In honor of the release of Christopher Golden’s Joe Golem and the Drowning City in limited edition hardcover on October 3 and Baltimore: The Play, his collaboration with Mike Mignola, on November 21, Dark Horse editor Scott Allie interviewed the award-winning author for us.
Topics covered in the interview with Golden (pictured, right) include his interpretation of the term “dark fantasy,” his upcoming project with True Blood author Charlaine Harris, vampires in our current culture, his influences, the scariest thing he’s written, and LOTS more. Check it out below, and look for more guest blogs from Scott Allie over the coming weeks.
Scott Allie: Can you explain “dark fantasy” to me?
Christopher Golden: The easy approach would be to say it’s a merger of horror and fantasy, but that’s not always true. For me, dark fantasy is fantasy in which nasty things happen. For people who’ve read my original novels, dark fantasy would be easy to recognize. In Strangewood, the characters from the fictional world created by a children’s author come out of that world and kidnap his son, leading to a pretty harrowing, weird, fantastical conflict. In The Nimble Man, which I wrote with Tom Sniegoski, a sorcerous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle leads a vampire, a shape shifter, a dwarf, a fairy warrior, a demonic teenager, and the ghost of a pulp-style hero into a battle against the supernatural. I’ve written a ton of material that I think of more as dark fantasy than horror. Dark fantasy is actually a pretty broad description that covers all kinds of stories, but it’s the one that makes sense to me to describe a lot of what I’ve done.
SA: Does Baltimore fit into the dark fantasy, then? What about Steven King’s It?
CG: I definitely think of Baltimore as horror and the same with It, but I think the argument could be made for 90 percent of what we consider horror fitting into some other category. Genre definitions are incredibly subjective to the reader and to the marketing executive. There is never just one goal for any work of art, including fiction, but with genuine horror, you tend to find that one of those goals is to unsettle the reader. That’s certainly among my goals with Baltimore.
SA: You’ve got a project with Charlaine Harris (Dead Until Dark). When you’re doing something like that, are you trying to scare the reader, or is the desired effect something else?
CG: The project is a graphic novel trilogy called Cemetery Girl, which I am writing with Charlaine, and which Don Kramer (Doctor Fate, Nightwing) is penciling and inking. It’s a paranormal mystery and also, I’d say, a bit of a teen drama. I hope it’s thrilling and intriguing, but scaring the reader is definitely not the priority in something like that. Inspiring fear is rarely my intention, though there are certainly exceptions—like Baltimore and my solo works, The Ferryman and Wildwood Road.
SA: Would vampires be what they are in the culture without Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire)?
CG: Anne Rice had an impact, absolutely. But I think it’s often overstated. Someone would have to sit down with Laurell K. Hamilton (Guilty Pleasures, Circus of the Damned) and ask her why she took her vampire stories in the direction she did. Ask Joss Whedon (“Buffy,” “Angel”) where his influences came from. Ask Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (Blood Games), who goes back to the same era as Interview with the Vampire. Charlaine Harris thinks my first novel, Of Saints and Shadows, has a pretty big influence on what’s being done with vampires in urban fantasy these days. I can’t speak to whether or not that’s true, but there are elements in there that I hadn’t seen done before then. My influences were Salem’s Lot, Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula, and the TV series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” Nancy Collins took things off in a different direction with Sunglasses After Dark. Skipp and Spector did it with The Light at the End. Charlaine did it with Dead Until Dark.
I don’t think Anne Rice necessarily needed to publish her novels for most of these things to exist. Was Interview an influence on a lot of people, and did its popularity make an impact? Absolutely. But it isn’t like we’re playing vampire fiction Jenga, and pulling out that novel would bring the whole thing tumbling down. You can go back to the mid-1800s with stuff like Marie Nizet’s Le Capitaine Vampire to find a vampire involved in a romantic drama. Paul Féval’s Vampire City and that sort of thing, also from the mid-1800s, introduced the whole secret society of vampires thing. And let’s not forget “Dark Shadows.” Barnabas Collins came before Lestat. I’m not downplaying Anne Rice’s influence—which was huge—I’m just trying to put it in perspective.
SA: I love the notion of vampire fiction Jenga… Not to fall into that, but you cite Salem’s Lot as a big influence. That’s the scariest book I’ve ever read—I’m actually rereading it now. The other two things you cite in the same breath, Tomb of Dracula and “Kolchak,” aren’t scary in my book, just good monster adventure. Was the fear-inducing quality of Salem’s Lot important to you?
