Horror Drive-In: Reflections of a Sixty-Year-Old Horror Fan

banner reading Horror Drive-In and Mark Sieber and Cemetery Dance

We all have our number of days in this world. Stick around long enough and you become the old guy. I certainly miss being young, but I could not be happier about the time of my life in the horror genre.

I have experienced every aspect of horror. The Monster Boom was going strong in my youth, and the old Universal horror movies would play on local TV channels all the time. There were monster magazines on the shelves, monster breakfast cereals, monster novelty songs, monster sitcoms.

In addition to the Universal classics I would also see lower budget horror movies, atomic mutation horror from the fifties, and there were those marvelous ABC Movies of the Week. Hammer horror would sometimes show, but you’d usually have to stay up late to see them, and some of the racy bits would squeak by the censors.

I vaguely remember The Twilight Zone from its original run. I was too young to really watch it in those days, but I caught up with every episode later on. I managed to see Night Gallery now and then, and it scared the hell out of me.

Nothing, nothing, scared me more than watching Carl Kolchak stalk a vicious vampire on the groundbreaking TV movie, The Night Stalker. I loved the subsequent weekly series too, even while I was well aware the show was preposterous.

old ad for Kolchak the Night Stalker

The first horror book I read was Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, in a Scholastic Books edition. The other boys were mostly getting books about sports, history, or maybe astronauts. I had no interest in that stuff at all. I wanted bone-chilling horror.

Books and reading came to define me as a person. Horror fiction was difficult to come by in my youth, and as someone who always loved imagination, science fiction became my default genre. I still love a lot of older SF, but I gravitated toward the darker stories. Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Fredric Brown, Manly Wade Wellman, Henry Kuttner, Frank Belknap Long, and of course Ray Bradbury were all considered part of the worlds of science fiction, but these guys and others also broke ground in horror.

I grew older if not wiser, and in the 1970s horror began to grow in popularity. Horror novels like The Others, Harvest Home, Rosemary’s Baby, Burnt Offerings, The Exorcist, and Jaws made the bestseller’s list. James Herbert had a big hit with a novel called The Rats, and Stephen King published a little novel that went a long way called Carrie. Both of these gentlemen followed their successful debuts with more bestsellers, and suddenly horror became a viable and lucrative genre.

I am just old enough to have experienced the last gasp of the great exploitation movie wave that began in the ’60s and died down in the early ’80s. In my late, hard-partying youth I went to the drive-in often, marveling over movies like The Boogey Man, Galaxy of Terror, The Beast Within, Zombie, The Gates of Hell, and Motel Hell. The Evil Dead was a movie that, to me, served as a gateway from one era to another.

poster of Evil Dead

By the time the ’80s hit, a new kind of horror was emerging, jumpstarted by special effects-heavy classics like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and The Thing. These influential productions led to a decade of fun movies that often combined humor with horror and usually employed at least one makeup effects lab.

Then there were the slasher movies, which remain nearest and dearest to my heart. I saw Halloween at a walk-in theater when it was first released. I immediately knew I was in the presence of a groundbreaking classic. I had no idea at the time how many imitators would follow. Friday the 13th, which came a year after John Carpenter’s stylish Halloween, was successful enough to warrant a plethora of similar slasher opuses. Honestly, most of them aren’t particularly good, but I love them all.

Home video changed the face of cinema forever, and I remember the days when VCRs were so expensive people would rent players for a night of movies. Friends of mine began to buy VCRs, and I finally was able to afford my own in 1986. My first video cassette recorder was a cheapshit Goldstar I got for $199.00. No small investment for me in those days. It was pretty clunky, but I got more than my money’s worth.

With my new VCR and an Erol’s Video membership card I was able to catch up to almost all the older movies that had eluded me over the years. Fangoria was my bible, and I began reading about European directors like Dario Argento, Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Amando de Ossorio. I tracked down murky, poorly cut tapes of the films of these and other filmmakers. The fun was in the chase.

