Horror Drive-In: Learning to NOT Act My Age


Learning to NOT Act My Age

I’m really not that old. Older than many readers, sure, but, hell, fifty-four is not too old these days. Anyone with at least a few years over me can roar out an accusing, “You’re just a KID!”

Fifty-four isn’t that young either. I’ve been around the block more than a few times, and I’ve been an enthusiastic genre fan for as long as I can remember. I’ve seen the trends: Indian Burial Grounds, Evil Children, Vampires, Serial Killers, Vampires, Transgressive Fiction, Zombies, Gross-out shenanigans. I’ve enjoyed all of these tropes to varying degrees. At least until they became tired cliches. And sooner or later (usually sooner) they all do.

Older readers like me tend to glamorize the past. With good reason, too.

When I first began reading horror in a serious way, it was an amazing time to be a fan. Many old masters were still publishing in great form. Writers like Ray Russell, Robert Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman, Hugh B. Cave, William F. Nolan and others were turning out some of the best writing of their careers.

The rising stars of the day included writers like Charles L. Grant, Richard Christian Matheson, Robert R. McCammon, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, F. Paul Wilson, Thomas F. Monteleone, T.M. Wright.

Stephen King proved again and again that his success was no fluke. He seemed incapable of publishing anything that was not a bestseller. Peter Straub and Dean R. Koontz were also cracking the bestseller lists.

Then, as the 1980s progressed, the genre exploded with new energy with a revolutionary approach to horror fiction. Inspired by rock and roll, midnight movies, and (yeah, for the most part), hallucinogenic materials, John Skipp and Craig Spector, David J. Schow, Ray Garton, Nancy A. Collins, Clive Barker, and others took the field by storm. Young readers (like myself) ate it up. Not everyone was as impressed. Old timers like Robert Bloch and Charles L. Grant spoke out against the excesses of the new horror.

It was an amazing time in the genre. Unprecedented and unforgettable.

And now…?

Yeah, I’m older. And truth be told, I have become kind of a hardass. I’ve lost the gosh! wow! enthusiasm of my late youth. Oh, I’m still passionate about horror, but I find myself having difficulty with a lot of newer writers. Writers who are being praised up and down by their contemporaries..

Not that there wasn’t plenty of trash being published back then. There was yards of it everywhere. It was the so-called boom, and everyone seemed to be jumping on the bandwagon. The difference was, the shitty books weren’t blurbed up and down by other writers. Oh, I know that King had a reputation for praising everything. I guess he was too nice a guy to say no. Most of the stuff from Zebra, Leisure (pre-Don D’Auria), and other iffy publishers was left to rot on the shelves.

Today there aren’t many shelves, but there are dozens, hundreds, seemingly thousands of horror books to choose from.

Which ones do I take a chance on? Whose opinion do I trust?

I hear people raving about books and writers all the time. I try to read them and I don’t see it. Not all of them, of course, but plenty enough. Is it me? Am I being too hard on things?

I see young writers cranking out books like an assembly line. The philosophy is, keep the books cranking out, or your audience will forget about you. Aren’t they likely to forget about buying your next book if the last few were not exactly spectacular?

In some ways it isn’t a lot different than the pulp days, and my love of Golden Age Science Fiction. Those guys churned out the verbiage by the metric ton. The difference is, there isn’t a John W. Campbell to kick the stories into shape. Or even a Ray Palmer.

Yeah, we have Ellen Datlow. Richard Chizmar. Thomas F. Monteleone. Don D’Auria. Stephen Jones. These individuals account for approximately one percent of the horror coming out today.

The truth is, too many of the micropresses do not even proofread the manuscripts well enough. Typos abound.

Then there are writers lined up trying to give their work away for nothing, or next to nothing. I realize that my brain is still locked into older ways of publishing, but if a writer puts little value on his or her own work, I have trouble caring enough to invest even my time on it.

It’s like the famous Harlan Ellison “Pay the Writer” rant. In it, he expounds about how the fucking amateurs are making in hard for the pros.

Yeah, I know. Ellison isn’t exactly up with modern methods of publishing either.