CG: Actually I had a different experience with Tomb of Dracula and “Kolchak.” There were times I found both to be very scary, very unsettling. There’s a “Kolchak” episode called “Horror in the Heights,” which was written by Hammer Films stalwart Jimmy Sangster, that I found really frightening as a kid, and there were definitely others. Remember that I first watched all of those when I was about seven or eight years old. As for Salem’s Lot—I’d say the fear was a big part of it. I mean, dude, the scene when Ralphie Glick is floating outside Danny’s window pleading to be let inside… that was fucking terrifying. But just as vital—and a big part of what makes fear work in fiction—is that King’s writing brought me in close to these people, so I knew and identified with them. If you want to frighten a reader, they have to care what happens to your characters.
SA: The hero from Of Saints and Shadows, Peter Octavian, started out as a cop, didn’t he? We’re noticing a lot of overlap with law enforcement figures in the horror line this fall. Poe wrote many of the all-time best horror stories—as well as inventing the detective genre—yet, traditionally, there was some discord between the horror genre and crime. That discord has vanished, and now the two genres seem to go hand in hand. What extra fuel do you get out of horror tropes by throwing in a detective?
CG: When we first meet Octavian, he’s a private detective in Boston, so you’re not far off. Obviously he didn’t start out that way. When we meet him, he is already centuries old. This is one of the places where Tomb of Dracula most influenced me, because Octavian was significantly inspired by Hannibal King—a character from that series who was perhaps the very first vampire private eye. The only other vampire PI that came before Octavian, as far as I know, was the one in P. N. Elrod’s books, which I never encountered before writing Of Saints and Shadows and, I confess, I still haven’t read.
The answer to your question about horror and detective tropes working together is simple: murder. Detective stories take you into dark alleys where hideous things have happened. Jack the Ripper stories are almost always detective stories and horror stories as well. The two things fit very well together, and unnatural death is the glue that binds them.
SA: You wrote some Buffy and Angel comics for me a while back, and before that you’d written Buffy novels. Do these books belong in the horror section of the bookstore?
CG: Some of them are intentionally young adult novels, and some of the others are more in the vein of what’s now called “urban fantasy.” But there are two that I’d definitely rack as horror. The first hardcover I did with Nancy Holder (Dead in the Water) was called Immortal, and it’s pretty dark and gruesome. The first solo hardcover I did was Spike & Dru: Pretty Maids All in a Row, and it’s the one I’ve always gotten the best feedback about. It features Spike and Drusilla stealing the list of Slayers in waiting—what would later, on TV, be called “Potentials”—and hunting them down one by one. That one is very intentionally horrific.
SA: We were sort of going for horror with those initial Spike & Dru comics way back when, where you were paired with Ryan Sook and then Eric Powell. Is it easier going for dark when you don’t have Buffy as you did in Immortal? What was different about Immortal from your other Buffy stories?
CG: I do think it was much easier for me to write a horror story in that universe without Buffy. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it with Buffy, but it’s not easy to balance the snark with the dread and revulsion and fear that you want. I do think that Nancy and I pulled that off—to a certain degree—with Immortal, but that’s because we set out to do that very thing. Immortal was the first hardcover, and our conversations with the editor at that time indicated that it was intended to be an adult novel, so that’s what we wrote. Unfortunately the bookstores did not have any interest in putting a Buffy novel anywhere but the YA section, so for both that and the Spike & Dru novel, I tried to say as often and as publicly as possible that those books were not appropriate for young readers. They were never intended for the eleven- and twelve-year-olds who were on the young end of the readership of the earlier Buffy novels.
SA: How has the horror prose market changed since you’ve been writing professionally? Is it harder to sell a horror novel now?
CG: God, yes. First, let’s stipulate that it’s harder to sell any novel now. But horror is even more difficult. Twenty years ago when I sold my first novel, horror was already imploding as a literary genre, and though it has seemed poised for a resurgence from time to time, that’s never really happened, except with the subgenre of zombie fiction. That said, I think one positive result of this is that horror shows up in all kinds of places. We’ve got a literary marketplace in which things like Preston and Child’s Pendergast novels, Michael Koryta’s supernatural thrillers (The Cypress House), and Graham Joyce’s beautiful The Silent Land can all be published—and published well—though once upon a time they might all have been racked in the horror section. The elements of a great horror story have bled out into other genres and co-opted space there. But selling an original, straight-up horror novel to a mainstream publisher these days is a rare feat.
SA: You’re a prolific novelist and an accomplished comics writer with most of your stuff falling into the horror genre. What attracts you to the genre?
