Horror and Terror, Slashers and Stumps started as the brainchild of Christopher Conlon, who then suggested it to three other writers (Lisa Morton, Kurt Newton, and Norman Prentiss) who he thought all had similar sensibilities and who would create a lively discussion. The first section appeared on Christopher's blog on May 25, 2010, with part two following on Kurt's blog, part three on Norman's, and the final section on Lisa's. The discussion garnered some interest within the horror community, and also led to a panel discussion with all four bloggers at the 2011 Stoker Awards Weekend (the panel took place on June 18th, 2011). The original discussion is presented here in its entirety and unedited, although the section breaks have been removed. If you'd like to read the original blog pieces, please go to: CHRISTOPHER CONLON — http://chrisconlon.livejournal.com/12355.html KURT NEWTON — http://kurtnewton.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/horror-and-terror-slashersand-stumps-part-two/ NORMAN PRENTISS — http://nprentiss.livejournal.com/5907.html LISA MORTON — http://cinriter.livejournal.com/192771.html We hope you find something thought provoking or at least entertaining here, and please feel free to leave a comment or add your voice to the discussion!



A Four-Part Conversation About Horror Fiction With Christopher Conlon, Lisa Morton, Kurt Newton, and Norman Prentiss

CONLON: A friend recently said something to me that I thought might be a good starting place for this discussion. He told me that in his opinion, horror is “the kind of writing done by people who aren’t smart enough to write science fiction and not clever enough to write mysteries.” As insulting as it is, I thought it was a striking thing to say. Norman, what do you think of this characterization of the genre? PRENTISS: I’ll address the social aspect of this comment first. For some reason, people think it’s perfectly okay to insult horror stories, and by association, horror authors—not necessarily the “you must be sick in the head to write that kind of stuff” comment, which they’d never say to your face, but more along the lines of “oh, that kind of thing isn’t very good and doesn’t interest me, so it shouldn’t interest you either.” One summer I was wearing a T-shirt from the latest World Horror Convention, with text/design on the back. A guy about my age walked too close behind me; I kept thinking he’d finally pass, but instead he said: “World Horror Convention? I guess you can have a convention for anything these days!” I looked back and he smiled, like I was supposed to think the comment was clever or even friendly. I wanted to say, “Tell me something you care about, please. Maybe something you give up weekends and evenings for: breeding dogs, watching sports, collecting coins, whatever...Would it be okay if I mocked that, implying it’s a stupid waste of time?” As far as the blanket dismissal of horror writing as unintelligent or uninteresting…Certainly there’s stuff in the genre—in any genre—that would fit that description. But my favorite moments in most books or stories tend to be the darker elements. Maybe that’s why I write horror: nothing to do with my ability or intelligence, but more to do with my interests and sensibilities. MORTON: Well, Chris, at the risk of sounding like I’m being very patronizing to your friend (and considering how patronizing their comment was, I don’t exactly feel real bad about that)— my first response would be to state that I pity anyone who thinks writing must simply be about being clever or smart. Whatever happened to making the reader feel something? It does sometimes seem to me that the more jaded our society becomes, the more it looks down on anything that actually makes an individual experience an honest-to-god genuine emotion. Comedies, melodramas, and horror are all derided, because, hey—we hipsters are above all that nasty emotion. Give us something cool and calculating, give us thrillers or Bret Easton Ellis or the endless upper-middle-class (mild) angst of so-called literary fiction.


And for god’s sake, if you’re simply bound and determined to make us feel something…don’t make us afraid. Because if we fear, then we are forced to look at our cocoons and realize they aren’t so safe after all, and we don’t want to go there. Science fiction reaffirms our technical savvy, and mysteries tell us that we’re clever enough to solve even the direst of crimes, so both of those genres play to our happy little egos. But horror tells us we’re not safe, and technology won’t save us, and we’re not as smart as we think we are, and we just really, really do not want to go there. So instead we’ll sit back and tell you the horror genre is meaningless and silly…and hope you won’t catch on that we’re actually doing anything we can to avoid facing our fears. NEWTON: For one thing, I don’t think horror writers choose to be horror writers; it’s just the kind of writing that interests them. But your friend touches on an interesting phenomenon that occurs in the genre. Ray Bradbury gained notoriety as a horror writer before moving into science fiction (and mystery). John Shirley wrote several “horror” novels before leaning more toward science fiction. Kathe Koja created some amazing work in the horror genre before moving into young adult. And Poppy Brite is another example of a Now You See Them, Now You Don't horror writer. So, using these examples, one can deduce one of two things: either horror isn’t as lucrative as some of the other genres; or horror, as a source for new ideas, is limited and writers simply mine it for all it’s worth and then...move on. The not “smart enough” to write science fiction and the not “clever enough” to write mysteries speaks to the perceived ghetto that is horror. But it depends on your definition of horror, doesn’t it? Some might perceive horror as confined to a supernatural event such as a haunting, the awakening of an ancient evil, or some other malevolent force intent on doing harm. Others might perceive horror in terms of a horrific event. And still others find their horror in very real, very human terms. For me, Melville’s Moby Dick and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea are horror stories. To Kill A Mockingbird, A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies—all frighten in their own way with disturbing social commentary. So, for me, my horror is seldom found inside a paperback with funhouse lettering and blood red foil on the cover. But, getting back to the ghetto...to be honest, a good horror novel doesn’t need to be either smart or clever to succeed. Most horror enthusiasts aren’t looking for a treatise on what it is to be afraid, or a metaphorical representation of fear. There are several things one can expect out of the average horror story. 1) Something bad is going to happen. 2) Somebody’s going to be assaulted —either physically or psychologically. 3) That somebody is going to have to deal with whatever it is that's assaulting them. Comparing horror to science fiction or mystery is apples and oranges; horror simply operates on a different playing field than the other genres. CONLON: I agree with you on that, Kurt, though I don’t see the point of trying to yank literary classics into some sort of “horror” definition simply because they may have some disturbing content. I’ve seen this before from horror writers. But to me, if it doesn’t derive in some way, directly or indirectly, from Gothic traditions and tropes, then it isn’t horror. I mean, what is the point of calling The Old Man and the Sea a horror novel? What’s gained by it? If anything that has any disturbing material in it at all is “horror,” then, well, pretty much everything in the canon of world literature is “horror” except, I suppose, comedic novels. I mean, the point can quickly


