Spector, Craig (Screenwriting, Splatterpunk, and More)
Back in the mid-80s, horror fiction had become more than a little complacent. In most people’s minds, what passed for cutting edge genre fiction was the work of word generators such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or Anne Rice. It was all spooky kids, rabid pets, daddy issues, and whiny, homo-erotic vampires.
By and large that was fine, but it is important to remember that the punk music scene had landed with both feet on the next of the public zeitgeist and stories of such archetypical monsters and mayhem didn't resonate with readers like they once did. The public had a new attitude and wanted a new breed of monsters to go with it...ones that better fit in line with their new nihilistic outlook.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere and to everybody’s surprise, came a group of young iconoclasts like Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Jack Ketchum, Joe R. Lansdale, Richard Laymon, Richard Christian Matheson, Robert McCammon, David J. Schow, John Skipp, and Craig Spector. These were brash writers who, while schooled in the conventions of the genre, had embraced the underground punk scene and were all-too-willing to quite literally kick down the door of the horror fiction status quo.
One of the novels that helped define this new style of writing - dubbed "Splatterpunk" by the media - was John Skipp and Craig Spector's THE LIGHT AT THE END. A vampire novel which, by Joss Whedon’s own admission, was the inspiration for the Spike character in "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER", came to define what the modern vampire was in most readers’ – especially young readers’ - minds.
What followed for LIGHT’s authors was a series of collaborations: a novelization of the Tom Holland script for the film FRIGHT NIGHT, THE CLEANUP, THE SCREAM, DEAD LINES, BOOK OF THE DEAD & STILL DEAD: BOOK OF THE DEAD 2 (which they edited), THE BRIDGE, and ANIMALS. These books, with their leather and jackboot esthetic and an outlook that was more rock-n-roll than classic Gothic literature, took the market by storm and made an impact on the genre that is still being felt today.
In 1993, Skipp and Spector parted ways as a collaborative entity, each going on to write several successful and equally influential novels.
Craig Spector wrote TO BURY THE DEAD (aka A QUESTION OF WILL) in 2000 and UNDERGROUND in 2005. In 2008, Spector worked extensively on an adaptation of his and Skipp’s book, ANIMALS. The film, after suffering from some Post Production woes (more on that in a second…) went on to play extensively on VOD and is currently available on DVD.
This past Halloween, Crossroad Press has released (or rather re-released) the first of Spector’s works – THE LIGHT AT THE END - in eBook format, the first of many projects that bring seminal horror fiction to the modern digital age and a more techno-savvy audience. THE LIGHT AT THE END is the modern antidote for “Twilight burnout” in that it returns the vampire to its rightful place in the horror pantheon – that of the blood-thirsty killer.
Dread Central recently sat down with Craig Spector and talked a bit about his writing, the first film made of his work, and his triumphant return to the horror fiction limelight.
Dread Central: Were you, as a kid, someone who was always into horror?
Craig Spector: From before birth, I think. I was a twin. One of us died in the womb. The other one made it out. My mom told me that when I was eight; my response was, how do you know it was me that survived? Maybe the other one did and I’m just pretending to be me. My earliest drawings – from age 2 or 3 – were of skeletons, monsters, blood. I was an odd child. Now I’m an odd adult. But professional about it.
DC: Did you do the whole college thing? How did you know you wanted to write?
CS: I did the art school thing at the Atlanta College of Art, which convinced me that I didn’t want to be an artist. Funny though, I was just down there working with Phil Nutman (WET WORK, the screenplay for Jack Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR) on a new script project and I got to be a zombie in the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse 2010, which you can see pics of on my FB page and was more fun than I can possibly explain. I don’t know if it’s something in the water, a mass influx migration of weirdos, or both, but Atlanta is gotten damned cool since I lived there 30 years ago. My nickname for it now is ALTlanta.
Then I did the music thing – got into the Berklee College of Music with no formal musical education, did the four year program in three years and graduated with honors at 22, and absolutely loved it. Thought I knew exactly what I was going to my life. Then in my last semester I got this weird idea about a punk vampire lurking in the subways of NYC… and that became THE LIGHT AT THE END.