CG: Strangely enough, I think the lion’s share of my work falls on the fringes of horror, existing more comfortably in the dark fantasy or supernatural thriller genres. Most readers would probably agree. The stuff that I’ve done that I consider straight-up horror is few and far between. I mentioned some of them earlier, and you could add the four Prowlers novels to that, as well as a bunch of my YA work—including Poison Ink, Soulless, and the Waking trilogy that I wrote under the pseudonym Thomas Randall. If you look at my short stories and novellas, you’ll see a much greater prevalence of horror. I read tons of horror growing up, more than any other genre by far, so although my imagination takes me in other directions at times, the horror story—the desire to share the things that unsettle me with others and, hopefully, unsettle them as well—is never far from my heart. I’m a pretty sentimental guy, honestly, and I think that’s part of the reason I’m so attracted to horror. The more things you cherish, the more you have to lose, and though there are many facets to horror, one of the biggest is our fear of losing the people we love or the happiness we’ve achieved or the moments we hope to enjoy in the future.
SA: Do you think scary stuff works better in the short form?
CG: I think it’s easier to pull off because you don’t have to try to sustain the fear or dread you’re going for over the course of a huge number of pages. Very few people sit down and read a novel all the way through in a single sitting, so whatever atmosphere you create can’t be sustained no matter what you do. With a short story you don’t have that problem.
SA: What can you do in a comic that you can’t do in a novel?
CG: So many things. The two mediums are very different, obviously. What I love about horror comics is that you can get that moment when the reader reaches a panel or turns a page and sees what is happening. Often, in Baltimore, those moments happen without words or with dialogue that is in contrast to what’s going on in the panel. I think in a novel or short story you’re able to get under the skin of a reader a little more, to use dread more effectively, but comics have the ability to hit the reader with a visceral horror much more powerfully. There are moments in The Curse Bells, particularly when Judge Duvic tortures the young couple and when Baltimore gives communion to the vampire nun in the chapel, that I think are truly horrific. Those scenes only work because Ben Stenbeck (B.P.R.D., Witchfinder) and Dave Stewart (Hellboy, Conan) understood the intentions of those scenes and gave them hideous life.
SA: What do you think is the scariest thing you’ve ever written?
CG: There are some pretty harrowing scenes in Baltimore or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, but I don’t think there’s any question, really. The scariest thing I’ve written is The Ferryman.
SA: Talk about losing someone you love. Did you set out to write your scariest boo with The Ferryman? If so, is that why you gave your protagonist such a rough personal situation to be coming out of?
CG: My father died when I was nineteen. The twenty-fifth anniversary of his death [just occurred], and it still hurts like hell. Maybe it was that that caused it, but I reached a point where I became obsessed with death—just terrified of the idea of dying. The Ferryman was my personal therapy as I worked out my fears and my love for life. The protagonist had to be linked to death in some way that when she’s given a choice between the simplicity of death—where she could be with her dead child in the afterlife—and the struggle and pain involved in everyday life, the reader can really understand why that’s not an instant, easy choice. I will always choose life. I’ll go through all sorts of hellish days just to get to one where the sun’s shining and the waves are crashing and there’s music playing and my family is laughing. But there are people who make the other choice every day, who are in so much pain and despair that they don’t think they’ll have any of those other things again. Readers needed to understand how hard it is for her, in the end, to choose life, even a life filled with grief. The fear and the horror in The Ferryman all spring from those places—grief and isolation and loneliness and betrayal and guilt.
SA: What’s the scariest thing about Tom Sniegoski [a frequent collaborator with Golden]?
CG: Tom’s become a hermit. He rarely leaves the house. I’m fairly certain the interior of the place is strung with human entrails and all the furniture upholstered with human skin.
SA: Looking at the tradition of horror fiction, how would you place yourself on a scale from retro or classical to modern or postmodern?
CG: My greatest fortune has always been that I’ve been able to write and have published whatever weirdness I can imagine, all sorts of things that don’t fit comfortably in classifications like that. The new novella that I’ve done for St. Martin’s—which Mike Mignola (Hellboy) has illustrated and done the cover for—Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism, is definitely classical. What I’m writing now is horror in the modern supernatural fiction way. What comes after that is probably the last Peter Octavian novel, and where that falls I don’t know. Frankly, I consider it a gift that I’ve never had to consider the question.
SA: Mike Mignola loves puppets. Octavian seems like he has some roots in the old paranormal detective genre, but he’s written with a very modern sensibility.
CG: I was too young, in those days, to know there were rules and tropes that I was ignoring. I’m very happy about that.
SA: Who do you think had a bigger direct influence on your writing—Poe or Lovecraft?
CG: Interesting question. I think across the breadth of my work, I’d have to say Poe. But people probably notice the Lovecraft more because when it’s in there—like when it shows up in Joe Golem and the Drowning City (which I wrote with Mike Mignola) or even in places like Ghosts of Albion (which I wrote with Amber Benson)—it’s just so conspicuous. It’s like a flashing red sign that says “Lovecraft Influence” whenever that sort of thing appears. But overall, between the two, Poe.