get silly. Is Pride and Prejudice—without its recently added zombies, that is—a horror novel? That Mr. Darcy is pretty disturbing, right? I just don’t follow the logic of the argument. NEWTON: “For me, Melville’s Moby Dick and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea are horror stories.” That’s all I’m saying. For me. My taste. You don’t think there’s a supernatural element to Moby Dick? You don’t see the cosmic indifference in The Old Man and the Sea? How about the Bible? Full of horror stories. To me. These are the kinds of works I draw inspiration from. Not The Exorcist. Not Dracula or Frankenstein or The Haunting of Hill House. CONLON: I don’t deny the disturbing content of those works, Kurt, I’m only saying that disturbing content alone doesn’t make something a horror novel—I’ll add, “to me.” The Exorcist, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Haunting of Hill House all are horror novels because they derive from the traditions of the Gothic in literature. The Old Man and the Sea simply doesn’t. Cosmic indifference doesn’t, in itself, make something horror. The idea was central for Lovecraft, yes, but he used it in conjunction with all sorts of other Gothic machinery in his stories. They are horror. NEWTON: I think your definition of horror might be a bit too narrowly defined, while mine might be a bit too broad. Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children could be classified as Southern Gothic, but, while it approaches the literary dark, for me it isn’t a horror novel. And I’ve read it twice! So, based on these revelations, I would have to say I’m a dark fiction writer/reader. Unfortunately, when I go to the local bookstore, there isn’t a shelf that says Dark Fiction. So I tend to go fishing...so to speak. CONLON: Well, all of us here are known more-or-less as horror writers, I guess. I don’t consider myself one at all, actually—I’m very interested in the Gothic tradition in literature, but I’m hardly interested at all in what’s published today as “horror.” How about you all? Do you consider yourself horror writers? MORTON: Yes, I do...and proudly so, in fact. I think horror writers are in many respects psychiatrists for their cultures—we hold up the fears, demand that everyone look at them and acknowledge them, and some will leave that experience better for it. The end result of experiencing well-done horror fiction can be growth, catharsis, or even great joy. I know certain experiences with horror in my life had a significant impact on me; I remember, for example, being very young and reading a ghost story (“Shottle Bop” by Theodore Sturgeon), and I was alone in the house and the sun was setting and I got really scared—but when my mom got home, I’d never been so happy to see her and it was a wonderful feeling. In the last few years, one book that I found deeply disturbing and moving was John R. Little’s Miranda, and when I gave the book to my partner Ricky, he was equally affected, and we talked about it and it gave us an experience that we shared together. I find that other forms of literature seldom provide these sorts of jolts out of the mundane, and of course one of the things that good horror fiction does is strive to create something intense. I think it’s quite an honorable tradition. Now, to really dissect part of that question, Chris—I note you referred to “what’s published today as ‘horror,’” and here’s where I’m going to get nasty: I don’t consider a lot of contemporary so-called horror fiction to be horror at all. Sometime after the ’80s, after the


splatterpunks introduced the notion of “extreme” horror and slasher movies pushed gore ever further, it became fashionable to market certain works as “pushing the envelope” simply because of the amount of gore and sex that were offered up. A lot of this work—which I’ve come to call the “fuck the stumps” school of writing—does virtually nothing to create real suspense or tension, instead attempting merely to revolt or disgust. Put another way: They’ve traded in an emotional response for a purely physical one. They want to make you nauseous, not frightened. And to me that makes them pornography, since pornography aims to elicit a physical response. And I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with pornography—see Alan Moore’s Lost Girls for an example of how pornography can indeed become astounding art—but these books just aren’t horror. In some respects I suppose I like the old notion that some of the Gothic writers espoused: That they strove to evoke “terror,” and considered “horror” vulgar. Maybe “fuck the stumps” books really are horror, and terror is what interests me. So, the roundabout answer, Chris, is: Please call me a terror writer! CONLON: Richard Matheson makes that same distinction between horror and terror, yes. Kurt, what about you? NEWTON: I’m a horror writer, a fantasy writer, a science fiction writer, a writer of slipstream, magic realism, even mainstream. However, my themes (themes of loss, and despair, and the struggle with self-destructive tendencies) tend to plant me mostly in the horror genre. Horror is like my first friend. We have a lot in common. We get along. We go way back. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t made other friends along the way. Learned new things. Experimented. So, for lack of a better definition, a horror writer I am. PRENTISS: I’ll admit to horror, and am fascinated by the same themes you mention, Kurt: loss, despair, self-destruction. I’d also add the fear that life isn’t as clear-cut and easy to understand as we’d like to think. There’s this line in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure: “Events did not rhyme quite as he had thought.” The realization that life doesn’t necessarily make any sense— what better genre is there than horror to depict such agonizing disillusionment? In its many forms, horror literature dramatizes the unknowable; it literalizes the essential strangeness of the world. To me, that’s an inexhaustible, admirable subject. And Lisa, I’m not the best guy to defend the splatterpunk and extreme horror folk, but I’ll try. As I recall, the “extreme” label was at least initially intended to refer not (or at least not only) to extreme sex and gore, but to the extreme psychological reactions those elements could produce in characters and in the reader. Revolt and disgust are psychological reactions as much as they are physical, and they can be quite effective…(and here’s where I expect we're in agreement) in moderation. Too much extreme content, and a story can fall from the heights of horror/terror into low comedy. But hell, a lot of that comedy is intentional, and if the right reader’s in the right mood, it can be darkly amusing. MORTON: So why aren’t you a horror writer, Chris?


CONLON: Well, I think Kurt’s earlier insistence on what horror is to him maybe applies here. A lot of people do seem to see my stories as horror—I guess they’d have to be asked why. The supernatural appears in my work occasionally, but rarely is it particularly scary. I use the supernatural as a metaphorical way to get at my characters’ inner psychological states, not to try to frighten the reader—I never think about the reader, actually. Now, I realize that people will say that lots of great horror writers have used the supernatural for exactly the reason I just stated. That’s okay. If others want to call me a horror writer, I don’t mind. Yet I’ve written books about the silent movie days of Hollywood, the biggest slave auction in American history, and the Lincoln assassination, too. To me, I’m simply a writer. CONLON: One thing I find puzzling about the genre in general—and I’m speaking as an immigrant to this field, mind you, having spent twenty years largely in poetry and literary fiction —is the pervasive attitude I see among horror writers regarding style. Again and again I’ve observed, in people’s articles and on message boards, a kind of suspicion of the whole notion of style. Whenever someone asks, “Which is more important, story or style?” everyone jumps in with, “It’s all about the story, the story, the story!” Maybe it’s my background in poetry talking here, but I have no idea how anyone thinks they can meaningfully separate story and style—as if “story” is the Christmas tree and “style” merely some sort of ornamentation you throw on top of it that looks pretty but isn’t really necessary. One of the reasons people like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams were such a revelation to me when I was young was because they taught me what style was, and what it did for a piece of writing—in their cases it was a kind of rich, baroque style, but Hemingway’s stark, stripped-down approach is just as good an example. Or, within this field, take Ray Bradbury—particularly the early Bradbury. Everyone raves about his stories and his wonderful lyrical way with words, but these will be the same people who claim that style is somehow secondary. Yet imagine those early Bradbury stories written in the flat, pulp-fiction language of the time. They would die on the page. Bradbury is his style. MORTON: Style is, I think, incredibly important to a good horror work, because so much of what we do is dependent on creating mood. My partner Ricky reads more than anyone I know, and even reads a lot of literary criticism, so we ended up discussing this question. Ricky thinks that Americans in general tend to be dismissive of style because they see it as interfering with the naturalism that pervades American art. I think that’s probably somewhat true. So I’m going to say that I think that attitude you’re noting, Chris, has less to do with these people being horror writers, and more to do with prevailing contemporary attitudes across the board. On a personal level, style is something I’ve thought a great deal about, partly because I often feel uncertain about it in my own work. I’m not sure artists are always aware of their style, and that’s probably a good thing. I’ve had friends tell me that my work has a distinctive style, but I can’t completely see it. Would I be a better writer if I could recognize and hone that style more? Or would I start to sound like self-parody? I truthfully don’t know the answer, and I’m somewhat envious of writers in this genre (like Thomas Ligotti or Dennis Etchison) who have a clear style that they wield like a weapon. PRENTISS: A distinctive, literary writing style won’t necessarily save something that lacks a compelling plot; on the other hand, if the plot’s really original and compelling, that energy could


