The Cemetery Dance Interview: Stephen Mark Rainey

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Stephen Mark Rainey

Writing from Martinsville, Virginia, Stephen Mark Rainey (that’s Mark to his friends, peers, and others who he doesn’t owe money to) is the author of over 200 short stories, some of which are available as collections (Other Gods, Fugue Devil: Resurgence) and the editor of the award-winning magazine, Deathrealm (1987-1997). Rainey is also the editor of a few fine anthologies such as Evermore, The Song of Cthulhu, and Deathrealm: Spirits, which is the book that prompted me to chase him down and ask nicely to corner him for his remarkable knowledge of our beloved horror genre.

Rainey did not disappoint and satiated my curiosity, at least for now, about how the tides of the horror industry has changed, the significance of having Deathrealm back in the spotlight, how he managed to rally today’s most esteemed and promising authors writing today under one unified literary roof, and a whole lot more worth leaning forward in your seat for.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: A quick glance down the list of authors and the respective stories they’ve contributed to this anthology, and one can quickly identify several established authors who have led the horror pack over the past couple of decades, and several more who have demonstrated their wiliness to carry that torch into the next couple of decades. Heck, you even have Joe R. “friggin’” Lansdale and his daughter, Kasey, in this line-up together. How important was it for you to assemble such a crew of writers who represent both past, present, and future caretakers and genre shakers within this dark thing of ours?

STEPHEN MARK RAINEY: From the moment of the book’s conception, I wanted to showcase some of my longtime favorite voices from the field as well as newer authors whose work has impressed me — or that were recommended by others, either directly or by way of my reading reviews, interviews, newsletters, and so forth. With Deathrealm magazine, all those years ago, I did the very same thing, so I considered it a crucial tradition to carry forward.

Can you walk us through what your process looked like from the initial concept for this anthology to gathering the writers who would come to fill its pages?

Long story — so sorry! Several years back, I had pitched a Deathrealm anthology to a prominent publisher of horror, and they were receptive to the idea. In fact, they got as far as sending me a contract. However, economic woes ended up getting the better of them, and before we could close the deal, the publisher backed out of it (as well as numerous other projects they had planned). So, while this was disappointing at the time, in reality, Deathrealm dodged a bullet. Fast-forward several years, and the timing seemed right to try again. A good friend in the business recommended I approach Shortwave Publishing for the project. Alan Lastufka, Shortwave’s owner, showed definite interest, so I petitioned several authors that I hoped to include in the book. Happily, most of them were able to respond with a resounding “yes.” Et voilà — this time, the deal was done.

Initially, I had intended to invite enough authors to fill about half the book and open submissions for the rest. But truly bizarre, real-life issues threw me a curve ball the likes of which I could never have imagined. Suffice it to say that I had to drop $57,000 on a household necessity, so this changed my economic situation drastically. My wife and I chose to move back to my old childhood home in Virginia, which I had inherited after my mom passed away in 2020. To do this, we had to spend incredible amounts of time, energy, and money 1) upgrading our house in North Carolina for sale, and 2) upgrading the house in Virginia to make it properly habitable for us. This required many, many hours and lasted many, many moons. Around that time, a couple of editors of my acquaintance who were taking over-the-transom submissions indicated they’d been receiving up to 1,000 per week. Under the circumstances, there was no chance in heaven or hell I could undertake such a monumental task, so I made the anthology invite-only.

I chose the title Deathrealm: Spirits because, firstly, I wanted something that suggested a kind of “afterlife” for Deathrealm. Secondly, while the magazine had presented stories featuring every permutation of horror and dark fantasy, it focused largely on the supernatural, the occult, the Lovecraftian. “That which is not dead,” and all that. So Deathrealm: Spirits it became.

I would have loved to invite twice as many authors as ended up in the book, but that was not a realistic prospect. In the end, I was thrilled to be able to include numerous writers who had graced Deathrealm’s pages way back when as well as some who were probably too young to read during the magazine’s heyday.

How cool it must be for you to see your Deathrealm banner back in publication after so many years of managing your Deathrealm magazine which of course ran from 1987 to 1997. What goes through your mind when you see Dealthrealm back on a cover? 

cover of Deathrealm: SpiritsOne of my greatest pleasures during the magazine’s run was going into a Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million or even Hudson’s Books at various airports and seeing the Deathrealm logo staring back at me. Its design changed a bit over the years, but I figured the one that appeared on the covers between 1993 and 1997, when the magazine’s circulation was its peak, would be most recognizable. So, when I look at the anthology cover, I see a brand-new entity with a vital connection to its roots. I am personally very, very proud of this, and that I think — and hope — the vast majority of Deathrealm’s contributors, both then and now, can appreciate it. And I hope readers, even those who never knew the Deathrealm of old, can see it as a hallmark of quality.

When it comes to putting the pieces together, I’m always fascinated by what goes into deciding the order in which the stories are ordered. Was there a reason to your madness as far as the placement of each story in this antho? 