DC: What was your first professional sale?
CS: Um, THE LIGHT AT THE END. I had absolutely no plans on becoming a writer, like, ever. I partnered with John on it because we’d been best friends in high school, we loved the same sick stuff, and he was in NYC trying to break in as a writer. To me at the time it was a one-off – just a cool story, maybe sell it and make some money. But when Bantam bought it they wanted more from us, and so the 2nd incarnation of “Skipp & Spector” was born.
DC: You’ve always been know as both a writer and a musician. Does one discipline inform the other?
CS: For me, completely. When I collaborate I liken it very much to jamming in a band, trading licks and riffs and building arrangements in composition. But even working solo, I hear the beat of the story in my head, like a private soundtrack. I’m also a practiced and admitted abuser of the English language – my theory is, abuse of language is 9/10ths of style. Of voice. So mangled slanguage and skewed syntax are kind of part of the fun for me. But I also listen for the sheer sonorance of the words – the way the vowels and consonants bounce off each other. I also look at the words on the page visually in terms of positive and negative space. Like a Rorschach. So I guess in a way, all of the things I’ve studied, all of the various disciplines… including things like marital arts (Taekwondo, Kenpo)… they all come into play at some point. They all inform and feed the mix. Because the mediums change, but the message is always… storytelling.
DC: Where did you and John Skipp meet?
CS: We met as little refugee weirdo teenaged delinquents at a private school -- York Country Day School in York PA – after having quit our respective public school systems, much to the horror of our families. I was fresh up from Virginia Beach, VA; John had come from Washington DC and Brazil, I believe. It was 1972, we met in the junior/senior SMOKING LOUNGE. King Crimson was playing on the stereo. It was a kinder, gentler time. The only “helicopter parents” were guys in Vietnam who had kids.
DC: You guys, along with writers like David Schow, were considered founding fathers of the whole “Splatterpunk” literary movement. Did that label ever become limiting?
CS: For me, after a while, hell yes. I mean don’t get me wrong, I loved the Splatterpunk thing… at first. It was fun. Then it became, not fun. Then I withdrew from the scene almost entirely, and it shambled off to have a life of its own. Like Frankenstein’s monster rampaging the countryside. All that’s missing is the peasants with torches, but there were a few of those around at the time. We called them “critics.”
We hit the scene in the big horror boom of the mid-80s and just kinda of kicked the door in, swaggered in, and crashed the party. And none of us – Schow, Barker, Matheson, etc. – even knew each other at the time. We met as it was happening and all became friends. It was just cool to see all this fresh new work that felt kinda, kindred. Like a flash in the zeitgeist or something. It was never a “movement” per se. It was a spontaneous occurrence in the culture, that became very marketable and fashionable for a brief while, and then got all the fun sucked out of it by idiots.
DC: Tell me a little about where THE LIGHT AT THE END came from.
CS: It started somewhere in my twisted brainpan and migrated over to John’s. One of my favorite vampire movies, which I saw when I was eight, all by myself in a movie theater in Norfolk VA, was Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. Just blew me away – funny, scary, very twisted for its time and an eight year old’s mind.
So flash forward 14 years, and there I am in Boston, riding the T with my girlfriend over the Charles River Bridge, on our way from Boston to Harvard Square to see a feel good double feature of The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver – you know, five hours or so of light, family entertainment. We were in the last car, it was packed, and I was watching the train exit the tunnel up over the bridge. I turned to my girlfriend and said, what if there was a vampire in the subways?
She looked at me like, uh-huhhh? But I explained – instantly transposing it to NYC – 1) if he was a native born New Yorker, he wouldn’t need a coffin, because in the subways he’s perpetually buried in his native soil. 2) it’s always night in the subways, so he can kill 24 hours a day and no one will think “vampire”, they’ll think “serial killer.” 3) if he’s really nasty about it and just tears his victims apart, they’ll DEFINITELY think “Subway Psycho.” And…… 4) if he’s a punk, he already looks like he’s dead, so no one will notice the transformation!