compel readers to forgive some pretty bland, uninteresting prose. We’ve all grown up hearing crappy dialogue on TV, and in the days before they invented graphic novels, a lot of comic books featured terrible, short boxes of narration (and every sentence ended with an exclamation point, too!). If we liked the story or the characters, we didn’t mind. That said, I suspect that plot/story often steals some of the “credit” from prose style. When the style produces an effective atmosphere, many readers say “That’s good storytelling” rather than “That’s a good writing style.” Some people only notice a style when it’s bad. CONLON: I think you’re right, Norman. Sometimes the most effective style can be basically invisible. PRENTISS: And when style is bad, it’s really bad. One of the worst things for me is when writers strive for a literate, complex style, and they don’t have the chops to pull it off—instead, they write long sentences without elegance or coherent syntax. I’d rather read generic, serviceable prose than something that tries too hard and fails. When I got slush from beginning writers who tried to emulate the style of Poe or Lovecraft, I didn’t tend to read very far. NEWTON: Style is the flesh to good storytelling’s bones. You can have one without the other, but one will be very soft while the other will be very hard. Together they form a more complete reading experience. Aside from Bradbury, one of my favorite horror stylists was Charles Grant. His prose had a dark, rich rhythm that stood apart. Nowadays, it’s difficult to tell who’s writing what. I bet if you took a major horror anthology and stripped away the names, readers would be hard-pressed to recognize the contributors. Speaking of style, allow me to ask everybody: What influence, if any, have horror movies/television had on your own writing? What influence have horror movies had on the genre as a whole? MORTON: First question: Probably more than I’d like to admit! In my case especially this might be a pretty skewed question, since I even majored in Screenwriting in college. I grew up loving all kinds of movies (and I still do), but it took a horror movie to completely rearrange my life: Up until I was 15, I thought I wanted to go into anthropology (and was encouraged to do so by all of my teachers, school counselors, and parents), but then I saw The Exorcist in a crowded theater and my life altered its course in two hours. It’s hard to get young people to believe it now, but the effect of that film on a packed audience during its initial release was absolutely astonishing: People screamed, fled, vomited, fainted, lost sleep, saw priests, and talked about it for weeks. I saw the film eleven times that year, and most of those times I studied the audiences. I’d never imagined that a mere piece of art could have that impact on people (and I can’t imagine now that it’ll ever happen again), and I knew that I wanted to try to create that effect. My counselors and parents were horrified (for the wrong reasons!), but there was no stopping me. Although I think my fiction was finally influenced far more by other works of prose I’d read than by movies, there’s no question that it was movies—or at least one particular movie—that made me want to write in the first place. (Side note of trivia here: A few years ago I was fortunate enough to meet William Peter Blatty, and I had him sign an original lobby card from The Exorcist for me. That card was immediately framed and placed over my desk, where it remains to this day as a reminder of my commitment to my craft.)


As to what influence horror cinema has had on the written end of the genre…wow, that’s a huge question. I think the relationship between horror cinema and horror literature is probably closer than it is with any other genre (with the possible exception of science fiction, and science fiction movies are a lot more expensive to produce, so there just aren’t as many of them!). For the first six decades of movie history, literature drove the movies, with adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein and (later) Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby leading the way. But then in the late ’70s things started to switch around. Horror cinema seemed to lead the way this time, with several things happening: Big-budget studio movies like Alien and Jaws set new highs for the level of gore in major films; Halloween made the masked (and possibly supernatural) killer into a trope; and some guy in Pittsburgh created an entirely new kind of monster in the cannibalistic zombie. And horror authors in the ’80s jumped all over that stuff, with higher levels of sex and violence in their books, a huge cycle of psycho killer novels, and of course zombie fiction (which, amazingly, is even more ubiquitous in 2010 than it was in 1980). Stephen King also exploded in the late ’70s, and he became his own cottage industry—the novels and the movies just sort of seemed to feed off each other. Now it’s not surprising when a hit movie or a trend in film spawns imitator novels—which, in the case of something like Twilight, can turn around and give birth to a new cycle of films, and etc. etc. CONLON: Kurt, I’ll leave it to Lisa and you and Norman to discuss the effect of movies and TV on the genre. I really don’t know, because I read relatively few horror books and see relatively few horror movies. But in terms of the effects of those media on my own writing, well, like Lisa, I had a Rosetta Stone experience of my own with a movie when I was young—in my case Psycho, which I saw uncut, or very nearly, on late-night television when I was about twelve. Emily Dickinson said that she knew something was poetry if it made her feel as if the top of her head had been taken off—that’s a good description of the effect of Psycho’s poetry on me. I never saw it as just a “scary movie.” For me it was, and still is, a deeply emotional experience. I grew up with two alcoholic parents—my mother died of cirrhosis when I was a teenager—and so what that film has to say about loneliness and alienation and fear was profound and personal to me. I knew what it was to live in a home which presented one face to the world in the daytime, but which had a very different one late at night when the doors were locked. The movie spoke to me in ways that I think have reverberated throughout my life and writing. I sense in Reed Waters, the co-protagonist of my novel Midnight on Mourn Street, the distant shade of Norman Bates. PRENTISS: The biggest influences on me were the creature-feature movies on television, and the Twilight Zone reruns. It’s funny that you mention an uncut version of Psycho, Chris, because the fact that most of the movies I saw were edited/sanitized, or were fairly mild to begin with, had a big effect on how far I thought horror fiction should go. CONLON: I don’t know if it was literally uncut, but any censoring must have been slight, because the shower scene was there and it went on for quite a while. It was something to see. PRENTISS: I always wanted to see the monster, but my expectation growing up was that all the violence would be offscreen or would occur during the commercial break. My earliest visions of blood were in black and white, with the biggest extreme being the chocolate syrup that swirled in Janet Leigh’s shower drain at the Bates motel. Later, there was a Saturday matinee series at the Aspen Hill twin theaters, and they showed reissue prints of Hammer films: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave was the first of these I saw, when I was about twelve years old, and it really


