Guest Blog: Dark Horse Editor Scott Allie Interviews Author Christopher Golden
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.