Adam Cesare, author and Cemetery Dance columnist, has been a fixture on the horror scene for nearly a decade. Early books like Video Night and All-Night Terror made him an instant favorite among fans of horror fiction, and he’s continued developing his skill and style with books like The Con Season and The First One You Expect.
His new novel, Clown in a Cornfield, is generating the sort of next-level buzz those of us who’ve been reading Cesare’s work since the beginning have been expecting. Adam was kind enough to take time during a busy book-launch week to talk with his old Cemetery Dance editor, who may or may not have taken the opportunity to press him relentlessly about writing for us again….but mainly asked him questions about the new book.
CEMETERY DANCE: Hi Adam! It’s been a minute since we hosted you here at Cemetery Dance. I think your last Paper Cuts column for us was August 5, 2017….or somewhere around there. I haven’t really kept track. What have you been up to?
ADAM CESARE: Alternatively writing books and scripts and then feeling guilty that I’m not sending you CD columns. 🙁
But really, I can’t believe it’s been that long. Over three years. To be completely honest, I didn’t realize. I think in my “About the Author” on the Clown in a Cornfield hardcover it says “He has a monthly column in Cemetery Dance Online.” And when they were finalizing that language I was like “Yeah, keep it in, I’m going to restart my column any day now.” I guess I have to come back. Otherwise that bio is a lie.
Speaking of Clown in a Cornfield, this is poised to be a huge new release for you. What can you tell us about the book?
Well, I don’t know how huge it is, but it’s huge to me. It’s the story of Quinn, who moves from Philadelphia to a small town in Missouri with her father. She’s not only needing to adjust to culture shock and being the new kid in town, but also the fact that there’s a psycho in a clown mask carving up teenagers. It’s someone taking on the image of the town’s mascot, Frendo the Clown. I didn’t want to do a clown clown. Greasepaint makeup and all that. How can you compete with Pennywise, Captain Spaulding, et al.? So this is a masked slasher story. The mask just happens to be a clown face.
I’m aware it’s a simple premise. That it almost sounds too simple. But to me that’s the beauty of a slasher. All these expectations and prejudices come pre-loaded into the format, but all the best slashers push against convention and end up packaging their surprises, thematics, and invention in subtle ways.
What was the inspiration behind the story?
There are a lot of ingredients in the soup. From that rash of “clown sightings” a few years ago, to the ideological and social anxiety that people have been facing (that are only getting more heightened, now that the book’s ready to drop), but the main inspiration is slasher movies.
Yes, there are literary slashers. Good ones. But it’s a filmic subgenre. I wanted to tap into that without writing a book that felt like a novelization or felt like an expanded screenplay. Specifically, I’m working in the teen whodunit slasher subgenre. It’s tricky, because there’s lot of expectations that come along with those types of stories, and the balancing act of a slasher, in general, is ticking enough boxes so that it functions like the thing, but also add enough shading in with your characters and your twists that the audience never gets bored. Even if they’re enjoying it, you don’t want them to be like “oh, well I’ve read/seen this before.” Because that leads to a complacency. Or at least a lack of stakes. There’s a final girl here, but she’s taken from no one mold (there’s a lot more variation to the archetype than many would have you believe).
Clowns and cornfields, man…what makes them so scary? Is it something about people hiding their faces and lonely, desolate-looking spaces? Is it the way these things have been used as horror tropes for so long? Or a combination of these things?
I think loving horror, it changes how we look at a lot of these things. Creaky, dilapidated structures. Being alone in the dark. Squinting into moonlight. Someone with a chainsaw chasing you. That’s not scary! I love that. Add the scent of fog juice and that’s a night at a haunted attraction. And those are some of the best nights I’ve had in my life. Laughing and screaming and just loving the crush of grass under your feet on a Pennsylvania farm.
And masks, when I see a cool mask or a neat makeup effect, I get a serotonin hit. I’m genuinely like “oh I love that, wonder how it was made” even if the rest of the theater’s hiding their eyes.
So it’s a balancing act, not getting too cozy with how you’re interfacing with the tropes. Because if I’m having too nostalgic and comfy a time, how is the reader going to be scared? I think for me it’s playing the game of “what if I hadn’t Mickey Mouse’d the act of being afraid into oblivion?” What would scare me? And you still come back to those universal fears, I just find that I have to be careful how I present them.
Clown is classified as Young Adult. Was that your intent from the start, or did the story just naturally flow in that direction?
It was built to be YA from the ground up. But to me that doesn’t mean a ton of difference. I approached it as I’d approach any novel: “What would I want to read and what’s something I haven’t seen done quite this way in genre X?” Only in this case there was the follow-up question of: “Now would you also want to read it if you were 15?” And that last part’s trickier, because you want to do it without condescending. It’s more in the thematics and the emphasis on younger characters.