startled me. I loved the movie, and Christopher Lee will always be my favorite Dracula, but I’m still emotionally attracted to the black-and-white or edited-for-TV depictions of horror. The red gore is an extra effect which I’ll use sparingly in my writing, when called for, but I’ll leave a lot of the gross stuff offscreen or offstage. I’d like to say the influence is Greek tragedy, but it’s really the TV editing of the ’70s. As for the influence of horror movies on the fiction, I really admire Lisa’s analysis. The one thing I’ll add is that the perception of horror by the general public is shaped mostly by movies. Those people who look down their noses at horror, like the guy in Chris’s opening question, are reacting mostly to the slasher movies of the ’70s and the modern-day remakes and Saw or Hostel films. They haven’t read anything with “horror” on the spine, and base their judgments on the movies. Now, there are books like those movies—I’ve read quite a few of them, and even enjoyed a good number—but they’re not the only thing the genre has to offer. NEWTON: Where I grew up there were two drive-in theaters. There was also an old movie theater called the Capital Theater on Main Street in the next town over. Funny Norman should mention Dracula Has Risen From the Grave because my father took my mother and I to the Capital Theater one night to see it. It was a disaster. My father was in rare public form—loud, belligerent, and quite possibly drunk (I remember the usher saying “I’m sorry” about a dozen times just to pacify him and get him to quiet down). If that wasn’t bad enough, I wanted to go home five minutes into the movie! After the opening sequence when the priest stumbles down the cliff and hits his head, cracking the ice where Dracula is frozen beneath, and Dracula tastes the priest’s blood and comes back to life—I was turned around in my seat, groaning and wanting to leave. It wasn’t the blood; it was Christopher Lee’s eyes that scared the crap out of me. There were these extreme close-ups of Christopher Lee’s eyes and they were more bloodshot than a three-day awake meth-addict! I don’t know how they made his eyes so bloodshot, but it looked real as hell, and that night, as I tried to sleep in my own bed, all I saw were those eyes when I closed mine. It was the last time I had to sleep with my parents. I was nine. My father also took my brother and I to see Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch at the drive-in. Another movie that left a startling impression. From the burning of the scorpions by the children in the opening sequence to the graphic, slow-mo, blood-bag explosions of the gunfights throughout, I had never seen anything like it. But the movie that really touched me was The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on the Matheson novel The Shrinking Man. I snuck down from bed one night and sat on the stairs and watched this through the railing while my parents watched it. I remember not moving until the end when the shrinking man had shrunk so small he could fit through a single square in a screen window. I remember crying and knowing why. He didn’t die. He simply grew so small he no longer mattered. It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. Lastly, at the age of fourteen my mother took me to see The Exorcist at the Capital Theater. Like Lisa said, that movie wasn’t just a horror movie; it was an experience, one that I can honestly say hasn’t been duplicated since, and probably never will be. Not only was The Exorcist the most intense horror movie ever, it was one of the most intense movies ever. The acting was so good. The storyline simple and emotionally true. It definitely transcended the screen. I remember halfway through the movie, after the first 360-degree head spin, I kept expecting the people in


the rows in front of us to begin turning their heads around. It was so real. I had a hard time sleeping that night too, but I was able to tough it out. I also never missed a Twilight Zone, Outer Limits or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As for the connection between horror movies and horror fiction? I agree with what each has mentioned so far. And I’ll add that it is my belief that the movie industry is what now drives the publishing industry. Novels that tend to have a more cinematic approach are the ones major publishing houses appear more inclined to publish. I don’t think when an agent/editor receives a manuscript he/she’s thinking National Book Award. I’m sure the first thing on their checklist is “Can this be made into a movie?” Which automatically puts the less graphic, less sensational styles of writing at a disadvantage. CONLON: How much do the realities of the horror market affect what you write? Do you feel that you write for markets, or for yourself, or somewhere in between? Do you ever find yourself censoring or sensationalizing your work in order to appeal to a given market? NEWTON: I don’t depend on my writing for financial support, so I tend to write whatever interests me. Even as a part-time writer I produce a lot of material—poems, flash pieces, short stories, novelettes and the occasional novella or novel. So when I see a market I like, I generally have several pieces on hand that may be suitable for it. Rarely will I sit down to write for a specific market. As for censoring or sensationalizing, when a story is conceived I usually know the kind of story it’s going to be—graphic or subtle or something in between. Never once have I introduced more violence or sexual content just to amp up the shock value of a story. But I will tone down the content on occasion if I feel it is too over-the-top or unnecessary. MORTON: Well, unlike Kurt, I do depend on my writing for income (while I love my day job, I can’t live on a used bookseller’s meager wages), so yes, I absolutely do have to be conscious of certain markets. If, for example, there’s a themed anthology coming up that’s paying decent rates, I will try to come up with something for it (provided I find the theme even remotely intriguing—that’s not a given). While I have a lot of writer friends who say they can’t write to someone else’s specifications, I never look at it that way; for me it’s more like a puzzle to be solved. Can I tell a story my way and get across a message that’s important to me within the context of their theme? One thing I learned from screenwriting (where you’re pretty much always operating per someone else’s instructions—even if the producer has purchased your original spec script, you’ll be asked to rewrite it to fit their whims or budget or whatever) was how to take someone else’s ideas and personalize them in a way that made them interesting to me. I’ve never censored or sensationalized a work to appeal to a given market, and fortunately I’ve never been asked to do so. If I was…well, I could conceivably cut back, but I can’t see myself “sensationalizing” something, unless it was integral to the story and was a good editorial suggestion.