Meanwhile I always read. I witnessed horror fiction becoming steadily more popular. The big dogs were and always will be King and Straub, but others were following suit. The late ’70s and early ’80s saw the rise of Charles L. Grant, Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D. Klein, F. Paul Wilson, Thomas F. Monteleone, and many others.

By the mid-’80s a new style of horror fiction broke the barriers of publishing constraints. It started for me with john Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End. Hard-hitting fiction that utilized the attitude of punk rock, hard metal, and midnight movie madness. A joking term, Splatterpunk, was created for the kind of work David J. Schow, Ray Garton, Richard Christian Matheson, and Skipp and Spector were writing.

This was the heart of the big horror boom. There were movies being released nearly every week. I saw as many as I could. The home video market was on fire and stores couldn’t keep enough product on the shelves. A lot of productions were made solely for distribution on videocassette.

This was also the era of the first gorehounds. I proudly considered myself among the group. Fangoria was an invaluable resource, but true fans who wanted to go further sought out independently published zines. None were better than Chas. Balun’s balls-to-the-wall Deep Red.

Things could not be going better for horror lovers. Movies, books, magazines, it was all there. When a situation looks so great, there’s usually nowhere to go but down. By the time the nineties rolled around many people had gotten over the novelty of home video. They still loved movies, but the smaller movies weren’t as successful. The stuff was being cranked out in assembly line fashion and I was weary of cheap-ass horror. Freddy and Jason movies were not bringing in the big numbers anymore. Paperback original books dropped off. Horror magazines suffered. The Twilight Zone Magazine, my favorite of them all, folded.

Horror didn’t die. That will never happen, but the easy years were over. Some continued to flourish. Stephen King, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker still sold a lot of books. Bentley Little created a nice little niche for himself. Dell/Abyss revolutionized the genre again.

cover of Cemetery Dance #1Something else began to brew below the surface of the publishing world. Richard Chizmar created Cemetery Dance as a magazine and a line of deluxe books conceived for the collector’s market. Subterranean Press followed suit, along with Gauntlet and other outlets that came and went. Small Press publishing wasn’t new to horror. It went back at least to 1939 when August Derleth and Donald Wandrei created Arkham House with the express purpose of getting H. P. Lovecraft fiction in lasting editions. The ’80s saw companies like Dark Harvest and Scream Press doing lovely editions of the best in the genre. Karl Edward Wagner and David Drake started Carcosa Press even earlier than that. But Cemetery Dance, as I see it, was the birth of the small horror press as we know it today.

The cinema landscape was fairly barren of horror for most of the ’90s, but Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson jump-started a new revival with their Scream series of films. Loved by millions, loathed by thousands, Scream was a self-aware, near parody of slasher movies. It worked as a pastiche of the subgenre, but was also strikingly original.

The ’90s were a strange time for me. I was working nonstop, drinking a lot, and I spent a lot of time by myself. I didn’t really mind it. I read voraciously and my love of the movies was never stronger. I watched everything from the mainstream to the underground.

Modern extreme horror fiction emerged in the nineties. There were precedents, of course. Richard Laymon’s The Cellar and other works, Jack Ketchum’s soul-freezing The Girl Next Door, as well as books by James Herbert and Shaun Hutson. Necro Publications was born in 1993 and were, I believe, the first publisher to specialize in extreme horror. An early customer, I had single-numbered editions of Header, Goon, and The Bighead.

My love of extreme horror was fairly short-lived. My taste for it mostly died after reading Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse. I loved it, and I still don’t think it has ever really been topped. Nor do I think it needed to be.

DVD was a huge leap for movie lovers. I bought my first player earlier than most, in 1998. Now fans were able to find uncut, pristine copies of films by Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, and other European horror directors. I bought hundreds of DVDs and when hard times hit, I sold almost all of them. That first player, as well as dozens of movies, were stolen in a house break-in around 2001.