A big guiding question while writing, since this is a slasher, was: “What would Halloween look like if it were made today?” Not in a fan-fiction way, but in: this is one of the best examples of the genre, why? What works? What fears is it speaking to? 40+ years later, what are teenagers afraid of and how do you externalize those fears with a guy in a mask holding a knife?
In my earlier books, I was the guy who wrote characters that loved movies. But I wanted Clown in a Cornfield to be more user-friendly, not set up this gatekeeping effect of “well, you’ve got to get the jokes to fully appreciate it.” So early on I made the conscious decision to say “none of these characters are movie nerds.” And I think the book turned out better for it. I love slashers, and I wanted the book to feel like it reveres the genre, the structure of it and the history, but I didn’t want it to revere the content of those movies. What teenager is going to give a shit if I make a Friday the 13th Part 2 reference?
Readers of some of your previous books like Video Night or Tribesmen may see that YA tag and expect this to be a watered-down version of your work. Tell them why they’re wrong.
I think the books you mentioned, sure they’re violent, but come on, they aren’t that extreme. Maybe not on a gore level (I mean, characters do literally explode in Video Night), but in Clown in a Cornfield there’s a couple of scenes that are gnarlier than anything in those books. I’m thinking of one scene in particular where I was like “this is legitimately the scariest thing I’ve written.”
I think readers who aren’t giving YA horror a chance are doing themselves a disservice. They’re thinking about it in a “this is PG-13 and I want an R.” Content-wise, the majority of YA horror I’ve read is indistinguishable from adult horror fiction. The difference really comes in the themes and their focus on younger characters and the issues they deal with. You remember being a teenager? Was it a sanitized, PG-13 experience?
There’s probably a tiny, tiny percentage of people I’m never going to be able to convince, but their loss, man. And also: it’s not really for them, so I’m not worried about em.
Has the COVID pandemic affected your writing schedule, or your writing itself? For better or worse?
You’d think “okay, locked down. We’re being good, doing our part, the silver-lining is I’m going to get all this work done.” But… not so much. I think I’m working slower than I was before, due to a number of factors (stress, anxiety, adjusting to my wife’s schedule), but I’m getting it done, and the quality is still there. Other people have it a hell of a lot worse than me, so even with the psychic load of all this I’m trying to remember how lucky we are.
Let’s say someone were to write a column that paired horror books with horror films—what films would you recommend to go along with Clown in a Cornfield?
Why. Yes. That’s a good question. And sounds like a good idea for a monthly column. I’ve actually been answering a variation on this question in other interviews, and I’ve tried to give a different pairing every time. Hmmmm. Let’s say Just Before Dawn. One of my favorite slashers. The setting doesn’t really connect, since that’s a hiking thing, but I wanted to reach that level of creep with the villain.
I pick a movie (or movies) talk about them while rolling the camera for 20 or 25 minutes, then cut out all the “ums” and “y’knows” so viewers don’t instantly despise me, and upload the resultant video. I mean, a little bit more thinking goes into it than that, but I do try and keep it pretty organic, just talk about the stuff I like. Oh, and I end every video with at least one book recommendation. So it’s kind of a hybrid movie review channel and booktube channel. I really do enjoy the format. In the beginning it was like an experiment and I had to force myself to do it, because I wasn’t super comfortable on camera. But now I love it. I look forward to setting the time aside every week.
So, what’s next after Clown?
I’m working on two book-length projects. It’s unclear which one will be announced first. But I’m VERY happy with both of them. Definitely going to do more YA in the future. I love Clown and would love to do a sequel, if sales (and the impending film adaptation) warrant it.
I’m sorry, “impending film adaptation”? Can you tell us more?
Oh. Yes. Temple Hill Entertainment is developing Clown in a Cornfield as a feature film. They’ve been really incredible to work with and have an incredible track record with movie adaptations of YA novels (The Hate U Give, Maze Runner) but, more relevant to CD they also were involved in the King tv adaptations of Mr. Mercedes and HBO’s The Outsider. So I’m insanely excited. I mean, I’m not allowed to say much about what stage they are in the process but I’ve talked with the screenwriter and then heard that they… [a man in a clown mask walks up behind Adam, aims with his machete and SPLAT—stops sensitive information about Clown in a Cornfield from being shared in this interview.]
Damn! That was…unexpected. You okay? Just one more question: I told you when we were setting up this interview that I wouldn’t use it as an opportunity to publicly pressure you to start writing Paper Cuts for us again. How’d I do?
I certainly have the itch. Give me a few days to think of a premise. I got a book to launch!