PRENTISS: I don’t typically think about markets when I’m writing short stories—I’m usually trying to write something that interests me and that I’d be proud of, and I hope it will find a market later. The worst part is when I’m writing something I’m really happy with, then cross the 4,000-5,000 word limit and realize quite a few markets might be closed to that story. My market concerns tend to have more to do with word count than with content. One thing that’s relatively new to me is being asked to write for a particular anthology or market. In those cases, it’s just like Lisa said: a challenge or a puzzle that exists from the beginning—and it sometimes helps me to write a story I never would have attempted otherwise. The “limits” can paradoxically open up your creativity, the same way a fixed poetic form can help poets explore new territory in verse. What’s Richard Wilbur’s famous line? (excuse me while I Google): “The strength of the genie comes from his being confined in a bottle.” As far as novels, I guess I’m painfully aware of market concerns, almost to a paralyzing extent. I’m very happy with my novella, Invisible Fences, but I was lucky to get that published through Cemetery Dance’s novella series—there’s no significant market for novellas outside the small press. When I’ve attempted the longer novel form, with full awareness of what I like and don’t like in trade or mass market horror novels, I haven’t yet been satisfied with the results: the story seems padded, or the atmosphere of dread is too difficult to maintain. That might be changing for me recently, however, since I’m pretty happy with the first seventy percent of the novel I'm currently writing. CONLON: Norman, I sure as hell wish you good luck with that last thirty percent! Speaking strictly for myself, I don’t think I’m smart enough to write for markets. I simply don’t have the capacity. Oh, I can write an article or a review to order—that’s easy enough—but in the realm of fiction, I’m hopeless at it. My stories come out whatever length they come out. They’re about whatever they happen to be about. Some end up easier to get published than others; eventually, though, pretty much everything I write gets published somewhere, sometime. But I long ago gave up considering markets or audience or anything else besides, really, myself. I finish a piece to my own satisfaction and then have a look around and ask who might like to bring it out. Sometimes it takes a while. One novella of mine, “The Unfinished Music,” took ten years to find a place—there was absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. Now both Gary Braunbeck and Bill Nolan refer to it as one of the finest novellas they’ve ever read. Ten years. Go figure. Yet as with your Invisible Fences, Norman, it was a small press that finally published it. NEWTON: The horror small press has been called everything from a training ground for tomorrow’s leading names in the field, to an incestuous tar pit of hacks and would-be hacks that can drag a good writer down. Which is it? MORTON: Well, Kurt—that could be a description of the major publishers, too! (Snort) Okay, now I’ll calm down and try a real answer: I personally love knowing that horror has an active


small press (I won’t say “thriving,” because I know how hard it is for most of these presses to make a buck and that many of them exist really as labors of love). At its best, the small press provides that market for the writers whose work doesn’t fit the majors for one reason or another, be it length or theme or whatever. I’d say probably two-thirds of my favorite horror books published in the last few years came from the small press, and I’m thrilled that the small press has been able to provide a home for writers like Michael Louis Calvillo and Gene O’Neill and Cody Goodfellow and John R. Little and (not meaning to brown nose here, but!) Christopher Conlon. CONLON: Brown-nosing noted and approved, Lisa! As for the small press, I wouldn’t want to generalize. There are fine, respectable, responsible publishers out there—I’ve worked with some of them—and there are appalling people with whom I shall never again have anything to do in this life. I do think, though, that writers, most of them based in the small press, can face the trap of getting too involved with the gossip and back-biting that goes on in this field. I’ve always stayed far away from such activity myself, but it’s easy enough to watch it happen on some message boards. There are writers who, to my mind, seem less interested in writing stories than in scoring points off people they don’t like. I wish I were only talking about unpublished amateurs here, but alas, I could name some relatively well-regarded professionals who engage in this kind of behavior online, too. PRENTISS: I think message board behavior might be another topic—though the boards are certainly the place where small press books get promoted. It’s so many people fighting over the same readers/buyers (and a lot of writers selling things to each other)—which is why things can get heated. But it seems clear to me which discussions will get contentious, and I don’t post in those threads. Is it actually possible that some authors can’t grasp the tone of a discussion, or can’t control how their public persona comes across? I think many would agree that the small press saved the horror genre after the mass-market bust of the late ’80s. A lot of writers wouldn’t have had audiences during the lean years that followed if it weren’t for the small press. And Lisa, I think your point about the size of a work is especially relevant: novellas, which rarely appear from New York publishers, thrive in the small press. I also like that some small presses will still do single author collections or anthologies, which you almost never see in mass market unless the author has a huge name…or unless that same collection had huge success previously in the small press. Chris, isn’t that the case with Gauntlet’s edition of He is Legend now forthcoming from Tor? CONLON: Well, that’s not an either/or. It was a huge success because it has a huge name in it: Stephen King’s. It would never have sold to a major press otherwise. I’m quite sure of that. So how much horror do you all read these days? More than you used to? Less?


NEWTON: I don’t read as much horror as I used to. But then I don’t read as much of anything as I used to. I’m a slow reader, but in my younger days I read everything in the horror field, because it was all new to me. I also read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. If I “discovered” a particular author I liked, I would run through their entire back catalog. But now that I’m older, my reading time is limited, so I’ve become a much more discerning reader. And, to be honest, I’d much rather be writing than reading. MORTON: Like Kurt, I don’t have nearly the time for reading that I used to, and I’m also a slow reader. Aside from how much writing eats into my former reading time, I end up reading a lot of manuscripts for friends, I’m trying to get more into professional reviewing, and I’m also working on another non-fiction project which requires lots of reading (a 2nd edition of my Halloween Encyclopedia). Right now, for example, I’m reading a Graham Masterton novel I’ll be reviewing for Cemetery Dance, and a history of Guy Fawkes some friends just sent me from Britain. If I had my druthers, I’d be reading a mix of…well, everything. I like non-fiction as much as fiction—the last two books I bought were The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided (but I have no idea when I’ll be able to get to them!). Also sitting near the top of the endless to-be-read stack are Saramago’s Blindness, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, and a curious book called Medusa by E. H. Visiak, which I paid a lot of money for because it’s a beautiful book, and is supposed to be a sort of unknown classic. I don’t believe writers of any genre should limit themselves to reading only in that genre, but I also think it’s important to be versed in the classics of the genre and to keep abreast of current interesting works as well. CONLON: Lisa, for God’s sake read Blindness, one of my favorite novels of the past twenty years. Saramago is absolutely amazing. I’ve read nearly everything of his that’s available in English. (Sometimes the Nobel Prize committee does get it right.) Norman, what about you and your reading? PRENTISS: A lot of my teenage reading was in horror—Poe and Lovecraft, but also Bloch and the Twilight Zone writers. That’s the stuff I loved to read, and what I wanted to write, but college and grad school shifted my interest, slightly, towards Dickens and Hardy and the 18 th century Gothics. When I came back to horror, it was a revelation. I could meet authors at conventions, and then read their stuff, and I would read just about anything. There was so much horror I’d missed, and it was all I wanted to read for the longest time. Being a school teacher keeps me grounded these days, so I’m not always reading in my genre. It also forces me to think about literary history, and what works continue to influence me “despite” them not being horror (at least by the typical classification).