That process fascinates me too because, to my mind, it’s mostly intuitive. On a conscious level, I look at the “type” of story — is it rooted in the supernatural, is it more about the real world, is it more character-centered or plot-centered, is it short or long? And I try to balance those along a “wave” — a succession of various approaches, author voices, subject matter, length — all of which should ebb and flow. It needs to “feel” right. And here, to my mind, it feels good.

As the stories started rolling in and you were able to read through them for the first time, where there any surprises that came to mind as far as the type of story you expected from any particular author compared with the story you got from them?

I can’t say I had any preconceived notions about the type of stories any particular author might send me, so I don’t know that I felt “surprised” in that regard. Most times, I feel like I’m a fairly difficult person to surprise (I’m pretty old, you know). I did feel various surges of pleasure at the intensity of the rides the authors took me on. I felt some of the stories needed a bit of tweaking to hit on all cylinders, and the authors all worked with me. Whether they’re surprised or not, I do hope readers will be excited about the book.

How long would you say it took from start to final manuscript for this one?

Roughly six or seven months. We established a pretty firm deadline for stories, one that wasn’t too tight, but that wasn’t long enough that the project might slip any authors’ minds.

Other than the obvious shared talent with all these wonderful writers, is there any other connective tissue running through these pages you can put a finger on?

Much as with the magazine, most of these stories have supernatural overtones, as these are usually my favorite. I have no belief in the supernatural (preternatural, maybe), but I freaking love well-rendered forays into that realm. Deathrealm magazine always had an atmosphere, a feel, that was greater than the sum-total of the stories each issue included. It’s an intangible thing; if I were asked to describe it, I’d be as likely to become tongue-tied as give you a coherent answer. In whatever fashion one might describe it, I think Deathrealm: Spirits possesses that “feel.” The anthology is a whole ‘nuther animal than the magazine; it has to be because that magazine existed three to four decades ago. I suppose one could consider this book The Next Generation.

Pure sales numbers aside, I think it’s fair to say that judging the success of a collection or anthology looks a bit different than how you might judge the success of a stand-alone short story or novel. For you personally, Mark, how do you gauge the overall success of an anthology? And, by those standards, which boxes do you feel this book ticks off?

Inevitably, readers evaluate the success of an anthology or collection by how many stories work for them versus how many don’t. Naturally, that percentage will vary from reader to reader. Get a hundred readers, and each one will almost certainly select a different group of stories as the ones that work best. Deathrealm: Spirits certainly offers a diverse set of authorial voices, and I find that here, each author’s voice touches a crucial reader’s nerve in me, takes me places I might not have known I wanted to go. So, ignoring sales figures as a benchmark, I don’t think I could come up with a better definition of success.

I don’t know if I am more aware it by accident or maybe I’m just late to the table, but I have noticed an upward trend as far as an increase in successful publications of short story collections and anthologies over the past handful of years. What have you been noticing by way of the popularity and value readers are clearly putting into anthologies as compared to traditional, standalone stories? And why might this be?

It’s part of the natural cycle of trends in literature. In the 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, anthologies and collections sold well. Preferences shifted, the wave broke, sales fell. Time has passed, and we see that wave on the rise again. It’ll shift again as sure as we all are heading for the realm of death, some sooner, some later.

Speaking more on the ever-changing tides of publishing, you make an acute observation in your forward about how the horror lit field wears a different face from the one that spawned Deathrealm and other publications of its time. When you reflect — or perhaps re-read — on the stories you enjoyed in Deathrealm and other publications of its ilk, what differences do you encounter as far as overall story themes, content and the styles of today’s breed of writers when compared with those stories of yesterday? 

Technology certainly plays a part. Cell phones, GPS systems, information at our fingertips, all these render a lot of scenarios from days past wholly obsolete. Many of the smartest stories I read now use these items as integral plot and/or theme elements. Sure, sometimes one can isolate characters from technology, and many contemporary writers have done this with panache, but that usually takes more than simply setting a story somewhere that cell service doesn’t exist. 

Perhaps most noticeably, as today’s society has become far more openly diverse, there are voices from every literal and figurative corner of the world that wouldn’t have found venues in the days of yore. I’d like to think — and I hope — that this literary expansion can and will lead to greater understanding, tolerance, and appreciation for people and ideas that aren’t necessarily one’s own. Time will tell.

Do you think it’s a fair statement to suggest that independent authors have taken over the pole position we used to refer to as the midlist tier of authors? Is there even a difference between the two groups?

