuck, you might just have to push yourself. Take a hot bath. Go for a walk. Write something totally different than what you are working on. Just get yourself moving. Also it’s helpful to remember that no one has to see your work until you are ready to show it to them. So stop blowing it out of proportion. Just write!
Do you think horror can ever go ‘too far’? Whether in movies or books. Do you try and push against boundaries yourself? And have you ever held back?
What’s too far? Too scary? Too obscene? Where is the line? I think it’s important not to censor yourself or stifle your creativity. The market will do that for you. Freddy Krueger was a child molester in movie one. Norman Bates a cross dressing serial killer. Hannibal Lecter ate his victims after screwing with their minds and torturing them to death. It’s not the job of the artist to find the line but the readers and viewers.
If you had to be one of the classic Universal monsters for the rest of your life – The Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf-Man etc. – which would you be?
I’d be Dracula. Lugosi made him as sexy as he was scary. Women went nuts for him. But I’d rather have Karloff’s luck. What a wonderful man he was and what an incredible life he lived. I can only pray for a tenth of his success.
Why do you think people like scaring themselves? Guillermo del Toro described horror movies as “roller coasters of the soul”. Would you agree with this when it comes down to scary stories (in whatever medium)?
Stephen King said once that we make up fake horrors to help us deal with the real ones. I agree with that. I also think being able to scare ourselves helps us to cope with our own eventual death and the fear it inspires in us. Whether we like it or not we all have an expiration date. We all want to believe we’re going to live to be old and die peacefully in our sleep but deep down in the places we can’t bring ourselves to look at in our subconscious we know that probably won’t happen for most of us.
Zombie survival situation. You get a ranged weapon and a melee weapon – what do you choose?
My answer keeps evolving to this one. Now I think I want a slingshot, a compound bow, and a machete. Nothing that can jam or needs reloading or worst of all is too loud.
You’re suddenly inside your own stories. Fight or flight?
I don’t run. I’ll tell you that. When I watch The Walking Dead I always laugh at how they spend so much time making their problems worse instead of cleaning them up. If I were at that prison I would have spent all day luring zombies to the fence and putting them down instead of arguing about nonsense. When the zombie apocalypse happens I will still be here in Venice Beach. Again I make reference to it in Undead L.A. 1 in the story DOGTOWN LOCALS UNION.
Heroes or villains?
Heroes. There are too many villains in the world as it is.
Werewolves or vampires?
I love them both but I’m gonna go with vampires. The allure of being immortal is too much to resist but I’m sure it would get lonely over time. I’d have to make a companion.
Finally, what can you tell us about your next book, if there is one planned (or just an idea)?
Right now I’m working on Undead L.A. 2 and 3 at the same time. After that I’m taking a sharp right turn away from zombies to develop several other books I’ve been plotting out. I want to play with the supernatural more and of course serial killers. For now I’ve got to finish what I started.
I’m also involved with Shana Festa in a horror anthology called At Hells Gates. We’ve got two volumes out full of amazing horror writers at present including Mark Tufo, Paul Mannering, and dozens more. All the proceeds from the anthology go to help wounded soldiers and their families through the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. You can learn more about it by visiting http://athellsgates.com