In recent years, a lot of what I read is also determined by my job as a part-time editor and proofreader. I do this kind of work exclusively with horror manuscripts, and it ends up being a big chunk of my reading time. And now I gotta address a pet peeve of mine, which is when writers say something like, “When I was writing my vampire/zombie/demon novel, I deliberately chose not to read other vampire/zombie/demon books. I didn’t want the other writers to influence me.” Well, why the hell not? What’s the matter with being aware of what’s been done before in the genre, like Lisa said—and letting the influence improve your own approach? CONLON: Like you, Norman, I faded away from the genre for a long time—in my case over ten years. But, I guess unlike you, my fade was total. I had nothing to do with genre fiction for over a decade, and I thought I’d left it behind forever. People who knew me in college or Peace Corps would be surprised indeed to hear my name associated with horror fiction—nearly as surprised as I am myself, sometimes. But that’s where I’ve found whatever audience I’ve located, and for that I’m grateful. But as for reading, I guess I’m one of the few middle-aged people out there for whom life hasn’t gotten in the way of books. My wife spends just as much time reading as I do. We don’t have kids. We live in a simple routine. So I read just as much as I ever did, just as enthusiastically. Not horror, for the most part—I was never that much of a horror reader, though I do enjoy a few writers in the genre. I love Joyce Carol Oates—her short work more than her novels. I read more science fiction than horror and more poetry than science fiction. And I read more literary fiction and classics than any of them. I just finished Wait by C.K. Williams, who’s been one of my favorite poets for the past twenty-five years; a collection of William Styron’s correspondence, Letters to My Father; and a fantasy/horror YA I agreed to review, The Gardener by S.A. Bodeen —not to mention a first-rate novella, Invisible Fences, by one Norman Prentiss. Now I’m into a Steampunk anthology, Extraordinary Engines, and Thomas Ligotti’s latest collection, Teatro Grottesco. I have a huge stack of reading for this summer and I’ll get to all of it. NEWTON: So, is there anything anybody can point to in their childhoods that they could say “predisposed” them to horror? Something you may have witnessed? A tragic or unusual event that occurred that left an impression? MORTON: Well…ahem…this may sound strange, but…horror was a happy thing for me as a child. My parents both loved horror movies, and we all did crazy things like watch the Universal horror films and build the Aurora monster models together. There were two times I do remember being frightened by something as a very young child, and oddly enough, both events occurred at Disneyland (we lived within a forty-minute drive of the park, so we went fairly often). The first incident: There used to be a guy dressed as Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera who stood in front of the Main Street Cinema, and of course my folks thought it would be too adorable to have


me pose for photos with him—and I was scared witless! (And damn, I wish I knew where those photos were now…) The second event: There used to be a “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” exhibit in Tomorrowland, and I remember being about four or five, and at the end of the exhibit was a porthole you could look through. I was too small to reach the porthole, so dad had to lift me up, and he was kind of grinning as I looked through—and there was the giant squid, with its dinner-plate-sized eye staring right into mine! Of course it didn’t matter that it was just a big rubber prop held up with strings. Really, I had a pretty placid childhood, one without much trauma or tragedy. Now, of course, I look back and realize that I was extraordinarily lucky that the scariest things I saw were a man in a silly mask and a fake squid. PRENTISS: I think a lot of the predisposition came from my family. First, our living room was like Miss Havisham's home in Great Expectations: my mother never left the house, and she never threw anything away. When friends called, I sometimes said that my mother was dead, as a half-joking explanation for why they’d never seen her; Mom overheard this, and afterwards would sometimes answer the phone by announcing, “This is Norman’s dead mother.” So a rather odd upbringing, but more Addams Family than traumatic—since we mostly kept a sense of humor about things. The other huge influence was from my father, who loved horror movies and sci-fi movies and was also a good storyteller. I’d hear about Dad’s favorite movies, and couldn’t wait to see them on television when they finally cycled around (sometimes I waited for years!). He also recommended Poe stories to me, and was the guy who’d take me to Barbarian Books in Wheaton, Maryland—a comic shop, and I bought my share of horror comics, but they also had used paperbacks in the back. It was about the only place I could find books by Bloch, Matheson, Beaumont, Fredric Brown. CONLON: I remember Barbarian Books quite well, Norman—not from my childhood (I grew up in California), but from when I first moved to Maryland fifteen years ago. It was quite a glorious mess, that place. I remember buying a VHS tape of my first favorite cartoon, Gigantor, there. I still have it. As to the question. I’d rather not get into specific childhood memories, but I’ll say that I do think that my upbringing, to which I alluded earlier, had something to do with my literary predilections —not toward horror, necessarily, but toward tragedy, something the best horror often encompasses. I responded just as much to the tragedy in the great Poe works as to their horrific elements—see “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” “Annabel Lee.” Same thing with the tragic elements of Psycho. The composer who has meant the most to me throughout my life has been Mahler, who is often almost unbearably tragic. I love Shakespeare’s tragedies—King Lear is my favorite of all plays. The films of Orson Welles. It’s all tragedy, tragedy and catharsis. And


it’s when horror goes most deeply in that direction—Frankenstein, say, or, more recently, Gary Braunbeck’s In Silent Graves—that I respond most deeply to it. But let’s let the questioner in here. What about you, Kurt? NEWTON: I’d like to think I’ve led a relatively normal life. But the more I write, and the more I call on some of the stranger memories of my youth, the more I realize how disturbing were some of the things I not only witnessed but experienced firsthand. I was the youngest of four children. My older siblings were each born a year apart, and then there was a four-year gap before I came along. I was fortunate that my older brother was my nearest sibling (I have two older sisters). Fortunate because, growing up, I followed him around like a pup, and, for the most part, he allowed me to. We grew up in the country in Connecticut in a small house on our own land. There were woods. We had dogs and cats. We rode our bikes down to the lake in the summer; our father took us tobogganing in the winter. We were a typical 1960s New England family of six. Our father was hardly home, a machinist by trade. He left early in the morning and, a lot of times, didn’t return until dark. Our mother didn’t work a job until I was in school. But she cooked and cleaned and maintained a garden and basically looked after the four of us. As children, however, we were mostly left to own devices. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my brother and I playing out in the back yard, while our mother is working in the garden. At edge of the woods, my brother saw a brown-furred creature ambling along the stonewall. “A bear! A baby bear!” he began yelling. My mother ran inside the house, returned with one of my father’s rifles and blew it off the stonewall in one shot. My mother went over to check to see if it was still alive. “It's okay, it’s dead,” I remember her saying. She put the gun back inside the house and went back to work in the garden. Meanwhile, my brother and I had to see for ourselves. We walked over to where the creature had been shot and on the other side of the stonewall was a woodchuck. (We must have been very young to think a woodchuck was a bear!) There was blood and its body had been torn open by the gunshot. Its intestines were spilled out onto the leaves. I remember staring at it. I wasn’t grossed out by the sight. I think I was more fascinated by the contrast between what I saw on the outside of the animal and what was inside. My mother and father’s relationship was strained at best. They tried to put on a happy face but they couldn’t hide the tension in the air. Of course, as kids, we thought this was normal. We thought the brooding way our father cleaned his guns was normal. We thought our sometimes warm and loving, sometimes distant and depressive mother was normal. I thought the way my brother acted out and teased and tortured me was normal. I thought the fear in my sisters’ eyes