My girlfriend went, uh-huhhhhh…. And that was it, until we got back from the movies that night, and I immediately called Skipp, who had recently sold two short stories to Twilight Zone magazine. I told him dude, I got this great idea for a vampire story, let’s write it sell it to Twilight Zone, make a couple of hundred bucks, it’ll be fun.
John’s first reaction, as I recall, was, I’m busy. But I kept bugging him relentlessly, and I think he finally agreed just to get me out of his face. And it kind of went from there…
DC: Describe your writing process.
CS: Um, weird. I scan constantly, like an inner radar patrolling the zeitgeist, looking for a ping. Sometimes I find it and hone in on it. Sometimes it fucking blindsides me, like, BOOM. My newest novel, TURNAROUND, hit me while I was at a taco stand in LA. It was like, a flash going off in a room full of stuff, and I could see everything in the room…. Then the flash faded, I was in the dark, feeling my way through by Braille. But I knew what was in there. I knew the title. I knew the whole fucking story. I called my longtime editor and friend in NYC, Patrick LoBrutto, and told him. He thought for a moment, and said, I think that’s the best idea you’ve ever had.
Coming from Pat, that’s meaningful. I started working on it immediately – outline, book and screenplay. And it’s not horror per se, it’s Meta -- a twisted dark comic meta-thriller love story set in Hollywood. But there I go, breaking the rules again. Fuck, I’ll never learn to behave.
After I scope lock an idea I start beating it out, kind of the aerial view, and flesh out the outline, coming closer to earth as I go, until I’ve got it completely beaten out and I’m on the ground. Then I go on the journey and write. For me, the writing part has never been that hard – I pretty much write as I speak, and anyone who knows me knows how hard it is to get me to just shut the fuck up. It’s the seeing it clearly that takes the time. That’s a very inner mental emotional process, and a discipline. But then, I’m a professional weirdo. I turned my personality defects into career skills.
DC: Describe your collaboration process.
CS: Different with everyone, but the same. It’s very musical, like a jam session. We trade ideas, trade licks, make sure we’re tuned to the same key and frequency, and then write: strategically, sequentially. Phil Nutman and I just finished a new script and we worked together beautifully, I think – we’d walk his dog Max in the morning and discuss the day’s scenes, who’s doing what, etc. Then we’d go to it.
The ONE word which is a guaranteed collaboration killer? MINE. If that four letter words pops up, pack it in, you’re done, project’s dead. Ego is the great killer of collaborations. When Skipp & Spector was at its peak, John and I came up with a term: coopetition. We’d cooperate and compete, to jack up the octane, to crank it up higher. The only thing that mattered – to me, anyway – was, the best idea wins.
DC: Will we see more solo projects like TO BURY THE DEAD or are you more interested in collaborations?
CS: You’ll see more of both. I like doing both. They both have value. Phil and I are planning another one as of this interview, based off one of his books (the last one was based off one of mine); Whitley Strieber and I have THE NYE INCIDENTS and another screenplay, THERAPIST, adapted from The Cave by Anne Streiber; David Niall Willson (Deep Blue, Crossroad Press) and I are working on a new project based off one of my ideas that I’ve been kicking at for years: I have an indie horror film project in the works in NYC with my old friend Kimbra Eberly and her partner Kenneth Graham called ANGLE CIRCLE, which might end up being my first shot at directing; Michael Kallio, John Vulich and I have teamed up on my new script for THE LIGHT AT THE END; and my new love and partner in Art, Lexia Marie, have started something called LexSpex Studios, which is based out of Germany and covers visual arts but we’re now collaborating on short fiction; I also have my solo novel and screenplay, TURNAROUND, as discussed, and plans for three more solo novel/movie projects and music projects. My eCD of solo music covering from @1989-2010, spector: so lo, is coming out online in time for Christmas (GREAT virtual stocking stuffer kids!)… and yeah, some other shit that’s to early to talk about.