By the turn of the century almost everyone had internet access, and fandom was never the same. I saw incredible success as a forum moderator and I made the best friends of my life in the process. I also began attending horror conventions.

The small press caught fire in the early two-thousands, and for a few years Shocklines was the hub of it all. Shocklines was the biggest and baddest message board of them all, and it was also an online bookstore. A kind of fever spread among fans, and people were buying small press publications like there was no tomorrow. I bought way, way, too many myself, and I found that I was buying a lot of things I did not like, or in many cases never even bothered to read. We bought books by friends, by friends of friends, by nice guys on the boards.

Horror movies became red hot once again. Critics of the era referred to films like Hostel, Saw, The Collector, The Hills Have Eyes (remake), The House of 1,000 Corpses, The Human Centipede, Wolf Creek, High Tension, Inside, and Captivity as “Torture Porn.” I liked a few of these productions, such as Hostel, Inside, and High Tension, but around this time I began to lose my enthusiasm for buckets of gore for gore’s sake.

I created Horror Drive-In in 2006. It was a place for my message boards and for my own writing. It was very successful during its first few years.

Social Media was rearing its ugly head since the internet began, but by the 2010s it had taken over everything. The message boards began to die off. With no authoritative control people became more combative and narcissistic. They boasted of supporting the genre, but many seemed to be promoting themselves more than books.

Amazon unleashed its Kindle reading tablet, and book distribution changed forever. Bookstores closed doors. Newspapers and magazines, already in dire straights, became endangered species.

Netflix, once an online movie rental company, revolutionized digital streaming. Amazon, iTunes, Apple, You Tube, and other corporations rapidly drove the video stores out of existence.

It’s shocking how quickly such a massive industry went bankrupt. Physical media isn’t dead, and it probably never will be, but it became much less pervasive. With everything coming in through various gadgets, there was no need to travel to a video store. No need to fill homes with books, music, and movie collections.

I had been incredibly busy with message boards, reviewing and writing commentaries, and watching and reading horror. I had a long decade of it, and while I never really quit, I took a hiatus. For a couple of years I reviewed very little, and the message boards dwindled away.

I emerged from my sabbatical to a new world of Bookstagram, Book Tube, and hundreds, thousands, millions of new writers. If you believed the scuttlebut they all were brilliant, wonderful, five-star wunderkinds. The whole indie scene became one big slush pile I quickly grew tired of wading through.

I returned to reviewing with a vengeance. I certainly did not like everything I read, and that didn’t win me any popularity contests. The worst part is how my inbox exploded with writers asking for reviews. Endless inquiries overwhelmed me. My time is severely limited and I couldn’t even keep up with politely declining most of them. This is why I didn’t bug many people for reviews when my own book came out. There’s way, way, way, too much product out there.

I became interested in collecting my reviews and commentaries into a big nonfiction collection. A vanity piece? Absolutely, but enough people have told me that they enjoy what I do for me to think I could at least break even with the project. I began culling my best material and editing it up for a book. A conversation with editor Norman Prentiss at StokerCon 2019 led to Cemetery Dance Publications doing the book as a trade paperback and an electronic edition. My long history as a columnist and friend of CD made it a natural home for my book. The insanely talented Lynne Hansen outdid herself with the cover art.

cover of He Who Types Between the Rows by Mark SieberHe Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In was published in the summer of 2019, and I premiered the book at Scares That Care that year.

At that time I had worn many hats in the horror field: Message board moderator, website owner, reviewer, essayist, editor, and even author. In 2019 I added bookseller to my list of accomplishments. I’ve always loved books and sharing them with people, so it seemed like a natural progression. Plus I would bemoan the lack of book dealers at conventions. Authors, publishers, sure, and they are vital to the scene, but I felt that a vendor who sells older books would be a great service to the community.

I frequent thrift stores and library sales, and I began to obtain all the older horror titles I could find. My strategy from the start was to sell cheaply and hope for more sales that way. If I get a book for a dollar, I’d ask two for it. A little more for especially choice items.