when my father came home was normal. There was favoritism and jealousy and helplessness and hatred. And it was all normal. We all lived in a small two-bedroom cape. My brother and I slept upstairs in the attic. There were cloth curtains that separated the bedroom from the rafters. At night with the light off and the moon providing just enough illumination, I would see those curtains move. I remember many nights protecting myself by not letting any part of my body escape the confines of the covers. What I’m getting at is, I didn’t know it at the time, but I grew up in an atmosphere of fear. Subtle, vague, shadowy, expressionless fear. Some of my fondest childhood memories are outside the house—swimming at the lake, picking black raspberries along the road, playing in the woods. The house was too small, too dark, too oppressive. It harbored everything that was wrong with the family. When the house burned down when I was nine, it was a relief. It closed a chapter in our lives. A new house was built—open, bright—and it exposed the family for what it really was: dysfunctional. Years later, my parents divorced and us kids went our separate ways. For me, when I look back as a seed grown in that tragic garden, I’m struck by a lot of things. My older sisters and brother didn’t fare well later in life. Each carried a part of that earlier darkness with them, and it had its effect. I, on the other hand, took that darkness and made it my own. Perhaps I was just younger and hadn’t endured as much as my older siblings. Maybe I got lucky. Maybe. PRENTISS: When I was reading unsolicited stories for Cemetery Dance magazine, one of the most common canned phrases in cover letters was: “I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.” The statement never rang true to me, but I guess it’s a nicer thing to say to an editor than, “I hope this story is as agonizing for you to read as it was for me to write.” When is writing fun for you, and when isn’t it fun? MORTON: Well, if I was submitting to a humor magazine, I might use that…but for anything in our genre, it does seem somewhat strange. I think I’d opt for neither “fun” nor “agonizing,” but “vivid.” When the writing is going well, it’s an involving, lively experience, with the sort of intensified emotions that I sometimes experience in dreams. Because I enjoy that experience, I suppose I could call it “fun,” but that’s kind of stretching the definition. When it’s not going well, but the deadline’s there nonetheless…then, yes, it can be agonizing! CONLON: Lisa hit it pretty well for me. The only time I might find writing agonizing is if I’m having to do something I don’t want to do, or feel no enthusiasm for. That rarely happens— maybe only in a book review or something, if I find myself more or less indifferent to what I’m reviewing. But in terms of fiction and poetry, I’m not one of those writers who finds the process painful, as William Styron always said that he did. Now, my stories, even when they’re not exactly “horror,” are often very dark in theme, sometimes autobiographical, and people will ask


me if I found writing a particular piece painful. My answer: “Never!” I would never do it if I found it painful. I mean, why would I do that? I’m not a masochist. And yet I find the word “fun” wrong, too—some of the most brainless activities in the world are fun. The writing process can’t really be encompassed in that word. Not for me, at least. Lisa’s “vivid” is pretty good—but I might take it a step further and say “exhilarating.” And it’s often the darkest, most godawful moments in my stories that are the most exhilarating to write. It’s a very emotional experience for me, writing. Flaubert always claimed that he wrote in a mood of totally objective detachment, but I’ve never believed him. I suspect that he was roiled with emotion when he wrote about Emma Bovary. Now, revision — that’s something else again. One should be as objective and detached as possible when revising, yes. NEWTON: Early on I used to dredge up so much painful emotion I did reach a point where I dreaded the process. Then I made a conscious decision that if I were to continue writing, I needed to “get happy.” Now “happy” to me meant to work outside myself and not relate everything on paper to my own personal woes. Doing this not only improved my attitude toward writing, it improved my writing. It took the pressure off by giving me the freedom to explore pretty much any type of character living any kind of life. For example, I recently wrote and sold a 6000-word story to Space and Time called “Nikola Tesla and the Resonating Frequency Transmitter,” which was probably the most fun I’ve had writing a story. So much so, I now have several Tesla stories in the works. So if there’s a lesson to be had in all this: horror can be a really dark and gloomy place to visit, you just don’t want to live there. So let me throw this back to you, Norman. When is it fun for you, and when is it not? PRENTISS: Although deadlines are effective motivators, I have to agree that they can suck the enjoyment out of any writing job (and self-imposed deadlines can often be worse than those imposed from outside). I’ve had many good moments while writing—for example, when I hit on an image or phrasing that satisfies me, or when I get “into the zone” and the writing flows especially well for an hour or sometimes longer. For the most part, though, the idea of fun runs counter to my experience that writing is hard work—both the act of writing itself, and the struggle to make that writing time available. When I read stories with puns in the title (another pet peeve of mine), or with bursts of humor that don’t fit the tone of the surrounding horror elements, then I think “This writer is having too much fun.” It’s not the writer’s job to have fun, and it’s certainly not true that any fun the writer has would transmit magically to readers. I’ll fall back on “satisfying” as the best term for my happier writing moments. I know that word sounds pretty bland, but when I feel good about something I’ve written, know it is something I’ll