Oh, and my Cult. I want a Cult. That’ll take a little time, though I am currently in the market, buying the souls of atheists – hey, they don’t believe they even HAVE one, so… free money!!
DC: Given that THE LIGHT AT THE END pretty much redefined the modern vampire myth and the BOOK OF THE DEAD series brought zombies to the national consciousness, do you feel your place in the horror pantheon? I mean, are you comfortable with your legacy?
CS: Yes and no. I’m kind of “elder statesman” status now, which on the one hand is really weird to be considered “elder” anything, but is kind of cool. Still, I want more. Everything to date covers the first 25 years or so, and I still feel like my best work is ahead of me. I’m just getting fucking STARTED. Strap in kids. This might get… bumpy.
DC: How did you make the jump from fiction to screenwriting?
CS: For me, it wasn’t a jump. It was planned from Day One, once I decided to do this for real. Books. Movies. Music. I got my first film break on a recommendation from Clive Barker, a rewrite on an utterly silly film about killer robot teachers in high schools of the future controlled by gangs. That was my Hollywood boot camp – they flew John and I in and locked us up for six weeks in the Beverly Hilton hotel, in adjoining suites. We didn’t get credited but we were well paid, and it qualified me for Writer’s Guild Membership – I’ve been WGA West since 1988.
It was funny though – it was during the strike of ’88 and Harlan Ellison got word that we were writing -- a BIG no no, can get you banned for life from the Guild. He called John’s suite and I walk in and John’s holding the phone away from his ear and it looks like all the blood has drained out of him – Harlan’s on the other end, screaming at us, offering to hide us at his house and plead mercy for us to the Guild. I was like, what the fuck? The first question I asked my agents when they called us on this was is it legal per WGA rules?
We ended up going up to Harlan’s house – he was just pounding us for being so stupid, finally I had the phone and I looked at him and said Harlan I love you but would you please shut the fuck up for five seconds so I can make a call and straighten this out?? A series of phone calls were made. It came back – yes, because of a loophole, we were technically legally allowed to be working during the strike. I told Harlan and he instantly downshifted, like, hell, why didn’t you say so?? Then we had lunch. Pretty fucking funny. I love Harlan.
DC: You were involved with the production of your book ANIMALS into a film. What was that experience like?
CS: In all, it was a great experience – I really enjoy working with Barry Rosenbush and Bill Borden, the producers. We worked together before on the film adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s The Tomb into REPAIRMAN JACK, which to this day some 11 years later is still threatening to go into production. I was the 1st writer on the project and worked on it for 26 months – yup, over two years. They’ve gone through a number of other writers since, but last I heard the story turned so many corners it kind of came full circle, closer back to my original drafts, which were very faithful to the book, and from what Paul told me, his personal favorites. I hope it gets made – I want my production bonus [laughs].
With ANIMALS, Barry approached me back in 2005 – he’d always wanted to do the book as a movie since he first read it, ten years before. We had lunch in a Chinatown restaurant and started to work on it. It took almost three years to get it into production, but it got made. And then the WGA strike hit and the post production nightmares ensued.
DC: Were you happy with the way that film came out? Would you ever want to see another attempt at doing it?
CS: Interesting question – I say yes, and no. The Movie that’s currently out is not the script I wrote or even the movie we shot – it’s something else. I saw the 1st cut two weeks before the strike of ‘08-’09. The director’s vision was evident and kind of surprising – sort of Guy Ritchie meets Robert Rodriguez. I liked it, but even off a work print it was obvious he kind of shot his wad fiddling with Act One, and the producers were not happy.
Then the strike hits – 100 days of radio silence. Then it’s over and they call me back in for some “light” ADR and VO work. They’re on CUT #5. I’m watching it and thinking, what the fuck did you guys do to my movie???? I asked, where’s Doug (the director)? They said, he’s gone, we fired him.
So… we, being the producers, the new editor, and me, are left with a giant mess to clean up. When Doug left he took his vision with him, and apparently his vision included not shooting anything he knew he wouldn’t need, so… there’s not enough coverage. We’re running out of time, the production is running out of budget, it’s a catastrophe in the making.