My first year as a bookseller was an enormous success. I sold hundreds of books and came home with a lot of money. However, if anyone thinks I am getting rich off of it, they are sadly mistaken. Most of the books I bought for myself to read are sold at a large loss. The meager profit I make from used books is nice, but I am honestly lucky if I break even by the end. I am happy with that. I never had a better time at a con than Scares That Care 2019. Selling books, talking books with other fans, seeing people light up when they find something special. I’d pay for the experience.

Now here we are in 2021. I turn sixty years old on June 28th. I still don’t see how that happened. While my body feels my age, inside I still feel like the little kid I was who huddled under a blanket, too scared to see the face of the Wolfman.

We’ve been through a global pandemic. Instead of banding together it seems to have driven us further apart. Horror is big. Bigger than I’ve ever seen it. A lot of today’s product doesn’t suit me. I am sick of the novella form for fiction. I don’t watch a lot of movies anymore. Fangoria, a magazine I once lived for, leaves me cold. I let my subscription lapse.

I still read. I damned sure don’t like everything that is popular with current audiences, but great fiction is being published every month. I delve into my reading past a lot. Maybe too much than is good for me perhaps, but there is a lot of joy to be had from revisiting old books. I spend time every single day with a book. Even if it’s only a few pages when I am exhausted from yet another grueling day at my job. I still read.

I don’t watch a lot of current horror movies. I’m not a fan of digital effects and editing. It looks too phony for me. Yes, I know that a lot of the old movies I cherish look fake, but to me it’s honest fakery. I’ll take a guy in a monster suit and physical makeup effects any time. It feels more organic.

I’m also fed up with the plethora of streaming services regurgitating old ideas and incorporating constrictive modern sensibilities into their storylines.

When I do watch something it’s usually classic horror like the Universal or Hammer classics. Val Lewton or even Roger Corman movies. I sometimes watch lowdown exploitation classics from the ’70s and’80s.

I think back to indelible images from my past. Images from my life as a horror fan:

Frozen with fear while watching The Night Stalker on its original airing.

A delicate chill down my youthful back while reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Daemon Lover.”

Standing in line with hundreds of other teenagers to see Friday the 13th.

photo from Friday the 13th (1980)
Scene from FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

The excitement of reading Stephen King for the first time.

How frightened me and two non-horror fans were while watching the original Evil Dead at a drive-in.

Watching Dawn of the Dead when it was brand new at a midnight show packed with screaming lunatics.

Grabbing the Skipp and Spector anthology, The Book of the Dead, from the shelf at WaldenBooks with the realization that everything I had loved and hoped for was coming to pass.

The night I got my first VCR. I rented Romero’s The Crazies, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two-Thousand Maniacs, and Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps.

Seeing my name and my writing in print.

Meeting and talking to Forrest J Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen.

Meeting Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Tom Montelone, Joe Lansdale, F. Paul Wilson, Robert McCammon, Chet Williamson, John Skipp, Craig Spector, Rick Hautala, T.M. Wright and other legends at cons. Don’t believe the warnings about not meeting your heroes. They’ve all been wonderful.

My first limited edition (Joe R. Lansdale’s Writer of the Purple Rage). Friday the 13th at a drive-in in 2019 again after all those years. The original slasher movie era. Big packages in the mail from Shocklines. A postcard in my mailbox from Richard Matheson. The horror boom and the rise and fall of the original Splatterpunks. Tears of joy while watching Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in a theater. Opening a package that held twenty-five copies of my first book.

I could go on practically forever. Thousands of wonderful memories. The bad stuff? Yeah, there has been plenty of it, but that sort of thing fades.

I’ve loved my life of books and horror. I wouldn’t trade it for a hundred lifetimes of adventure, travel, or all the riches in the world.

Photo of Mark Sieber with a cat on his shoulder
Mark Sieber and friend

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe 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. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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