I’ve ranted, raved, and wept over how the entire landscape is all messed up. I miss smaller, digest-sized paperbacks. I like browsing in bookstores. I do not and don’t intend to buy an e-reader anytime soon. Let’s see you read your ebooks after an electromagnetic pulse attack.

It also does not help when I see writers on Facebook antagonizing and attempting to shame those who hold different perspectives on politics than they have. It gets downright embarrassing.

Is today’s climate really all that bad?

Eh, probably not. Different, sure, and I do miss the days of publishing yore. Change is, however, inevitable, and we can either get onboard or get swept under the rug like motes of dust.

On the other hand, we do not have to swallow, and pretend to enjoy, everything about this age of plastic publishing.

Of course it’s not all bad. There is a veritable tsunami of writers out there attempting to break into publishing. Not just in the horror field, but everywhere. One thing has not changed: a small percent will be worthy of your time and money.

I’m trying to stave off old fogeydom. Trying hard to keep, or perhaps return, to having a fresh perspective on the state of the genre. Not every writer is going to be a Straub or a Thomas Tessier. The Kindle is today’s version of the paperback original. It’s a new decade, a new generation. Writing, publishing, the entire approach of horror is not the same as the 70s and 80s.

Better? Worse? That, of course, is up to individual perception. From mine there are pros and cons…

We have Samhain Publishing, which is putting out affordable books by established writers as well as newer talent. Robert McCammon is cranking out some of the best work of his career at Subterranean Press. Stephen King is on a red-hot roll. Legends like Thomas F. Monteleoene, F. Paul Wilson, Ramsey Campbell, are still with us, still writing. My favorite new writer of the past decade, Daniel Kraus, is putting out an astonishing book called The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch this October. Read it!

On the other hand we have thirty dollar (or more!) paperbacks, dreadful art that makes the worst of the 80s covers look like Van Gogh, high end deluxe editions that should by all rights be cheap paperback originals, and the zombie plague still shows no sign of negation.

Me, I’m going to try to be more forgiving. Some would urge me to employ more critical thinking toward the books I read, but I’d rather enjoy a piece of fiction, even if it is merely average, than go into it with the intention of ripping it apart. My love of all things horror stems from my childhood, and it is integral to keeping that inner child alive.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at [email protected], and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

6 thoughts on “Horror Drive-In: Learning to NOT Act My Age”

  1. Great article, but I always disagree with the point people make about writers who price their stuff cheap, saying they don’t “value” their work. I have a few self-pubbed things I put out for only .99 cents because I like making it accessible to as many people as possible. Truth is I don’t judge the “worth” or “value” of my work on how much I sell it for, but how much I enjoy what I have written and how much those who read it enjoy it. Doesn’t mean I don’t think a writer shouldn’t charge more, but I don’t like being judged because I chose to make mine cheaper. That’s just my view.

  2. I love this piece, Mark, more than anything of late I’ve read about the Horror genre. I worked with the late, much lamented, Dave Silva and THE HORROR SHOW magazine for 5 years, and published interviews with nearly all the writers you mentioned. My take on the state of the genre mirrors yours. Thanks for helping me (age 57) not feel so alone. Very best to you—Bill Grabowski

  3. And talking of typos… Your last paragraph is unclear:

    ‘Me, I’m going to try to be more forgiving. Some would urge me to employ more critical thinking toward the books I read, but I’d rather enjoy a piece of fiction, even if it is merely average, then go into it with the intention of ripping it apart. My love of all things horror stems from my childhood, and it is integral to keeping that inner child alive.’

    Do you mean ‘then’ in the last phrase of the second sentence or ‘than’? Which of the two you intend rather changes the meaning… (Which rather underlines the need for decent proofreading, one of my pet peeves – oh, I can give you 12 years, you young whippersnapper.)

      1. That’s much clearer! (My middle in initial, P, might as well stand for ‘Pedant’, possibly appropriate for a former teacher… even if not of English. I am too often annoyed by typos and incorrect use of words.)

        Thanks for replying. I meant to say how much I’ve been enjoying your columns – well worth the subscription alone.

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