I worked my ass off, with the producers and the editor, to save the thing. I mean, when you’re a writer you have very little say or command authority once the script leaves development – in production and post, you’re lucky to even be there at all. The 1st cut work print had the proprietary credit – “A film by” – tacked onto it. By the end the director took his name off. That describes a pretty fucking steep fall from grace.
But, we got it done. I got paid. It got made. But NOW, I want something else…..
A few months back I approached the producers with an idea: based off a well established precedent but yet to my knowledge has never been done before. Essentially: ANIMALS: The Writer’s Cut.
I explained to them that if they give me the following: access to the editor and x many weeks, plus the exact same good faith command authority a director gets in post, and I will deliver unto them the following things:
1) A brand new version of the movie, with no reshoots and @ 20-25 minutes of lost footage restored, to sell side by side with the current release.
2) Press. This has never been done before. Who on earth in their right mind would give A WRITER that kind of control?? Except, they know I can do it.
3) Franchiseability. The book screamed it. The original script screamed it. The scenes that were actually shot scream it. But the franchise got lost in the mix. I will bring it back. Sequels. I already have the next story ready.
So I posed this to them. They have not yet said “no” – at least, not a “hard” no. The hardest thing is to convince business people to sink more money – and it would take a bit – into a project that’s already out and not performing to expectation. I understand that. But…. I’m relentless, and Barry knows it. He is too, by the way – one of the things I love about him. He never gives up. Neither do I.
And there’s no expiration date on the idea, now, is there? [laughs]
DC: What do you think of the present state of the horror genre?
CS: Actually I think it’s pretty exciting. It’s a brutal time, a perilous time, in the arts…. But since the same multi-national corporate overlords who rule us all are running the show, that’s true all over, in every sector of the economy and society, and worldwide. But it’s also the Wild West, in terms of the digital revolution. And amazing things are being created. And the future is as yet unwritten, expect perhaps by some ultra rich wankers who plan on living off one of those man-made islands off the coast of Dubai as the world’s population reduces a nice healthy 65% or so… oh but wait, didn’t Dubai just go BROKE? Ah, another brilliant plan, with one small flaw.
So I’m excited. I’m working on projects from studio level to pure ultra indie, and it’s ALL good. It’s just Darwin time, kids. Adapt or perish.
DC: Which of your books would you most like to see made into a film?
CS: All of them. All. Of. Them. And they will be. Eventually. Did I mention, I’m relentless?
DC: Tell me about your relationship with Crossroads Press.
CS: So far so good. David Niall Wilson approached me several months back with the proposal; we’ve been working pretty closely together and I have nothing but good things to say about working with Crossroad – they’re smart, fast, skilled, not weasels, and a pleasure to work with.
DC: Tell me a little about THE LIGHT AT THE END being reissued.
CS: It’s the 25th anniversary of the LIGHT’s first publication by Bantam, and I think the perfect time to introduce it to a new generation, in a new digital age….as well as my own increasingly crusty and decrepit one, who still by the way have a fucking pulse.
Beyond that, here’s a great link to the LIGHT press release .
Or, friend me on Facebook, and my FB page will keep you posted. But whichever way you choose to go, Rudy’s back and nastier than ever. The nastiest of vampires are back in the subways and crawling the mean streets of Manhattan, and now they’re all through the internet. Go to Amazon, iTunes, wherever fine family entertainment is sold. If you’re the Manson family.
DC: Will they be doing other releases of your material?
CS: Yes, and audio book versions. Next up is my 1st solo novel, TO BURY THE DEAD, in its 10th anniversary E edition, but under its original title, A QUESTION OF WILL. That’s coming out later this month. Then ANIMALS, and the other Skipp & Spector backlist titles.
DC: So, given all of this… What’s next on your plate?
Basically, I’m around. I’m kind of doing my own “Kerouac with Wi-Fi” thing right now – on the road, traveling the states and heading for Europe. Going global for a while. But you can find me. And if you’re nice, I’ll say hi back.
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