be proud to put my name on and can imagine people wanting to read it—well, that’s a pretty intensely satisfying experience. MORTON: One of the questions I’ve occasionally wrestled with as both a writer and as a thematic element in some of my stories is that of the writer’s responsibility. As horror writers, we’re obviously hoping to disturb our readers…but what if we do more than disturb? What if we inspire nightmares, or—God forbid—even crimes? Are we prepared to accept part of that responsibility? CONLON: I suspect some of us might be secretly pleased by that result, at least if the crimes in question didn’t rise above the level of misdemeanors. But I really don’t think that prose fiction inspires anyone to do anything in this age of TV and movies and the Internet, and if it does, well, so be it. My own stories are about people seeking emotional connection and love. My conscience is clear. I don’t know how writers who traffic in the gamier and more splattery sides of horror might feel about it. NEWTON: As one who has found himself elbow-deep in the gorier aspects of horror, I think the only responsibility, for any writer, is to tell a good story. The struggle isn’t about the subject matter - even the most disturbing, unsettling taboo subjects are fair game - it’s about how that subject matter is handled. That being said, I think that operating under the title of “horror writer” doesn’t give us free license to offend, degrade, demean, or provoke at will, either. You have to know your audience and be able to recognize when too much is too much. Offend the reader and they won’t be back. PRENTISS: I think most people, whether they’re horror writers or not, spend a lot of time coming up with disturbing or offensive thoughts. We all make choices about what we say aloud, or what we write down, but I believe those dark thoughts are in all of us to some extent. Which is a way of saying that I don’t think my fiction would turn people into monsters or raving lunatics —unless they had those tendencies already. However, I’m perfectly happy with inspiring nightmares now and then, and love hearing from a reader who can’t get a particular image out of his/her head. Still, I think any writer should be careful about what he or she says. I’m a high school teacher, so I’m not planning to write torture porn anytime soon (or if I did, I’d write it under a pseudonym). Same thing with interviews and blogs and message board postings. Lisa, I laughed out loud at the “f*** the s*****” label you came up with to describe some extreme horror scenarios, but I’m not spelling it out where it could show up next to my name after a Google search. MORTON: I apologize for possibly linking you to that F.T.S. thing, Norman—and, to answer my own question, I take full responsibility!


On a more serious note…I’ve always been interested in those stories of troubled—or even murderous—people (often young people) who are found in possession of favorite horror books. How would I feel if some kid on a killing rampage, for example, ended up being found with one of my stories, with passages underlined for instructional purposes? As much as I could say the kid was already psychotic and delusional, I’d still wonder if I’d been indirectly responsible for that kid’s actions. On the other hand, maybe we don’t hear about all the times that some kid turned to a book instead of a gun, so I have to believe it more than balances out. CONLON: Well, as we wind down here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that, while all four of us have various things in common—some common anthology appearances, books from the same publishers, etc.—I have a manuscript before me right now called A Sea of Alone: Poems For Alfred Hitchcock, due to be published this fall by Dark Scribe Press. It appears to have been edited by none other than myself, and the Table of Contents informs me that this book has contributions by Kurt Newton, Norman Prentiss, and Lisa Morton, among others. Kurt, you’ve got an extensive background in poetry, including two Rhysling nominations. What role does poetry play in your life—the reading of it, the writing of it? NEWTON: Wow. I happen to be working on a new collection right now for Naked Snake Press —my eighth collection and my first in over five years! So, why did I return to the shortest of short forms after swearing off poetry as a waste of time and energy, to put that time and energy into longer works of fiction instead? Not for the money (although poetry does pay a relatively high hourly rate). Not for the recognition (our niche is so small virtually no one except fellow poets know we even write poetry). Not for the girls (okay, maybe whispering sweet nothings does have its attraction). It’s got to be because I cannot NOT write poetry. It’s a disease. A sickness. A virus in my blood in the shape of words. Those little scenarios that form in my brain like miniature perfect storms just have to come out, or else they’ll continue to spin and swirl and make my life miserable. I like the rhythm of it, the challenge of creating and capturing an effective thought or feeling or vignette in so little space. It’s the HMS Victory in a bottle. It’s the Lord’s Prayer written on the head of a pin. What others see as a simple recreational exercise, I see as an enriching experience. The poetry is usually the first thing I read when I receive a new magazine. I’m always surprised by what other poets are doing with the form. The reading of it energizes me and, as if in response, seems to spur on those miniature storms that take hold in my brain. So what was I doing during that five year hiatus? Writing poetry. Sneaking away to have late night rendezvous with pencil and paper while my novel-in-progress slept blissfully unaware. I was bad, I know it now. But I can’t help myself. I’m a poet.


CONLON: Norman, I know that you have a background in Thomas Hardy, but I’m not sure how much poetry you’ve written yourself. Do you write a lot of verse? And what possessed you to write about Hitchcock? PRENTISS: I used to write poetry quite frequently, and now dabble. After my graduate work with Hardy, I attended the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and earned an M.A. in poetry writing. My thesis was titled Wishing You Ill (and Other Mean Poems) — so you might guess that a good bit of the poems had a dark edge. I’ve added to the collection and tinkered with it over the years, and I’d like to publish it as a book someday… As for Hitchcock, that collection seemed a natural fit for me. Love his movies, always want an opportunity to exercise the poetry portion of my brain. It gets my work in front of a different audience, but the other nice thing about A Sea of Alone is that it will appeal to horror and Hitchcock fans alike, even those who don’t read poetry regularly. CONLON: Am I right, Lisa, in thinking that your piece in A Sea of Alone will be your first published poem? What possessed you to try this new form? And will there be more Morton poems in the future? MORTON: Yes indeed, my first published poem. Hmmm…what possessed me to try this…well, I’ve always been kind of intimidated by poetry, quite honestly, but I’d had the experience with my dad in Bodega Bay when we’d talked about The Birds, and I thought it was something that could lend itself to poetry and fit the Hitchcock theme, so I decided to try it (and I had an extraordinarily patient and forgiving editor!). And now that I’ve realized it’s not something that’s just impossibly out of my reach, I absolutely would like to try more. CONLON: Well, okay. It would seem that we’ve gone about as far as we can go on all this right now. Our stomachs are empty and our throats are dry. Beyond my thanking you all for your sterling participation in this discussion, does anybody have any idea how to end this thing? A song? A dance? A dirty limerick? Or shall I just shut out the lights and cue the sound of crickets? MORTON: I’ve already potentially embarrassed Norman and I feel bad, so I’m going to refrain from the dirty limerick! Cue exit music…and thank you, Chris, for a great idea and for letting me take part in what’s been a fascinating experience! PRENTISS (still blushing, apparently): Really enjoyed the conversation, and think it proves that if you put four horror writers in the same virtual room, they’ll disagree on just about everything. Seriously, though, I think the point is that horror is a big field, able to accommodate a variety of tastes and approaches. If readers don’t care for one type of horror, that’s no excuse to avoid the whole genre: there’s plenty more out there. For those who don’t believe me, try reading Lisa


Morton’s fresh take on apocalyptic fiction, The Lucid Dreaming; or Kurt Newton’s amazing and heartbreaking novella Black Butterflies; or read Christopher Conlon’s fantastic noir/literary thriller Midnight on Mourn Street, or enjoy the great stories he edited in He is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson. CONLON: Or try Invisible Fences, a wonderful novella by Norman Prentiss. NEWTON: There once was a poet named Chris, / Who tried to get three horror writers to tell him what gives? / One blew nasty kisses, / While two told him to mind his own business, / Now Chris listens to crickets and that’s it! CONLON: Jesus! Cue the damned crickets and let’s get out of here!

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