SA: In what way? And what do you think modern horror fans are missing if they aren’t reading Poe?
CG: So much of Poe is more intimate, more about dread, more about guilt and hideous people than about the “other.” In Poe the “other” is often human instead of some Elder God. Obviously there are a lot of exceptions, especially in his poetry, but in things like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” it’s all about the horror in being human. And if modern horror fans are not reading Poe, they’re missing one of the most fundamental building blocks of modern fiction, not just modern horror. Poe is like Conan Doyle and Lovecraft smashed together into one pen, and that’s even before you throw in some of the creepiest, most unsettling poetry ever written.
SA: Stephen King or Peter Straub?
CG: I love Peter’s work, and some of his novels—most especially Shadowland—had a huge impact on me, but there’s no contest here. Stephen King was the narrative voice of my childhood. Reading his novels while I was growing up had a massive influence on who I became as a writer and as a reader and—honestly—as a person.
SA: What’s the best horror novel you’ve read this year?
CG: Let’s call it a draw between the absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking The Silent Land by Graham Joyce and the chilling The Cypress House by Michael Koryta.
SA: Best horror comic?
CG: That’s a tough one. Let’s handicap this a little and say “best horror comic not being published by Dark Horse” because obviously Dark Horse is publishing the best horror comics in the industry. So, beyond Dark Horse, I’d call it a draw between Joe Hill’s Locke & Key, which is creepy as hell, and Terry Moore’s intriguing, unsettling Rachel Rising.
SA: Have you read Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Fatale? It falls into similar territory with some of the stuff we’ve talked about. It feels a lot like dark fantasy but has some pretty scary stuff.
CG: I haven’t. I’ll check it out. Love Brubaker but I haven’t gotten around to this one yet.
SA: When do you think the best period for horror comics was?
CG: Nostalgically, I have to say the late Seventies and early Eighties, when Marvel was publishing Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein, Werewolf by Night, Son of Satan, Adventure into Fear, and all of those wonderful black-and-white magazines, like Tales of the Zombie, Vampire Tales, Haunt of Horror, and Dracula Lives. If I’d been born earlier, I’m sure it would have been all about Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, but for me, those old Marvel horrors were the greatest.
SA: As a horror writer, is there an advantage to setting a story in the past, like Baltimore or like Fatale?
CG: I do think it’s easier to achieve a certain unsettling atmosphere when you’re writing about the past, as long as it’s a past that’s at least somewhat familiar. Victorian England, for instance, does a lot more for a horror story as a creepy setting—London fog, carriages rattling on cobblestones, streetlamps—than, say, ancient Greece.
SA: You’re a New England boy, like me. Do you think it contributed to your interest in horror fiction?
CG: I don’t think it’s just New England, but I do think that growing up in New England with its little towns and old churches and burial grounds and, more importantly, the season changes that give us a proper fall full of autumn leaves and chilly Octobers and Halloween the way it ought to be—not to mention the literary heritage of horror in New England, with Poe, Lovecraft, and King—damn right it contributed, and still does.
SA: Assuming you get a Baltimore movie made, what will be the scariest version: the novel, the comic, or the movie?
CG: If the movie’s done very well—or very badly—it will be the scariest version for sure.
SA: Because of the direction you and the filmmakers are taking it, or because of the differences in medium?
CG: The latter. If it’s done well, a film version of Baltimore would get down into that primal place in our ancient caveman brains, that place where we’ll always be afraid of the dark and of loss, and it hurts us.
Our thanks to both Scott Allie and Christopher Golden for their time! For more info visit the official Christopher Golden website, the official Dark Horse Comics website, and click here to pre-order Baltimore: The Play from TFAW. Joe Golem and the Drowning City is available from the EvilShop so you can order it via the link below.
In Baltimore: The Play, a mad playwright puts on a Grand Guignol featuring actors that are real vampires. The evil financier of the play makes a bizarre discovery when he finds out that the playwright is a fraud and the true author is the disembodied head of a famous American author kept in a glass case.
In Joe Golem and the Drowning City, after a séance goes horribly wrong, strange men wearing gas masks and rubber suits abduct the aging psychic Orlov the Conjuror, sending his young assistant, Molly McHugh, racing through the canals of a submerged Manhattan. As Molly flees her captors through a sunken city full of scavengers, her one hope comes in the form of two strange men: Simon Church, a Victorian-era detective kept alive by clockwork gears and magic, and his assistant, Joe, whose mysterious past is hinted at in dreams of stone and witches.
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