If it hasn’t taken over, it’s given the midlist — whatever ghost of it remains from the “golden days” (pre-2000s, basically) — more than a run for its money. The midlist, as traditionally known, was a huge part of traditional publishing. It was working writers who might not be “bestsellers” (as defined by the preeminent publishers, not self-proclaimed “bestsellers” who might or might not actually have sold a book to anyone besides their family and friends), but who produced reliable sales for publishers and could at least eke out livings, if not better, for themselves. Those writers produced work that typically appeared on the bookshelves of brick-and-mortar stores and, while there was a finite number of such individuals, it was a big honking number. Indie authors come in all stripes, all varieties of ability, readability, price points, preferred media, you name it. It’s certainly a huge field, with so many possibilities for so many talented people. The downside, as far as readers and writers go, is that there is so goddamn much to wade through now, making informed choices is tougher and tougher.

Authors love to say — hell, as an author, I love to say — that we aren’t competing with each other, that we’re supporting each other, and there’s room for everyone. Well, yes and no. Sure, taken as whole, the writing community, as diverse as it is, tends to be very tolerant, supportive of individuals, quick to recognize and applaud talent. For readers — and as a reader — I can’t possibly buy even a fraction of the percentage of titles that I used to because the author pot is exponentially larger than it was in the ’80s and ’90s. There’s multitudes of newsletters, Kickstarters, mailing lists of every kind, publishers — some the epitome of reputable, some as fly-by-night as they come — that come and go daily, and in general, so much information flooding the market that it’s mind-boggling. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it’s largely what we make it, but I think defining the parameters of “success” is nothing like it used to be.

I am NOT at this point going to holler “Get off my lawn!” but I will autograph one of my books that way if that is your preference.

Back to Deathrealm Spirits, scanning through the table of contents, I noticed the absence of one talented author I was kind of hoping to see included — you. Did it cross your mind at all to include a story of your own in here?

It did not. I vowed a long time ago not to include any more of my stories in anything I edit. I did that when I was starting out, not realizing that it might not have such a good a look. As a reader, I tend to view with some skepticism editors who include their own work unless they are, to mind, very well vetted or it’s clear the publisher specified that their work should appear in the book. I think it’s safe to say that, after almost forty years of writing and being published in this field, I’ve achieved some measure of “vetting.” However, especially for something like Deathrealm: Spirits, with its distinctly finite word count, if I had included one of my tales, it would have knocked someone else out of the book. I wouldn’t do that. I hope I have enough work published at any given time to satisfy my couple of readers’ cravings.

As someone who is no stranger to the successes and joys, the ups and downs, of an author with several titles of your own work published, what unique challenges and joys do you derive from publishing stories of your peers?

There’s a unique joy, I suppose, in being THE fuckin’ editor of a book whose roots go back to an entity I created and nurtured for a decade. Well, the act of creation was essentially a one-time thing. From then on, I nurtured the beast. Selected the work that went into it. Provided as much support as I could to the authors and, hopefully, offered a genuine treat to the readers. Would I become a rich and famous editor (ha ha) at the expense of my own creative writing? No, I would not. It’s too important to me. But the roles of editor and writer are flip sides of the same coin. The writing side is weighted a little heavier. But I do love showcasing authors whose work deserves whatever readership my editing efforts can offer them.

Your online biography promises more dark and delightful tales from you coming at us down the pike. Care to elaborate?

I’ve got a couple of short stories in upcoming anthologies, though I’m not sure I should mention them by title at this point. I’m also working on a new novel, which should be off to the editor in the next couple of months. I hope it will meet and maybe exceed expectations.

While reading that bio, I also enjoyed learning you’ve become an avid Geocacher. The potential for adventure during any geocaches has always intrigued me. Have you had any unexpected, perhaps even dangerous or otherwise weird encounters along your geocaching way?

I could write a big, heavy book about my geocaching adventures. Whether anyone would want to read it… well, that’s a different question. Geocaching has inspired my writing by immeasurable degrees. I’ve found some the most incredible locations I’ve ever seen by way of geocaching. Old graveyards are a favorite haunt of geocachers. I love the more “extreme” caches — those that require physical challenges, like going way up tall trees or towers, or into storm drains and other underground labyrinths (you might be surprised by some of the cool shit you find deep in the underground). Geocaching absolutely cured me of my arachnophobia, which was very severe from childhood on. But once you’ve been down in a catacomb with a couple of hundred of these huge critters all around you… you either get over your fear or you don’t claim the cache, and that would be unthinkable! The list of experiences goes on and on. Some rightly call me a geocachevangelist.

And finally, Mark, what’s the most important thing a reader ought to consider while their mouse is hovering over the buy button of Deathrealm Spirits, balanced between the grey space between maybe and hell yes?

It’s that I’ve got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it. Oh… wait. That’s my Festivus holiday greeting, and at the moment, we’re past that. Anyway. Deathrealm: Spirits is a freaking gold mine of horror stories and verse, by authors and poets you already love or soon will. It’s a book that will leave you with vivid memories, and for less money than you’d spend on a decent bottle of wine. To me, that last bit is important.

Purchase Deathrealm: Spirits

Visit Stephen Mark Rainey online 

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